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This brief bipartite sojourn is a story about the peculiar nature of one of the most commonplace (yet subversive) forms of visual culture and artistic production: collage. It goes without saying that it’s a common tool amongst the creative literacy of artists / designers / illustrators / musicians / writers, however when one drills a bit deeper, it appears that this very human form of artistic representation and production has more to it than meets the eye. The first part is specific art-historical snapshots (as a bit of background) before arriving at the heart of the matter.
Part 1: Bricolage: Assemblage and Collage
In the case of Dadaist artists and poets, the protagonists were a mere handful of people committed to the same umbrella purpose of protesting against the mass carnage of the first world war – by exposing society’s moral decay as a form of political radicalism. Dada was essentially a movement that was anti-art, as it attempted to reduce the process of creating art to the primacy of spontaneous activity or stream of consciousness thought in order to mock or ridicule as an assault on established conventions in society.
Instead of just deploring the war, the Dadaists took an ideological stand. Theirs was an assault on the complacency of their audience, an introduction of chaos into a life in which mass slaughter was being carefully undertaken by warring nations. The movement was founded in 1916 in Zurich, a neutral city in the middle of a war-torn Europe, by a group of exiles from countries on both sides of the conflict. Some were draft dodgers; most were pacifists; all found refuge on Swiss soil and were outraged by the slaughter-taking place on all sides. The centerpiece for all this artistic activity was called the Cabaret Voltaire, which was founded by Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings.
Some two months later, under circumstances about which the participants themselves have never agreed, the name “Dada” was chosen for the movement, which was growing out of the cabaret’s activities. The most popular version of the story is that the word was picked at random by Richard Huelsenbeck from a French-German dictionary after sticking a knife into it. This assault on logic by Huelsenbeck was to typify the chaotic process in which the artists used to create their work. As Tristan Tzara had revealed, the word ‘Dada’ has various meanings across a number of different languages; it’s most common usage derived from French, which is a child’s name for a hobbyhorse.
It would be hard for us to find much that was overtly political in the early Dada performances and publications, but from the beginning the movement dedicated itself to attacking the bourgeois cultural values of the time, which its members believed had led to the world war. The tools for this attack, radical at the time, are familiar to us all as the most basic concepts of the modern arts, which are: chance, collage, abstraction, audience confrontation, eclectic typography, sound and visual poetry and simultaneity. This was attempted through experimenting with automatism, modern technology, anarchism, oriental philosophy, Freudian psychoanalysis, Jungian psychoanalysis, eroticism, Marxist dialectics, (investigations into truths of philosophy by systematic reasoning) as well as many other approaches. Essentially Tristan Tzara’s ambitions were nihilistic in nature, as they involved the abolition of all traditions. Some would argue that he was utopian in his beliefs, as he may have thought that all of these efforts ‘may wipe the slate’ clean so to speak, as a form of political liberation.
From the mid-1920s Surrealism pursued a slightly different strategy. The Surrealists still assaulted all fondly held political, social and artistic conventions, but did so as a definite constituted movement, with a recognized and charismatic leader, Andre Breton. Their programme was relatively carefully planned, offering more of a coherent direction than Dada. Surrealism was committed to the politics of the radical left in the face of the rising tide of Fascism and the repressions of Stalinist Communism.
Breton committed the movement of surrealism to the reconciliation of the rational and irrational sides of existence. In the individual this was represented as the conscious and unconscious mind, so Surrealists explored the imagery of dreams, trances and automatism. An example of this form of exploration is the ‘Exquisite Corpse’, which is derived from the sentence ‘The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine’. This phrase was created as a result of an exercise that involved each participant to contribute a word in turn, without being able to see the writing of the last. Hence the ‘Exquisite Corpse’ was adopted as the name for it’s graphic equivalent, which involved constructing a drawing as a piecemeal process that was governed by the laws of chance and acute deliberation. This also questioned artistic conventions of authorship or ownership, by removing artistic individuality.
Exquisite Corpse Man Ray Joan Miro et al.
The term collage is derived from the French word bricolage. This has wider connotations to do with do-it-yourself creative processes. So in French, the terms ‘DIY’ and ‘collage’ cannot be separated, as they are the same word. In the case of bricolage, it has clearer connotations with the ‘assemblage of found objects’ or ‘readymades’, which typifies the work of Dadaists. This exemplifies an innate understanding of how one constructs the space around them as if you were to do-it-yourself; you would be creating a collage of your own individual thoughts and ideas.
Kurt Schwitters is best known for his collages, assemblages and for his association with Dada in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Starting in the 1920’s and continuing until he fled Germany in 1936 he constructed an enormously ambitious work of art at his home in Hanover. The Hanover Merzbau was a vast architectural construction, which was influenced by the constructivist concept of the total environment where the architecture, furniture, art etc of a room are integrated to create the total arrangement and structure of the space.
Kurt Schwitters – interior of Merzbau
Part 2: The ‘Open Toolbox of Culture’
This issue of ownership and authorship brings us to philosophical heart behind collage and sampling. Every social object or thing has intrinsic meaning associated with it; whether it’s literal or abstract, this also applies to the relationships between things. To sample as a part of a collage is the act of re-contextualizing meaning as a mode of political manipulation. Sampling is used to re-inhabit our subconscious as the simultaneity of experience. An example of this is the unexpected conjunctions of commercial material used in Cubist collages, where slices of reality – ranging from newspapers to wallpapers – were served up to demonstrate the diversity of experience. Sampling could then be described as the reconfiguration of meaning in order to create ‘new meaning’.
In 1918 Marcel Duchamp made a seminal decision in his artistic career to give up painting all together, in order to explore alternative forms of artistic expression as a relentless effort to avoid repeating himself. Duchamp was critically aware of where he stood as an artist by questioning authorship through reproducing and re-inhabiting preexisting artworks. This in effect, blurred the established boundaries between artistic production and consumption and was epitomized by his well-known saying – ‘Art is created by the spectator’. For Duchamp, representation had been taken over by mechanical reproduction. As Duchamp’s contemporary Man Ray is known to have said: ‘To create is divine, to reproduce is human’
Meret Oppenheim – Fur-Covered Tea Cup
Essentially, this iconoclastic form of art was helped by prevailing developments in the technology of mechanical reproduction such as photography, moving pictures and gramophone recordings.
Culture jamming is seen as an overtly more political act of subversion through the manipulation of preexisting brands or logos in order to debase their original or intended identity or meaning. An example of this being the logo of entertainment giant Warner Brothers being infiltrated by Jello Biafra, ex-punk rocker of The Dead Kennedys fame. It could be seen that in the case of culture jamming, it still retains the politically subversive role of which collage was intended for.
It could be debated that Dada and Surrealism has now become the adopted language of commercial advertising and fashion, which has in effect removed the element of artistic experimentation as political liberation. One only has to look at most forms of cultural media to gauge how collage, which was once regarded as a form of experimental liberation, has now been widely accepted within mainstream culture and thus the natural acceptance of the irrational in every day life.
The Ramones may or may not have been aware of this poster that was created for the 1963 retrospective exhibition of Duchamp’s work, however what this does demonstrate is how these ideas have infiltrated themselves into popular culture.
All of these modes of artistic and graphic expression, of which we take for granted, such as collage and eclectic typography, can be traced back to the artistic experimentation of the Dadaists and Surrealists.
However, extrapolating from Nicolas Bourriad’s thoughts on technology, one can infer that there are new possibilities for the principle ideas evolved from collage, which have emerged as a by-product through the organic knowledge dissemination / information sharing of the Internet. Never in history has one medium been able to induce the collective sharing of information / ideas as the Internet has. Bourriad’s book Postproduction refers to the Art of Postproduction, which involves re-interpreting, reproducing and re-exhibiting preexisting artworks as an economy of use and reuse. For Bourriad the advent of information technology is gradually eroding the boundary between the producers and consumers of artistic production, for he describes ‘culture as being an open tool box’. This open source economy of use and reuse is epitomized within the Internet and its associated networks as a vast recycling bin of ideas / thoughts / images and words, to the extent of which the Dadaists never thought imaginable.
- BOURRIAD, NICOLAS, Postproduction, 2002 Nicolas Bourriad, Lukas & Sternberg
- GALE, MATTHEW, Dada & Surrealism, 1997 Phaidon Press Limited
- NAUMANN, FRANCIS M., Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1999 Francis M. Naumann
- TZARA, TRISTAN, Seven Dada Manifestoes and Lampisteries, 1963 Jean-Jacques Pauvert