COLLAGE & POST-COLLAGE: IN HONOR OF ERIC MOTTRAM
Yes indeed, as Jerry just noted, it is strange to be speaking here without Eric Mottram in attendance - & thus without the knowledge of his as inescapable as useful feedback. Eerie indeed to be back here in London without that liveliest of dialogues that sustained - and often directed - my own early search in matters of writing & more. I want to speak today of collage and post-collage, if there is such a thing, a subject & technique close to Eric's concerns & practices from his poems & essays to his teaching & thinking - although the title in the conference handout is misleading.
When we think of "collage" today, a nearly quaint, not to say condescending, image arises of people of all walks of life being "creative" by making visual collages & gluing various pictures cut out from magazines - preferably old Saturday Evening Post type attic collections - or family photo albums. We dimly remember that major artists like Picasso and Braque briefly used collage in the century's teens before moving on to "real painting." Most contemporary discussions of art or literature will avoid the notion of collage, except as that historical occasion mentioned above. I remember the surprise, by a poet as well-read and sophisticated as Clayton Eshleman, at discovering how much of Olson's Maximus was found and collaged material - with Clayton wondering what this meant in terms of Olson's "originality" qua poet. I remember myself - though I had read the Cantos & much else by then - surprised at discovering circa 1975, while writing what was one of the first reviews of Mottram's work, how Eric's poetry relied upon a near seamless lifting & incoporating of other writers' phrases and lines. Analyzing several of the poems in Against Tyranny, specifically "Life Speed" and "The Revolter," I discovered that some 95% of their language matter was taken over from Paul Nizan's Aden Arabie & Sartre's preface to that book. A few days ago, my companion, Nicole Peyrafitte, was working on a song based on a poem of a late Mottram book, Estuaries, & she was able to trace most of the texts to phrases from Van Gogh's letter of 1888, phrases & words lifted, rearranged into a new design that make them an unmistakable Mottram poem - though now the source is indicated in back of the book. It is exactly the seamlessness of the poetic construction - which at first baffled and then attracted - that so often makes the difference between literary and painterly collage, with the latter deriving its essential facture exactly from the seams that make clear the fact of heterogeneous elements being brought together: the pleasure of the collage painting comes from the shock of those recognitions of seams. Not surprisingly it was the encounter on an operating table of an umbrella and a sewing machine which was one of the startling late 19C images of that crystallized the episteme of modernism.
But let us backtrack with a quick historical aperçu of collage that will suggest that if there is one technique defining & pervading 20C art, it is that of collage, or, as Gregory Ulmer puts it: "[C]ollage is the single most revolutionary formal innovation in artistic representation to occur in our century." Ulmer, like many, if not most art and literary critics sees its origin in the quest for "a solution to the problems raised by analytic cubism, a solution which finally provided an alternative to the 'illusionism' of perspective which had dominated Western painting since the early Renaissance." It is indeed in the visual arts that collage techniques seem the most strikingly obvious, though the wide range of epistemological quandaries that fuelled the painters' search for a new technique, adequate to the changed Weltanschauung of this century, fuelled the writers' parallel search just as much. In fact, it is impossible to prove precedence; here is how the Italian futurist painter Severini recalls the founding event:
As regards the so-called papiers collés I can tell you with precision that they were born in 1912 in the zone of Montmartre. As I remember it, Apollinaire suggested the idea to me after having spoken of it to Picasso, who immediately painted a small still-life onto which he applied a small piece of waxed paper (the type that was used for the table-cloths in the bistros of Paris). I tried to glue some paillettes and multicolored sequins onto forms of ballerinas in movement. I next saw a collage of Braque, perhaps the first, made of what seemed to be wood and large sheets of white paper on which he had sketched to a large extent with black crayon. During my trip to Italy in August 1912 I naturally spoke about the technique to Boccioni and he, in turn, to Carrà. During 1913 the first futurist experiments in this field saw the light of day. The reasons for which Apollinaire gave us these suggestions, as I remember them from conversations of a later date, were: in the first place, the need, at that time, to comprehend the sense of a more profound and inner reality which would have been born from the contrast of materials employed directly as things placed in juxtaposition to lyrical elements.
But like all myths & narratives of origin, this is just one version of an event that happened (differently) a number of times in a number of places. This one makes Picasso's 1912 work "Still Life with Chair Caning" the single point-of-origin - though it backtracks & suggests also that Braque may have made the first one -, while acknowledging in the narrative of the event, the role of Apollinaire as generator of the concept. Indeed, as in most 20C avant-garde movements, poets & writers played an essential role in germinating & unfolding core new ideas & techniques - even if Severini here does not indicate that Apollinaire may have used the technique in his work, but only that he conceived it. Both Picasso & Apollinaire could also, & in all likelihood were, influenced by their discovery of African art - an art of collage in its use of heterogenous materials. But the origins are certainly even more multiple than that. One could, for example, look for early versions of "collage" and "montage" in Stanislavski's theatre - in 1904 Stanislavski had proposed what he called a "peasant spectacle" which would be a montage of bits & scenes from Tolstoi, Tourgenev, Tchekhov and Gorki. A technique that is also at the base of Eisenstein's - & thus cinema's - practice and theory of montage. The Russian term "literaturnyi montaz" contracted into "litmontaz," was current at the time & into the twenties. Such a theory of the litmontaz was proposed by the founder of Italian Futurism, F.T. Marinetti, in his "Technical Manifesto of Futurism" in early 1912 where it is called parole in libertà, "words-in-freedom." Nor did Marinetti's discovery amaze the Russians when he read Zang Tumb Tuuum in Petersberg in 1914, and it was pointed out to him that this was old hat compared to the Zaum poetry of Khlebnikov. Tzara's Dada Manifestos of the Zurich years randomized the choice of collage materials in his "words out of hat" technique, & Tzara later applied collage to his plays: his "Handkerchief of clouds" collages Hamlet's replies into the dialogues of his play. Meanwhile Kurt Schwitters was busy in Hanover with poems, paintings, sculptures and environments (his Merzbau) whose core-technique was collage. The list could go in indefinetely: there isn't a 20C art that was not touched , rethought or merely revamped by the use of these techniques - be they called collage or décollage , montaz or montage, photomontage or assemblage, découpage or cut-up, etc.
What underlies all of these methods as used by the artist as "bricoleur" (to use Levi-Strauss' term) is most concisely expressed in a later theorisation of the project by the group Mu: "To lift a certain number of elements from works, objects, preexisting messages, and to integrate them in a new creation in order to produce an original totality manifesting ruptures of diverse sorts." Much ink has also been shed trying to define exactly what the differences between the various words collage, montage, assemblage, are. No time to enter that debate here, let two examples suffice: thus Gregory Ulmer suggests that "collage is the transfer of materials from one context to another, and 'montage' is the dissemination of these borrowings through the new setting," while Charles Bernstein sees monatge as "the use of contrasting images toward the goal of one unifying theme" and collage as "the use of different textual elements without recourse to an overall unifying idea."
What collage does is to register both in a ludic surface play and in depth - though that very difference (between surface & depth) is one the new episteme would tend to abolish - the immense range of changes the 20C proposed: questions of original vs. reproduction, questions brought about by the new relativism in matters of time and space, in matters of subject and object (Heisenberg), questions of representation & mimesis that had been at the core of european aesthetics for 2500 years, questions also of new technologies and how they altered both the environment and our perception thereof, questions of the modern urban environment versus an unchanging, mythically-timed rural past, & so on. That this epistemic change is by now irrevocably part of our land- & mind-scape, is visible in all the experimental or limit-breaking arts up to today, even if the term collage is no longer much used. Look for example at performance & intermedia art, at Rothenberg's ethnopoetics & his "total translations," at Burroughs' & Gysin's cut-up & fold-ins, at Cage's music & Mac Low's poetry, at Allen Fisher's epic-sized montaged works, at installation art, and so on.
In relation to poetry, David Antin remarked that "for better or worse, 'modern' poetry in English has been committed to a principle of collage from the outset." A quick collage of two quotes will make this shift in stance clear:
Henri David Thoreau: " poetry is a natural fruit" and "man bears a poem... as naturally as the oak bears an acorn and the vine a gourd."
William Carlos Williams: "a poem is a machine made of words" - no matter, by the way, what machine: cogs & wheels or cybernetic - i.e. the importance here is the fact of constructedness, of the manipulation of outside materials, of design (& Eric Mottram's book Towards Design in Poetry is a marvellous compilation of many of those possibilities). Not that collage is a sinecure for all past ills, though its limits and insufficiencies have, as far as I know, not yet been sufficiently analyzed. In my current graduate seminar we are looking at just such a problem in what is probably the master collage poem of the century: Pound's Cantos. EP defined his attempt as an epic - i.e., in his words, "a poem that includes history." Antin, defining collage as "the dramatic juxtaposition of disparate materials without commitment to explicit syntactical relations between elements," suggests that if there is one thing missing in the Cantos it is excatly that "historical" sense, given that any such a historical sense is in fact essentially a strategy "for combatting the apparently chaotic collage landscape of human experience" by turning it into a linear narrative with a clearly articulated plot. You can see the problem - but we need to move on!
A core reason for the critical neglect of collage-thought were the New Critics & their determination that 1922 was the high- or rather the final-point of modernist experimentation. For some 40 years the critics again debated irony & ambiguity as central to the poem - a poem removed not only from its author (intentional fallacy) but also from the world of matter around it - & thus from the heterogenous materiality needed to make or see the work as collage. This seems to be changing - with a vengeance. The Gregory Ulmer quote above comes from an essay in which Ulmer proposes a new & needed "post-criticism" -"contituted precisely by the application of the devices of modernist art to critical representations," and that "the principle device taken over by the critics and theorists is the compositional pair collage/montage." And indeed, this process has started, though how far it will go is questionable, the viscuous inertia of academic criticism is unlikely to change its time-honored expository/ representational modes very fast. One example must suffice: Derrida's enterprise - as theorised in his concepts of "citation," "graft" & "dissemination" - puts this masterfully into action from the early essay "Dissemination" (dealing with, & incorporating as collaged elements large extracts from Philippe Soller's novel Numbers) to Glas. Well, with the critics's scissors snapping at their heels, it may be a good survival strategy for the poets to move on & find a post-collage mode.
To try to think such a post-collage technique, the most useful theoretical insights I've found have been Deleuze & Guattari's meditations on rhizomes, machinic assemblages & lines of flight - the complexity of which concepts seem to me rich enough to permit a rethinking of the limits of modernist collage - for example of the question of seams vs. the seamless mentioned above. My own first results in thinking through these matters can be found in Towards a Nomadic Poetics, a manifesto-like piece of writing coming soon from Allen Fisher's Spanner series.
But, to bring this quick presentation to its conclusion, let's briefly look forward now & extrapolate from present or soon to be available technologies a scenario for future "montage" works. The book & it's unit, the page, - & thus also the linear progression they imply, despite the work against linearity, from, say Mallarmé on - are not yet about to be replaced by the electronic page & book. In fact, until very recently - and due as much to of a lack of imagination & daring than to the need to keep the old structures functioning (let's not forget that cumputers and wordprocessors were invented inside a capitalist structure for specific purposes of corporate office efficiency closer to Taylorism than to any kind of experiemtal creativity) - until very recently, electronic media has tried to simulate the sheet of paper and the book as closely as possible. This gave rise to early "hypertext" experiments, still rather linear, or arborescent (to use D/G terminology) montages trying to implement the early cyber-visionary Ted Nelson's suggestion that "...there would be new documents, a new literary genre, of branching, non-sequential writings on the computer screen... These branching documents would constitute a great new literature, but they would subsume the old, since all words, all literature would go online and extend to a new branching generality."
But with growing familiarity, and in the spirit of situationist "détournement," it is becoming ever more possible to see the electronic space opened up by the computer not as the page of a bound or even loose-leaf notebook, but as the "open field" Olson suggested in his poetics. A truly open field, visualizable as a rhizomatic space with lines of flight shooting off in all directions, with no up/down, front/back or left/right spatial hierachization, able to incoporate quasi-instant links to any other text or objects in cyberspace (why quote or collage a line from the Cantos when you can link to that line & the entire Cantos with one hyperlink?), but also able to incorporate - or simply consist of - simultaneous image and sound nodes or virtual objects in three dimension, as well as incorporating randomizing programs able to generate texts according to specific algorythms, & or translate given texts into sound and image structures (I'm thinking here of a combination of techniques as worked out by John Cage and by John Cayley) in what one could call a "grand cyber-collage." At the same time the reader, excluded from the traditional book, can now not only read a fixed text, but alter it by adding her own lines & links - bringing to mind again that tnear-utopian if solidly democratic vision of a "poetry made by all," to return to a desire expressed by the man who gave us the sewing machine cum umbrella on the operating table.
We do not yet know what such a cyber-art will exactly be like, though glimpses of such a digital virtual field can be had, for example in Michael Joyce fiction and - even more so - in his brilliant essay-collage, Of Two Minds, in Joe Amato's recent Bookend: Anatomies of a Virtual Self, in some of the cyberpoetries available now on the net (& a small gathering of which we have included as the final topos of volume 2 of Poems for the Millennium), or even as integrated into live performance by a young poet such as Belle Gironda.
Here is how Don Byrd is thinking through the possibilities of this kind of expanded writing as he is practically relearning his post-literate skills:
Now we gather the resources of modernism for the new medium as the poets of the sixteenth century gathered the resources of the classical tradition. Digital speech, musical sound, and image all merge in one grammar. The alphabet will continue in this mix for some time, but, in popular discourse, this obsolete mnemonic is even now largely decorative.
But, he adds, "It remains to be found out if IBM, Microsoft and Turner Boradcasting Corporation have already coopted the renaissance." And, in a recent email to me, these meditations:
A sum of days, verse and prose" (Olson)-text (ascii and RTF), images (jpeg, GIF), Sounds (WAV), video (Video for Windows, Quicktime, and AVI), Scripts (HTML, Lingo, JAVA), other director movies. Shockwave.
Not poststructuralism but structuralism redeemed, structure ramified and richer than the imagination. In no sense reductionist. A sufficiency of resources for intelligence (of heart) to enjoy itself. A commodious machine of value making.
Structures are identified by their intelligibility. Empty as given, the intelligible accrues value as the active haunt of the living.
To dwell in the intelligible until it becomes meaningful, to form habits of intelligibility, to work in intelligible rooms and intelligible buildings, to teach the habits of intelligibility to the children, and to archive the work of intelligence. Enough to keep one busy.
This is not paradise, not that utopian, we know from Pound's grand collage that "paradise is jagged" (the seams of the collage? as cutting-edge?) and need to keep in mind, as always, and as Eric Mottram taught many of us, the ethical & political claims he put thus in "Against Tyranny:"
to be wise to restore the earth
against priests of science
psychologists of money
and, later in the same poem, after a nomadic trajectory moving from gardens to glaciers to Siberian tundras and taigas to the Long Island cemetery that held so many of his own 20C master figures of Ameriucan painting - the colleagues, he calls them -, he gives us these directions:
hope is that all created life be rescued
from tyranny decay sloughed for a share
in magnificence hoof thunder silence of
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