Situationism - A Role-Model for Artistic Resistance?

"To get the gist of Situationism is, it is important to note that it does not exist, must not exist as an edifice of teachings. There is an experimental attitude, named situationist due to its organisational structure." 
(Letter by Guy Debord to Simondo, 22. August 1957). 


The Situationists' main aim was to create "situations", experiences of life by means of criticising or even undermine the capitalist hegemony. 
Tracing the origins of the Situationist theory is quite difficult. Some of their ideas rooted in Marxism and the 20th century European avant-gardes (especially Dadaism and Surrealism). They group refers to concepts by Marx, Hegel, Freud, Bataille and Lukács.
Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem founded the Situationist International (SI) in July 1957, which existed till 1972. But before that time, there were Situationist tendencies as well, namely Lettrism, an artistic and literary movement led by Isidore Isou, who admired his fellow-countryman Tristan Tzara, maybe one of the most famous artists of the Dada-movement (Zurich). In 1957 the left wing of Lettrism broke off from Isou's group and founded the so-called Internationale Lettriste (members a.o. Bernstein, Dahou and Debord).
In 1945 an artist group named Host was founded in Copenhagen. Asger Jorn was its most important member. Later he joined the international artist group CoBrA (1948-1951). The members of this group again had worked in other groups before, namely the Surréalism Révolutionnaire (Dotrement) or Reflex (Constant). Most of the CoBraA artists later joined the SI, as well as members of the Italian movement Movimento Nucleare and the Comité Psychogéographique. The German artistic collective SPUR also collaborated with the SI movement.
This is all very confusing. So, to cut a long story short: After the Second World War many artist groups formed in different countries in Europe. The SI (especially Guy Debord) gathered painters, writers, philosophers, architects, musicians, filmmakers, urbanism-theorists and sculptors from that group and became one of the most influential and revolutionary movements in Europe.
The SI as a whole existed 15 years, but the number of members changed constantly. Only two of them were active members in the whole time. All in all the SI had 70 members.  

Diagnose of modern society

The allure of this group lies in its inner logic which was extremely powerful in the aftermath of the two World Wars. The criticism against the capitalist order, which expressed itself in Marx' term of commodity fetishism, was obvious in the time of the wirtschaftswunder.
The Situationist diagnose of modern society mainly contains three aspects:

1. Declaration that the spectacle is a phenomenon, which effects the whole society
2. Emphasis on the importance of imagination and pictures within this spectacle (substitution of reality)
3. Connections between spectacle and mode of production in present society.


But what is the spectacle? The main aspects of this concept are described in the book The Society of the Spectacle (La Société du spectacle) by Guy Debord. It was first published 1967 in France and is a series of 221 short theses. Debord develops the thought of a modern society in which authentic social life has been replaced with its representation. He believes that we live relations through images. It is important to note that the spectacle is not a collection of images. It is a replacement mediated by images, social life is not about being anymore but about having. The enthusiasm for a new product demolishes real experiences. When you  see a commercial (mediated by images) for a brand-new I-phone and you buy it, you don't buy a product, but an image. We have not made a decision ourselves, rather the decision has already been made for us. Meanwhile the spectacle appears as something positive, it is a monopoly on appearances. It pretends that consumption is good for us, but reality it lead to conformism. (This might be even more visible in today I-culture, in which everybody must have a smart-phone). The commoditiy fetishism or cultural homogenization leads to the destruction of human interaction.
Here lies a strange contradition in the concept of the spectacle. It seperates the people from their own lives and the lives of others but at the same time it brings us together through images. But due to the spectacle (supported by government, media and producers) we are equal, but not in a positive way, but in a conformist, boring way. In Debords vision of modern society we become mere zombies, controlled by media and images. And that is what the spectacle is about.

Undermining the spectacle

Now the aim of the SI is to undermine this spectacle: create situations, experiences of "real" life, unusal, unexpected situations. 
Moreover, they claimed that workers in advanced capitalism only work or rather: function in order to survive. The purpose of modern production is not freedom, nor happiness, it is the spectacle. Situationist thinkers believed that the situation is more than absurd. The technical efficiency of production has increased tremendously. When technology progresses, work becomes more efficient, and this development ought to have an end, but it does not end. So what is the use of technical progess? In the end it is of no use for the worker, who still has to work to survive. The use is a concrete manufacture of alienation. One method to escape from this situation is play and leisure time. Work has to be abolished 

Another method of undermining the spectacle is the "Dérive" (drift). This is a unplanned journey through a (urban) landscape with the goal of encounterung new, authentic and anti-capitalist experiences. Straying around a city without having a goal, nor destination and especially without the aim of buying something opens a new perspective on cities and their aesthetics. Guy Debords wrote that the dérive is: "a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances."


But what does this have to do with art? The connection between Situationism and art is extremely diverse, this is mainly because the members of the group came from different backgrounds. The number of members never stayed steady.
One important fact is that the SI rejected all art that claimed to be autonomous that means which separated itself from politics. This led to a new defintion of what art is, and this new definition is extremely relevant for understanding 20th and 21st century art.
The definition of "artwork" has to be thought in a wider sense. From the perspective of our modern knowledge this seems to be easy. We know expressionis like performance-art, socially engaged art, street art, drug-art etc. But in the 1950s these forms of art were new and can be compared to the confusion we have nowadays concerning artist groups like Voina in Russia. Some of the Situationist proposals remind of conceptual art. They e.g. proposed to install light switches on street lamps. The concept of the so-called dérive mainly bases on a subjective perception of the streets/urban landscapes. This might be possible when you stray, volontarily get lost or take drugs. 
This dérive is closely connected to the term geography. Guy Debord (and others) made this concept visible via his guide psychogeographique de Paris. He took a map of the city of Paris, cut it into pieces and clued different parts together. This may remind of a journey in an underground train. When you step off the train you see different areas of the city but they are perceived independendly from one another. To cut apart a map is also a symbolical act: Cutting apart the (rational) structure of an urban landscape.

Constant Nieuwenhuys suggested to tear down the building of the Amsterdam stock exchange and replace it by a play ground.
On of the best known projects was Constant's project "New Babylon", on which he worked on almost continuously from the middle of the 1950s up to the end of the 1960s. He said: "It is a design for future architectural structures, made for a society of creative people who are feed from stultifying everyday work."
The city is thought to be a series of linked transformable structures. A city built upon "old" cities, symbolically to leave the bourgeois metropolis below. He called the citizens: homo lutens (man at play). This homo lutens should wander from one leisure envirnoment to another, rooms and buildings constantly change. In this respect new sensations could be produce. Production and public transport are located underneath the actually city. It should stay invisible because it would hinder the development of the new, social man. So it might appear that you have a room mate when you leave your flat in the morning and might have another when you return. When you step on a train to London it might happen that the train -suprisingly - goes to Madrid etc.

Another important artistic material were graffitis. The picture on the left shows a wall in the street "Rue de Seine" in Paris. The words, written in 1952, say: Ne travaillez jamais! (Never work!)
With these writings on the wall they intervene into the urban structure and use a public space by means of adressing a large public. This strategy is sought to undermine the urban, capitalist structure, for the cities had become a dominion of the spectacle.

A very modern form of artwork was their work with comics, posters and publications, which can be understood as a early form of communication-guerilla. They used (popular) comics and changed the content the speech bubbles, filled them with situationist slogans or ideas. This alienation or misappropriation is called détournement.
The avant-garde's legacy can be found in the Situationist use of collages. Especially Asger Jorn, one of the few "classical" artists, overpainted a classical, romantic landscape painting. Debord used collages in his films. A new form of art, maybe comparable to Dadaist methods, was the so-called hypergraphy (or metagraphics). It merges poetry and graphics, text and visual ways of communication. The HG was a critical method originally developed by the Letttrist movement. Asger Jorn broadened the HG, when he developed his situlogical technique.
Jorn left the SI in 1961 and founded the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism in Silkeborg. But he kept supporting the SI movement (financially and artistically), but he claimed that he did not believe in the new strategy of the movement.

Another artistic method, later continued by Fluxus and performace-artists, is the performance. One example is a kind of performance by Michel Mourre in 1950. He dressed as a Dominican monk. In the Church of Notre Dame in Paris he then climbed to the rostrum and declaimed a blasphemous anti-sermon (written by Serge Berna) on the death of God.

One can argue whether their public gatherings or protest can be called art or not. It reminds of the contemporary flash-mobs. People meet in a public space and do the same thing and "occupy" the streets and produce situations. According to the logic of the SI this could be called an artistic act.

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