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The Exquisite Corpse and The Surrealists
One of the basic tenants of Surrealism was the notion that creativity /genius could be a shared experience. Through such execises in collaborative imagination such methods as the Game of the Analogical Portrait, the Truth Game, the When and If Game, and the game of Exquisite Corpse (cadavres exquis) became tools for exploration.
André Breton spoke of these games as “…the most fabulous source of unfindable images…”. Breton’s notion that images derived from disassociation were the important aspect of such exercises. He [Breton] defined surrealism as the spontaneous exploitation of ‘pure psychic automatism’, allowing the production of an abundance of unexpected images.
The scandalous periodical, La Révolution surréaliste, was founded in December of 1924. In it was the proclamation, “Surrealism is not a new or easier means of expression, nor is it a metaphysic of poetry; it is a means toward the total liberation of the mind and of everything that resembles it…”.
Developed in 1925, the Exquisite Corpse was designed for group participation and relied on the chance encounter as a disruption of rationality and a product of the shared, oceanic unconscious in which the Surrealists believed.The technique was invented by Surrealists and is similar to an old parlour game called Consequences in which players write in turn on a sheet of paper, fold it to conceal part of the writing, and then pass it to the next player for a further contribution. Surrealism principal founder André Breton reported that it started in fun, but became playful and eventually enriching. Breton said the diversion started about 1925, but Pierre Reverdy wrote that it started much earlier, at least before 1918.12
In a variant now known as picture consequences, instead of sentences, portions of a person were drawn.3
Later the game was adapted to drawing and collage, producing a result similar to children’s books in which the pages were cut into thirds, the top third pages showing the head of a person or animal, the middle third the torso, and the bottom third the legs, with children having the ability to “mix and match” by turning pages. It has also been played by mailing a drawing or collage — in progressive stages of completion — to the players, and this variation is known as “exquisite corpse by airmail”, or “mail art,” depending on whether the game travels by airmail or not.
The name is derived from a phrase that resulted when Surrealists first played the game, “Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau.” (“The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.”)45
André Breton writes that the game developed at the residence of friends in old house at 54 rue du Chateau (no longer existing). In the beginning were Yves Tanguy, Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Prévert, Benjamin Peret, Pierre Reverdy, and André Breton. Other participants probably included Max Morise, Joan Miró, Man Ray, Simone Collinet, Tristan Tzara, Georges Hugnet, René Char, Paul Éluard, and Nusch Éluard.16
Henry Miller often partook of the game to pass time in French cafés during the 1930s.
Some have played the graphic game with a more or less vague or general prior agreement about what the resulting picture will be (though such application of reason makes the exercise not strictly a surrealist one).
A 3d exquisite corpse
In music, the composers Virgil Thomson, John Cage, and Lou Harrison (among others) collaborated on Exquisite Corpse pieces, where each composer would only be privy to one measure of music.
“Totems Without Taboos,” organized by the Chicago Surrealist Group at the Heartland Cafe in Chicago, was the first exhibition of exquisite corpses in the United States.
The digital art collaborative website Ice.org1 built an online version of exquisite corpse, which they called tiles.ice.org. In it, users receive a “tile” with any number of sides predetermined by others in the “quilt”. Users then work on that tile for up to a week, and finally upload it back to the site, where an automated script joins the tiles together to form one large, surreal image.
The San Francisco Cacophony Society performed the exquisite corpse game using a theater full of people with banks of typewriters.
A film exquisite corpse
The 1984 movie Anijam by Marv Newland featured the work of 22 animators. Each successive animator received the last frame of the previous animator’s sequence. None of the animators had any idea of the action in the preceding sequences or the order of their sequence within the completed film.
Mysterious Object at Noon, an experimental 2000 Thai feature film directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul was inspired by the exquisite corpse game. The film, shot on 16 mm over 3 years in varied locations in Thailand, featured Weerasethakul (or assistants) soliciting improvised extensions to a scenario improvised by a woman appearing early in the film. Weerasethakul then assembled the results into a ‘feature film’.
In the Montreal World Film Festival of 2006, from an original idea by Adrien Lorion, David Etienne and Michel Laroche, a group of ten film directors, scriptwriters and professional musicians took the concept to a new level with the fusion of the art of film-making and song-writing: Cadavre Exquis première édition.
In 2007, as part of Singapore-based Asia-Europe Foundation’s commissions for its 10 years anniversary, artists Gyora Glupczinsky (Hanoi) and Tintin Wulia (Melbourne) collaborated through the internet to build an image composition using a variant of the exquisite corpse method, following a chessboard-like structure devised by Gyora Glupczinsky. Tintin Wulia proposed that the entire composition should consist of moving-images and applied the approach in her interactive version as one of the outputs of the collaboration. Both artists have worked with variants of the exquisite corpse method in their respective previous projects, but have only met through the internet when Asia-Europe Foundation commissioned the distance art collaboration.7
Synesthesia, a multi-arts performance built through an exquisite corpse game played over the course of several months by artists of wildly divergent media & genres, has been presented annually in New York City since 2007 by Electric Pear Productions.
In 2008, Ahmed Foula curated the Breaking Boredom project, based on the idea of The Exquisite Corpse, in Cairo, Egypt, in which Six Egyptian graphic designers were involved. The inauguration of the exhibition took place in the Townhouse Gallery, downtown Cairo, on Sunday, 6 July, 2008. In 2009, Ahmed Foula commissioned by Sharjah Biennial 9 to curate a graphic art project using the same technique. Foula’s project seizes upon two ubiquitous elements from the Sharjah scene: a tissue box and construction site fence. The artist invited two groups of graphic designers to interact collectively with the existing branding of both elements and produce new designs via the Exquisite Corpse technique. The newly designed “Happy 4 Ever” tissue boxes and “Best” construction sites fences can be seen in and around Sharjah-UAE over the course of the Biennial, from 17 March to 19 May 2009. (In collaboration with the American University of Sharjah – AUS)
The stage production Hedwig and the Angry Inch and its film adaptation heavily utilize the exquisite corpse format as a symbol. Near the end of the play/film, as the already bizarre story reaches its most surreal point, Hedwig begins reminiscing about all the relationships and events in her life that have made her feel “cut…up into parts”, with pieces going to various important people. The following song asserts that now, however, she has “sewn up” or reconstructed herself, recovered, and become whole, though as a patchwork of sorts (“tornado body and a hand grenade head, and the legs are two lovers entwined”). The lyrics actually contain the term “exquisite corpse”, which is also its title.