Illegitimate Heirs of the Situationists
Forty years after the dissolution of the Situationist International, the society of the spectacle remains dominant and highly evolved. Today activists and artists continue to ask how to fight it, how to escape it. Our (1) interest in the theory and practice of the situationists is not that of experts, critics art historians, nor even of exegetists. We feel we are “illegitimate heirs” to the situationists and our interest in their theory and practice is generated by our own research and practice, as city dwellers, artists and activists. In short: the situationists interest us because we want to understand which of their discoveries might still useful tools even today. In our case, the testing ground is the urban conflict around the Isola district of Milan, which is undergoing neoliberal development, carried out by Berlusconi and the populist right, together with powerful American and Italian property developers, with the consent of the center-left.
Over the last decade, the Isola Art Center and out-ufficio per la trasformazione urbana (“out-office for urban transformation”) have repeatedly found themselves confronted with situationist concepts (2), and perhaps it is no coincidence that the last exhibition that we were able to organize, in the ex-factory of the Stecca degli artigiani before our eviction, bore the title SituazionIsola.
The following text attempts to outline some points that unite us with the situationists, or that separate us from them. It will be necessary to take into account the fact that in the fifteen years of the history of the Situationist International (1957-1972) theory and practice did not present themselves as a monolithic block. Some concepts were fairly fixed and others evolved after the expulsion of artistic currents, which were particularly strong in the Italian, Dutch and German sections. In addition, as Gianfranco Marelli points out: “… even in these purely artistic areas, the situationist démarche pays the price for being an organization without a common project for its militants, who – indeed – prove to have different interpretations of and judgments on the key concepts of their theory, such as the concept of Unitary Urbanism itself, the “dérive”, situationist constructs …”(3).
The form of international organisation chosen by the Letterists and then the situationists remains current today. The reason is not so much tradition or nostalgia, but practical necessity. The accumulation of capital is an international process and globalization reminds us of this fact every day, which is today more tangible than in the time of the situationists. A national or local reality can only be understood and changed by taking international dynamics into consideration.
This brings us closer to people from both nearby and faraway countries. The artist Dan Perjovschi from Bucharest affirms that in his city the real estate agents act in the same way as in Milan. Hines, the Texan multinational involved in construction in the Isola neighborhood in Milan is also involved in construction in a popular neighborhood in Gdansk, Poland, where the inhabitants oppose it with the slogan “Fuck the Towers!”. The search for political alternatives, theoretical research and artistic research are today international practices. They can certainly be articulated nationally and locally, but the framework of the analysis can only be international. In the field of urban struggle we have established contacts with similar groups and similar collectives: in Hamburg with Park Fiction, in Vilnius with Pro-test Lab, in Paris with Atelier d’Architecture Autogérée, in London with Public Works and in Zurich with the philosopher Gerald Raunig. Apart from these ongoing collaborations, we work in a more sporadic manner with Argentine, Turkish, Albanian, German and Russian artists. Closer collaboration or international coordination will surely arise from concrete experiences and convergences.
The Critique of Urban Planning
“Urbanism is capitalism’s seizure of the natural and human environment; developing logically into absolute domination, capitalism can and must now remake the totality of space into its own setting”, writes Debord (4). To this, Raoul Vaneigem adds: “As public relations, the ideal urbanism is the conflict-free projection in space of the social hierarchy. Roadways, lawns, natural flowers and artificial forests lubricate the gears of subjection, render it lovable” (5). In essence, nothing has changed today. Vaneigem’s quote could be used to describe the simulation of the landscape around the tree-lined towers of the “Bosco Verticale” (Vertical Forest) designed by architect Stefano Boeri and built on the rubble of the “Stecca degli artigiani” that we formerly occupied. While the situationists devoted much of their criticism to the city built for the automobile and public housing as a tool of separation and domination, we are undergoing a more recent phenomenon affecting the metropolis: gentrification, the post-industrial neighborhood in which we work faces the violence of an urban transformation that pushes the poor out to make room for luxury homes and shops, combined with high spec offices. In recent years, house prices have quadrupled in the Isola district. The symbol of this process is the transformation of the former city headquarters of the communist party “il bottegino” in Via Volturno 33 into a tower of luxury homes. Saskia Sassen summarized the situation in a few words: “The social elevation of a neighborhood taken to the extreme, as seems to me to be happening with the urban intervention in question, inserts a certain politics into urban space: too much displacement, too much power that drives the poorer out, giving rise to an equally political reaction” (6).
Fighting gentrification presents a difficult struggle. To begin with, there is a need for this mechanism of territorial class struggle from above to be divulged widely, as in Italy it is only beginning to be studied late. One model of opposition could be the “Recht auf Stadt” movement (“Right to the City”) of Hamburg, with whom we are in contact through Park Fiction (7).
To be at the forefront or at the center of a social movement?
To this strategic question we clearly give a different answer from that of the situationists. The cause of this divergence is perhaps the fact that we have a less apocalyptic approach to the world. In 1972 Guy Debord and Gianfranco Sanguinetti wrote, in the Theses on the Situationist International and Its Time, that the “collapse of a world” has begun, that the new era is “profoundly revolutionary” and that “at all levels one cannot and does not want to go on as before” (8). From the conviction held in the imminent revolution one can deduce the avant-garde role claimed by the situationists. Half a century later, it must be acknowledged that it is not the old capitalist world that collapsed but, rather, the Situationist International.
The Leninist concept of the avant-garde taken from the military vocabulary is today even questioned by revolutionary organizations and movements. We do not consider ourselves to be a vanguard, but rather part of a vast social movement that is being built in a process that is uneven and blended. Our goal is not to become “a Conspiracy of Equals, a major state that does not want troops” (9). Our forms of organization to intervene in the social conflict that determines the transformation of the city, Isola Art Center and out can be defined as open platforms, free from sectarianism. We don’t have much to teach, but a lot to learn through this struggle. Our intention is to maintain and make fertile the union of artists and activists by refusing the creation of “hyperpolitical” (10) organizations.
One of the central slogans of the “hyper-political” situationist organization was “All power to workers councils!”, yet their social base and their audience were reduced to artists, intellectuals and students. They formed a vanguard of theorists and activists cut off from the mass of workers. To resolve this contradiction, they did not decide to enter the workers’ world like other forms of the far left of that time. Instead they reduced their function to the preparation of a hypothetical “big night” for the revolution: “We organize only the detonator: the free explosion will have to escape us definitively, and escape any other control” (11)
It seems correct to us to declare that it would require a permanent revolutionary process at a planetary level to change the world and life itself, nevertheless it is also true that it is necessary to invent in each epoch collectively the mode to arrive there. At the base of each revolution resides the self-organisation of the masses into committees for the struggle that take on different names. These new organisms can then impose themselves on the political situation as a counter-powers to direct democracy. This self-organisation does not limit itself to the productive sphere of workers councils, (what today we would rather call “employee councils”, so as to include clerks and temporary employees), but also in the places of study, in living spaces and working class zones. During the recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, popular committees for the defense of the revolution were born that have their origin in neighborhood defense committees. Our work in the neighborhoods focuses on preparing for the emergence of this type of structure.
What can be done with Art?
The situationist analysis of capitalist society and of eastern societies temporarily removed from capitalism is pertinent, and remains so, although today we can see that certain predictions and deductions were wrong. Like a common thread, this Marxist analysis develops from the Rapport sur la construction des situations of 1957, to the Society of the Spectacle 1966 and to the Theses on the Situationist International and its Time of 1972. Even the most specific concepts remain current, such as that of the spectacle, of the domination of goods, of separation, of alienation, of the critique of everyday life, together with concepts for action such as, for example, “unitary urbanism”.
As artists and activists we must ask ourselves an essential question, which was also fundamental for the situationists: What are the premises for the labor of artists in capitalist society? Is art part of the “spectacle”, is it a “social gap” or does it allow for the “realization of philosophy”? It is possible to affirm that the art systems and their producers (artists, critics, curators), its public institutions (museums, art centers, biennials, major international exhibitions, Public Art projects, academies), and its private institutions (galleries, fairs, auctions, collectors, art magazines) form a “social interstice” wherein a different logic prevails, as an alternative to the laws of capitalist society as Nicolas Bourriaud argues in his book “Relational Aesthetics,” which created a furore in the art world. Or is it true that these systems work with the same logic and are an integral part of capitalist society?
Bourriaud writes: “For us, beyond its mercantile character or its semantic value, the work of art represents a social interstice. The term interstice was used by Karl Marx to describe exchange communities that elude the capitalist economic context by being removed from the law of profit: barter, merchandising, autarkic types of production, etc (…) [they suggest] other trading possibilities than those in effect in the system. This is the precise nature of the contemporary art exhibition in the arena of representational commerce: it creates free areas, and time spans whose rhythm contrasts with those structuring everyday life, and it encourages an inter-human commerce that differs from the ‘communication zones’ that are imposed upon us” (12).
The situationists do not believe in these free spaces because “the majority of today’s artists cannot naturally overcome the contradiction that exists between their actual place in production, the place that is accorded to them, and the concrete search for an entirely new place of a new job putting into practice the idea of a total experimentation” (13). The situationists started from the Marxist premise that we live in a class society where the proletariat and the bourgeoisie face off. They intended to change this society with a proletarian revolution that they thought to be immanent. According to them the task of “real” art is to prepare and trigger the revolution. In this process it is necessary to “deny art to realize it” in a dialectical way, because in reality in the end it is the proletariat that must realize art. “The realization of communism will be the transformation of the work of art in the totality of everyday life”(14).
For Bourriaud, capitalist society is not an obstacle to the experimentation of art, while for the situationists the realization of art passes necessarily through the change of society and daily life. Bourriaud writes: “Contrary to what Debord thought, for all he saw in the art world was a reservoir of examples of what had to be tangibly “achieved” in day-to-day life, artistic praxis appears these days to be a rich loam for social experiments, like a space partly protected from the uniformity of behavioral patterns. The works we shall be discussing here outline so many handson utopias” (15). Most of the artists that Bourriaud cites as examples of a new relational approach to the production of art are today among the most popular on the market. And to a good part of relational works one could apply Debord’s observation “that apparently it is an attempt of dialogue, of social meeting in an age where the urban environment atomises individuals ever more. Yet this attempt is in reality the denial of dialogue, because people are gathered to decide on a whole lot of nothing; to discuss under the wrong pretext, with the wrong means” (16).
For the situationists, the dialectical relationship between artistic research and the transformation of society is a major problem. Jorn writes that artistic value represents “the opposite of utilitarian value (called material)”, which is a “progressive value because it corresponds to the valorization of man himself, through a process of provocation” (17). The problem arises out of the fact that the system of art is very adept at transforming any discovery, even the most radical, into a commodity, and thus recovering it. This capacity is one of the key mechanisms of capitalism, which transforms everything it can, even anti-capitalist books, into commodities.
Instead of working with the contradictions that characterise art production, which becomes a potential commodity within the capitalist system, the situationists preferred to simply eliminate the problem by excluding the artist. By cutting out the artistic antithesis of the “hyper-political” the tension dies and the dialectic comes to a halt. The only artist who remains up until the end of the International is Guy Debord.
A somewhat naive story illustrates the problem: In the experimental laboratory of Alba in Liguria, Pinot Gallizio and Giors Melanotte developed the concept of “industrial painting”. In May 1959, at the Galerie Drouin in Paris, they presented “the cave of antimatter”, a kind of tent created with three immense canvases, perfumed with herbal resins and illuminated in a particular way. The exhibition was a success with the public though “The initial shock was immediately followed by the process of the reintegration of this aesthetic experience into the art market, thanks to the purchase of Gallizio’s canvases as if they were any other artistic work. This was barely helped by the situationist attempt to increase the sale price (from 10,000 to 40,000 lire) and to produce longer canvases in order to increase the inflationary principle”(18).
The situationists who did not foresee this commercial success decided to exhibit industrial painting from then on in larger spaces outside the gallery circuit. Debord explained to Gallizio that the “cave of antimatter” did not correspond to the construction of a situation but only to the construction of an atmosphere: “1. because the work is concerned only with decoration; 2. And above all because this decoration has been built in an art gallery, hence a place where we can create a shocking scandal, but which is basically to us hostile, unfavorable” (19).
The Situationist International has dissolved, Debord is dead, the problem of art as a commodity remains unresolved, perhaps today even more drastically than half a century ago.
Some post-situationist concepts
Noting that the overcoming of art and the realization of art by the proletariat have ended in a blind alley, it is necessary to resume artistic and political experimentation from the point where the situationists left it. Ten years of work and reflection have not been enough to formulate a new coherent theory of the relationship between politics and contemporary art. We think, however, that we have produced some useful fragments and concepts for such a theory that we would like to propose to those who today ask the question of how to act in the metropolis.
We can start by distinguishing between a cold, calm and controlled situation, and a hot situation, full of conflicts and potential struggles. In a hot situation new avenues for art are opened. Our research has led us from site specific art to fight specific art, from the white cube to the dirty cube, from the dirty cube to the dispersed center. The most suitable form of organization for conveying the fight specific art that we have identified is the platform.
In order not to get stuck conceptually, we have opted for a pragmatic attitude. Taking note of the unresolved question of the mercantile side of art, a source of tribulation for the situationists, we have faced the contradiction by simply organizing auctions of works of art to finance the appeals of neighborhood associations against urban planning. Initiatives that have not prevented us from pursuing our research into an art suitable for the struggle.
To describe the forms of art related to urban struggle, we coined the concept of fight specific art. The decision to take a clear stand for the movement and to help create alternatives for the citizens, standing against the neoliberal policies of the rulers and the building speculation of the multinationals, requires an extension of the concept of site specific (specific to the site, or in situ) towards this new concept of fight specific (specific to the fight). The decisive element of the site resides in the people who live and work there. If people start organizing and moving, fight specific art becomes possible. Fight specific art is not always possible, but depends on a hot situation, which means a situation of conflict and struggle. Via its intervention, art can help transform a cold situation into a hot situation.
In this sense, works such as the Rosta posters of Russian artists like Maiakowski, Cerjomnych, Maliutin, Lavinski and many others can be defined as fight specific works made to support the Soviet revolution (an experience referred to by the Isola Rosta Project), John Heartfield’s collages for the German anti-fascist struggle in the twenties and thirties, and posters and postcards painted by artists such as Mirò to support the republic during the Spanish civil war. More recently, the statements by the Situationist International within the movement of ’68, the work of the artist Emory Douglas in support of the Black Panther Party in the United States in the 1970s (20), the Dazibao project in support of the extra-parliamentary opposition movements of Group Material at Union Square, New York, in 1983, the gentrification project “If you lived here …” by Martha Rosler for Dia Foundation in New York in 1983, the speeches of the Vienna VolxTheaterKarawane at the G8 in Genoa in 2001 and at the “no border camp” in Strasbourg in 2002 (21), the participation of Gruppo Etcetera in the protest movement in Argentina in 2001, besides many others. Fight specific art overcomes the limits of the spaces reserved by society for art, putting itself into the political and social field of play, engaging in a focused struggle, above all not limiting itself to its representation through drawings, paintings, photographs, videos, or installations.
The most suitable tool that we have identified to carry out fight specific artistic research is the platform. The platform is a form of open rhizomatic organization that allows artists, activists, curators, individual theorists or groups to freely realize projects in a context of struggle. It is not a collective with defined members, even if collectives can enter the platform sporadically or in the longer term (22).
The Isola Art Center platform initially worked with neighborhood associations to reconvert the industrial building of the Stecca degli artigiani and the adjacent gardens into a Center for art and the neighborhood. The occupation of the space of the “Stecca” has allowed artists, critics, curators, philosophers and inhabitants to experiment with a new type of Center that we have called a dirty cube, to differentiate it from the white cube: the standard of neutrality for the exposure of contemporary art. By choice we have left the industrial spaces that we have liberated and made accessible in a rough state. At the same time that the spaces of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris were transformed into a similar rough state, with the fundamental difference that ours was a self-managed, non-institutional and no-budget project.
In order to understand the nature of the Center it is necessary to consider that its organizational structure is anything but monolithic or pyramidal: in fact, there is no director or curator who decides the program or its projects. It is not even an “artist run space”, where a group of artists creates their own exhibitions and invites friendly artists to exhibit. Rather, the center is characterized by its flexible, open structure, with no pre-established hierarchy, rhizomatic. A second platform of fight specific art corresponding to a more specific mission and methodology is the out-Office for Urban Transformation, which works within Isola Art Center. “out” creates situations and visual material useful for the fight of neighborhood associations.
After the loss of the battle of the Stecca and the gardens of the Isola zone, the response of the Isola Art Center was to adapt to the new situation by changing from a dirty cube to a paradoxical dispersed center hosted by friendly spaces in the neighborhood. From 2007 to 2011, this new format has made it possible to be more present in the life of the neighborhood than before. With the Isola Rosta Project, the Center used the metal window shutters of the neighborhood as a new exhibition space that allows art and criticism of urban projects to be brought into the public space.
In the current phase, the objectives of the Dispersed Center remain fight specific, denouncing the processes of gentrification and working with the new movement Isola Pepe Verde to conquer a green community space and realize the dream of a Center for art and the neighborhood.
Bert Theis (2012)
Translated by Mike Watson
- When, from now on, I later talk about “us” or “our”, I mean the artists and activists who work with the Isola Art Center and the out-ufficio per la trasformazione urbana.
- On March 6, 2005 the anarchist author Gianfranco Marelli presented his book L’amara vittoria del situazionismo, edizioni BFS, Pisa, 1996. On April 14, 2007 we inaugurated the exhibition SituazionIsola, A New Urbanism. On March 21, 2011 the neo-situationist Leonardo Lippolis presented his book Viaggio al termine della città, Elèuthera, 2009. Leonardo is the son of Mario Lippolis, one of the founders of the Situationist International in Milan. All these moments are documented on the website www.isolartcenter.org.
- Gianfranco Marelli, L’amara vittoria del situazionismo, BFS edizioni, 119.
- Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, point 169.
- Situationist International, 1961, Nautilus Turin, 1994, Number 6, 34.
- D, supplement of La Repubblica, 7.7.2007.
- Guy Debord, Oeuvres, Gallimard, pp 1088 et 1092. Translated from the Italian used in the original text.
- In the 1957 Report on the Construction of Situations, Debord spoke of “hyper-political propaganda”.
- Internazionale Situazionista 1958-69, Nautilus, Turin 1994, Number 8, 31. Translated from the Italian used in the original text.
- Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les presses du réel, Dijon, 2002, 16
- Guy Debord Dieci anni di arte sperimentale: Jorn e il suo ruolo nell’invenzione teorica. Museumsjournaal 1958 Otterlo. Translated from the Italian used in the original text.
- Asger Jorn, The End of the Economy and the Realization of Art, Situationist International, 1960, Number 4, 21.
- Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics. Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2002, 9.
- Per un giudizio rivoluzionario dell’arte, February 1961, Guy Debord, Oeuvres, Quarto Gallimard, 562. Translated from the Italian used in the original text.
- Asger Jorn, op.cit., 22. Translated from the Italian used in the original text.
- Gianfranco Marelli, L’amara vittoria del situazionismo, 86.
- Lettera di Debord a Gallizio, Parigi 30.1.1959 (Fond. Pinot-Gallizio, Alba). Translated from the Italian used in the original text.
- See Art and Social Change, a Critical Reader edited by Will Bradley and Charles Esche, Tate Publishing and Afterall 2007.
- See Art and Revolution, Gerald Raunig, MIT Press 2007 and A Thousand Machines, Gerald Raunig, MIT Press2010.
- The platform is completely different from the form of situationist organization that at any time counted more excluded people than adherents. The experience demonstrated that platforms are revitalized with a generational change more or less every three years.
Eredi illegittimi dei Situazionisti, in I Siuazionisti nella città, curated by Tiziana Villani Millepiani | Urban, 2012, after the International Conference held on 29 April 2011 at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris, La Villette, Paris.
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