member of:Observers of the Interdependence of Domestic Objects and Their Influence on Everyday Life

This group has been active for a long time and has already made some remarkable assertions which render life simpler from the practical point of view. For example, I move a pot of green color five centimeters to the right, I push in the thumbtack beside the comb and if Mr. A (another adherent like me) at this moment puts his volume about bee-keeping beside a pattern for cutting out vests, I am sure to meet on the sidewalk of the avenida Madero a woman who intrigues me and whose origin and address I never could have known...
--Remedios Varo

(Artwork by Remedios Varo)
By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.
--Franz Kafka

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Crack in Everything, Pried Open by Alien Hands

 “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s where the light gets in.”--Leonard Cohen
Harmony by Remedios Varo

In Alan J. Friedman’s 2000 essay on Varo’s work, The Serene Science of Remedios Varo, he notes that what looks like magical thinking and mysticism often really reflects hard, leading-edge science, and that many of her paintings in fact seem to represent the moment in which a scientist discovers a new model for the universe, “the defining moment, when the new idea becomes a concrete model, invested with all the precision its creator can muster, yet still filled with mystery and unknown promise.” In the above painting, Harmony, he sees the scientist trying to include all of nature in that model: “Among the objects in this model are natural history specimens and mathematics (one of the slips of paper has the first 5 digits of pi, 3.1415). Science, in the form of a prepared mind, is helped by chance (the figure emerging from the wall).” 

Detail of Harmony  by Remedios Varo

Each of us already has a theory of existence, which all five senses base their decisions (notice? don’t notice?) on; that theory exists as the limits to each person’s perspective. In this painting, the figure looks at the symbols and their relations, trying to discover the form of the subconscious cage the world is--to him--limited by, the cage outlining his current life, trying to recognize it and trying to find a crack--like the one the blue figure comes out of here--through which he can slip to a new model, in a moment much like this:

The Phenomenon of Weightlessness by Remedios Varo

Friedman says: “In Phenomenon of Weightlessness (1963), a scientist is astonished as his model of the earth and moon breaks away from the stand on which it rested (seen on the floor), and floats in space on its own. Physicists immediately recognize this painting as depicting Einstein’s physics, which modified the concepts of absolute space and absolute time that Newton had built into his model of how objects behave in space and time under the influence of gravity.”

Friedman notes that of course we are always seeking out new models, because no model is ever complete. In every scientific model, in every life, there are things that do not fit. That’s the crack Leonard Cohen sings about. Pick at it, play with it. Change the universe.

Revelation of the Clockmaker, by Remedios Varo

In Incognito, David Eagleman explains how little the conscious mind is involved in decision-making and lifestyle by exploring the myriad “zombie systems” that compete for position in your subconscious without your awareness. To illustrate, he talks about having a secret, noting that if you have no desire to tell anyone, the story’s just boring, and if you have no problem telling everyone, it’s just juicy, but if you’re conflicted, that’s because you are of (in this case) two minds, much like the two minds that argue about whether to have the cheesecake or stay on the diet, or how much fun it will really be to do those push-ups or read that horrific slog of a textbook which appears to have a lot of important knowledge but is awfully poorly-written. In the example he gives of a trauma, like rape, studies show that not talking about the event has significant long-term health effects both physical and psychological; there is something in you that very much needs to talk about it. There is also something in you which does not want to suffer the possible social (or other) consequences:

“Brains are like representative democracies. They are built of multiple, overlapping experts who weigh in and compete over different choices. As Walt Whitman correctly surmised, we are large and we harbor multitudes within us. And those multitudes are locked in chronic battle.” (107)

There’s the you that focuses on emotional reasoning, there’s the logical side, there’s the lazy side, there’s the side that only looks to the future and the one aching for the past, and at various times one or the other wins out. One of the best and most fascinating examples he gives to show how much conflict is going on “beneath the hood” that you have no idea even exists is that of alien hand syndrome:

“As preposterous as this plotline may seem, there is, in fact, a disorder called alien hand syndrome. While it’s not as dramatic as the Evil Dead version, the idea is roughly the same. In alien hand syndrome, which can result from the split-brain surgeries we discussed a few pages ago, the two hands express conflicting desires. A patient’s “alien” hand might pick up a cookie to put it in his mouth, while the normally behaving hand will grab it at the wrist to stop it. A struggle ensues. Or one hand will pick up a newspaper, and the other will slap it back down. Or one hand will zip up a jacket, and the other will unzip it. Some patients with alien hand syndrome have found that yelling “Stop!” will cause the other hemisphere (and the alien hand) to back down. But besides that little modicum of control, the hand is running on its own inaccessible programs, and that is why it’s branded as alien—because the conscious part of the patient seems to have no predictive power over it...
What does alien hand syndrome tell us? It unmasks the fact that we harbor mechanical, “alien” subroutines to which we have no access and of which we have no acquaintance. Almost all of our actions—from producing speech to picking up a mug of coffee—are run by alien subroutines, also known as zombie systems. (I use these terms interchangeably: zombie emphasizes the lack of conscious access, while alien emphasizes the foreignness of the programs.) Some alien subroutines are instinctual, while some are learned; all of the highly automated algorithms that we saw in Chapter 3 (serving the tennis ball, sexing the chicks) become inaccessible zombie programs when they are burned down into the circuitry. When a professional baseball player connects his bat with a pitch that is traveling too fast for his conscious mind to track, he is leveraging a well-honed alien subroutine. Alien hand syndrome also tells us that under normal circumstances, all the automated programs are tightly controlled such that only one behavioral output can happen at a time. The alien hand highlights the normally seamless way in which the brain keeps a lid on its internal conflicts. It requires only a little structural damage to uncover what is happening beneath.” (132)

Once he has solidly illustrated just how complicated and multiple our person is, he turns to robots and Artificial Intelligence, and this is where I come back to the paintings of Remedios Varo and those cracks in the universe that allow the light of another, wholly-formed and wildly different universe to get in.

Au Bonheur des Dames, by Remedios Varo... little automated creatures heading to the store for more parts....

Eagleman tells us that robots have been stuck at a certain stage for a long time in terms of how human-like their thinking can become, and he posits (convincingly) that the reason for this lies in that seething community of disagreeing and developing personalities that aren’t even noticed by your conscious self, and their lack of existence within the robot’s “mind.” He notes that when programmers set up a robot, they look for and try to implement the best process to the best solution for whatever problems or situations face the robot. And that’s the one process and solution they put in (as a subagent) for the robot to “turn on” when the situation arises. But:

“If a space alien landed on Earth and discovered an animal that could climb a tree (say, a monkey), it would be rash for the alien to conclude that the monkey is the only animal with these skills. If the alien keeps looking, it will quickly discover that ants, squirrels, and jaguars also climb trees. And this is how it goes with clever mechanisms in biology: when we keep looking, we find more. Biology never checks off a problem and calls it quits. It reinvents solutions continually. The end product of that approach is a highly overlapping system of solutions...” (127)
And, later:

“If we hope to invent robots that think, our challenge is not simply to devise a subagent to cleverly solve each problem but instead to ceaselessly reinvent subagents, each with overlapping solutions, and then to pit them against one another.
Probably the best way to cultivate a team is with an evolutionary approach, randomly generating little programs and allowing them to reproduce with small mutations. This strategy allows us to continuously discover solutions rather than trying to think up a single perfect solution from scratch. As the biologist Leslie Orgel’s second law states: 'Evolution is smarter than you are.' If I had a law of biology, it would be: 'Evolve solutions; when you find a good one, don’t stop.' (p. 148). 

That is, whatever your model of the universe is, keeping picking at the cracks in it.

This is also what an artist does, with play. Backing away from what one already knows and trying something new to address the same situation (eg how to translate an idea into an image) brings more of these differing subconscious opinions to the conscious surface for assessment. 

Pretend I have drawn a pattern down on paper, and I say to you, "this is the universe.” That’s basically what a person does: we expect politicians to act that way, we expect our doctor to say one thing and not the other, we wait for that response from the in-laws, etc.  But say I see something only slightly odd or out of place as I’m walking down the street and instead of ignoring it, I focus all of my attention on it. That focus on something outside my usual experience creates a new pathway in my brain which sprouts bazillions of other tangential connections, effectively changing me and also the universe that I live in because connections beget connections and eventually that odd thing is part of the structure--fundamental, even, to the pattern I am calling the universe. Yes it was already “there,” in that I was able to glimpse it (barely) but every thing and every time is already there; the issue is bringing it to the level of perception which makes it part of the consensual universe, making it structural. 

“Perhaps, contrary to Plato’s allegory of the cave, we sometimes only see the real once we have seen its shadow in art.” Henderson, Caspar; The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary

Remedios Varo had fled the Fascist government of Spain to France after the assassination of the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, but as the Nazis began their move into France, deportation became a strong possibility, meaning a forced return to Franco’s regime, where she was already a target. By February 1940, her lover, Péret, had been arrested, having refused to enlist; soon after that she discovered that her first husband was also interred in a camp, and she moved heaven and earth and called on every friend and favor she could to get him out, finally successfully. Both Lizarraga (her first husband) and Péret called upon images of her to help them through their imprisonment and recalled how even the sense of her spirit strengthened them. Soon, however, she found herself arrested by the Nazis in France, an experience she refused to talk about after the several weeks it took her to recuperate in a friend’s apartment.  All this is to say that she experienced first-hand the life-altering terror of a violent state which insists that its voice is the only true voice, that its plans are the only correct plans, that its future is the only possible future, and she survived not to rail against it but to create its alternative, to strengthen many other possible voices, plans and futures through her particular magic.

It took immense effort to get the financing and the false passports and safe passage for her escape from France, endeavors that were undertaken by heroic groups of underground operators, in this case, a group working with Varian Fry whose efforts on her behalf took six months of work; there are a few descriptions from that time period that I think are significant in tying her experience and the ideas of continual evolution explored in Incognito together with this “crack in everything.” The French government made an agreement (Article 19 of the Franco-German armistice) to “surrender on demand” any person with religious views, anti-fascist views, or any other view the Third Reich disapproved of to the Nazis. As the Nazis raised the swastika atop the Eiffel Tower, Varo gave up on her attempts to find and save Péret and joined millions in a mass-flight from Paris to the south:

“It was a June remembered as among the loveliest in years, bright, sunny, cloudless, and not too warm, as Varo became one of the horde of more than eight million refugees: ‘men, women and children [who] took off in utter panic toward the unoccupied zone in the south, packing a few belongings on the roofs of their small cars or on the racks of motorcycles or bicycles or in baby carts, peddlers’ carts, wheelbarrows, or in any wheeled contrivance they could lay a hasty hand on, for many were on foot.” (72, Kaplan)

Twisted Roads, by Remedios Varo

Hairy Locomotion, by Remedios Varo

Her friend Oscar Dominguez managed to find her a spot in a car, sparing her the walk, and the experience of that ride offers the first of the significant things I believe she took with her, planting it deep inside her later paintings:

“Friends remember hearing that Varo traveled ‘in the car of some eccentric Americans who loaded their little car with fossils instead of provisions; in spite of the bombers and black smoke that weighed over the city and its outskirts, they stopped in front of each cathedral to admire it and were touched at encountering, almost unreal, an almond tree in flower.’” (72)

She had barely escaped from her own imprisonment; her lover’s fate was uncertain, though certainly dark; bombs were raining down occasionally upon the easy target of this mass exodus, yet these people, who were sparing Varo a painfully difficult foot-journey, took the time to stop and wonder at a flowering almond tree. In the midst of the traumas and struggles of her life and the lives of those around her, Varo sat down at her easel and created moments of flowering magic: little almond trees growing out of the hard rock of fear and suffering.

Varo made it to Marseille, which became an underground port for intellectuals and artists attempting to flee the country, and where Varian Fry had set up his committee, working wherever he could--even, for a period, from a hotel bathroom--to gather information, proper documents, false documents, financing, knowledge of as-yet undiscovered pathways--whatever was necessary to get as many people as possible away from the Nazis’ targeted wrath. There was a great attempt like this, focused specifically on artists and intellectuals, because those were the people who offered dreams and visions of ‘other ways,’ doorways through the thick stone walls of Fascist mind-fortresses, playfulness in the midst of their very serious endeavors. The Nazis understood this without question, and they made an equally vigorous effort to kill the very people Fry and others were struggling to save.

At one point in the months leading up to Varo’s escape, a collection of Surrealists were staying in secret at an abandoned villa, Villa Air-Bel; Péret had also managed to make it to Marseille, and the two of them stayed close-by the Villa, joining its inhabitants by day. They focused on surrealist games in every break from their struggle to raise food-money, and at one point, Varo discovered that a Republican refugee friend of theirs had a toreador outfit with him, and she and Jacque Hérold and Péret each took turns trying it on and posing in a photo shop along the dock. That is the second moment that I believe she carried with her to her easel each time.

Remedios Varo kept this photo with her all her life

“It was such games, played with a vengeance during the many months in Marseilles, that kept them going. As Breton remarked, ‘So great is this power of defiance, of scorn and also of hope...that the actors in this scene had perhaps never found themselves so childlike, never sang, played or laughed so whole-heartedly.’” (Kaplan, 79)

As they were waiting to give their money (an eventual gift from Peggy Guggenheim) to an intermediary who would pass it on to a black-market operator who would then take them by fishing boat to Casablanca, where they had already secured passage on a Portuguese liner, Varo and Péret stumbled into a young man who offered them a seemingly more secure journey. They gave him their money, and he disappeared. But this story Varo would talk about, for its bizarre twist of luck:

“Although he left them stranded, running off with their precious cash, the thief may have saved their lives. For, as the newspapers soon would report, the black-market operator to whom the money was to have been delivered turned out to be a psychopathic killer who had murdered the previous refugees he had offered to help-- a charge verified by the mute testimony of twelve bodies found buried in his backyard.” (Kaplan, 72)

Varo never spoke of her interment, as far as I have been able to find. She did not seem to focus on the fear and bizarre violence that we do see reflected in other surrealist works of this time. She did not go on to march and protest against fascists and publish articles expressing her--justified--rage. Instead, she went on, with that contrasting flowering almond and the sense of play in the face of terror, and she picked at the cracks, there in the seemingly solid foundations of our often terrifying world, and widened them into a series of mysterious and beautiful jewels of paintings, in which she catches characters suddenly waking from their zombie-subroutine-led existence and making the choice to look in a different direction, at something (somewhere) else:

Note the girl whose eyes are not following those of the others.... (Painting by Remedios Varo)

Rupture, by Remedios Varo

The Call, by Remedios Varo

She created life in those cracks, and even now, here, where Hitler’s terror can’t reach me, Varo’s magic does. I study her art and it changes my life, all these years after her death.

Embroidering the Earth’s Mantel, by Remedios Varo: Note that the woman closest to us on the left is pushing a secret through that little crack where her embroidery comes out....
Detail from Embroidering the Earth's Mantel, by Remedios Varo: The lovers escaping through the crack

Detail of Embroidering the Earth's Mantel 


  1. je reviens pour lire attentivement...! bon dimanche!

    1. merci pour votre visite, elfi :)

  2. Did you place that blue crack in the structure of your text as a test? Because I was at once conflicted ... do I continue reading or do I click the mouse and have it take me through to the Book of Barely Imagined Beings?

    I know I was still thinking when my screen began moving to somewhere else...

    I never tire of looking at her work featured in Kaplan's book. And now there is at least one further book to add to my wish list ...hmmm possibly two *!*

    1. All cracks should be explored, intentional or not :D haha. I think...but I don't know for sure... (haha)
      But, if you're talking about Incognito, yes!! It's an excellent book, and I was fascinated by the idea that the difference between a robot and "artificial intelligence" would seem to rest on *one way* versus *many options* for confronting and resolving problems and difficulties. Thus the robot-fascists lose out to the artists and writers and anyone else who can consider more than one pathway to wherever they're going...
      The Barely Imagined Beings book certainly has some intriguing chapters, as well--the one on the Axolotl, and the one on the Dolphin, particularly...

      I think there is no way to tire of Kaplan's is immense...

  3. When I read unexpected journeys, I carried away with me a certain Awe, at not only the magic that she imbued in all her work ( homo radus) but that sense that she was forever moving towards something. Wonder? discovery? gratitude?
    I completely bow to your fascination, and honor it's movement.

    1. ahhh...i am so happy that you enjoyed the Kaplan book. I feel the same, that Varo was somehow apart from the rest of the world, almost floating across it, moving towards-- all those things?
      Every time I'm astonished by some new study of neuroscience or some new discovery of any other sort, i feel as if i can come back to her work and find it there, already. It's astonishing, really...