The Situationists

On the Passage of a Few People Through a Rather Brief Moment in Time:  The Situationist International, 1957 – 1973.

At the Institute of Contemporary Art.  Organized by Mark Francis and Peter Wollen, with Elizabeth Sussman, Paul-Hervy Parsy, Thomas Y. Levin, and Greil Marcus.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix,  January 7, 1990)

In 1957, a small group of artists and intellectuals from various European avant-garde art movements met together to form the Situationist International as a critique of capitalist culture.  They believed that capitalism had turned contemporary life into a society of “spectacle” that its inhabitants could only passively watch and consume.  Situationism would bring art out of the museums and into the streets, and sabotage the society of spectacle by creating situations in which people could turn their own lives into a creative experience.

The Situationists called for an art of excess, delirium, outrage, and social change.

To accomplish this, they forumlated the idea of “detournement” — turning around or diverting images from art, advertising, and mass media and adapting them for the purposes of Situationist art.  They used the techniques of collage and montage to create surreal juxtapostions of multiple images and texts.  They published a journal, staged exhibitions, printed posters and pamphlets, distributed comics with altered speech bubbles, and painted slogans on the walls.

The Danish artist Asger Jorn “detourned” traditional oil paintings, which he purchased in flea markets, by painting over them.  Guiseppe Pinot-Gallitzia, from Italy, undermined the visual language of abstract expressionism with his “industrial paintings”, which he painted on long rolls of canvas, to be sold by the yard.    The French theorist Guy Debord created films made up entirely as collages of clips and quotations from advertisements and old movies.  “On the passage of a few people through a rather brief moment in time” was the title of one of his films.

Situationism was an urban movement, based primarily in Paris.  One of its central ideas was “derive” or drift — wandering aimlessly through the streets of the city, open to real experience instead of being a passive slave to spectacle.  (In this sense, the Situationists were the heirs of the Impressionists, who took their easels outdoors to capture fleeting moments and public pleasures in parks and cafes and bars.)   The Dutch artist Constant built models of imaginary cities from small metal machine parts and scraps of colored plexiglass.   Debord “detourned” maps of Paris with bright red arrows to suggest a random dance curving through the city streets

Walking through the show feels like being inside a movie by Jean-Luc Godard. Instead of a story, you see a directed chaos of images, and you’re bombarded with words – slogans that mix together revolutionary rhetoric, semiotics, philosophy, and flashes of poetry.

Godard, according to Tom Levin, a film historian who was one of the organizers of the show, was influenced by the Situationists’ ideas. Anna Karina, who later became Godard’s wife and star, made her first screen appearance as a model in a soap commercial that was “detourned” in a film by Debord.

The physical space of the ICA consists of six or seven small, awkwardly shaped rooms on four different levels, joined together by a zig-zag staircase.  It usually looks like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle that’s been put together the wrong way, but the entire museum has been transformed — or rather “detourned” — for this show by architects Nigel Coates and Christophe Egret, who also designed site-specific installations for the exhibit when it was at the Pompidou Center in Paris and at the London ICA.  Their installation activates and unifes the ICA’s difficult space.

At the center, a long, narrow wall is painted red, so that it acts like a hinge, connecting each of the four levels that it intersects.  The red wall is covered with Situationist slogans in white letters:  “Down with the abstract, long live the ephemeral.”  “Plagiarism is necessary.  Progress implies it.”   Hanging from the ceiling are paintings and transparent plexiglass panels bearing more words:  “Not poetry at the service of revolution, but revolution at theservice of poetry.”

On the floor are big, red arrows, white and yellow dashes, and little blue dots.  More arrows fly through the air, making connections between one space and the next.  Posters, pamphlets, comics, books, and journals are displyed on old wooden boards and trestle tables and that are used in Paris for municipal election lists (and were used for building barricades during the street fighting in May, 1968).  Real street lamps create the sensation of “derive” — drifting through the streetsof a city at night.

Sound is very much part of the installation, too.  You hear the hum of slide projectors, the clickety-clack of an old movie projector, the crashing and ringing of a pinball machine, and the talk from an “orientation video”.  Everywhere you hear the sound of people marching, shouting, and fighting in the streets of Paris, from 20 video monitors showing the events of May, 1968, when ten million people took to the streets, shouting slogans, occupying schools and factories, building barricades and overturning cars, and finally overthrowing the government.  Many of the enrages — the student rebels who helped to detonate these events — were followers of the Situationists.

But by 1972, there were only three Situationists left.  The revolution wass over, and May ’68 was just another failed Utopia.  The movement splintered; the crowds dispersed.  Street fighting men went home and working class heroes went back to work.  The enrages disappeared into law schools and business schools, universities and museums.  The society of spectacle was restored.

The Situationists’ perceptions continue to drift into our culture.  There are echoes of Situationism in punk rock, in Jenny Holzer’s electronic billboard art, in Cindy Sherman‘s self-photographs, in the futuristic set of “Blade Runner“,and in Jay Cantor‘s novel “Krazy Kat“, in which a comic book character is “detourned” into a psychologically penetrating portrait of a real woman.

The Situationists demanded that art be ephemeral, not solid and lasting, like the art in museums.  Their posters and pamphlets faded in the sun, or dissolved in the rain.  Their writing was washed off the walls.  The museumization of the traces they left behind is an ironic confirmation of their own predictions.

They were absorbed into the Spectacle.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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