3.03.2005

Collage at the College, er, University

When I was in the COIC this past weekend, fellow goat nate took Vampiro, chad, and me over to see the collage exibit at the university art museum. For any and all in town, I highly recommend you check it out. It follows collage from the early days of Dada through Surrealism, the Situationalists, and into more contemporary forms. The soundtrack of the exhibit is Negativeland's version of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." The collage is quite a hoot. (My favorite moment being the line "I have kissed honey lips and boy do they burn!") There are documents, videos, various pieces of art.

Which I guess takes me to a question for all you goats. As a poet, the ideas and impetus of collage have often been front and center in things that I like to look at, things that I like to read, etc etc. The ideas of dadaists, surrealists, contempories in this field, etc, often have informed my poems. How does collage work in fiction? Does it work in fiction? Just a question for discussion I throw out there...

11 comments:

dunkeys said...

John Dos Passos comes to mind. Those weird camera chapters in USA, esp. the first book. I think Sartre does it sometimes in his trilogy, too: writing about different characters' thoughts and certain images and etc. across place and time to create a singular impression of a thing (ie, WAR) or whatever. Read the opening pages of Ulysses; it's narrative, but it's arguably collage, too. Marcus seems like an obvious contemporary example . . . but maybe AoW&S is a departure from "real" collage (pieces of separate things create a singular image; his aren't separate, just not narrative).

Grendel said...

Also William Burroughs in his "cut-up" period, where he and Brion Gyson would tear a printed page into vertical strips and rearrange them, in order to see the Real Truth or something. And parts of Gravity's Rainbow.

Vampiro said...

As I understand collage, it's a matter of removing things from a context and adding to them or recombining things into a new (often contradictory or critical) context. I could be wrong, but that was what most of the exhibit seemed to be about.

Seems like a difficult thing to do with prose since words are so easily taken out of context and without context, units of text lose meaning (unless they are highly recognizable: "To be or not to be" kinda stuff). I suppose the Burroughs thing is like that, but I have doubts about the value of whatever it is he cobbled together.

The closest thing I can think of is A Humument, which is an amazing piece of work that recontextualizes an original text. This artist (name escapes me) took a dime-store Victorian piece-o-crude novel (A Human Document) and painted each page of it, letting only some words, letters, and phrases remain. The text that is left makes a strange, surreal story with a character (can't remember his name either) and the paintings relate impressionistically to the story. I don't think the narrative really holds together very well, though, and the book is amazing as a piece of visual art more than as a narrative.

That's all I've got. Anyone else? Any examples of poetry?

Nate said...

I'm quite interested in the collage question (the exhibit is fantastic, a must). In terms of fiction, I too think of Burrough's cutups, which aren't exactly the same thing, though they do imply a type of 'assemblage'...

Have any of you attempted to appropriate material? To splice miscellaneous texts, voices, registers, sources? Any recommendations of contemporary work that does so? Interesting to think how that would affect not only voice and tone but the very structure of the narrative... Collage in fiction almost seems like an oxymoron since collage pushes the art work toward the empirical world, toward an actuality, whereas, at least the term 'fiction' commonly implies invention, that which is not real. When these extremes meet what happens? The birth of nonfiction? Yikes! Let's keep that child to ourselves...

As for examples in poetry, well, they're really endless. Williams' appropriates all kinds of material, not only in Patterson, which includes letters and newspaper articles, but earlier works like Spring and All (I'm thinking of a short poem which is partially an advertisement). Apollinaire ("Rue Christine") pieced together a fantastic poem out of overheard conversations at a cafe. Tzara's recipe for the quintessential Dada poem (which he never actually practiced) calls for cutting up of a newspaper article, putting the words in a hat, drawing them at random, and boom, there's your poem. Dean's got all kinds of weird appropriated language in his work, but it's not always clearly assembled... he smoothes the edges (perhaps that's closer to montage?), which really brings up one of the more interesting aesthetic questions: When working with varieties of material, there's seems to be a certain tension between gesturing toward obvious actuality, signaled by "rough edges" (i.e. "this obviously does not belong"), and incorporating the material into the flux of the piece at hand so that its presence is more like an odd colored brick in wall, but not necessarily this radically different "piece." This is especially pertinent to the lyric which so often seems to problematize a singular, subjective encounter with that which is outside the self (i.e. the world). Thoughts on this? Again, I'm wondering how it might affect the way one conceives of narrative.

Charlemagne said...

Yeah nate, what we need to approach for this discussion is a sort of definition of what collage would be in fiction. We have a better handle of what it is in poetry. Or at least we can try to define what collage would not be in fiction.

So something like, say, Ulysses would not be collage. It is allusion to older texts. It is like Pound's Cantos or Eliot's "Wasteland" with the footnotes, or "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Eliot is resurrecting metaphysical poets like Donne and French symbolists. But he is not taking direct text from them, he is approriating their language. One could make an argument for the Eliots straight up inclusion of lines in Greek and Sanskrit, I think.

But back to fiction (if I mention poems I just go on tangents). Imagine if those great chapters about whaling and whale science in Moby Dick seemed less like Melville (which would be a tragedy because I love those chapters the best!) and even more like a science textbook. That might count as collage. Maybe.

It brings me to the question of assemblege versus pure invention that nate brought up. I think that might be the crux of the matter. If you are writing a novel about a fireman and in that novel you include whole passages from other sources about fire, newspaper articles, historical accounts, poems, etc etc this might be collage. But what if in the course of the novel you did it all yourself. You write the narrative and on the side you write a few poems about fire, you write a critical essay about the sources and causes of pyromania in a post-industrial society. Then you somehow decide on a structure to include all of these things in the piece of fiction. Is this collage? It is dealing from text from many different sources although they are not outside sources. They are all yours.

So does verifiable collage have to have text from others? That is the question. And if one smooths the edges so that it is difficult for a reader to tell that it is collage is it still collage?

Vampiro said...

Since we're appropriating a form that comes from the visual arts, I'm trying to stay close to that definition. It seems to me that the work must begin with something complete and not invented by the collager. That excerpt (published passage, newspaper article, ad, whatever) is then the basis of the work, kind of its limitation that the artist must then build around. But the object/excerpt needs to be a recognizable artifact. I think of collage as a subversion or at least alteration of whatever the original piece is. If you included a real ad for Tide in your work, and it figured largely in the work, it might be collage. If you wrote your own ad for Tide, it would not.

So, Melville would not be collage. Pale Fire would have been collage if Nabokov had not actually written the poem but written a story around an existing poem. Similarly, an artist who paints a box of Tide into a landscape is not creating collage, but an artist who pasted a box of Tide to the painting would be creating collage.

Collage starts with an existing, complete, and recognizable something which is incorporated into a new work. Correct?

dunkeys said...

C, I didn't mean the entirety of Ulysses -- I meant the opening few pages: he has a *collage* of Stephen's thoughts, external action, dialogue, and imagery, and they blend together to make an whole. No, he's not appropriating the text. But if we're going to be sincerely post-modern here, everything is appropriated, so everything is collage, right?

My description of the opening of Ulysses is a description of all fiction. Because the best fiction IS *collage* in a truly post-modern sense: a unified impression that draws on various texts. Think literally: letters are individual units. Putting them together is a collage. I mean this seriously.

So when you talk about using *collage* in fiction, I think you (C) and Nate actually mean splicing various texts for one of two reasons: blurring authorship or redefining fiction.

One problem with this is that fiction IS narrative. That's what it is.

I'm pretty sure that one of you has in the past (hi Nate!) made negative comments about narrative, and to be honest, this discussion has the scent of agency (i.e, what are ways we can get fiction writers to stop writing narrative?) rather than sincere investigation. I could be wrong, but if I am, what's the point of collage if not to remove narrative and/or blur authorship? Maybe that's my main question in response to your discussion.

Anyway, here's a web address to collage-esque story (by one of IWW's own). It's interesting, but I doubt it's exactly what you mean:

http://lit.konundrum.com/prose/alarcond_imbeciles1.htm

Nate said...

I haven't looked at the story you linked yet, but man, I'm disparaging narrative, I'm thinking of ways to open it up, make it more kaleidoscopic, much the way flashback or episodic arrangement alters straight linearity. I think what we're talking about w/ Melville and passages of Ulysses (not the opening but the imitation of newspaper articles and other 'styles' of the novel) is more pastiche, but I could be mixing up terms.

I don't agree w/ your definition of fiction as collage because it draws on polyphonic sources. This seems more like allusion, which is a less severe form of quotation.

Yeah, I guess it brings up questions of authorship, but I like C's idea of the fireman novel. Why not cite whole passages of other work? How do you feel about incorporating non-textual material in the mix? (Chad groans--it is annoyingly all over po-mo poetry...) But Breton's uses photo's quite effectively in Nadja (a book whose status as novel is questionable, admittedly).

I think appropriated material might provide fascinating splinters in narrative: like putting another moon in orbit around a planet, everything's going to go off balance and move in a fundamentally different direction. When a singular narrator gestures toward a non-original source, a new dimension, a new sort of 'authentic-like' depth is added. Plus, there's sort of a road block or detour in what otherwise might be a straight path. And the possibility for patchwork seems rich.

Sorry this is somewhat incoherent... & I think I might even have more to say, but I've got to run to a class...

Nate said...

First line of my last post should be in the negative: I'm NOT disparaging narrative.

dunkeys said...

I think if we had more specific texts to point to this discussion would be less vague. You should take a look at W.G. Sebald's books. I've only read Austerlitz -- it might be a good place to start, as his use of photos is interesting. Do the photos 'work'? I'm not sure, but they're worth discussing. Has anyone on this thread read him?

I asked before about the goals of collage in fiction, and you mention an "authentic-like depth." I realize you were in a rush when you wrote that, but 'authenticity' is such a vague term . . . and having to add such depth is working on the assumption that authenticity isn't there to begin with, isn't it? Even more importantly, it's working on the assumption that authenticity itself matters, and I have huge doubts about that (is Peter Pan less great for not being 'real'?).

If 'fiction' is defined more or less as 'meaningful narrative featuring characters,' it seems like collage would be a natural (though not automatic) barrier. But I can certainly imagine a work that tries to create an impression or tone, rather than tell a story; in that case, collage could work well. Is the piece still *fiction*? Who knows. Can it still be awesome? Certainly. Should all fiction writers go try it? Good luck telling them that!

Nate said...

Yes, I agree this should be put on the backburner until we have a better common point of reference. One last thing, though, the authenticity problem you bring up is one of those topics that I feel I'm constantly thinking about in one way or another. I'm entirely suspect of it, and yet, I can't deny that it's something I very much want. I think much of the confusion comes from the assumption that authenticity necessarily implies truthfulness--in the sense of reality, or actuality. We all know the truthful/authentic impact of art doesn't have to come (perhaps even shouldn't!) from its lifelike, realistic qualities. In that regard, collagelike techniques might even feel too device-like (artificial) in gesturing toward the authentic. I feel this way with some contemporary poetry. Yet, I'm intrigued by the possibility of art which includes actual pieces of the world, perhaps not necessarily as a gesture toward the 'authentic', but as a means of producing a tension between fragments and even interfering with our sense of the 'real' or the 'authentic'. Okay, I'm using far too many words in quotes, which is a sure sign to stop. ... but don't let that stop you!