In 1959, Guy Debord drafted plans for a Situationist library in Silkeborg. His vision testifies to the self-perception of the Situationists and to his awareness of the movement’s historical significance at an early stage. However, it also points to a paradox: Situationism was founded on an understanding of the situationas a mode of tactical positioning. Rather than a political theory or an artistic program, the Situationists defined their practice through their use of critical tools, such as the redirection of existing cultural forms and the undermining of the social geographies of urban space by wandering around in a daze. Still, considering that the movement’s main principle was its resistance to categorization, how did Debord imagine that he could create an indexical key for the cataloging of the movement?
The question concerns the Situationists’ understanding of history. However, it also has implications both for understanding Situationism as a historical phenomenon and for resisting understanding Situationism as a historical phenomenon. It appears that the reception of Situationism is still caught in a limbo between the desire to be faithful to one of the most radical artistic and theoretical projects in the post-war period and the growing need to understand the same project both critically and historically.
This dilemma is illustrated vividly in the differences between two current exhibitions in Berlin and Malmö, respectively. First, The Most Dangerous Gameat Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin, curated by philosopher Wolfgang Scheppe, who is also the head of the Institute for Politics of Representation in Venice, where Debord’s library has been reconstructed in the form of a research archive. Scheppe is assisted by curator and critic Roberto Ohrt and by artist and researcher Eleonora Sovrani.
The second exhibition, Jacqueline de Jong and The Situationist Times: Same Player Shoots Again!at Malmö Konsthall, is about the Dutch painter and activist de Jong and the magazine she published between 1962 and 1967. It is curated by the Norwegian curator and researcher Ellef Prestsæter in collaboration with Torpedo and de Jong herself.
In the first of the six “chapters” of The Most Dangerous Game, we find the library consisting of manuscripts, magazines, posters, and flyers, which are normally housed in the archive in Venice, presented in a long, straight row of glass showcases. The second and third chapters of the exhibition are dominated by a wall of photographs of the civil unrest in France in May 1968 taken by press photographers and from police surveillance helicopters. There is also a series of display cases filled with erotic novels written under the pseudonym by Alexander Trocchi and Isidore Isou. Along with the exhibition’s subtitle, The Situationist International en route for May ’68, this section appears to refer to the (alleged) importance of Situationism for May 1968 and, in direct extension thereof, to the sexual emancipation of the 1960s.
In their journal Internationale Situationniste, the Situationists sometimes used pin-ups as illustrations for articles on topics such as the political economy. Still, it is difficult to interpret their use of sex as a critical strategy without also addressing the blatant sexism of the leading members of the movement. Debord operated in the radical environment of Paris’s left bank more or less like Harvey Weinstein in the film industry of Hollywood. Reportedly, Asger Jorn was not much better.
The point is that the exhibition’s thesis about the special position of Situationism as an avant-garde in the post-World War Two era is based on a heroic and exclusive understanding of history. Thus far, The Most Dangerous Gamemay be said to be faithful to Debord (who often signed his letters, “Hegel”).
However, this understanding of history also leads to some enormous blind spots, such as in relation to the gender politics of the movement, and the curators at HKW do not do much to expand the field of vision. Sure, they include both “pre-situationist” and “anti-situationist” materials in the Situationist library as specified in Debord’s plan. However, when it comes to interpreting the library’s contents, Scheppe and Ohrt seize the microphone for themselves and do not let it go again. The 900-page-long exhibition guide is written by the curators themselves and is available only in German. One might ask, where is the inclusiveness and plurality in that?
In more ways than one, the exhibition about Jacqueline de Jong and The Situationist Times at Malmö Konsthall presents an alternative understanding of Situationism. Not only is the history of the movement presented from the perspective of one of its few female leading members, but the exhibition also expands the connections between Situationism and its contemporaneity. Furthermore, one is allowed to actually flick through the physical materials here.
The direct access to the historical artefacts in Malmö stands in stark contrast to the Berlin exhibition, where the question of the final form of Debord’s library, with all its historiographic implications, seems to have been overlooked: Was it supposed to be a lending library, a copy center, a sort of Situationist educational kit, or a Duchampian boîte-en-valise? We must assume that Debord imagined something other than the memorial that the exhibition at HKW approaches.
In Malmö, copies of The Situationist Times are displayed alongside correspondence and research. Particular attention is given to the plans for an unrealized final issue of the journal on pinball machines. The materials show wide-ranging research that intelaces ideas and methods taken from mathematics, physics, art, archeology, and systems theory, just like in the nodes to which de Jong dedicates an entire issue of the journal. No, it does not always make sense. On the other hand, the insight into de Jong’s research helps us position her Situationism in relation to other responses, in her contemporaneity, to the emergence of the information society and to technological development.
Then the question is to what extent de Jong’s project illuminates the French understanding of Situationism represented by Debord. However, that is our problem, not de Jong’s. Of all the interpreters of Situationism, she is perhaps the most undaunted.
The Situationists understood the art of their period, the time when Yves Klein and Nouveau réalismereached their pinnacle, as little more than pyrrhic attempts to integrate art into life—that is, as attempts that all involved already knew would fail. In contrast, according to the Situationists themselves, they sought the final and irreversible destruction of art and of capitalism as a social form. After various other artistic strategies had failed, they pursued these goals through the exclusion of their own members.
In the sixth chapter of The Most Dangerous Game, titled “The Last Pictures,” we find an exceptional collection of works by Pinot Gallizio, Jorn, Jeppesen Victor Martin, Ansgar Elde, de Jong, and the Gruppe Spur artists, as well as collective works signed by, among others, Yves Klein and Debord. A sign with a warning against “Anti-Situationist Art” placed at the entrance to the section signals that, here too, the curators assume the role of enforcers of Debord’s interpretation of Situationism.
Actually, the section testifies to the opposite. The selection of paintings, which includes Gallizio’s industrial paintings and Jorn’s modifications, shows the different ways in which the Situationists sought to translate their ideas about appropriation and strategic devaluation into a painterly form.
The various metaphors of exodus that recur in these paintings anticipated the physical exodus of the Situationist painters from the movement. Gallizio was one of the first to be expelled; in the end, only Martin was left.
However, as I observed how the Situationists applied thick layers of oil, aluminum, bicycle paint, and other glittering materials on old duvet covers and sheets of cheap wrapping paper, it occurred to me that their paintings might have shaped not only their understanding of exclusion but also their understanding of accumulation, a term that was increasingly important for Situationism in the 1960s. However, those kinds of speculations are unlikely to have been condoned by the last Situationists.
Admittedly, it was deeply unfair, but I went into The Most Dangerous Game and Jacqueline de Jong & The Situationist Times with the preconceived notion that to take Situationism seriously does not make sense in the context of an art exhibition. Perhaps, it was my punishment that I walked away from the two exhibitions with the feeling that I took Situationism a little more seriously.