Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Auch das ist nur eine Wolke

Art often looks organic. The analogies between the weavings of the human unconscious and natural forms have often been noticed and is indeed a longstanding theme among others in surrealist art.

For some, this analogy is a funny coincidence, for some it has deep spiritual connotations proving the human potential to tap into the springwell of the ways of nature, and for some it is an interesting field of investigating universal characteristics of morphogenesis. These can be approached by way of psychoanalytic/structuralist/phenomenological studies, or through basics of biochemistry and other chemistry, neurology, embryology and biological evolution; similar senses of architecture, analogy, cladistics, fractals, chaos, cybernetics etc apply both ways.

But we must consider also the differences, among forms of the unconscious, between those which really are mental images and those which are the chance products of gestural automatism, and among the forms of nature, between those which are products of genetically or structurally controlled growth and movement and those which are the chance products of large-scale or extremely complex processes. They may all be similar but the processes are quite different. In a sense everything is chance and even the most perverse planning struggles vainly to produce something substantially dissimilar.

For surrealism, this is indeed an older topic than surrealism itself. Take alchemy, which indeed established the concept of "art" as something involving the entirety of knowledge and the transformation of man and nature rather than a sphere integrated into the mainstream of social structure, be it majoritary or minoritary, central or detached, immediately utilistic or ideological-aesthetical. In alchemy, the ways of nature are to be intimately studied, imitated and also challenged or broken, in order to make nature reveal its secrets and for oneself, or rather the processes one is instigating, to become part of its fundamental workings. Presurrealist and late alchemist August Strindberg, in his text about automatism (which he himself practiced in painting and music rather than in the writing he became more famous for), advocated: "Imitate nature, sure, but imitate in the first place nature's way of creating!" At the same time, Strindberg's (and mine!) idol in evolutionary biology, Ernst Haeckel, a specialist in jumping to conclusions and defending controversial positions, who was working hard with replacing idealist superstitions everywhere, took this struggle - among elsewhere - to the point of publishing albums with beautiful shells, medusas, microorganisms etc, in order to prove how superior nature was, as art, to art!

However, even though the animals, plants, stones, landscapes and weathers are indeed often extremely beautiful and rich in connotations, ambiances and associations, and of course enjoyable in the same way art is (and certainly to a far greater degree than the majority of art!), this does not actually make it art or make it suitable to actually replace art, except in very particular senses or circumstances. Art is indeed still fundamentally about human experiments with the whole of the sensory field, with the whole of experience and knowledge, and thus primarily about changing man and investigating the conditions of changing reality. Natural objects are possibly not about that, and that is one of the many fascinating things about them, which indeed makes them useful for those very purposes too.

All the while, some of our output looks like unintentional creations of nature to the point of confusion (and are proud of it). The other facet of the same analogy is that certain natural objects and certain views of landscapes etc will seem obviously to coincide with a particular kind of poetic sensibility which we, for relative lack of imagination, may associate with a particular artists', group's or method's work. Though a creator in surrealism is just the tool of poetry, of a particular aspect of poetry, sometimes cultivated-incubated through long hard work and sometimes immediately accessible by chance, experiment or whim. That mediumistic experience is at the core of the surrealist experience. Seemingly it is not identical with, but has a close relation to, the experience of discovering the poetry in the natural objects, same - as poetry is in an important sense one and indivisible - and quite different in another sense. The categories of artifacts and natural objects will not confusionally merge, but the objects will meet and start playing with each other and with us on the arena of poetic experience, where their origins, and the often so ridiculous questions of the purpose or intentions behind them, will not be their most relevant determinations.

I am not talking here about natural sciences, even though a scientific or parascientific exotism and fetishism as well as a scientificoid methodology are often present in the way surrealists deal with the natural world, but only of the direct relation to the natural objects, the everyday-curious-amateur-enthusiast-naturalist approach which is the poet's. I have been talking elsewhere about surrealist zoology. Someone else will have to speak about surrealist botany and surrealist mineralogy. Surrealist landscape appreciation enters into the works with psychogeography and with this recent enigmatic concept of exteriority. Another popular habit among surrealists is metereology. Poets, dreamers, idlers, utopists and vagrants everywhere look to the sky, of course including the surrealists. Some organise in the "Cloud appreciation society". Not too long ago (2006), the organiser of that society, Gavin Preton-Pinney, published a popular introduction to the subject, "The cloudspotter's guide". It is indeed a rich book, presenting all the major types of clouds and their various conditions, and presenting a wealth of anecdotes and small explanations; physics, art and history of science, sundogs and Carmen Miranda sprites, the history of military research in weather manipulation, the story of the magnificent "Morning glory" cloud in Australia, the story of lieutenant William Rankin who spent 40 minutes riding up and down the winds inside a raging cumulonimbus on his parachute... Indeed, the book has a tiresome populistic rhetoric and keeps making elaborate excuses before every single time it introduces a scientific explanation, but the things it has to say are still so fascinating, and as far as I can judge solid, so all that whining can be excused, even by someone like me who really hates it, and I suppose for many others it will present less of a problem. In fact, there is much of the complex morphology, the morphogenic processes, and perhaps even the ontology itself of clouds, that seems to adress the very basic notions of surrealist conceptualisation of nature. For those purposes, it would indeed seem that further reading is required, but Preton-Prinney's book serves as a fine introduction to the field.

Clouds themselves are indeed a topic dear to surrealism from before surrealism. First of all we have of course Hamlet's often cited dialogue with Polonius, in which the changing shapes of cumulus clouds as projecting screens for images of the human imagination present the first clear illustration of the paranoic-critical method. And then in the immediate forerunning of surrealism, continuing into the middle of it, we have Arp's fantasies of the machinery of "die Wolkenpumpe", the cloud pump, and its products. Then in the middle of surrealist imagery and thinking, Magritte stands out as an enthusiastic cloud invoker, but there are also significant clouds in early Tanguy, in Dalí, we have Paalen's umbrella, Noguchi's sofa, the mists of Toyen and others, Bachelardian speculation, and so on. And many of us have already noticed with Dalí how clouds are among the elements of non-conventionally-realistic figuration in painting from earlier centuries, soft forms, to the point of incarnating phantoms and concrete irrationality. But nevertheless I put even more hope to the usage of clouds in speculations of the origin and development of forms making sense, the perverse science of what Haeckel called "Generelle Morphologie".


Multiplying the dream sciences

We made a lot of friends in hell. We promised we would try to replace some of the current sciences no matter the consequences. We'd focus on dreaming. We have been working a lot recently with dream geography, and as surrealists we have always been busy with dream phenomenology and dream poetics, occasionally with dream interpretation (Traumdeutung), dream analogies and dream->waking life dynamics, there have also been some efforts in dream demographics, dream geobiography, dream metereology, dream zoology, and external conditioning studies (which is of course just a branch of dream construction theory and therefore of poetics and mythogenesis). The latest vanguard attempt in the latter is made with a statistical approach applied on what - as far as we know - was the first surrealist antarctic expedition, which just has succesfully ended and is more thoroughly chronicled elsewhere. This is how JE introduces the report on this particular topic:

A general and interesting question in relation to dream research is in what
way changes in the external environment influence the imagery, intensity,
geography and sequences of the dream life. In order to investigate such
changes one would have to take careful notes of dreaming each night for an
extended period of time prior to, during and after the change of
environment. Dream life would then have to be scrutinized by statistical
analysis in order to facilitate some objective conclusions. If no
statistical analysis is made, it is easy to focus on and compare only those
dreams that have a high emotional intensity, with striking imagery. This
would, however, obscure a comparison of the more common dream elements
that populate the nightly experience without carrying too much weight in the
daily reminiscences. On the other hand, the statistical analysis should take
into account the differences in the imagery without consideration of the
intensity of the images, as well as comparing peak images with one another.



"Fun and Games" department

Surrealism is a hydra and its different heads keep sniffing out different secluded corners without always pointing out explicitly the coherence with where the other heads are slithering. And some people are surrealists or call themselves surrealists without ever engaging in more than a fraction of surrealism's areas of activity.

Surrealism is admittedly "a collection of methods and themes held together by a certain spirit", but only inasmuch as they have been demonstrated to interrelate by way of this spirit, by André Breton originally or by subsequent surrealist activity. Probably things have been missed, probably certain things lose their relevence over history, possibly Breton and the french surrealists, and other surrealist groups, have exercised a certain arbitrariness and subjectiveness, simply adding things they felt were important or fun for no other reasons than being important or fun?

In fact both antisurrealists and surrealists are eager to revise/update the very selection of themes. But from opposite viewpoints: antisurrealists because there are a few pieces they can bear and even appreciate if disconnected from the radical unity of the broad outlook and instead applied on some arbitrary selection of their personal favorites; surrealists because they always need to consider the possibility that especially with changing times, different local conditions, new people, there might in fact be other areas, subjects, methods and interventions that are the most relevant from the viewpoint of the surrealist perspective than has been known hitherto as such. The only ones who consider the bouquet of surrealist themes fix and intransformable are the hypocrite "friends" of surrealism: mostly the liquidationists (ex-surrealists, art people, academics and publicists) who think surrealism is sympathetic and oh so interesting in the context of interwar France rather than something adressing essential problems of the human condition (and possibly some dogmatics who think Breton was infallible, but I don't know if there are any of that kind).

But surely it must be possible to choose a particular aspect/ field and focus on that? Of course, some degree of specialisation is often unavoidable and very very useful. Lack of specialisation indeed may lead to lack of discovery and to a sense of banality. While specialisation on the other hand of course may lead to lack of grasp of totality, and the abandoning of a totalising radical perspective in favor of within-disciplinary - in one sense or another purely formal or academic - concerns.

For surrealism the problem is not that specialisation is going on, but the fact that some specialisations will be not about choosing a particular aspect to emphasise but about trying to reduce the entirety of surrealism to that aspect - and thus, to deny its breadth and heterogenous applicability - and specifically reducing it to an aspect where it has a useful function to fulfill in society and its selfunderstanding; that is, producing ideology. Of course this is typically the case with those who consider surrealism as basically art. Art you know is a typical civil career, a field of transformation of radical creative investigations into commodities, of unusual radical subjectivities into brand names (it is not only this, but it is obviously one of its more prominent functions in present society), and it is specifically the facet of activity to which surrealism is most commonly reduced and put to use in official culture in most countries. There are also those who consider it basically literature, philosophy, film, politics, that it is only about romanticism, about revolt, about imagination, about psychology, I don't know what. We also have repeated experience with the attempt of leaving art out of the equation while reducing surrealism to some kind of political philosophy: basically, the situationist deviation. Or rather: the exciting dynamic breakthrough out into the situationist desert.

But what about playing games? Compared with other ways of circumscribing surrealism to a single specialisation, surrealist games is the one facet which seems most relatively immune to hostile reductions (or fateful wellmeaning ones), since it remains obvious that it is at once an attempt to investigate aspects of a new radical sense of everyday life and an adventure for thought and the senses and with a necessary collective aspect and clearly non-commodity-producing and non-careerist. There are surrealist game playing societies out there. Some of these may be animated by academics or housewives or sensationseekers who don't have an explicit aim to change their lives as such but only to have an interesting weird pastime. Nevertheless, the dynamics of playing games are under present circumstances so much closer to the core aims of surrealism. The highlights of the gameplayers' experience itself constitute an experience of actual creativity, a glimpse of shortcircuits and inexplicable wholeness of the mind and of the senses and of experience, of a poetic vision (which art does too) plus concretely the reenchantment of everyday life, and a glimpse of another possible mode of social organisation, and its concrete contrasts and fruitful challenges visavis the current order of organisation (which art very often isn't).

But let's not forget about art. There are groups out there who focus on creative experimentation in the form of art without denying that there is something else to surrealism as well. The Phases network has been about this all the time, hasn't it? For a more tight-knittedly grouplike and ambitious example, see the current activity of CAPA, the Collective of Automatic Painting in Amsterdam. Apparently these manage to contribute substantially to surrealism through focusing on its most wellknown part. There are clearly problems with that, but it would be quite pointless to claim them illegitimate.

So what about current groups like the brazilian DeCollage (apparently already disbanded?), the swedish 4X, the chilean Derrame and the moravian StirUp? Of course there are dozens of groups and networks around with no or almost no connections with the surrealist movement and knowledge about the surrealist tradition, but the four mentioned examples are groups that take part in or substantially overlap with surrealist collaborations and appear to claim a more comprehensive relationship with surrealism - but frankly, for many of these, I personally just don't have information enough to have much of an idea of whether the other aspects of surrealism in their cases are actually repressed, or acknowledged but put in suspension, or ongoing but simply not publicised.

So, in general, but also for all the specific examples, where does the transformation occur between specialised public exposure and degradation through useful limpingly partial representation? Where does the transformation occur between the personal subject as a tool for investigation and experimentation and as a brand name for a career in the art market or elsewhere? - Obviously the latter of these questions, but in an important sense also the former, would be pointless to apply to game players... So, could there be a surrealism without this or that ingredient? Yes, obviously, but if it would be without a conception of poetry as a broad phenomenon appearing in many guises and radically applicable in everyday life, it would seem to be not surrealism. Could there be a surrealism of mere playing? Wait, how could there be a "mere playing"?