“To produce pictures is no big deal”
Wieland Herzfelde made this flippant remark in his catalogue text for the First International Dada Fair, as a proclamation that speaks directly to the process of collage.1 He implies that it must be easy to produce pictures because they are abundant, and because they are abundant they are easy to use. Already in 1920 endlessly reproducible images saturated daily urban life. Commercial flyers, political posters, newspapers, magazines, textbooks, were the prevailing materials for Dada and a new form for creating images. Even though Pablo Picasso and George Braque’s collage experiments with found materials and reproductions predate the Dadaists, it is the latter’s unapologetic pilfering of images and common material that defined collage as more than just a process.2
Collage reflects the very spirit of Dada, as an attitude that is both permissive and dismissive. Take and discard at will, with a sense of abandon and utter control. “We now only need to take scissors and cut out what we need from among the paintings and photographic depictions of things.”3 The word need rings twice in Herzfelde’s description of the process; the first reads like an expletive, emphasizing how easy it is to do; the second proclaims its relevance, advocating for its usage. Reproductions are there to be used. It is essential that they be used. Producing collages may be no big deal, but it is necessary.
A definition of collage could include the physical collecting, combining, cutting, covering and layering of found images and commonplace materials, one piece at a time, to create new images by juxtaposing disparate elements or reorganizing like things. As a process it is simultaneously destructive and constructive, subtractive and additive, dismissive of and attentive to context. Rosalind Krauss argues that collage moves beyond “any simplistic idea of reference” and “effects the representation of representation.”4 It can be seen as a means of gaining control over the way images are distributed, showing the constructed nature of our own perception, by disassembling and reassembling, piece by piece. Each element within an overall collage is a separate element that combines with other pieces to generate something whole, and it is this tenuous and apparent relation between the pieces and the whole that gives collage its potency and continued relevance.
Just short of a century after Dada’s first forays into collage, the field has expanded, most rapidly through digital technologies. But the artists brought together for Bit by Bit rely more on old school techniques than new technologies. It is the material act of cutting and pasting that unifies the work in this exhibition, and using representations as the material of representations. There is a shared understanding that appropriated images can never lose their referent because their history, whether imagined or not, is materially present in the physical process of cutting and pasting. Meaning begins when the whole is broken into its parts and the parts become a whole. It is with this material understanding that collage happens.
Of all the artists in Bit by Bit, Marc Bell and Jason McLean have been experimenting with collage the longest. In their respective solo careers they are predominantly known for their drawings, which stylistically developed out of the zine and comic scene of the 1990s. Their influence on each other is evident in their individual works, which reveals a shared logic. In large part their collaboration developed through long distance correspondence, starting a series of responses that generated a cast of re-occurring characters, who appeared in multiple forms and nonsensical scenarios that played out on promotional flyers, menus, cereal boxes, envelopes, plastic fruit, and children’s toys. The random use of the material created room for aesthetic play, and tangential silliness, but also provided a ground for them to develop a common language of signs, appropriating and renaming common images to create their own internal logic. Bell and McLean haven’t worked together in nearly five years, and the collaborative works included in Bit by Bit only offered a glimpse into what developed into a precisely honed responsiveness.
For the last few years, Paul Butler’s name has become synonymous with collage in Canadian art circles. Internationally, he is well known for his Collage Parties, for which he brings the material process of collage into the social, inviting groups of artists to make collages and share source materials. Butler’s focused investment in collage is transparent, so it seems an ironic play that his works mask the process, disregarding one of its fundamental rules: juxtaposing disparate elements to create new images. Inversely, Butler brings together like images, seamlessly overlaying them, almost obscuring his action. For his Positive Mental Series, he used landscape vistas pulled from magazines, and then simply cut out and pasted on short slogans, such as “we can change”, “Beautiful,” or “getting there is half the fun.” His new series for Bit by Bit is derived from glossy magazine photographs of flowers that he has pieced together to create an array of full bouquets. It may require a lingering double take to see the process: the self-help slogans are slightly crooked or awkwardly placed over the landscapes, and tears or sloppy cuts appear in the flowers. But these slight distractions are enough for Butler, who stalls his own disruption of popular representations of beauty, creating a suspended moment where the cliché and its disruption resonate together.
Miguel da Conceição starts with a whole and cuts into it. He removes information to reveal the layers of meaning behind images or modes of representation that are culturally internalized, so much so that we no longer know what we are looking at. Pasted on the outside windows of the gallery were slightly altered reproductions of movie posters from the science fiction film, Bladerunner. Cut away from the posters is a repeating pattern based on a geometric spiral originally designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the bricks of Ennis House, which appears in the film. Whether read from a distance or close up, details of the posters are subsumed by the bold simplicity of the cut out pattern. The poster is never offered in its whole. It is as if da Conceição is enacting the tropes of film framing on to the poster, offering only fragments to be pieced together over time to get a glimpse of any whole image. He reconstructs a relationship between the house and the film, offering a reading that emphasizes the clashes between the utopian visions of the architect and the dystopic visions represented in the film.
Dearraindrop is a Virginia based artist collective comprised of Joe Grillo, Billy Grant and Lara Grant. They create large chaotic installations, covering every surface with an ever expanding collection of found and hand-made materials that seems to spread like weeds. They collectively enact Herzfelde’s sentiment that “producing pictures is no big deal”. They see pictures everywhere, and have the confidence to use them. They spend as much time accumulating materials, digging through garbage bins, second hand stores, flea markets and garage sales as they do in constructing their installations. With ease, they appropriate other people’s unwanted stuff and bring it into their own aesthetic fold, creating an overwhelming spectacle that pops like a strobe light between its parts and the whole. Within the jungle of their installations lie the remnants of a throw away culture. Their work documents consumer culture, and Dearraindrop avidly participants in it.
Amy Lockhart is an animator and artist who often uses collage methods as the basis for her animations. The Devil Lives in Hollywood is a 16mm animated film set to a poem written and sung by Lockhart. For the animation, she assembles disjunctive images, creating a stream-of-consciousness narrative that unpacks like a goody bag. Lockhart uses images that speak to our excesses: hotrods with flames zoom across the screen, super heroes indulge themselves with pink ice cream cones, an endless supply of fully loaded hamburgers rotate on a conveyer belt. Lockhart intentionally distresses these popular images, representing them with the poorest of image means, such as photocopy. Hollywood, the Mecca for image makers, is a pointed target, and reproducing its image as anything other than perfect is a fitting approach for questioning the effects of representation on the construction of desire.
Jennifer Murphy creates images that slow down the process of disengagement as she simultaneously reifies and corrupts clichéd images of popular culture. She often culls from the iconography of heavy metal, singling out common signifiers (skulls, snakes, eagles, roses). Murphy’s compositions are consistent. She sets up a simple one element figure ground relationship, often centering a singular iconic image on a blank page, tracing an outline of the image with a coloured pencil, and meticulously filling in the details with commonplace materials. For example, she traces the lines of a skull in strips of lace, or builds the wings of an eagle with pieces of felt ribbon. Murphy’s reproduction of an owl follows this rigorous formula, a nearly six foot outline is methodically shaped by hundreds of neatly cut strips of metallic Mylar. Two additional works act as the backdrop for the otherwise isolated figure. One is a night sky made from whole garbage bags and the second is a crowded collage of photo-based images of benign furry animals. Murphy makes beautiful work, reinvigorating tired images by strangely transforming debased and commonplace images and materials into grand narratives. She offers aesthetic insight into why these images are now so ubiquitous.
I Got Killed, I Got Killed, I Got Killed in World War III should roll off the tongue as if it were a line from a Broadway musical sung by a chorus of corpses. It is the name of an anonymously produced newspaper come zine. The absurdist image of the title lingers throughout the paper, resonating in the chaotic assemblages of disparate images. There is an unsettling urgency to the way the images are gathered and reproduced, which unfolds like any newspaper, as current reports on local situations. The source material is gathered from the community it reflects. Early editions of the paper were produced in Vancouver’s downtown eastside, and are comprised of found images and materials collected from that area: a half torn note, someone’s discarded receipt, a snapshot of graffiti; all of which translates into news, locating the found materials within a particular time and place. Since the sources remain unnamed so do the editors of I Got Killed, I Got Killed, I Got Killed in World War III. This was the first issue to be produced on a printing press.