Domenic Ali :
Contemplating Massurrealism


Mixed media and digitally produced. Domenic Paul Ali (USA) is a self taught digital artist. He holds a Ph.D. in chemistry from UC Berkeley and a M.S.W. from Smith College, Massachusettes. Domenic currently works as an HIV mental health consultant for the UCSF AIDS Health Project in San Francisco.
What is Massurrealism?
Domenic Ali
August 2005

"To be truly Massurrealist, however, an artwork must be more than simply a combination of [pop-art, mass-media, and surrealism] -- it must explore and develop the interactions arising from the juxtaposition of these sensibilities. If massurrealism is to justify its claim in necessitating a new word to identify itself, it must demonstrate an active dialogue among its defining elements. Pop-art, mass-media, and surrealism do not so much define massurrealism as they identify the boundaries containing it..."

While the above passage identifies the components comprising massurrealism, it remains silent about the approaches used, or the artwork that results from these approaches. We are still left unable to answer the question, What is massurrealism? To answer this question, we must go beyond “the boundaries containing it” and examine how the components of massurrealism interact.

Let’s begin with Surrealism. Surrealism is a primary genre of 20th century art. What distinguishes it from other Modernist Art genres – Abstractionism, Expressionism, Pop Art – is its focus on what lies outside reality, the surreality. In positing the existence of the surreal, Surrealism is endorsing the existence of a reality that lies beyond our awareness. It is no surprise, therefore, that Freud’s work on the unconscious was of such interest to Surrealists; they saw the unconscious as a way to label what could not be seen. Freud's belief that dreams are the royal road to the unconscious also helps us understand why dreams have played a central role in Surrealist art. Dreams, however, are only one tool to explore the surreal: The methods and techniques of Dada, such as juxtaposing random items, automatic writing, word games, also could give access to the surreal. Surrealism develops by experimenting with new methods and techniques to discover and express the surreal, as well as identifying how it interacts with ordinary reality.

Next, let’s turn our attention to mass media. Mass media had its beginnings in mid-19th century advertising, and has served the dual purpose of promoting the consumer lifestyle and making elaborate entertainment available to all socioeconomic classes (a small segment of mass media is geared toward education, but even here, there is an effort made to “entertain the learner as he learns”). By the 1920’s mass media had become ubiquitous in industrialized countries, and today, it’s fair to say mass media has become the defining feature shaping the a county’s citizens and public institutions.

Mass Media as an art form began in the 1960’s. It paradoxically turned to the tools of mass media – primarily the commercial tools of video and graphic production – to make artistic statements. The paradox here of course is that the original purpose of mass media tools was not to make individual artistic statements, but rather to produce advertisements that would resonate with the majority of consumers, i.e. the normal and ordinary, so as to maximize product sales. The genius of Pop Art was to transform the tools of graphic and video production into tools of individual artistic expression (alas, Pop Art has long ago been co-opted by the marketing industry to sell consumer items, reducing it to commercial art).

With the above descriptions in mind, we can now approach the question, What is massurrealism? One approach to defining massurrealism is to view it as a continuation of Surrealism using the methods and techniques of mass media to extend the artist’s ability to explore and express Surrealist ideas. Indeed, contemporary computer graphics and video allows the artist a level of control over his images that the early Surrealists could only have imagined, thus making mass media methods and techniques natural surrealist tools. No graphic artist can look at Dali’s artwork and not wonder how to create the same surrealist effects in Photoshop or similar programs. To further develop surrealist art, however, one need to do more than recreate Dali-like artwork (though this is certainly a satisfying exercise and can lead to many interesting and worthwhile works). One must go beyond Dali (and the other Surrealists) to create Surrealist art that is new; in other words, that has developed beyond Surrealist works created prior to computer graphic and video art. Only such artwork deserves to be distinguished from Surrealist art and warrants being labeled Massurrealist.

A second approach to defining massurrealism is to consider Pop Art and mass media as the content which surrealists methods and techniques act on, this generating the question, What does a surrealist perspective bring to mass media? In viewing mass media as what the surrealist methods and techniques act on, this approach to massurrealism allows us to experience what lies beyond the mass media worldview, i.e. what lies beyond Consumerism. It may seem obvious to say there is a reality beyond the consumerist worldview, but as the past twenty-five have shown, this is no trivial observation. Consumerism promotes the belief system, most of which is unconscious, that humanity is to be organized around consuming products and acquiring the money and power to do so. This belief system is swallowing up the mental landscape of industrialized society, leaving the majority of individuals feeling they no longer have contact with a visceral reality. Such issues and the alarm they cause have spawned rebellious magazines like Adbusters (a group of defiant graphic artists who are bringing attention to how mass media and consumerism has infiltrated and is controlling the mental environment of people in the industrialized world). In a similar vein the wildly popular movie, The Matrix echoes these often ill-defined and unspoken fears for many in its haunting storyline: a world populated by people who are narcotized by the pleasures and safety of a virtual reality for the sole purpose of their bodies being used to provide those in power with energy). Yet as obvious as the social damage of uncontrolled consumerism is when we step back to acknowledge it, we have let ourselves become powerless to stop its encroachment on us and our family and friends.

This second approach to defining massurrealism – using surrealist methods and techniques to expose a reality beyond Consumerism – implies a critical and potentially political role for Massurrealist art. If we seek to go beyond bringing attention to this issue, if we seek to bring about some form of action, then Massurrealist artwork must convey a degree of emotional urgency. Emotion – literally, to move – must be evoked in a manner than motivates us to break out of the consumerist worldview so that we can return to living more meaningful lives. Massurrealist art that motives the viewer in such a manner would bring an important addition to the world of contemporary art.

These two approaches to defining massurrealism – on one hand, to further the surrealist project with 21st century computer graphics and video tools, while on the other hand, to use surrealist methods and techniques to expose the constrictions of a consumerist society and motivate us to stand against them so we can recover our lives – stand in contrast to each other. While the first approach pushes us to transcend our day-to-day reality, the second pulls us into our reality and taking action. Both approaches are required to fully define massurrealism. In fact, one can go so far as to say that a Massurrealist masterpiece would be an artwork which both transcends and fully inhabits the ordinary reality of our post-industrialized society. The simultaneous presence of transcendence and political action in an artwork may seem impossible, but it is not; rather, the embodiment of such paradox is the sign of great art. Born at the very close of the 20th century, massurrealism has the potential to generate some of the first great art and artists of the 21st century.