May 13, 2009

Collage: the Stuff of PoMo

Administrator's Note: One of my Corcoran College undergraduates wrote the following essay on collage as “the reproduction and recontextualization of signs.” The student has requested me to list the author's name as “Yon Zois.”

I asked Zois for permission to post the paper here because of its fascinating theories on visual art expressed as “message” and a novel (if somewhat brutally cynical) depiction of the malevolent inclination of that message. The assaultive aspects of representation are too often critically neglected and Zois suggests interesting possibilities for further investigation of the “dominant discourse” of media communication. For within the verbal structure of semiotics lies an implicit coercion that Zois reveals to be a profound interpretive mode for considering visual art as postmodern address.


“[Collage is] an organization of already organized elements.” - Damien Hirst

Quoting others’ words in one’s own writing is in tune with the current western system of communication (a system that creates systems). Why say it in your own words if someone else has already said it more concisely, more elegantly, and above all—first. Enter Postmodernism. The gaseous, multi-generational sensibility called an “era,” in which its inhabitants can no longer look up toward a brighter future because they finally realized that they’ve been standing on what they’ve been smelling—the enormous mound of shit called civilization.

Arguably realized anywhere between 1965 and 1985, postmodernity, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “characterized by a return to traditional materials and forms (as in architecture) or by ironic self-reference and absurdity (as in literature),” or it can be “of, relating to, or being a theory that involves a radical reappraisal of modern assumptions about culture, identity, history, or language.” Postmodernism is, more importantly, a rejection of the specialization and elitism that defined the Modernist culture of the earlier part of the twentieth century, abandoning its hierarchical and polar (i.e., black and white) characteristics across the board of life (from politics, to art, to philosophy, etc). With more grey area came more complexity and nuance, more nooks and crannies, more niches and places for social deviants and outsiders to camp out and oftentimes institutionalize themselves, creating both alternatives and contributions to the mainstream cultural milieu. Postmodernity’s primary visual mode is that of appropriation, sampling and referencing, visually constituting the praxis of collage, décollage, in its three-dimensional form: assemblage, and in its most refined form: bricolage.(1) This paper will be exploring postmodernity, using collage (as metonym for our larger collective sensibility or outlook in today’s world) as its vehicle, complete with 4-wheel-drive and fuzzy dice hanging from the extra-large rear view mirror.

A bitter alcoholic named Guy Debord once wrote:
“The theft of large refrigerators by people with no electricity, or with their electricity cut off, gives the best possible metaphor for the life of affluence transformed into a truth in play. Once it is no longer bought, the commodity lies open to criticism and modification, and this under whichever of its forms it may appear. Only so long as it is paid for with money, as a status symbol of survival, can it be worshipped fetishistically. […] The Los Angeles rebellion is the first in history able to justify itself by the argument that there was no air conditioning during a heatwave.”(2)

He was speaking about the 1965 Watts riots in LA. Three years after that, 1968 erupted in uprisings all over the world that amounted in a shift in the consciousness of an entire generation of people. It proposed a severe and total threat to traditional top-down structures of all kinds, though the world still had its lines in the sand, (like the cold war) it amounted to nothing less than the beginning of a new era in cultural production and theory. The appropriation and recontextualization Debord was writing about was the realization of the theoretical tenants of collage; theft as a bi-product, and more importantly a reversal of the effects of the “society of the spectacle.” He was very receptive in finding the art in the everyday (or in this case its antonym).

The “yBa’s,” decades later, knowingly played into the very same spectacular economic system in which their choice of media (collage, assemblage/ready-mades, and appropriative art) was a critique of. Damien Hirst bypassed the antiquated authority of the art critic toward “popularist mediation” in which everyone was their own critic.

James Gaywood breaks down the mechanics of the act of “collage” (or the reproduction and recontextualization of signs) as used by the “yBa’s” as such:
“[…I]n the context of postmodernism, art production invokes the cultural superimposition of reproductions, where what is signified can only refer to a sign itself (in essence Baudrillard’s ‘simulacrum’), disengaging the object from any historical precedent, engendering the justification for a multi-variety of surface interpretation.[…] Since transgression is confused in postmodern situations where the abolition of the subject renders a ‘sense of loss’ rather than an access to structural cohesion apocalyptic rather than generative the appropriation of signs engenders postmodern pastiche: ‘art as a complete imitation of objects incurring the loss of its (structural) sign function.’”(3)

To approach this from a societal standpoint, this process is undoubtedly intertwined with issues of identity. An indicator of this dilemma is illustrated by the proliferation of graffiti and illegal public art. Because of its illegality, the participants of the culture(4) oftentimes use self-ascribed nicknames as their nom de plumes creating a persona based on artistic skill and risk taken to write these names on appropriated spaces. The format of these names originally imitated that of the signage of commodities/advertisements, with high contrasted colors and other techniques to be easily noticed by the untrained eye (though evolved from there into its own coded signage). By imitating the language of advertisements for self-promotion, the result incurs “the loss of its (structural) sign function.”

All appropriative acts presuppose hierarchical systems of ownership based on class and/or social status (which in most countries is often based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, physical ability, etc), or more specifically habitus as referred to in the Gaywood article. But to delve deeper into the intricacies of the visual language of collage, we must examine it in terms of a verbal language.

Roman Jakobson, a linguistic semiotician, dissected the process of communication and came up with six necessary parts of a speech event. [Editor's note: see Jakobson's Communication Model.] A mugging is a good example we can use to illustrate Jakobson’s six communicative functions due to the dynamic nature of the coercive speech event (the elementary modus operandi for modern societal control).

Jakobson defines the addresser as the member of the speech event who sends “a MESSAGE to the ADDRESSEE” (the artist). For example, the addresser might make the threat/offer “give me your money or your life,” implying that choosing neither is a non-choice. The addresser’s proposition is not enough to determine whether or not a statement is coercive; we need some account of the addresser’s emotional state as well.

The addressee is the recipient of the message in the coercive speech event (the viewer).

The message in the speech event is the particular content delivered from the addresser to the addressee. In the case of coercion, the message can be literal and spelled out, as in the case of “Give me your money or I will kill you,” or it can play upon the poetics of language.

Context may be understood as the socio-cultural and spatio-temporal “referred to” in the speech event.(5) The spatio-temporal context in a coercive statement may be important if the speech event takes place in a threatening environment where no one is around to intervene or there are limited means of escape from the addresser. Further, the meaning of the harms delivered in the message from the addresser and their interpretation, as potential harms by the addressee are dependent on context (for example how wealthy or physically fit the addressee is).

Jakobson defines contact as “a physical channel and psychological connection between addresser and addressee.”(6) The contact between them might add a particular nuance to the coercive message not visible in the verbal. If the addresser brandished a knife and grabbed the arm of the addressee, for example, she might not need to verbalize the complete imperative choice. She might verbalize the words “give me your money,” while implying “(if you do not give me your money, I will cut you with this knife).” Similarly, if the coercive message were delivered over the phone, the addressee might not feel as restricted by the conative function of the coercive proposition, as they may be in a more secure environment or a great distance from the would-be coercer.

The final function we may use in analyzing a speech event is code. Jakobson defines code as a patterned shared system of language that during a speech event is “fully, or at least partially, common to the addresser and addressee.”(7) Codes may be broadly understood as “a group or set of signs” that give individual signs values or meanings through relational properties.(8)

Jakobson’s six communicative functions offer us insight into the intricacies of communicating signs and symbols. It’s a dissection of that unseen layer of the process toward meaning, and consequently the processes of appropriation and recuperation (both methods of redefining signs). Collage is merely the experimentation and examination of the effects of context of images, signs, symbols, and in a non-art sense: of people and ideas.


1. Bricolage, in this writer’s opinion, amounts to a more “refined” (conceptually, not always aesthetically) postmodernist mode because of its emphasis on context and place when choosing materials, instead of the more retinal criteria used for classic collage like that of Picasso or Schwitters.

2. Debord, Guy. The Decline & Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy, Paris: Internationale Situationniste, 1966, 99-100.

3. Gaywood, James. “yBa As Critique, from Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005, 93.

4. Yes, cultures sprout even around the senseless act of spraying ridiculous nicknames on things that don’t belong to you… ah, postmodernism.

5. Jakobson, Roman. Selected Writings: Linguistics and Poetics, 1990, 73.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Leeds-Hurwitz, Wendy. Semiotics and Communication: Signs, Codes, Cultures, 1993, 51.

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