Using the notion of chance in art and writing has been a useful and popular tool in creative wellbeing sessions. Participants like the way feelings can be expressed indirectly, for example by using pre-existing text and cutting it up to form their own poem, or drawing with eyes closed.
This group piece was created from pages of a picture book. All participants were given the same photocopied page and circled words they wished to use, blacking out the rest of the text. On another occasion, a dice was used to choose a word from each sentence on the page.
Using these processes introduces an element of fun as well as chance, allowing artists to bypass inhibitions of the conscious mind. It was interesting to see the way that different people working with the same limited text produced different tones and moods depending on how the words were placed.
The technique was promoted by Tristan Tzara, a Dada artist in 1920s Paris. Here are his instructions:
To Make a Poem
Take a newspaper
Take a pair of scissors
Choose from the paper an article as long as you are planning to make your poem
Cut the article out
Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up the article and put them in a bag
Next take each clipping out one after another in the order in which they left the bag
The poem will look like you
And there you are — an infinitely original author endowed with a charming sensibility though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.
Hans Arp was another founding member of Dadaism. The Dada artists experimented with new approaches to art that could undermine the existing cultural mentality and confused logic that had led the world to the edge of annihilation. “Dada aimed to destroy the reasonable deceptions of man and recover the natural and unreasonable order.” – Arp.
Arp used chance through methods such as circling words at random in a newspaper, or drawing them from a hat. Similarly, William Burrough’s use of cut-up composition, and some of Bowie’s lyrics.
“What I’ve used it for, more than anything else, is igniting anything that might be in my imagination. It can often come up with very interesting attitudes to look into. I tried doing it with diaries and things, and I was finding out amazing things about me and what I’d done and where I was going.” – David Bowie
Bernadette Mayer is a wonderfully innovative contemporary poet using chance techniques. Mayer’s record-keeping and use of stream-of-consciousness narrative are two trademarks of her writing, though she is also known for her work with form and mythology. In addition to the influence of her textual-visual art and journal-keeping, Mayer’s poetry is widely acknowledged as some of the first to speak accurately and honestly about the experience of motherhood. For examples of her writing experiments see here.
she heard city music rising a queen knows love
everything cooked like a fish knows beauty
her instrument was fire walking language plain as a noble king
she put on a pair of kisses not one tree shone that year
and went to ask him his price like home, mother
in the theatre of toys winter unkind
the horned man is sleeping warm wing of spring
the dust of forgotten stories in his eyes she soars through the cutting edge
continuities improbable as life