8.02.2011

Host your own Surrealist Game Parties

I used to host these frequently, but I've fallen out of the habit.  Perhaps talking about the idea will rekindle my own parties and inspire yours, dear readers...

When most folks think of Surrealism, people like Salvador Dali or maybe Andre Breton probably come to mind.  But there is so much more to enjoy from the Surrealist movement as a creative force, a cultural force, a sociopolitial voice, an integration of art and psychology, and my favorite: Surrealist games.

Why Play Surrealist Games?

Historically, the surrealist games were a set of text and visual art-based ideas that could be played among groups of artists.  They emphasized collaboration/social interaction along with ways of tapping into the subconscious mind to inspire new or unexpected directions in creativity.  Some of the games were variations on children's games like Consequences, and later, some of them morphed back into children's activities like MadLibs.  So why play these games with a group of adults today?

1. They're fun.
Here's a perfect opportunity to let your guard down and just have some fun.  The results of surrealist games are often hilarious.  You're in good company, hopefully surrounded by friends new and old.  Enjoy the party.  It just also happens to be good for the mind and soothing to the soul.

2. They stimulate the subconscious.
There is no "right" way to play surrealist games, but the original players and many since have suggested trying to write or draw, etc, very quickly and without thinking to the greatest extent possible.  Just let the ideas flow through you.  The surrealists referred to this notion as Automatic Writing or Automatic Drawing.  Not only does this keep the party moving, but the process brings your subconscious mind to the surface.  You can learn a lot about yourself and your friends by exposing the subconscious: things you find there are often stranger, more fantastic, more potent.  You suddenly realize how much we "civilize" ourselves into more subtle, ostensibly refined ways of thinking.

3. They stimulate creativity.
No matter how you play, one thing is certain: these games are a powerful tool for stimulating creativity.  How you decide to use the results is up to you, and of course it depends on what you get.  Even the surrealists used the results of these games in different ways.  Sometimes you get a great starting point for a larger work.  Sometimes you find a finished or nearly-finished short work.  And sometimes just the act of playing the games inspires you to try something completely new and different.  Even if you're not collaborating, I know folks who have played "solitaire" versions of the games in search of the unexpected.  Just keep an open mind and enjoy both your time with the games as well as any useful results or feelings of inspiration.

4. They create synergy.
I'm always amazed at how on-target the results of these seemingly random games can be.  I think the games often function as a catalyst for reaching really synergistic, group-mind/collective unconscious spaces that are difficult or impossible to achieve any other way.  It's hard to say if it's synchronicity in a Jungian sense, or simply human nature to look for patterns emerging in chaos, but regardless of the source, the results can be incredible.

5. They foster friendships.
If you invite some people you don't know very well to your surrealist game gathering, or old friends bring new friends along, this is a great way to quickly establish friendships.  The games themselves give everyone something to focus on collectively.  There can be a lot of humor in the results great for ice-breaking moments.  And the games themselves nurture an environment that can transcend the usual barriers of social graces, lowering the need for societal "manners" temporarily, which often speeds up the whole "getting to know you" process.

What you need to host your own surrealist game party:

Click this link to download a zip file of materials to host your own surrealist game party.  Once unzipped, this file contains a number of word documents.  Print them out so that each game can appear on its own page.  There is an itinerary to help divide the games by media, too.

The games in this batch fall into three categories: literary, visual, and musical.  To set up a party, I prepare three different "stations" in which participants can work on each of these sets of games, moving between stations as they wish.  You may even find a fourth station useful where games requiring scissors and tape or glue can happen, like the cut-up, fold-in, collage/montage ideas.  Sort the papers describing each game into appropriate stations for participants to read.  They're written to (hopefully) be easy to read and understand quickly, but you may need to help explain things to people on occasion during the party, so make sure you're familiar with everything, too.

You'll also need to have some office supply materials on hand.  Read through each of the games to see what kinds of materials you'll need to play them.  Generally, the literary and visual games just require blank paper and pencils/pens to get started.  You might want to branch into colored pencils, markers, or crayons in your visual game station for more interesting possibilities.  If you choose to do the musical variation on the "exquisite corpse," you'll need some blank staff paper, too.  You can buy it or print it out using a link like this onto regular printer paper.  If you do the cutup stuff or collage/montage art, you'll want to have a supply of old magazines and books on hand, along with scissors and tape or glue (and I'd suggest tape over glue if you're worried about party fouls).  I keep some magazines handy for that purpose, and I buy a pile of books on random, differing topics for cheap from a thrift store, or grab some books from those "free" piles you often find in front of used book stores after-hours.

Since music is my primary area of creativity, I've made musical variations of the games which might require more equipment.  Mine are designed around people manipulating a cassette 4-track, or a software-based sequencer/synth, etc, and playing instruments or singing.  If you're interested in those ideas but don't have the gear, ask your musical friends to help out, or get creative and adopt the ideas to work with what you have.  Also, props to Brandon Vaccaro for some--most, really--of the hand signals on the "Game Theory 101" page, which were developed and used during our undergrad music studies in a variety of musical contexts.  The idea of using those during one of these parties is to create some hand signal-guided improvisations among your group, which you could record or just do for the fun or it.  Musical skills or equipment not necessarily required--try working with people singing or clapping regardless of skill levels.  They aren't fully used in a "game theory" sense this way, but it's a good starting point to get some sounds in the air.

Additional resources

If you get into these games and want to try more at future parties, you're in luck.  There are dozens more.  This batch came together as a group after some trial and error with a wider range of the traditional Surrealist games.  While I picked a set that seemed to work best in my groups, you may have different/better results with others.  And of course once you start playing them, ideas for variations of the games, or moving them into different media formats, will probably come to you.  I haven't done anything with film, theater, or dance variations, for example, but I can imagine some great possibilities.

I only know of one source that attempts to collect a relatively wide range of these games in one place, and that is A Book of Surrealist Games.  This small-but-essential volume will introduce you to a large number of the "original" games, and it also includes a number of small works produced using them.  There is a small list of games toward the back of the book that aren't explored more deeply for various reasons, but you'll find enough information on them to start further research as desired.


There is a recent volume from University of Nebraska Press that I would highly recommend, too. The Exquisite Corpse: Chance and Collaboration in Surrealism's Parlor Game is a collection of essays that explore the impact of the Exquisite Corpse game on art and culture from a wide variety of perspectives.  This won't add to your game repertoire per se, but it highlights the surprising breadth and depth of influence these games have had from "low" to "high" art in the last century.

For some online resources, check here for an online version of the literary exquisite corpse, and the drawing version is here.

The Burroughs/Gysin cut-up and fold-in methods are very much related to Surrealist Games (and Gysin was himself briefly affiliated with the Surrealists proper).  This link features a fantastic list of online word games related to those concepts.  Of course, there is even a pre-Surrealist antecedent to cut-ups via Tristan Tzara and the Dada movement, although he's a little more sarcastic and anti-art about the notion:

How to make a Dadaist Poem
(method of Tristan Tzara)


To make a Dadaist poem:
  • Take a newspaper.
  • Take a pair of scissors.
  • Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
  • Cut out the article.
  • Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
  • Shake it gently.
  • Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
  • Copy conscientiously.
  • The poem will be like you.
  • And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.
        -Tristan Tzara


For some more music-related games, Trevor Wishart has written 2 small books of group music-making ideas called Sounds Fun and Sounds Fun 2.  You can download the first volume from his site.

One of the best things about playing these games in a party setting is watching how they evolve within a group of people over the course of a few parties.  And they place very minimal demands on participants: you don't have to be a dedicated artist to participate, you can spike the punch or not, people of almost any age can join in, etc.  You can be productive, flexible, and have fun all at the same time.  Have fun with this stuff!

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