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Collage – the artform that conquered the world
by Edvard Derkert 2009

An introduction (to a coming book about collage)

The collage work is ever present, despite the fact that I haven't touched one in years, in the structure of thinking.Ben Nicholson


Is the collage merely an artistic technique or is it a cognitive modus, a way of thinking? Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase "the media is the message" by which he meant that every media from the written language to the computer influences our way of thinking and the way we see ourselves and perceive the world. Man forms his tool and his tools form man. What is the message of the collage? How does the collage change our thinking and our environment? Do we, however strange it may sound, live in a collage reality?


In a culture where eclecticism is the norm, in which reality becomes a collage of logically materially incompatible texts, it would seem to follow that collage inside the artwork would be reduced tom merely mimicking the the general cultural condition to which it now belonged. Brandon Taylor, Collage, the making of the modern art, page 208


Are we not all collagists whether we like it or not? Think of how we write today; very often on the computer and with a wordprocessing program like Microsoft Word where we use the collage like commands "copy" and "paste" in the writing process. We no longer need to plan our writing in long structured thought lines. We can start with a vague idea and work in a "trial and error" fashion. Ideas pop up, unfold and get tried and tested in the very writing process; we cut, copy and paste, we move words, move blocks of text around. We print the text, evaluate it and reevaluate it. We are helped with the spelling and the layout structure of the page. We also have the virtual library of the internet from which we can borrow, steal, or copy whatever we fancy. It's apparent that the computer has changed our way of writing, but has it changed our way of thinking and our world view? I think most would agree that this is the case, at least to a certain degree.

But what about the collage? Is it really meaningful to compare a Word document to a collage? Where are the scissors? Where is the glue? - you probably ask. The word collage is derived from the French word colle which means nothing else but glue. But it's not the glue that makes the collage, as the artist Max Ernst put it – it is the very open ended "collage practise" that gives us the possibility to put together words and pictures in new and surprising combinations; in the way we can manipulate the parts, to what degree we can arrange and rearrange words and pictures in a non linear and non hierarchical fashion. The word processing program gives us a "hands on" approach to text production where new combinations can emerge because we, at least partly, do not only write but manipulate the text in a collage like manner.

You can introduce the unpredictable spontaneous factor with a pair of scissors. William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, The third mind, page 29

But Word or for that matter a program like Photoshop do not automatically produce dadaistic works of art. Or art at all for that matter! And that holds true also when working with scissors, paper and glue. When we say that we cut and paste on the computer we use the words metaphorically – we don't actually use knife or glue, but the commands correspond to the collage practise. Long before the giant laboratory computers turned into the much smaller PCs William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin thought about how the collage idea could also be used as a tool for writers.

They called their method Cut-up. The idea was quite simply to cut up the text into smaller parts and then randomly put them together again so that new and suprising combinations could emerge. According to Burroughs the best texts were more or less produced accidentally and all texts were more or less Cut-ups anyway; text collages made up from what the writer had read or heard. The cut-up method just rendered the practise explicit. The Cut-up was a way of inviting chance and coincidence into the practise of writing. You can not force spontaneity. But you can introduce the unpredictable spontaneous factor with a pair of scissors, or with a computer. Of course there are computer programs for cut-up operations. For example Cut and Mix, a program made to help writers "generate new ideas through the use of different methods of text randomization and manipulation."

Cut and paste is the perfect analogy which helps us to handle digital information and it is nowadays "natural" and more or less goes without saying. The collage metaphor was so practical that it was introduced in all programs whatever kind of information they were supposed to work with.

Before the collage was (re)discovered by George Braque and Pablo Picasso in the early twentieth century it already existed as a practise and as a concept in its own right. The basic collage principle is that it enables the artist to take giant steps crossing different fields, dissimilar areas, heterogeneous categories and to find similarities and connections between disparate phenomena. Or, in a reverse modus, to make differences visible that have traditionally been bundled up in one category. This can also be seen in the way we use language in a collage-like approach in puns and metaphors.

By its ability to combine different words and images, the pun transgresses all forms and definitions but at the same time fusing them into an explosive synthesis, a momentary multitude of disciplines and perspectives. Jonas J. Magnusson, Cecilia Grönberg Geist 11,12, 14 page 141


The collage principle so thoroughly permeates our culture that it is hardly recognized anymore. Like metaphors that are successful enough to get integrated into everyday language and thus become part of our way of thinking. As long as a metaphor is new, we notice it as such and as long as it is striking it will be accepted and incorporated into the language like any other word or phrase. Our language is full of these so called dead metaphors. These are words and phrases that we take for granted and therefore don't acknowledge for what they are, metaphors. Think of phrases and words like bottleneck, get the upper hand, foot note, scatter brain, manipulation, (manu is hand in Latin) left handed way, stick one's neck out, pain in the ass, etc etc.

The collage has, as a concept – in the words of biologist Richard Dawkins – become a very successful meme. A meme is the cultural correspondence to the gene. And like the striking and successful metaphor collage has both as a practise and concept gone underground and out of sight. The collage is very much alive but is rarely noticed because it is now, like for example reading, part of our culture.

Television is becoming a collage - there are so many channels that you move through them making a collage yourself. In that sense, everyone sees something a bit different. David Hockney

The collage conquered the world because it fitted perfectly in an era where many values had been shattered to pieces, where hierarchies broke down, where all that had been solid melted into thin air.

All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels – The communist manifesto manifesto.html

The media of our times grows in numbers, gets more intense, the speed is constantly increasing. The mediated reality is cut into smaller and smaller bits and pieces. We more and more live in a mediated reality; a mosaic of disparate and simultaneous impressions.In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.

Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

The modern collage can be seen as a reaction against, and a consequence of, the industrial revolution whith its rapid production of new and cheaper media, new circumstances, and new patterns of consummation. The collage is the first remediating and recycling art form in which other techniques and other forms of art are combined and therefore rendered visible in an artistic practise.

It is the first visual art form which freely makes use of any media and any source of material. The quotation, the sample, the theft, the paraphrase, the genre crossing, the appropriation is the very core of the collage. The collage foreshadowed both postmodernism and the questions that the internet and file sharing brought to the surface. Who is the originator? Who is the copyright holder? What is an original work of art? Is it possible to work as an artsist without borrowing from others? Are there really any great geniusses who can create groundbreaking works of art out of thin air?

The principle of collage is the most important and influential artistic discovery in the twentieth century which saturates our time in all artistic, technical and metaphoric matters.

Collage has served as the springboard, the model for larger scale works in painting or sculpture both as medium and as a language, therefore, collage and its related idoms, assemblage and the found object, continue to significantly influence some of the most revolutionary artistic manifestations in our time. Diane Waldman, Collage, Assemblage, and the found object, page 10)


The collage is the essential means of expression in modern art and has left its imprint in all artistic movements following cubism, from dada and futurism, constructivism, surrealism pop art and situationism to today's internet-based digital forms of expression.

The same aesthetic operates at the heart of electronic texts, though we seldom notice it for what it is – an aesthetic of collage, the central technique of twentieth-century visual art. Richard Lanham

Therefore the collage is the perfect metaphor for the times we live in. The concept of crossover is by now more or less mainstream. The eclecticism of pop music is the prime exponent of this trend with the Beatles as an early example, but we find it everywhere, for example in the world of fashion. Nothing is really new under the sun so in order to produce innovations we arrange and combine old things and old concepts in new ways. Recycling, combining, copying and pasting, drawing inspiration from any culture, from any time in history. But it also holds true for how we step in and out of different roles and identities. The principle of the collage corresponds with the imploding world either as a way of deconstruction or as a way of splicing the shattered bits and pieces together again into a meaningful whole.

All of us move between local, regional, national, and global citizenship with much greater ease; borrowing from cultural practices and lifestyles to create our own path. The very act of living today is often dynamic and continuously evolutionary. Collage and assemblage can speak to this state of affairs by either deconstructing and rearranging things in a way that expresses an overwhelming diversity, or by reconstructing things into new narratives. Foreman" lost link