• Lisa Gorton


This paper explores the philosophical underpinnings of certain poetic collaborations. It proposes that philosophies of memory underpin how poets think about images; and furthermore that the way in which they think about images shapes how they collaborate. It briefly takes up Freud’s figuration of memory as underpinning the surrealists’ exquisite corpses, then, by way of comparison, how Bergson’s and Deleuze’s figurations of memory shape the collaborative process in curator Lisa Harms’ exhibition, ‘Conversations in Ellipsis’ (31 July - 24 August 2012, SASA Gallery). Gorton argues that collaborative processes are as intimate as style is to the work: ‘there can be no single poetics of collaboration. The ways in which artists collaborate bring out different figurations of memory, different figurations of what a true conversation could ever be.’ 



Keywords: creative collaboration—memory and images—exquisite corpses—Breton—Bergson—Lisa Harms—the ‘third meaning’ in Barthes—the after-life of images


I. Flip books

Pirate, mermaid, young woman, old woman, boy with a cap: when I was a child we had flip books with full-page pictures of these stock characters with each page cut into three strips. Now a pirate, now a pirate with the head of a mermaid, now a mermaid with a pirate’s feet: flipping a page forward, flipping a page back, we composed these curious chimeras. A little shock each time repeated: thought interrupted in the act of completing a picture so familiar that it had seemed not a picture at all but the token of a genre. Casually, flipping a page forward, flipping a page back, we made and unmade our ready-made exquisite corpses.

Ill disposed critics in 1925-30 gave further example of their ignorance when they reproached us for delighting in such childish distractions, and at the same time suspected us of having created such monsters in broad daylight, individually, and more or less laboriously. In fact what delighted us about these productions was the assurance that, for better or worse, they bore the mark of something which could not be created by one brain alone .... (Breton 1948: 1)

According to André Breton, the Surrealist art form of exquisite corpses derived from a parlour game of Consequences, played while they sat around a table drinking: ‘When the conversation … began to pall, we would turn to games; written games at first, contrived so that elements of language attacked each other in the most paradoxical matter possible … so that human communication, misled from the start, was thrown into the mood most amenable to adventure …’ (Breton 1948: 1). In his Surrealist Manifesto of 1924 Breton paid fealty to dreams, those self-enclosed images, as a redoubt of the ‘Marvellous’: ‘I believe in the future resolution of these two states—outwardly so contradictory—which are dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, a surreality, so to speak’ (Breton 1972: 14).

Though the surrealists derived their rationale from Freud’s theory of the unconscious, in truth the generative force of these works was social. Their collaborative process built something mannerist into their artworks: the dramatic involvement of an audience. Conversation has its genres; the surrealists’ renewed their art of conversation with games that recalled their childhood to them in combinations of ritual and adventure.

Whenever artists collaborate, the nature of their relationship prefigures the relationship that their work will establish with its audience; it becomes as intimate as their style is to the work they make. The interest of the surrealist’s exquisite corpses depends not solely on the literal rendering of dream images—their deliberate renunciation of the atmosphere of dreams—but on the playful relationship such works establish with an audience: a relationship built of expectation and surprise, a little shock each time repeated, a broken promise which brings home how helpless, how involuntary our trust in images is. ‘Delighting … attacked … paradoxical … adventure’: the relationship that these artworks establish with their audience replays, in large, the relationship between those artists who sat around the table in the old house at 54 rue du Chateau in 1925.

Does collaboration necessarily make for public art? There was from the first something contradictory in the surrealists’ belief that social conventions place taboos on talk and that this was something they could overcome together: no contradiction, so long as they constituted a community which could disrupt its own taboos. No impossibility, so long as you accept Freud’s formulation of how the mind stores its history: a formulation which grants images the power to work as taboo-breaking shocks.

Which art has ever proved adequate illustration of its manifesto? The dramatic involvement of an audience, a break from the inward logic of the image: it could be said that the effect of the surrealists’ games survives their rationale. Perhaps this explains why, though the surrealists derived this rationale from Freud’s conception of dream and the unconscious, such collaborative games persist in the work of contemporary poets uncommitted to such conceptions of memory and its images. Why not? Perhaps, breaking from the inward logic of the image, these games can inherit pre-Romantic traditions of satiric and dramatic verse and verse epistles.

II. Intercalary recollections

Very different figurations of memory open out from Bergson’s influence on writers such as Benjamin, Proust, Woolf and Deleuze: figurations which replace Freud’s archaeological images of the mind’s hierarchic layers (‘the memory of the city is buried in the city’) with images of fractal immensity, crystalline inwardness, galaxies of consciousness. In Matter and Memory, Bergson conceives of memory as a vast nebula, a cluster of shining images which themselves contain clustering multitudes:

We have supposed that our entire personality, with the totality of our recollections, is present, undivided within our actual perception. Then, if this perception evokes in turn different memories, it is not by a mechanical adjudication of more and more numerous elements which, while it remains itself unmoved, it attracts around it, but rather by an expansion of the entire consciousness which, spreading out over a larger area, discovers the fuller details of its wealth. So a nebulous mass, seen through more and more powerful telescopes, resolves itself into an ever greater number of stars. (Bergson 2004: 215-216)

In this conception of memory, an image is not the belated, indirect expression of some past event but a ramification of experience ‘always present in its entirety to itself’. Bergson’s conception of images places them always in relation to other images; space charged with matter, manifold and proliferating. This figuration of memory emphasises inwardness, interconnectedness, immersion; dream and reality are no longer ‘outwardly so contradictory’ (pace Breton) but inseparable.

In this light, what mode of collaboration could be as free for a poet as the discovery of her own material? In Freud’s conception of memory, dream elements can be translated into an abstract space constituted of symbols.

We call such a constant relationship between a dream element and its interpretation symbolic ... It occurs in dreams that a person, now lustful, now frightened, climbs down the fronts of houses. Those with entirely smooth walls are men; but those which are provided with projections and balconies to which one can hold on, are women. Parents occur in the dream as king and queen, or other persons highly respected … Birth is almost regularly represented by some reference to water …. (Freud 1920; 2013: 156)

How strangely Freud’s symbols float here: stock characters from a flip book released into abstract space. ‘Those which are provided with projections and balconies to which one can hold on, are women’—this phrase perhaps prompted Salvador Dali’s 1936 ‘Venus de Milo with Drawers’, and 1939 design for the Pavilion of the Dream of Venus. Freud’s symbols are curiously isolated from the atmosphere of dream, set down in the non-place of abstract thinking.

But in Bergson, recollections are charged with meaning in relation to the entirety of memory. He criticises how associationism makes ‘ideas and images into independent entities floating, like the atoms of Epicurus, in an inward space’ (Bergson 2004: 213).

The process of localizing a recollection in the past, for instance, cannot at all consist, as has been said, in plunging into the mass of our memories as into a bag, to draw out memories, closer and closer to each other, between which the memory to be localized may find its place. By what happy chance could we just hit upon a growing number of intercalary recollections? The work of localization consists, in reality, in a growing effort of expansion, by which the memory, always present in its entirety to itself, spreads out its recollections over an ever wider surface. (Bergson 2004: 223-224)

Bergson’s conception of memory and its images extends into his formulation of how language works. He criticises those who argue ‘as if a sentence were composed of nouns which call up the images of things’ (Bergson 2004: 158). He conceives of a sentence composed not of isolated, separate, ‘independent entities’ but of interrelated elements:

What becomes of those parts of speech, of which the precise function is to establish, between images, relations and shades of meaning of every kind … Is it urged that these are the refinements of a highly-developed language, but that speech is possible with concrete nouns that all summon up images of things? No doubt it is, but the more primitive the language you speak with me and the poorer in words which express relations, the more you are bound to allow for my mind’s activity, since you compel me to find out the relations which you leave unexpressed; which amounts to saying that you abandon more and more the hypothesis that each verbal image goes up and fetches down its corresponding idea. (Bergson 2004: 158-159)

Intriguingly, Bergon’s argument—that each thing, each image, has an associative power, built into language as it is into thought—might explain the ‘considerable enigma’ that arose while Breton and the surrealists composed their exquisite corpses:

We must add that along the way a considerable enigma arose, posed by the frequent encounter of elements with similar associational origins in the course of the collective production of a sentence or a drawing. This encounter not only provoked a vigorous play of often extreme discordances, but also supported the idea of communication between the participants—tacit, but in waves…. (Breton 1948: 2)

Did such ‘tacit communication’ work through the nature of images, which have meaning not as ‘independent entities’ but as part of a nebulous mass, like clustered stars?

III. Conversations in Ellipsis

What kind of collaboration could arise out of such alternative conceptions of memory and its images? In 2012 the Adelaide artist and curator Lisa Harms created an exhibition called Conversations in Ellipsis (31 July - 24 August 2012, SASA Gallery). This exhibition originated in 2005 when Harms created a video work in response to a detail that she noticed in the background of her friend Kaylie Weir’s self-portrait. This began an ‘extended process of call and response,’ as that first ‘material conversation’ opened out over time to include other artists (Felt Space Gallery website). Seven years later, the exhibition tracked how these artists had responded to each other, each taking imaginative possession of some work which had in some way possessed them.

[C]onversations in ellipsis … Began with a remembered painting, a response and a reply: two variations and then more; two video works, a fragmented text and a series of figural details repeated—constellations drawn and drawing—a fall, a turn, a boundary dissembling. Began/begins again with a colour, a certain shade of green and now a word, ‘etiolated,’ associated with painting, exhaustion, and a loss of colour: of visibility (if not vigour); a certain uncultivated resilience called up by a throwaway line noticed in passing; caught at the edges of attention…. (Lisa Harms 2014: Exegesis Section 2: 121)

The artists in this exhibition collaborated by setting in motion those processes of memory which Bergson describes: ‘if this perception evokes in turn different memories, it is not by a mechanical adjudication of more and more numerous elements which, while it remains itself unmoved, it attracts around it, but rather by an expansion of the entire consciousness …’ (Bergson 2004: 215-16). This depended on those ellipses—time delays, dispersals, and shifts between art forms—which made a place for details to unfold their associations through the artists’ work of remembering, forgetting, fragmenting, transforming, domesticating, estranging: whatever work they did to make someone else’s artwork inward to their experience. In this manner, they took possession of works that had possessed them.

This approach to collaboration finds its conceptual form in the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, who argues that an exchange between objects and images takes place instantly in memory: ‘memory is not an actual image which forms after the object has been perceived but a virtual image coexisting with the actual perception of the object … its double, its ‘mirror image’ (Deleuze & Parnet 2007: 148-50). These virtual images renew themselves by proliferating:

creative functions ... proceed by intersections, crossings of lines, points of encounter ... there is no subject but rather collective assemblages of enunciation; there are no specificities but instead populations, music-writing-sciences- audio-visual, with their relays, their echoes, their working interactions. What a musician does in one place will be useful to a writer somewhere else, a scientist makes completely different regimes move, a painter is caused to jump by a percussion: these are not encounters between domains, for each domain is already made up of such encounters in itself. There are only intermezzos, intermezzi, as sources of creation. This is what a conversation is, not the talk or the pre-formed debate of specialists among themselves, not even an interdisciplinarity which would be ordered in a common project. (Deleuze and Parnet 2007: 27-28)

In Conversations in Ellipsis, Lisa Harms provoked and mapped an expanding series of such encounters, echoes and interactions. She described the exhibition as a ‘following the after-life of images, or rather, following a series of incidental details—illuminations—embedded in the fabric of a particular image … a quietly "conversational" trail branching, forking; multiplying crystalline in mirrored variations’ (Harms 2014: 121). When writing the catalogue essay for Conversations in Ellipsis—no overview, but another proliferation of its process, a sequence of prose poems—perhaps what most fascinated me was how these collaborations were marked by strange repetitions. To take one example, there were variations of falling: fallen jewels, the sound of falling slates, fallen ceiling roses, a film of falling clothes, falling text, a sound recording of rain.

In her doctoral thesis, Harms draws a link between these repetitions and the ‘third meaning’ that Barthes finds in film stills. Harms cites Rosalind Krauss’s comments on Barthes in the essay ‘“... And Then Turn Away?” An Essay on James Coleman’:

He is analyzing stills from a film by Eisenstein. After addressing everything in them that contributes to the horizontal dimension of the story, of its various themes and their development, of the historical background against which the narrative plays itself out, he arrives at a set of details that strike him as ‘counter-narrative’, details that set reversibility against the forward drive of diegesis, that produce the effect of dissemination against the interweaving of narrative form, that give off a sense of permutability against the focalization of the story ... This counter-narrative, which opens up a different sense of time, one not hurried along by the 24-frame-a-second mechanics of verisimilitude, is where Barthes feels he must look for what he calls the specifically ‘filmic.’ And to locate this, which he is certain will not lie in movement ‘but in an inarticulable third meaning,’ he holds onto the still. This, he explains, is not the same as looking at a photograph or a painting, neither of which unfold their contents against what he calls the ‘diegetic horizon’ of the rest of the story. Rather, the still, which is not a sample of the story, not a ‘specimen extracted from the substance of the film’, is the fragment of a second text which itself must be read vertically ... (Lisa Harms 2014: Exegesis Section 2: 121)

In their long collaboration, their ‘conversation in ellipses’, the artists took possession of ‘obtuse details’ in the background of each other’s work; fragments, details which opened out possibilities contrary to the ‘diegetic horizon’ of the work containing them. These artists collaborated not as artist and audience taking turns, changing places, but as artist and source material. And this prefigured the relationship that the exhibition established with its audience. For a visitor, such varied repetition meant that the exhibition itself advanced in the way of memories, or daydreams. It could be taken as emblematic that Conversations in Ellipsis extended across several galleries, out into the Botanic Gardens, and into online sites with artworks and texts, and came with a map. This reach across sites, actual and virtual, past and future, built a process of remembering and forgetting into the experience of the exhibition, an experience of getting lost, recalling some detail of another artwork in a different place, imagining the city itself in a new formation.


In 1952, looking back on a novel that she had published in 1929, Elizabeth Bowen remarked how the experience of writing one book does not save you from the difficulties of writing another:

problems, unique to the particular piece of work, recur and send out their challenge ahead of one each time one conceives and considers another book. It is a mistake to think of The Novel in the abstract … (Bowen 1952: 2)

In the same way, it seems to me, there can be no single poetics of collaboration. The ways in which artists collaborate bring out different figurations of memory, different figurations of what a true conversation could ever be.



Works cited: 


Barthes, R 1991 [1970] ‘The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Some Eisenstein Stills’, in The Responsibility of Forms Berkeley CA: University of California Press

Bergson, H 2004 Matter and Memory, translated by NM Paul and WS Palmer, New York: Dover Publications Inc 

Bowen, E 1952 [1929] The Last September, New York: Alfred A Knopf, Borzoi edition

Breton, A 1948 Breton Remembers, from the catalogue of an exhibition at La Dragonne, Galerie Nina Dausset, Paris, 7-30 October, entitled 'Le Cadavre Exquis: Son Exaltation', p.5-7, 9 11.1, at http://www.exquisitecorpse.com/definition/bretons_remembrances.html (accessed 1 December 2015)

Breton, A 1972 Manifestoes of Surrealism trans. R Seaver and HR Lane, Ann Arbor MI: University of Michigan Press

Deleuze, G and Parnet, C 2007 [1987] ‘The Actual and the Virtual’, in Dialogues II, trans. H Tomlinson and B Habberjam, New York: Columbia University Press

Felt Space Gallery, at http://www.feltspace.org (accessed 6 October 2014)

Freud, S 2013 [1920] A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, trans. GS Hall, Auckland: The Floating Press

Krauss, R 1997 ‘“... And Then Turn Away?” An Essay on James Coleman’, October 81, Summer

Harms, L 2014 constellations: art & the after-life of images, PhD dissertation, Adelaide: University of South Australia