We're all mad here
Roger Miller, the creative force behind the Surrealist Games, which are returning to Brattleboro.

We're all mad here

Surrealist Games return to Brattleboro for another mind-bending evening

BRATTLEBORO — Visual artist and musician Roger Miller is bringing Surrealist Games to 118 Elliot for a return visit to Brattleboro.

Two years ago, Miller presented the event at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, which allowed attendees to create art, not just look at it.

The reaction from participants was overwhelmingly positive. Vaune Trachtman said she loved that it was “non-competitive fun. Everyone's a winner!” Rolf Parker described the evening as “awesome,” and the highlight for Ely Coughlin was “laughing so hard I couldn't breathe.”

In a news release, Miller explains what happens at Surrealist Games: “Learn and play the riotous mind-bending games that were developed by Andre Breton and his co-conspirators during the 1920's and '30's, the heyday of surrealism.”

The surrealism art form, which sprang from the World War I Dada movement, incorporates unusual and illogical juxtapositions into visual art and literature. Participants promote surrealism as a way to bring unconscious, dream-like elements into the forefront of their works.

Perhaps the most famous game of Miller's series is Exquisite Corpse. Its name came from a sentence during an early version of one of theword games: “The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine.” Exquisite Corpse is a drawing game where each player draws different body parts of a person or creature before folding the paper and passing it on.

Collaborative creation

In these games, each participant simultaneously creates sentences and drawings without knowing what the other players contributed.

The structure is fairly simple. Players sit together in groups of four to six at tables set up around the room. Miller, who acts as master of ceremonies and instructor, introduces the games and how to play them. He then goes around to each table to answer questions and monitor the results.

“There's really nothing there except pencils and paper, but people create stuff that they couldn't any other way,” Miller said, and noted, “they all become poets and artists.”

“Advanced drawing skills not required!” he said.

Miller will also bring The Dream Game, a board game developed by his son, Chance, for a fifth-grade school project. The goal is for players to create a dream.

Attendees don't need to bring any writing or drawing supplies. Miller will provide them all.

Miller doesn't mess too much with the format because it's not necessary. “It doesn't really need anything new because everything is new every single time,” he said. “That's the nature of the games.”

To enhance players' creativity, Miller will provide musical inspiration by cueing up what he called “a surrealist soundtrack,” including selections by Brian Eno - “his lyrics are kind of surreal, like the games,” Miller said - John Cage, Roxy Music, Juan García Esquivel, and Harry Partch, among others.

The Surrealist Games event began in Massachusetts about seven years ago, when Miller began dating Debra McLaughlin, who was then the director of the Somerville's Center for Arts at the Armory. He presented them there, and since then, has brought them to Mass MoCA, 3S Artspace in Portsmouth, Real Art Ways in Hartford, and Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art.

McLaughlin typically joins Miller at the events to help make sure everything is running smoothly.

'Post-punk' venue

For this presentation, Miller chose the 118 Elliot performance venue.

“My friend Dan Ireton, who performs as Dredd Foole, who I know from Boston, told me about the space,” Miller said. “I was curious about it already, it's a real DIY place and I wanted to do something there. 118 Elliot is really post-punk.”

For decades, Miller has mostly earned his living as a respected and versatile songwriter, composer, multi-instrumentalist, and vocalist.

In 1979, he co-founded the influential Boston avant-punk band, Mission of Burma; he is a member of the silent film accompanying group The Alloy Orchestra; and he helped start Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, which The New York Times called “the world's hardest rocking chamber music quartet.”

Miller recently presented his own chamber music, for string quartet and piano, at Tufts University, and this summer, his art-rock, guitar-heavy trio, Trinary System, played at the first-annual Greenfield Psych Fest at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center.

Surrealism, which Miller grew to love in high school and carried through his song-writing and album cover art, still informs his work.

He's currently putting together an art installation for a residency at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center in 2020. It includes paintings and other visual components, and five modified record albums, which “play with the medium of vinyl,” said Miller - although he admits the latter is more Dada than surrealist.

“Dada has less organization and formality. Surrealism, while it has more rules, also has a random element,” he said. “The thing about Surrealism is, you put incongruous things together and try to get meaning from them. But you can't do it consciously.”

'A joyous experience'

Miller noted the “collective unconscious” emerges at the Surrealist Games event, but it's not just one. “Different tables of players will have different vibes,” he said.

Because it's a safe place, attendees often find themselves in a kind of “dream-state” during the games, Miller said.

“What I like about the games is that one doesn't have to be a great artist or even think of themselves as creative individuals - the nature of the games makes that happen naturally,” Miller said. “It's a great 'ice-breaker.' People sit to play together and soon start chatting like old friends because their unconscious psyches are brought forth in the games in a very safe environment.”

“Literally, every time I've done these games, it's been a joyous experience,” Miller said.

In such wrought political times, is it okay to sit around and draw strange pictures and compose sentences filled with non sequiturs? It's not only okay, it's crucial, said Miller, who noted the Dada and Surrealist movements emerged and took hold in reaction to nationalism, two world wars, and the rise of the Nazi party.

“It's important, even in grim times, to connect, to have fun and laugh,” Miller said. “Because if you don't, you won't have the energy to fight back.”

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