Karenina.it / CommunicAction


Perspectives on Modern Web Literary Avant-Garde


Enrico Gianfranchi


Caterina Davinio’s Karenina.it

CommunicAction and Perspectives on Modern Web Literary Avant-Garde


            Very Fluxus and absolutely avant-garde, Caterina Davinio’s Karenina.it site pushes the boundaries of poetry and literary discourse deep into the digital realm. The traditional sheet of paper is replaced by binary code that can now be read by more people simultaneously by virtue of the worldwide network in which it resides. The website makes use of the freedom of communication the internet offers in order to present the experiences of literary artists that experiment with the grey areas of literary theory where traditional writing, visual arts, and digital technologies fuse.  In Karenina.it, historical artistic movements merge with literary discourses and critiques to subtly mould into a dense artistic/literary schema.  Since 1998 the website has been an expanding collection of discourse and critique on new media art, experimental art, avant-garde literary theory and net-writing essays.  It was the first art-poetry/communication project presented on the web in an Italian context.  The suffix ‘.it’ that follows the Karenina title of the website is indeed a geographic locator for the origin of the website (‘.it’ being the suffix that indicates an Italian website).  The value of the site is however not defined by any discourse of geographic location; it rather resides within the conceptual framework of the Fluxus art movement.

            Emerging in the sixties in New York and quickly spreading to Europe and Asia, the Fluxus movement brought together elements of Dada, Zen and Bauhaus ideals.  An unstructured network of Fluxus artists from around the world was firmly established throughout the sixties and into the seventies.  A spontaneous playfulness defines Fuxus art and performance works.  The unplanned and seemingly chaotic blend of mediums and art forms has a tendency to come together as a rather structured whole in the hands of a Fluxus artist. The fusion of mediums and materials as diverse as ready made scavenged posters, newspaper cuttings, mail art, and everyday objects created a happy feeling of disorientation. 

            Though the Fluxus movement is no longer present as such, its ideals, sensibilities and ability to predict the form the avant-garde will assume within the artistic world are still intact.  The necessity to predict and pioneer aesthetic, political and social trends and sensibilities still remains a defining feature of any artist or theorist associated with the movement.   

            Far from being just an assortment of found dissertations and poetry cut-outs assembled according to an obscure plan, the Karenina.it website is far from being a useless jumble of literary material.  Its contents are structured and clear, though its form and aesthetic is rather reminiscent of a notice board cluttered with announcements.  Much in line with the Fluxus aesthetic explained above, Karenina.it is in fact permeated with a playful look that contrasts the deeply intellectual contents of the articles. 

            Though the website could pass for a generic on-line journal, it rather is, in Davinio’s own words, a ‘place of aggregation.’  The site, in fact, is host to an ongoing discourse and debate which involves artists and critics alike, as well as artwork and the responses it generates.  There is a tangible feeling of constant discussion between contributors to the site, as educated voices emerge from the visually chaotic environment.  The communication aspect is treated as an artistic medium that goes beyond the contents of the dialogues or the quality of the words used in them.  The flow of words and information become art in themselves, transcending the necessity to view art in traditional terms of form and the like.

            ‘Poetry in phatic function’ is, in fact, Davinio’s way of describing the activity in her site.  According to Roman Jakobson’s communication model, the phatic function is the use of language that maintains and augments the flow of information between the interlocutors.  Communication is the artistic material.  The ability of the site to generate and maintain open many simultaneous pathways of discussion is what makes it successful, not only as a portal for literary discourse, but also as a piece of art in itself.  Davinio, therefore, is the curator of the virtual space and also both artist and architect of the literary landscape created. 

            The website escapes tradition and pushes through the boundaries of the avant-garde in terms of digital art.  The Fluxus movement, upon which the Karenina.it site is structured, emphasize on the chaotic aspect as a means of undermining traditional ways of viewing and understanding art.  The site does the same in terms of digital art.  Where digital art promised to offer the tools to easily create aesthetically appealing and successful images, Karenina.it not only provides a visually chaotic environment that undermines the power of the digital image as an aesthetically alluring product, but questions the strength of the iconic image when placed against a verbally striking and pulsating counterpart.  The image appears static, while the word, in the Karenina.it phatic function, is alive and vibrant.  The flow is endless, therefore the site is essentially in an eternally unfinished state and cannot be judged by the same standards as a completed image.  The importance and conceptual focus here is placed upon the process of communication rather than upon an appreciation for a finished and edited product.  The flow of information is appealing and fascinating, forcing the viewer to read and become mentally involved.  Rather than passively responding to the basic visual element of the site, the viewer is drawn in to explore the literary landscape present.

            In keeping with Fluxus ideals, the site hosts virtual poetry/performance works as well as a vast and varied collage of essays (in many languages), digitized musical pieces, and poetically charged images (where the aesthetic of the image itself takes second place to the literary message embedded).  Also, there is a degree of direction applied to the flow of information and conversations to maintain them within the channel of experimental art and poetry.  Karenina.it is not restricted or controlled by the curator but is neither left completely free or open, otherwise the resulting effect would literally be that of a bulletin board for literary intellectuals.

            It is essential to point out that the site also has an embedded conceptual side note that has interesting literary references.  The name chosen, Karenina.it, refers strongly to Tolstoy’s tragic character Anna Karenina.  Bound by the social situation of the time period and social class she was born into (nineteenth century high-class Russia), Anna Karenina tragically chose to commit suicide by jumping under a speeding train, a new technological addition to her world.  The Karenina.it website plays upon the character’s life in many ways. 

            Karenina is revived in the Karenina.it virtual form - how ironic a character that chose death by a new technology should be reborn in a technologically advanced form with the addition of the ‘.it’ suffix.  The website collects open literary discourse and functions as an open gateway that links people and opens up numerous pathways for communication - the literary Karenina was not only bound  by the social structure she lived in, but her actions as a character were decided by her author/creator, Tolstoy.  The virtual Karenina.it not only speaks for herself, but has been purposefully created as an open entity by her originator, Caterina Davinio.  Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is trapped in the tradition that surrounds her, much like digital art seems trapped in the same paradigms of form and aesthetics that define visual art.  Karenina.it is strongly literary, anti-traditional and very avant-garde.  The single word embedded inside it becomes art, free from aesthetic judgement and vibrant in its phatic function.

            Specifically, it is the virtue of the phatic function that creates conceptual strength in the site.  The flow of words becomes art, conceptually tied to a freedom from traditional paradigms of art critique.  Fluxus questioned such paradigms by emphasizing the importance of the conceptual element over the visual.  Karenina.it does the same in web-literary terms by presenting words as art and their literary landscape as the only visual reference.