Remediating the Avant-Garde

Max Koss

Losing Touch: the Digital PAN

The paper will investigate the German art magazine PAN, published in Berlin between 1895 and 1900 and its digital version, available from the University of Heidelberg. PAN marked a turning point in German publishing, combining avant-garde ideas with an unknown degree of production values, resulting in a luxurious publication that set a new standard for magazine publishing.

I am arguing that the current digital version is confronting us with a dramatic loss of experience and serious limitations as to what scholarship we can produce from it. At the same time, I will try to briefly suggest how for PAN, a radically more aggressive digitization may be able to offer insights otherwise not had, supplementing the engagement of the actual object, but never replacing it.

Firstly, I will outline elements from the original artifact that the digital version is missing. While the implications of this may be old news, I think it is worth outlining specifically for avant-garde journals, since at their very core, we find a singularly aesthetic preoccupation, which, especially in the last decade of the nineteenth century, is exploring the multifaceted sensual experience the magazine form can offer.

PAN, for example, was produced in an imposing folio format, taking up much space. It foregrounded its physical, three-dimensional presence, where the digital version reduces it to flatness. I will also show that paper quality was a cornerstone of the aesthetic program, which gets lost in a digital version. A last point is the experience of turning the pages per hand. Flattening out the magazine through a scroll function in the digital version impoverishes this experience. Tactility, in other words, which I posit as a proxy for the synesthetic ambition of the period, gets more or less taken out of the equation, not only reducing the richness of PAN's effects, but in the same moment also taking away its historical specificity.

The scholarly benefit of the current format is limited in more problematic ways too. A digital version, if produced from a scan of a single run of the magazine, gives the impression of definitiveness, when however no two extant versions are the same, not least because magazines from that period were in a tradition of the print folio, where single sheets would be cut out. The digital versions are therefore implying a permanence of the artifact, that, if unchallenged in writing, distorts our understanding of the larger print culture of which this magazine, and many other of this time were a part.

This will lead me to my last concluding thoughts about how a digital PAN can be generative of new insights. A digital project worthy of PAN should not to be centered around the flat page, but its three dimensions. It should also offer the possibility to look at the complete version, which would have to be compiled. The limited luxury edition of PAN was delivered with separate prints, and there was a French supplement too. A comprehensive digital version would include those too.


Max Koss, a native of Berlin, is currently a doctoral student in Art History at the University of Chicago, working with Christine Mehring and Ralph Ubl (Basel) on a dissertation about the magazine "Pan". He was previously a student at the Courtauld Institute of Art, where he studied German Romantic art under Joseph Leo Koerner. His received a BSc in Economic History from the London School of Economics.