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How Surrealism Can Nourish Our Political Imaginations

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by Alana Yu-lan Price(Cross-posted from Tikkun Daily)

In one image a winged bird flaps her wings but remains rooted to the ground. In another a fork-headed monster rushes by, a small bird fluttering at its heart. Nearby a masked bundle of writing appears to be stuck in a toilet bowl.

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These are just a few of the uncanny creatures that emerged three years ago when some friends and I started playing "exquisite corpse," a collaborative drawing game invented by surrealists in the 1920s.

So many of the drawings evoke unexpected scenes of constraint. The creatures are tangled up in themselves. They're tangled up in each other. They're tangled up in the surrounding environment. But unlike most images of constraint in pop culture today, most of the drawings portray structural constraints (such as the bird's physical rootedness in the ground) rather than overt scenes of domination. Many of the surrealist creatures seem oddly joyful and calm despite their limitations.

The subtle entanglements in these pictures are not unlike the constraints that global political, social, and economic forces exert on radical efforts to build a more just and caring world.

These images do much more than simply reflect the constraints of the modern world, however; they also destabilize our vision of the mundane present and invite us to radically reimagine our relations to each other and to the future.

Here are three reasons why I believe collaborative surrealist art can nourish our political imaginations:

#1. Collaborative drawings help us rethink the ways we are caught up in a constraining world.

Why have we, as a society, failed to rise up and collectively demand universal health care, global wealth redistribution, and the halting of climate change? Mass nonviolent actions such as repeated general strikes could push our government and the corporate world to respond to these pressing needs.

State suppression, police violence, fear of incarceration, and material insecurity are all real external factors that hamper leftist efforts to engage in society-transforming civil disobedience, but the constraints on revolutionary organizing are not all external. They also grow out of our own desires and weaknesses, and out of our inability to envision a world that is radically different from the one in which we inhabit. Like the exquisite corpses in these pictures, we are tangled up with the world as it currently is.

We're constrained by the economic system we live in, which persuades us to perform labor on terms set by donors, investors, and shareholders. We're constrained by the fears and trauma responses we've developed after years of life in a cruel and damaging society. We're constrained by job insecurity and our desire to be there for those who depend emotionally or financially upon us. We're constrained by our isolation and disconnection from each other, which make it so difficult to put together a political movement.

In short, all efforts to transform our society take place within a set of deep and interlocking constraints, many of which are embedded deep within us. And yet instead of despairing, we sing! We dance! We heal ourselves and each other! And we try to make our world less damaging, bit by bit.

We are like this creature, whose hands are glued to a lemon, but whose leg tentacles freely riot with creative energy.

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Or we are like this man, who gazes past the constraining frame that has grown out of his own body, toward a vision of freedom.

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These drawings give us a vision of joyful, creative life occurring within seemingly unbearable constraints.

#2. Collaborative drawings open us up to each other and to the radical unknowability of the future.

If you haven't drawn "exquisite corpses" before, here's how the game works: Separate artists draw the top, middle, and bottom of each piece. The first artist draws the top portion and extends her drawing a centimeter below the first fold. With the top folded out of view, the second artist incorporates the fringes of the first artist's drawing into his own composition. Then, the third artist follows suit, drawing the bottom portion based on cues provided by the second artist.

The structure of the game is surprisingly freeing. You can't be attached to creating a beautiful or coherent product because you can't see most of the drawing you're working on. You can't orchestrate the outcome because as soon as you're done with your third of the piece, you pass it on to the next person and cease to "own" the picture. Sometimes the pictures are a total flop. Sometimes the creatures have butts on both sides and no head. Sometimes the bodies end in jarring ways, with limbs turning into negative space, and sometimes they're eerily coherent. While you're drawing, you have no idea how things will turn out.

In short, playing this game forces everyone involved to give up control and embrace a deeply collaborative journey into an unknowable future.

#3. Collaborative drawings free our imaginations by rendering familiar objects unfamiliar through unexpected juxtapositions and mergings.

The random "accident" that is at the heart of surrealist collaborative drawing games turns familiar images on their head, inviting us take a second look at them. For example, the image of a horse and cowboy is a familiar one, conjuring the rugged individualism of a masculine, romanticized "wild west." But when that image appears here -- clutched by a two-headed turkey whose rocket-launching pad is fenced in by barbed wire -- it is suddenly unfamiliar. The strangeness of the scene shakes us free from the cowboy's spell and allows us to grasp at other possible meanings of the cowboy image here. Does the presence of the cowboy image in this oppressive scene symbolize the violence of colonization -- an aspect of the "wild west" that is usually invisible in the romanticized image of the cowboy? Obviously, the picture came together by accident, so there is no secret meaning. But the strange juxtapositions can spark the imagination in lively ways.

Amanda Armstrong (one of the eighteen or so artists who collaborated to make these drawings) explores this idea at length in " Capitalism and the Exquisite Corpse," an essay which we distributed informally during our exhibit of exquisite corpses at the Heartland Café in Chicago in 2007. She writes:

Part of what holds us back from appropriating all of the material wealth that is currently constituted as capital is our feeling that we live in the 'best of all possible worlds.' We buy into the idea that there is no real alternative to the world we live in today. And part of the reason that we have trouble seeing that there is a viable alternative to capitalism is because our daily routines have become second nature.... Part of the problem is reification -- the misrecognition of social processes for natural (and thus immutable) things -- but much of the problem is even more basic than this; it is the restriction of our imagination [and] the self-repression of 'unreasonable' thoughts.... Drawing exquisite corpses rekindles our imaginations. It makes us feel confident about our ability to create fantastical and provocative images - images that help us to see new worlds in our midst, to see the world that is in our midst in a new way, and possibly even to transform this world that we call home.

I have hinted at how the random juxtapositions in the two-headed turkey picture might startle a viewer into seeing the figure of the cowboy (a symbol of colonialism) with fresh eyes, and Amanda's essay discusses how exquisite corpses have the power to destabilize certain ways of seeing that are associated with capitalism. What other systems also carry normalized orders of perception along with them, and how might surrealist drawings disrupt those ways of seeing, too?

The climactic unfolding of each new drawing -- the long-awaited revelation of how the three separate sections fit together -- is exciting because of the possibility that the result will surprise us, jolt us with a strange juxtaposition, and provide some much-needed nourishment to our political imaginations.

To see more exquisite corpses, visit the Tikkun Daily Art Gallery.

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