Getting the psychogeographic drift
The Situationist International: A User’s GuideBy Simon Ford. Black Dog Publishing, £16.95
While most twentieth-century isms are perceived as historical phenomena representing outdated attitudes and approaches, the Situationists continue to exert a hold on contemporary thinking. For some, they represent the last genuinely avant-garde movement in the arts. The period of the Situationist International (SI), from 1957 to 1972 when they disbanded, coincides with the rise of the consumer society. If the Situationists have lasted better than some earlier avant-gardes, it’s because their views remain highly relevant to the situation we are in today.
By the 1960s, most of the features that define everyday life in an affluent society – washing machines, fridges, television, pop music, credit cards, intensive advertising, supermarkets, package holidays, mass-market fashion and disposable income for personal indulgence – were in place. The Situationist critique remains trenchant as they saw it all with a clarity that later generations, taking these conditions of superabundance for granted, often lacked. As Guy Debord, a key figure in the group, noted in The Society of the Spectacle, ‘The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.’
Key Situationist concepts became standard terminology in visual and cultural studies and long ago found a home at the critical end of popular culture. Adbusters regularly invokes the Situationist device of détournement to describe the tactical reversal of meanings in found material such as advertising. No student project exploring unconventional ways of experiencing the city can be explained without reference to the idea of the dérive – a ‘technique of transient passage through varied ambiences’, as the Situationists defined it. Psychogeography was the name they gave to their study of the effects of the urban environment on people’s emotions and behaviour. These days, it is the title of a column by novelist and broadcaster Will Self in a British broadsheet newspaper supplement.
There is no lack of literature on the Situationists, but Simon Ford’s The Situationist International: A User’s Guide is the first concise introduction in English to the group’s history and development. Situationist texts are not for the faint-hearted – this was a group that loved its theory – and Ford, a former librarian at the V&A, who has also written books about the rock groups Throbbing Gristle and The Fall, does a thorough, workmanlike job of highlighting the essential ideas and issues. What makes the book especially useful for anyone with a visual arts interest is that it is illustrated with many unfamiliar images of Situationist group members, projects and events.
The Situationists opposed all attempts to corral their thinking into academic discourse, or reduce their aims to easy journalistic explanations. As Ford says, they were ‘purposely elusive’, while taking pains to define themselves on their own terms. They were utterly uncompromising and expelled group members for the most minor infractions. They used exaggeration, resorted to self-mythology and seized any opportunity for scandal. Their aim was to bring about a ‘revolution of everyday life’ – the title of a Situationist text by Raoul Vaneigem – and their ideas played a key role in the May 1968 protests, when it seemed for a moment that students and workers would bring down the French government. Debord’s public announcement of the SI’s death four years later was a bid for immortality. Debord, who bulks large in this and most accounts, remained a difficult figure, drinking with self-destructive dedication, and finally, in 1994, shooting himself in the heart.
A group this media-conscious was bound to produce some highly original communications. Asger Jorn’s Fin de Copenhague (End of Copenhagen) produced with technical advice on détournement from Debord in 1957, combines action painting drips and splatters with ads and phrases cut from magazines and newspapers. It anticipates Ray Gun-era graphic design by decades and still looks astonishingly fresh (it was republished in facsimile in 1985). Ford’s visual presentation of the piece, misdated as 1959, is less careful than it should be. He shows single pages rather than spreads, reducing its impact, and two of the images are arbitrary details rather than full pages, though this is not indicated.
He also reproduces British SI member Ralph Rumney’s psychogeographic map of Venice based on photographs and short typewriter texts. This was supposed to feature in the first issue of the SI’s journal, Internationale situationniste, but Rumney delivered it two months late for unavoidable personal reasons and he was thrown out of the group. The ICA reproduced four panels in its 1989 catalogue, An endless adventure . . ., as Ford notes, though he seems unaware that all five panels were published in three issues of Ark, the Royal College of Art magazine, from 1959 to 1960.
The book closes with a consideration of the Situationists’ legacy. Sex Pistols band manager Malcolm McLaren and sleeve designer Jamie Reid inevitably feature here, as so-called ‘Pop Situationists’, but neither engaged deeply with the Situationists’ thinking. McLaren bought their magazines for the pictures, not the theory, and Reid was more inspired by the use of visual devices such as comic books and slogans as political weapons. Recent developments in culture-jamming seem more promising as a sign of the Situationists’ continuing influence on activists, but Ford’s coverage of this topic is over-reliant on Naomi Klein’s No Logo. Perhaps this can be expanded in a future edition. For anyone looking for an entry point, his fascinating survey makes a good place to start.