Workshop 1 - David Lomas, ‘Simulation and Experiment in Surrealism’

David Lomas (AHRC Surrealism Centre, University of Manchester) opened his presentation by emphasizing the far reaching implications of simulation and asking the following question: How is our picture of surrealism altered by restoring simulation to its place at its heart?

Lomas argued that the spectre of simulation hangs like a question mark over all surrealist activities and that simulation was a central and defining problematic of surrealism. Consequently, he posed another question of whether simulation is surrealisms’ failure or success.

David Lomas explained how nowadays simulation is synonymous with experimentation, and that he was providing a deliberately anachronistic reading of simulation in early surrealism that approximates this contemporary use. He presented surrealism as a laboratory for the simulation of mental states which was attempting a revolution in human consciousness. He emphasised the extraordinary receptivity of surrealists to all discourses – both scientific and pseudo-scientific – and their engagement in the active interrogation of science.

Further, Lomas argued that certain surrealist tendencies totally rejected concepts of art and literature as traditionally understood, but strove to intervene in the world of our experiences. As an example he presented the idea of identity theft, illustrated by Breton’s self-portrait photocollage, parodying science and positioning synthesis as imagination.

Lomas also pointed to surrealism’s antagonism towards psychiatry and its presentation of simulation as a form of subversive protest against military authority. He illustrated his claims with the example of 1918 ‘Subject’, Breton’s dramatic monologue.

Lomas further argued that surrealism is a generator of ideas and energy in terms of its revolutionary cognitive perceptions achieved through automatic writing and drawing, as well as hypnotism. He strongly emphasized the rejection of the idea that surrealism is just another literary or artistic movement as it refused to be judged by any general aesthetic criteria.

Further, he used the example of surrealist experiments with hypnosis, linking them to the idea of the relationship between the degree of simulation or pretence and magical beliefs.

In conclusion, Lomas argued that nowadays simulation is perceived as a positive aspect of science and engineering, in contrast to its negative connotations in late 19th and early 20th century medicine and culture.

Lomas proposed that surrealism created a new perception of the self and was a turning point of judgement and perception. He claimed that surrealism can be understood as an avant-garde laboratory.

Discussion following David Lomas’s presentation focused around four main questions.

Firstly, the question of how was it that surrealism was so effective as laboratory for simulation and how can we account for the conversion to more mundane uses of it nowadays, was posed. Debate focused around Donna Haraway’s concept of ‘cyborg’ considering radical consequences of simulation and considered transposing back to surrealism contemporary sense of experimental simulation.

Secondly, questions of the economics and the background of the members of the surrealist movement were posed. Lomas argued for the importance of negotiating contradictions and explained the short lived success of surrealist institutions.

Thirdly, the exploration of the notion of the consciousness by surrealists was investigated. Two recurring themes were present in this debate:

  • the need of the viewer to undergo transformation in consciousness/perception to engage in a work of art
  • the ambition not to create art (even though some of the works may be classed as such later).

Finally, the discussion focused on the early-modern scientific notion of experiment and the leap that the language of surrealists allows us to make, back to a transformed understanding of the classical natural science experiment (as recreating a phenomenon that you see in the natural world in the laboratory as an experiment to better understand). The following themes were explored during this session:

  • provocative surrealist language’s influence in shaping the understanding of the movement
  • the pejorative, scandalous associations within western philosophical (as well as local) meanings that the term simulation began to shed
  • simulation as an aporia for positivism
  • the status of simulation