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Some Collages by Jim Jarmusch courtesy of Anthology Editions
Some Collages by Jim Jarmuschvia Anthology Editions

Jim Jarmusch on harnessing the chaos of the news in his new collage book

Some Collages came together during lockdown and is the culmination of years of newspaper collaging

In a small and secluded art studio, in the annex of his house in New York’s wooded Ulster County, surrounded by dust, paper, scissors and glue, Jim Jarmusch is hiding from the news. “I go there while the others watch it,” the director, no wave poet, fine artist and Lower East Side conversationalist says of his hideout. “I can’t really deal with it.”

Over the phone, Jarmusch’s voice seems to pan over the world, detached and weightless, thoughts uncoiling like a stop-motion rose. He’s calling me to talk about the way he processes the news, and how this process formed the basis of his first ever artbook, Some Collages, which comes out today. 

Some Colleges rescrambles the kind of information and imagery we have become bombarded with in the nonlinear, digital-first present: a surgeon’s head in a Covid mask on a suedehead’s body; Oz’s brainless scarecrow in a fashion shoot, a Lucha libre fighter lost on a Film Noir set; Salman Rushdie with a nine-iron. In generatively wild times, it’s the kind of art you didn’t know you needed. For Jarmusch, just like the racket and magnitude of his New York, at least with madness you know where you are. It’s sense through a squint.

The book pulls together some of your archive newsprint collages. You’ve been doing this for years now - what made you decide to compile them in this way?

Jim Jarmusch: The ones in the book are really from the last few years and it wasn’t ‘til lockdown of last year that I kind of had extra time to (work through them) - I couldn’t really shoot a film, or prepare for one. They’re really for my own escape sometimes, or to send to friends, things like that. So I think of them more as a kind of amusement than my entrance into the art world [laughs], you know? I liked the cultural ephemera of these newspaper sources, I was making little jokes for myself or minimalist juxtapositions. I’m inspired very much often by variations and repetitions of things, and childlike reappropriation.

Sometimes when they seem too pointed or a little too intentional, I usually put them aside or lose interest in them. Obviously everything is political on some level, and some of these are more pointedly political, but I really try not to think too much about them. I try to use childlike strategies: why did I choose to put this head on that body, or remove this head completely?

A few cultural touchstones repeat in the book, like The Wizard of Oz. How did these motifs arrive in your mind?

Jim Jarmusch: I don't really know how to explain it. I gather what I consider the backgrounds first. I have envelopes full of what I call ‘replacement heads’, and I have backgrounds of photographic images that I want to appropriate or alter. You know, it’s like the surrealist tenet of disrupting logic or perceived reality by just altering it in some sort of obvious way. It’s funny, I was gathering things with masks, not just surgical masks, for years, so I have lots of people wearing hospital masks in there. I kind of shied away from putting too many in because I didn't want it to seem as though, ‘Oh, that's a pandemic reference.’ In fact, it started long before that. I like bandaged people, and I love masks in general: indigenous masks, Chinese ceremonial masks, phantom masks, the masks of superheroes, or the Green Hornet or even Subcomandante Marcos’.

So that’s always been a kind of theme for me. It’s true of my writing and my filmmaking. The worst thing, for me, is to try to analyze them. I just try to create them and try to use instinct over analysis, which isn’t really my strength. 

In his intro to the book, Randy Kennedy references William Burroughs’ technique, The Cut-Ups. What got you thinking about collage in the first place?

Jim Jarmusch: As a teenager, I became obsessed with the Dadaists and Surrealists, people like Kurt Schwitters and Max Ernst, and Picabia, and Hannah Höch, Joseph Cornell and André Breton, and Man Ray, certainly. Then I studied under Kenneth Koch and David Shapiro who are associated with what’s called the New York School of Poets. They introduced me to Oulipo and certain poetic forms where they were cutting up things, rearranging things. Their kind of playfulness is still in me. I consider the New York School Poets my artistic godfathers, for sure. In the late seventies, I spent a lot of time with Burroughs, both in New York City and in Colorado. I was already a Burroughs fan, especially Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s manipulation and reorganization of information.

On a few occasions, I got to sit with Burroughs when he was working on his journals, which are collages he pulled apart from magazines, newspapers and books. They’d have all these hidden juxtapositions that were revealed by how he placed things together and connections he would find. I know he used to do this just to calm down or escape from other things he was supposed to be doing.

It’s certainly been an onslaught of information this year, because the world is treading some pretty tenuous new ground. Was it nice to focus on something physical? 

Jim Jarmusch: I keep (going back to the) fact that even children can make collages. It’s not something that requires any virtuosity, visually. Last year, especially in the US but all around the globe, untruths were promoted as truth through repetition, until somehow they were accepted and not even questioned properly. I wasn’t doing anything analytical or I’m not polemical about it, but in a minor way I’m investigating it.

“I have envelopes full of what I call ‘replacement heads’” - Jim Jarmusch

One of the images that really stands out is the businessman in the VR headset. It’s what the Oculus Rift symbolises: the future of work, communication, socializing, money, sex, and how all of this has accelerated under lockdown. What does that image represent to you, though? 

Jim Jarmusch: I think technology is incredibly important, but that image is kind of strange because it’s very simple. It is contradictory because it is looking deeper into something by blocking it out and not looking at what is physically there: you are isolated and open to new things and maybe new solutions and thoughts. When I see people walking around New York City and they’re oblivious to where they are because they’re looking at their device, I think it’s because humans can’t adapt physically fast enough. So they are adapting using technology, which is logical in a way. Insects can communicate with each other across long distances in various ways - ants can leave a chemical language that is packed with very, very explicit information that can be followed by any other ant following that path. Humans need desperately to communicate across the planet - we have the internet, and that’s a very positive thing.

And yet what it’s used for is to track us for capitalistic reasons. Our information can kind of enclose us and we can be exploited, you know? So the beauty of the thing also contains its worst nightmare, somehow. And that simple image contains those contradictions because this human being is looking into something with a device that is enabling him to... what? Do all the things mentioned potentially, but it’s divorcing him from the actual physical world that he’s inhabiting. Those contradictions are interesting to me. 

I think another thing that really brings humour to your book is the rhythm of it, the surprises and the pacing. There’s something almost musical about the layout and the image ordering.

Jim Jarmusch: Yeah. I’m so happy you say that, because it’s something we spent a lot of time and consideration on. So yes, it was musical in a sense, you want them to speak to each other in a way, and then other times, you don’t want to make that sort of obvious connection. 

Did you have access to archive newspaper cuttings for Some Collages

Jim Jarmusch: No, I just gathered mostly The New York Times and some others. I have a big, incredible filing cabinet of flat drawers here right next to me. I gather things and store them away. I have some Chinese and Arabic newspapers and stuff, I kind of squirrel them away. I don’t go too far back in time and I’m never looking for anything specific. It’s more like a treasure hunt. I’m just looking for what catches my eye and I’m not looking for any certain theme. Like, if I see someone with a bandaged head, I say, ‘Oh, I'm going to take that head!’ I don't know why. I often like people with hats on, or people wearing masks. I try to keep busy, so I don’t have to watch the news...

Some Collages is out now via Anthology Editions