Reading Between the Arts
by Laura Wetherington
In the last post, I gave a whirlwind introduction to collaboration and poetry. What has me interested in collaboration (other than the simple fact of its relation to poetry) is a demi-decade of involvement in textsound (textsound.org), an online audio journal that features an intersection of sounds in the arts: poetry recordings, sound poetry, sound installation recordings, electroacoustic music, field recordings, hybrid works, and general sound play. Although the anthology I mentioned in the last post, Saints of Hysteria, selected only previously printed material and focused on collaboration, I think of Saints of Hysteria and textsound as companion projects. First, some of our contributors overlap: Anne Waldman, Joanna Furhman, Alice Notley, Leslie Scalapino, and Chris Martin. Second, we share roots.
In a book about the pre–World War I era in France, Roger Shattuck says that "to a greater extent than any time since the Renaissance, painters, writers, and musicians lived and worked together and tried their hands at each other's arts in an atmosphere of perpetual collaboration."1 Guillaume Apollinaire first coined the term surrealism in response to Pablo Picasso's backdrop for the ballet "Parade," which was collaboratively composed by Eric Satie and Jacques Cousteau in 1916.2 Early French Surrealists, led by André Breton, spanned the arts: they took creative measure of theories ranging from Freud to Marx, they wrote, they painted, and they planned events. Surrealism was striving toward ultimate freedom, political freedom, through a freedom of the mind; disjunctive thoughts associating on the same page, the same canvas, the same screen would create a reality more full than the contained sanity we rely on as a society. Surrealism's practice includes the use of juxtaposition, the admix or blurring of narratives that we so often associate with a dream state, and the desire for something higher than or outside of conscious reality.3
Portrait d'André Breton aux lunettes (Portrait of Andre Breton in glasses). Photo: Collection Centre Pompidou, Dist. RMN / Philippe Migeat.
I believe textsound is responding to surrealism even though the French surrealists were not that into music.4 Breton railed against that brand of artistic practice when he said, "So may night continue to fall upon the orchestra, and may I, who am still searching for something in this world, may I be left with open or closed eyes, in broad daylight, to my silent contemplation."5 Louis Aragon said that Breton's work, more than anyone else's, placed a foot on the throat mid-song.6 As Douglas Kahn points out, the containment of reality and surreality in surrealist artwork creates a kind of oscillation—a sound wave of the eye, so to speak.7 I think of surrealism as an ancestor of textsound, not despite Breton's or the surrealists' anti-music stance, but precisely because of it. The stance is anti-music in the same way that dada was anti-art: as an effort to push the boundaries of art's definition and politically challenge the status quo. It wasn't that the French surrealists avoided working with music or sound, but that they challenged the usefulness of Western music's parameters, history, and trajectory.
Along with the outsider stance within an artistic movement, one often sees a sense of playfulness in the work and a flattening of the hierarchy. As the Bread and Puppet Theater so aptly put it: "PEOPLE have been THINKING too long that ART is a PRIVILEGE of the MUSEUMS and the RICH. ART IS NOT BUSINESS!" With an encouragement for everyone to try their hand at making things, we often see artists trained (or not) in various media thinking and making alongside one another, as with dada, surrealism, fluxus, the New York School, and the Black Mountain School. Writing poetry alongside a group of people with other expertise—writing toward or with or for other kinds of artists—privileges a set of practices other than the alliteration, imagery, and universal emotional experience that narrative lyric poetry privileges. This spirit of experimentation is another reason for claiming surrealism as a part of textsound's lineage, though many of our artists are working with multiple traditions in mind. In a later installment, Mendi + Keith Obadike describe the Oulipian, almost mathematical method they used to score the music for "The Earth (for Audre Lorde and Marlon Riggs)." Likewise, Jeremy LeClair's "swarm of sun valley" utilizes procedural composition: LeClair celebrates the first-ever gold record sale by overlaying "Chatanooga Choo Choo" 500,000 times. Kenneth Goldsmith's "Sports" reflects the precepts of conceptual art.
Cheap Art Manifesto. The legacies of anti-art spread far and wide: for example, to rural Vermont, where the Bread and Puppet collective, a traveling political theater, has its home base. The group makes screen prints, large-scale and small-scale puppets, and public art.
Within a tradition of experimentation and pushing genre boundaries, the idea of failure takes on a different flavor. In the fall of 2005, Thylias Moss had been transitioning (a transition marked by her eventual move from University of Michigan's English Department to its School of Art and Design) from writing books of poems to creating digital works, what she called POAMs, or "products of acts of making." In a conversation she explained that a tree's structure is beautiful; it is also a road map of the tree's many failures. Each bend in a branch reflects a kind of dead end, a change of course, and the culmination of these twists and turns are a large part of what make the tree unique and vibrant. (Ms. Moss's POAMs have since led me to think of some of my own work as "pohum-drums," simple articulations of one stretch of branch growth.) Whatever we call these things we make, let's make room for writing that is unpolished, raw, and not the high-art masterpiece of one's life. Let's step back and see the tree. ("Art is like green trees!")
Keith Sawyer would argue that a continual procession of dead ends is the most common path to major discovery. In his book Group Genius, he situates paradigm-shifting innovations within a collective process of trial and error, error, error. He gives the example of Samuel Morse's invention of the telegraph: a twelve-year-long process involving an initial spark, collaboration with friends and investors, enduring persistence in the face of several dead ends, and the contemporaneous discoveries related to electromagnetism of at least two scientists.8 Coincidentally, Mr. Morse was not a scientist; he was a painter. This idea of heading into the unknown, unafraid of failure, harkens back to the French surrealists. In their first manifesto, Breton said, "Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association heretofore neglected, in the omnipotence of the dream, and in the disinterested play of thought. It leads to the permanent destruction of all other psychic mechanisms and to its substitution for them in the solution of the principal problems of life."9
1. Roger Shattuck. The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant Garde in France, 1885 to World War I. (New York: Random House, 1968), 28.
2. René Passeron. Surrealism. (Paris: Editions Pierre Terrail, 2001), 33.
3. For a discussion about the legacy of surrealist poetry in the United States, see Hannah Gamble's interview with Heather Christle, Matthew Rohrer, Zachary Schomburg, and Matthew Zapruder, "Good Warm Sad Blood Spilling Out in the Forest."
4. As one example, have a listen to Ken Cormier's "Auto Composition 6," which makes a nod to automatic writing, and also to the fact that Ken put the work together on his daily commute.
5. André Breton quoted in Douglas Kahn. Noise Water Meat: a History of Sound in the Arts. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001), 34. Kahn interprets the quote as a beef with Western art music.
6. Louis Aragon quoted in Marguerite Bonnet. André Breton: Naissance de l'aventure surréaliste. (Paris : Librarie José Corti, 1975), 136. « Aragon écrit justement, reprenant une expression de Maiakovski, que Breton était alors, plus qu'aucun autre «l'homme qui voulait mettre le pied sur la gorge de son propre chanson. »»
7. Douglas Kahn, 31-33.
8. Keith Sawyer. Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. (New York: Basic Books, 2007), 99–102.
9. André Breton quoted in "A Brief Guide to Surrealism." The Academy of American Poets.
Laura Wetherington lived in Ann Arbor from 2005–2009. Her first book, A Map Predetermined and Chance (Fence, 2011), was chosen by C.S. Giscombe for the National Poetry Series. She co-edits textsound.org with Anna Vitale and teaches creative writing at Sierra Nevada College.