Sunday, June 01, 2008


Collage is a set of techniques for assembling elements into a larger whole. As an artistic technique and process, it's a useful tool in visual art, in literature, and in audio and music.

The majority of the visual-art collage I've done for ten years now has been done in Photoshop. I can get PS to do what I want, including transparencies, that are effects often much harder to achieve within a physical medium. I have printed the results on various media, including giclée prints on watercolor paper, archival silver photo paper, standard archival photo paper, cardstock, and linen. With the newer inkjet technologies, you can print archival inks onto damn near anything.

I still like to get my hands dirty, though. Sometimes I draw or paint on photo prints. Sometimes I make a drawing or hand-written text, then scan it into the computer and mix it with photos and other drawings. Sometimes I rip things up and drop them randomly onto the scanner. Sometimes I rip them up, scatter them onto a table or floor, and photograph them. My current digital camera is 10 megapixels, which is more than adequate for re-photographing a physical piece to bring it back into the digital realm, to edit it some more. Or manipulate.

I like to involve indeterminacy in many of my artistic processes; I enjoy surprises, and one can discover new directions that one might pursue more intentionally by starting from chance.

I also create creative backgrounds, like hand-made papers. I usually do this in Photoshop, collaged from photos and/or things put on the scanner, sometimes heavily processed into graphic patterns that bear little superficial relationship to the original image. The scanner is like a big camera with a very narrow depth of field. I've put paper, rocks, feathers, leaves, and other things on the scanner, and made assemblages "photographed" by the scanner, which became parts of pieces, or backgrounds, or layers.

Many recent collages have been photomontages. I take many photos of the same scene, sometimes from many angles, then stitch them together. Sometimes the results look like assemblages, sometimes they look Cubist, sometimes you can't even tell it was a collage.

In audio, collage is commonplace since the invention of the sampler. The first generation of samplers were essentially short-period recorders that could be played back in various ways. Whole genres of both experimental and popular music have developed that are based on sampling. I began my own audio collage history with tape music compositions, slicing up bits of tape with a razor blade and taping them back together; this is classic tape music technique. Nowadays, I create similar pieces entirely in the computer, using audio recording and mastering software.

In literature, collage is a bit more dodgy as a subject. The cut-up technique developed by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin is well-known. More recent genres of short fiction and poetry have come to rely on similar techniques of indeterminacy and chance operations. I admit that I am not entirely sold on the results of many experiments in literary indeterminacy, although I agree with much of the theory (most of which is frankly borrowed directly from experimental music theory). It's one of those instances where the theory may be more inspired than the product. Sometimes indeterminacy is used far too casually, and as an excuse for sloppy thinking. All too often, in literary indeterminacy, the gimmick, once figured out, is not very interesting thereafter. Puzzle-box poetry is often very dull once you figure it out, and rarely re-read. Poetry ought to be more than linguistic engineering.

Collage relies on surprising juxtapositions for some of its interest. How does one go about creating surprising juxtapositions in written texts? The cut-up method, in its variations, is actually a good means to that end. Sometimes writing that deliberately de-centers both narrative and setting can be very good. Some of the postmodernist literary tactics have achieved good collage results, particularly in instances where normative narrative time can be represented as non-linear. A poetry of simultaneity is both possible and desirable. My point is that this can be achieved with deliberate intention, rather than only done by means of chance operations. The gimmick, if it is one, is less foregrounded, and more integrated into the work. Examples of successful collage technique in literature can be found in some of the shorter prose pieces of Samuel Beckett.

It might seem odd that collage works well for me in two out of three mediums, but that I remain suspicious of it in that third medium. This might be a personal blind-spot. But I do think it's a limitation in the thinking of many of the writers who have tried to develop and use collage methods and chance operations in their writings. It's actually very interesting to me how an artistic process that can be so successful in visual art and audio can so often fall flat in literature—or, worse, seem derivative and gimmicky. So many experimental writers seem to copy ideas and methods directly from artistic inventors such as Marcel Duchamp or John Cage, but without ever acknowledging their influence. Cage's own writings contain many innovations in textual collage that are direct precursors of postmodern poetry, but I have yet to run across a postmodernist literary manifesto that acknowledges this. Part of my suspicious questioning of literary collage lies in this apparent lack of awareness of the history of collage and indeterminacy. But then, literature has usually lagged behind art and music.

What I would suggest, then, is a fresh approach to literary collage. I'm not sure what that might look like. But if it does look like something that's been tried before, a sense of history and influence ought at least be acknowledged.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

One of my most valuable books on Beckett is Theatre of Shadows by Rosemary Pountney in which she devotes a whole chapter and an appendix to explaining how Beckett constructed Lessness. I was amazed to see how he wrote the original 60 sentences and then shuffled them into a different order. Actually he put them in a bowl and drew them out at random. I had never imaged he might work in such a manner. Of course they weren't just 60 sentences, they were 60 Beckettian sentences. The appendix puts the work back in the order in which the sentences were actually written. Predictably enough there is precious little explanation of his motivations or even his expectations for the piece.

4:02 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Lessness was very much the piece I was thinking of. It's a favorite of mine, and a friend of mine once created a tape piece around it. It's a fascinating bit of work. It just goes to show that Beckett, even when using different tools, remained Beckett. It's the same with John Cage, in a very similar way.

5:25 PM  

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