[iDC] Exquite Corpse - Totems Without Taboos

Paul D. Miller anansi1 at earthlink.net
Sun Sep 3 12:56:38 EDT 2006

This is an essay I've written as the foreward to 
an anthology on the classic game The Exquisite 
Corpse: Collaboration, Creativity, and the 
World's Most Popular Parlor Game  edited by Kanta 
Kochhar-Lindgren, Davis Schneiderman, and Tom 
Denlinger, to be published by University of 
Nebraska Press (2007). This collection is the 
first set of original essays to provide a broad 
retrospective on the legacy of the Corpse 
project-and we are defining this legacy fairly 
loosely, with representation from historical, 
literary, collaborative, moments (etc.). The vibe 
is open and the text, I guess, is too.

Paul aka Dj Spooky

Totems without Taboos: The Exquisite Corpse
By Paul D. Miller aka Dj Spooky that Subliminal Kid

Database aesthetics, collaborative filtering, 
musical riddles, and beat sequence philosophy 
aren't exactly things that come to mind when you 
think of the concept of the "exquiste corpse." 
But if there's one thing at I want to you to 
think about when you read this anthology, its 
that collage based art - whether its sound, film, 
multimedia, or computer code, has become the 
basic frame of reference for most of the info 
generation. We live in a world of relentlessly 
expanding networks - cellular, wireless, fiber 
optic routed, you name it - but the basic fact is 
that the world is becoming more interconnected 
than ever before, and it's going to get deeper, 
weirder, and a lot more interesting than it 
currently is as I write this essay in NYC at the 
beginning of the 21st century. Think of the 
situation as being like this:
in an increasingly fractured and borderless 
world, we have fewer and fewer fixed systems to 
actually measure our experiences. This begs the 
question: how did we compare experiences before 
the internet? How did people simply say "this is 
the way I see it?" The basic response, for me, is 
that they didn't - there was no one way of seeing 
anything, and if there's something the 20th 
century taught us, is that we have to give up the 
idea of mono-focused media, and enjoy the 
mesmerizing flow of fragments we call the 
multi-media realm. For the info obsessed, games 
are the best shock absorber for the "new" - they 
render it in terms that everyone can get. Play a 
video game, stroll through a corridor blasting 
your opponents. Move to the next level. Repeat. 
It could easily be a Western version of a game 
that another culture used to teach about morals 
and the fact that respect for life begins with an 
ability to grasp the flow of information between 
people and places. I wonder how many Westerners 
would know the term "daspada" - but wait - the 
idea that we learn from experience and evolve 
different behavioral models to respond to 
changing environments is a place where complexity 
meets empathy, a place where we learn that giving 
information and receiving it, is just part of 
what it means to live on this, or probably any 
planet in the universe. What makes "Exquisite 
Corpse" cool is simple: it was an artists parlour 
game to expose people to a dynamic process - one 
that made the creative act a symbolic exchange 
between players.

Some economists call this style of engagement 
"the gift economy" - I like to think of the idea 
of creating out of fragments as the basic way we 
can think and create in an era of platitudes, 
banality, and info overload. Even musicians and 
artists - traditionally, the ciphers that 
translate experience into something visible for 
the rest of us to experience - have for the most 
part been happy for their work to be appropriated 
by the same contemporary models for material 
power that have created problems for their 
audiences - power and art happily legitimizing 
each other in a merry dance of death, a jig where 
some people know the rules of the dance, but most 
don't. But this "death," this "dematerialization" 
- echoes what Marx and Engles wrote about way 
back in the 19th century with their infamous 
phrase "all that is solid melts into air." Think 
of the exquisite corpse concept as a kind of 
transference process on a global scale. When you 
look at the sheer volume of information moving 
through most of the info networks of the 
industrialized world, you're presented with a 
tactile relationship with something that can only 
be sensed as an exponential effect - an order of 
effect that the human frame of reference is 
simply not able to process on its own. At the end 
of the day, the "exquisite corpse" is just as 
much about renewal as it is about memory. It 
depends on how you play the game.

The way I see it, is this: whenever  humanity 
tries to really grapple with the deep issues - 
life, death, taxes, you name it - it becomes a 
game, and I like to think that like most human 
endeavors,  "exquisite corpse" is all about 
chance processes. For example, the Indian game of 
"daspada"or "Snakes and Ladders" as its commonly 
called,  has its origin in documents from India 
around 2nd century BC. It's said that it was used 
as a game for teaching morals - the relative 
level of reincarnation, and multiple perspectives 
represented whether life's lessons had been 
learned - or not. The British took it to England 
in 1890s and from there, it spread to the rest of 
Europe and the world, but the basic idea is that 
the idea of living multiple lives, games theory, 
and the moral relationship between individuals 
and society was linked to rules - it seemed like 
a good place to reflect on how games get 
"sampled" and remixed, depending on which culture 
they're in. Cut and paste the result, and the 
basic idea is that this is all about information, 
and how we play with it. It could easily be Pac 
Man, Quake, or Halo2 it depends on your frame of 
reference. It's a thread that easily connect 
artists as diverse as Luis Buñuel, John Cage, 
Virgil Thomson, and Grand Master Flash. Yes, 
Grand Master Flash! The whole idea is to look at 
links - at connections that are unacknowledged 
but also undeniable: chance processes, and 
randomness do that - they scramble subjectivity 
in a way that lets the unconscious methods we've 
used to sort information in our minds become a 
filter for the way we engage the external world. 
It's a scenario that turns the mind inside out, 
and that, like pop culture always says, is a 
"good thing."

Humanity, according to most studies of 
"information theory" creates about 8 to 10 
exabytes of information a year in the 21st 
century. An exabyte (derived from the SI prefix 
exa-) is a unit of information or computer 
storage equal to approximately one quintillion 
bytes. Its such a large number that it's 
literally beyond human comprehension. For 
example, the total amount of printed material in 
the world is estimated to be around five 
exabytes. It was estimated that by the end of 
1999, the sum of human knowledge (including 
audio, video and text) was 12 exabytes - UC 
Berkeley School of Information suggests that 5 
exabytes of storage space was created in 2002 
alone, 92% of it on magnetic media, mostly on 
hard disks - the vast majority of this space is 
used to store redundant intellectual works such 
as music and commercial video.

A while ago, University of California Berkelely 
claimed that 5 exabytes of data approximately 
equals "all words ever spoken by human beings" 
this statement is just the tip of the iceberg, 
but you get the idea - there's a tremendous 
amount of information being produced by our 
culture, and the real way that humanity 
experiences most of it is through multi-media. 
That's where the "exquiste corpse" concept comes 
home to roost.

Think of one exabyte as a zillion gigabytes, and 
you get the idea - scale, density, and the sheer 
volume - it's all getting smaller, more 
fragmented, and more nuanced.  That's more 
information than most of humanity has made 
throughout its existence on this planet over 
millions of years. Exquisite Corpse is a game - 
it's also known as "exquisite cadaver" or 
"rotating corpse" - but basically, it's a 
filtering process where a collection of words or 
images are assembled collectively, and the result 
is commonly known as the exquisite corpse or 
cadavre exquis in French. Each collaborator adds 
to the collage composition in sequence. It's the 
sequence of the game that makes the tension 
between each player a connected, and ultimately 
enriching experience - each person is only 
allowed to see the end of what the previous 
person contributed.

Think of a more technology oriented description 
this way: adaptation to human-engineered 
technologies, testing formal and ecological 
theorems for high-density lifestyles, sustainable 
resource sharing among urban organisms, and the 
play of public/private division in cross-species 
interaction. Got it?
Info density isn't about the information just 
sitting happily on your hard-drive, on your 
canvass, or in the artists studio: the whole 
theme of this group of essays is a reflection on 
the different paths information takes as it moves 
from one culture to the next, one individual at a 
time. Think of Moore's Law: Expressed as "a 
doubling every 18 months", Moore's law suggests 
the phenomenal progress of technology in recent 
years. Expressed on a shorter timescale, however, 
Moore's law equates to an average performance 
improvement in the industry as a whole of over 1% 
a week. What game does that open us up to in the 
era of large numbers? For example - at 
pandora.com visitors are invited to enter the 
name of their favorite artist or song and to get 
in return a stream of music with similar "DNA," 
its essentially, in effect a private Internet 
radio station microtailored to each user's 
tastes. There's more - for example, customizable 
Internet radio services like Pandora, Last.fm, 
Yahoo's Launchcast and RealNetworks' Rhapsody are 
pointing users to music far beyond the playlists 
that confine most FM radio broadcasts. The most 
familiar form uses so-called collaborative 
filtering, software that makes recommendations 
based on the buying patterns of like-minded 
consumers. Think of the "customers who bought 
items like this also bought ..." function on 
Amazon.com. Your tastes, and the way the travel 
through the system are based on variables that 
leave trail for the algorithms running the 
software to model - that is then passed on to 
someone else, and so on and so on. Think of it as 
the cultural update of what "daspada" was about, 
just transcribed to the realm of the digital - 
the Surrealists anticipated this, and made it 

In the realm of video and online media, the craze 
of "Machinima" - or when kids remix video game 
characters to make their own films, or in the 
realm of dj culture - it's the mix tape - but the 
common denominator is selection. The whole 
schemata that I'm pointing out is that density, 
and the tools we use to navigate it, are 
barometers of the deep structure of culture as it 
is translated into information - it's a pattern 
that, as the 21st century advances, will become 
more and more linked to the way we live and the 
way we play.

Moore's original statement can be found in his 
publication "Cramming more components onto 
integrated circuits", Electronics Magazine 19 
April 1965 - but for the intents of this essay, 
let's think of the basic frame work as a mirror 
for Mie Van Der Rohe's infamous quip about 
design: less is more. Whisper that in someone's 
ear and see what happens.
The remix, as always, is what you make of it. 
Juxtapose, fragment, flip the script - anything 
else, simply put, would be boring. This 
anthology, like the original game of the 
Surrealists, points to a place in culture where, 
the process of art is a collaborative process. 
It's a situation that requires, like the name, a 
kind of collective action. The drawn version 
predates the written version - the anthology is a 
map of an un-drawn terrain of bodies and minds. 
Think of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - the 
mis-matched body parts, the fragmented speech, 
the neo-Romantic sense of loss and renewal - what 
would that creature feel if it knew that it was 
justa figment of Shelley's imagination, a 
conversation piece made up on a cold night in 
Switzerland in the 19th century? Flip the script, 
cut and paste the result, and the literary 
equivalent of the artificial creature flows off 
the page and becomes another story, another 
composition, another way of seeing a world 
rapidly advancing into a frame of reference that 
we know is at the edge of what we call human.

Again the main motif of the scenario - the drawn 
version predates the written version - it's a 
kind of guessing match that produces what has now 
become a mass culture cliché: that's what I'm 
talking about. Collective memory, and the way it 
unfolds in the expression of culture, I guess 
that could be referred to as the "exquisite 
corpse" too. The whole idea of this anthology is 
to explore the places on the cultural map that 
haven't been marked, places that on any other map 
would be marked "here be dragons" - yes, the 
blank places. They invite interpretation, and 
yes, the active mind wants to doodle and fill in 
the emptiness. The map's blank spaces beckon like 
some kind of light at the end of a dark tunnel. I 
can only say that this collection of writings is 
a lexicon, a guide for interpreting a phenomenon 
that we all know waits at the edge of our 
imagination, if we only had the tools to navigate 
its unknown space.

Some have played the (graphic) game with a more 
or less vague or general prior agreement about 
what the resulting picture will be, but this 
defeats the essentially Surrealist nature of the 
game - you can say "look, these are the spaces 
that we present to you, and the rest is a method 
acting course in roles that no one is quite sure 
about how to play - the rest is up to you." See 
if the puzzle pieces fit, draw a line connecting 
the dots. But most of all - have fun!

Paul D. Miller aka Dj Spooky that Subliminal Kid
NYC 2006

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