Situationist

The Situationist International (SI) was an internationalist European revolutionary group founded in 1957, and which reached its peak of influence in the general strike of May 1968 in France.  The Situationist movement is of particular interest when examining visual propaganda, as it was one of their primary activities and its creation weaved into the very fabric of their movement.  Their philosophy was rooted in both politics and art, a hybrid of Marxism and the 20th century avaunt-garde.  They were primarily concerned with the Marxist concepts of commodification, reification and alienation. Guy Debord, a key figure of S.I., wrote Society of the Spectacle in which he describes the effects that commodification and reification has on people stating that “The spectacle is an extension of the idea of reification where what ‘was directly lived has moved away into a representation,’ all real relationships having been replaced by that of relationships with commodities, and where commodities have a life of their own – ‘the autonomous movement of the non-living” [1].  The spectacle is 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.

To break from these experiences they advocated experiences of life alternative to those admitted by advanced capitalism, for the fulfillment of human desires. For this purpose they suggested and experimented with the “construction of situations,” (hence the name situationist) – namely, the setting up of environments favorable for the fulfillment of such desires.  The creation of such an environment was sometimes done through Détournement.  Détournement, if it can be put simply, is plagiarism where both the source and the meaning of the original work is subverted to create a new work.  Inspired by it’s Dada cousin, détournement was a relatively new artform – in its most basic form it sought to create copy and pasted mainstream images superimposed with revolutionary (situationist) context.  To understand the essence of détournement, it is useful to understand its converse: recuperation.  Recuperation occurs when originally subversive works and ideas are themselves appropriated by mainstream media.  A readily seen example of this is the corporate selling of Che Guevara T-Shirts.

A Che Guevara T-Shirt; At one time available at the GAP

From A User’s Guide to Détournement: “The literary and artistic heritage of humanity should be used for partisan propaganda purposes. It is, of course, necessary to go beyond any idea of mere scandal. 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” [2].  In A User’s Guide, Guy Debord and Gil Wolman succinctly define the two most common forms of détournement and four rules for guiding its creation, here shared is the single most common form and what they consider a primary, critical, and universal rule:

“Minor détournement is the détournement of an element which has no importance in itself and which thus draws all its meaning from the new context in which it has been placed. For example, a press clipping, a neutral phrase, a commonplace photograph.  It is the most distant detourned element which contributes most sharply to the overall impression, and not the elements that directly determine the nature of this impression” [2].

In this way, the situationists created art that exemplified the statement ‘Good artists borrow, great artists steal’;  A quote from S.I. themselves reads: “There is no Situationist art, only Situationist uses of art”.

Through the use of détournement, situationists sought to show that the powers that be can never fully recuperate created meanings as well as expose and draw attention to the spectacle that pervades our lives.  By doing this they hoped they could bring about a proletarian revolution that would result in people doing activities for the sheer joy it brings them, rather than capitalist interests.

In 1967 S.I. began attracting widespread public appeal, particularly amongst students.  No political group can claim ’68 – it was a mass spontaneous outburst, not instigated or led directly by any external power, however the S.I. is widely regarded as having been a primary inspiration for the events that transpired in May of ’68.    To give a simplified overview of these events:  In the first week of May students of Nanterre University began protesting university funding, bureaucracy and class discrimination.  By the end of the first week roughly 20,000 teachers and students engaged in what culminated into a riot with police.  Hundreds of students as well as police were injured.  As protests escalated throughout the second week, on May 13th one million people marched through Paris and Prime Minister Georges Pompidou personally announced the release of the prisoners and the reopening of the Sorbonne. This did not appease the protestors and following several more marches and sit-down strikes, by May 18th over 2 million workers were on strike – within a mere few days this number escalated to 10 million.  This strike was not organized by any party or union.  Slogan’s were largely crafted by S.I. including “Long live the Commune”, “Boredom is counterrevolutionary”, and “Down with spectacle-commodity society”.  By the 31st of May, and the government seemed close to collapsing, de Gaulle announced the dissolution of the National Assembly, with elections to follow on 23 June. He ordered workers to return to work, threatening to institute a state of emergency if they did not, and, eventually, most of them did. [3]

Create or Die

 

While the strikes and occupations ensued, on May 16th students and faculty staff took over the Ecole des Beaux Arts and established the Atelier Populaire (the Popular Workshop). The group produced hundreds of silkscreen posters in an unprecedented outpouring of political graphic art and propaganda for the cause. In a statement, the Atelier Populaire declared 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” [4].

 

The police post themselves at the School of Fine Arts – the Fine Arts' students poster the streets.
The police post themselves at the School of Fine Arts – the Fine Arts’ students poster the streets.

 

As Peter Wollen notes, “their [S.I.’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” [5].  The people who participated in the May of ’68 uprising truly believed they were in the midst of a revolution, and they almost were.  S.I.’s influence could be seen on pamphlets, graffiti, posters, and slogans around every corner and it was based almost solely on the propaganda they created.  S.I. has a truly unique place amongst social movements, in that it had no access to any form of institutionalized power (government, union leadership, education), no formal public organization – they had only the art they created and it reverberated throughout a nation.

An S.I. poster from May of ’68: I participate, you participate, he participates, we participate, they enjoy (they profit).

CLICK HERE TO VIEW A GALLERY OF SITUATIONIST ART


[1] Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red, 1970. Print.

[2] Debord, Guy, Gil Wolmen, and Ken Knabb. “A User’s Guide to Détournement.” Les Lèvres Nues 8 (1956). Print.

[3] Ed. “1968 : A Chronology of Events in France and Internationally.” Libcom.org. 8 Sept. 2006. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <http://libcom.org/history/articles/france-1968>.

[4] http://www.creativereview.co.uk/cr-blog/2008/april/may-1968-a-graphic-uprising

[5] Wollen, Peter. “Situationist International.” New Left Review 174 (1989): 67-93. Print.

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