Originally published in polish translation as “Z Johannesem Bergmarkiem rozmawia Krzysztof Gutfrański” (slightly abridged by KG), on the online magazine Intertext, 2010.
The interview was conducted vie email. The questions were sent to me in english and I print them here in the form I received them (only correcting some of the most obvious language mistakes). The explanations [marked like this] are clarifications by KG after I asked him to clarifiy some points that were unclear to me in his questions. His introduction was written after the interview was finished.
If in the whole world surrealist groups are existing it seems that the history of the movement has extended without a brake since ninety years. Could we look at surrealism otherwise than as a dead point in the art history stream and if we're able to formulate opinions about history without a critical apparatus and approach? About surrealism as a life attitude, superiority of poetical phenomenons and singing inside the coffins tells Johannes Bergmark.
JB is one of the most interesting musicians on the free improvisation scene, he is also a musical instrument inventor, visual artist, active member of differrent surrealist movements in Sweden, Poland and some other countries.
KG: At first I would like to ask you an absolutely random question, what is surrealism for you?
JB: Surrealism is a moral attitude where the care for the poetic phenomenon is the first and foremost concern, in practice as well as in theory. This leads to other conclusions which can be called political, philosophical, artistic or otherwise, although surrealism fails to be reduced to any one of these categories. As examples, in politics, surrealism always has a revolutionary position because of the resistance to any oppression. In its theoretical works, surrealism uses two systems, which in my opinion are sharpest if kept separate, although they can sometimes be applied to the same phenomenon. One is the method of analogy, the poetic or ludic method, applied to play, creativity, imagination, deliric interpretation etc. The other is the rational critical method or dialectics, applied to all discussions about human life and its place in the world, such as politics and philosophy. But most of all, surrealism is a moral attitude, confronting all repressive systems concerning human life, expression or thinking, such as the example of religion. Surrealism attacks religion above all from a moral standpoint, with the means of humor, ridicule and rational critique as well. The aim is liberation from all fetters, be they physical, mental, political or imaginary (like those called spiritual).
KG: It's interesting, because surrealism in your activity seems deprived of irrational aspects, from that reason I would like to ask why do you use this term, for notion to tradition of art practice / meaning, broadening of your musical experience? [I mean there a reference to your affiliation with critical thinking via the skeptics' movement, critical thinking is something opposite to irrational which uses analogic way of thinking]
JB: To clarify one thing first, I wouldn't say that I do “surrealist works”, I do works from a surrealist attitude. This is a different view of what surrealism is, it's from the inside and not from the standpoint of an art critic. I don't really care if someone calls my works or that of others “surrealist”, a surrealist wouldn't normally do that since only a person could be called surrealist, and the works are surrealist only in the sense that the person doing them are, when they do it with a surrealist attitude (and not for money, for example). We see the poetical potential as something available for everyone regardless of prejudices, but only surrealism has the attitude of generalizing poetry as something central in human existence, with all the consequences that it entails.
Regarding the irrational, surrealism has sometimes attacked “rationalism” in a way that has often been misunderstood. It has never been antirational, irrationalist or absurdist, it has sometimes played with inventing notions like “surrationalism” or “open rationalism”, usually meaning that we live in a determinist universe where imagination itself creates sparks of significance that are sometimes strong and crucial but never extend the world of the human spiritual into any notion of “metaphysics” or supernatural. Thus we reject any notion of existing gods, ghosts or spirits in order to liberate, expand and develop human imagination and human creativity. This can be done with the aid of the rational, but not with rationality alone. It's the chauvinism of the rational, as well as of the irrational, that we criticize. Me or my colleague are not unique in this regard.
Why do I use the term? I still haven't found any more coherent notion covering these ideas that I've mentioned. We always have the problem of confronting the popular notions of surrealism or use of the word, correcting the common misconceptions of it as an “art movement” or anything “strange” at all, and are often forced to take the decision whether or not we should confront that and explain it again and again. This seems to be just as unavoidable as that the confusionist, money-loving, racist and maybe even religious and fascist (except for a glorious period in his youth) Dali has been known as the surrealist above anyone in pop culture.
The last part of your question I guess is about how surrealism relates to my musical activities. Well, there are several aspects to this.
In the beginning of my discovery of surrealism, I of course came across the concept of automatism. In music, I related it (as have others) to free improvisation and I basically began to concentrate on improvisation from that point on. Some time later, I discovered there are also important differences between the concepts, and I would say now that automatism is an aspect of improvisation (as well as of other activities) but not equal to it. Also, there's a small overlap but otherwise no obvious relation between the improvised music community and the surrealist movement. Another important aspect is that of invention. “We don't need followers, we need inventors” is one of the best watchwords that we sometimes repeat. My instrument designing activities are in a realm between dream, crafts and the acoustic sciences.
But maybe the most important thing is that of how I regard being a musician not as a profession but as an extension of desires. Surrealists don't accept (except ironically or for the purpose of surviving) creativity as work in the way many leftist artist would like to have it. We're definitely not “cultural workers”, we are players, dreamers, researchers, revolutionaries.
KG: Of course in this new-old surrealism remaining some other general aspects like ‘chance’ or ‘collective work’ – forming groups.., what is important for you?
JB: To me, the international surrealist movement as a community of groups and individuals is extremely important. It provides an environment of about 90 years of collective experience, play and discussions, ever sharpening the tools and weapons of practice and theory beyond individual limitations. To put ideas into play as well as for confrontation is an interplay between individual and collective which is in constant development.
As for creative methods; any method of expanding imaginative experience and poetic discovery beyond individual habits and preconceptions is welcome and new games and experiments are constantly developed for this purpose, sometimes also scrutinized and criticized in detail to enhance the experience with conclusions. Chance or mathematical systems, chance meetings, elective affinities, deliriums of different kinds are just tools for expanding and training the senses and sensibilities and they have to be seen from the point of poetic value and not as any finished or perfect ways as such.
KG: Don’t you know that the surrealist movement exists or existed in sound art? What is useful in your own musical wanderings?
JB: I have studied and searched anything I could find in the history and present in the movement that has any implication on sound and music, and they are many but scattered, and very different from each other. A consistent study of surrealism and music is lacking but will hopefully be on its way soon, for which I will certainly try to contribute with my part.
For my own work, I find inspiring the tendencies and examples of free improvised music, musical games, invented musical instruments, musical dreams, sound performance, non-music and sound poetry which have been exemplified very well among surrealists, but also concrete music, old and new jazz, electroacoustic music, live electronics, text-sound composition, noise, sound machines, musical comedy, novelty bands, found sound and ambient music mostly outside of the movement (but sometimes with close connections within it).
KG: What about the surrealist group in Szczecin, probably this is the smallest group which has ever existed?
JB: Yes, we are two people. I suspect, though, that single individuals, having the right or not, sometimes have declared themselves as a group, probably with the intention, like us, of potentially growing into a proper collective. We were two surrealists in Szczecin 2007, realizing that there has never been any surrealist group declared in poland before, or addressing the polish situation, and we felt the need to do that, in polish as well as in english and swedish. As you know, many polish people have emigrated, also many of those with surrealist inclinations, sometimes finding their ways to groups elsewhere. Otherwise surrealism in poland has been limited to individual tendencies, never trying to organize, and the resistance to anything organized seems to be a general problem in poland.
KG: What about your manifesto?
JB: Yes, it declares our specific attitude as surrealists as well as the specific situation in poland. We are also a bit special in the surrealist movement because of our strong affiliation to the skeptic movement, which is, in short, a movement promoting critical thinking, the scientific method and often (though not dogmatically) with a strong anti-supernaturalist and atheist bias that we like and think is valuable also for the surrealist movement.
KG: Have you had contact with other groups besides Stockholm and Szczecin? Please tell me more about these collaborations?
JB: We've travelled a lot in the usa and met surrealists in Chicago, California, Alabama and St Louis. There are many more. We also met surrealists in Paris. Individually, I also met surrealists in england, australia, spain, portugal, greece, netherlands, denmark and the czech republic. We've also had contacts with surrealists in argentina, italy, brazil, japan and canada via mail.
These meetings are usually friendly encounters with lots of discussions, storytelling, showing works, giving gifts, taking long walks in unusual or random parts of cities or nature, eating, drinking, playing (music or games), and making up projects such as collaborative journals or other works.
KG: You are also participant of another vast movement of Skeptics, can you differentiate it from the traditional meaning of this way of thinking and say something about its fundamentals? [I referred to 'traditional' as a reference to the scepticism movement of antiquity.]
JB: The contemporary Skeptics' movement has little to do with the antique philosophy bearing the same name, and so I find it unnecessary to talk much about the differences, since they are actually two separate entities. As I see it, Skepticism in the sense of the contemporary movement, is most of all about promoting critical thinking. Critical thinking means more than just questioning everything, although this might be its starting-point. It implies learning the most effective methods of questioning, and also when to stop questioning and decide to come to a conclusion. It means learning how easy it is to fall for compelling arguments and to fool yourself when you don't spot logical fallacies, when your senses lie to you and your memory fails. It means training yourself to be able to give up your pet theories and opinions in the face of evidence. It means to ask for specific evidence when someone comes up with wild or attractive ideas. It means distinguishing which ideas that can be proved and tested from beliefs that can never be proved or tested. Those beliefs can never escape the realm of imagination. If they claim to explain the objective outside world, they effectively become lies and propaganda for something that noone can ever know. In this way, you can see that skepticism is very close to the scientific method, which strives to come to probable conclusions made from testable evidence, independent of the beliefs or habits of any individual. In this way, skepticism is good for anyone in almost any situation in life, and it's very much about information and teaching critical thinking skills which will do good for mankind as a whole through increasing collective knowledge and fighting fraud, pseudoscience and paranormal/supernatural/magical confusionism. This is education, although it is often perceived as annoying, intimidating, rude and surprisingly even promoting government power, by those fond of conspiracy theories. Actually, what we do potentially saves peoples' lives and money, protects them from harm when we're able to unveil the false hopes and lies spread by the con artists known as psychics, proponents for alternative (non-evidence-based) medicine etc.
KG: Let's say you’re a surrealist in the wake of cognitive capitalism? Are you politically engaged? [generally, with cognitive capitalism I refer to this explanation http://p2pfoundation.net/cognitive_capitalism, as a higher level, or a post-capitalism stadium and I try to mark the difference or economical context for this attitude, which is still connected to 'thingness', commodity fetishism, etc.]
JB: “Cognitive capitalism” seems to me to be just the same old capitalism with ever more virtual markets, thus even more prone to international crisis than before. It's still the poor who will pay the rich through these inevitable turmoils, and we're as far as before from a change into a society where the “liberation of each one is the requirement for the liberation of all” (Communist Manifesto).
I am not presently politically engaged in any organized way. Many years ago, I was in a Trotskyist group, which has influenced my political and philosophical views very much, but I left because of distrust in the efficacy, though correct in principle, of the “transitional program” which was at the heart of Trotsky's political method. I.e. to say, I still consider myself a revolutionary socialist, and I basically support any resistance to capitalism and its reformist, stalinist and post-stalinist collaborators. Capitalism should be destroyed before it destroys us, it's very well on its way as we have seen with constant war and crises, stealing the riches from the poor, causing famine, corruption and stupidity at every turn.
KG: What is for you ‘life after life’ of surrealism, how we can understand this phrase? [using 'life after life' I refer to some beliefs that surrealism ended with the death of Breton, but there were much more groups, exiles, and dissidents inside surrealism during its so-called golden era; so I dont want to suggest you that there was some good surrealism, and you're only followers and epigones. I want to problematize this question, for that reason I used life after life, to not use the word 'death'.]
JB: I guess you refer to the notion, almost constant during the entire history of the moment, that surrealism is dead (however the date of its death seems to move forward from time to time). But surrealism has been an uninterrupted movement ever since about 90 years, and like all living movements, it has had its ups and downs, including some splits, fights and renegades. This is nothing strange. What should be strange, but is actually quite explainable, is the fashion of declaring things dead and alive. This is for the fashion journalists and opinionators but means nothing to the development of the poetic sense or the development of human intelligence. Surrealism has been “out” or “dead” most of the time and I'm perfectly fine with that. It's actually more difficult with the periods where it's “in”, because it usually is for the wrong reasons.
A discussion about which elements of surrealism that are outdated, what remains essential and what can be added is very important and interesting, and maybe it suffices to say here that one of our (the Stockholm group) contributions to this discussion is to stress the significance of epistemology and methodology. The Szczecin group has, as you can see, contributed with the Skeptical topics to this discussion. This might balance the superficial impression that the surrealists are only interested in art and the irrational. It might also, like before, contribute some important critical viewpoints against the art world as well as the political left, as well as a unified viewpoint on knowledge and the reasons and prospects for living.
KG: You are a sound and visual artist, as well as a piano technician and instrument constructor. I saw documentation of your lovely work, where you’re closed inside a coffin-shape soundboard and sing. Probably you know a lot of funny stories from the work of piano tuner...
JB: Yes, I occasionally call myself an artist, but it's actually out of intellectual laziness and social convenience. In reality, I never feel like an artist or a musician because these artistic activities are just an expression of a wish for another life of expanded poetic communication between people, a surrealist wish or vision if you like, and also an expression of the joy of physically manipulating and playing with objects and materials.
Well, to link the things you mention, surrealism led me (through the meeting with Hal Rammel in Chicago) to start inventing instruments. The interest in musical instrument acoustics led me to educate myself to a piano technician. The work you mention is the attempt to realize a dream of a fellow surrealist (Petra Mandal), and my skills as a piano technician provided some of the knowledge necessary to build the construction of the Singing Coffin with strings on it. Since she's not much into performing, I have used it as a tool myself for a sound performance where the feedback between the voice and the strings provides an interesting noise music in the very high frequency range. I've also used the feedback sounds as a point of departure for making a noise piece called From The Coffin.
Oh yes, the piano technicians guild is full of funny stories, but I don't think this is the place for that. I like my work and I'm very fond of crafts in general.
KG: How do you understand the term ‘formless’?
JB: This is a surprising question. Maybe I could say something about it from the point of view as an improvisor. In free improvisation, at least some kinds of it, form is something that takes shape as you go along, with (at least in principle) no preconcieved decision about it. You can thus never determine the form until after the fact of the finished work (if you can consider it finished at all). Well, this is something very relative, since I've seen that many forms of improvising, especially nowadays, have very clear preconceived aesthetics which they follow rigorously during a concert. This is not necessarily something wrong, but it is a matter of taste, and taste is only one, and maybe not always the most important factor of music-making. Taste is definitely important also for me (otherwise I wouldn't have any desires), but I often prefer the sense of sharing a common adventure, risk-taking and surprise, elements that I suppose lie closer to the surrealist concept of psychic automatism. This attitude is maybe more “formless” as a starting-point, but the end result might well be totally distinct and clear in its form – or very malleable, unclear and shady.
KG: Don’t you know that we’re living in the era of loss of sense of humour?
JB: No, I don't know and I don't really care what this or any other era is supposed to be. I worship humor in many forms, satiric, morbid, black, violent, sarcastic, blunt and direct or intelligent, even when the style is slapstick or the elegance of twisting language. I don't like humor that kick those who are already below. I like to hurt religious feelings, to ridicule stupidity, gullibility, hokus-pokus woo and powerful and upper class people. I also like a kind of “objective” or found humor which is poetical, like the surprising juxtaposition of objects or images in an assemblage or a collage, and which can also be found sometimes in “reality”. You also have to exaggerate and go crazy in order to know where the levels for a sound life go. This is a kind of violence which can be really funny.
Let me say, in conclusion, that these replies are in basic accordance with my colleague of the Surrealist Group in Szczecin and Stockholm.