Collage or not?


In recent years, collage has grown within popular consciousness. But what does that mean? My honest assessment is that we’re not actually talking about collage, but collage-like-images as consumable objects within social media, and mass media. In many cases the images that are presented as “collages” are not collages at all, but computer graphics styled to look like collages. Contrary to the standards within popular consumption, the word “collage” is a French verb used in English, and it means: “to glue”. If there is no glue–tape is glue on a strip of material, paste is a glue, and there are many other kinds of glue–there is no collage. Some people blur the lines by cutting and scanning paper elements, and then creating digital images with them, but that’s another discussion.


So, when we say that collage has grown what we’re really talking about is images in the style of collage. People use many different tactics to create these images, but ultimately they all rely on a visual language that is the result of tearing and cutting paper and gluing it together. When images are sourced, their location says a lot about their overall value within culture. Images that were uploaded to the internet by someone else are not good material for collaging. The reason that we look to collage is to disrupt the routine machinations of our social stations, and to provide some suggestion of an alternative route through that departs from the expected. There is nothing more banal than making a composite of images found on Google. That’s what I do when I have to explain things in a Powerpoint for a corporate setting. That’s not what I do when I want to stretch the limits of my mind. When the source materials for collages are pulled from places that are overlooked by popular consciousness–old and obscure books, magazines, catalogs, and other printed material–the results are striking. Collage should always be striking. If a collage doesn’t force you to see something differently, or if it doesn’t slip something impossible past you nonchalantly, then what’s the point of making a collage?


Collage speaks to two things: 1) our place in the age of the image, and 2) our power over images at this unique juncture in time. Today we are surrounded by images at all times. The most fantastical and outrageous sights are little more than dust settling on our eyes in the short space between two eyelids touching. Each blink of our eyes reveals a new smorgasbord of images intended to shape our desires, and override our values. This barrage of images is inescapable, and we even use social media to subject ourselves to it. But alas, it’s the way our society is headed–it can’t be denied. Things around us are defined by images, and some people even hope to eviscerate their identity in order to ignite an eternal flame for the eulogy of their image. We can’t stop it or change it, and it’s not good or bad, it just is.


But, in these strange times when people are undergoing two sex changes because they changed their mind; when our president is the mirror image of Biff Tannen’s terrible alternate universe success story; when food has zero calories and causes cancer; when weed is actually the medicine, what is serving as the basis for our collective social dialogue and the values that undergird it? Are we supposed to take the millions of books that serve the baby boomer’s institutionalized way of life and read them, and follow their ways, and put the books on our shelves to infect the prospects of future generations, and sometimes look at the pictures? No. We are supposed to take these millions of books and magazines and various paper ephemera, along with this way of life that we have inherited from the baby boomers, and we are supposed to CUT IT UP AND MAKE ART WITH IT WHILE WE FIGURE OUT HOW TO FIX EVERYTHING THAT THE BABY BOOMERS RUINED. Collage captures all of this, and it filters out the vitriol, and it gives a productive analog for moving around the pieces of this capitalist empire that we’ve inherited and seeing how else they might fit together.


And the result of playing with all the pieces? Well, lots of spontaneous imaginative thinking takes place when you start cutting up words, colors, and pictures, and juxtaposing scales and perspectives, and finessing things till they align and blend together seamlessly into an image you couldn’t have anticipated. Collaging with paper takes all these essential cues from capitalism, it takes all of these pointless rules and limits and oppressive standards, and it obliterates them. And you would be surprised how your mind can start to open up to all kinds of alternatives when you spend time collecting, extracting, and combining images. Your source material is like a landscape for thought in your mind. As images of cars and birds and trees and waves via the paper in front of you, the areas of your brain where these things reside as objects in consciousness are also excited. The result: thoughts and inklings begin to bubble up in configurations that are not familiar–and further are sometimes anathema–to the institutions that created these images. Collaging gives you, the artist, the capacity to render entirely new narratives with the most familiar of all images: photographs. Collaging allows you to fly glorious flapping fingers of fuck you to every authoritative figure who ever held faith in the institution. *in a John Cage voice* We are destroying your books and it’s creating the future, and that’s poetry.


At a material level collaging is a combination of painting and drawing. Cutting out images is a lot like drawing in pen. Wrong moves can be finessed away as long as they’re small enough, but ultimately every move is for keeps. Tracing a line on the paper is the essential element, and the hand eye faculties are very close to those of drawing. And when it comes time to arrange those cut pieces the process is a lot like painting. Composition, color, shape, feeling, and various elements combine to create a final image that should be greater than the sum of its parts. Within each fragment of paper that forms the collage, there is an individual image that offers a range of cues and significations as if the most expert painter’s brush were used to call up nearly anything, and depict it with stunning accuracy. You have to draw the images off the page, and then you paint them into place. And the result is some impossible composite of reality that disrupts reality, and transcends the static nature of existing in a world of images.


The outcome of collage is entirely unique, and the results of a good collage couldn’t be produced by any other medium. It has a lot in common with sampling, and it’s not tough to see how collage culture will grow to reflect hip hop culture in many ways. Of course, that requires a nuanced perception of both, but for many that nuance is inherent. Many people who are fervently cutting and gluing today are doing so with a significant knowledge of  “re-composing” music as is the de-facto ontology since hip hop defined our world. And collage is crossing borders and boundaries, in the same way that hip hop did in the 80s and 90s, creating communities with common ground in spite of distance, and in spite of the lack of a common spoken language. Paper and glue stretches all the way around the world and serves as a common language for a variety of cultures, perspectives and values. Make no mistake, this seemingly innocuous trend is much more than a trend. Collage is a herald of the future, it is the cultural sphere that will show us the shape the next era of society, and that era has already begun.


In the following days we will be featuring 9 artists from the international collage scene. These aren’t THE COLLAGE artists, they aren’t the “best” collage artists, they didn’t all win first place in a contest. These are all respectable people, of various sorts, using the collage medium to tell a story. We hope that you’ll like what you see, and check out These Beasts for more great creatives of all sorts!