Tuesday, October 31, 2006

POETRY MUST BE MADE BY ALL: Debbie, Fiona, Mair, Mark, Merl, Miguel & Paul, 29th October 2006


(a game devised by Paul Cowdell)

To Miguel:
Mice insert gasping undulating expectations lavishly.
Most indignant gastropods usurp every level.
Magic is growing under every language.
Marvellous intentions gush uselessly, especially loquacious.
Monstrous involuntary goalposts upturned ensure limpets.
Mixes in groups using entertaining levers.
Mankind is grown up electronically liberated.
Manipulating images gathers unusual energy leeward.
Making incredible games usually explodes laziness.

From Miguel:
My English romantic learner.
Prisoner assault 'uman location.

Friday, October 27, 2006


From the film Surpasrealiste (2006)

From the film Link (2006)

Monday, October 23, 2006


Over the past few months a controversy has unfolded over the statements and activities of the Derrame group in Chile. The Surrealist groups of Madrid and Río de la Plata have denounced the Derrame group’s political behaviour, claiming that it has worked in partnership with the Chilean state and cultural institutions on the one hand while refusing to engage in radical political struggle on the other. They have also denounced the theoretical statements Derrame has made in support of its political behaviour. For its part, the Derrame group has responded to these accusations by denying some of them and offering explanations or justifications for others; and the Paris Surrealist Group has stated its friendship and solidarity with Derrame in the face of the accusations.*

Many of the exchanges between Río de la Plata and Derrame in particular have revolved around specific accusations: that the Derrame group has committed certain acts of collaboration (the pursuit of state honours and prizes, accepting funding or support from certain academic and cultural institutions and so on) and has failed to perform others (to participate in or support specific political strikes or protests, for example). As the Madrid group’s open letter to Paris points out, different Surrealist groups worldwide find themselves facing different material and political conditions, and must make their own tactical decisions accordingly. The Madrid group state plainly that in their view Derrame’s compromises with the Chilean state and ruling class have not been merely tactical but amount to a strategy which is in no way compatible with Surrealism. We in SLAG will not pretend to know enough about the political situation in Chile to form an independent judgement on these matters. But we are dismayed by some of the theoretical statements the Derrame group has made, which do indeed seem to us to be incompatible with some of the basic principles of Surrealism, and on these principles we are in the firmest possible solidarity with our comrades in Madrid and Río de la Plata.

In a letter of 2005 to the Madrid Surrealist Group, the Derrame group writes:

In Latin America at present we propose a Surrealism that is ceremonial, shamanistic, closer to magic and poetry than to 'materialism'. We could say that it chooses a more poetic, cosmic and spiritual way, like the old mayas, aztecs, incas, kawesqar, selknam.. It is not about looking for what is new, but a matter of rediscovering what was already on the continent for thousands of years. […] Do you think that European Surrealism is different from Latin American Surrealism, or vice versa?

This formulation of “Latin American Surrealism” has justly provoked the anger of our friends in both Madrid and Río de la Plata. It is unambiguous in its rejection of historical materialism. The idea of “Surrealism” as some innate force waiting for thousands of years to be “rediscovered” sounds to our ears too much like Jean Schuster’s notion of the “eternal surrealism” which supposedly “escap[es] history in its latent continuity” (“The Fourth Canto”, 1969). For Schuster the idea of “eternal surrealism” served as an alibi for the abandonment of concrete Surrealist activity in Paris; for Derrame the similarly idealist and undialectical notion of “Latin American Surrealism” is an alibi for the abandonment of the Surrealist principle of materialism. Vratislav Effenberger (cited in “The Platform of Prague Twenty Years On”, 1989) famously replied to Schuster that “this supra-historical and non-ideological conception of surrealism has clearly existed and still exists, and you know quite as well as I do on what side of the barricade”. We make exactly the same reply to this notion of “Latin American Surrealism”.

More recently, in its reply to the Surrealist groups of Madrid and Río de la Plata, the Derrame group appears to retreat somewhat from the notion of “Latin American Surrealism”. While still speaking of “the cosmic mystery of the continent”, Derrame now makes clear that each continent has its own “cosmic mystery”, so that Latin America is not superior in this regard over Europe; and that while the group is insistent on the importance of Latin American geography and cultures, it also embraces the influence of European, African and other cultures. In this context the group now asserts that it is “in favour of hybridity, cosmopolitanism and humanity”. There are two points we want to make about this. Firstly, this qualification of “Latin American Surrealism” is explicitly not a reversal of their earlier rejection of materialism. When Derrame in this new statement asserts that “our rebellion is spiritual and our works are the best means of resistance,” its is clear that the group means this instead of materialist and political resistance, rather than alongside or in dialectical relationship with it. Secondly, this vision of “hybridity” and “cosmopolitanism”, in which each continent now gets to have its own latent cosmic surrealism awaiting rediscovery, is just as idealist and undialectical as the notion of “Latin American Surrealism” – because it is simply the same notion, multiplied by the number of continents. It might also be instructive here to refer to recent Surrealist attacks, by Annie le Brun and Michael Richardson respectively, on conceptions of créolité and hybridity which, by producing a superficial and clichéd relativism, effectively mask oppression, mystify cultural identity and neutralise revolt. What is essential to Surrealism is not the assertion of cultural identities or the creation of aesthetic works – “hybrid”, “cosmopolitan” or otherwise – but the instigation of continuous revolt as a dialectic between universal freedom and local possibilities.

Although these exchanges between Madrid, Río de la Plata and Derrame were initiated by the pamphlet published by Río de la Plata in January 2006, in a deeper sense the real substance of the dispute is the Madrid Surrealist Group’s statement “El Falso Espejo/The False Mirror” which appeared in 2000. With the exception of the letter from Paris, all of the contributions to the Derrame dispute so far have referred explicitly to this paper and justified their positions in relation to it. Indeed the formulation of “Latin American Surrealism” quoted above comes from the Derrame group’s response to this paper, and is explicitly intended as a counter-argument to it. In this sense the recent crisis over “Latin American Surrealism” is just the latest phase in a slow-burning debate over the argument advanced in “The False Mirror” in favour of poetic materialism. Poetic materialism is a strategy to deal with the objectively new material conditions now facing Surrealism worldwide, that is to say, with globalised media-culture and its specific forms of alienation, which are best summed up in the phrase “the Society of the Spectacle”. It proposes an orientation of Surrealist activity away from the production of visual materials – which the Spectacle can assimilate all too easily to its own ends – and more firmly towards the poetic praxis of everyday life. While the revolution of everyday life has always been a core Surrealist principle, the strategic implications of poetic materialism are nevertheless potentially huge for a movement whose stock-in-trade has hitherto been exhibitions and other visual productions. What is at issue is no longer just the rejection of art and its institutions, but the strategic refusal to produce works, especially visual works, for the aesthetic contemplation of an audience at all. In this context the Derrame group’s retreat into ahistorical idealism makes perfect sense as the avoidance, conscious or otherwise, of the necessity for Surrealism to change if it is to survive the historical conditions against which, with our respective local tactics, we all struggle.

Surrealism is neither eternal nor cosmic – no more so than the forms of oppression against which we revolt. The political and social structures of capitalism have undergone profound changes in the last few decades, not least in response to the challenges it has faced from those who have struggled to destroy it. If we wish to continue to struggle in the name of Eros, freedom, poetry and love, and if we wish to do so effectively, then we will have to develop new strategies for these new conditions. Those who have come out in opposition to the strategy of poetic materialism during the Derrame affair so far seem to have done so by abandoning materialism altogether. Rather than retreat to the collective and individual consolations of aesthetic production, Surrealists would do better to have an urgent international debate about strategy – not just to test and evaluate poetic materialism, but to develop a range of possible strategies which could face up squarely to what is new in today’s material conditions without losing sight of Surrealism’s core aims and principles. We must not allow our enemies to outsmart or outrun us: we have to keep thinking, and keep moving.

*The sequence of events as we understand it is as follows:
1. The Río de la Plata Surrealist Group publishes the pamphlet Unmistakable Miserabilism Signs, denouncing the Derrame group (January 2006).
2. The Paris Surrealist Group sends a letter of support to the Derrame group, offering solidarity with them in the face of the pamphlet (July 2006).
3. The Madrid Surrealist Group writes an open letter to the Paris group in which it sets out its opposition to the Derrame group and its support for Río de la Plata (July 2006).
4. Enrique Lechuga writes an open letter to the Madrid group protesting at remarks about his website (www.sonambula.com) (August 2006).
5. The Derrame group writes a response to defend itself against accusations by both the Madrid and Río de la Plata Surrealist Groups (August 2006).
6. The Río de la Plata Surrealist Group issues its response to Derrame’s defence (August 2006).

Friday, October 13, 2006


In response to enquiries about the alleged censorship of their current Hans Bellmer exhibition (see previous post), the Whitechapel Gallery has sent copies of two statements, one of their own and one from the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The statements are as follows:

    "Over 200 works by the artist Hans Bellmer are currently displayed at the Whitechapel Gallery, London in an exhibition organised by the Centre Pompidou, Musee National d’Art Moderne, Paris. Though smaller than the original Paris exhibition due to the Whitechapel’s smaller exhibition spaces, the works displayed in London were selected in close consultation with the exhibition's curators Agnes de la Beaumelle and Alain Sayag and with the Whitechapel’s curator Anthony Spira.
    "The exhibition continues at the Whitechapel Gallery until 19 November 2006."
    "Centre Pompidou has today issued a statement in response to articles that have appeared with regard to the Hans Bellmer exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London. The exhibition was shown at Centre Pompidou from 1 March to 22 May 2006.
    "Centre Pompidou confirms that, as a result of the smaller space available for the exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, the whole selection of works displayed at the institution in Paris could not be shown in London. The Bellmer works that are not included in the display in London are no more or less shocking for certain visitors than those that are in the show.
    "For further information, please contact
    Roya Nasser, Director of Communications, Centre Pompdiou
    Telephone number + 33 6 24 97 72 29"
As far as we are aware, none of the parties involved has ever disputed that the Whitechapel Gallery lacks space in comparison with the Pompidou. What is in dispute is the Whitechapel's rationale for deciding which of the works to omit from its smaller version of the exhibition. The article in Le Monde alleged that the excluded works were removed on the grounds of their supposed offensiveness to local Muslims. These carefully worded statements from the two galleries in effect neither confirm nor deny those allegations, because they do not explain the basis on which the selections for removal were made. If the missing works were not selected for removal on the grounds of offensiveness, on what grounds were they selected? It is precisely by stonewalling on this question that the statements have achieved their aim, namely, to "kill" the story before it reaches the mainstream British press.

Friday, October 06, 2006


If the origin of my work is a scandal, it is because, for me, the world is a scandal.
Hans Bellmer

This magnificent quote from Bellmer appears as the epigraph to the current exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, the first major retrospective of Bellmer’s work in the UK. Surrealists make their own scandal, but not in conditions of their own making. In Whitechapel, it seems, the scandal of Bellmer has taken a new turn.

The French newspaper Le Monde has today reported that the Whitechapel Gallery has censored its own Bellmer exhibition. Since this story has not (yet) been picked up by the UK press, let us summarise Le Monde’s account. This exhibition, originally mounted at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, arrived at the Whitechapel in September, and twelve pieces were removed from the exhibition the day before it opened to the London public. The gallery’s explanation for this to Le Monde was simply lack of space. But Agnès de la Baumelle, the curator of the exhibition, told Le Monde that the works had been personally removed by Iwona Blazwick, the Whitechapel Gallery Director, as an act of censorship. According to Baumelle, Blazwick had described the works in question as “sulphurous” and had declared that they would be dangerous to exhibit not just because of their “paedophile” overtones but also because the area of Whitechapel has a large Muslim population. Baumelle herself has protested at the works’ removal, as have two of the collectors who loaned items for the exhibition. One of the collectors has threatened to withdraw all of his loans from the exhibition unless the twelve censored works are reinstated.

Self-censorship by cultural institutions has become commonplace in “liberal-democratic” states since September 2001. But if Baumelle’s account is correct, and as Le Monde notes, the removal of these works takes self-censorship to a new level. The censored works are not themselves directly blasphemous and have no overt religious content: according to Baumelle, they have been deemed offensive to Muslims simply by virtue of their eroticism, and without any Muslims (or anyone else) having made any actual complaint about them whatever. We surely do not need to labour the underlying racism of such an action, which would assume that local Muslims are (a) a homogeneous mass, (b) uniformly sexually regressive and (c) incapable of critical engagement with these works which they have been prevented from seeing. As Director Designate in March 2001, Blazwick told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that one of the things she liked about the Whitechapel Gallery was the “interesting” location with its “variety of communities”, and that “the Whitechapel should be there to ask questions”. Perhaps these works have been removed because some of those “communities” are now regarded as incapable of understanding the questions.

What can be done about the apparent censorship of Bellmer in London? There are various options, depending on our political proclivities and tactical preferences. We could challenge the Whitechapel Gallery itself to confirm or deny the account given by Baumelle to Le Monde. We could protest to – or indeed at – the gallery and demand that the works be returned to the exhibition. On a deeper political level, we can engage in long-term political action to oppose the conditions which make such censorship not just possible but inevitable: the culture industry in which art is an object of consumption for customers (no doubt including protestors outside art galleries) who complain if they don’t like the product; the “multiculturalism” which claims to respect diversity while trading on identitarianism, essentialism and (real or imagined) religious idiocy; the “liberal-democratic” public sphere which stifles dissidence in the name of diversity, desire in the name of public safety, and poetry in the name of taste. But above all we can and must continue to practise Surrealism as practical revolution in everyday life – not an artform to be tolerated as free speech, exhibited in galleries or debated in the press, not even a “lifestyle” to be celebrated among others, but a state of erotic fury, a total and uncompromising revolt, a concrete utopia to be lived, NOW, with all the urgency of desire.

On one point we do agree with the comments ascribed to Blazwick: Bellmer really is sulphurous. Our opponents may not be wrong, after all, to be afraid of him. “Here steps in Satan, the eternal rebel, the first freethinker and the emancipator of worlds” (Bakunin). More brimstone!

The article in Le Monde can be found here.
Details of the Bellmer exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery can be found here.
The Whitechapel Gallery's email address is info@whitechapel.org.
Iwona Blazwick's telephone number at the gallery is 020 7522 7890.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


A new theoretical discussion paper
on dialectics, analogy and Surrealist poetics
from SLAG - the Surrealist London Action Group.

This paper is available in English as a pdf file (0.3MB).
French and Spanish translations are also available
(by Dominic Tétrault and Juan Carlos Otaño respectively).
To request a copy and/or to join our mailing list, email SLAG at