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Situationist was defined in the journal Internationale Situationniste as,"having to do with the theory or practical activity of constructing situations" and "situationism" as, "a meaningless term improperly derived from the above. There is no such thing as situationism, which would mean a doctrine of interpretation of existing facts. The notion of situationism is obviously devised by antisituationists"

History and overview

The Situationist International (SI) was an international political and artistic movement. The SI was founded in the Italian village of Cosio d'Arroscia on 28th July 1957 with the fusion of several extremely small artistic tendencies: the Lettrist International ; the International movement for an imaginist Bauhaus; and the London Psychogeographical Association. This fusion traced further influences from COBRA, Dada, Surrealism, and Fluxus, as well as inspirations from the Workers Councils of the Hungarian Uprising.

The most prominent member of the group was Guy Debord, about whom opinion is somewhat divided. Some describe him as having provided the theoretical clarity within the group; others say that he excercised dictatorial control over the development and membership of the group. Other members were the Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi; the English artist Ralph Rumney (sole member of the London psycho-geographical society. Rumney was excluded relatively soon after the Situationist International was formed); the Scandinavian vandal-cum-artist Asger Jorn; the veteran of the Hungarian Uprising Attila Kotanyi; the French writer Michele Bernstein; and Raoul Vaneigem. Debord later became Bernstein's husband.

One way or another, the currents which the SI took as predecessors saw their purpose as being about a radical redefinition of the role of art in the Twentieth Century. The Situationists themselves took a dialectical viewpoint, seeing their task as superseding art, abolishing the notion of art as a separate, specialized activity and transforming it so was part of fabric of everyday life. From the Situationist viewpoint, art is revolutionary or it is nothing. In this way, the Situationists saw their efforts as completing the work of both Dada and Surrealism while abolishing both. Still, the Situationists answered the question "What is revolutionary?" differently at different times.

The SI experienced splits and expulsions from its beginning. The one prominent split in the group resulted in the Paris section retaining the name Situationist International while the Scandinavian section organised under the name of Gruppe SPUR. While the entire history of the Situationists was marked by their impetus to revolutionize life, the split between the French and the Scandinavian sections marked a transition from the Situationist view of revolution possibly taking an "artistic" form to it taking an unambiguously "political" form.

Those who followed the "artistic" view of the SI might view the evolution of SI as producing a more boring or dogmatic organization. Those following the political view would see the May 1968 uprisings] as a logical outcome of the SI's syncretic approach: while savaging present day society, they sought a kind of utopia in the fusion of the positive tendencies of capitalist development. The "realization and suppression of Art" is only one of many supercessions which the SI sought over the years. For Situationist International of 1968, the world triumph of workers councils would bring about all these supercessions.

[need paragraph on SI involvement in May 68, including occupation of the Sorbonne by the situs & Enrages...]

The SI was dissolved in 1972, but despite their membership never having risen above 40 at any one time (and sometimes numbering as few as 10), the importance of Situationist ideas have continued to echo profoundly through many aspects of culture and politics in Europe and the USA.

The Situationist movement was a strong influence on the UK punk rock phenomenon of the 1970s for example, which in itself could be said to have changed the English cultural landscape during the last quarter of the twentieth century. To a significant extent this was due to the Situ-literate inputs of Malcolm McLaren, Vivienne Westwood and particularly Jamie Reid into the marketing and imagery of the Sex Pistols.

Situationist ideas can also be traced within the development of other radical currents within society such as the Angry Brigade, Class War, Neoism and more recent Reclaim the Streets, Ad-Busters campaigns and the Libre Society.

Classic Situationist texts include "Open Creation and its Enemies" by Asger Jorn, "Society of the Spectacle" by Guy Debord, "The Revolution Of Everyday Life" and "The Book Of Pleasures" by Raoul Vaneigem, "Leaving The 20th Century" edited by Chris Gray and "The Situationist International Anthology" edited by Ken Knabb.

Also of interest is an earlier book produced by Debord in pre-SI times, called "Memoires," the original edition of which featured a sandpaper cover. The idea was that it would destroy any books that were placed either side of it on the shelf, thus serving as a metaphor for the supercession of 'old ideas' by a radical avant-garde. This idea is also an interesting forerunner of the SI's later determination not to be 'recuperated' and thus rendered harmless by spectacular society, instead remaining aloof and refusing to 'explain' themselves or their ideas.

Many of the original Situationist texts tend to be rather dense and inaccessible. However during the early 1980's English Anarchist Larry Law produced a series of 'pocket-books' under the name of "Spectacular Times" which aimed to make Situationist theory more easily understood. However some people feel that the theory was much reduced by this process.

More recently, a book called The Situationist City by Simon Sadler (MIT 1998 ISBN 0-262-69552-2), focuses on Constant's unitary urbanism vision but also provides a useful overall perspective.

Key ideas in Situationist theory

Ideas central to Situationist theory include:

The Situation, a notion which had been circulating in philosophical, scientific and artistic circles for some time. Asger Jorn was greatly influenced by Niels Bohr, and we can see within the concept of situation a connection with the notion of locality in Quantum physics.

The Spectacular society. "We live in a spectacular society, that is, our whole life is surrounded by an immense accumulation of spectacles. Things that were once directly lived are now lived by proxy. Once an experience is taken out of the real world it becomes a commodity. As a commodity the spectacular is developed to the detriment of the real. It becomes a substitute for experience."- Larry Law, from Images And Everyday Life, a 'Spectacular Times' pocket book.

"The spectacle is not a collection of images but a social relation among people mediated by images... The spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living... The liar has lied to himself"- Guy Debord

The Situationists would argue that by means of the spectacular society, all aspects of our culture and experience is mediated in order to disguise and protect the interests of those who hold real power.

Recuperation. "To survive, the spectacle must have social control. It can recuperate a potentially threatening situation by shifting ground, creating dazzling alternatives- or by embracing the threat, making it safe and then selling it back to us"- Larry Law, from The Spectacle- The Skeleton Keys, a 'Spectacular Times pocket book.

"Ha! You think it's funny? Turning rebellion into money?"- The Clash, White Man In The Hammersmith Palais.

Recuperation is the process by which the spectacle takes a radical or revolutionary idea and repackages it as a saleable commodity. An ironic example of recuperation, it could be argued, was the 1989 Situationist exhibition at the ICA gallery in London's Mall, wherin both original situationist manifestos, and contemporary Pro-Situ influenced works (records, fanzines, samizdat-style leaflets and propaganda) were presented as museum artifacts for the mass consumption of the art establishment. This event of course contrasts sharply to the occasion when the Situationist International gave a presentation at the ICA themselves, which famously ended when an audience member asked the group "what is situationism?" to which one of them answered "we are not here to answer cuntish questions" before marching off to the bar.

Detournment; "short for: detournment of pre-existing aesthetic elements. The integration of past or present artistic production into a superior construction of a milieu. In this sense there can be no Situationist painting or music, but only a Situationist use of these means.", Internationale Situationiste issue 1, June 1958.

Detournment could be said to be the opposite side of the coin to 'recuperation' (where radical ideas and images are made safe and commodified), in that images produced by the spectacle are altered and subverted so that rather than supporting the status quo, their meaning is changed in order to put across a more radical or oppositionist message. Such a pro-situ technique can be seen in action in the present day when looking at the work of Culture Jammers including Ad Busters 1, whose 'subvertisements' 'detourn' Nike adverts, for example. In this case the original advertisement's imagery is altered in order to draw attention to said company's policy of shifting their production base to cheap labour cost third world 'Free trade Zones'. However, it can be a thin (or at least very fuzzy) line between 'recuperation' and 'detournment' at times, as Naomi Klein points out in her book No Logo. Here she details how Culture Jammers and Ad Busters have been approached (sometimes successfully) by corporations such as Nike, Pepsi or Deisel and offered lucrative contracts in return for partaking in 'ironic' promotional campaigns. She points up further irony by drawing attention to merchandising produced in order to promote Ad Busters' Buy Nothing day, an example of the recuperation of detournment (or of culture eating itself) if ever there was one. In contrast, evoL PsychogeogrAphix are very fond of pointing out the differences between 'detournment', the postmodern idea of appropriation and the Neoist use of plagiarism as the use of similar techniques used for different means, effects and causes.


"It is forbidden to forbid"- Il est interdit d'interdire - Anonymous graffiti, Paris 1968

"Be realistic- demand the impossible!"- Soyez réalistes, demandez l'impossible! - Anonymous graffiti, Paris 1968

"Beneath the pavement- the beach!"- Sous les pavés, la plage! - Anonymous graffiti, Paris 1968

"Never work" - Ne travaillez jamais - Anonymous graffiti, Paris 1968

"People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth"- Raoul Vaneigem, "The Revolution Of Everyday Life"

See also

Members of the Situationist International, Jamie Reid, Stewart Home, King Mob, Black Mask, Chris Gray Band, Psychogeography, Surrealism, Fluxus, Dada, Watts, Provos, Anarchism, Anarchism in the arts, No Logo, sniggle, International Workingmen's Association, Libre Society