Friday, March 30, 2012

a british fauna

Not having time to edit any ambitious discussions in March, I could instead give a certain snapshot of surrealism in Britain based on the fact that a surprising number of surrealist publications has come from there recently. Hopefully the necessary discussion of publicity and organisation inside will make it meaningful as an Icecrawler text. As the interested will already know, there are three surrealist groups in England (SLAG, Leeds, LSG) and some initiatives outside groups.

Rabid delicacies

And allow me quickly pass over SLAG:s e-zine "Rabid estranged juvenile delicacies" for one or the other reason; because I was involved in it myself, because it came already the previous year, because it is available only in electronic not printed form? It is a rather packed piece, focusing on games and collective investigations but also including remarkable individual contributions, many of which have been previously posted at the robber bridegroom blog, and it is available from here.

Less delicate

There was a very recent skirmish over the stupid idea to launch an initiative of surrealists supporting the 4th international, which I also won't be going into here (anyone interested could consider the webpage, the critique, the metacritique, and the metametacritique).

Taste of phosphor

Just like the Leeds surrealist group is in fact the most long-lasting and reliable pole of organisation in British surrealism (ever!), its rather new journal Phosphor is already established as a reliable point of reference. It is unlike the other British publications in that it is in fact informative and rather extrovert, and perhaps also in that is traditional and international (relates to tradition and the organised international movement in a very explicit way). In fact it may be better described as a local facet of international surrealism rather than the organ of a local group, always with a considerable amount of space given to material from the Prague group, with that combined with materials from Madrid, Paris and Chicago seemingly outweighing self-produced material. Which is a bit of a pity, because it is typically the accounts of the ambitious games and experiments of the Leeds group which is the most interesting material in the journal. There is always a substantial international review section as well as some introductory material to Czech surrealism (never British), which both in part seem redundant for the initiated, but thereby also offer necessary distinctions and good news for an external audience (if there is one). Phosphor has a strict layout (no scattered phrases or marginal drawings) and most of the material is compartmentalised into (explicit or implicit) sections with similar space allotment in each issue. Usually there are also a few examples of very good poems and documentary photographs, and the steady flow of amazing drawings by Bill Howe, as well as some more lightweight articles and short-stories.

The latest issue is number three, on the theme of "Memory reclaimed". In it, the local game material feels somewhat less inspired than usual and consists largely of examples from or overviews of a couple of different games rather than full data. Just like in my own experience, it seems like a focus on memory will easily remain on the level of biographical/generational interest, and it requires some substantial effort to sublate the mnemonic images to something of general interest by working with a synthetic/poetic response AND/OR an analytical response in terms of psychoanalytical and epistemological interpretations, such as studying the ontogenetic production of the desire compromise called personality and the anecdote compromise called life experience... Here, there are some haunting images surfacing within the material (as one could expect) but typically not much is done with them. The appendigial shoes game is far more simple and also quite effective, once again proving the emergent convergences and emergent poetry of improvisations of the collective imagination.

So in this issue the brightest light is in fact a historical piece: Krzysztof Fijalkowski's essay about Luca – which could have been both bolder and longer but nevertheless with admirable clarity sketches some of the vertiginous epistemological or methodological questions Luca raised, particularly about the need to reinvent everything, and the background in Romanian surrealism they grew out of, and just by the way it adresses the epistemological level it feels like the item most fruitfully grappling with the issue theme. The second most theoretically ambitious piece is one by Lurdes Martinez of the Madrid group, characteristically extending the extremes in a very explicit, controversial and interesting way, here taking Madrid's debordist dualism to new heights in terms of principled nostalghia when praising a few dusty old speciality shops and some photo album from the 50s: "Everything has suffered the deadly hollowing-out of its most intimate conditions /.../ And this destruction of the natural and human environment to which I refer /.../ has given way to absolute uniformity of living spaces and forms of relationship". Weren't we surrealists the guys who kept claiming that poetry could manifest itself anywhere, and in unexpected forms? Among the rest of the material, which I will not cover in its entirety, there is also a very good poem by Kenneth Cox, a new streak of automatic drawing from Bill Howe, and Gareth Brown as always keeps up an eye towards contemporary developments in radical politics.

Phosphor is very readable – but also rather predictable. I enjoy it much, but it also makes me long to see some strange imbalanced entity presenting detailed, feral or odd lines of investigation from the entire group or individual members thereof. However, in the current form Phosphor comes very close to something that could serve as presenting living surrealism to the reading British public, and with just a small effort to get rid of some remaining internalist jargon and some unnecessary obstacles for readers (as opposed to the many necessary obstacles inherent in the immodest scope of poetry and the perspectives of its offensive defense), it would do this job extremely elegantly, while indeed pushing some of the heavy stuff along with it.

Tailbiting struggles of patricide

Coming from outside, the journal project Patricide has stirred a lot of suspiciousness, discussion and contradictions among surrealists during its brief history. I have been asking its editor questions about it, I have contributed to it, and I have considered the very lack of traditional surrealist aesthetics a relief (all surrealists say there is no such thing as a surrealist aesthetic, and then still so much of the output looks so similar), as well as the mix of active surrealists and various isolated artists a very interesting experiment. There has been sympathetic but vague statements of intention, expecting a solid direction to eventually emerge. With the fourth issue, on "the sound of surrealism" (mostly concerning the question of surrealist music) I am beginning to lose my patience.

The general editorial principle appears to be to make an unprejudiced mixture of active surrealists with random artists (more or less careerist, more or less relevant all together) on a mail-art accept-all-submissions liberal basis. Some of these external artists are indeed such whose work I enjoy and am happy to have got an opportunity to discover (especially Leslie Guy), and editor Neil Coombs' own photographs are often great. Some of the material in Patricide is great, funny, unexpected, thoughtful. But a lot of the contributions are typically irrelevant, more or less conventional, lazily self-sufficient, and symptomatically ignorant about surrealism. And here, the "unprejudiced" editing turns into a statement: that surrealism is in fact more or less anything, that any pedestrian or careerist artist and their view of surrealism is just as valid in terms of surrealism as the most frenzied psychonauts, the hardest-working organisers, the longest-standing activists and the most well-read or clear-thought specialists – that the surrealists' view of surrealism is no more relevant than that of anyone. With previous issues themes, "seaside surrealism" (if interpreted as "oddities on the beach") or "the uncanny", anyone can say something interesting, which could perhaps make sense from a surrealist perspective. The same would be true for "sound" by itself – but "sound and surrealism" is a not only big but difficult subject, you typically have to know something about surrealism to say something very interesting about it, and this "unprejudiced" principle appears fatal when it equates actual surrealism with prejudices and clueless musings about surrealism.

In this issue as before, I note that – contrary to some comrades' hints – it is not the case that it is the surrealists' contributions that are interesting and the various hangarounds that are not interesting. Well, to some extent, here the most informed and thoughtful contribution is by the the authoritative and experienced surrealist musician Johannes Bergmark, while some additional good points are made by Shibek, and Ron Sakolsky provides a selection of important background information, but there are also points by one or two unknown dudes, and some of the card-carrying surrealists mess up some of the facts badly. With the editor sympathetically acknowledging his lack of a clear idea of the topic, he does in fact set out to ask some of the surrealists (and some others). One of the surrealists tells him that alchemy is the same as collage, combining two elements to produce a new third; and another one that alchemy is nonsensical superstition, but then adds that it could also be interpreted as a metaphor for the human totality experience (something like metaphysics in the widest sense). This is frustrating, I thought alchemy was important to surrealism, and surrealists would know what alchemy is about. Of course, being an elusive, secret and actively ambiguous discipline, it will give rise to a manifold of interpretations, but haven't we all seen in some historical studies that it is about metamorphosis, the transmutation of matter (and, by manifest analogy, man and the world) through hard work which is primarily artisanal and mystic, and then perhaps in some sense artistic and/or scientific? Then, when the editor asks what is the place of sound/music in surrealism in comparison with other genres, and one surrealist very sensibly replies something like "oh, interesting things could be done with it, just like with other things, it's not a matter of ranking ways of expression", another one explains that sound has been unacceptably neglected and must now resume its rights because there is a capitalist conspiracy in favor of the visual sense against the audial sense (!).

It is typical in a surrealist journal to perform a certain "nivellation" in terms of putting the great surrealist classics, the best work of one's surrealist contacts, and one's own very finest efforts on the same level as one's various more or less groping attempts, often failed experiments, often unripe artworks, often exagerrated polemics and arrogant new-adept certainty – and this is something good because it emphasises that the communion with the tradition and with great works is an active relationship of creative acquisition and mutual enquiry and not a matter of reifying admiration. Coming from newcomers, it is easy to sympathise with a certain lack of experience and knowledge which is completely made up for by enthusiasm, unreasonable passion, the very wealth of (often mistaken) ideas and ambitions, and with an eagerness to learn more about the tradition.

But typically in a cultural journal with a surrealist label, there is this other type of "nivellation", where the active embodiment of surrealism, and the discussion, playing and activism of the surrealist movement is put on the same level as any musings of the well-meaning unknowledgeable, clueless self-promoters, and active mediators of official misrepresentations. It does not have the unexperienced enthusiast's lack of knowledge but rather something like the cynicism of accepting whatever more or less unrelated ongoing artistic projects as the real thing and not offer suggestions of novelties, no fresh blood. Patricide is more and more appearing like the newcomer without much enthusiasm, energy or new discoveries, but also without very much willingness to learn what has been found out so far. In this issue we get the false impression that "surrealism and music" is an almost completely virginal field, where no real results have yet been made. The few contributions that indicate there has been a rich discussion in surrealism (from the "no music" doctrine, to the massive interest in jazz, to the rock'n'roll-psychedelia connection, to the "surrealism and black music" doctrine, to the improvisation edict, to today's rather pluralistic interest) stand out as isolated secretsayers or madmen whose voices in the desert are not worth more than the hollow platitudes of standard dictionaries. It remains a crucial question for these madmen to consider how eager they are to publish in contexts relativising their solid ground; and there are still some good arguments contradicting each other here.

Massive milkflow down the faces of representatives

The real joker in the deck is a new anthology by the London Surrealist Group, The overflowing milkmaid with curved feet. For a long time the LSG appeared to have no collective activity at all, only scattered individual updates on a blog, but some time ago collective games became more common again, and now a very mixed batch of materials has been collected into an anthology (there is also a new webpage and a sound project). It is difficult to see some particular shared or emergent characteristics, apparently LSG remains consisting of a core group with rather distinct individual projects, and a constantly changing circle of brief members including oral-live-poets, assorted academics, aspiring fine arts students, singer-songwriters and photomodels who are often easy to find self-exposed on the internet without explicit reference or obvious link to surrealism. From the outside it is very difficult to assess what kind of internal group dynamic this is an expression of, or creates opportunities for. However, it is important to note that in the new anthology this motley crew has had the decency and seriousness to not cite author's names for most of the contributions, which is surprising and indeed very admirable (and especially so when some of the contributors may have appeared suspiciously exposure-eager elsewhere).

And, of course, frustrating for the historian-nerd... But also, in the gossip-tangled mess of British surrealism, it probably provokes a more careful reading and focus on what is actually said. In this case, the initial impression of heterogenity, of a very wide variation range in quality, is sustained and deepened. Of course, "quality" of individual items would be secondary to collective curiousness, integrity, vision and honesty but the latter is also not transparently emerging from the material or presentation. With haphazard layout, the contributions overlap and occasionally perhaps merge in a sympathetic way, but one which still feels like a collage rather than an actual collective direction or entity. And there is no introduction to the group and no explicitly shared statements. There are a few games, but only some are given on a collective level (phrenology walk, an exquisite corpse, perhaps the definitions in the margins?), others dismemberedly by only an individual contribution to them (first-encounters-with-surrealism-enquiry, monster walk, tarot walk). Most of the contents give the impression of a rather thoroughly mixed buffet of individual contributions of considerably varied strength.

The drawings are in fact mostly good (from Layden's characteristic morphological transformations over repetitive wave patterns to blindfold-automatism), as are the photographs (mostly documentary, including double exposures and visual puns) – while the collages are considerably weaker (from industrial-type dustbin-concoctions to expressive but very traditional xylography collage). Among the poems, there are a few oral-poet dynamic jive sermons that may or may not have much to do with surrealism, along with some fresh gallopping-rant-type automatic texts ("Youth Juice" and "Coral Rain"), a lot of poems that seem unnecessarily derivative or sentimental-preciose, and a few which are just great (such as "Multistage Aigrette" and the untitled one handwritten above it). Articles are even more heterogenous. Except for the game accounts, there is some of the habitual tedious whining over public misunderstandings of surrealism (the concept "surreal") with some of the abstract self-boasting and self-deceiving flowery propaganda (the final statement about the absolute genius of creativity) and an apparently pointless mystification (Hicklebaum), but also some interesting theoretical sketches (about the analogy concept) and simple but good introductions (about automatic writing) or rather interesting chronicles by outside sympathisers (about contemporary surrealist cinema).

So, a lot of the material herein is clearly worthwhile, but far more, the anthology itself is a very encouraging sign of ongoing collective activity. Good luck; looking forward to seeing more!