Collective Craziness in the Exquisite Corpse

FELIX OPPEN ON EXQUISITE CORPSE

Illustration by Emma Sheehan

The game known as Exquisite Corpse is an invention of the Surrealists from the 1920s. The name is derived from the – typically surreal – phrase Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau.” (“The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine.”) André Breton, the principal founder of the Surrealist movement, reported that the game started as fun but eventually became an enriching and useful creative tool.

In the game, a collection of words and/or images (drawn or found, in the case of collage) is assembled collectively but in such a way that chance plays a significant role. Each collaborator adds to the composition by following a rule, or by being able to see the end portion of what the previous person has created.

The Exquisite Corpse is known to have been used by a lot of typically French artists and writers such as  Yves Tanguy, Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Prévert, Benjamin Péret, Pierre Reverdy and, of course, André Breton. It is likely many other artists, like Miro and Louise Bourgeois, used the game as a mode of creative expression as well. In playing the game the Surrealist artists created images in which they subjected the human body to distortions and juxtapositions that resulted in fantastic composite figures. See some of the results at this MoMA exhibition.

An Aside

Exquisite Corpse appeared at a similar time as the Dadist Cut-up Technique that incorporates chance into the process of creation, hence its connection to Exquisite Corpse. This is principally a literary technique that involved taking a finished and fully linear text and cutting it into snippets consisting of a few, or just single, words. The writer then rearranged them via some randomising technique – like pulling them from a hat – into a new text. William S Burroughs and Brion Gysin developed a variant called the Fold-in Technique which involved taking two pages of text, folding each in half vertically and combining with the other, then reading across the resulting page. This technique was used in their combined work The Third Mind.

Consequences

Exquisite Corpse is similar to the much older parlour game, Consequences. Consequences is a game in which a group of people create a story in sequence, and following a fairly rigid structure with each participant unable to see what the others have written. There is a variation to this game called Picture Consequences, which is much closer to the Surrealist Exquisite Corpse, where the players create a ‘monster’ (for want of a better term) with one player drawing the head, another the arms and so on, again with no player having seen more than a tiny portion (to allow for the body parts to be linked up) of what the others have drawn. The monster is revealed only when the image is complete.

Breaking Boredom Project

These days Exquisite Corpse is considered more of a kid’s (wet weather) game, however, the Breaking Boredom Project shows that, as a creative technique, it has validity in design. This project was run by Ahmed Foula in 2008 in Cairo. Six graphic designers (Ibrahim Eslam, Engy Aly, George Azmy, Mofa, Mahmoud Hamdy and Hani Mahfouz) participated in the creation of twelve designs according to a set of rules that differ from the traditional thinking patterns. The results of the project are now very difficult to view, the best we have so far been able to find is here.

How do you use the game to break blocks? Try it, and see what you come up with. Ligature Journal Four team member Emma Sheehan did, and five illustrations inspired by what her family did with it appear in our Disruption Issue.

This is an excerpt from Ligature Journal Issue Four.
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