|How Does Automatism Relate to Art Today? April 2015
Michael Benjamin Izett - IZE12367850
The purpose of this essay is to investigate the concept of Automatism and it’s use in the world of art today.
Automatism and its Origins
In its purest form, Automatism, is a subgenre of Surrealism that employs methods of creating work in which the artist attempts to suppress all conscious thoughts and triggers, allowing the process to be determined only by the artist’s subconscious. The term is linked to processes that involve chance, stream of consciousness, free association and improvisation.
As is mostly the case with all modern art movements, the artists who created Surrealism were reacting to the time in which they found themselves and the previous art movement. The Surrealist’s predecessors were the Dadaists and the preceding decade saw the chaos of the First World War. So first, a word on Dadaism.
The maddened Dadaists (often referred to as ‘The Council of Despair’) strove to convey the imbecility and inanity of the Great War and the governments responsible for it. Its existence, albeit brief and largely negative, was significant as it was a cultural response to a period in history where militarism, dogmatism and turmoil overruled artistic expression. Dadaism was a form of release, a group exfoliating disharmonies and perversions from their own psyches onto an already desperate world. And it was out of these desperate ashes came the fresh, youthful face of Surrealism.
By 1919, André Breton and other European artists’ frustration with the destructiveness and pessimism of Dadaism lead to their experimentation with automatic writing and other subliminal techniques. Having worked in psychiatric units during the War, Breton was aware of soldiers being subjected to automatic psychoanalysis as a means of screening and recovery, later understanding that these techniques were developed by Sigmund Freud.
‘Totally involved as I was at the time with Freud, and familiar with his methods of examination which I had had some occasion to practise on the sick during the war, I resolved to obtain from myself what one seeks to obtain from a patient - a spoken monologue uttered as rapidly as possible, over which the critical faculty of the subject has no control, unencumbered by any reticence, which is spoken thought as far as such a thing is possible. It seemed to me, and still does - the manner in which the sentence about the man cut in two came to me proves it - that the speed of thought is no greater than that of words, and that it does not necessarily defy language or the moving pen.’1
The previous passage from ‘Le Manifeste Du Surréalisme 1924’, is important to this essay and automatic art today because André Breton, referring to psychiatry and Freud, implies that Automatism and the roots of Surrealism as a movement are scientific. This is of even more importance as today we find ourselves in possibly the most scientifically significant time since the industrial revolution and Darwinism.
The Aesthetic and Sound of Automatism Today
We live in the digital age.
Artistic interest in the unconscious has always been around. The spontaneity of prehistoric cave paintings suggests it, Leonardo Da Vinci described it when he said ‘If you look upon an old wall covered with dirt, or the odd appearance of some streaked stones, you may discover several things like landscapes, battles, clouds, uncommon attitudes, humorous faces, draperies, &c. Out of this confused mass of objects, the mind will be furnished with abundance of designs and subjects perfectly new’2 and, more recently, Alexander Cozens practiced it with his ‘Blot Drawings’ as seen below.
Fig. 1 - Alexander Cozens ‘Plate 14’ c.1785
Waldberg, P (1978). Surrealism (World of Art). London: Thames and Hudson. p.66-75.
Chilvers, I (2009). The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists . 4th ed. Oxford: OUP Oxford. p.3
Seeing as this concept of the subliminal has been in the human artistic psyche for so long and as we find ourselves today in the digital age, it is only natural that art produced using the unconscious mind manifests itself digitally.
My first example of digital Automatism is the group of sound artists named ‘Mine Sweeper Collective’ headed by Auxilec. The group uses found sound, subverted code, white noise and hardware hacking to produce a library of noise which is then assembled and performed live, entirely improvised and often for more than twenty minutes. What makes the work automatic is the fact it is unprepared. When witnessed live, the layers of sound span right across the emotional spectrum from seemingly indefinite periods of tortuous dissonance to long swathes of welcomed harmony interrupted by neutralising hums. What is particularly innovative about the group’s work is that as a member of the audience, I could recognise the emotion evoked in the sound yet was totally unfamiliar with what the innards of technology sounded like. Perhaps it would be right to say that the group has chosen a medium (technology), which is as far from the unconscious as possible and yet still able to create a platform through which they can express their unconsciousness.
The inevitable question that arises through art of this type and one that would be unfair to dismiss is; are we in sync with technology in such a way that ones unconscious can be accessed through it unaffected? I believe the answer to this would be to say that the technology of today derives from the first flint tools created by prehistoric man, and our computers are just the latest addition to this tool set. So any medium used to create art is in a sense technology. The complexity of the tools in recent times has evolved dramatically, and perhaps we associate the word ‘technology’ with complexity, but I do not think there is a difference between Breton’s paint brush and the digital mediums of today.
The work of Minesweeper and Auxilec can undoubtedly be described as Noise (art), which, interestingly originated around the same time as Automatism. Futurist artist, Luigi Russolo, introduced noise Art or ‘The Art of Noises’ and its concept of Found Sound to the world in his 1913 manifesto ‘L'Arte dei Rumori’. Declaring that the industrial revolution had presented modern man with an entirely new library of mechanised sound which should be investigated and used artistically, was perhaps even more ahead of it’s time than the concept of Automatism. And consequently, received strong condemnation. With obvious conceptual conations, Found Sound and Automatism were partnered at this early stage, most notably through the 1917 theatrical piece, ‘Parade’, conceived by Jean Cocteau. With music written by French avant-garde composer, Erik Satie, and design by Automatist advocate, Pablo Picasso, ‘Parade’ sought to articulate the sound of the mechanical world and the war taking place upon it. The group directly referenced these sounds by including typewriters, an airplane engine, Morse-code machines and sirens amongst the orchestral work of Satie. And in doing so, contributed to establishing the partnership of noise and art that is still explored to this day.
Fig. 2 - Costume by Pablo Picasso for ‘Parade’ 1917.
My next example of digital Automatism is probably the most important artist currently associated with the ‘Noise’ concept. Masami Akita, also known as Merzbow, is a Japanese sound artist and musician. His artistic name comes from the Dadaist, Kurt Schwitters. Schwitters invented the term ‘merz’ to describe his art, life and philosophy. His entire existence became part of the idea of Merz, to the point where his home and studio became his merz-building, or ‘Merzbau’. Over time the building became a piece of art in it’s own right, a walk in collage of found objects and abstracted spaces, a convergence of the organic and the geometric.
Informed by Schwitters’ attack on the artistic traditions of the time with his pioneering collages, Masami Akita’s work challenges our entrenched, rigid ideas on what sound and music should be. With a portfolio as equally prolific as Schwitters’ (the unofficial count of separate releases surpassing 300), Merzbow has truly forged the path for noise as a genre. Paul Hegarty pays tribute to him here in his seminal book, ‘Noise/Music’-
‘Masami Akita, aka Merzbow (there were others on some of his earlier recordings), is the paragon of noise, it’s godfather, it’s master.’3
Merzbow’s work over the decades has continuously employed the use of improvisation and found sound, but it is his ‘Merzbient’ album; in particular the piece ‘RBA 2B’, that best captures the concept of digital Automatism. Much of the Merzbow’s catalogue could be described as borderline psychosis and assultive. Cacophonies of deafening sonic mayhem feature relentlessly. One can appreciate the intricacy and craftsmanship of the work but attempts to excavate any sort of enjoyment from his towering walls of sonic aggression remain largely unsuccessful. ‘RBA 2B’ and ‘Merzbient’ as a whole differs in the sense that the emotions conveyed fluctuate. The listener isn’t subjected to one sensation; the piece naturally progresses through them as our own emotions do everyday.
One could argue that every piece of Merzbow’s collection that incorporates chance and improvisation could be an insight into his subconscious. But on a human level, I would hope that the atmosphere he choses is preconceived as most of his work is incredibly dark; if his work is sincerely his subconscious it would be fair to assume that it is pretty unhealthy, but I doubt it is.
‘I am using more physically rooted Noise music not as conceptually anti-instrument and anti-body as before. If music was sex, Merzbow would be pornography.
In America, pornography is often viewed as vulgar and offensive—especially to woman. Are you implying that Merzbow is for men?
3. Hegarty, P (2007). Noise/Music. London: Conituun. p.155.
No. I mean that pornography is the unconsciousness of sex. So, Noise is the unconsciousness of music. It’s completely misunderstood if Merzbow music is for men. Merzbow is erotic like a car crash can be related to genital intercourse. The sound of Merzbow is like Orgone energy—the colour of shiny silver’4
In addition point before the quote, one could say that Merzbow’s infatuation with Japanese bondage and sadomasochism damages the argument that his work before ‘Merzbient’, in the 1990’s, is automatic. I’d imagine that most people find images of these sexual acts distressing or at least uncomfortable to watch. There’s a chance that I may be being naïve when I say this, but I assume despite the times we live in and images of this sort being only a click away, most people would still find them unfamiliar and shocking. Over the decades, Merzbow has written to accompany such bondage films. Writing for such extreme forms of sexuality would unquestionably influence the atmosphere of the sound he is tasked to create. It would have to sound disturbing and in keeping with the images seen in the film, a sonic form of sadomasochism. Furthermore, one could argue that his work outside of pornography has such similarities to the bulk of his work in the 1990s that its aggression must be in some way preconceived and not automatic.
Moving away from the realm of sound and onto visually automatic art, I will start with the work of William Latham.