Here: My Futile Desire to Summarize and Introduce the Situationists

27/05/2014 13:20 BST | Updated 27/07/2014 10:59 BST

The complex mixture of art, political theory, subversion and a new way to live that is the Situationist International was described by Roberto Ohrt as a phantom avant-garde.

This is perfect: The Situationists, from their inception back in the fifties to their dissolve in the aftermath of the Paris May 1968 student uprising, were always shadow-y, obscure, impenetrable, difficult to grasp, the texts themselves were really tough to understand, it was also rather difficult to get hold of the texts themselves.

The Situationist legacy no doubt has its roots in pre-WW2 high modernism though, and the legacies of old avant-garde strands (surrealism, dada, futurism etc.). The key roots of the Situationists reside with the Lettrists. Isidore Isou, a Romanian jew, arrived to Paris in 1945 where he proposed a movement that would take language out of semantics. Isou made clear that in his mind, the Lettrists were a continuation of dada and surrealism. Andre Breton returned from his war-imposed exile in the USA in December of 1945. His return was eagerly anticipated in his role as a pre-war magus of surrealism. Upon return he staged a major 1947 exhibition Le Surrealisme en 1947, which drove a serious wedge between him and his old surrealist cronies in Paris. Breton rejected communism, and had drifted far into religious mysticism during his years in the USA. As many surrealists remaining in Paris during the war had developed close ties with communism via the French Resistance, and in opposition to Breton, the Surrealistes Revolutionnaries were formed in 1947. This organization, led by Belgian artist Christian Dotremont, reverberated across Europe during the chaotic post-war years. In December 1948 Danish artist Asger Jorn formed COBRA alongside Dotremont and Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys. A key influence for COBRA was the teachings of post-Marxist thinker Henri Lefebvre, who had written extensively on the revolutionary actions of everyday life, and how small choices and deeds in the everyday had large-scale societal ramifications when they reach critical mass. COBRA published an influential (and amazing) visually proto-punk journal with texts in French, Dutch, Danish and German. COBRA was dissolved in 1951 at a time when the prices for the paintings by the three core artists had started to sky-rocket.

Asger Jorn's tireless internationalism led to him forging bonds with German and Italian artists during the years when such communications were thoroughly tainted by the horrors of the war. He connected with the French Lettrist International member Guy Debord in 1952 via Debord's ragged, punky and mimeographed agitprop newsletter Potlatch. Debord was at this point a 22 year old rageaholic, peppering his writing with riffs on and references to Lautreamont, Aragon and Breton. Debord had moved to Paris in 1951, connecting with Isou and pursuing the Lettrist technique of defacing visual imagery and deconstructing film through scraping on the filmstrip to create aural and visual noise. Guy Debord's film 'Howlings In Favor of De Sade' premiered in early 1952 and is a splendidly unpalatable punk rock barrage.

What Kevin Repp describes as the 'subversive repurposing of images hijacked from everyday life' was a technique that Debord had in common with Asger Jorn who had utilized what was to become known as detournement during the COBRA years. Repurposed comic strips are prevalent already in the early fifties within Jorn correspondence.

By the time Debord and Jorn met, Debord had cut his ties with Lettrism, and Jorn with COBRA. The next few heady years brought a complicated and international flurry of activity. Transitional organizations mushroomed and withered up until the Situationist International was founded in July of 1957. Core tenents such as detournement, derive (drifting in the urban landscape) and psychogeography had crystallized during the preceding couple of years. Debord/Jorn's tour-de-force exercise in punk-style collage/montage, the peerless publication Fin de Copenhague had been published a few months prior to the founding of the Situationist International. Debord's Guide Psychogeographique de Paris, a map where all the parts of town deemed 'unnecessary' had been whited out was published roughly at the same time.

For the following years until the Situationist International was disbanded in 1971, strong bonds were forged with protest movements throughout Europe. The focal point was the publication Internationale Situationniste, funded by Jorn selling his now quite expensive paintings, and printed handsomely with each of the twelve consecutive issues sporting a wrapper in a different metallic hue until the publication terminated in September of 1969. The magazine included rants and essays, propaganda and infighting, and is a fascinating insight into how an avant-garde political and aesthetic ideology furls and unfurls in realtime. The Situationist International also staged congresses during these years where the members could confront and fine-tune.

Cracks started appearing almost immediately. Expressed simply, the friction resided in the revolutionary role of art. Debord and pals found art as more or less useless for furthering a revolutionary narative, the German, Dutch and Scandinavian members disagreed and were promptly expelled and/or left the Situationist International. Constant Nieuwenhuys left in 1961, and Asger Jorn in 1962 (Jorn continued to finance the publication). This schism ultimately led to situationist-inspired groups sprouting up all over the place. In Holland, the prankist proto-punk radical group the Provos appeared around 1964/1965, in New York teenage street anarchists rallied around publications such as Resurgence and Black Mask around the same time providing the ground-swell for New York Provo and the Up Against The Wall Mother-fuckers, who saw London simpaticos King Mob and the Angry Brigade appearing in 1966/1967.

Direct action pranks/agitprop events of a splendidly inspired magnitude came to pass:

The Up Against The Wall Motherfuckers appearing at Macy's dressed as Santa Claus handing out goods as presents to customers, with ensuing chaos, King Mob restaging the same event at Selfridge's in London the following year, students at the University of Strasbourg infiltrating the student union and using university funds to publish the sublime pamphlet 'De La Misere En Mileau Etudiant' (On The Misery of Student Life) in 1966 alongside the detourne'd comic broadside Le Retour de la Colonne Durutti. On The Misery of Student Life took on a life of its own, reproduced numerous times in a multitude of languages during 1967 and 1968, continuing to this day. The broadside was reprinted, translated and published in international underground magazines, providing the visual stimuli of hard-contrast chiaroscuro imagery and jagged, crooked sloppy lettering.

Two publications appeared in 1967 with enormous ramifications for all aspects of punk and the counter-culture to this day: Raoul Vaneigem's The Revolution of Everyday Life and Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle. Where Vaneigem follows in the footsteps of Lefebvre, outlining how revolutionary conduct is informed by everyday conduct, Debord's book is a difficult but ultimately truly rewarding text on our collective inhabitation of a world of appearances, where we do not directly live our lives, we only consume them as a spectacle. This text, alongside Marshall McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage were published roughly at the same time, and has predicted internet-driven alienation in a manner as vanguard as Marx/Engels predicting the upheavals of the early 20th century in Das Kapital in 1867.

Go read all three, they are awesome and have inspired everything that we like, think and rate! Come to think of it, no harm in reading Das Kapital as well.

The Situationists had figured quite a lot of stuff out before it actually happened: The notion of a spectacular society that keeps us distracted for the duration of our lifetime, prohibiting our function as a collective challenging what enslaves us, or what saddens us, or how we collectively get isolated into a gnarly version of Leibniz' monads, was identified in texts by Jorn, Nieuwenhuys, Debord and Vaneigem. All of us, right now, not being able to realize that the substance of society is a congregation of monads, and that such a congregation simply does not function if emotions, ideology and thought are consumed in an alienated fashion by the filter/metaphor of the screen is some severe situationist truth right there.

Is there anything we can do? Well: Debord focuses on the syndicalist and anarcho-syndicalist organizational method of revolutionary workers' councils as a technique in struggle against oppression, something which came to be realized in the events in Paris in May of 1968, and in trickle-down, how squats, alternative book shops, punk rock record companies and street activism were run throughout the seventies up until the advent of the internet.

The act of detournement works wonders if you ask me. McLaren/Westwood slapping two gay cowboys naked from the waist down on a fashionista t-shirt in 1974 is no less brilliant than Duchamp signing a porcelain wee-wee station or legions of smirking youth adding new subtitles to a Youtube segment of the Hitler-in-the-bunker film Downfall.

Psychogeography works as an apt function of how to maintain happiness in the situationist city: Drifting: the derive as a means of humanizing the cityscape, and providing your business and emotional interaction into random little acts of kindness in the everyday, based not solely on comfort zone and the known, but as much on a derive bringing you to a strange and unfamiliar newsagent, baker, subway stop or all-night diner, providing societal points of contact with strangers in meatspace, to counter-act how our interaction with strangers in cyberspace peels away our humanity, revealing socio-biological snarl and/or rejection within seconds of us not being provided with something instantly gratifying.

One could argue that what the situationists called unitary urbanism has come to pass, and didn't turn out that great. It echoes in brutalist architecture, in the corporate cubicle office space, and in how we move en masse through the cityscape. When Constant Nieuwenhuys assembled the thinking that supported his New Babylon project, where different part of the city made you feel, think and sense different things block after block, building after building, I don't think he was striving for a sexy Disneyland or a humanist Las Vegas, but for a cityscape that allows us as beings to move through it as a vibrant and emotionally rewarded collective. The Situationist City that came to pass, though, is Lagos or Mexico City or Rio de Janeiro: The impermanent transitional megapolis where life is in flux, and the emotional palate ranges from fear to desperation to devastation, and economical necessity prevents utopian daydreams from happening except among bourgeois intellectual luxury consumers buying t-shirts stenciled with 'Be Reasonable, Demand the Impossible'.

Is there anything we can do? Well, yeah! Punk showed us, hip hop showed us, community activists and grassroots organizations everywhere told us and continue to tell us to Do It Yourself and Dig Where You Stand. This is where strands of punk self-start jell with situationist theory. With maximum 20/20 hindsight, the accomplishments of the Sex Pistols, of McLaren/Westwood, of Crass, of Dischord, of myriads of bands and 'zines and labels and designers continue to humanize us, I hope, even as digital life provides a hyper-seductive portal to a purely spectacular life.

Malcolm McLaren, Bernie Rhodes and Jamie Reid were doubtlessly aware of all this going on, these strands of subversive thought certainly infused and informed their work. McLaren as a late sixties London art student, his friend Reid as a community activist and a grassroots counter-culture printer during the early seventies, and Rhodes as a masterful philosophical pub motor-mouth: The squelching of the student/worker movement in France in the Summer of 1968 was not yet perceived as a failure of the people and a success for the victors (which ultimately is incorrect, but that is a different story), underground publishing hadn't petered out, the London squat scene had its own bands, events, venues, and that curious strand of overt hipsters that Peter Yorke monickered Them, uniting social, sexual and race strata in an eternal pursuit of the abstraction of cool as a permanent carrot at the end of the bourgeois lifestyle stick by osmosis put in play all elements of hipster culture that are now immersing us like a soggy narrow-legged bath.

There are also bigger discussions that could come into play here: about radical chic, about the ability of the spectacle to turn any poison spat in its face into a delicious condiment, about whether as Homer Simpson assessed: that the base tenure of capitalism as that money can be exchanged for goods and services, and if that constitutes a bad thing or as Gibbon points out in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire the single most plausible means we have to transition wealth between generations.

What Malcolm and Vivienne (and maybe Bernie) did was utilize the strengths and methods of the situationists to flog their sublime clobber. By mistake or osmosis, that resulted in the get up and get on with it cultural espresso of seventies punk continuing to trickle down, to inspire to wake some up and make some dream.