Surrealism and Machines

The links between surrealism and machines are old, have always been deep and almost from the start. Machines have been present at all crossroads in surrealist history

Machines before the movement was even founded, in Sade's work for instance where they lead the dance.

Machines at the roots of surrealism even, as we shall have one day to investigate what is the automaton that haunts automatism and the source of our poetry. Such a mechanical, confident and  hazardous poetry, moving in the same hypnotic fashion as words used to spring out of Delphi's entrails. A poetry the suggestions of which spread, percolate, filter and work throughout reality 

Machines too, appearing as watermarked figures or allegories in all these little mechanisms surrealism has always been using, such as these strings falling on the floor as stoppages-étalon in Duchamp's work, or these other strings still dripping with paint, falling on Ernst's canvas, such as these strange devices of light propagating their pulsations in Man Ray's work, such as these objets à fonctionnement symbolique, such as... On a daily basis, surrealist games even.

Machine again, this enigmatic wheathercock that Duchamp's Bicycle wheel represents for me. Singular point where start and engulf the tracks opening on the subversion of art and usage in the Ready-mades first, on the derision of this deadly seriousness1    machines cast on all human things secondly, and finally - above all - on the promise of  a world beyond technique where the multiplicity of perspectives, dimensions and randomness would unfold and grow.

Based on all that it could be guessed that the breaking in of computers in the surrealist playfield would possibly be of some consequences. But which ones ?


A matter of speed, first. Graphical tools, as they drastically simplify the execution part of visual creation, allow an almost permanent connection with the roots of automatism. The various steps within the surrealist visual activity, that is to say, the emergence of something, then the interpretation of what emerged as a shape or form, and finally the rendering on the canvas or paper of what was more or less perceived of it by the mind, entangle or rather collapse into one single activity where all states of the mind co-exist and all phase transitions are allowed. 

And, one must say, too, that the computer provides us with a quite benevolent reversibility. The machine let us do and undo anything, and forgives everything - almost. Not only our errors, but our wanderings too, and also the forkings and overlappings of our thinking, our returns and doubts. And although at a microscopic level the three main steps I mentioned above are still at work, the - now - uninterrupted stream of visual automatism takes hold of any temporary results, makes new starting points of them and fire of all that again and again. And then the golden dust softly sinks to the bottom and settles there. The picture slowly defines and reveals as an accumulation of automatic thoughts.

But there is more to it. We always had this obscure feeling that machines had something to do with language - may it be visual of textual. Any machine has a purpose. Any machine incorporates some sort of prediction based on which it may be told whether it works or not. And truly, this is the original way by which our speech ventures into reality and melts with it . The efficiency of a mechanism has always been the measure and proof that our thoughts and dreams are part of reality, a proof that they belong to this world and are true powers in it.

But the kind of game by which technique moves on, also shows more essentially the desire and  necessity of a dialog. May platonicists and other proslavers like it or not, building a machine has not much to do with uttering orders. First and above all, to build a machine is to submit a question to reality. And when doing this any technician drops whatever hint of arrogance he might possibly have felt like, as he knows how rare it is indeed when a machine works the first time. But submitting a question to reality is to make an oracle of it. This means relying on reality - hence on the unknown - as regards the answer. This means to accept the autonomy of the world and to have decided already to surrender to it.

Conversely, in the core of any oracle, there has always been a part of mechanism, an attempt or a desire to speak reality its native tongue so that the silent is made to speak. But that is also a preparation of this unique movement by which the mind opens to radical alterity in a dizzy but deliberate surrender. Alea jacta est. Throwing the dice, entangling and disentangling influences, following the rules, telling fortunes. The entire binanry system is already present in tyhe Yi Kingand a primitive form of computation is almost aways the active engine at the heart of an oracle

Machines have always been mirrors to us.


On all these previously obscure aspects of machines, the computer now casts the most vivid sort of light. Although they all have their roots in language, since they are essentially built to fulfill again and again a prediction, never has a machine been so clearly made of language than the computer. Never has a machine been so openly granted the divine power of oracles - at which practitioneers of circuitry or program burst of laughter, of irritation or just sadness, as they know what the heart of things is actually made of

Yet, computers make the dialog with radical alterity extremely fluent, and there lies the occasion for a delicate grace and a rare equilibrium. Those ones who once made the choice to attempt to live at the level of images2 will always have the heart to play the game. And as soon as you accepts the strange rules of the game, made of mixed rigor and nonchalance, a sort of dynamics of dreaming unfolds and settles, something like a double flow of hypnosis in the course of which each suggestion of the dreamer is answered or met by a suggestion of the machine

And computers also have thrown a new sort of space under our feet. An intermediate space, neither real nor unreal, woven with metaphors and hypothesis of  images and computation. A space where possibilities, compatibilities and consistencies are at stake. And as soon as dream and automatism filter in this space, they root there and find their anchors, they melt with it and they provide proof and evidence of themselves. There collapses and vanishes the false dichotomy between reality anf thought.


Let us not be misled. This is not only the effect of something like the power of "virtual reality". As regards this particular point, if we do not take the necessary steps, the "virtual reality" will never be anything else than a mathematicized form of realism. The point is not only that by means of the simulating activity of computers dreams may now acquire the convincing power of reality. The point is that dreams may now appear in the same light and at an equal level as reality it self

Anything may be thrown into a machine through the open window of a scanner: feathers, leaves, words, flowers, flesh and lace. It acts just like an abyss into which anything may engulf. And everything that falls in there may become the thread,  structure, color, texture to paint with. Not only the representation of an object, or the anchor of a metaphor as happens in a collage or a montage. Within the intermediate space, the convection movement between day time thinking and night time thinking as pictured in "Les Vases Communicants" becomes visible

From both an historical or a technical point of view, what is called "virtual reality" is nothing else than the emergence at the surface of culture of this location - previously hidden and protected  -  where the industrial society works out its projects and plans. It is an evolution and an amplification of the old drawing board that once gave to surrealism Matta and Bellmer

The intermediate space hence appears as the space of the possible subversions3 . One may think that the future of this power of statement4 , which, as Breton once noted, controls in depth the state of the world, depends on whether and how surrealism will settle there.

P. Petiot
CSS Texte 2.0

1 - "People living in the machine age are naturally influenced, consciously or insconsciously by the age they are living in. I think I was conscious enough when I introduced derision in this sacro-sanct era. Humor and laughter - not necessarily deprecatory derision - are my favorite tools." Marcel Duchamp in La mariée mise à nu chez Marcel Duchamp même Arturo Schwarz P 29]

2- I mean, who made the choice not to live under them, submitted to them, abused by them.   

3- "possible" certainly does not mean actual. Yet possible certainly appears as a pre-requisite to actual.   

4- "Could not it be that the current state of the world is connected to the weakness of our power of statement." André Breton