the trickster

Bricolage and the Open Toolbox of Culture

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[1]. 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.

Read more

Myth more important than history

Recently I’ve been enjoying the Power of Myth TV Series released by PBS in 1988. The series has six episodes, each featuring an hour long discussion between host Bill Moyers and famed American ‘mythologist’ Joseph Campbell, collected over several years prior to Campbells death in 1987.

Here he speaks on a topic dear to Free Range:

During the Power of Myth the conversations are focussed around the traditional roles of mythology and ritual in human societies – topics ranging freely around subjects like Star Wars, animal sacrifice, catholicism and cannibalism. At the core of the series is Campbells understanding of the essential traditional roles of myth:

  • Justifying the existing social order
  • A record of observable cosmological information – an early instance of science
  • General guidance through life
  • Creating appreciation for the essential mysteriousness of life

He suggests the last two functions are needs not adequately provided in contemporary urban society, largely because rational scientific thought easily dismisses mythology as absurd. Therefore he has based his career, as a teacher and writer of mythologies, around the motivation that  ‘the most necessary form of societal change is teaching people how to live again.’ Whatever you think of this, he’s a wonderful generator of quotes, to give you a few:

“I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.”

“If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.”

“We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes.”

“The person who takes a job in order to live – that is to say, for the money – has turned himself into a slave.”

“Computers are like Old Testament gods; lots of rules and no mercy.”

“Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”

“Myth is much more important and true than history. History is just journalism and you know how reliable that is.”

“Man should not be in the service of society, society should be in the service of man. When man is in the service of society, you have a monster state, and that’s what is threatening the world at this minute. …Certainly Star Wars has a valid mythological perspective. It shows the state as a machine and asks, “Is the machine going to crush humanity or serve humanity?” Humanity comes not from the machine but from the heart. What I see in Star Wars is the same problem that Faust gives us: Mephistopheles, the machine man, can provide us with all the means, and is thus likely to determine the aims of life as well. But of course the characteristic of Faust, which makes him eligible to be saved, is that he seeks aims that are not those of the machine. Now, when Luke Skywalker unmasks his father, he is taking off the machine role that the father has played. The father was the uniform. That is power, the state role.”

One fundamental discussion he has with Moyers is about where responsibility lies in contemporary society for the communication of myth. He contrasts the traditional myth-delivering Shaman with a contemporary Priest who is ordained into an existing body of knowledge and teaches from this. He describes the Shaman as a figure experiencing a schizoid-type breakdown and given powerful access to their unconscious, whereas the Priest represents a contemporary institution that often seeks to maintain a status quo (for example through alleviating guilt). Instead he suggests artists, a necessarily ‘elite’ educated group, have the responsibility of re-interpreting traditional myth into contemporary figures – something that I would suggest is conspicuous in good art be it film, music or gallery art.

What do you think about this? Does our society lack this mythic awareness as urgently as Campbell argues? Are many of our so-called problems caused by this absence? Or does Campbells thinking suggest a nostalgic view of human nature and society? Perhaps more interestingly, do any myths have this type of life guiding power for you?


More Trickyness: Freerange 3.2

Released today is the 2nd (and final) of our Tasters for Freerange 3: The Trickster!  Hoorah. More Trickyness! More Tricksterishness!

It contains two fantastic new articles, the first  titled “Hit me with your knitting sticks” is by Melbourne based musician, teacher, and writer Claire Hollingsworth, and the second is by Freerange repeat offender Rozzy Middleton called “Being Emil McAvoy: The Artist and Trickster”.

Download it: FR3.2

(Keeping the Free in Freerange.)

The full online and print versions FR3: The Trickster will be out end of November.

We promise.  (There are rumors of a proper launch party this time too.)

Photo of work by Emil McAvoy called Being John Minto

Please see his website for more details, or read FR3.2 for a profile of his work.

First taste of the FR3: The Trickster

In anticipation of the upcoming third issue of the Freerange Journal, the Freerange team is happy to announce the release the first of two ‘tasters’. This is a small and lovely online taste of whats to come in the print edition later this year.  It has three awesome articles and some very pretty pictures.

Writings by Hana Bojangles, Federico Monsalve and Toby Huddlestone.

Drawings by Warwick McCallum.

Design by the illustrious Shakey Mo.

Clicka-tha-chicken to download.