Friday, 28 September 2007

Crisis of the Object

Max Ernst paraphrased the classic postulate of Lautreamont as ‘the fortuitous encounter – upon a non-suitable plane – of two mutually distant realities’ (Inspiration to Order). Here, a fruit-drying machine replaces the notorious sewing machine; an analogous object (octopus) replaces the umbrella and the ‘non-suitable’ plane of the dissecting table is replaced by a desolate landscape – in the background? Maldoror. Revised from Crisis of the Object, Letter of Introduction, 1972.

Illustration: Crisis of The Object III The Ducassian Encounter, 1972

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Convulsion Revisited

It might be the case that the idea of Convulsion as a guiding principle arose during a rambling discussion triggered by a short, passing reference to the topic in Patrick Waldberg’s book Surrealism (1965). There may be those who recall taking part in such a discussion in 1967 and who may even remember the very place in Chelmsford where we met – a coffee bar in Duke Street opposite the Civic Centre and Public Library – the last time I looked it was still there. There may also be some who, even today, might recall how, in a crowded, smoky hostelry next to the railway station, the more formal notion of a BCI (Bureau of Convulsive Inquiries, or was it Investigations?) was mooted. Some might claim that such a thing actually existed – on paper at least.
And yet I recall most vividly that it was, in fact, in Villiers Street, near Charing Cross, in a restaurant long since vanished (there was shadowy corner lined with fake books) that the suggestion of a Convulsionist Group was proposed for the very first time. I only wish I could remember the name of the place, but I expect it was a Golden Egg, as the interior decor was elaborate and colourful. We can all agree, I think, that Convulsionism emerged in 1967 for the simple reason that the poem ‘Birth of Convulsion’ dates from that year and no earlier testimonials survive: for a very few the Summer of Love was also the Summer of Convulsion.
It was late afternoon when, walking towards Villiers Street, through the Victoria Embankment Gardens, I came across that embodiment of the Convulsive Aesthetic, or one sharply defined facet of such an aesthetic: the Sullivan Memorial by W. Goscombe John. It was ‘the mourning girl’; an allegory of music grieving for a dead composer that, at that epiphanic moment, caused a veritable frisson of the imagination. This mild shock evoked in turn a quotation from Rider Haggard’s She, which I am very sure read as follows:

…with a convulsive movement that somehow gave the impression of a despairing energy, the woman rose to her feet and cast the dark cloak from her.

It was natural that I then recalled the famous passage from Against Nature where Huysmans decibes Salome's gesture in Gustave Moreau's watercolour The Apparation:

with a gesture of horror, Salome tries to thrust away the terrifying vision which holds her nailed to the spot, balanced on the tips of her toes, her eyes dilated, her right hand clawing convulsively at her throat..

By word association I next recalled an amusing anecdote recounted in a book on Art Nouveau by John Russell Taylor which recorded how, when Burne-Jones admitted that he wished he had seen Blake’s Behemoth as a teenager, a friend exclaimed "My dear, you would have been carried off in convulsions!"
Obsessed with Decadence, I felt the sensual ‘wave-line’ of Art Nouveau, the frisson a l’unison of the ‘Cantique de Saint Jean,’ and certain details of Beardsley’s Salome drawings exemplified the notion of a Convulsive force in a manner that complimented Breton’s eloge du cristal, or Dali’s ‘The Phenomenon of Ecsasty’. Eine linie ist eine Kraft (‘a line is a force’) wrote Henry van de Velde in some forgotten artistic treatise published in the fin de siecle era. Here, I thought, was a kind of continuity, linking the ‘magnetic force’ of Rider Haggard’s awesome Queen of Kor with the Surrealist principle of Convulsive Beauty via the sinuous, ectoplasmic wave forms of Art Nouveau and the galvanic posture of an allegory of music as sculpted for the memorial before me. It was the birth of Convulsion from an allegory of music.
There were others that evening who, because they despised Dali, and for other reasons, argued that Ernst's ‘The Eye of Silence’ (currently on the cover of Ballard’s The Crystal World) and ‘The Robing of the Bride’ epitomised the true spirit of present day Convulsion in art. Together with the ‘secret festivals’ of Leonor Fini and the multiple perspectives of the ‘unconscious anatomy’ described by Hans Bellmer, it was, in the final analysis, Max Ernst who was the guiding light on our quest to become cartographers of 'inner space'. Notwithstanding the still-living presence of Elizabeth Siddal, who seemed, for at least one of us, a more than fleeting presence, Gothic Convulsion in art was exemplified by Rossetti’s absolutely uncanny ‘How They Met Themselves’ (his ‘bogey picture’) while some, even more ambitious, claimed Crivelli, Goya and even Leonardo (think of his crumbling, oracular wall), as precursors.
Yet another asserted the importance of the echoing spaces and voids depicted in Messiaen’s Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum (this, despite the anti-clericalism of Convulsion), or the tortured, Expressionist sprechstimme of Pierrot Lunaire, to show that Convulsion pervades the universe of music. Convulsion in music certainly existed, it was said, despite the intentions of composers who were, as we knew, often behind the times. Of course the ‘Liebestod’ from Tristan was always cited in such conversations together with some works by Varese and Bartok, while on other occasions, it was permissible to assert that ‘classical’ music (whatever that was) was no longer ‘it’. Quite rightly, to ‘get Convulsion now’, you should listen to ‘Rocket 69’ by Connie Allen, or The Doors’ ‘Horse Latitudes’/ ‘Moonlight Drive’/ ‘People Are Strange’ – well the whole album actually. Jimi Hendrix and his Experience was certainly Convulsive among the ladies, so were Tropicalia, Brian Auger and anything by Charles Mingus, but especially ‘Ysabel’s Table Dance’ from Tijuana Moods.
Above all, I thought of Wifredo Lam’s hieratic and sinister Altar for La Chevelure de Falmer exhibited in 1947 but not illustrated in Waldberg’s book, and certain images from a television programme called The Debussy Film (1965). It was an unquestioned axiom of dogma, a basic tenet of theory, that every utterance and written word by Antonin Artaud was ‘intrinsically Convulsive’ and ditto Marcel Duchamp. The same was true of every move and gesture by Conrad Veidt in the (‘totally Convulsive’) role of Cesare the Somnambulist or, more obscurely, as the eponymous student in The Student of Prague.
But of course, wishing, for obvious reasons, to elevate some film star or super-model to iconic status, most of us, inspired by The Phantom Of Sex Appeal, undoubtedly defined Convulsive Beauty in the context of ‘the internal (or, sometimes, ‘infernal’) feminine’. Candidates for this iconic role would include Charlotte Rampling for her portrayal of the doomed Elizabeth Thallman in Visconti’s The Damned (1968) or – very seriously – Fenella Fielding; and not just for her appearance as Valeria Watt in Carry On Screaming (1966). There was a positive mania for this kind of nomination with candidates ranging from Louise Brooks to Elsa Lanchester, Veronica Lake, Barbara Steele, Verushka, Jean Shrimpton, (not Twiggy) and Catherine Deneuve. One image, of the model Donyale Luna in Qui etes-vous Polly Maggoo?, became the ultimate icon, although a ‘Convulsive moment’ from Fortunata’s dance (Magali Noel in Fellini Satyricon) was also a close contender. At that time I had not seen a film called The Flesh and the Fiends or, without hesitation, I would have added the names of Billie Whitelaw to the list.
From very different perspectives there were other modes of Convulsion, including Lyrical Convulsion which was a style of ultra-decadent ‘Yellow Nineties’ poetry influenced by the naturalism of Arthur Symons, and Hermetic Convulsion requiring a knowledge of Alchemy but exclusively ‘under the poetic angle’. There were Convulsive Objects (instamatic cameras, cash machines, dictaphones, car stereos, audiocassette players), and Convulsive Places and Buildings (The Hellfire Caves, Museum Street, Centre Point, The Post Office Tower, Liverpool Street Station and Hungerford Bridge among others). Macabre Convulsion drew inspiration from Mervyn Peake's Fuschia Groan, Edgar Allan Poe and Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, while Absurd Convulsion was definitely both Pataphysical (Faustroll, Ubu Roi) and contemporary – as in the ‘Convulsively funny’ dinner party from Carry On Up the Khyber (1968). Radio 1 was definitely not Convulsive at all, and neither was The Liverpool Scene. The Gernreich topless dress was Convulsive but Post-Painterly Abstraction was not – well, not usually. William Burroughs was ‘in’ but Jack Kerouac was ‘out’… and what about Union Jack sunglasses, and all those sort of things? Well, no, not particularly, even though floral or Op Art ties were sometimes worn to Convulsive parties or gatherings at Le Macabre, a coffee house in Meard Street, or the sordid wine-cellar of Dirty Dicks on Bishopsgate. While writing practice was often 'under guerrilla conditions' (cut-ups inspired by Nova Express), the ideal Convulsive fashion style avoided blue jeans and aspired to attain an Essex Exi-gangster look, via Warhol and the Velvet Underground.

An amalgam of Surrealism and Decadence with an element of the Mod-Pop axis mixed with pure fantasy, Convulsionism valued the imagination and automatism above everything – the ideal Convulsive 'moment' is always inadvertent. In their book Surrealism: Permanent Revelation (1970) Cardinal & Short said correctly:

Surrealism has established its own ‘aesthetics’ by defining beauty in terms of a purely affective response to phenomena.

That this ‘excitation of the nerves’ as Angela Carter defined the concept sometime later, was in fact an extension into the mid-twentieth century of the Decadent idea of the frisson nouveau or crise de nerfs was the clever but not necessarily original basis for the Convulsionist aesthetic. It was an aesthetic that flourished obscurely during the era known by some as 'that decade of convulsion', but, more specifically, The Swinging Sixties, and which, in the long term, I suspect influenced no one but myself.

Illustration: Cantique de St Jean, 1968

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Medium of Doubt

Collage, an ambiguous, complex medium of doubt, to quote Werner Spies, is an aesthetic of radical juxtaposition. In his personal treatise Beyond Painting (1947), Max Ernst, with reference to both Rimbaud, and the famous 'chance encounter' from Book 6 of Les Chants de Maldoror, defined collage as an 'alchemy of the image...' . However,the photomontage style of collage finds its origins in the work of the Berlin Dada Movement who in turn were inspired by the inadvertent imagery generated by early cinema special effects and the composite images of 'trick photography'. The term photomontage was invented by the Berlin 'monteurs', Raoul Hasmann and Hanna Hoch.
From the Freudian perspective it may be that collage exemplifies one of the two 'laws' governing the behaviour of unconscious processes or phenomena (such as dreams): the law of Condensation, or Compression, as it is also called. (The second 'law' is the law of Displacement.) Freud explained Condensation as the 'inclination to create new unities out of elements that we would certainly have kept separate in waking thought...' In 'The Enormous Face' section of his novel The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), J G Ballard refers to the 'planes of intersection' operative on 'a third level, the inner world of the psyche' where, as on other levels, such 'planes' interlock at oblique angles and where one finds 'fragments of personal myths fusing with the commercial cosmologies...'
Elsewhere is the same book Ballard asserts that images are born at the intersection of such planes, when 'some kind of valid reality begins to assert itself.'
Illustration: Psychic Citadel, 2002

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Elements of Transmission

In automatic drawing graphical lines represent transient trace elements of transmission along neural pathways.
In his text The Automatic Message (1933), Andre Breton explained Surrealism's role in the 'determinaton of the precise constitution of the subliminal' but he also acknowledged that the conditions which validate an 'automatic' text or drawing are insufficiently known. Previously (1916) Austin Spare had defined automatism as an 'organic impulse' produced when the mind is in a 'state of oblivion'. By this means, he said, 'senasation may be visualised'. Just as Surrealists argue that Freudian theory helps to disentangle automatism 'from the sphere of spiritualist mystification' (Rosemont) it may be possible, as an extension of this approach, to suggest that automatist spontaneity is a manifestation of a little-recognised principle of self-activation, or self-determination, that is an essential property of reality.

Illustration: Lucifer Rising, 2006

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

The Convulsionist Group

Could you tell me about the group you formed called The Neo-Surrealist Convulsionist Group?It is tempting to say we were just a group of alienated teenagers…! We formed the thing in 1967 and it only lasted until around 1971 or 1972. There were about five or six participants based in Chelmsford, Essex. Other places included Colchester, Ipswich and Witham… people used to meet in coffee bars after school – we were all sixth formers doing art or literature, mainly as a way of avoiding sport. The associations continued after everyone left school and tried to get jobs. Some poetry was written and experimental prose cut-up; atonal electronic music was composed and lots of paintings and collages produced. There were occasional expeditions or ‘pilgrimages’ to ‘displaced destinations’ such as the old Hungerford Bridge, the Victoria Embankment Gardens (for the Sullivan Memorial – 'very convulsive’), The Atlantis Bookshop, or the Dashwood Mausoleum and Hell Fire Caves at West Wycombe. But mainly there was a lot of loafing around, drinking coffee and snogging – or going to see Hammer Horror films and German Expressionist movies at the NFT. There was one exhibition at Hylands House – the exhibition was for all the school leavers but we managed to commandeer a room – as the Convulsionists were the general organisers of the show it was quite easy to get the space! We came up with the term ‘Convulsionism’ after the phrase ‘Beauty will be convulsive…’ (from Breton’s Amour Fou). I felt it implied the ‘visceral’ idea - my ideal work of art was to be a meaningless allegory generated by a kind of neurological spasm or frisson that could be transmitted to the viewer – well, if it gave me a frisson it might give you one as well. One old policy document (called To Be Continued) from my archive says: "CONVULSION IS CONCERNED WITH THE BEAUTY OF PURE IMAGINATION AND FANTASY AND IS VIOLENTLY OPPOSED TO CONTRAPTON IN ANY FORM" (To Be Continued: Convulsively Produced Notes On Convulsion, 1968). Earlier, I mentioned some key influences… I should add the Lost Generation to the list – the Francophile ‘Yellow Nineties’ Decadent poets and artists (Arthur Symons, Ernest Dowson et al) and, also, the ultra-Symbolist absurdism (as we saw it) of Laforgue and Alfred Jarry – we were quite keen on ‘Pataphysics as I recall… There was some empathy with English Pop Art, so we rather revelled in the Mass Media – Pop Music (The Doors, Brian Auger), Jazz (Indo Jazz Fusions, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus), Science Fiction and ‘cult TV’. It was ironic that the real Surrealists had disbanded themselves in 1966 so we settled for being Neo-Surrealists!
(from the Neon Highway Interview with Jane Marsh, 2006)