Museums

The Oulipo Group’s Generative Word Games

Moebius ring comics by Etienne Lécroart (© Etienne Lécroart)
Moebius ring comics by Etienne Lécroart (© Etienne Lécroart)

PARIS — Members of the Oulipo movement play with generative poetic combinations and permutations. Their interests lie at the conceptual nexus of algorithmic art software and remix culture at large, combining all forms of hypertext hybrids, experimental word swarms, and shared authorship projects. But even in France, where Oulipo was founded and is most widely practiced, it remains relatively unknown to the general public.

The Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal has lovingly assembled a large and visually opulent survey of the generative literary production from the Oulipo group. I found the exhibition altogether impenetrable, perplexing, and exciting. By way of an introduction, there is a three-part English language video by Rees Archibald, Andrew Infanti, and Matthew Shlomowitz that explains Oulipo.

Jean Lescure, "Illustrated envelopes sent to Raymond Queneau” (©Oulipo Fund)
Jean Lescure, “Illustrated envelopes sent to Raymond Queneau” (© Oulipo Fund) (click to enlarge)

The extensive, documentary-style exhibition Oulipo, la littérature en jeu(x) (“Oulipo, literature at play”) tells the story of a fast-moving, interdisciplinary group of men interested in various approaches to novel conjunctions. In brief, Oulipo was initiated by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais on November 24, 1960, as a subcommittee of the Collège de ‘Pataphysique. It was first called the Séminaire de littérature expérimentale. At its second meeting the group (including Noël Arnaud, Jacques Bens, Claude Berge, Jacques Duchateau, Jean Lescure, Jean Queval, Albert-Marie Schmidt) changed its name to Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Oulipo), or “workshop of potential literature.”

The idea of an innovative literature had arisen two months earlier, when a small group met at Cerisy-la-Salle for a colloquium on Queneau’s work. During that seminar, Queneau and Le Lionnais conceived of a new abstract literature based in the elegance of conceptual, rule-based processes. The results are image- and mind-bending thought machines that play with and explore shifting linguistic combinations. The outcomes of these rule-driven word experiments are almost algorithmic in their modular approaches, using words in precise, step-by-step, computational procedures.

Meeting of the Oulipo in Boulogne, near Paris, on September 23, 1975, in the garden of François Le Lionnais. Italo Calvino is in the center with an open newspaper, at founder Raymond Queneau’s right. (© Archives Pontigny-Cerisy)
Meeting of the Oulipo in Boulogne, near Paris, on September 23, 1975, in the garden of François Le Lionnais. Italo Calvino is in the center with an open newspaper, at founder Raymond Queneau’s right. (© Archives Pontigny-Cerisy)

Founding members came from various disciplines, including mathematics, literature, and pataphysics, but all shared the goal of Anoulipism: linguistic discovery through formal rules and systems that may be used by writers in any way that gives pleasure. To do so, the Oulipians typically emphasized formal constraints in their literary production. The Oulipians adopted such approaches in reaction to the emphasis placed on écriture automatique (automatic writing) by the Surrealists. A first-rate example of a constraint is Georges Perec’s novel La disparition (published in English as A Void): a 300-page novel written without the letter “e” (an example of a lipogram). The novel is remarkable not only for the absence of “e,” but as a mystery in which the absence of that letter is a central theme. Anagrams are also of great service to the Oulipians, when they take key sentences or phrases and create a series of lines or sentences made exclusively of anagrams from that text. At other times, existing literature becomes modular raw material for a new, skewed work. A playful approach with literary and art history is fundamental. Such a strategy towards reconfiguration values a creative re-understanding of the past through tongue-in-cheek re-contextualization.

Raymond Queneau, "Cent mille milliards de poèmes" (Paris: Gallimard, 1961) (courtesy of University of Arizona Libraries, Special Collections)
Raymond Queneau, “Cent mille milliards de poèmes” (Paris: Gallimard, 1961) (courtesy of University of Arizona Libraries, Special Collections) (click to enlarge)

In other Oulipian generative, rule-based work, such as Raymond Queneau’s 1961 book Cent mille milliards de poèmes (Hundred Thousand Billions of Poems), a physical methodology is applied to subject matter so as to arrive at a suggestive new approach to the material. Such alternate perspectives offer new poetic readings.

Today the Oulipo collective is closely followed by faithful fans of language games and its tactics are used by teachers in creative writing workshops. The group also has inspired works by non-member contemporary artist and poets, such as Bill Seaman‘s Recombinant Poetics project “The World Generator/The Engine of Desire” (1996-98): a virtual environment he authored with programmer Gideon May.

The Oulipo, la littérature en jeu(x) exhibition helped me enter this rather dated but still active group’s atmosphere of mystery and observe the results of their wordy experiments. It includes a great deal of playful work by Jacques Roubaud, Marcel Duchamp, Paul Fournel, Georges Perec, Marcel Bénabou, Harry Mathews (who was Niki de Saint Phalle’s first husband), and Italo Calvino — as well as recent documents and publications. There is also closely related work being done in the field of Potential Music (Oumupo), Potential Painting (Oupeinpo), and Potential Cuisine (Oucuipo), among others, not included in this remarkable show.

Changing the order of the squares in Stephen Lécroart's “Valeurs” changes the story. (© Etienne Lécroart)
Changing the order of the squares in Stephen Lécroart’s “Valeurs” changes the story. (© Etienne Lécroart)
Michèle Métail, "Punctuation Poem" (October 1975) (© Michèle Métail Life)
Michèle Métail, “Punctuation Poem” (October 1975) (© Michèle Métail Life)

Oulipo, la littérature en jeu(x) continues at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal (1 Rue Sully, 4e, Paris) through February 15.

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