Situationist International - History and Concepts
Beginnings 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."
Situationist International began at the United Congress of Free Artists in Alba, Italy in 1957. It formed out of an alliance of the International Union for an Imaginist Bauhaus, founded by the Danish artist Asger Jorn, the Lettrist International founded by French philosopher Guy Debord, and the London Psychogeographical Association, founded by British artist Ralph Rumney. Therefore, although the movement was launched in Italy, it was an explicitly international endeavor from the beginning. Other founding members included Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys (also known simply as Constant), architect Attila Kotanyland, French writer Michèle Bernstein, Italian-Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi, and the Italian chemist and artist Pinot-Gallizio, among others. While Jorn led the movement artistically, Debord was its leading theorist. His concepts of psychogeography, dérive and détournement, as well as his view that the existing social system was based upon the "spectacle" and the "commodity", informed the group's mission to create a new artistic paradigm in the early 1960s.
Though contemporaneous with Fluxus and Happenings, both of which sought to remove the line between art and life by creating performances and environments that challenged traditional definitions of art, Situationist International differed in its political emphasis. Until its disbanding in 1972, the movement attracted over 70 international artists, writers, and intellectuals, though membership at any one time was often small and members often left or were expelled from the group due to artistic and political disagreement with Debord and the other leaders.
Guy Debord and Lettrist International
In 1950 at the age of nineteen, Guy Debord joined the Lettrist movement in France. Taking its name from "lettrie," or letters, which were viewed as pure form devoid of semantic meaning, Lettrism was founded by Isidore Isou, a Romanian artist and poet who moved to Paris in the mid-1940s. Influenced by Dada and Surrealism, Isou emphasized combining poetry with graphics and experimental film to create controversial juxtapositions.
When Debord joined the movement in 1950, he was part of a new generation that brought a greater emphasis on left-wing politics to the movement. That same year, Lettrism became notorious when Michel Moure, one of its members, dressed as a monk and took to the pulpit at Easter mass in a Parisian church, giving a sermon announcing the death of God. As the event was broadcast on French national television, a national and international outcry followed, and the movement became widely known. Many figures in the avant-garde, including André Breton, the founder and leader of Surrealism, defended the artist.
In 1952 Debord directed his first film, Hurlements en faveur de Sade (Howling in Favor of Sade) (1952). It consisted of an alternating black and white screen, with the voices of Michèle Bernstein, Debord's first wife, and French artist Gil Wolman heard on the soundtrack whilst white was displayed with black during silent pauses. Met with scorn by audiences, the film nevertheless made Debord a leading figure of the Lettrist movement, At the same time, wanting to emphasis left wing activism, Debord, alongside Wolman, Bernstein, Jean-Louis Brau, and Serge Berna broke with the Lettrists to found the Lettrist International in 1952. As he wrote the "situationist minority first emerged as a tendency in the Lettrist left wing, then in the Lettrist International which it ended up controlling". From that point on, Debord focused his energy on creating an international movement for revolutionary change.
Asger Jorn and the International Union for an Imaginist Bauhaus
The Danish artist Asger Jorn first became known as a co-founder of CoBrA in 1948. The movement, made up of cofounders Karel Appel, Constant and Christian Dotrement, among others and taking its name from their home cities of Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, emphasized artistic spontaneity with the desire to express "our refound freedom" (as its manifesto declared). The movement ended in 1951 as some members, including Jorn and Constant, embraced a more active political stance. In 1953 Jorn began working in clay and travelled to Albissola, a pottery-making center in Italy where he established a ceramics workshop in the nearby town of Alba, and began to organize an international arts festival. He subsequently divided his time between his residence in Switzerland and his workshop in Italy. That same year, he wrote of his intention, "In the name of experimental artists...to create an International Movement For An Imaginist Bauhaus." Emphasizing the imagination, Jorn's proposal was a refutation of the new Ulm School of Design in Germany, where Swiss architect Max Bill restructured the Bauhaus model but with an emphasis on technical instruction alone. Jorn, along with Piero Simondo, and Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio, founded the International Movement For An Imaginist Bauhaus in Alba, Italy in 1955.
First World Congress of Free Artists
When Jorn organized the First World Congress of Free Artists in Alba in 1957, he invited Guy Debord and Michèle Bernstein, whom he had contacted several years previously after encountering Potlatch, the bulletin of the Lettrist International. British artist Ralph Rumney, who had recently formed the London Psychogeographical Association, also attended the gathering. At the time, Rumney spent most of each year living in Venice, where he was romantically involved with Pegeen Vail Guggenheim, the daughter of noted modern art gallerist and collector Peggy Guggenheim. At the Congress, Jorn's International Movement For An Imaginist Bauhaus, Debord's Lettrism International and Rumney's Association entered into an alliance to form the Situationist International.
In his Report on the Construction of Situations (1957), the manifesto of the movement, Debord wrote that "Our central idea is the construction of situations...We must develop a systematic intervention based on the complex factors of two components in perpetual interaction: the material environment of life and the behaviors which that environment gives rise to and which radically transform it". Accordingly, the late 1950s were given over to the creation of an artistic revolutionary praxis (applying theory and philosophy in everyday life), as the SI began staging interventions in the art world. In 1958 they "raided" a Belgium art conference by dropping pamphlets and using extensive media coverage to critique the social system of the art work.
That same year Jorn's book Pour la forme (For Form) (1957), which defined his artistic theories and preoccupations, and gave the movement artistic direction. He also collaborated with Debord on the book Fin de Copenhague (End of Copenhagen) in 1957. Simultaneously Jorn's painting Lettre à mon fils (Letter to My Son) (1957) increased his internationally profile when it was exhibited at the World's Fair in Brussels, drawing others to the movement that he was closely associated with.
On the Poverty of Student Life
In the early 1960s the founding group began to splinter, with both Jorn and Constant having left the group by 1961. In 1962 Debord argued that art should no longer be emphasized, but be subsumed into a single unified revolutionary praxis. As a result, the movement focused on political actions and the Situationist International became a leading force of social protest, often centered in universities throughout Europe and most influentially in Germany and France. In 1966 five University of Strasbourg students collaborated with the movement to create a critique of student life at the university and published On the Poverty of Student Life: A Consideration of Its Economic, Political, Sexual, Psychological and Notably Intellectual Aspects and of a Few Ways to Cure It (1966). The pamphlet noted how "the student is the most universally despised creature in France", while challenging "leftist intellectuals...[who] go into raptures over the supposed 'rise of the students'" while seeing both that contempt and concern as "rooted in the dominant reality of overdeveloped capitalism". The Strasbourg students held a ceremony where they distributed some 10,000 copies with much fanfare. A local newspaper called the pamphlet "the first concrete manifestation of a revolt aiming quite openly at the destruction of society", and national and international attention quickly followed. The pamphlet became the de facto handbook for student protest throughout Europe, and the SI became a primary source of inspiration for the student uprising in Paris in May 1968.
May 1968 Uprising and Atelier Populaire
The student uprising of May 1968 began with a protest at Nanterre University in the first week of May, but within two weeks had spread to over a million people protesting in Paris, followed by a national worker strike. Students, teachers, and Situationist International members occupied the École des Beaux Arts on May 16th and started the Atelier Populaire, or popular workshop, where they produced silkscreen posters. The Atelier called the posters, "weapons in the service of the struggle... an inseparable part of it. Their rightful place is in the centres of conflict, that is to say, in the streets and on the walls of the factories". As art historian Peter Wollen notes, "their [SI's] contribution to the revolutionary uprising was remembered mainly through the diffusion and spontaneous expression of situationist ideas and slogans, in graffiti and in posters... as well as in serried assaults on the routines of everyday life." The revolt in Paris became a leading inspiration of the many protests throughout the world in 1968, from the civil rights and anti-war protests in the United States to protests against state authoritarianism in the Soviet Bloc.
Concepts and Styles
Psychogeography and Dérive
Debord defined psychogeography in 1955 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." His concept was influenced by Ivan Chtcheglow's "Formulaire pour un urbanisme nouveau" ("Formula for a New Urbanism") (1953). Debord advocated for, "active observation of present-day urban agglomerations, "to discover how environments effected the behavior and feelings of individuals and, conversely, how to make new environments that created the possibility for "a new mode of behavior." The concept encouraged experimentation in all aspects of art and architecture, as seen in Constant's decades long work on New Babylon (1957-74), a reconfiguration of urban environments to allow for creativity and play.
Influenced by the 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire's concept of the flâneur, a kind of dandy who wandered the city, dérive, or drift, was defined by Debord as, "the practice of a passional journey out of the ordinary through a rapid changing of ambiences." The concept, which was also called Situationist drift, was an essential component of psychogeography, as a place was 'mapped' by individuals wandering freely through the urban environment and finding their own ambient sites. Debord's Psychogeographique de Paris. Speech on the Passions of Love (1957), reconfiguring a map of Paris as a number of disparate but ambient units connected by random paths, was a visual representation of both concepts. His collaborations with Asger Jorn on books like Fin de Copenhague (End of Copenhagen) (1957) similarly approached the book as if it were a kind of environment through which the reader could wander, as words and energetic drips of paint drifted across the page. Ralph Rumney's The Leaning Tower of Venice (1957), was hailed by Debord as, the "first exhaustive photographic work applied to urbanism," as Rumney combined text and photographs to create a psychogeographic Venice.
Guy Debord's concept of détournement emphasized superimposing revolutionary content on mainstream images and text to subvert commodity capitalist culture. In the User's Guide to Détournement (1956) Guy Debord and Gil Wolman wrote: "The literary and artistic heritage of humanity should be used for partisan propaganda purposes...Since opposition to the bourgeois notion of art and artistic genius has become pretty much old hat, [Marcel Duchamp's] drawing of a mustache on the Mona Lisa is no more interesting than the original version of that painting. We must now push this process to the point of negating the negation". The most frequent use of détournement was described by Wolman and Debord as using "an element which has no importance in itself and which thus draws all of its meaning from the new context in which it has been placed. For example, a press clipping, a neutral phrase, a commonplace photograph". As the movement stated, "There is no Situationist art, only Situationist uses of art". The emphasis upon misappropriation informed the SI's emphasis upon collage in artworks and in the group's many posters, brochures, and graffiti, most of which were produced anonymously and collaboratively, further challenging the notion of a single and inspired "artist".
Debord defined "spectacle", as "not the domination of the world by images or any other form of mind-control but the domination of a social interaction mediated by images". His book Society of the Spectacle (1967) in particular was ground-breaking and widely influential. In it he argued that "all real relationships having been replaced by that of relationships with commodities, and where commodities have a life of their own". Détournement, derive, and psychogeography were seen as ways to intervene in the spectacle, which he viewed as the dominant social mechanism in the West. As he wrote, "The spectacle epitomizes the prevailing model of social life...In form as in content the spectacle serves as total justification for the conditions and aims of the existing system." Situationist International constructed interventions, whether raiding an art exhibition in Belgium, or expressed in Debord painting, "Ne travaillez jamais," "Never Work" on a wall on the Rue de Seine. Though he painted the slogan in 1953, he considered it central to his life and philosophy throughout the SI period.
In 1956 Gil Wolman defined "Unitary Urbanism", saying that "the synthesis of art and technology that we call for - must be constructed according to certain new values of life, values which now need to be distinguished and disseminated". Debord and the Situationist International further developed Wolman's concept by defining unitary urbanism as a rejection of any separation between art and the environment, undermining the traditional emphasis on function in architecture in particular. They advocated for a utopian society where the emphasis would be upon the possibilities of creative play and structures would be constantly adaptable to the new configurations created by individuals and groups.
Later Developments - After Situationist International
Situationist International essentially came to an end due to revolutionary disappointment. During the May 1968 uprising, disputes over political strategies and goals broke out between various revolutionary groups. Marxists viewed the popularity of SI's subversive posters and détourned comic strips as deriving from the bourgeois hope to reform the capitalist system, using slogans like "Take your desires for reality," to bypass the need for fundamental structural change. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, known as Danny the Red, who led the student revolt in Paris, attacked Debord as a mere "intellectual agitator" who created chaos with no true commitment to the goals of the new left. Essentially many of the disputes were driven, as historian Sadie Plant wrote, by "the confusion between the appearance and the reality of political commitment compounded by the indeterminate nature of the forces they were trying to overthrow".
At the end of May, French President Charles de Gaulle dissolved the National Assembly, promised to hold elections on June 23rd, and ordered striking workers back to work. Despite initial resistance, most of the workers eventually returned to their jobs, and the revolution that had seemed imminent failed. In the aftermath, Situationist International fragmented as Debord went to Italy and those involved in the protests turned away from the movement to explore new approaches to social change. At the same time, the movement's ideas were absorbed into wider French culture. As Plant wrote, "If the tactics of détournement were present in the events, elements of recuperation peppered their aftermath. Thousands of accounts and explanations of the successes and failures of 1968 appeared in the following two years, collections of posters and photographs were published, and legend has it that souvenir cobblestones were on sale within days of the rioting." Situationist International formally dissolved in Italy in 1972 with Guy Debord and Gianfranco Sanguinetti as its only two remaining members.
Situationist art influenced both contemporary artists and subsequent generations of artists. Pinot-Gallizio's industrial paintings, installed as an immersive environment, were seen as precursors of environmental art and happenings, for example. Jorn's repurposing of images influenced Alexis Smith, Jim Shaw, Enrico Bai, Lee Krasner, Lorna Simpson, Gran Fury, Tania Bruguera, Sherri Levine and Betty Thompkins. His collaborative books with Debord influenced later global design's use of what art critic Rick Poynor called, "typographic and textual fragmentation".
Constant Nieuwenhuys' work on the concept of the anti-capitalist city "New Babylon" was informed greatly by Situationism, and led to later developments including the founding of The Workshop for Non-Linear Architecture (with programs in London and Glasgow in the 1990s), and the launching of Transgressions: A Journal of Urban Exploration, a publication devoted to post-avant-garde theories on urban environments.
Ralph Rumney's London Psychogeographical Association was revived in the1990s by Fabian Tompsett as the LPA East London Section and, in conjunction with the revival, the Luther Blissett Project was created, a multiple-use name shared by musicians and artists in the 1990s directly influenced by Situationist ideals of decentralized creation. Subsequently the group collaborated with the Neoist Alliance and eventually created the New Lettrist International.
Situationism heavily influenced Performance and Installation art, particularly the Fluxus Group and Neoism, and the artist Mark Divo. In the early 21st century Provflux and Psy-Geo-conflux, two experimental action events, developed in the United States and used Situationist drifts and psychogeographic maps to create interventions. 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 (2105).
The Situationist concept of the spectacle and its analysis influenced later television programming, particularly in France and Italy, as seen in Carlo Freccero's Italia I and Antonio Ricci's Striscia la notizia in the 1990s. The movement's style and slogans were also adopted by 1970s punk rock music and informed the work of Malcolm McLaren, Jamie Reid, Tony Wilson's Factory Records, and the Feederz. Rock criticism in music publications (such as NME and Sounds) also helped to introduce Situationist concepts to a music audience, as remembered and discussed by Mark Fisher in his recent work. Greil Marcus's influential book Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (1989) explicitly connected the Sex Pistols and punk music to Situationist International and the May 1968 uprising. However, many punk musicians resisted the connection, with John Lydon (also known as Johnny Rotten and lead singer of the Sex Pistols) remarking, "if the secret history of punk rock is situationism then it's so secret nobody told us". The movement has also been seen as an influence upon other musicians, including Laetitia Sadier, Chumbawamba, David Bowie, and Nation of Ulysses, and the 1990s hardcore punk of Orchid, CrimetheInc, and His Hero is Gone.
Debord's concepts also influenced informed subsequent anarchist movements, including King Mob in the UK, and The Weathermen and Rebel Worker in the United States. Anarchist theorists Hakim Bey, John Zerzan, and Fredy Perlman and magazines like Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed and Fifth Estate, which drew upon Debord's theories in the 1980s. Later adaptations of his concepts included hacker e-zines like samizdat and groups like Adbusters and Reclaim the Streets that détourn advertising and construct 'situations'. In the digital age, a number of phone apps, including Drift, Random GPS, and Derive, have also been developed, as a way of experiencing Situationist drift. The movement's pioneering use of political graffiti to critique commodity culture has been seen by scholars and critics as setting the groundwork for many subsequent artists, including graffiti artist Banksy.