Ludic Experimentation by the Surrealist Group in Czechoslovakia, 1971–1985

Dawn Ades

Jan Švankmajer, whose film Down to the Cellar will figure in Manifesta 9 next year, is a member of the long-lived Prague surrealist group. In the 1970s, at a time when the group had had to cease publication temporarily of its journal, Analogon, games became a major part of their activity. Games—group activities combining the poetic and the experimental—had been integral to surrealism since the beginning. The games invented by the Czech surrealists, some of which were published in Analogon 6 iii, 1991, add a critical dimension to the poetic and experimental. We present here a small selection of these games, which were generously provided by Bruno Solarik, member of the Prague group.

Dawn Ades

Game instruction
Prague surrealist group, Game instruction, re-published in Analogon 6 iii, 1991

I. Interpretation Games (1971–1974)

These experiments in artistic and literary interpretation on a given theme aim to determine the extent to which the functions and qualities of each participant’s associations concur and the ways they dispose them toward mutual inspiration.
(V.E.: interpretation games)

Good Day, Mr Gauguin (conception and instructions: Martin Stejskal)
Item for interpretation: Gauguin’s eponymous 1889 painting
Order of participants: Martin Stejskal, Eva Švankmajerová, Vratislav Effenberger, Andrew Lass, Jan Švankmajer, Ladislav Novák

Rules: In this interpretation game each artist in succession had to examine two different interpretations at the same time. They used Gauguin’s celebrated painting, on one hand, and an interpretation of it–the work of the previous participant–on the other. Each participant was free to decide which of the two points of departure would predominate.
(V.E.: ibid.)

Each participant knew before the game began of the condition involving two interpretational aspects; nonetheless, most of them preferred to react to the work of the preceding interpreter. This demonstrates–once again, as in Chinese Whispers–that the inclination toward an internal imaginative dialogue between the players was given preference over the inclination toward abstract experimentation. This strange form of pictorial dialogue outside the bounds of language indicates a possible approach to a certain deeper layer of intersubjective communication whose symbolic functions are broader and more dynamic than those of language, which is too closely bound up with conventional rationality.
(V.E.: idem)

The conflict between the romantic spirit and the rational mind in their past and present forms (and the resulting erotic appeal) are two of the most important problem areas dealt with in this game.
(M.S.: Closing commentary on game)

II. Restorer (1975)
(Collective experiment in tactile interpretation)
Conception, instructions, adaptation: Jan Švankmajer

The idea of the experiment was to find out:

1. If the sense of touch is able to arouse associative thinking and become a subject matter for the imagination.
2. Whether particular objects, forms and structures, placed in certain imaginative circumstances (with a tactile object) can, after being “read” by touch, be connected consciously in a continuous perceptual experience.
3. To which extent a subjective tactile objectification is possible.
4. If touch, isolated from the other senses, is capable of transmitting “aesthetic arousal”.
5. Whether the visualisation of the tactile perception takes part in the transmission.

Rules: The participants in the experiment were presented with an object I created which was a tactile interpretation of “Restorer at Work”, a picture cut out from a magazine. No one, aside from me, had seen the original image. The participants were required to:

1. Insert their arm(s) in a cotton sleeve and identify the object, describing it and giving their first impressions
2. Connect the tactile impressions acquired and the associations or analogies that might arise into an imaginative whole
3. Try to determine which of ten pictures served as the inspiration for the artist’s tactile interpretation.
(J.Š.: commentary on game)

Participants: M. Bounourová, V. Effenberger, A. Marenčin, E. Medková, J. Mojžíš, A. Nádvorníková, M. Stejskal, L. Šváb

“I see here similarities not only in form, but in actions. A bearded Christ, whose mouth has, remarkably, been stepped on, leaving the impression of a shoe (I subsequently ascertain by touch that the shoe is also real.) The tenacious restorer is trying to eliminate the ‘decoration’ by injecting it. [...] The syringe seems to come directly out of his eyes, which I have symbolised in tactile form as a pair of little hanging balls. The needle is represented here as a corkscrew and the body of the syringe as an antiseptic phallus made of Bakelite (hard plastic). Two sacks to the right of the tactile object humorously symbolise, in my reading, the entire complex of his consciousness, the ‘creative potency’ hidden in old stockings.”
(M.S.: commentary on his own participation in the experiment)

The game is included in the collection titled Otevřená hra [Open Game].

III. Quarrel in a Compass (1981)
Original conception and instructions: Gilles Dunant, Naïla Attia, Michel Dubret, Vince
Adaptation: F. Dryje
Participants: N. Attia, M. Dubret, G. Dunant, Vince, F. Dryje, J. Koubek, M. Stejskal, J. Švankmajer

Rules: 1. Each participant in the game wrote down that day’s experiences and impressions (from the morning till the beginning of the game); 2. Five cards with pictures were taken and each player described it in writing; 3. Each player composed an artificial dream (using the method of dream logic) integrating the elements in 1. and the characteristics of the cards in 2.; 4. Each player took a “trip” around Prague, sharing only the beginning and end points with the others, and eventually wrote them down; 5. Connections between the contents of the artificial dream and the “trip” were sought (analogies, correspondences, and so on).

The written record of the game was to be supplemented with a commented evaluation by the artists.


Fragments of reality:
1. A truck loaded with lard and covered with a red tarp (I encountered them twice that day).
2. A limping lawyer (Mr Michálek) and a clerk at the tribunal (an acquaintance of ours, Mrs Kaiserová).
3. Pieces of polished agate and a strange horn (from a hairy rhinoceros) at a second-hand shop in Celetná Street.
4. Looking for Martin’s studio (went into no. 5 instead of no. 15, as usual).
5. Waiting with full bladder for Martin to arrive.

19. Sun in window
20. Carriage-ride
47. Work in rice field
69. Stone column in middle of room
70. Gemini (twins)

I’m feeling drowsy with pressure in the belly area. I know already from experience that I’m in for a fretful dream. Nonetheless, I fall asleep rather easily:

I’m racing along on a road at a breakneck speed behind the wheel of a (rather large) sort of car. I’m driving so fast because I need to get home in time. Our toilet is flooding. The flushing lever has broken off. However, I can’t concentrate on driving, because of the sun shining in the rear view mirror, blinding me. I tilt the mirror every which way, forward and backward. Suddenly the truck bed of the vehicle I’m driving in the mirror. I see that I’m transporting a pile of raw lard. A red tarp has been thrown over the lard. Michálek, the lawyer, sits on the pile with a bandaged leg. Mrs Kaiserová sits next to him. They are holding hands and looking in each other’s eyes amorously. It disgusts me, so I tilt the mirror back. Suddenly, out of the blue, a massive stone column appears in the middle of the road. I clearly won’t be able to stop in time or swerve around the column. I let go of the steering wheel and cover my eyes. The truck slams into the column, which breaks up into small pieces of agate-stone and one rhinoceros horn. Everything is tumbling along the road. People come running and collect the pieces of polished agate from the paving stones. I rush out of the mangled car and run along the road. It’s Slavíkova Street. I search for the building containing Martin’s studio. I can’t find it. First I enter no. 5, but it’s not there. Some people send me on to no. 15. Finally, I find the studio. I bang on the door, but nobody opens. I wake up with a strong desire to urinate.

The fictional dream came out of me in one sitting; actually, all I did was put the events of the day and the card symbols in order and joined them in my own self. The card symbols related to the day’s events in an eerie manner:
Carriage–truck loaded with lard
Stone column–pieces of agate
Mr Michálek, the lawyer, and Ms Kaiserová–the Gemini (twins)

The magic of this game lies in the expectation. Like a shaman who has just finished his dance and is waiting for the rain, I–when I had finished writing down the dream and walked out into the street–couldn’t rid myself of the idea that I had just brought some misfortune down on myself or, in the best of cases, I would witness some misfortune I would be responsible for–if only unconsciously. I shuddered at the thought that at any moment I might hear behind me the tinkling of broken glass and the sound of crumpling of metal from a car accident. But I eventually realised that the connection between the dream and reality didn’t have to play itself out at the identity level and I started to worry about falling roof tiles. “Worry” isn’t the right word for the feeling, though, because at the same time I was secretly hoping for the “dream” to come true. This ambivalent feeling accompanied me the whole way. Another feeling accompanied me: a feeling of some sort of secret mission that elevated an ordinary walk to a meaningful undertaking with a higher purpose. I looked on other people as mere marionettes or moving props in a secret play of circumstances they were completely unaware of. They were there only to carry out, unawares, a sort of magical mission I had set in motion by writing the “dream”. In Martin’s cellar, where we had picked our cards and then written down our dreams, I had a general sense that we were involved in a great conspiracy against all of humanity.

The first thing that caught my attention was a bunch of odd pipes sticking out of the ground in Vinohrady Park; pipes about 20 cm on average were protruding from the ground and returning again without reaching it. The pipes reminded me of a bent-over figure in the rice field on card no. 47. At that moment, I didn’t realise it, however. Instead, they gave me the impression of being some sort of dark link with the underworld. I remembered card no. 47 once in the course of my walk, as I watched a group of people waiting meekly for a hot dog.  When I left the park, an asphalt truck zoomed by me, incredibly caked over with asphalt. The white lard thus became black asphalt. On my walk I noticed several times that I was walking in the middle of the road. I was reminded of card no. 70 (Gemini) twice by two railroad workers I met, the two towers of Týn Church and two girls sitting across from each other behind a café window.

I’m walking along Vinohradská Street and decide to enter a book shop; the first thing that catches my gaze is the Atlas of Precious Stones, published about a month before, which I’d been looking for with no success. I buy it. I take the pedestrian underpass to Wenceslas Square. The columns in the underpass seem to beckon me to walk into them. Autosuggestion? A conscious attempt at dream fulfilment? At the second-hand shop in Celetná Street I buy a box of polished agate stones which I saw in the morning (I don’t buy the hairy rhinoceros horn).

In the course of the walk, the passive expectation turns into a sort of wringing out of connections from reality. I take notes as I walk. I meet Dr. Drvota, but I avoid him; I don’t want to be drawn from the “dream”. In one of the alleys leading away from the Old Town Square I’m suddenly blinded by sunlight; I swerve over into some shade to finish taking down my notes. Progressively, I find fatigue sets in, my feet start to hurt and I need to urinate. About two hours later I come home. I’m the third. Martin’s already there.

So, the whole journey took place in quite a normal, banal manner, uneventfully, with no exciting chance encounters. The connections between the “dream” and reality are minimal, rather insubstantial. Still, I can’t say I’m disappointed with the game. The afternoon filled with magical expectation–despite being constantly held back by a rational scepticism–suffused the game with an unrepeatable atmosphere in which I had some sort of personal superiority, a sort of detached view of reality from above, which gave me the feeling I was in control, in charge of it, and to a certain extent liberated me from a fear of it. For the first time I was fully cognizant of the fact that I was a member of a cult, with all the positive and negative aspects that go along with such a membership.
(J.Š.: excerpt from game)

Key to abbreviations
K.B. – Karol Baron
F.D. – František Dryje
V.E. – Vratislav Effenberger
J.K. – Jiří Koubek
A.L. – Andy Lass
A.M. – Albert Marenčin
E.M. – Emila Medková
A.N. – Alena Nádvorníková
M.S. – Martin Stejskal
L.Š. – Ludvík Šváb
E.Š. – Eva Švankmajerová
J.Š. – Jan Švankmajer

Compiled by František Dryje