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Who is afraid of pixel collage

by Edvard Derkert 2009

Who's afraid of pixel art? or What is is collage?

What is a collage? Does one really need a definition? Yes, I think so! At least I do, for example when people put in question if my digital work really can be called collage. To most people making a collage means to glue paper together with an artistic intent. The artistic intent is important otherwise we all would become collage artist's when we glue a stamp onto an envelope. The definition different pieces of paper glued together in an artstic arrangement seems to make sense because colle means glue in French and most collages are made out of paper. But is that the whole story? Is collage only an artistic technique? Paper and glue?

Before Pablo Picasso and George Braque made their first papier collés (paper collages) 1912 the word collage was already in use. Of course it meant something glued together but it could also mean to have "a sexual relationship outside marriage". The couple were "glued together" not by matrimony but by love or sexual attraction. The word is here used metaphorically. There was even a song written called Collage about this around the turn of the century. So before collage became the hottest avantgarde mode of expression in the early 2000 century the concept was already established.

There were of course collages made long before 1912 but what they were called I dont know. The first known paper collages were made in Japan around the 1100 century. So in a way you dont need a word for the activity at all. Just do it, or rather just glue it. But do you really need glue to put things together? Picasso sometimes used pins! And Kurt Schwitters did use hammer and nails to put some of his work together! Maybe one should use the words assemblage or montage for these kinds of works.

I have been making collage since I was a twelve year's old. As a professional artist and illustrator I now more or less exclusively use the computer to produce art. But I still claim that I am making collages, digital collages! I use "digital glue", or so I say. It is of course more correct to call it digital montage or digital assemblage So why do I insist on calling it digital collage?

In the art context he word montage usually is bundled together with photo; photomontage, and it is with associated artist's like John Heartfield and German dadaists. The term also implies that the art work is produced with Photographic dark room techniques and that the images have a political leaning. The term was originally used in opposition to the "arty" and non political Cubist collages made by Picasso etc. The term also put emphasis on photos as a source material and as I tend to use a variety of materials I am not in favour of that term. I could still use the term digital montage, but I am just not comfortable with it!

Assemblage is the broadest term (of the trio collage, montage, assemblage) because it just means something put together, but in the art world it more or less denotes a three dimensional collage! My computer pictures are very flat, even when compared to collages, so that rules out assemblage as a term for my artwork. So I guess I have to stick to the term collage, or digital collage. But isn't there something more to the collage than just materials and the technique one uses to put the bits and pieces together? For some people digital collage is a red herring. It is "unsexy", "artificial", "not true to the collage spirit" or not "art at all". And "hey where is the glue man?" If I want to include my digital work into the definition above I must give it a radical make over. Max Ernst said that collage is not about the glue! I agree with him, so what is it about?
Right now as I am writing this – there is a knock on my door. It is the mailman, he got a big plastic bag for me. Inside the bag is the English translation of Herta Weschers book Collage. I open the book and start reading on the inner side of the dust jacket:

"it does not matter whether the artist chooses to paste, nail, tie, sew, weld /.../, or whether the the result is two-dimensional or in the round. The author includes as collage 'all works in which components belonging to separate categories are combined' regardless of material or working methods."

Now we are getting somewhere! Thanks Hertha! So forget about scissors, knives, glue and paper. Collage is about artistically combining things and concepts from different areas in such a way that it creates sparks between the components. It is important that the source material in the collage still has, at least partly, its identity intact so we can trace its history or context. The collage practice is in its early stage destructive. Something is cut out or torn away from its original surroundings and then put into a new alien or unfamiliar context or together with odd bedfellows. You can also dislocate parts from the same source material in a way that estranges the parts because we give them a new function or new place in the image. For instance we can give a man his ears for footwear or we can put his hands where the ears used to be, etc. So collage is the artistic combination of identifiable odds ends end that usually don't belong together and therefore creates tension or surprise. This definition rules out collages made out of colored paper. Why? Because the pieces don't carry with them scars or reminiscences from former surroundings. They are just color patches! So Matissse's works with pasted paper are not collages?! No, actually these works are called decoupage which means something cut out. This definition opens up for collages made up of words and ideas: puns and jokes. Perhaps I am taking it a bit too far? In my latest definition colored paper collages are not collages – but verbal jokes are! So we now have two definitions; one technical and one, shall we say, conceptual. Maybe you have better definitions?! If so let me know!

Or maybe collage is something that looks like a collage, a style?

To many artists the collage tradition is a style: certain materials, preferably old and worn, and certain techniques are to be used. Quite a few collages made by contemporary artists look like they could have been made in the 20s or the 60s. Some of my digital collages dont look like collages at all and are therefore not recognized as such. That is really not a problem at all – but to my mind they notwithstanding are. Many collage artist seem to adhere to the idea that real collages are made out of "real things". "real materials" which leaves the "unreal" digital "things" the digital "material" out of the picture. Let me just tell you that "pixels" are real. You can't touch them but you can see them and you can move them. And when you print a digital picture it ain't digital no more. It is touchable, it smells and you can even be touched by it!When Picasso and Braque introduced the paper colle the collage was a new subversive way too make art and think about art and representation.

Collage was once avantgarde, now many collage artist's are more or less concerned with keeping up the appearance of collage. So it is a bit ironic that collage today is something that is to be treasured, refined and preserved. It is not that I say that that this must be bad or that these collages are not good – but to me the tradition of collage is an opening, not a closure. I am very sure that people like Kurt Schwitters and El Lissitzky would gladly have used the computer as a mean of expression.
Edvard Derkert