Summary of Situationist International
The world we live in is governed by unexamined and unrecognized cultural forces, which can only be undone through engineering radically different situations from which to reflect. This was the key concept behind the Situationist International (also known as SI), a group of left-wing artists and activists whose practices were designed to unsettle and disrupt the systems of consumerist homogeneity in late 20th century Western society. Activities like walking the city aimlessly were reimagined as statements against a society that demanded production, and maps were cut up and reassembled to facilitate wandering. Perhaps unusually for a small group of political artists, these ideas corresponded to real and widespread political and social action, most notably inspiring the 1968 protests and rioting in Paris in which Situationist graphics and slogans featured prominently.
Although falling foul of factionalism and disillusionment towards the end of the movement's most active period, SI's disruptive use of culture and commitment to alternative models of interaction between people and their environment was massively influential. Their notion of the "Spectacle" in particular has become a key critical mechanism for understanding advertising and consumerism's impact on our psyches. Elements of SI's activities can be seen in later Punk and Rave subcultures, in political movements like Occupy and Extinction Rebellion, as well as "artivist" activity like "subvertising".
- The Situationist International was a radical movement devoted to the disruption and reimagining of the systems which govern everyday life, growing out of several already existing political groups. Like those groups it was anti-capitalist, and left-leaning, but was also committed to the disruption of the hegemonic politics of Europe in the late 20th century through artistic praxis as well as political agitation. Although eventually fracturing, SI provided a blueprint for rebels and artistic dissidents still followed today.
- Situationism valued the decentralization of creation, with artists working in collaboration or under shared names to undermine the notion of the single genius or visionary. This has gone on to be one of the most enduring aspects of their legacy, directly inspiring many artist collectives and groups.
- Architecture and human geography were key influences on the movement and the art that came out of it, with maps in particular offering an opportunity to subvert the way people think about the spaces they move through. By positioning maps as socially agreed (and therefore rarely unbiased) representations of environments, the Situationist practice of cutting them up, ignoring or purposefully misreading them robbed them of their power to govern the way we negotiate the city.
- The notion of "Spectacle", originally outlined by Guy Debord in various Situationist writings, is key to understanding both the conceptual underpinnings of SI and its enduring legacy. The idea of a permanently distracting and preoccupying spectacle, which obfuscates the oppressive nature of capitalism, has been adopted by artists, activists, critics and academics as a key philosophical concept in the current moment of late capitalism.
- Although a collaborative and supposedly open movement, SI adhered relatively rigidly to the direction of Guy Debord and the key ideas and artistic strategies he identified. This is somewhat ironic, as it was actually the wider dissemination and public take up of their ideas that ensured their longevity long after the group fragmented.
Overview of Situationist International
From the Italian "Internationale Situationiste," the Situationist International is often also referred to as Situationism. "Situationism" as a name refects the group's emphasis on the "construction of situations", as they created environments that they believed would facilitate revolutionary change. Influenced by Dada, Surrealism, and Marxism, the movement, as art critic Mary Joyce wrote, "combined satire, scandal, and performance to critique consumer society and the routine nature of everyday modern life - at a time when this approach was unusual and profoundly disruptive". They also emphasized misappropriation, taking images and text from mass media to create collages, posters, and brochures, as well as misappropriating amateur and academic paintings for disruptive and revolutionary effect. A collaborative approach was often taken, reflecting the movement's view that art belonged to everyday life and any individual could produce art as it was the process of making that was important to emphasise rather than the concept of "the artist."
Important Art and Artists of Situationist International
This work depicts a city map of Paris, cut into various pieces and rearranged with red broken lines added to create random paths. The work embodies Debord's concept of creating new relations to urban environments. The conventional map, showing planned pathways and routes and place names, is détourned to depict a psychological geography of Paris. The randomness of placement conveys that this 'map' and its structures could be transformed and constantly adapted by the individual's playful and creative behavior. One wanders through this city in the process of dérive between ambient units that have emotional resonance, experiencing the city in a very different way.
Debord's work was a pioneering visualization of his concept of psychogeography, which he defined as "the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals". It influenced the SI's extensive later use of collage and détournement, which included the repurposing of mass media materials like tourist maps. This work also influenced Constant Nieuwenhuys' extensive New Babylon (1956-1974), a series revisioning European cities.
Debord's concept of psychogeography remained a continuing influence into the 21st century. In the 1990s it informed Neoist and other avant-garde academic groups and led to the foundation of The Workshop for Non-Linear Architecture and its programs in London and Glasgow, and the publication of Transgressions: A Journal of Urban Exploration. In the early 21st century Provflux and Psy-Geo-conflux, two experimental action events, developed in the United States in 2003, used psychogeographic maps in various actions. Aleksander Janicijevic, the leader of the Urban Squares Initiative, continues to explore the concept in his artistic practice and in his books, Urbis - Language of the urban fabric (2003) and MyPsychogeography (2015). Recently, a number of phone apps, including Drift, Random GPS, and Derive, have also been developed, to bring the practice of dérive into the digital age.
With the spontaneous energy of a child's drawing, loosely sketched and brightly colored figures emerge from a multilayered composition, each of them looking at the viewer with large staring eyes. A dissonance is created between work's vitality and the frenetic, almost anxious expressions of the figures. Referring to Ole, Jorn's son born in 1950, the title also evokes writing, as do the lines as if sketched with a pen or a pencil, conveying a kind of message that David Ebony has described as, "epitomizing the existentialist angst of postwar Europe". At the same time, what Ebony called Jorn's "primal visual language," has a raw celebratory vitality.
When he became artistic leader of Situationist International, Jorn was noted as a founder of the art collaboration CoBrA, but also "a pioneer of European tachiste painting and Art Informel", as Ebony writes. He continued to use many of the same experimental techniques, such as gestural painting and using blotches and stains, to create near abstractions that retained figurative elements and vivid colors while involved with Situationist International. Yet, despite the title's emphasis on writing, the collage effect (as if the disparate figures had been transposed and arranged on a single plane) and the graffiti-like energy of the lines informed SI's artistic praxis from the start. Shown at the 1957 World's Fair in Brussels, this work brought international attention to Jorn and the newly formed Situationist International. Jorn's work was influential, with Ebony writing that his "work seems to presage later developments, like the Neo-Expressionism of Georg Baselitz and Julian Schnabel in the 1980s".
Using the taches (or stains and blotches) of Tachisme, Rumney's abstract painting creates a vibrant field of mostly primary colors, in which a random and broken grid of black lines emerges. The shapes and grid convey a quasi-geometric effect, and as these traditional forms blur and merge, they form a psychogeographic map of some undefined location or state of mind.
This work was first shown in the 1957 Metavisual, Abstract, Tachiste at the Redfern Gallery in London, the year that Rumney launched the London Psychogeographic Society of which he was the sole member. Spending much time living in Italy and France in the early 1950s, he had become aware and influenced by Debord's concepts. While his first solo show at the New Vision Centre Gallery in London in 1956 made him well-known as part of the international movement toward gestural art, he viewed himself as more connected to a tradition of political dissent, inspired by Surrealism. In his catalogue statement, Rumney wrote, "An act of creation must be autonomous and independent of the creator...The power of a work of art rests in its subject. The subject is independent of all formal qualities and becomes a violent and powerful entity in its own right".