Bricolage as Metaphor & Method

Everyday life is the object of study of various disciplines. Anthropologists and ethnographers are interested in getting an idea of certain groups’ everyday life, sociologists of the social structures of the everyday, psychologists and philosophers of the individual experience of living, and engineers in designing gadgets for the people to use in their everyday life. Every discipline has its own methodologies, which the researchers use when striving to make sense of this shared object of study: dialectical thinking, field work, interviews, statistics. The cultural theorist Ben Highmore clarifies the struggle between this methodological abundance by stating that:

a good starting point would be to suggest that no form of discourse is ever going to be ‘proper’ (appropriate) to everyday life. The everyday will necessarily exceed attempts to apprehend it. This would simply mean that the search for the perfect fit between a form of representation and its object (the everyday) needs to be called off. Instead we might say that different forms of representation are going to produce different versions of the everyday.
(Highmore 2002a, 21.) 

This variety of viewpoints serves well the vague nature of everyday life (Sheringham 2006, 398). After all, everyday experience is based on difference – of class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality etc. – which can be made visible by the variety of voices stemming from different theoretical approaches (Highmore 2002a, 11). This reasonable attitude allowing methodological freedom should still not make us forget the motive for research in the first place – to gain grounded understanding of the object of study. Highmore offers montage as a suitable aesthetic form for this work, but reminds that 

[y]et if ‘everyday life theory’ is to promote and practice montage, then, unless it is going to simply register the cacophony of everyday, it has to find some way of ordering, of organizing the everyday. Here the theoretical is precisely the problem of ordering and arranging, of making some kind of sense of the endless empiricism of the everyday.
(Highmore 2002a, 23.) 

This idea of multiplicity suits well the needs of this dissertation, but because its main goal is to produce action instead of theoretical insights, the kind of sense I want to make here has to have immediate practical use. So the “problem of ordering and arranging” is approached here by making artistic experiments and developing concrete tools supporting this action (8x8x8, Detail Bingo, Relation Generator in chapter 3.2 & Everyday Anomaly Archive in chapter 5.2). Instead of complete structures, they offer multiple, partial, situation-specific and open-ended ideas, which nevertheless are enough for producing graspable know-how of some aspects of everyday life. The aim of this study is to find ways to perceive the often invisible marvels of a familiar environment. Highmore divides the approaches of everyday studies to the ones focusing on the particular (singular acts) and the others emphasizing the overarching structure of everyday life. The approach of particularity is interested in the agency of people, their experiences and feelings, from the viewpoint of micro-analysis. The structural approach has the emphasis on institutions, discourses and power, in a word, the aspect of macro-analysis. (Highmore 2002b, 5.) My research is unquestionably located in the micro-side, because anomalies take place on the level of personal experience.

Collage, montage, assemblage and bricolage are artistic image-making techniques whose objectives and practices are very near to each other with only minor differences. They all combine images in a way which does not aim to produce a naturalized whole, but rather various contradictions. They  utilize often cheap non-art materials, sometimes throwaway and ephemeral, steering one’s attention to precariousness and processuality (Kelly 2008, 24). 


Collage:Collage describes both the technique and the resulting work of art in which pieces of paper, photographs, fabric and other ephemera are arranged and stuck down onto a supporting surface” 

Montage:A montage is an assembly of images that relate to each other in some way to create a single work or part of a work of art.”

Assemblage:Assemblage is art that is made by assembling disparate elements – often everyday objects – scavenged by the artist or bought specially.”

Bricolage: Bricolage refers to the construction or creation of an artwork from any materials that come to hand.”

(Tate Art Terms 18.3.2020)

Ben Highmore calls montage and collage as “theory of shock”, capable of producing sudden collisions as well as unexpected connections, still preserving the simultaneous nature of different elements. Most importantly, these techniques do not strive to set the conflicting issues into order or harmony, but are able to make visible the diversity, to denaturalize the relationships between different elements. Various styles can be included, presenting none of them as the “correct” one. (Highmore 2002a, 93-95.) David Graver (1995, 31-40) uses the concepts of montage and collage to define different cut-and-paste image-making strategies. He calls montage an artwork where separate images are combined by an overarching constructive principle, which sustains the various images, forming an unit out of them (which is still incoherent and incomplete). The elements are related to the whole, although their heterogeneous sources are visible. In collage, the fragments stay more independent and are allowed to “shine forth in their heterogeneous individuality” (Graver 1995, 33). 

“The formative principle to which the elements of collage submit allows them to be more their immediate selves than they ever could be when they were part of daily life. In montage, on the other hand, the individual elements participate in a project that is greater than themselves. This project differs from the expressive unity of conventional and high modernist art in that the heterogeneity of the elements is in no way suppressed. Indeed, the seams, disjunctures, and inconsistent material juxtapositions of montage contribute to the unifying purpose of the work just as the homogeneous material in conventional art does. The unity of montage is, however, an extraordinarily artificial one.”
(Graver 1995, 33)

Montage is often used as a movie editing technique, for which reason it can be seen as a time-based collage. Bricolage, in its behalf, can be seen as a three-dimensional counterpart to collage. In the art context, bricolages are pieces made by attaching together materials gathered from various sources. Three-dimensional pieces utilizing fragments of non-art materials are called assemblages (Kelly 2008, 24). In this project, I prefer the word bricolage, because working with anomalies is not about making two-dimensional images, but organizing into new combinations elements found in the three-dimensional world. Another reason is the ethnographic tradition the concept bears. It was first used by Claude Lévi-Strauss in his book The Savage Mind (1962) as a metaphor of a cognitive process of composition of mythical discourses (Johnson 2012, 358), and later by various researchers i.e. in the areas of social life, entrepreneurship and organisation theory (for example: Douglas 1986, Carter & Duncan 2017, Corbett & Katz 2013, Cleaver 2012). During time, it has been transformed to an universal concept (Johnson 2012, 356). This concept, which is familiar both in the artworld and the sociological research (for example, Dezeuze 2008 and Kelly 2008 about the connections of artistic assemblage and Lévi-Straussian bricolage), fits perfectly to my practice of making lifelike art with a respectful attitude towards the surrounding world. Another interesting theory of combinations which understands the working of society as a multiplicity of heterogeneous actors with different aims and practices is the assemblage theory. The concept assemblage (agencement in French) was coined by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and developed further by Manuel DeLanda (DeLanda 2016, 1-7). I will not discuss this theory further here, because this study is not focused on the issues of society as such. In any case, it fits well to my approach of seeing the world as an ever-changing caleidoscope of combinations and spurs my artistic imagination, as do many other concepts of Deleuze (for instance rhizome, machine).

Bricolage offers an optimistic attitude, contrasted by the mindset that one cannot do anything if s/he does not have the correct ingredients, materials or tools. A bricoleur is not discouraged in front of lack, but tries to overcome it. S/he uses the materials and concepts around her creatively, being at the same time constrained by the resources at hand, and by her own skills (Cleaver 2012). When trying to demarcate bricolage from different kinds of acting in the world, one can think about the difference between two kinds of artist caricatures. One paints an oil painting, starting the process by going to artists’ paint shop and buying a canvas, a variety of brushes and paints. Then he starts to paint his original idea (which is naturally based on his culture and environment, but maybe thought of by him as his own and original). He is free to do anything on the canvas, restricted only by his vision and skills. The other artist looks around him, and makes the art piece out of the materials he happens to have or find. He also has an idea in his head, but it can be changed by the ingredients he finds. They can affect the form of the finished piece by offering interesting structural solutions which the maker could not plan beforehand, and also to the conceptual content of the work. Of course, making art is never a straightforward process, and the painter will also change his plans, paint on top of the former paint, go back to the shop to find a missing color tube. But the difference between these two mindsets is that the bricoleur transforms lack to the positive core of his art, while the person wanting to have proper materials and tools for his work can never be free of lack although he temporally would have everything he needs.

Lévi-Strauss draws a portrait of two opposite characters: the bricoleur and the engineer, which represent two different ways of being in the world (Johnson 2012, 364). Although these both characters are caricatures, they help to communicate the idea clearly. The engineer has an access to a potentially infinitely extensible selection of instruments, while the  bricoleur has to manage with the tools at hand. The engineer’s project proceeds from planning to realization as a straight line, while the bricoleur has to make compromises, and modify the idea of suitable end result according to the possibilities s/he has. (Johnson 2012, 361-364.) The engineer’s goal is to move beyond the constraints of the material world, and to “achieve a total mastery of them” (Johnson 2012, 367). The bricoleur is considerably more at the mercy of her environment than the engineer. I understand bricolage as “improvisation with objects”. Analogously to scripting a performance versus improvising, the bricoleur can be seen as improvising with the materials and tools at hand, in contrast to someone with more power and resources who can direct the whole play towards the way s/he wishes. Improvisation is an inseparable part of anomalous experience (more about the topic on chapter 5.1) because a person, who is momentarily confused, cannot use the usual pre-learned scripts. This is one reason why the attitude of bricoleur fits well to the objectives of this dissertation. Another reason is offered by the relationship a bricoleur has with the world, compared to that of the engineer. She has to be more humble and to interact more “at the same level” with her environment compared to the engineer’s will to gain mastery of it. I will write on Chapter 4.2 about reality tinkering, an attitude based on the possibility of interacting with the world without being in charge, which is clearly a bricoleur-like position. There can be seen analogies also between Michel de Certeau’s idea of strategic and tactical acting in the world (c.f. chapter 6.1) and the positions of engineer and bricoleur. 

Bricolage can be seen as a metaphor of everyday, as well as a method for investigating it (i.e. Highmore 2002a, 30). Because of its detailed and relation-based nature, everyday life can be seen as a bricolage built out of different, often unmatching pieces of behavior and attitudes. The bricolage nature of everyday life is visible  at least on three levels:

1) Everyday beliefs and behaviors are ready-mades, as are all the physical things surrounding us. As an individual, one’s role is merely to try and combine these elements in the quest of transforming her life into an unique, meaningful “piece of art”. Making bricolage is self-expression, like is the everyday life of contemporary people. Nevertheless, everyday bricolage can be practiced in an automatic or mindful manner. A consumer buys things he can afford and makes his everyday bricolage out of the things which are offered to him by the desire industry (spectacle, in SI terms), while a creative bricoleur can transform the meanings of things around him to something unexpected.

2) Everyday is a bricolage also at the collective, time-based level: what an incompatible mess all the various acts and routines which are simultaneously ongoing at any moment provide! 

3) And, furthermore, everyday can be understood as a battlefield of multiple forces and intentions, which can never be compromised. These forces can accommodate different spaces and exist simultaneously, but there is always friction between them.

The everyday is slippery, sliding between our hands: “[T]he everyday is what we never see for a first time, but only see again, having always already seen it by an illusion that is, as it happens, constitutive of the everyday.” (Blanchot 1987, 14.) We have too many assumptions of the everyday hindering our perception of it. We cannot build a coherent image of it although and because we have too much experience of it. The amount of recurring and at the same time slightly varying details makes it difficult to know where to start, where to dive in the endless flow of insignificant issues. Technique of bricolage lets us make connections and interruptions between everyday issues without demanding us to include everything, and analyze it exhaustively. In this research the idea of bricolage is understood in multiple ways and levels: from making concrete objects and acts to interpreting our everyday experience as a continuous bricolage. The aim is not to concentrate on the details of the everyday life of any particular group, but rather to play with the basic elements, which have different kinds of effects on different kinds of people. One of the main ideas of this research is that even if the ingredients of a situation might at some point seem as given, the character of an act develops along with the ways of selecting and arranging the content rather than plainly on the source material available. 

Détournement as a Form of Bricolage. The idea of everyday bricolage that I have utilized here owes a lot to the concept of détournement, which is a technique introduced by the Situationist International (SI). In détournement (= diversion, misappropriation) elements of different art works, movies, scientific texts or any other production of human cognition can be freely “stolen” and constructed into new connections. In the text “A User’s Guide to Détournement” published in 1956 Guy Debord and Gil J. Wolman present three categories of detourned elements: minor and deceptive détournements and ultradétournement. Minor détournement takes place when the detourned element is not important in itself, but gets its meaning mainly from the new context it is brought into. An example could be an everyday object located in the wrong place, for instance, a paper clip hanging in the president’s eye glasses on top of her nose. Deceptive détournement takes an intrinsically significant element, whose scope is altered in the new context. For instance, the agitated gestures of men discussing attacking and defending seem very serious, bringing to mind strategists planning war maneuvers, before one understands that the discussion happens in the context of an ice hockey match. The third one, ultradétournement, can be practiced in everyday social life, for instance by giving new meanings to gestures and words, or dressing into unconventionally combined clothing. This variety is clearly the nearest one to reality tinkering, although I see the other ones also easy to apply into everyday materials and situations. In any case, I find it very amusing that this form of everyday détournement has been explicitly mentioned in the Situationist guide. Debord & Wolman conclude that extensive detourned works usually combine minor and deceptive forms of détournement. (Debord & Wolman 1956.) 

The Situationists had strong revolutionary and anti-capitalistic objectives in their work, which is not so much present in the project at hand. Naturally, I aim to criticize everyday life, but my practice is more about proposing questions than offering answers. Because of that, the straightforward political spirit included in the practice of détournement is not so important to me although I utilize the method to set up my questions about the surrounding world. In his article Détournement, an Abusers Guide (2009) McKenzie Wark states that in détournement the important point is “the necessity for maintaining a distance towards whatever has been turned into an official verity.” (Wark 2008, 151.) There can be seen differences between the mindsets of détournement and bricolage. Bricolage has been introduced in the previous pages as a constructive and optimistic approach, while the attitude behind détournement can be seen as disturbing and destructive. Nevertheless, one objective behind détournement is also located at the very heart of this dissertation: the SI understood that everything we need for a better world exists already, and the most important question is, what use do we make of all this? (Pyhtilä 2005, 66).