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What is an Exquisite Corpse?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 14 September 2016
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An exquisite corpse is a collective assemblage of written, visual, or auditory art produced by people who are not privy to the contributions of the other artists. When the individual contributions are strung together, the result is often extremely surreal and peculiar. Exquisite corpse exercises are used in many writing and art classes to get people to think in new ways, and professional artists also collaborate on exquisite corpse projects on occasion.

Given the fact that an exquisite corpse is often quite surreal by the time it is finished, it should come as no surprise to learn that this art form was developed by the Surrealists, a group noted for embarking on very peculiar art projects. The rotating cadaver, as it is also sometimes called, dates to 1925, when a group of Surrealists was allegedly bored at a dinner party, and it is based on a much older parlor game.

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In a typical exquisite corpse, contributors work sequentially, with each contributor seeing a tiny portion of the contribution directly before his or hers. In a written exquisite corpse, for example, writers write a section and then fold down the paper so that only the last line shows before passing the paper to the next author, who does the same before passing it on, and so forth. Visual written corpses may also be folded or otherwise obscured with only the bottom lines of the most recent contribution showing, while in a musical exquisite corpse, composers see the last line of music produced.

Sometimes, an exquisite corpse may have an oddly logical sense of flow, suggesting that the collaborators were very attuned to each other while working on the project. In other instances, each new contributor takes the exquisite corpse in a radically different direction, and the work may diverge wildly.

Creating an exquisite corpse only requires two or more people, and a medium in which everyone involved is comfortable. Such projects can be interesting and quite fun, especially if multiple projects are started at once and passed around, allowing everyone to have something to work on at any given time. Exquisite corpses also don't have to be limited to visual art, writing, film, and music; one could collaborate on an exquisite corpse sculpture, knitting project, or anything else that could be imagined.

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