Thursday, February 12, 2009

Surealist Conditionals -- Absurdist Logic


For months I've been obsessed with this quote by Mexican poet Roberto Juarroz. I started writing it everywhere – as the signature to my email, on notes to friends, and in little spots around my office. It was the kind of idea that was planted like a seed and grew a thousand branches. I started thinking about absence and presence, energy and transformation. What is fleeing exactly? How do we know when we get there? And what gets lost along the way?

The line haunted me. A few months later, when fellow Break Arts artist Leah Sobsey and I began talking about leading text and image workshops with HABLA in Merida, I knew I wanted to use this poem in some way to organize our workshops. In many conversations between Greensboro and Chicago, Leah and I started making connections between the ideas in Juarroz's poem and the antique photographic process of cyanotypes, one of Leah's favorite photographic processes. Just as Juarroz's poem pushes the reader to think about fullness and emptiness, absence and presence, so do cyanotypes, which depend on the energy and heat of the sun to reveal or hide images placed on sheets of chemically coated fabric or paper. A transformation happens. Both the poem and the process itself asks us -- simply put -- what makes a thing – a thing? Where does its essence reside?

Leah and I began to plan a text and image workshop that would include a poetry warm up, close analysis and discussion of a poetic text, and the cyanotype process. Traditionally, cyanotypes entailed placing objects from the natural world onto treated paper, exposing the paper to sunlight, and removing those objects to reveal its after-image. But Leah explained the magic of using transparencies and black sharpies to write or copy text, placing it flat onto treated paper, making it possible to expose original handwriting and poetic text. The possibilities were endless and we couldn't wait to try this with workshop participants.

For the poetry warm up, we wanted to play with the idea of "conditionals" or "poetic logic" to fuel our thinking about absence and presence. We decided to play a Surrealist game in which two players invent poetic sentences by one player creating an "if/when" phrase and the other deciding on a "then" phrase without knowing or seeing the other half. To play this game, you can either write your part down or simply think it. When both players have decided on their part, the team reveals the thought in its entirety. You can also play this game by both players secretly writing an "if/when" phrase, folding or hiding it, trading their phrase with their partner, and completing a "then" phrase. No matter how you play, the idea is to generate surprising and audacious new language pairings that provoke new thinking about what makes a thought or an image whole.


Get into pairs and assign a Person A and a Person B.

Person A thinks of an “if/si or when/cuando” statement.

Ex: If a bird chirps or When a child fails

Person A does NOT tell Person B – they either think it or jot it down


Person B thinks of a “then/entonces” statement.

Ex: then all the leaves will fall or then I’ll have to wash the spoons.

Person B does NOT tell Person A yet – they either think it or jot it down.

When both Person A and Person B are ready – meaning they each have their secret phrase, they give each other a nod to reveal the conditional statement as a whole:

If a bird chirps
Then all the leaves will fall.

When a child fails,
Then I’ll have to wash the spoons.

The joy is in the audaciousness of surprising and unexpected connections. It’s fun for Person A and Person B to jot down the whole phrase before moving on to a next partner.

In the style of a salon, each person quickly finds a new partner, quickly decides who will think of an “if/when” and who will then of a “then” and begin again.

There are many variations on this exercise – and when working with children, it also works well if each child comes up with an “if/when” phrase on a sheet of paper. Each child also comes up with a “then” phrase. The children make two piles on the floor and then are invited to select one phrase from each pile to create surprising new phrases. That’s just one possibility out of many to make this exercise more hands on and interactive. You could also make a visible wall of “if/when” and “then” phrases and have students mix and match the phrases in pairs. The emphasis should be on the joy of outrageous pairings – constructing new meanings and images – and delighting in the results.

No comments: