Surgeon, Seamster, Sorcerer
Lodown Magazine
Today, it is hard to imagine that collage was once a radical practice. On the contrary, collage is arguably the defining paradigm of contemporary visual culture, in myriad ways. Smartphones have simplified and automated the construction of images through overlapping layers. We understand photographs as not only carriers for unseen metadata but also base layers for hashtags, stickers, quotes, and other visual ornaments. We splice film sequences into still images for social media, translating lost sound and movement into subtitles. We enjoy postmodernist humour built on esoteric references in unrelated settings. We make and share memes, adapting established visual tropes to specific subcultural themes. We cover nipples and genitals with emojis to avoid digital censorship. We swap eyes, noses, and mouths with the person sitting next to us using sophisticated facial recognition technologies. We may not think of these everyday actions as techniques of collage, but they are its direct descendants.

Rather than studying how collage was normalised, we might question why it was ever considered provocative in the first place. This requires a fundamental understanding of a Western tradition of art theory, which has been suspicious of the deceptive powers of the image since classical antiquity. The art historian David Summers explains that “rhetoric (the art of persuasion) was said from its beginnings to have succeeded in its aim—that is, to have changed minds and influenced actions—when it had met the standard of appearance…because the the primary appeal of rhetoric is to seeming and imagination, not to logic and reason.”1 The artist in the Western European tradition, namely the painter, was thus ascribed a moral responsibility to depict a culturally circumscribed reality as faithfully, accurately, and ethically as possible, given the scientific and aesthetic understand of visual perception at the time.

Even the endlessly innovative Leonardo da Vinci, who acknowledged that historical tradition might produce inaccurate depictions and that image-making could begin with invention, declared in A Treatise on Painting that the most commendable image “has the greatest conformity to what is meant to be imitated.”2 In that vein, he also explains his precise technique for representing three-dimensional objects in space from the viewpoint of an observer using linear perspective. Ironically, the establishment of that orderly virtual space, extending endlessly in all directions on an unchanging grid, empowered artists to combine unrelated elements in a cohesive narrative. Summers calls this the “pictorialization of imagination”, giving the example of Hieronymus Bosch, whose “forms are fantastic, not just in the sense that they combine parts of natural things in impossible ways, but in the deeper sense that these impossible new forms appear as if in natural light; they are…optically credible.”3

Centuries later, the relatively younger practice of collage was established on different conceptual, aesthetic, and material precepts, but it is similarly rooted in the creation of an original narrative through techniques like trompe-l’œil, symbolism, humour, surrealism, comparison, or juxtaposition. Of course, surrealism, absurdity, or nihilism should not be confused with randomness. Collages reveal both the agency of their creators and the orientation and depths of their fantasies, and have often been used to subvert the use of subliminal visual messaging towards commercial or political aims. However, a conservative history of collage—beginning with Braque and Picasso and ending with the absurd nihilism of the Wolf Eyes Psycho Jazz Instagram—neutralises the enduring potential of collage as a transgressive form of art. Today, when both visual representations and technological augmentations of physical reality play an instrumental role in our experience of “actual” space, we might see the expanded practice of collage as an experimental form of architecture. Furthermore, in a physical world that is increasingly regimented in terms of movement—where both the edge and the centre, the border and the public square, are increasingly policed—collage may be a new source of radicality in the design and experience of architectural space.

In order to situate collage within the architectural discipline, it is necessary to develop a broader definition: collage could be described as the introduction of discrete and unusual elements into a dimensional space, in which there tends to be a distinction between figure and ground, between content and context. The “deepest” visual stratum may be seen as the original environment, uniting newer independent components in a continuous playing field, upon which the superimposed elements are charged with a sense of disruption and an increased conceptual weight. To quote Summers again, “Images are fashioned in order to make present in social spaces what for some reason is not present.”4 Following his logic, collage goes a step further by constructing and making present a set of elements that are implausible or impossible in their proximity, due to scalar disparities, cultural incompatibility, biological recombination, geographical or temporal separation, or sheer irrelevance. In that way, collage is a unique form of meaning-making that embraces paradox and contradiction, interpolates in the social order, and is contextually implicated, allowing for more nuanced and reflexive interpretations.

But our understanding of collage as a radical form of architecture demands a departure from the context of the image plane and an inquiry into the body—in space, in action, and in confrontation with a variety of materials—as a key factor in the collage as process-based work. An embodied practice of collage could be defined as a succession of three roles—the surgeon, the seamster, and the sorcerer.5 This framework is instrumental for two reasons. First, it reflects the Western art tradition’s fascination with the body in space and interest in the movements and tools of cutting, positioning collage in a longer historical lineage of aesthetic evolution. Second, it highlights the importance of bodily presence, inhabitation, interference, and invention even in the two-dimensional image that often replaces three-dimensional space in today’s world of networked media. These factors counteract the growing perception of contemporary collage, from Google Earth to Snapchat, as a prefabricated template for personal images and data.

Collage and surgery are united by the centrality of the scalpel. Cutting is a violent act both literally and metaphorically: it can be bloody, dangerous, and cruel, but it also insinuates isolation, displacement, and decontextualisation. In both architecture and collage, the visual cut represents a physical and theoretical perspective on a complex reality: as a gesture in an imagined space, the cut introduces planarity as a tool of analysis. Indeed, architectural drawing is based on “impossible” cuts like plans and sections, while scientific drawings and artistic works of the dissected human body have capitalised on their unreal nature to perform graphically the cuts that cannot be made in person, either because they would be technically impossible or because they would ensure the death of the human model. At the same time, modern surgery’s reliance on anaesthetics and anti-infection drugs resonates with the amputation and dislocation of visual elements in the collage process.

Quebrantahuesos is an example of mass-media collage that also exhibits a morbid fascination with the human body and its aberrations, corruptions, and representations.6 Created by Nicanor Parra in collaboration with Alejandro Jodorowsky and Enrique Lihn in 1952, these assemblages of cut-up newspaper fragments were posted on the walls of Calle Bandera and other locations in Santiago de Chile. Quebrantahuesos borrow the format of a newspaper or bulletin, with diverse stories occupying discrete plots of a larger page—in itself a proto-form of collage—but each individual item reveals its inexplicable humour in turn as it is read. One headline reads “Gigantic child kicks visiting lady out of his home with a small foot”, while another proclaims “Spectacularly fat man has surpassed all limits of consideration and respect”.7 Other titles veer into the truly enigmatic, with “Three-month-old prodigy announces injection to hear with his fingers”, “Order to buy broken dentures (even if it rains)”, or “Old woman falls apart: Two seriously injured”.8 Yet Parra distinguishes his work from surrealism: “they were seeking poetic, unexpected effects…I, for one, was seeking effects that could be called coarse or crude.”9 Much more than a technique of experimental writing, Quebrantahuesos embodies the jarring collision of technology, sensational media, privacy, modern medicine, and urban space during the mid-20th century, splicing words to emphasise the loss of traditional and collective meaning.

This process of incision expands from the scale of the human body to that of the city in Guy Debord and Asger Jorn’s Mémoires, a publication “composed entirely of prefabricated elements” and assembled in several sessions from 1958 to 1959.10 Scattered among lines of text and dashes of coloured ink are cut-out human figures and body parts, tiny photographs of the authors, architectural plans and elevations, fragments of maps and city blocks, comics, and brand logos. Mémoires challenges the viability of postwar urban planning by revealing an underlying society and culture that cannot be reduced, rationalised, or fixed in time. Debord and Jorn claim, through repurposed excerpts, that “the erotic frenzy undermines the foundation of the established order”, positioning the Situationist method of dérive as a more meaningful way of experiencing the city: “this free movement of groups that form and deform and that, however, could not follow any other route”.11 The chopped up sections of Paris, from the Jardin du Luxembourg to the Boulevard de la Bastille, laid out with no geographical fidelity, materialise this act of cutting as a conceptual approach to navigating the city. But Mémoires also positions the act of creativity beyond an a priori notion of originality, rooted rather in recombining, misremembering, wandering, and juxtaposing—the fundamental aspects of collage. "Let it not be said that I said nothing new: the layout of the materials is new”, and “the arrangement of words that leads to discourse transforms something in the order of the world by an action on the consciences: the one that formulates it and those that hear it.”12 Even the book itself is a tool of cutting, as its sandpaper wrapper shreds the covers of the neighbouring books on the shelf it is placed. It manifests the idea “of a past that can only be relived in memory, or in a 'repetition' where, whatever one does, it is degraded”.13

And yet we might neutralise the idea of “degrading” and simply call it a process of rewriting, considering that recombining is even more essential to the creation of collage than cutting. The act of sewing together, of interlacing, of collating is the second and definitive step. The seamster, following the surgeon, collapses the various spaces, dimensions, materials, and origins of the constituent elements into a shared field, creating depth in this flattened or overlapping space through greater density and meaning. Sewing also raises the notion of linking, invoking the logic of multiplicity and interconnectivity epitomised by the digital network, as well as tailoring, or altering a given narrative to fit a different retelling preferred by the author.

According to that reasoning, the documentary photographer Roger Fenton’s 1855 work Valley of the Shadow of Death, is arguably a proto-form of collage, albeit one where the “cutting” and “sewing together” of elements into new relations took place in real space, where the process of flattening was effected by the camera. The photograph, taken in Sebastopol during the Crimean War, shows a road littered with cannonballs, winding through a landscape strewn with small rocks alongside a ditch where more cannonballs have collected. To be more precise, the work comprises a set of photographs: the previously mentioned scene, and a second scene that is identical except for the absence of cannonballs on the road. In 2007, the writer and filmmaker Errol Morris investigated these photographs, famously referenced in Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, in order to find out definitively which photo was “real” and which was staged.14 As historian Ulrich Keller wrote in his 2001 book The Ultimate Spectacle, “Fenton obviously rearranged the evidence in order to create a sense of drama and danger that had originally been absent from the scene”, a formulation reminiscent of Summers’s definition of the image.15

More than a century later, the German artist Franz Erhard Walther used the process of sewing more literally to pursue a parallel track of bringing elements—in his case, people, often strangers—into relations they would normally not enter, which were witnessed live or documented by photographs. Werksatz (1967–72) is a series of deceptively simple, though exquisitely crafted, canvas patterns that occupy the space between flat object and three-dimensional construction. These devices draw people into different body positions and groupings, often in the context of the museum: four people lie down on the floor in a cross-shape or stand in a square, their legs submerged in a soft fabric rectangular prism; two people stand at various distances to one another, based on the length of a fabric tube or sheet; one person becomes part of the display, held by a sleeve or a trouser leg hung on the gallery wall. Walther’s work draws another link between collage and architecture, reminding us that the underlying tensions and inequalities about how different kinds of people are intended to use space may be largely invisible. Whereas the stereotypical collage combines elements that self-evidently do not “belong” together, the inhabitants of an architectural space resemble one another but experience different forms of access based on class, knowledge, culture, gender, or other forms of codified status. In that sense, sewing together diverse individuals can become a radical process as collage in space.

Following in the line of the surgeon and the seamster, the role of the sorcerer conjures up meanings and messages where they did not exist before, at least in those forms or guises, making the collage exponentially more than the sum of its parts. The sorcerer crafts existential humour from the material of daily life, unveils the enigmatic connections behind a first impression of randomness, disillusions us of our desire to find order, and confronts our ingrained notions of propriety. Today, the ubiquity and automation of collage-derived practice not only obfuscates the power of the surgeon and the seamster, but also deprives the sorcerer of their inherently transgressive power to extract new significances from the elements that previously did not allow them.

Today, the sorcerer finds a renewed sense of urgency in the territory of the Internet, where not only elements, agents, and contexts multiply, but where humans as spectators or consumers of images and information are no longer removed, placed at the end of a one-way process. As Camille Henrot shows in her 2013 film Grosse Fatigue, the transplantation of hierarchical Western knowledge structures—some born in the Enlightenment (like astronomy, biology, and taxonomy), others in the late 19th century (like preservation and taxidermy)—to contemporary technologies is facilitated by the “typical hierarchical classification of the computer” but corrupted by the capacity of the Internet to link unrelated things together.16 Grosse Fatigue uses the language of the desktop and the pop-up screen as unconsciously created and constantly evolving collages, but relates these relatively insignificant and democratic tools to frameworks of organisation used in authoritative institutions, like the archival shelf, the catalogue, and the index. At the same time, Henrot explores the consequences of the hypertext as a form of collage “intended to organize knowledge around subjective trails…among potentially disparate areas of study.”17

Henrot casts the collage as a dangerous and powerful practice, entailing a certain responsibility: “separation and removal entails a certain violence: by removing a leaf from its branch, by separating a petal from the stem, the flower is harmed.”18 But this responsibility cannot be abdicated by creating images or architecture as tabula rasa, entirely new and exclusively self-referential constructions, along the ideologies of abstract art or modernist architecture: “Nowadays, our image of inhabited space is a wounded city…crowded, chaotic, noisy, and realizing the degree to which it is becoming vulnerable to limits.”19 The qualities of interdisciplinary and transmateriality enjoyed by collage also make it fragile as an artefact; it always displays its provisional and experimental nature. The threat to the cut-out and decontextualised object is the same threat to the heterogeneous and recontextualised assembly of the collage itself.

In that sense, Henrot refers to collage as an embodied practice that directly concerns architectural space, something which we are increasingly encouraged to think about in terms of visual, virtual, or quantitative terms given the great expansion of mapping, surveillance, and simulation technologies in the past few decades. Nevertheless, a cursory overview of the world in that same time period would suggest that these technologies have made our buildings, cities, or landscapes more accessible only to an elite few, while also making it easier to identify and exclude others. In that sense, technologies of visualisation have exaggerated and reinforced the hierarchy of access to space, rather than flatten and democratise it. But in Grosse Fatigue, the eye is counterbalanced with the hand as an operative tool in the construction and consumption of collage-like assemblies. As Henrot states, hands “are tools for touching information and images—opening and closing them, moving them, sorting them. Once again, images seem within reach of the hands, weirdly palpable.”20 As designers and inhabitants of space, we must use not only our hands but our entire physical apparatus to embody the paradoxes, contradictions, vulnerabilities, and potentials of collage as a form of architectural resistance and reinvention.

  1. David Summers, Vision, Reflection, and Desire in Western Painting, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2007, p. 2, 14.
  2. And that “just by throwing a sponge soaked with various colors against a wall to make a stain, one can find a beautiful landscape...” In Leonardo da Vinci, A Treatise on Painting, Paris: Raffaelo du Fresne, 1651.
  3. David Summers, Real Spaces, New York: Phaidon Press, 2003, p. 30.
  4. Real Spaces, p. 252.
  5. In “The Agency of Mapping”, James Corner proposes the map as a similar tripartite scheme of field, extract, and plotting.
  6. El quebrantahuesos is also the name of the bearded vulture, a creature positioned in Western culture as a greedy and sinister predator of dying animals and people.
  7. “Niño gigantesco arroja a una señora que se hallaba de visita en su casa con un pequeño pie” / “Gordo espectacular ha sobrepasado todo límite de consideración y respeto”. Manuscritos 1/1975, p. 7, 13.
  8. “Niño prodigio de tres meses da a conocer una inyección para oír con los dedos” / “Tengo orden de compra dentaduras rotas (aunque llueva)” / “Una vieja se vino abajo: 2 heridos graves”. Manuscritos, p. 7, 13, 23.
  9. Leónidas Morales, La poesía de Nicanor Parra, Santiago: Universidad, 1972, p. 202.
  10. “cet ouvrage est entièrement composé d’éléments préfabriqués”. Guy Debord and Asger Jorn, Mémoires, Copenhagen: Permild & Rosengreen, 1959, title page.
  11. “la frénésie érotique mine les bases de l’ordre établi” / “cette gratuité du mouvement des groupes qui se forment et se déforment et qui, pourtant, ne pourraient suive d’autre itinéraire”. Mémoires.
  12. “Qu’on ne dise pas que je n’ai rien dit de nouveau: la disposition des matières est nouvelle” / “l’arrangement des mots qui aboutit au discours transforme quelque chose dans l’ordre du monde par une action sur les consciences: celle qui le formule et celles qui l’entendent.” Mémoires.
  13. “les sollicitations d’un passé qui ne peut revivre que dans le souvenir, ou dans une ‘répétition’ où, quoi qu’on fasse, il se dégradera”. Mémoires.
  14. In collaboration with Dennis Purcell, Morris identified the descent of several rocks down the hill as evidence that the photo with the empty road was taken first, and that the cannons were placed on the road for the purpose of the second photograph. See Errol Morris, “Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?” The New York Times, 25 September 2007.
  15. Ulrich Keller, The Ultimate Spectacle: A Visual History of the Crimean War, Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach, 2001, p. 133.
  16. Camille Henrot, Elephant Child, London: Koenig Books/Inventory Press, 2016, p. 127.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Elephant Child, p. 113.
  19. Elephant Child, p. 146.
  20. Elephant Child, p. 152.