The Situationist International (1957–1972) : An Bauhaus imaginiste
The Situationist International (1957–1972)
An Bauhaus imaginiste
Heinz Stahlhut, May 14, 2007
Asper Jorn, L'avantgarde se pas pas, 1962_Pro Litteris_Zurich_Switzerland
Asper Jorn, L'avantgarde se pas pas, 1962_Pro Litteris_Zurich_Switzerland


THE SITUATIONIST INTERNATIONAL one of the least known yet most influential (anti)art movements of the post war era: the Situationist International (SI).

The last of the international avant-garde movements of the twentieth century, which was centred in Paris, existed from 1957 to 1972 with a total of seventy-two European, American, and North African members at various times. The guiding figure of the SI was Guy-Ernest Debord (1931-94), the journey is organized around his biography.

The SI’s revolutionary program included the elimination of all forms of representation: the undermining of all authority, the destruction of all symbols of power, the elimination of art (even that of the Classical avant-garde) and all other forms of cultural spectacle, the regaining of the reality of life that had been expropriated by a society of consumption and commodities in short, the struggle against late capitalist dispossession.

Constant A. Nieuwenhusts, Terre Brûlée III, 1951_Bob Goedewaagen_Pays-Bas
Constant A. Nieuwenhusts, Terre Brûlée III, 1951_Bob Goedewaagen_Pays-Bas


The rejection of the conventional intellectual discourse, its political radicalness, and also, quite simply, its limited number of members have contributed to the relative obscurity of Guy Debord and the SI outside France. As a consequence, the historical significance of the SI, which operated at the points of intersection between art and politics, is difficult to comprehend even today.

Erotico-politique, 1964_Serge Veignant_Spain
Erotico-politique, 1964_Serge Veignant_Spain


Erotico-politique, 1964_Serge Veignant_Spain
Erotico-politique, 1964_Serge Veignant_Spain


At the same time - not least as a result of the strong influence the SI’s radical critique of society had on the student revolts - Situationist ideas were widely disseminated and left traces internationally in art, politics, architecture, and pop culture that can be followed right up to the present. Their methods can be found in Fluxus, punk, performance, and in the actions of the opponents of globalism in the twenty - first century.

Dieter Kunzelmann, 1962_Renate Grunenberg_Berlin_Germany
Dieter Kunzelmann, 1962_Renate Grunenberg_Berlin_Germany


Gill-Joseph Wolman, Deux Américains sur croien, 1954_Yves Bresson_Paris_France
Gill-Joseph Wolman, Deux Américains sur croien, 1954_Yves Bresson_Paris_France


Guy Debord_Paris Mapp_France
Guy Debord_Paris Mapp_France


the exhibition

The journey is structured chronologically and is divided into eight sections that illuminate the development of the predecessors and forerunners of the SI, such as the Lettrists and CoBrA through the intense collaboration of theorists and artists in the 1960s to the student unrest of 1968, which was powerfully influenced by the SI. Finally, it follows the traces of individual “members” after they were expelled by Debord.

Constant A. Nieuwenhusts, Ambiance de départ, 1959_Gemeentenmuseum_La Haye_Holland
Constant A. Nieuwenhusts, Ambiance de départ, 1959_Gemeentenmuseum_La Haye_Holland


All the sections are bracketed by Debord’s later film In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni of 1978, in which he looks back, in idealizing retrospective, on the great days of the SI.



THE NEGATIVE

The direct precursors of the SI were Lettrism and the Lettrist International (LI). The protagonists of this truly underground movement developed beyond the usual institutions and lifestyles into a subculture that was unconditionally dedicated to social protest. Various spectacular actions and publications testify to the irreconcilable negativism that stopped at nothing, not even self-destruction. Every form of personal pact with the existing order was despised. Neither the production of art nor work was supposed to corrupt the negativist rebellion.


Guy Debord_Film still, 1978_Alice Debord_Paris_France
Guy Debord_Film still, 1978_Alice Debord_Paris_France


The Lettrists presumed that the destruction of poetry, hacking it down to the “letter,” would make it possible to liberate language. The prescription of the liberated new creation out of destroyed reduction was subsequently applied to all of the arts and every social theme. The entire past was to be dissolved and brought to a new act of creation. The journey will show works and documents that illustrate the rigorously asocial existence of the protagonists and their equally rigorous work in the media of language and film.



International lettriste Si\If, 1958_Berlin_Germany
International lettriste Si\If, 1958_Berlin_Germany


.CoBrA

The other group that preceded the SI also turned against avant-garde positions that had become academic, such as Surrealism and abstraction. The name of the group formed in November 1948 by Christian Dotremont of Belgium, Constant Nieuwenhuys of the Netherlands, and Asger Jorn of Denmark was derived programmatically from the initials of the three cities from which the artists and writers came: Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam, and at the same time evoked the dangerous reptile that was supposed to seize French dominance and nomenclature in art in its stranglehold. With reference to popular art and Art Brut, the members of CoBrA sought to liberate art from its elite reservation and make it a product for all: “Art exists in every act of happy people. Art is joie de vivre; it is the automatic reflex of our attitude toward life.” Defined by this ambition, Christian Dotremont, Karel Appel, Pierre Alechinsky, Constant, and Corneille created their narrative, often abstrusely fissured paintings. Until the group was dissolved in 1952, all of its members worked tirelessly to re-infuse magic into everyday life.

King Mob Echo, 1968_Serge Veignant_Londres_UK
King Mob Echo, 1968_Serge Veignant_Londres_UK


LETTRIST INTERNATIONAL

The declared goal of the secret faction within the Lettrist movement that was founded by Guy Debord and Gil Wolman in 1952 - the immediate precursor to the SI - was to channel the anarchic, chaotic actions of the individualist Lettrists and lend them political significance. The group, which saw itself as an alternative to bureaucratic socialism, refused any completed works or labour altogether; it proclaimed a terrorist concept of freedom and denounced all morality.

Analogously, Debord pushed the Lettrist decomposition to its aesthetic absolute in the medium of film by countering the “spectacle” of modern society with a provocative monotony. The outraged reactions of the viewers, who were thrown back on themselves and the possibility of becoming active themselves, provided the real soundtrack of Debord’s films.


Jean-Louis Brau, 1950_Serge Veignant_Paris_France
Jean-Louis Brau, 1950_Serge Veignant_Paris_France


SITUATIONIST INTERNATIONAL

All of these sources fed into the founding of the Situationist International in 1957, at an international meeting of the proponents of various neo-avant-garde movements. It united groups from different countries, all of which were interested in changing the social reality by means of aesthetic concepts and a corresponding practice. In addition to representatives of the LI, there were members of CoBrA and Italy’s “Mouvement international pour un Bauhaus imaginiste”. It was primarily Debord and Jorn who were behind this merger of various avant-garde revolutionaries.

One integral component of their theoretical work was presenting elements of social criticism and subversive theory with both radical, revolutionary seriousness and covert wit and self-mockery, which transgressed every normative boundary of established political discourse and profoundly confused the establishment. The deliberate violation of all the rules of the game valid in the business of cultural until that time soon acquired a character of political subversion and fundamentally influenced events in Strasbourg in 1966 and the revolts of 1968.

THE SPECTACLE

In its critique, the SI under Debord worked from the concept of the “spectacle” and no longer criticized primarily the alienating effect of work but rather the colonization of free time and the totalitarian mediatising of life. Consequently, it promoted the idea of eliminating art as such in order to guide it to “free life.” The SI saw art as part of the “spectacle” that degraded human beings into passive consumers, thus merely demonstrating to them the happiness and adventure of life, and thereby abandoning them to the boredom of everyday life. The subsequent elimination of art they called for meant primarily the elimination of every form of representation. Only thus could the promise of happiness inherent in art be realized in everyday life. The revolutionary potential of the forms for coming to terms with reality that the avant-garde had developed since the First World War would finally be liberated.


René Riesel, Daniel Cohn-Bendit_Sorbonne, 1968_Centraal Museum Utrecht_Paris_France
René Riesel, Daniel Cohn-Bendit_Sorbonne, 1968_Centraal Museum Utrecht_Paris_France


OVERCOMING ART

The program of the Situationist International thus advocated the use of artistic means not to produce art or as a criticism of politics but rather to produce reality. That could not be achieved by an art that had long since become part of the consumer society. Its potential for negation had to be directed at itself, and art had to be eliminated along with everything else that made up the “society of the spectacle.”

One consequence of this strict rejection of any production of art was the exclusion of all the members -such as Asger Jorn, Constant, and the members of the German group SPUR - who did not wish to abandon artistic practice but “merely” wanted to revolutionize art. While in the decades that followed Asger Jorn expanded his activities beyond painting to include the research and documentation of traditional Scandinavian art, travel, and the study of science, economic theories, and philosophy, among other things, Constant developed his depictions of the tabula rasa of bombed cities into three-dimensional constructions as proposals for a city of the future. Beginning in 1960 he used the name New Babylon for the whole project - inspired by Leonid Trauberg and Grigori Kozintsev’s 1929 film about the Paris Commune: Novyy Vavilon.

The SI, by contrast, beginning in the early 1960s, increasingly transformed into an association of political intellectuals. The memory of the artistic avant-garde was still present only when the SI employed its means and methods to achieve its primary goal: the transformation of the everyday.


Michèle Bernstein, Asger Jorn, Colette Caillard, Guy Debord, 1959_Paris_France
Michèle Bernstein, Asger Jorn, Colette Caillard, Guy Debord, 1959_Paris_France


CREATING SITUATIONS AS A METHOD OF REGAINING FREE LIFE

The radical transformation of life that was sought by all the avant-garde movements was supposed to be achieved by means of interventions in the everyday world whose rich variety was the sole guarantee that expropriated life could be regained. In the founding manifesto of the SI - the Rapport sur la construction des situations et sur les conditions de l’organisation et de l’action de la tendance situationniste internationale, authored by Guy Debord in 1957 - this is already stated as the ultimate goal of all the movement’s activities.

For the Situationists, the reality of every human life took concrete form in everyday life. The life that had been lost, because expropriated, in the spectacle could only be regained in lived subjectivity. The Situationists thus assumed that a revolution that did not fundamentally transform the daily reality of every individual would merely produce a new form of rule and expropriation. Their goal was rather to liberate everyday life by constructing situations independent of the established structures and mechanized processes of real life.

This liberation of everyday life from its functional compulsions and its becoming magical again in the free play of ever new situations represented a rejection of every form of “politics” that had existed up to that point, including every emancipatory “politics,” in which an avant-garde knew the “correct” path, which merely had to be taught to the “masses.” The actionist disturbance, radicalization, misappropriation, reevaluation, and playful staging of concrete, everyday situations were intended to yank the consciousness of the people involved from the saturated deep sleep of the “spectacle” and permanently revolutionize it.


The Destruction of RSG_6, Charles de Gaulle, 1963_Ingo Herrmann_Karisruhe_Allemagne
The Destruction of RSG_6, Charles de Gaulle, 1963_Ingo Herrmann_Karisruhe_Allemagne


DÉTOURNEMENT

The SI saw misappropriation as one of the most effective methods to sabotage the “spectacle” and create a new situation. Originally applied primarily in the aesthetic realm, it was extended to the production of theory and political action and became the signature of the whole movement. Misappropriation was intended, first, to place the rubble and fragments of the “spectacle” into a new subjective semantic context and thus make it creative within one’s own reality. Second, the continued practice of misappropriation would lead to an inflation of values that would evade any power of what had become history.

DÉRIVE

Drifting, which had already been practiced by the Lettrists, was a way of moving that escaped the functionalized compulsive structures of the city by operating without any goal or plan. The method of drifting was a way of exploring the city as a space of experience and questioning its possibilities for constructing situations. Drifting was itself an action that subversively evaded the planned functions of the city and served to create material that could be employed by the Situationists for their critique of existing urbanism. The knowledge gained by drifting manifested itself as psycho-geographic maps of the “true” city, which was made for the people who lived in it. Drifting was the misappropriation of the city.



The Destruction of RSG_6, Odense, 1963_Paris_France
The Destruction of RSG_6, Odense, 1963_Paris_France


CRITIQUE OF URBANISM

Consequently, SI, like High Modernism before it, placed its hope in the realization of its utopia in architecture. But where the Modern Movement intended its functionalist machines for living to ensure the frictionless intermeshing of the modern individual and modern society, it quickly lost sight of its concepts of quality in the wake of its building boom, and the functional subdivision of human living space into separate, distinct segments, like sleeping silos, shopping centers, recreation parks, and leisure sectors, into residential, service, and industrial districts, schematized the flow of life.

Consequently, coming to terms with modern architecture and the new urbanism was the core of the Situationist analysis of society for artists like Gilles Ivain, Asger Jorn, and Constant. It opened up a third dimension of the critique, as it were, which permitted immediate access to concrete reality, since in architecture questions of aesthetic design intersect directly with the reality of life.


Guy Debord_Bouteile du roman, 1953_Yves Bresson_Paris_France
Guy Debord_Bouteile du roman, 1953_Yves Bresson_Paris_France


1968

Over the course of the SI’s history, the relationship of practice and theory shifted increasingly to the theoretical analysis and critique of society. Consequently, in the wake of the student unrest the movement entered the spotlight of a broader public for the first time, when a group of students in Strasbourg turned to them in 1966 with a request for revolutionary backing. The brochure “De la misère en milieu étudiant considérée sous ses aspects économique, politique, psychologique, sexuel et notamment intellectuel et de quelques moyens pour y remédier” disseminated the Situationist doctrines to all of the universities in France.

As a result, the students revolting in Nanterre, Paris, and later throughout France quoted Situationist slogans, and the posters, manifestos, and comic strips of the SI were disseminated throughout France and translated into a half dozen languages throughout the world. Although the uprising of the students in 1968 was not able to realize the dream of free life, it was, in a sociocultural sense, the beginning of a new epoch that finally overcame a “postwar period” that sought to restore the old order. What May 1968 also demonstrated exemplarily was the Situationist conception of revolution as a celebration of the imagination and of overexertion.

FUTURE OF THE PAST

In 1972 the SI was officially dissolved. It had reached the zenith of its influence in May 1968. Its revolutionary project sank in a flood of texts that were nothing more than nostalgic self-assessments. Moreover, it ran the risk of itself becoming a “spectacle,” and so it was increasingly co-opted by France’s culture industry.

The self-glorifying myth that the SI left behind tells of a polished diamond of the revolution that succeeded in preserving the purity of its radicalism against any compromise. Its policies of permanently excluding members and its grandiose self-promotion to preserve its purist ideal of revolution led the SI to ossify under Debord’s thumb. The repression of art ultimately led to its return in the form of the SI as a gesamtkunstwerk (synthesis of the arts).