There are no experts or losers here, and instead of competition there’s a spirit of cooperation and a feeling of being submerged in the poetic ocean of language.
Ouscrapo is a game conceived by the French artist Bertrand Boulanger, based on a normal Scrabble set. The players, or jargonauts, create fictional words with the letters they’ve drawn, and then create definitions for these words.
Many stories are told about the creation of the game, because there is no single story in the world of Ouscrapo – there’s the explentynation, which encompasses a multitude of potential events. According to one source, little Bertrand Boulanger used a language of his own, unintelligible to everyone else. Almost everyone. Only his grandfather approved of his grandson’s dadaisms, and where others saw dyslexia – and perhaps also other social or medical categories – he discerned a poetic force. He kept telling his grandson that his language had independent value and that he shouldn’t worry about the bullying at school. He also advised him that it would be good to find some way of communicating with others. The young citizen of Lille must have found one, because despite the headwind, he managed to swim across the basin of education and find a haven at the École Supérieure d’Art du Nord-Pas de Calais. After years of work with theatre groups focusing on dance and street art, Bertrand returned to the beginnings of his play with language, this time as the alchemistrator of Scrabble à rebours.
The pataphysical legacy
The game, initially just for fun, soon revealed its power of creating new worlds, spaces where people could get close to one another (as Boulanger paraphrases the saying, man should be a loupe to man, not a loup [in French, a ‘wolf’]). By liberating their imagination, players underwent a change. Considering the game’s enormous potential, its range was widened – it consisted no longer only of public squares and local libraries, but also care homes, mental health hospitals, even prisons. The ever-increasing world of meticulously recorded terms was collected in The Ouscrapo Encyclopaedia, published independently by the creators themselves in a small print run of 1000 copies. The book was printed by Boulanger’s friend, the artist Quentin Préaud, aka Draw-Draw. This richly-illustrated collection features work by Max Ernst and Fritz Kahn, among others. Their prints reveal a spiritual kinship between surrealist art and the world emerging from the fictional entries.
The game’s full name, OUvroir de SCRAbblologie POétique, means Workshop of Poetic Scrabblology. Of course, there’s an immediate association with OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle), or Workshop of Potential Literature. This movement of literary experimentation, established by writer Raymond Queneau and mathematician François Le Lionnais, was a section of the College of Pataphysics, created by Alfred Jarry, author of Ubu Roi. Bertrand Boulanger, himself a member of the College, has, as he solemnly assures, received authorization from other pataphysicians regarding this ‘mental sponsoring’.
The Ouscrapo Encyclopaedia found its way into my hands soon after they’d relinquished a pair of secateurs: I was just finishing a grape harvest near Die. On its dust jacket, I immediately noticed a hand in the style of Daniel Mróz (a bit different, because two of its fingers were stretched out, with a ladder growing in between). It struck me that poetic scrabblology is akin to the “Przekrój” civilization and that everything – Mróz’s famous finger included – points to the fact that I had to meet the creator of this lyric ferment.
Pasta à la Pope
Wearing a cap made of two different patterned fabrics, Bertrand welcomes me to his home, located in a forest near the town of Soyant. We’re in the central part of the Rhône valley, in the Drôme department, which, as is usual in France, takes its name from the river. The area is famous for its mountainous landscape, nuclear power station and rich cultural life. In these conditions, Ouscrapo tournaments create a unique space for artistic collaboration. Newly-created words might be sung by a friendly early music choir with a melody taken from Renaissance chanson or madrigals, and the neologisms themselves are sometimes depicted using the technique of lasagnography, which uses a metal pasta machine as a printing press.
Over a spaghetti-filled plate with an image of John Paul II – clearly used in my honour – I try to render into French the word ‘to dejohnpaulify’, created by an anonymous Polish proto-jargonaut. A story about ‘the man who became a plate’ turns out to be an equally difficult translation challenge. A question arises about the possibility of playing with someone who doesn’t speak French, and about the translation of an already-existing universe.
In reply, Boulanger assures me that outside of Francophone countries, there are Ouscrapo chapters in Sweden and Flanders. “When there’s a conflict in the group, apes make love to relieve the tension; I get letters from Ouscrapists five years after our open-air meeting, saying that they still play with their families, especially when there’s some sort of problem.”
One of the game’s good points is that both children and adults can take part. “Initially people can be shy, warning that they have no imagination or they don’t feel intellectually ready, but during the game they quickly find their poetic voice,” claims Bertrand. In hospital, a certain female patient, trapped in a male body and unable to find the key to unlocking her feminine nature, was so amused by a word in the game that she gave a peal of high-pitched laughter. It was the first clear expression of a part of her personality that had hitherto been repressed. “When I arrived for the next session, she entered the room with a light step, which isn’t everyday behaviour for patients slowed down by pharmacotherapy, balancing with her hips, almost floating above the ground.” The doctors claimed that this was too strong an intervention into the patient’s personality. “‘And when was the last time you heard laughter in the ward?’ I asked,” finishes Bertrand.
For a certain prisoner, the game turned out to be a springboard that enabled him to release his inner poet, but also deprived him of the chance for a safe landing. Inspired by the game, he moved the poetic workshop from the day room to his cell. Writing in these conditions requires the assent of one’s stationary travel companions: in a small room, the scratch of a pencil can be irritating. The cell is a natural environment for word games, puns and neologisms. In French prisons – which, incidentally, have been visited by many outstanding writers – the common jargon verlan, based on creating words by inverting their syllables, acquires new levels of complication. Femme (woman) becomes meuf (verlan 1), and further feumeu (verlan 2). These codes within codes are practised to confuse potential informers. Inversion and other linguistic transformations, although given wings by a different function, frequently feature in Ouscrapo. How did the game influence the above-mentioned prisoner? “That sensitive boy started to write and with his pencil he dug all the way to the deep core of his artistic personality. When I came for the next session, I learned that he was, sadly, already gone,” says Bertrand.
Negotiating with time
“You need to keep a distance between the game and reality, which is why on a map attached to the encyclopaedia, Ouscrapo is an island surrounded by ocean. We create a world that draws from reality, but needs to be protected and separated from it. We can also always go back in the game, the pencil needs to have an eraser on the other end, like in the word ‘oxymoron’, which contains oxys, or sharp, bright, and moros, or stupid.” The game refers to the existing linguistic reality, many entries make use of etymology. While playing, Bertrand always uses the historical French dictionary by Alain Rey; this way, he builds a bridge between etymology and intimology. That last word – as explicated by The Ouscrapo Encyclopaedia – means the flower of the word which breathes through its root. The game, then, focuses on aromas of language, on subjective impressions that still need to be explained to the other players in order to nourish the community of imagination. This also refers to the above-mentioned loupe replacing the loup, because the game magnifies the participant’s inner world, and then widens the perspective and encompasses the landscape of the players’ synchronized intimologies.
A play on words, drawing on similarities between the ways they sound and searching for surprising associations, creates a space for asking questions about language that we usually have no time for. Ouscrapo is not so much entertainment as explortainment. Negotiations with language, and even with linguistic quid pro quo, require free time. The Latin word negotium (meaning ‘occupation’, ‘work’) encompasses a negative particle and the word otium (meaning ‘leisure time’). “Ouscrapo is only possible in otium,” Bertrand tells me.
These meditations about leisure, work, and free time carry undertones of the radical social criticism carried out under the banner of Situationism – a movement created at the end of the 1950s that spoke, in the voice of Guy Debord, about the society of the spectacle. Alienated from real, immediate experiences, people become passive consumers of a performance masking real power relationships. Raoul Veneigem, a member of the Situationist International, called for a revolution of everyday life, initiated by creating situations that enable people to experience something authentic. The aim was to break through the omnipresent simulation of life, projected by media and other cultural texts. Part of this concept was an attack on ‘entertainment’, which had, in time, become one of the main pillars of ‘the spectacle’. Bernard acknowledges these inspirations, clarifying that he has always felt closer to the poetic Vaneigem (whom he had met personally) than to Debord, who dressed his manifest in the austere language of theory. Another inspiration for the game that Bertrand mentions is the surrealist Henri Michaux, who created poetry in an unknown language under the influence of mescaline. “I couldn’t, however, imagine collaborating with André Breton, who removed his companions from the surrealist community with a bureaucratic gesture.”
The first drop of language
The world created by the alchemistrator and all the current and previous players, rejecting stiff forms that induce nothing but distance, values mindfulness and reciprocity. Not only towards people. As the encyclopaedia tells us, a ‘sponge’ is also important, to enable us to collect and absorb the washed-off experiences of the passing day. While we’re on the topic of hygiene: snoap – according to the definition of one of the entries – is a snail that assists the process of shaving. It moisturises the face with its slime and scrapes along it with the sharp edge of its shell, so that it can feed on the stubble and suds left over from the shave. These become the building material for its spiral abode of imagination. Another symbol of the symbiosis between nature and the linguistic world in The Ouscrapo Encyclopaedia is Sequoyah, author of the Cherokee syllabary (that one is a true story), who called the letters of the Latin script ‘speaking leaves’, and post mortem gave his name to the tree.
In this world of imagination and dream poetics, we engage with language in various ways. One of the theories follows the key moment in which we move from the alphabet to the dictionary. Please buckle up and take a deep breath, we’re diving deep into the waters surrounding the lyric island. Of course, we’ll employ intimology, pointing out the Semitic root of the word ‘alphabet’, which contains alef and bet. Then we’ll jump into history, to recall that the first alphabet is attributed to the Proto-Sinaitic script of the Semitic language. These letters contain the sound bef, and bœuf means ‘ox’ in French. In Ouscrapo, we also think about the celestial cow to accompany it. As a result of that encounter, one drop of milk creates the sun, the other falls into the ocean, splashing and creating some waves, then it bounces off the bottom to emerge on the surface in the shape of a calf that wants to breathe in air (veau qui bois l’air) – which, read together, makes up the French word for dictionary (vocabulaire).
There is no way of translating this myth into English exactly, but then it’s not necessary, because Ouscrapo does not have a single history, but a vast histuary. Perhaps, then, the English version of the dictionary would emerge from the talent of an inspired Dictionaristotle, according to his erratic alphabethos? We will leave this up to your imagination.
No keeping score
If you’re enjoying the aroma of these stories, there’s nothing for it but to obtain a Scrabble board, divide into teams (two or three people in each is best), draw seven letters each and create the first word of a new reality. It’s good to choose an alchemistrator, who will keep this world of unlimited linguistic possibility – freed from the constraints of spelling, earthly logic and mundane causality – in some sort of check. We should record the newly-created words and their definitions, and by the same token create our own explentynations or histuaries, to preserve the spirit of the game until the next tournament. It is necessary to listen carefully to all suggestions, because there are no experts in this game, no better or worse players; everyone has imagination, only sometimes they can’t find the right key to the door to other worlds. If a person or team creates a term for the sheer beauty of its sound, but struggles to come up with the meaning or story hidden within it, members of the other teams can help with the definition. It’s a good idea to visualize the entries in all their detail, so that we work with a microscope or a loupe – this facilitates finding the sub-surface worlds of language.
On parting, Bertrand Boulanger presents me with Mróz’s hand, printed on a lasagnograph. “As a child I had a hand like this on my ceiling, I stared at it when lying in bed. You can hang this one on some string and use it when you have a problem, when you don’t know which way to go. It will show you the way, you just need to give it a strong spin.”
Translated from the Polish by Marta Dziurosz
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