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The collage of the future will be done without scissors, knives or glue. It will leave the artist’s work table and the surfaces of cardboard paper behind and it will take its place on the walls of the big city, the unlimited field of poetic achievements.
- Léo Malet
Affiche and Décollage
By the early 1950s, the sites of public urban display, the formats of the billboard, the affiche americaine, and the technique of the large scale printed image/text message would have experienced their last climactic moment. Once on the wane, they would increasingly qualify as an artistic attraction, in the manner that all evacuated locations (ruins) and obsolete technologies appearing to be exempt from or abandoned by the logic of the commodity and the instrumentality of engineered desire had so qualified. In direct continuation of the surrealist attraction to the outmoded, these urban spaces and their derelict forms of advertisement would now become sites where the articulation of a new artistic rebellion could be inscribed. Brassai's photographic collection of the anonymous gestures of defacement prefigures the décollagiste's recordings of the gestures of the anonymous lacerators of billboards by more than fifteen years, sharing as well a concern to articulate a powerless gesture of rebellion in an abandoned urban space and in a medium of obsolescence.
Although the first time the term décollage appeared in print was in the Dictionnaire Abrégé du Surréalisme in 1938, it is usually used in the context of nouveau réalisme. The artists involved, such as Raymond Hains and Jacques Villeglé, often sought out sites with many layers of posters so that the process of décollage took on an archeological character and was seen as a means of uncovering historical information. They exhibited their ripped poster artworks as aesthetic objects and social documents. From 1949 Hains made work from posters that he tore from the walls of Paris.
The generation of Hains and Villegle clearly understood that artistic practice would be inconceivable outside of consumer culture and its increasingly successful forms of domination. Yet if they wanted to develop strategies of artistic opposition and if they wanted to rupture the new forms of spectacle culture, they had to reconcile these strategies with their disenchantment with the political ambitions of the former avant-gardes, in particular those of the local surrealists. Even at first glance, several parameters would seem to distinguish the practices of the decollagistes from the tradition of collage aesthetics. First of all the shift of location as predicted by Leo Malet. Rather than representing urban spaces iconically in the indirect trace of the found images of advertisement, newsprint, or photographic representation, the decollagistes shift their operation from the space of the studio to that of immediate intervention in the street.
If in Schwitters's and the dadaists' work the found materials from the street had ultimately only invaded the space of painting, in the work of the decollage artists the street is the site where the artistic intervention actually takes place.
When I became interested in posters, we were coming out of the war. It wasn’t a question of consumption. The crisis was due to the lack of building materials. Railway accidents were common, as the equipment often dated from before the 1920’s financial crisis. The black market persisted. I date the beginning of consumer society starting from 1964. I wasn’t trying to criticize society, but to illustrate it in an original way. While I was interested in abstract painting, I regretted that nothing from everyday life could interest artists. I knew the history of the evolution of posters and had noticed that designers-creators took pleasure in working on their compositions, drawing inspiration from those of Cubist painters, among other things. This parallel didn’t displease me. - Jacques Villeglé
In the decollagistes' pact with anonymous vandalists of urban product propaganda these collaborative acts acquire a new and direct aggressivity. A type of intervention emerges that seems to anticipate the procedures that the lettristes and situationists would soon call detournement, practices responding to conditions that Debord would define in 1967: "A world at once present and absent which the spectacle makes visible is the world of commodity dominating all that is lived."
The décollagistes opposed the extension of surrealist automatism into the performative rituals of painting in the studio and on the canvas (as exemplified most compellingly by the emerging mythology surrounding Jackson Pollock in France). By contrast, the decollagistes redefine artistic notions of the collective unconscious, expressly resituating these not in mythical or archetypal models but as inextricably and exclusively constituted within the urban space of commodity consumption and spectacle culture. In direct opposition to the mythology of action painting, decollage would not "elaborate the spectacle of refusal but rather refuse the spectacle" (Vaneigem).
Even while continuing an explicitly anti-painterly attitude in its attack on the advanced forms of urban mass culture as that governing language that contains and suspends traditional practices of artistic representation, it ruptures the collage paradigm both in terms of its materials and procedures. Rather than constructing a new pictorial universe from the affluence of industrial detritus and the languages and signs of consumer culture, it limits its choices to the images and messages of urban advertisement, the affiches found on billboards or dispersed on the walls of city streets. And rather than comparing fragments and textures, surfaces and seams, and arranging them according to the laws of a balanced relational composition, décollage foregrounds the latent temporal quality inherent in the collage paradigm, a dimension which –with the exception of Arp's papiers dichiris–had previously remained hidden.
In 1976, the French poet and critic Alain Jouffroy came up with this striking formulation Raymond Haines’ oeuvre: “For over twenty years Hains has been weaving the strangest spiderweb in the world: one made of a sun that will only illuminate coincidences everywhere.”
Vostell’s personal aesthetics were based on a cardinal principle which was at the heart of his oeuvre over the years and which was named exactly as his magazine: dé-coll/age—written in this way, with a hyphen and a slash, for very specific reasons. That Vostell called his magazine by the name of his aesthetic principle proves that from the very beginning he understood it as an extension of his own artistic practice—and this was actually very coherent, for his artistic practice was largely concerned with the media.
It can be said that the dé-coll/age principle stands for a manner of artistic intervention inspired by the violence of consumer society in a technologically driven postwar world, a form of violence that Vostell saw most vividly illustrated by the media, both by way of the information they provided and their own physical obsolescence. A clear example was provided by the advertising placards that caught Vostell's attention when he lived in Paris back in the mid-1950s. As a young German traumatized by the war, he was surprised to discover that the streets of the French capital, though not war-damaged like German cities, bore traces of violence on their walls, where the advertising placards glued on top of one another were worn out from being exposed to weather and traffic. He began imitating the process of degradation of the placards by peeling them off and bringing them to his studio, where he would further rip them up and erase them with corrosive acid. These were his first dé-coll/ages, a word that literally means “detaching” or “ungluing” in French.
The similarity between his way of acting upon placards and that of the “affiches lacérées” or, more precisely, “décollages,” of the artists linked to the French Nouveau Réalisme is striking. As a matter of fact, Vostell sought membership in the group at its founding in 1960 but was met with a rebuff. From then on, he always kept his distance from them, and retrospectively agreed with Pierre Restany in the latter’s refusal to include him within the group. The reason for the French theorist’s opposition was precisely what he called “la querelle du décollage.” From his point of view, Vostell employed the term in an excessively flexible and open-ended way. The German artist, for his part, criticized the object-based and fetishistic approach of the other décollagists, who limited their interventions to choosing the placards, ungluing them, and mounting them on canvas without any further manipulation. For him, the placards were only the starting point of an aesthetic wager that emphasized the processes of destruction of contemporary society in a much broader sense. To show that he had always worked with this procedural approach, and to draw a clear distinction between his work and that of the décollagists’, Vostell used two means: the story of his "discovery" of the term "décollage" and his way of writing it with a hyphen and a slash as if it were dismembered.
The story of the discovery of the term allegedly dates back to as early as 1954, the year in which on September 6 the French newspaper Le Figaro published the news of a plane that had crashed "shortly after takeoff" (“peu après son décollage”). According to Vostell, he was so impressed by the headline and intrigued by its use of the noun “décollage” that he ran out to buy a French-German Langenscheidt dictionary and was fascinated by the polysemy of the term, which, in addition to “unglue” and “take off,” also means “die” or “snuff it.” In this sense, for Vostell, the plane crash represented a double dé-coll/age event (to take off and, almost instantly, to die), and this duality summed up, in his opinion, the ambivalence of modern life, that always latent destructive component in the peace of a Europe still marked by war. On the whole, "décollage" was proving itself to be an extraordinarily flexible concept “that could be expanded in every direction in a mind-boggling way.”
To finish making it his own, Vostell adopted that dismembered way of writing it, which not only visually evokes the violence of lacerated placards or crashed planes, but also condenses all the metaphorical dimensions that he wanted to give his work as an image of his time. Undoubtedly influenced by contemporary visual and concrete poetry, Vostell dismantled the word "décollage" to assemble his own “dé-coll/age”. This was an objet trouvé—or, more precisely, a mot trouvé—found in the press, the dictionary, and contemporary civilization; that is why he maintained its lexicographical symbols, with a slash separating the “age” ending. Thanks to this device, along with the hyphen that he added between the syllables “dé” and “coll”, “dé-coll/age” also functions as a word of words, whose meanings he would play with in different languages within his magazine. Of these, the most important and obvious is the one that reminds us that the dé-coll/age principle was intended to be an allegory of its age.
After the placards, Vostell applied the dé-coll/age principle to other forms of media, including press photography (giving rise to his dé-coll/age—Verwishungen, i.e., dé-coll/age—blurrings) and television (TV—dé-coll/ages). Although I will not go into specific detail on his work using these media, what bears mentioning is that his approach to them was not as naive as his amazement at this new media-driven society might suggest. Rather, he was a professional regarding the production of the letters, images, and messages of the iconosphere. Early in his career, Vostell made his living for several years as a typographer and graphic designer. In Paris, while studying at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts and ripping up placards, he worked in the important type foundry Deberny & Peignot as well as in the workshop of placard artist A. M. Cassandre. It was in fact one of Cassandre’s placard books which provided the stimulus for what would be Vostell’s first dé-coll/age—action The theater is on the street (1958). Later, back in Cologne in 1961, his work in the layout department of Neue Illustrierte magazine also had a direct impact on his artistic work. There, on a daily basis, he handled countless snapshots of hot topics, such as the raising of the Berlin Wall. This made him shift his focus from placards to press photography as raw material for his work. That is to say, Vostell’s aesthetic approaches drew directly from his experience as a graphic designer.
dé-coll/age, the Bulletin aktueller Ideen
Vostell's dé-coll/age magazine was printed between 1962 and 1969, comprising seven issues released irregularly in disparate formats. The first two—more modest in terms of quantity and variety of content than the following ones—were published in editions of 500 copies. The third, fourth, and sixth—those most relevant to the historiography of Fluxus and the Happening— doubled this figure. The fifth and seventh—the two exceptions within the editorial line of the magazine—went back to 500. As for the sites and rhythm of publication, the first three were carried out by the artist himself and were released in Cologne in rapid succession between June and December 1962. From the fourth one on, the Frankfurt-based publishing house Typos took over the magazine’s publication, and the rhythm slowed, with one- to two-year gaps between the appearance of issues.
As indicated by its title, the magazine represents a programmatic extension of the editor's aesthetic investigations. Furthermore, on more than one occasion Vostell reinforced this message through the design of the covers. dé-coll/age no. 1 bears a band illustrated with an enlarged negative copy of the Franco-German Langenscheidt’s definition of the word, with its various meanings. dé-coll/age no. 3’s cover also proffers a play on words by dividing the term into three units and offering definitions of each one in different languages: “dé” and “coll” here correspond to two prepositions, the Spanish “de” (“from,” “of ”) and the articulated Italian “con il” (“with the”), while “age” takes its meaning from the English. Finally, in dé-coll/age no. 6, the title is removed and is replaced by a facsimile of Le Figaro’s cover with the news story about the plane crashing during take-off.
Despite the patent desire of Vostell to make his magazine a manifestation of his personal aesthetic principle, it would be wrong to think that its seven issues are dedicated to his own work: only the last one is a monograph on a project of his own. Quite the opposite, he conceived of dé-coll/age in what might be considered a more generous and undoubtedly more ambitious manner: as a Bulletin aktueller Ideen, i.e., “Bulletin of Current Thinking.” The term “bulletin” refers to a type of periodical publication that provides information related to the activity of an organization, so there is a certain official quality to it. It thus follows that Vostell aspired to become the official spokesperson of a still-unnamed collective entity devoted to a matter that, while somewhat undefined as yet (“ideas”), was in tune with his personal concerns (“Aktualität”).
The open-endedness of this approach is interesting from two standpoints. For us, it is indicative of the novel and experimental nature of the artistic developments that were to find dissemination in the pages of dé-coll/age, while still lacking a defined identity. For Vostell, it was very effective from a tactical perspective in that, when those developments began to be classified with terms such as “Fluxus” or “Happening,” he would be free to integrate them into his magazine according to his own criteria. The bulletin would thus prove as flexible a device as the dé-coll/age principle itself, allowing Vostell to make the story of the formative years of action art his own. The first chapter of this story can be regarded, paraphrasing Bertrand Clavez, as the original sin that marked Fluxus before it was even born.
In a manner similar to what he did with torn posters, war photographs published in the press, and daily acts of destruction, he incorporated his colleagues’ pieces and compositions into his own work—in this case, the magazine—as if they were objets trouvés. From a design standpoint, this was easy to achieve: it was only necessary to downplay the typesetting and work with “facsimiles of the things that came directly from the artists, just as they were, blotches, corrections, things crossed out, imperfections and everything else.” This also had the advantage of saving a lot of time in terms of transcriptions, formatting, and corrections, as has already been seen with regard to dé-coll/age no. 2.
The consequence of this approach is a feeling of immediacy and closeness, which makes a virtue out of the messy and even dirty appearance of some materials and their layout. “The medium is the message” wrote Marshall McLuhan in those years, and dé-coll/age’s raw aesthetic would set the trend for future Neo-avant-garde editorial projects such as the influential Interfunktionen, published from 1968 to 1975.