Sunday, July 28, 2013

Collage and Composition

Having written yesterday about the Tao Te Ching and the inadequacy of linear thinking in general and words in particular in helping us to process and understand reality, I was thinking this morning again about how collage works as a medium, how the juxtaposition of apparently unrelated elements can create in-between spaces that are suggestive and generative.

By way of illustration, here's a collage I put together last night:

The elements of this collage are mostly recycled from old books. The exceptions are the stamp, the target, and the two pieces of red paper which happened to be on my desk as I was working on this. I had no idea in mind as I was putting it together. I would not say that I have an idea in mind now that it's finished, either, although there are certainly several kinds of logic at work: a logic of materials, a logic of method, a logic of composition, a logic of color. That much said, there's also a randomness about collage that I like. Max Ernst said, "Collage is the noble conquest of the irrational, the coupling of two realities, irreconcilable in appearance, upon a plane which apparently does not suit them." I've spent hundreds of hours over the last few years both making collages and observing and archiving digitally the collages of others. I've also thought a lot about the connections between the compositional processes of collage and the compositional processes of certain kinds of writing. 

I have sometimes asked my students to do an exercise where they are asked to attempt to write a page of prose that makes no sense at all. (It's an exercise I return to frequently myself because the results are almost always interesting in unpredictable ways.) The thing is, it's a lot harder to do than you might think. Our brains are wired in a particular way, and even when we consciously attempt to undercut the literal sense of what we are writing, as for example John Ashbery often does to brilliant effect, our brains do not toss up entirely random alternatives; there always seems to be some sort of shadow logic at work. The ultimate point of an exercise like this, of course, is not to write nonsense, but rather to write in a way that offers the promise of pleasant surprises and at least the possibility of insight. It is, or ought to be, a playful, exploratory process. It is not helpful to have too clear of an idea in mind at the start. Robert Rauschenberg: "I'm opposed to the whole idea of conception-execution—of getting and idea for a picture and then carrying it out. I've always felt as though, whatever I've used and whatever I've done, the method was always closer to a collaboration with materials than to any kind of manipulation and control.

Another example. This morning, as all of this was taking shape in my mind, I sat down to write in my commonplace book as I generally do on weekend mornings, and so with the intention of having something to share here, I began writing with the intention of Not Making Sense:

If only because lasting locks one (you)
Down and what if keeps you (us) up—
rock, paper, scissors too simple a circle,
what about teapot or parrot or ocean?—
so yes an unfolding or perhaps a flight,
hands out front, tentacular antennae,
the possible check by jowl with oblivion
or worse (how foolish to expect other
wisdom), we (all) must needs from time
at least to time try to fly (unfolding)
against the grain, paste purple over green,
see what might be seen (harpoon, flower,
cube, plane) arrive again (surprised?)
where we have been but not the same.

I had come up with the first four words (if only because lasting) while I was doing my morning stretching and was trying to come up with a sequence of words that would be appropriately incoherent. The word "locks" suggested itself mostly because I was thinking of using some element of sound correspondence, in this case the L sound, to bind the words moving forward. As I continued to write, I was pleasantly aware of the dynamic tension between my own self-assigned task to avoid making sense, and the compositional imperative to make the whole hold together. Somewhere around line three several things became apparent: first, that there was in fact an unanticipated logic emerging that it might be fun to play with; second, that it had begun to feel like a sort of sonnet, which then gave me several constraints to work against: the length of the line, and the length (14 lines) of the poem; third, that there was another game that wanted to be played having to do with parenthetical interpolations of a certain sort. Alert readers may have also noticed that some of the elements of last night's collage also leaked, not entirely accidentally, into the poem, which, as it turns out, makes more compactly and perhaps more obliquely much the same case that I have been making in this post: sometimes you just need to put one thing next to another, and then another thing after that, and see what happens.

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