Collaging and Frottage as Legal Methodology

by | 24 Jan 2023

Stolk/Vos, Sag der Welt dass kein Krieg mehr ist, 2022, mixed paper materials, 50 x 70 cm

Collaging as methodology of legal research entails co-constructed research through collective, multisensory practices of data collection. This methodology is anchored in the collage as 20th century art form that allows for placing different elements together to create a novel image. Importantly, the image presented thus is not seamless, which is precisely its pull. In the words of Budd Hopkins, collages emphasise ‘the disjunctions of our typical life experience’ contrasted to the ‘smooth, continuous, unruffled space of older representational art’. 

For the collage Sag der Welt dass kein Krieg mehr ist we used mixed paper materials collected and found at the premises of the Peace Palace, the seat of the International Court of Justice in The Hague. In a first step, we visited these premises with an aim to capture the site through sketching, collecting and frottage (-a technique to collect the imprint of a surface by covering it with a paper and running a crayon over it). In a second step, we combined these mixed paper materials into a collage, creating a novel image in representation of the site. The co-constructed element of the collage exists in its being constructed in this case by two researchers, but also and more importantly in its inclusion of materials which are (partly) created by others. We included wishes from the peace tree which had fallen off its branches and that had been blown away, as well as images from promotional materials offered by the Peace Palace. Through sketching we sought to capture the visuality of the palace and its surrounding fence. Finally, through frottage we sought to capture the texture and materiality of the site and its on-site artworks. In keeping with the tradition of collaging, the exercise of collecting materials is in no way meant to be comprehensive, but rather it is intended to re-familiarise ourselves with a site we know well. 

The techniques of collage and frottage are inspired by Dadaism and Surrealism. Pioneering artists developing these techniques such as Eileen Agar, Max Ernst and Joseph Beuys, emphasised how these techniques enforce enhanced attention to texture and the ‘hidden properties’ of materials. Due to the very physical act of registering the visible and tangible quality of objects, the act of collaging and frottage is a way to pause and observe these objects in a much more active, multisensory way. The intentionally clumsy techniques purposefully slow down the process of observation, allowing space for renewed interpretation and meditation on meanings beyond the immediately visible. Like with sketching as a way of visual note-taking, the advantage for international legal scholars is that these techniques involve approaching familiar topics anew. They moreover offer an invitation to look beyond default modes of analysis (theoretical, verbal, etc.) and in words of Anna Leander ‘make space for the observed to speak back’. We embrace this attitude as a methodological possibility to draw out contrast, unexpected connections and intuitive aesthetics. To do so, we use the exercise of working existing materials into a new image, as a way to bring about another layer of reflection to the process of seeing. The collage thus produced, communicates a combination of estrangement and familiarity, similar to the experience of our site visit, transformed into a visual commentary. 

Sketching, frottage, and collaging can inform theoretical analysis or be a form of analysis but they also have intrinsic value of themselves. The purposive slowing down and looking for materials to collect foster a deep concentration. The need to also bring the materials into a collage, makes that this concentration is not just directed towards close observation, but also towards creation. The creative character of collages works well, as collages do not require creating something from scratch. You are creating with what is already there. For those who are not used to expressing themselves in visual ways, it can be a more accessible, more directed exercise than for instance painting would be. But in essence it is what artists and academics always do already: creating something new by building on what was previously there.

To us, the space of mind created by tuning in to other aesthetic, sensory, and physical registers of a site helps us to get out of our routine approaches to our topic of study and opens up ways for drawing out unexpected connections, at the same time it also just makes us feel free and at ease.

*Sofia Stolk and Renske Vos are both assistant professors in international law at VU Amsterdam. Together they founded the research project and online platform www.legalsightseeing.org

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