Exquisite corpses

I came across Channel 4’s The Random Spoken Word Competition today. It started me thinking about exquisite corpses. For those who don’t know, an exquisite corpse was Surrealist André Breton’s attempt to introduce chance into his artistic practice.

Exquisite Corpse

Breton described it as a “game of folded paper played by several people, who compose a sentence or drawing without anyone seeing the preceding collaboration or collaborations.” The now classic example, which gave the game its name, was drawn from the first sentence obtained this way. “the-exquisite-corpse-will-drink-new-wine.”

The judges of Channel 4’s competition “are looking for one piece of writing that imaginatively explores the theme “random” by using language in a rhythmically original and instantly engaging way.”

I wonder if it’s possible to write something that resonates using the exquisite corpse technique? I’ve experimented with the technique on a number of occasions, with varying degrees of success. As a writing technique, problems arise because the form is by definition a collaborative endeavour, you need several people to make it work. It then becomes about the collaborative process, and not what is written.

I once wrote an outline entitled “Exquisite Corpses Of Soloman Bishop”. In it Solomon Bishop speaks entirely in exquisite corpses. To circumvent the need for several people while writing this, I produced Solomon’s dialogue using Tzara’s technique for writing Dada poetry. I cut words from newspapers and magazines, put them in a bag, drew them out at random, and created sentences from the results.

Squad more robots forced adoption.

Lock-in sleeper defend green letters.

Trial bombers nylon contamination.

Interesting statements, full of jarring juxtapositions, that are random enough to be called an exquisite corpse. It’s very easy for this random selection of words to be ignored as meaningless. The question then arises, how do you give the randomness meaning, or more precisely, how do you control the randomness’s meaning?

One way is to give the words context. How do you give them context, by giving them a title that starts a story. “Once upon a time” gets the ball rolling, propelling the resulting exquisite corpse forward sequentially. Another way is more abstract, but grounds the exquisite corpse to something, an idea. Open with a title like. “The exquisite corpse of twenty first century sin” and all that follows refers to something tangible.

More work is needed on this, but that’s a start.


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