Surrealist Games

When we are freed from the expectations of perfection, we are able to experiment, make mistakes without fear, and enjoy the process

Try some of these playful approaches as ice breakers, to loosen up, disrupt habitual patterns and introduce a sense of play into the serious business of making art. They are great for a new class, for the start of the year, but also fun to throw in the works at any time, to create a sense of fun and dispel the rigidity that can accumulate around meeting expectations. The surprise is that you might find your students make some interesting work and discover new approaches that they wouldn't usually try. This can carry on into their personal studio work and enhance the thinking process.

Exquisite Corpse

Surrealist artists played a collaborative, chance-based game, typically involving four players, called Cadavre Exquis (Exquisite Corpse).

Exquisite Corpse was originally a parlor game based on words. This resulted in nonsensical phrases like “Le cadaver exquis boira le vin nouveau” (“The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine”), one enigmatic phrase after which the game was named. Then the visual version of it was developed which also uses random juxtapositions of images with whimsical, nonsensical results.

Exquisite Corpse involves elements of unpredictability, chance, unseen elements, and group collaboration—all in service of disrupting the waking mind’s penchant for order.

How to do it? Paper and pencil is all you really need. You can offer a range of materials for more variegated results, or restrict the medium intentionally, i.e. biro pen and graph paper. I like to use collage and mixed media for this. In the image on the left we used magazine collage and ink. Each person begins by making a "head" on a piece of paper ( in this case long, A3 colored paper) then passes it to the next person who makes a "body", etc.

Part of the fun is responding to the other persons drawing so you don't need to cover your work as you pass it on. It can get a little outrageous sometimes but it is definitely a fun and creative way to get over fear of the blank page. The work has no individual ownership, which helps build confidence and comraderie.

The drawing below by Louise Bourgeoise, La Femme Maison, uses the concept of the Exquisite Corpse but this is no collaborative foldover, it's a one woman exquisite exploration of entrapment! So a follow up activity to the collaborative group work could be to create your own exquisite corpse from head to toe..

Not only the surrealist play games....

Let the words decide

In the mid-1960s the sculptor Richard Serra’s interest in materials and the physical process of making sculpture led to this list of action verbs—"to roll, to crease, to curve"—that Serra compiled and then enacted with the materials he had collected in his studio.

"It struck me that instead of thinking what a sculpture is going to be and how you're going to do it compositionally, what if you just enacted those verbs in relation to a material, and didn't worry about the results?”-Richard Serra

Go to Richard Serra's Verbs for the full list.

Oblique Strategies

(over one hundred worthwhile dilemmas)

The original Oblique Strategies is a set of published cards in a black box, created by composer/ musician Brian Eno and painter Peter Schmidt, first published in 1975, and now in its fifth, open ended, edition.
Each card contains a phrase or cryptic advice that can be used to help you when you are stuck in your creative work.
The idea is to draw a card at random and then use that phrase to address the problem or impasse in your work. This is kind of like consulting the oracle or picking a fortune cookie, the element of chance involved makes it into a game. Go to the Oblique Strategies page for the whole activity.

Show and Share

All of the above "games" I have put in a powerpoint format which you can download as Surrealist Games Slideshow.

Teaching Idea: In groups of 4, try doing the Exquisite Corpse activity, then follow with the slideshow and a discussion about ways that artists have used play and chance in their art making processes. You could then ask students to write about the experience of play in art in the visual journal.

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