Exquisite Community

Fanny Allié, Exquisite Corpse, 2017, wood, photo paper and steel. Installed in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.
Images courtesy of the artist.

An exquisite corpse (also known as picture consequences) is a visual and literary game, initially developed by the Surrealists (Yves Tanguy, Jacques Prévert, André Breton and Marcel Duchamp) in France, sometime between 1919 and 1925. The purpose of the game is to inspire collaboration and allow for spontaneity and discovery to take precedence over any preconceived notions, narratives or biases. The rules and procedure for making an exquisite corpse is very simple: a piece of paper is folded horizontally like an accordion, so that there are three sections of equal size. Each player takes turns drawing a body part (the first person starts with the head, the second draws the body and the third depicts the legs), while keeping their rendering a secret from their collaborators until it is time to reveal all three components. The subject of the exquisite corpse doesn’t have to be a human/animal/humanoid figure. Any theme, subject or prompt can potentially be established by the participants prior to engaging in the game. Because the exquisite corpse provides ample creative expression, social interaction and joyful efficacy, it has been a popular drawing method for renowned artists, non-artists and students alike.

An exquisite corpse can be a very memorable activity for scaffolding artistic and literacy skills. The benefits supporting part-to-whole thinking (inductive) and whole-to-part (deductive) are apparent in the drawing process and assessment of the final work of art. Creating an exquisite corpse requires participants to observe deeply, notice patterns and make connections between the subconscious and the conscious and abstract to concrete thinking. It also teaches us to embrace ambiguity. All of the aforementioned properties are studio habits of mind that we learn via artistic immersion (see: Educating Through Art).

Above all else, making an exquisite corpse is generally a fun experience that elicits playful discovery; which is a major element of learning and human development. While exquisite corpses are typically created on paper, when implemented on a larger scale, they can envelop a whole community and embody the diverse and intersectional identities of the subjects that are represented. This was the case with Fanny Allié’s public artwork, Exquisite Corpse (2017). Exquisite Corpse was a participatory community-based sculpture, which depicted local neighborhood figures from Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, who Allié met and photographed. Each of the participants had lived in the neighborhood for 25 or more years. The large format photographs of the community members were segmented and affixed to four large rotating blocks. The public was invited to interact with the sculpture by turning the cubes to form composite portraits of physical elements from the community members. The exquisite corpse represented the intergenerational and multicultural identity of the neighborhood. Allié’s intent was to “create a playful interaction between older and newer residents in this changing neighborhood.” The formal and conceptual aspects of the sculpture became a metaphor for the way a multicultural society can unite different cultures while still sustaining their distinct identities.

Fanny Allié, Exquisite Corpse, 2017, wood, photo paper and steel. Installed in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.
Images courtesy of the artist.

The feedback Allié received affirmed that the public exquisite corpse had been well received among the long time residents of this neighborhood and among the community at large. It was a symbiotic learning experience between the artist, her participants and the entire neighborhood. The way that different people approached and interacted with the artwork revealed their distinct social and emotional connections to the subject and material. Regarding what she learned from having the work in public and seeing the community interact with it, Allié remarked:

“I noticed that the community members who knew the person on display on the sculpture preferred not to rotate the sculpture so the portraits could be fully visible and not mixed up. I feel that the acknowledgment/testimony aspect of the sculpture was more important to them than the playful and participatory side of it. For the rest of the community (people who moved to this neighborhood more recently), I felt they enjoyed the rotating and entertaining nature of the sculpture more.”

The artwork prompted anecdotes and stories about each member who was on display. It simultaneously offered a portrait of both the individual and the collective. The spirit of the neighborhood was captured through an assembly of intergenerational and intersectional visions and narratives. A rhizomatic learning process (the understanding that knowledge is in constant flux and contingent upon constant contact and communication among diverse individuals) is evident in both the form and function of Allié’s Exquisite Corpse. The sculpture became a rallying point for residents of Clinton Hill to tell stories and convey significant emotions and cultural knowledge, while acknowledging each other’s differences and perspectives. The site of the sculpture represented a place where learning could occur naturally, unbridled by any one specific set of guidelines. This public facing Exquisite Corpse represented an exquisite community.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Cormier, Dave. “Rhizomatic Education : Community as Curriculum.” Dave’s Educational Blog, 3 Jun. 2008. http://davecormier.com/edblog/2008/06/03/rhizomatic-education-community-as-curriculum/

Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Félix (1993). A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


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