In October 2006 the Athens Surrealist Group and the Group of Czech and Slovak Surrealists jointly held an exhibition in Athens called Fantasy of Reality. Some photographs from the exhibition can be found here. To accompany this exhibition the Athens Surrealist Group also circulated a document titled Rendering the Image Back to its Transmutations, which was subsequently translated into English and circulated around the international Surrealist movement. The text of this document can be found in Greek and English here or in English only here. Below we have transcribed a discussion of this document between Merl (SLAG) and Nikos Stabakis (Athens Surrealist Group). We are publishing it here as an invitation to you to get involved in the discussion with us, either through the Comments facility of this blog or by email.
From Merl, 12th November Hello Nikos It was a real pleasure to hear the news of your exhibition in Athens and to read the paper that accompanied it. I was particularly intrigued by the questionnaire at the exhibition and the forms of interaction that it enabled with the audience. I certainly don't envy you all the task of analysing those 200 questionnaires but I will be waiting very keenly to hear the results. As for the paper issued by your group, most of it of course I agreed with and liked very much. I found the discussion of "being-at-stake" quite elegant. But there are also a few things that I disagree with and/or have questions about. There's an element of the "straw man" to the paper which appears to be arguing with an opponent that doesn't really exist -- or perhaps I had better say, whose existence I don't know about. I don't know who it is who is supposed to have called for Surrealists to cease the creation of images. As far as I am aware, those who have been associated with poetic materialism (which now includes SLAG as well as various people in Stockholm and Madrid) have not done so, for example (and I can't think who else you might have had in mind when writing the paper, although as I say that may just be my ignorance). The poetic materialist critique is not of the creation of images as such but of the material conditions of their exchange and consumption, and of the ways in which those material conditions (according to the argument) inevitably neutralise the images' subversive potential. I take it that your position is that such neutralisation is neither inevitable nor total, and you may be correct, but as it stands there is nothing in the paper to persuade me of this position. A great deal of faith is placed in the power of the image, but it appears simply as faith: the paper simply asserts that images continue to have revolutionary/subversive powers, without addressing the concrete material conditions which would make those powers actualisable. If you reject the analysis of society which is offered in, say, The False Mirror then you need to say what alternative analysis you are proposing, so that we can really weigh up the arguments on either side. Of course I realise that this was just a short paper and not intended to be a long or detailed social analysis, but it points to larger questions which I think are important and which it would be fruitful for all of us to discuss at much greater length.
From Nikos, 12th November Hi Merl, Now, if total agreements are perhaps impossible when it comes to finding ways to operate within, and against, a context that tends to assimilate all subversive intervention, the important point is that the desirous function of images precedes their aesthetic and/or commercial uses. The problem is whether the rejection of images produced for 'aesthetic contemplation' may indeed problematize all pictorial production, or whether the conditions under which images are perceived may be adapted to alternative kinds of presentation and encourage an authentically interactive relationship to their perceivers/co-creators. A statement to the effect that the surrealist movement exists and involves a whole different set of priorities than the establishment or repetition of a 'style' was one of the exhibition's major points, another one being the impressive response to the questionnaires. But, this being an evolving set of practices, it is important to point out that being fully aware of the many pitfalls plaguing pictorial expression neither provides a ready way to annul the said pitfalls nor should encourage the temptation to withdraw from such expression altogether--a temptation that does exist, to the very extent that a sense of futility underlies thus the actualisation of images. If «such neutralisation» actually is inevitable and/or total, should the image cease to manifest itself--and, if not, how might it be articulated and distributed, other than in the context of an evolving discourse that would increasingly tend to reject the official surroundings of 'aesthetic consumption'? If the paper seems an open question, so be it--but can it be any other way? It is not about 'straw men,' but rather about dealing with implicit questions: do the identified difficulties regarding subversive potential ultimately preclude the expression of images that actually occur, and if not how should these be articulated? And how could they involve their receivers in a discourse other than that of passive consumption? I'd be interested to know SLAG's views on how these matters may be concretely dealt with.
From Merl, 29th November I think there are two points on which I am doubtful about your argument, and I should start by stressing that they are doubts (in the sense of an evolving discourse and set of practices) rather than hard-and-fast objections. Firstly, you say that "the desirous function of images precedes their aesthetic and/or commercial uses". I am not so sure. This seems to rest on a notion that desire is somehow pre-social, pre-cultural, existing in/arising from some pristine realm of the mind or body which has not yet been corrupted by the Spectacle. I don't believe in such purity of desire. Desire always comes into being in the context of pre-existing material conditions, and is shaped (though not of course wholly determined) by those conditions. That is why, for example, Trost & Luca (in that paper I can't stop quoting because I adore it so much) declare war on Oedipal desire -- it both arises from and perpetuates a particular set of material conditions which are inimical to freedom. (It's also why I rejected the notion of desire as primary to eroticism in that erotic manifesto Paul Cross and I wrote at the beginning of this year.) The fact that images, automatic or otherwise, spring from desire does not mean that they are not already implicated in the Spectacle, because desire itself is already so implicated. This would mean that surrealists need to conduct some serious interrogation of desire as such, rather than appeal to it as a guarantor of integrity, validity or authenticity. I would see this as an important post-bretonian development in surrealism, and it's one of the tasks I am personally most engaged with. Secondly, this whole discussion appears to rest on the unquestioned assumption that images must somehow be expressed. Must they? Why? Let's just imagine for example that we really did give into this supposed temptation to cease the distribution of images. What disaster would befall us? Wouldn't that actually be quite an interesting experiment -- to cease all circulation of images for a limited period, just to see what else might start happening instead? Ok, I'm being deliberately provocative, but not idly so; I truly don't see why we should take it for granted that "the image must not cease to manifest itself", and I certainly don't see why we should necessarily be afraid to experiment in that direction. It could prove fruitful, in ways that might surprise us and that might generate some genuinely new surrealist discoveries. As for how SLAG deals concretely with these matters -- well, all group activity is constantly in a state of flux of course, and even more so in our case at the moment when there are new people at the meetings and new ideas, schemes and priorities being thrown into the pot all the time. But in terms of concrete priorities for group activity, I think it's fair to say that we are all agreed that public exhibitions, or other types of events which place people in the position of the "audience", are not something we consider interesting or important for us to do. Our focus of discussion and activity in the last few months has been very game-based, with a strong emphasis on participation and poetic experience rather than on the production of images, objects or texts (although of course these do tend to get produced sometimes anyway, but we would see them I think as by-products rather than as ends in themselves). Some of the new people are less interested in games as such, and are trying to develop other forms of activity but always with an emphasis on participation and experience.
From Nikos, 30th November I think your doubts refer to deliberately open questions on my part rather than ready arguments. One actually unequivocal statement ("the desirous function precedes etc.") merely refers to the conditions of the image's emergence as opposed to its reappropriation by institutional culture (that is, the urge to see and show, however 'innocent' or not, as opposed to producing a work that ends up assuring one's artistic credentials, being used to promote products and otherwise guaranteeing the neat and harmless sectorization of the image). Of course it is a reappropriation insofar as it emerges from material conditions in the first place, and thus is in no way pure; so, can its origins be profoundly questioned and subverted--would/should a desire whose essence is not a pre-social purity but the sole principles of transformation and incompleteness then manifest itself, and if not how and why? If we try in practice the (conditional or not) abolition of images, would not other parts of our lives (including dream of course) be invested with a kind of otherwise unfulfilled potential that, granted, far from being a sign of purity, nevertheless exists? Would the ceasing of images not actually inform/condition the interesting things that might certainly happen then, and which are no less subject to material factors? The thing is, it is not really a matter of 'disagreement,' insofar as we are faced with the question of where the said 'interesting things' in general come from and where they lead us ('somewhere,' Breton was right on this count--to the extent that we are never aware that this 'somewhere' has been definitively reached). So if we accept such a limited (or indeed unlimited) stop on the flow of images, this could work as an experiment (as you put it), that is, an organized effort (which we may all agree upon and follow through). But by being an experiment it would still refer to the lack that shaped it. (And here we need more details: what form would it take? Would that involve dreams, and why are these not pictorial/susceptible to appropriation from the Spectacle? Would this 'lack' be felt as such, and if so would not the desire for image provide the outline to whatever 'happened'?) I don't know, of course, to what extent exhibitions are particularly important or interesting in general, other than as a way to negotiate the possibilities for people to not be treated as 'audience,' even though they may think they are that upon visiting. To us, it actually was important for the extra reason that it pointed out our international perspective and helped generate awareness of groups. This is why we incorporated, not only the text you've read, which at least begins to pose some points for discussion, but also a questionnaire that encouraged interaction, even criticism. Obviously, nothing can provide absolute safety from some kind of 'authoritarianism' on the group's part, insofar as the responses are somehow bound to be assessed, and some may be seen as 'forced' in any case, but again it at least tries to pose questions. One in particular being, how do we actually, practically relate to people who are outside a group? Should we bother to establish such a connection? As we've agreed, you can hardly do this in the context of a poetry reading, obviously, and there are few possibilities by and large. Publication is one, but of what kind? And so forth.
From Merl, 8th December All of the questions you ask about what might happen if we ceased the display/circulation of images (whether and how dreams would be included, how the lack itself would shape the outcome of the experiment, how the unfulfilled potential might shift to other parts of our lives) are good ones, and what's more they are questions that cannot be answered a priori but only by actually conducting the experiment. In fact you may be on the way to inadvertently persuading me that we really should conduct this experiment after all, to find out what would happen to the imagination, desire, creativity etc. under such conditions. Maybe something interesting would come out of the experiment, maybe not. I think the movement should be ready to make such experiments and to take the risk that they may occasionally fail or meet dead-ends. Of course I agree with you about the need to communicate outside the group, and indeed outside the movement. But I'm by no means sure that exhibitions are an effective way to do that, at least not if what one wants to communicate is the experience of the Marvellous itself, or the possibility of revolutionary change on any level. Of course if one simply wants to demonstrate the ongoing (and international) existence of the surrealist movement, then an exhibition is as good a way of doing that as any, and may be no better or worse in that respect than a poetry reading. But if one wants to communicate something more than the simple fact of our existence, I don't think exhibitions in themselves are going to do it. Of course you made this event more interactive with the questionnaire and so on, and the question really is what you will do next with all of that material, and how if at all the respondents might be provoked into any kind of genuinely poetic experience of their own beyond the simple pleasure (or not) of looking at the images in the exhibition. I don't know the answer to that question, which is why I think we might need to conduct some fairly radical experiments to try to figure it out.
From Nikos, 8th December I'm not sure either. This particular exhibition happened in the context of a comic magazines festival, which by and large draws hordes of more or less young people, some of whom are reasonably interesting; of course, by the same stroke, it attracts very few visitors of the National Gallery. The fact that so many were seriously interested in the exhibition was, to me, more important than any poetry reading could ever be. But I don't think that exhibitions can go very far in themselves; we are not likely to pursue this systematically, in fact this was but a fairly successful attempt to spread some info on the actuality of surrealism. To that extent, it was not without its merits, but that is all. The question is, how we can organize an experiment of the sort you envision, and what its possible outcome would have to offer in terms of conclusions regarding future ventures. If the experiment refers explicitly to the (temporary or not) rejection of imagistic expression, it will thereby immediately draw attention to the importance of images, and this is the main problem I can identify, especially insofar as very few of us in the international movement are really involved in image-making as what one might call a 'specialty'; for instance, I did exhibit (for the first and very likely the last time) some of the pictures/collages that occurred from my participation in a collective game, but the visible nature of the said pictures made it clear that they did not derive from a wish to create an artistic oeuvre; so I wonder what my, and many other people's, participation in such an experiment would be--perhaps the abolition of any image-making process, which would obviously include poetry as well. You have to make this clear and set specific rules. Then I'm all for it, although as I said I'm not sure what exactly it would involve.
From Merl, 13th December Well, I'm not making a serious concrete proposal about this experiment, or at least not yet. I'm just speculating and hypothesising here. Maybe once we've had a bit of time for the new members of SLAG to settle in and consolidate the group we could start thinking about it more seriously. Yes, I agree that any proposal to suspend the production of images would itself focus attention on images, but I don't see that as a problem, on the contrary it would be a good opportunity for us all to step back and think about the place of image-making in Surrealism. I don't agree that it would also involve the suspension of poetry, since what's at issue is very specifically the place of the visual in contemporary consumer culture.
From Nikos, 13th December Why is not poetry involved in this? The surrealist image tends to become visible--"Donner à voir," as Eluard (yes, I know...) famously put it. Of course, in poetry it is not stabilized, as in a painting or photo, but does it not derive from the same materials as a visual work, whilst of course being less patronizing in its imposition of an ultimate form? Those surrealist pictorial works whose principles were most enthusiastically appropriated by the cultural establishment in its numerous forms are precisely those that retain the sharply dialectical essence of an elementary automatic phrase/image, only to be contained by their integration into spectacular consumption. This, as I've said, does not mean that the principle behind their occurrence was dictated by their subsequent use. Besides, is not poetry equally problematic for the exact opposite reason? Unlike painting, film or photography, poetry--to the extent that it remains in the realm of written expression, as opposed to plainly 'lived' poetry--is simultaneously cheap to produce/consume and stupidly 'precious.' I'm obviously referring to the standard non-surrealist lot, as in "so-and-so is a poet," but printed poetry or poetry readings cannot be totally removed from the realm of an increasingly obsolete cultural institution. Might not (and I'm also speculating here) the knowing use of images within a culture governed by the Spectacle incorporate a criticism that would be more socially/culturally relevant? Perhaps not, but how can writing get away with it, when it is immediately claimed by 'literary expression/experimentation'? The reason I insist on concrete proposals is that otherwise we cannot but either accept the continuing propagation of images to start with or denounce it out of hand. This is why one feels the need to explain oneself in the case of, say, an exhibition--as in our text; this cannot go very far, but is an initial clarification as to why, at this stage at least, there is an actual choice to be made. So we need to move beyond merely opposing the aesthetic or consumerist use of images, and into analyzing what the images mean to us and how we can perhaps destroy their allure by pointing out either their distortion by standardized use or their dubious nature.
From Merl, 17th December The knowing use of images to incorporate social/cultural criticism is of course the purpose (or one of the purposes) of practices such as détournement, which was being deployed by surrealists long before the situationists got hold of it. It probably still has such potential in certain cases, but always greatly weakened by its incorporation into popular cultural forms, notably advertising. The reason why poetry is not in the same position as visual images in relation to the Spectacle is because of the fundamentally visual nature of the latter. In the Society of the Spectacle, alienation takes place not just through the mediation of human relationships by commodities (i.e. good old-fashioned commodity fetishism) but through the mediation of human relationships by images. Of course, any and all cultural forms in general are commodified under such conditions, including poetry, but the point about the Spectacle is that it involves something more than the commodification of culture in the good old-fashioned sense -- something more even than the commodification of images -- it involves commodification by images. That's the whole point of the critique of the image which some of us have been making. Of course, as you have already said, we're talking here about poetry in the narrow "cultural" sense of the written (or spoken) word, and not about poetry in its widest (truest) surrealist sense, the poetry that is lived. It's precisely in the name of that true poetry that the Spectacle must be overthrown, as you certainly don't need me to tell you! Before one can make concrete proposals for any kind of experiment or other activity one must first spend time discussing ideas and formulating hypotheses, which is precisely what I think you and I have been doing in this discussion so far ...
From Nikos, 18th December The persistent point is, where do you draw the line? The reason I mentioned poetry is precisely that the Spectacle cannot be just about innocent images that become commodified but, rather, about human activities themselves becoming commodified by images, irrespective of the original urge underlying the latter's emergence. So "standard" poetry, whilst using speech, still derives from a desire for image, and therefore draws from the same array of materials as that which feeds potential images; how else can one understand the mediation of experience by image? Lived poetry itself, dealing as it would be with a rearrangement of the visible world's aspects according to some notion of desire, would thus still be informed by already consumed images; so, 'critique' may well mean 'subversive use,' and the utilitarian nature of advertising (the closure it effects upon image) is a historically possible context for such subversive play. Other than that, we have certainly been discussing the possibility of ideas, as opposed to actual ideas, so we need to move beyond that.
Notes: The Madrid Surrealist Group's document The False Mirror, to which Merl and Nikos occasionally refer, can be found in English here. SLAG's response to The False Mirror can be found here. The concept of the Society of the Spectacle was first elaborated by Guy Debord, whose key writings on the subject can be found in English here and here. Parts of the discussion above touch on issues which have also been raised by the Stockholm Surrealist Group's recent document Voices of the Hell Choir, which can be found as a blog entry here or as a pdf file here.
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