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LABORS OF EXISTENCE
Perspectives of selfdiagnostics of the surrealist group in Stockholm
Still waiting for substantial response to Voices of the Hell-Choir to drop in, we take the opportunity to dwell on points tangented by it. Let us now consider the question whether we exist or not.
Let us first of all admit that this is not a very interesting question in itself. The connections where the issue has been raised (a statement by the Chicago group embellished with official representation from Paris (statement), a Wikipedia article (the surrealist group in Stockholm), probably some comments in swedish press which we didn’t memorise, apparently rumors spread by the Paris group, some persistent rumors – or rather nagging articles of faith – from some ex-members, plus some internal discussion within the group) will have very different reasons for posing it, and/or different reasons for ignorance, and it must be further specified to produce an interesting discussion. We will use this as a mere pretext for summing up some recent organisational discussions we’ve had.
Even though few of those posing the question will have a real interest in the ontological level where it is litteraly posed, that is where we will start.
Does the group as such exist as a distinct, in some sense autonomous, real entity; or is it an abstraction or a mere conglomerate/cluster/organisation of its component parts? Rather than seeking an unambiguous answer to this question we could use it as a starting point to discuss some of the fundamental characteristics of collectivity in a surrealist framework. Now in surrealism we are, to begin with, used to emphasizing synergistic aspects; the collective is more than the sum of the individual contributions, but this is very much a truism. In some senses the collective is obviously also less than its individuals, both in some trivial and some frustrating senses. The important thing is to see a qualitative and not merely quantitative difference; the collective is SOMETHING ELSE.
It provides a framework of social and historical continuity, rupture and innovation which give things their objective meaning in spite of subjective intentions. It provides a center of attraction and repulsion which remains a (stirnerian) ”creative nothing” and may provide the individuals with a sense of serenity, belonging and sacrifice (in various degrees!), and may circumscribe, scrutinise and fuel our individual fields of actions from the viewpoints of both that which we hold dearest and of specific strategies, traditions and compromises, and specifically put perspective to and challenge those specific abstractions of compromises that constitute our individual personalities, and in the process concretely attack the humanist notions of unitarian, selfsufficiently integrated selfs.
But even more, it seems like the units that act and contribute within the group context can be identified with the partaking human individuals only in a physical and/or fairly trivial sense; in many cases it is far more revealing to see the component parts of the group as its INTERSUBJECTIVITIES. These may be analysed/imagined in terms of between-persons, ghosts, (deleuzian) machines, avatars, games, possessive spirits, behavioral loops, or other categories. In this perspective, it becomes obvious that most of the possibilities in the group setting are not available to the individuals individually, and that a lot of initiatives as well as obstacles to initiatives will reign ”automatically” without individual efforts, drawing on the specific intersubjective constellation, or on the specific mode of organisation, or on the ambiance or atmosphere, or on mere habits. Many functions will go on regardless of who is there to fulfill them, and many functions will appear to be centered mysteriously in thin air between people without anyone obviously contributing to them.
In our group we have a few times tried to analyse who the leading avatars are, in order to FEED those deemed dynamical (mostly those characterised by playfulness, enthusiasm, openminded thoughtfulness, self-surprise etc) and to STARVE those deemed stagnantial (mere sociality, selfsufficient cynicism, individual posturing, bureaucracy etc). As it is often avatars rather than individuals who actually make most of the texts, games and artworks we have sometimes given them personal names, and in that sense it would be fitting to describe our group as consisting of, from time to time (and not listing the merely polemically named), the silent hand, the monkey king (Kung Markatta), the vagrant (Lösdrivaren), merdarius, Diabolik, Sven Situation, the Faeroe Islands surrealist group, the raging Charon, the biographed poet, the pilgrim surrealist, the night group, the charlatans of gravity, the irrationality surfer, and dozens of yet unnamed creatures.
In this connection, it can be noted that the ”modes of rhetoric” of Voices of the Hell-Choir very well could be conceptualised as such intersubjective forms too. Living their own life, but clearly not independently of conscious individual and collective choices.
Those who doubt our existence probably don’t do so from an ontological perspective, but rather question whether we fulfill their specific requirements for existence as a group. What is needed?
1. individual members
2. an organised form
3. some sense of coherence
4. continuous activity.
Obviously this has to be further specified to really rule out anything. For example, the organisational form may be that of an informal social cluster, the sense of coherence may consist in the organisational form alone or the activity alone, the activity may be continuous without being either regular or frequent.
Now for the international surrealists who doubt us there are probably no difficulties for them to admit the we fulfill criteria 1-3 in a manner similar to themselves. It appears to simply be the case that some groups assume that you don’t exist as a surrealist group if they haven’t heard from you in a few years.
Obviously, the implication of this is that they expect everybody to report to them regularly if they want to count themselves as members of the surrealist movement. This might actually be an involuntary ”slip of thought” rather than a conscious act. If we still find it meaningful to point this out as possibly symptomatic for certain groups, it is not in order to reproach them for it, but rather to give us all a chance to acknowledge that this is not the way a non-hierarchical network works.
Organisation of groups lies in the core of surrealist activity. In some places the groups become very longlived (while their membership and themes keep changing over time), in some places the specific organisational forms are more ephemeral and/or chaotic, with outbursts of shortlived organisational initiatives altering with periods of spontaneous informal activity. Many people stay alone, either based on rationalising some initial bad experiences with collectivity, or for very simple geographical or personal reasons. Groups are expectedly more solid as contact points since they will remain while individuals leave, will often have a larger ouput, and will see a both formal and substantial need to keep up contacts. On the other hand, in some cases individuals will form more reliable contact points anyway since it will be based on personal friendships.
We who have chosen to link up in a network of organised surrealism are all free to stay in contact with whom we like and cultivate collaborations with whom we like. Others may want to occasionally discuss specific choices there, but there are no obligatory referens points to be cleared by. The Paris and Prague groups have no special STATUS because they are the only ones who can boast an impressive more or less uninterrupted continuity from the 20s or 30s, and the Paris and Chicago groups have no special STATUS because they have at different occasions been the most active forces in international organising. If recognition of such a special status on their own part is possibly mostly an illusion, we suspect it to be more solid in some newcomers who may look up to them as idols (on the other hand, some of us who emerged in the 80s and early 90s may sometimes unnecessarily exaggerate our respectlessness towards them – if this is a mere psychological reaction to earlier such idolising we seem to have get stuck a bit. Then again, it is difficult to find individuals who hold specific such views, mostly it’s a mere intersubjectivity mode.)
And then the doubts whether certain groups exist are only due to shortcomings in communication. Organisational attempt at regular official reports have often failed, while spreading responsibility for different channels among participants sometimes works fine.
Then there may be some confusion due to the ambivalence of the designation ”surrealist group”, necessarily retaining a strict and a wide sense, the former as a specific form in an uninterrupted tradition from the group organised by Breton and friends in the early 20s and in collaboration with other such groups, the latter as any kind of grouping consisting of surrealists or with an activity that could be meaningfully described as surrealist. To draw a sharp line between groups that fulfill the requirements of the narrow sense and the rest, or even to merely work hard to define criteria for the former, will today seem strangely conspiratory or nostalgic or both. We should recognise that given the development of society since the 20s, given different cultural climates and customs, and given the vastly variable intersubjectivities as such, there will be no form universally relevant to the surrealist cause, and it will be up to the different surrealists to assess their possibilities and find an organisational form which suits their circumstances.
Mostly the doubts from ex-members and current members are due to certain assumptions regarding this organisational form. From ex-members this is less interesting and usually reflect either their own failure to impose certain forms when they were active, or their unwillingness to move on from earlier such forms together with the group which brought about their departure, or simply the fact that they don’t see what the group is doing when they are not part of it.
(Within the group however the doubt is more of an exaggerated but meaningful polemical tool asking whether shared interpretations of the criteria are actually fulfilled. For example, it has been noted that during periods with more informal activity; when a regular meeting time and place is lacking and so meetings, games and events are organised one at a time, these tend to be subsumed to purely social concerns, so that you often call specifically those you want to meet and not others, and also that the activities planned have to be pleasing for people to want to show up or to accept suggestions. Not only does this limit the scope and ambitions of discussions and experiments, but it also leaves out a number of people who are possibly-members, part-time-members, just less-social-members or less-likable-members, who are simply not regularly invited. If membership is not strict and unambiguous – which will often seem unnecessarily sectarian to impose in those cases where it isn’t spontaneously obvious – then there must be a way in which every partaking individual could decide for her/himself the degree of participation, which is most easily done by having a regular time and place for meetings, but of course could be done some other way (regular meetings may get boring now and then too and so risk falling into either bureaucratical or merely social modes…). Especially since we prefer under most circumstances not to impose a lot of democratic formalia but make our decisions by consensus on the spot, it becomes very important who has got the opportunity to participate at these occasions. And every now and then we see the the voluntarist activist ghost, the formalist ghost, and the fear of formalism ghost popping up. The first simply finds the more activities the better regardless of content, and tends to voluntarily or involuntarily impose hierarchies based on ”degree of commitment” in almost purely quantitative terms.
The second believes in organisational solutions to every problem, and makes sure that a lot of work is done merely to keep up the structures regardless of content. The third tries to escape all such explicit structures, loudly denounces them as formalist and either bohemically trusts inspiration as such or simply rests in the safely unspoken.)
Several people may have a vanguardist perspective, based on voluntarism and/or an either hegelian or fashion-sensitive assessing of ”historic necessities”. In many such views, surrealism is of course outdated in itself, but in others, surrealist groups may have a real existence, if they fight to be in some sense of contemporary forefront of radicality. This perspective may produce questions that are actually very relevant for us, as long as we keep in mind that there is NO COMMON MEASURE of radicality and certainly no external angle which is a reliable scale!
We shouldn’t deny that there are some, definitely among the non-surrealist commentators, probably among the ex-surrealists and possibly even among the surrealists, who see frequency of publication as the significant measure of degree of activity. Of course the limited output of our group, and especially an assessment of it lacking relevant facts (which most vantage points do), will provide arguments in favor of our non-existence. In this case, we don’t mind not existing at all.
For us, publishing has no intrinsic value. Whenever the public sphere is regarded as more REAL than ”real life”, as is often the case for young people and careerists working hard to affirm the ”society of the spectacle”, THEN of course exposure in the public sphere EQUALS ”self-realisation”. Since we’re not interested in self-realisation anyway – seeing that the ADULT mode of self-realisation, anonymity within the conventional family, is more easily attained but equally non-attractive – this doesn’t need to concern us.
But as surrealists, we are used to stating that ”One publishes in order to find comrades”. Surrealist publishing thus always remain a case of ”messages in a bottle”: eternally scattering messages in the hope that they will somewhere invent their target, that is, finding someone bold, openminded, depraved and/or desperate enough to respond to the challenge in a way unimagined by us, which may or may not be the same thing as simply bringing in their individual sensibilities to our common causes.
However we must recognise that different strategies of searching for comrades may be relevant and/or effective under different circumstances. Regular surrealist publishing may create an audience for itself of those cultural consumists who demand entertainment out of the ordinary. It always runs the risk of simply fulfilling a function by manifesting a WIDTH to the cultural and intellectual SUPPLY; a spectacular ALTERNATIVE. It may force a surrealist group to work as an editorial board instead of experimenting, playing and thinking. It provides an arena for those among us who start practicing public posturing, eventually get addicted to public exposure and usually depart from surrealist activity (except perhaps in cases where the surrealists are flattered to have celebrities among themselves and allow them extra ”freedoms”) (Do not misread us here. The Stockholm group has parted ways with a certain number of individuals who became public figures so we MUTUALLY LOST INTEREST. Still, within the group we count for example one professional musician and one professional writer, who simply haven’t chosen brand placement over poetic work, and one professional journalist and one professional academic, who just don’t confuse their daily work with surrealism…)
We've said it before: We don’t want to join in with the cultural choir.
(Ironically we coined the watchword exactly when we were actually doing exactly that by launching our journal Stora Saltet, the relative success of which eventually disgusted us!). If publishing is in a sense independent of particular ideas as to situation, target group or short-term concrete aims; still making publications is a considerable collective effort which will feel like a meaningful experiment in some situations (with some specific concerns) and not in others.
There are also other arenas for searching for comrades. Of course from a mathematical viewpoint, larger circulation equals a larger probability of chance hits. On the other hand, larger circulation usually also means triviality, blunting compromise, more or less adaptation to standard views and standard means, or their likenesses. Those fora where we speak FREELY usually do not amount to a circulation quantitatively larger than, for example, those we are exposed to in our everyday lives (if fairly extrovert, that is). It would be very good if we would all do some more strategical thinking and strategical experimenting.
Depending on where we assess that there might be specific centers of dynamism in the present situation, we might raise occasions to radicalise courses of events by either producing specific open letters or leaflets, or simply talking to people, or organising games, or suggesting common reading, or behaving erratically, or perhaps just remaining a personal contact within the epicentra of the range of specialised fora which may be part of our field of interest in general terms. Individual surrealists will be present in activist groups, study circles, hobby societies, amateur research groups, professional research groups, artists associations, seances etc based on their personal fields of interest.
For us, these fields somehow represent facets of the surrealist spectrum, and they can be so for anyone prepared not to stick to the limitations of specialisation within the field. Now, we are not talking about flattering ourselves with being ”spiders in the web” in purely virtual networks of exchanges where people only brag about their wide and excentric circles. We are not talking about superficial ”meetings” and potential ”cross-fertilisations” which has become an official-artistic and liberal-recuperative project. We are talking about recognising the sense of a common core to these different specialised activities, a common core of emancipatory quest for the unknown in its intersubjective, creative and nonconformist force, which is poetry. Then, there is no need to teach our bohemic artist friends nuances and sensibility – instead they have a lot to learn from strict methodology and serious collectivity. There is no need to sharpen the analytical accuracy of our activist intellectual friends and contest the details of radical theory with them – instead it will be very interesting when they realise that poetry is something to be invented, not something which is already there as such in every political demonstration NOR in spare-time therapeutic ”creative writing”. Etc, etc. Simply by being there, we will hopefully facilitate their seduction. A rough surface provides a larger interface than a smooth one.
A surrealist group will appear more or less MYSTERIOUS even to those close to it regardless of whether the group in question is in ”occultation”, or merely introvert, or tries to be extrovert. This is probably because its coherence springs from being an embodiment of a more or less hidden tradition and a nexus which is the interface of that inherited cause, those inherited methods, those inherited unanswered questions and those inherited experiences made, with the present society we live in and our specific subjective and intersubjective modes. Particularly, being so damned ineffective and focusing on the long term, keeping up a moral discussion on individual behavior, keeping up games and ambitious experiments in a systematic way, and scrutinising everyday phenomena for fragments of convulsory meaning, may seem equally repelling and seductive to a lot of people, hopefully contributing to the dynamics of these people confronting their inner demons in a way we all might benefit from. There appears to be no need to work hard neither to keep the group secret nor to advertise it, it seems to work in much the same way regardless of which. However of course, if the group has a regular public output, it will attract some people who just want to expose themselves, and if the group has no regular public output for a long time it relatively decreases its contact interface.
Then the internet has provided a forum which is admittedly in some ways fundamentally new, particularly in how it eases the increasal of QUANTITY of communication, and how it creates channels of no control whatsoever. This is really great for the traditional ”message in a bottle” task. We should never forget of course, that the population of internet users, even though global and demographically diverse, retains a strong dominance of semi-adult american males, and that the most active individuals often have corresponding lack of social skills in other fora, and that access is still extremely unequal depending on infrastructural and cultural specifics in large parts of the world.
But what the hell. Every channel has its limitations, and the characteristisations of the internet population is a mere statistical one, to which everybody encounters substantial exceptions. But as surrealists we are used to looking for the ambiance content of places, and the character of the internet AS A PLACE is not a very exciting one with its lack of nuances, lack of mystery, lack of smell and touch, etc. And obviously a very strong internet presence is more or less correlated with not being outdoors, not meeting people, not collaborating with those geographically at hand, not physically interacting.
Now general sensual curiosity will reduce that to a personal motivation problem and it won’t be further discussed.
At present we do appear to place at least some hope in internet communication.
More or less technical obstacles keep us from keeping our webpage updated.
Semi-official and personal blogs etc work much smoother. Who knows when we will print something next. The boredom of editorial tasks and the difficulties of distribution made us lose our lust for conventional publishing after we did Lucifer in 2000. After that our publications have been strictly underground (which of course has its pitfalls just like official publicity, not the least of which is its apparent safety). Except for our massive individual contributions to a recent unprincipled artists anthology called Autistisk Kilskrift, a very interesting experiment (autistisk kilskrift). To a methodological mind, failure is often much more success. We have no taste for purity and we do occasionally plunge into collaborations we don’t know what to expect from. The trial-and-error method is the most universally available for such connections.
The disappointments seem inexhaustible, and hopefully there has been some methodological stance allowing conclusions to be drawn.
Obviously, for artists non-predictability, radicality, experimentation, risk-taking and non-prejudicedness is often principled (”absolute”) but in practice almost always a more or less deliric openness specifically towards the surrounding market ether and the ”opportunities” provided by the agendas of some specific agents bumped into more or less ”by chance”. We don’t mind appearing oldfashioned or rigid in that respect. Even the slowness and thoughtfulness that is preferrable with regards to the public sphere usually drives the entrepeneurs and journalists crazy and ruins the ”chances” anyway…
Nevertheless, nothing will make us really enthusiastic except that which challenges our ordinary modes of thought. Being unpredictable is certainly not an end itself, but often a good means to some specific end. The unknown does not thrive in voluntary ignorance, but in persistent senses of mystery.
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