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It is rare for an art movement to be completely original. The go forward meanings of avant-garde do not mean that its movements are a tabula rasa and this is certainly true for Situationism. Spurred by many previous concepts, this artistic and political movement started emerging during the early 1960s in France and it experimented with the idea of constructing a situation – hence the name. Constructing a situation was setting up an environment favorable for the fulfillment of a particular desire. This was the main concept for all representatives of Situationism. All of the initial theories concerning the development of this movement came from an organization called Situationist International (often referred to simply as SI) – a group whose activities we shell investigate to detail in the remainder of this text.
It should be noted that Situationism as an art movement did not produce too many artworks – as a matter of fact, if one somehow takes Asger Jorn and his pieces out of the Situationist equation, the movement’s output is next to none. However, Situationism is credited with providing some of the most revolutionary theories at the time, concepts that heavily impacted the art scenes for decades. Many of their game-changing ideas can still be found in today’s contemporary art. With all of that being said, we will now investigate how the Situationist International group and Situationism as a movement came to be, as well as exploring just how influential they were to art history.
Origins of Situationism
Situationism was not born overnight nor out of thin air. Originally, it emerged as a part of Lettrism, a movement whose members were operating in the late 1940’s Paris. Naturally, the Lettrist leader Isidore Isou, a Romanian-born French poet and visual artist, had a massive impact on the development and emergence of Situationism. The Lettrists were heavily influenced by Dadaism, Surrealism and the general idea of avant-garde which aimed at challenging everything deemed as traditional. With such goals in mind, members of Lettrism attempted to apply critical theories based on these concepts to all aspects of the arts and culture. Their main guiding star was the lettrie, a term that set the very title of the movement. Lettrie was a style of poem writing which reflected pure form yet was devoid of all semantic content, a characteristic which Lettrists desired to implement in other kinds of art-making.
During the year of 1952, the radically left wing of the Lettrist movement, which actually included Guy Debord who will become the key founder of Situationism, broke off from Isou’s organization and formed the Letterist International, a new Paris-based collective of avant-garde artists and political theorists. This new artistic and literary movement will prove to be pivotal for Situationism as it provided the roots for what would become many of the key theories behind SI. The main concept which was adopted was the new theory of psychogeography – the feelings evoked in the individual by their current surroundings. Detournement also emerged at this point. This was the idea of recontextualizing an existing work of art or literature in order to radically shift its meaning to a new one which had revolutionary significance.
Emancipation From Lettrism
The official Situationist International was fully formed in the year of 1956. At that time, numerous members of the Lettrist International made contact with several different creative collectives at the First World Congress of Free Artists in Alba, Italy. Here, many young thinkers found common ground and they decided to fuse themselves in a new organization which was intended to represent their ideas better than their current groups (most members were from the Lettrist International, the London Psychogeographical Asociation and the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus). Slowly but surely emerging as the leader of the new collective, Guy Debord wrote the newly-formed Situationist International’s manifesto in the June of 1956, titling it Report on the Construction of Situations and heavily combining the agreed concepts with the ideas of Karl Marx. This is one of the reasons why SI always had problems with many aspects of capitalism. The entire manifesto was also underlined by a strong sense of Surrealism, meaning that Andre Breton also had a huge indirect say in the matter. Besides Debord, other notable members of the who have been with the Situationist International from the very start were theorist Raoul Vaneigem, the Dutch painter Constant Nieuwenhuys, the Italo-Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi, the English artist Ralph Rumney, the aforementioned Danish artist Asger Jorn, the architect Attila Kotanyi and the French writer Michele Bernstein.
It was from here on out that the Situationist International started to heavily influence arts, politics and urbanism. Its advocation of a cultural revolution and creation of Situationism made it the perfect backdrop to influence popular culture. One of their main interests was making a person living in the capitalist system see art as part of their daily living. The first four years of the Situationist International were marked mostly by the collaborations and theories presented by Guy Debord and Asger Jorn as the two unofficially became SI’s de facto leaders. The two wanted to invoke a cultural revolution within the Western society. Although the group would later swim into much more political waters than it was first intended, the Situationist International had an enormous influence on the art scenes across Europe.
The Role of Situationism Within Art
The connection between Situationism and art is extremely diverse because the members of the group came from such different backgrounds. That fact makes Situationism one of the most interesting gems of modern history to explore, but it also poses a challenge to anyone interested in such an endeavor. Another troubling occurrence to confidently analyzing the art of Situationism is that a number of members never stayed steady with their conceptual basis, constantly evolving alongside the collective.
Primarily, the SI rejected all art forms which were autonomous and detached from politics. Naturally, this led to a new definition of what art actually is, a fact that often connects the actions of SI with early Conceptualism. Guy Debord and early Situationism was heavily based on the aforementioned concept of psychogeography, presented in Guy’s Psychogeographique de Paris. In it, he took a map of the city of Paris, cut it into pieces and glued different parts together. Among other things, the newly formed map was supposed to indicate locations which were able to evoke most emotions from people standing there. Also, this version of the city is thought to be a series of linked transformable structures which were able to adapt to current needs of art. This concept became instrumental to the early French street art scene which will soon start to be emerging on the creative wings of Ernest Pignon-Ernest.
Another important novelty Situationism introduced was also pivotal for urban art as we know it today – members of the Si were the one of the first to use graffiti. These were short and powerful statements, such as the one from 1952 when Guy wrote Ne travaillez jamais! (Never work!) on various locations in Paris. Via such interventions, representatives of Situationism were using public space, altering it in order to convey a message to the public. Situationism also introduced the roots of performance art, a medium that was later continued by Fluxus artists. This form of expression also explored the way surroundings could be used in order to send a clear message to the observers.
Posters, Collages and Hypergraphy
A very modern form of artworks commonly found within the SI’s creative arsenal was their work with comics, posters and publications. Through their guerilla tactics, members would paste their propaganda around urban surroundings, often using popular comics with changed content placed in the speech bubbles. This misappropriation was called détournement. Situationism presented some new utilizations for the medium of collage as well. Asger Jorn was the one who stood out in that department. He used collages in his films as well as for his technique in which he would cover up some aspects of famous paintings, therefore changing the context of the piece.
Another interesting novelty SI adapted to their own requirements was the so-called hypergraphy, also known as metagraphics. This method was based on merging poetry and graphics, combining text and visual ways of communication. The technique was originally developed by the Lettrist movement and Asger Jorn was the one to work with it the most until he left the SI in 1961. He left because of his worsening health and disagreements concerning the events that we shall soon discuss. The moment Jorn abandoned the SI’s artistic cause is the moment many experts agree that Situationism in its finest form ceased to exist. Although he lacked the personal warmth and persuasiveness to draw people of different nationalities and talents into an active working partnership, Jorn was the creative motor of the Situationist International.
The Year of 1968 and the End of SI
After Jorn abandoned the SI, the group basically consisted almost exclusively of the Franco-Belgian section, led by Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem. These two were much more comfortable with political theories then creating pieces of art, so the entire organization was shifted to accommodate such tendencies. Observed from an artistic perspective, the group which founded the Situationism was doing next to nothing to advance it from that point on.
One of the group’s favorite activities during their political period was visiting various institutions and scandalizing the capitalistic authorities – a kind of project which placed the members in the heart of the 1968 uprisings. The May of that year was a volatile period of civil unrest in France, punctuated by demonstrations and massive general strikes as well as the occupation of universities and factories across the land. The protests reached such a point that political leaders feared civil war or revolution and many believed that the chaos was a direct result of SI’s activities. Ultimately, the chaos of 1968 served as a series of events that cemented the Situationist International as a capable and noteworthy political organization. After the uprising was brought to a halt, SI became notorious and lost many members. By the year of 1972, Gianfranco Sanguinetti and Guy Debord were the only two remaining members of the SI. The entire organization was dissolved that same year.
Effects Situationism had on Arts, Politics and Culture
As was said earlier, Situationism did not produce too many artworks, instead focusing on developing theories that had deep and long lasting effects on modern art. Other aspects of culture were affected as well – for example, Debord’s analysis of the spectacle has been influential among people working on television and the emergence of punk subculture was also inspired by the SI’s theories. The development of advertisement as we know it today also owes a lot of its aspects to Situationism.
Since much of SI’s efforts were focused on politics, it comes as no surprise that this was the field that felt their influence the most. Communists and other leftists were fascinated with Situationism and its ideas, regularly incorporating their concepts within their political guides. Dislocating the SI’s concepts from Marxism, anarchists also held some aspects of Situationism in high regard, allowing it to influence both the music industry and all levels of punk design.
As for art scenes, it is possible to trace Situationist ideas within the development of other avant-garde threads such as Neoism, as well as artists such as Mark Divo. As it was mentioned before, SI’s theories helped set the course of the French street art scene which later served as an inspiration for urban interventionists on a global level. Due to its concepts of using an environment, SI also impacted the rise and evolution of Installation art, as well as Performance. Ultimately, Situationism as an art movement offered the authors a new perspective that was applicable to all levels and kinds of art making, proving that avant-garde was far from dead and that pieces of art were more than capable of playing a pivotal role within our societies. Situationist International may have turned a lot of its attention to politics, but their true legacy can be found echoing throughout art history.
Editors’ Tip: What is Situationism?: A Reader
This anthology gathers together a broad range of critical material about the Situationist International. The texts run sequentially according to date of original publication, thereby providing an overview of the way in which situationism has been historicised in the Anglo-American world. A wealth of historical and interpretative information is provided by various contributors. This plurality of voices ranges from underground legends to art theorists, ultra-leftists to professional academics, whose opinions blend and clash to provide a book that is far more vibrant than a conventional monograph. Contributors include Sadie Plant, Chris Gray, Bob Black, Alastair Bonnett, Stewart Home, Jean Barrot and George Robertson. Ultimately, this book offers an overview and analysis of Situationism, one of the most interesting art movements of the second half of the 20th century.
Elliot, K., Situationism in a nutshell, Barbelith Webzine, 2008
Barrot, J., What is Situationism?, Flatland, 1991
Knabb, K., Situationist International Anthology, Bureau of Public Secrets; Revised & Expanded edition, 2006
Nabuco, J., Situationism: A Compendium Kindle Edition, Schiffer Publishing, 2012
Debord, G., Chtcheglov, I., Jorn, A., Vaneigem, R., Khayati, M., What is Situationism? A Reader, AK Press; 1st US, 2001