Friday, March 29, 2013

Perpetual wonders in the periphery?

Unusual events

What is unusual? In the surrealist context we rarely look for the merely statistically unusual. If we do, it is loaded with potential of logical paradoxes and showy rhetorical paradoxalness. If we apply probabilistic statistics, then all combinations of events have a low probability just because there are so many logically possible options. And in fact, what is maybe truly unusual is that there is such an uneven distribution of possibilities, so strong patterns, so much apparent regularities, in reality... While older science often considered the regularities to be given by god and exceptions were things that needed explanations, modern efforts (modern physics, psychoanalysis, evolutionary biology etc) are more the other way around: how the hell does it come to pass that regularities occur and one option among many becomes common?

Often we think that the regular, characteristically boring, aspect of everyday life is an ideological construct, based on behind-the-scenes censorship and denial of the width of possibilities and specifically those possibilities that could be interpreted in any way as subversive or disruptive. It follows from this, that whenever one walks out to meet the world with an unprejudiced mind and vigilant senses: there will be a beautiful jungle to discover with amazing things in it. Maybe. However, this is of course determined by the process of generating meaning. All these possibilities don't mean a thing as long as they don't mean anything.

In fact, we're not specifically looking for the scenic view of the uninterrupted field of possibilities. Ok, it might have a particular sense of euphoria to it. It feels nice. And then?

Many of us are looking more for the little instructive examples of dynamics in these respects: where do the rifts occur, where do the enticing detours open up? Where are things building up to an unusual atmosphere and it would demand an effort to put them back into the normal categories – an effort which can be delayed or even avoided?

Many of events thus may look unusual just because they are absurd in the sense of conventional meaning. But then a lot of the conventional meaning is strictly speaking absurd in itself, and it does not provide us with a criterion.
Objective chance
The traditional surrealist concept of "objective chance" is about the unexpected agreement of "inner and outer necessities", where the interior and the exterior join hands in striking coincidences, often sequences of coincidences, which convey a strong perception of meaning, one which has an aspect of being obvious yet still resonates with the weight of the unknown.

Many surrealists also focus on a more pedestrian sense of objective chance as a regular guiding light of life in the surrealist sense. It is those everyday chains of coincidences and associations, where there is a regular interplay between the interior and exterior, where ongoing psychic processes find their exterior correlates in a more or less striking manner (a certain vigilance picks up those elements of reality that incarnate certain obsessive thoughts, hauntings, just ongoing lines of assocation and research, recent remembered dreams, recent forgotten dreams, automatic monologuing, unconscious or strictly speaking preconscious thoughts...) and it seems like the fabric of reality is part of our ongoing psychic life and vice versa (which it of course is).

The stronger sense of objective chance is where life itself seems organised according to a structure of the unknown, life is poetry and poetry is life; and is usually connected with certain types of crises: being in love, of course, or various other near-madness-states of temporary intoxication, durable insomnia, euphoria, despair...

The weaker sense of objective chance is immediately accessible with voluntary means, experimentally; as a surrealist game or as a chosen "surrealist lifestyle" which is little other than a permanent surrealist game. Just being vigilant. Especially when combined with making choices about time allocations and directions based on the logic of the spontaneous encounter, of options presenting themselves rather than rigidly decided in advance.

It is very much a question of to what extent these observed details convey meaning and particularly converging meaning, and very little a question of how statistically rare or common they might be.

Organisation of life
A major practical question is to what extent it can be combined with other ongoing demands in life, those that typically are seen as belonging to the other camp of regular boring everyday life. (But of course they are often far from boring, otherwise they wouldn't be that compelling...) Examples are well-known. Having a job is bad enough, but for many still flexible and with plenty of space for own thinking. Having a more permanently attention-demanding job, exhausting, with a rigid time schedule, and often very stressful ongoing disturbances is worse. Keeping times in general, thus having to interrupt whatever went on before, and often using public transport at their busiest and noisiest hours, is bad too. Having permanent company (a partner, a family, colleagues, close friends, guests) usually is quite disruptive to thought, and favors avoiding unusual tracks, but can be orchestrated to the contrary by willful playfulness. Loneliness on the other hand, leads to a situation where more determination is required to stay attentive and not get distracted by repetitive thoughts or need for entertainment. Flexibility is good of course, but there are also some crucial moments that can be organised to squeeze into a rather demanding schedule. Public transport is full of random or weird ongoings, as is the world at large as seen when walking, but going by car prevents most impressions except quick visual ones. Staying at home, and intense entertainment such as perpetual chattering on the phone, watching tv, extended videogame-playing or filmviewing, is of course a strategy to avoid anything unexpected.

First of all, some time to remember dreams just after awakening, or during breakfast, or on the walk to the station – it is crucial to get an opportunity to do so before assuming one's waking social persona, before starting chattering away with people – or to make telling dreams the first part of one's social interactions... Focus on memorising or writing down some keywords, they will usually make it possible to reconstruct more or less the whole dream afterwards, and elements from the dream will often turn up within one's attention span during the day as reminders as long as there is some initial memory for them to cling on to.

Second, some time during the first half of the day, to write down the dream, or to write down the anecdote or unusual element of what happened during the public transport ride or during the walk there. There is usually one. Such anecdotes are often inconsequential, but they are often used as social entertainment, and sometimes accounting for them will reveal them as symbolical or truly unusual, and within a game framework, it will turn out that some of them find attachment points to other friends ongoing chains of associations, memories and phenomenological investigations; there will be minor coincidences.

Third, not to work oneself into complete exhaustion, or jump straight into the demands and pleasures of socialising for the entire rest of the evening, but leave a space for a bit of solitude and noting the anecdote of one's ride back home, or of one's social encounter, or of how one's dream found its correlates. There is always something to note, and for me it has been pedagogical with those occasions when this has been done in the shape of the old "dominant image of the day" game. One does not even need to be alone, willful playfulness can engage the whole company in discussing the dominant image of the day, just like sharing dreams over the breakfast table.

For me, this works very well whenever work demands are not particularly pressing, and in fact often when work demands are pressing too but I am in a good mood and do not need to seek social company merely for the sake of staying above the surface... It works bad during combinations of pressing work demands and relatively bad moods, and it works bad with heavy work demands from different angles so that one goes home from one task just to work a bit on another before exhaustion or before having to hurry to bed because one has to get up early; there is just no time to write things down, and even if memorising them works for a short timespan they eventually get lost in the turmoil.

What to expect from reality
Apart from things that stand out as major unusual events (which may be interesting or not, cf world news, astronomical events, social drama, deaths, encounters with madmen, encounters with crime etc) there are more continuously ongoing categories of everyday weird anecdotes on the one hand and exterior correlates to one's ongoing thematics on the other hand, and they occasionally melt together. When the material is quantitatively increased, by a particular game context, or just by a lot of time for interpretation and reflection there might occur a shift to the qualitative: things associate more intensely with each other, patterns of deep meaning knock on the window, themes become obsessive (and of course, vice versa, if exaltation occurs for subjective reasons, the material increases). The opposite dynamic is obvious, without the time to remember dreams or to take notes of whatever has demanded attention, less things seem meaningladen, and fewer things seems worthy of attention, and life seems more boring.

Surrealist expectancies on reality is not about what is unusual. It is about organising life so as to be able to notice, and wherever desired to follow, the unusual implications; to realise and acknowledge the presence of the unknown, and to explore it at will individually and collectively. Not to be in control, to be in a certain tension-filled agreement with ongoing dynamics, and not remain manipulated by conformist concerns, so-called repressive structures, exploitative relationships and single people.

Though the unusual is quite useful in a game context. Unusual events can be collected for systematical data mining, for experimental interpretative approaches. For building up stories, for simulating dreams, and also for systematical phenomenological studies of what constitutes single experiences that have some sense of autonomy visavis other experiences and visavis a background of life itself if there is such a background and how such event atoms relate to images and symbols.


Atmosphere in Art revisited

Thomas Cole: Expulsion from the Garden of Eden
There are some discussions that I am always trying to avoid, but sometimes fail. One is about the psychology of pictures. A lot of people know a lot about this and it bores me to reconstruct it all on my own for merely polemical purposes. Another one is arguments for and against different strains in surrealist art. It's just not the point. One suggests: Matta? Another says: Magritte. The former says: Matta! The latter insists: Magritte. The former claims: Matta. The latter endures: Magritte. So what?

But I can make one more attempt to avoid those question by addressing the actual interesting questions connected under the heading of atm

How does atmosphere in art work? You can't just draw an atmosphere. Whoever wants to bring in atmosphere into art has to find a way, and at first glance there seems to be two very different ways of bringing that about (later it will turn out that there wasn't just two).

 The most traditionally obvious is to construct an atmosphere, by depicting an imaginary scene where an atmosphere is likely to emerge (or may seem to have already emerged if originally imagined in a visionary manner). By well-known conventions of representation one recreates a three-dimensional scene, which is filled by this tangible absence of rational calming order, an absence that gives rise to this electrical invisible poison gas of the enigmatic, the taste of the unknown. We all know this as the Chirico method, which has been exploited in surrealism for longer than surrealism itself, and has proven strangely inexhaustible. Well, not strangely, since the scene created by the painter is not the major point, but the sense of the unknown that it manages to conjure up within it. But then of course, there is also a whole lot of bad fakes in the genre, all those "standard" surrealist painters that repeat certain supposedly fetishistic objects in different constellations, or paint completely uninteresting scenes where certain objects are out of scale or there is a female breast exposed, or orchestrate some simple puns of sexual or not even sexual character by juxtaposition or transformation, creating scenes that merely reveal recipe or appeal to key stimuli rather than invoke something (but of course also the opposite, all these inadvertently created atmospheres...)

The twodimensional surface with a picture of an atmospheric scene in accordance with this is obviously analogous with a "window" towards this scene (a "window towards the unknown"), and we "read" the picture with the spontaneous skills acquired of translating homogenously coloured areas as distinct surfaces, brightness and order of overlap as distance, lines as delineations of objects, of presupposing a certain perspective, a certain order, as long as anything suggests it. The more it conforms to traditional representation with ordinary clues the easier it becomes for us to trust this flat visual image as an unproblematic representation of a section of a visual field of the rest of the world, with the "solid middle-sized objects" available (and not covered by other objects) within a certain distance within that sector of vision. We go to certain lengths to make up for inadequacies, missing things, or even to fill out that which is merely sketched. No, I didn't want to go into all this standard babble of looking at images, I have to switch track...

Ok, the most logically obvious way to get atmosphere into art, on the other hand, is to address this atmosphere directly, and try to translate it into something visual. In this case you don't need specifically the traditional skills to depict a scene, but you need to seduce the spectator into seeing. If the picture is a window, it is a window not miniaturising the surfaces of middle-size objects to form an image, but something else. We have to somehow suspend the everyday reading of an image and wait for some other reading to emerge. Something subatomical, fourthdimensional, synaesthetical... But for people with no particular synaesthetical capabilities, or no advanced training in reading image parameters not as proportional spatial parameters but as something else, this is usually done by a scale displacement or a simulation of synaesthesia. If it doesn't look like the world as we know it, it might very well depict the microscopic world. Or the vast macroscopic worlds of outer space. Or it may be usually invisible fields rendered visible by some weird staining process: we could be seeing the form of sounds, of thoughts, of smells, of feelings, or of actual atmosphere. Or a mixture of all this. And usually it is through this desperate superimposition of spatial interpretation onto an image which does not give us the traditional clues to be read this way that we co-create this image, and co-create, or are seduced into seeing, its representation of atmosphere itself, with or without the auxiliary fictions of mental entities as part of the translations. This is of course the Matta method.

It was quite revolutionary when the surrealist painters discovered and explored it through the second half of the 30s and during the war (often under the name of "psychological morphologies"), but then it proved remarkably attractive to use this point of departure as an excuse to abandon the fundamental curiosity for the unknown... Several age groups of painters used it as an excuse to revive classic abstraction of one or the other kind, again denying that the picture is a window and depicts the imaginary and instead seeing it as a mere twodimensional surface with a certain distribution of form and colour. Without the discipline of occultism or madness which could ascribe an intense metaphysical meaning to such form and colour, and which made good old abstractionism take part in the quest for the unknown, these new "abstract expressionist" strands, most notably as "action painting" or "New York school" in the US and "tachisme" in France, often struggled to attain a complete absence of spiritual content. Why would anyone be interested? On the other hand, the decidedly surrealist half of "lyrical abstraction" kept it closer to the imaginary sources and kept redirecting it back to them whenever it went astray into those pastures where all cows are equally grey.

(Since the surrealist movement has always been non-doctrinary in stylistic terms and never has been circumscribed in pictorial terms, which by the way again is why things are so difficult for those who insist on regarding surrealism as an art movement, the surrealist movement has welcomed and encouraged those who undertake poetic explorations of the unknown with artistic means regardless of their stylistic choices. And thus, it is always surprising and frustrating when some want to make a big fuss over contradictions in stylistic terms.

Several have insisted that representational art is obsolete and we must abandon the conventions of perspective etc. Well, why? Just because it's old? No, who wants the new for its own sake! Or because the fact that it's old suggests that it is connected with traditional and repressive structures of the mind that we could attain new freedoms by abandoning? Oh, could be, but it is a bit of a far stretch, and so far it seems empirically like the surrealist use of old picture conventions still opens up for more new horizons of the mind than its voluntary abandonment does. Because advertising, pop culture and academic art took over many of the surrealist lessons in this field? Well, if they did, did they immediately acquire the full rights to everything produced through these routes? Yes, this line of thought is suggestive to the radical mind, and over and over again the urge to abandon everything that one can come up with an argument against has proven quite sterile...

On the other hand, others have grumpily insisted that they hate "abstract art", and there was a splinter group (Tendance Populaire Surréaliste) for several decades in France that kept insisting that Breton had betrayed surrealism and that the French surrealist group effectively become antisurrealists just because Breton and others explored lyrical abstraction in the 50s! The TPS have rarely been acknowledged at all in the movements own historiography, mainly because it seemed so far-fetched, beside-the-point and so utterly non-surrealist to have a battle of styles. Because any arguments for a particular style against another might possibly be valid for a particular exploration, or even for an extended exploration in the form of an oeuvre, but as arguments they prove to play on a completely different arena than that of surrealism – it becomes aestheticism or sensation-seeking or fashion strategy or political strategy, but not surrealism.)

Though the two routes I have described are not the only routes. Since the methodology of surrealism is very often about gathering random or apparently insignificant material and seeing meaning emerge from them (emergent properties), a lot of artistic practice within surrealism focus not on the manipulation of evoking atmospheres, but merely on the patient or impatient waiting for them to arise by their own accord. Many of the basic surrealist strains, for one: the immediate, naive figuration, and two: the organic-type morphological fantasy, and three: the ceaseless collaging of more or less random elements, are practices that just go on and on without caring, and that will see atmospheres emerging by chance and overdetermination, just like in reality, only increasing the possibilities, both merely statistically and with automatic sensibility....

Matta: Science


(Excerpt from my postface to the Swedish 2011 edition of Breton's Manifestoes of Surrealism (Sphinx); a postface where I felt for once that I made a decent job of summarising what surrealism is all about... It would be good to get an occasion to make an English version of the entire text; this is just a quick translation of the section about Automatism to intervene in an ongoing discussion elsewhere)

The fact that surrealism from the beginning was equated with the automatist method has caused some confusion through history. Surrealism is a living movement, not a doctrine which lies when once laid down. Indeed, during the first few years in surrealism, surrealism and automatism were synonyms (as in the First Manifesto). But already at that time the surrealists were busy with a width, successively wider, of experiments and struggles, and fairly soon it was necessary to abandon the narrow circumscription of surrealism as a synonym of automatism, and instead the term was applied to the entire movement, the entire spirit, the entire arsenal of methods. And by the end of the 20s reasons were being felt to downplay the importance of automatism, at least in the sense that there were warnings against the thoughtless application of it as a recipe, and emphasises that the experience of automatism had been ambiguous. (Note: See the Second Manifesto, and even sharper in Aragon's "Treatise on style", then at greater length in Breton's "The automatic message".) And while a few historians have failed to grasp that the concept of surrealism was initially widened to mean more than automatism, there are others who have noted the critical evaluation of automatism around 1930 and loudly claim that surrealism abandoned automatism entirely. Both are equally wrong of course, and this should be obvious to any serious student of the activities and works of surrealists.

Automatism, originally the writing with such speed that all conscious aesthetical and moral concerns were incapacitated, has remained one of the most basic sources in its principle, but quite differently implemented, and of quite different relative weight in different projects, different methods, different points in time, different groups, different writers, different artists. The various guises that automatism appears in offer a remarkable width, the mapping of which perhaps still remains to do. And its most fundamental content is perhaps not the flow – it is for example substantially different from any spontanism or "stream of consciousness" – but rather the mediality. The automatism "opening the tap" is not only about sidestepping censorship and not primarily about quantitative production. It is rather the actual absence of conscious aesthetic concerns which is central, and whoever creates under those circumstances will be sidestepping their persons and thereby paradoxically revealing their inner resources, making themselves mere tools for poetry, which is something objective, larger and more general. It is necessarily done in an experimental way, it is about exploring something unknown, rather than assembling by recipe. This mediality will sometimes take the shape of rigid concentration, even discipline, which may to an external person seem confusingly unlike the expansive flow. But such a more general sense of mediality is typically implemented in the majority of surrealist games and methods, regardless of what is invoked is chance itself, or the product of collectivity beyond the purposes of any single individual, or mere sensibilities and material of unconscious character within the single psychic individual. It is, not the least, about demystifying inspiration, forcing inspiration, and, mark me well, this without depreciating it!

Often the results are not very striking: they may be predictable or just bland: that is a natural risk in any experimental undertaking. Two points must be made in this connection. One is that for surrealists it is very often not the final result, for example a poem or a painting, which is the interesting thing, but instead the experience, the application of the experiment, making oneself available for poetry; and the works coming out of it hold an interest that is highly contingent. Often enough they succeed in conveying new perspectives or unusual atmospheres and images, but it is not at all decisive whether they they do it or not, they may just as well be pure by-products of at most documentary interest – and the fact that still they have a form which makes it possible to put them next to works produced with completely different purposes and methods current in contemporary cultural production, may be confusing enough for those critics and historians who wants to judge over the works with an aesthetical (in the narrow sense) measure which is rigid, predetermined and timeless, and of course also if it struggles to be timely and is idea-based and relativising.

The second point is one which is almost diametrically opposite, and is presented in the First Manifesto, remembered in the Second and still has its relevance in particular situations, but which is almost entirely polemical within the cultural field. It is the point that the products of automatist methods will have a poetic, humoristic, surprising and prophetical character which often enough will turn out to be distinctly more interesting than most of what is produced with conscious aesthetical aims within contemporary literary and artistic practice. And this despite the fact that they will have a distinct naivity, a lack of outlook, a certain ridiculousness and an immediate absurdity. Or not really despite, but often thanks to this, since this will be capable of being preferrable –from all viewpoints – over works struggling to fit into the fashions and competition for recognition of the times.

Furthermore there are many questions around the importance of automatism that still remain to investigate critically. Within the surrealist tradition it is obvious that there has been, and still are, a width of interpretations, all the way from those emphasising how the experience and the traces must be interpreted and evaulated on an analytical level, to those who emphasise that the practice in itself is paradigmatical as an image of and a step in the reintegration of man; nevertheless for surrealism all such contradictions are clearly secondary compared to the intense curiosity that spurs us to ceaselessly expose ourselves to the experience. Most of those critical perspectives are actually put forth in passing already in the Second Manifesto anyway.

The story is well-known. Breton had become curious about free associations and hypnagogic images through his Freud-reading and his work as a doctor during the war. He was led to associate them with the application of methods of chance and of flow within litterature, especially with the flow in Lautréamont, and he got involved together with Philippe Soupault in writing The Magnetic Fields in 1919, which has entered the annals of history and the whole story is related in the first manifesto. There were strong connections with many of the chance experiments in Dada; Arp's poetry, Huelsenbeck's poetry, collective writing games like "Die Hyperbol vom Krokodilcoiffeur und dem Spazierstock". There were strong connections with mystical mediality, with spiritist and religios mediality (while of course denouncing those metaphysical assumptions that the practioners of these were content with), but more than anything with the distinct vision of poetical clarity as expressed in Rimbaud, and which in him explicitly was the product of a long and careful disorder of the senses. (Note: Some have made a big issue out of noting how the concept of automatism within surrealism has failed to stick to the concept within mysticism, or to purely therapeutical applications within psychoanalysis; which nevertheless was the basic point since the aim was something quite different! Just as irrelevant are all those literature historians who make a big issue out of "revealing", in opposition to the surrealists' own declarations of their dependence on Freud, that the concept of automatism in surrealism "actually" rests on some other authority within psychology; whole careers have been built on insisting on Jung, Myers, Janet or Taine.) Three years later, when the Dada movement was collapsing, it was chosen to pursue experimentation in this particular direction. Yet more automatic writing, and hypnosis, were put at the top of the agenda. Hypnosis was quickly abandoned, and instead accounts of dreams became very popular, and there came a number of different suggestions as to how to implement automatism in visual art. And also after automatism had been denied as the golden road to the surreal, people continued to write automatic texts, daily games continued to rest on one or other type of automatism, and important steps forward in surrealist painting was very often about the invention of new methods of implementing automatism. In more recent times, musical improvisation has been added as a new, distinct and fruitful area of automatist experimentation.

Mattias Forshage