Digging and drawing on the unknown…

Not long ago, I revisited an old idea with a friend at work: The Exquisite Corpse drawing game. We wanted to use it as a way to encourage some asynchronous play-activity among members of our busy and dispersed work group, to share or generate ideas, and to maybe generate some humour and surprise by chance.

The Exquisite Corpse game developed originally as a writing activity where participants contributed successive lines to a hidden story and revealed the full results later. The name “exquisite corpse” came from one contributed sentence from one particular game. It evolved into a drawing game where players would add sections to the end of each other’s drawings, without seeing the previous contributor’s work.

Surrealism evolved out of the Dadaist movement after World War 1. It was originally literary, expressed in poetry, prose, and sometimes through an experimental activity called automatic writing (and as I recall, another term for this may have been “psychic automatism”). The Surrealist movement was driven by poets and writers like Andre Breton, painters like Freida Khalo and Salvadore Dali, and photography and film artists like Man Ray.

Surrealists were deep explorers of internal landscapes and of the meanings that emerged from the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated symbols. They were interested in exploring subconscious imagery; the themes and symbols that lay beneath the conscious mind, such as dreams, non-verbal desires, or primal urges.

These ideas were inspired by the development of psychotherapy (Freud, Jung and others) and the popularization of ideas like the collective unconscious (Jung). Later, in the 1950s, Beat-generation writers like Burroughs and Kerouac used similar techniques for their own purposes.

Personally, I’ve found a lot of satisfaction in using collage of magazine and newspaper imagery to create unexpected images. Whereas in the exquisite corpse game where each participant hides their contribution from the next player, a solitary collage doesn’t involve other people, but still provides unknown directions or unexpected ideas from moment to moment, based on a somewhat-random selection of visual elements, and any haphazardness or chances taken in how images get cut up, torn, and recontextualized.

I usually start with a large plastic bin full of magazines and scraps from coverless comics or newspapers. I just reach in and pull out as much as I think will cover the sheet of paper in front of me. Sometimes a few scraps will be so visually strong that they’ll drive an idea to be formed around them. Other times, a theme only emerges after a few pieces have been placed to set some scene (like sky, ground, trees, or buildings). I may use tape to tack things down, and use glue or rubber cement once a piece has remained in place for a while, as I build and develop things around it.

My themes almost always involve the human figure or some almost iconic form, and emerge from my internal themes of power, helplessness, mother/father, joy, ego and pride, fear of the unknown, virtuous ideals, sexuality, or pain.

For me, it works like a kind of visual self-talk therapy; a way to build a personal mirror, and to explore what stares back at you.

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