Chaos, Creation, and Collage
The Frank Olson story and the story of the collage method — what do they have in common, where do they connect?
Everything and everywhere, I am tempted to say, though I won’t trace that lattice of relations here. The notion of collage, and then the collage process, and ultimately the collage method, have been, for me, inseparable from a lifetime of struggle with the death of my father. Over many decades it often seemed as if doing battle with diabolic, de-formative tendencies, with what I sometimes called the Dark Side of the Force, not only required support from the Light Side, but actually helped me to understand, and even taught me how to think about, what a countervailing, formative energy might be.
From as far back as I can remember the thought of my father’s death has been inseparable from the notions of montage and collage. There was never a single reason for that linkage. In the beginning it probably centered on the idea of the shattering glass, the proliferating shards as he took flight. Or perhaps the key to it was the image of my father’s body, fractured and fragmented by the fall. It was a fantasy unsupported by perception. We were advised by the Defense Department not to see the body. The coffin was closed, which left the unconscious wide open. Or perhaps the collage aspect derived from the ungraspable primal scene in the hotel room. The incommensurable pieces of the story of what had happened just before he went out the window splintered the mind of anyone who heard it. I was never able to render it as a single image.
On the face of it, “collage” would seem an unlikely place to look for a formative model. What is a collage, after all, but a jumbled hodgepodge, an assemblage of random juxtapositions? My own childhood fascination with montage, to which I was drawn after I inherited my father’s Kodak Retina camera when he died, seemed to point to something else. So did my research using a more systematic approach to collage-making as a research method for a study of innovation which became my doctoral dissertation.
In the course of my journey to find the truth about my father what had begun as a cut-and-paste-technique called into service to bring order to an overwhelming subjective chaos was transformed as well. Like a vaccine extracted from a disease, the “collage method” became a far-reaching psychological approach to development and personal change. Its formative implications were as profound—though in the opposite direction—as the diabolical, de-formative context from which, Phoenix-like, it had arisen.
Decades more, the same decades when I was trying to parse those incoherent CIA documents describing my father’s last days, would be required to make real headway in both of these enterprises. Ironically it was ‘the logic of the coverup’ that put me on the track of deeper connections, and helped me to understand what a fully-elaborated collage method might be. This essay provides a taste of the conception to which I eventually came. —Eric Olson
Bad trip: Artist’s portrayal of the suicide of biochemist Frank Olson, who jumped from a New York hotel room at 2:30 A.M. on November 28, 1953, nine days after the CIA gave him LSD. Foreground, Dr. Robert Lashbrook, the CIA scientist who brought Olson to New York to seek treatment. (Image and caption from Psychology Today, November 1977; Illustration by Haruo Miyauchi)
The collage method is a tool for transformative practice based on the brain’s inherent recreative cycle. The collage process provides an interface to the Symbolic Function, which is embodied in the procedure.
In the future collage will be an important means of (self) education. We will all put the pieces of our case histories together and experiment with the simple process of splicing and superimposition, to reach, maybe, the margins of our expression.
— Martin Stanton
Taken one by one the physical activities of collage-making appear disarmingly simple, so simple in fact that their significance easily escapes notice. However, when they are taken together, as an integrated series of transformations, a quite surprising symbolism appears. The activities entailed in making and physically transforming collages can then be seen to embody the logic of psychological development. These activities comprise an extended metaphor: they symbolize the growth of the human mind.
This correspondence between a series of ‘simple’ activities on the one hand, and a subtle developmental logic on the other, is the key to the Collage Method. Thanks to this correspondence, the Collage Method enables the collage maker to re-trace, in a forward direction, the path by which the psyche develops in infancy, childhood, and adolescence.
The logic of psychological development is not something one leaves behind as one ‘grows up.’ Childhood is important precisely because it provides access to a universal generative function, which is the logic of creativity in general. The psychotherapeutic power of the Collage Method derives from the fact that it provides a way to re-access this universal logic of creation.
On the Collage Path every step is symbolic. Every step on this path symbolizes some essential increment of symbolizing capability. That is why it is possible to say that the Collage Path symbolizes symbolization. Expressed differently, the collage process provides a ‘user interface’ to the mind’s inner black box, a way to engage the psychoformative action by which, in creating and re-creating many types of symbols, the psyche keeps itself alive.
Why is the Collage Method a psychotherapeutic technique? The Collage Method functions in two ways simultaneously: the Collage Path provides both an open format for personal expression, and an ordered sequence for structural transformation. This double-functioning enables people to tell their personal stories in such a way that the stories open up, the elements become fluid and available to enter into new combinations, and the teller/collage-maker becomes accessible to creative change.
The specific images used by collage makers are important, of course, but the content of these images, and the interpretation of this content, are approached indirectly here: from the ‘bottom up.’ In this approach, the process of discerning and interpreting meaning is enfolded within a re-creation of those mental operations that establish meaning, and, more specifically, establish the capactity to make meanings, in the first place.
In the same way that the progressive logic of psychological development transforms the child’s experience, so also the operations performed upon the collage transform the multi-image field. These structuring operations—highly abstract and elusive in actual life, but in this method foregrounded and made concrete—are the object of the Collage Path.
Re-creating these paradigmatic operations leads to interpretations of the particular, very personal images, configurations, and transformations that appear during the course of a collage process. But, more fundamentally, these operations produce a psychological subject who is capable of forming and using such interpretations: a “collage maker” who is a locus of subjectivity and is, himself or herself, continually under construction.…
Specific images are chosen by collage makers because they are bearers of feeling, or because they serve as emotional catalysts, marking essential positions in what becomes, thanks to their presence, a highly charged emotional space. When these feeling-laiden and feeling-marking images are combined in multi-image configurations, the feelings at play are multiplied by the interactions that occur among all the images. The amount of feeling in the total field can then become nearly overwhelming.
Feelings intensify when strongly motivated images are brought close to each other. A need then arises to re-structure the whole image-field in which these images occur, so that mounting levels of excitation can be made bearable by being channelized in new ways. Successive re-structurations raise the field to progressively higher levels of organization, each new level governed by more complex cognitive principles.
Over the course of a collage process the collage-maker’s core images and key personal symbols, including ones that have been repressed or disavowed, come to light. Given the depth of the developmental sequence that the Collage Path re-creates, and the vividness of the materials it employs, they can scarcely fail to do so. But these symbols emerge here in a formative context, in which the primary object is not symbols but symbolization. This implies that the psychic conditions that will enable these problematic, feeling-laiden symbols to be clearly faced and progressively re-integrated, re-symbolized within a more differentiated self — these symbolizing conditions are, on the Collage Path, re-created along with the symbols they support.
The mind is, inherently, a pluralistic society; a collage is, above all, a contained multiplicity. Hence it is not the action of isolated images, no matter how potent, that motivates the movement we will follow here; it is, rather, energies and tensions generated within multi-image fields that propel it. Accordingly, the cultural background presumed by the Collage Path is the contemporary experience of over-stimulation and fragmentation: the experience of multiple elements proliferating, generating a surplus of feeling, becoming unmanageable. Fragmentation is both a paradigmatic psychological symptom and an inescapable prelude to innovation; a source of anxiety and pain, and an opening to the birth of new form.
Eric Olson’s doctoral dissertation on the collage method
Harvard University, 1976
(PDF – 40MB)