The Internationale Situationniste was founded in July 1957 in Cosio d’Arroscia (Italy), explicitly not as an artists’ group, although its roots lay in various European art scenes and movements. Its main goal was a radical modernization of political action in the spirit of the avant-garde. The aim was to construct a revolutionary front in culture, not for the sake of artistic expression, but because artists were seen as revolutionaries with a superior grasp of the present.
Although inspired by classical avant-garde movements since the early twentieth century, the Situationists were far more rigorous and not content to merely question the role of the author and of art’s function within the perceived wrongs of a society ruled by political and economic dictates. Five years after its founding, the Internationale Situationniste excluded all members who refused to abandon the life of the artist and the art market, putting an end to any discussion on how art might contribute to the revolution while it must also be successful within the capitalist system. In their own way, then, they took seriously the call for art to be dissolved into life, a demand that had been a steady driving force within modernism. Through their own creative activities, they put the end of art into practice, fully aware of Hegel’s remarks on art’s inherent historicity or finiteness. In the context of the heroic era of contemporary art, in logical terms at least, the Situationists thus must be considered the last avant-garde.
Taking their definition of the artist to its utmost conclusion, they ceased to see themselves as such. With the methods of play, the movement articulated a fundamental critique of the spectacle of consumer society, seeking to confront the conditions of bourgeois rule within the geography of the city. After 1962, their form of action could only be revolutionary. And whereas they had previously demonstrated to the cultural milieu that art could only consist of constructing situations, the Situationists now tied the realization of this claim to the one remaining situation – the beginning of the revolution. In this way, they became an important source of inspiration and theory for the revolt of May 1968.
The Most Dangerous Game centers on a plan conceived in 1959 by the co-founders of the Internationale Situationniste, Guy Debord (1931–1994) and Asger Jorn (1914–1973). For the art museum founded by Jorn in Silkeborg, today’s Museum Jorn, they outlined the prospective contents of a collection of books, manifestos, and documents, the Bibliothèque situationniste de Silkeborg. Remarkably, rather than focusing exclusively on the writings of the groups around Debord, the main aim was to bring together the key founding texts and manifestos of all organizations whose members had later joined the Situationists. This includes very many, indeed almost all, of the artistic groups that saw themselves as revolutionary in the first half of the twentieth century, including the Dadaists, the Belgian Surrealists with their younger faction Surréalisme Révolutionnaire, the Høst and Helhesten groups that were active in the resistance to German occupation in Denmark, the Dutch Experimentele Groep with its periodical Reflex, then the international merger of these structures as CoBrA, plus the Movimento internazionale per una Bauhaus immaginista, the Arte Nucleare movement that formed around Lucio Fontana (1899–1968), and the Laboratorio Sperimentale. Even trace elements of Italian Futurismo were involved in the emergence of the Situationists.
Although Debord produced a detailed exposé on the creation of the library and sent many hard-to-find documents to Silkeborg, the project was never realized there. As a result, it had to be reconstructed, a 20-year undertaking that was entirely successful. With the corpus of this ideal library, the exhibition opens up an arena in which history can be examined and where various conceptions about the Situationists and their time can be corrected: the sentimental view of the upheavals of 1968 and the notion that youthful rebellion led to a comprehensive cultural liberation, contributing above all to an overcoming of traditional sexual taboos, the most controversial aspect of this supposed liberalization.
One early catalyst for the politicization of anarchist bohemians in immediate postwar Paris was the Romanian Isidore Isou (1925-2007), who presented himself as a universal artist and created and guided the Lettriste movement as its messiah. In many ways, with its focus on the letters of the alphabet as poetic material, the aesthetic inventory of Lettrisme did not go beyond Dadaism. But in terms of cultural history, its founder Isou must be credited with a contribution that is not widely known, even in France: as early as 1947, he described youth in his programmatic writings as a revolutionary class rather than a biological category. Accordingly, jeunesse is a quality fundamentally at odds with prevailing conditions, since these conditions exclude it economically. In the competition for opportunities as made available by institutions and corporations, young people are made to feel like outsiders. And conversely, all who are outside belong within this category of youth, necessarily forming part of the resistance. As a marginalized group, youth thus defined appears as a force of social and historical upheaval in its own right. This concept was developed by Isou at the core of his work, his biography, and his movement, and it influenced Debord (who joined the Lettrists in 1951 and first split from them to form the Internationale Lettriste and later the Internationale Situationniste) in his quest to critically understand and practically realize the strategy of the revolutionary subject in very different ways.
Today, at the high point of the historiography of May 1968, the facts seem to be known by all, but these facts are routinely celebrated in a way that thoroughly misjudges them. For the process by which an element of resistance is given an affirmative turn, the Situationists developed the concept of récupération, by which previously rebellious elements are appropriated and rendered harmless. And this is also precisely what happened in 1968, when the youth movement found itself spun into a youth culture, its rebellious exterior travestied to provide a fitting range of products to be sold to this new target group. The exhibition unfolds the catalog of one of Germany’s largest mail-order companies. Named Post-Shop-Magazin, it used the iconography of subversion in a calculated move to turn these previously contested symbols into objects for sale, thus allowing them to cater to a new class of consumers.
Until 1962, the Internationale Situationniste experimented with forms of artistic work that sought to negate the notion of art and the individual author via provocatively self-referential and self-annulling aesthetic procedures. In the exhibition, these works are shown separately from the theoretical and political writings and with an explicit reference to the limited period accorded to painterly practice within the history of the Internationale Situationniste. The selection of objects on display was also determined by a criterion that has received little attention to date: the collaborative approach that was a continuous and exemplary mode of production in the group’s experiments. Based on the collective myth in the Scandinavian cultural sphere, which he studied in artistic and academic terms throughout his life, Jorn encouraged collaborative approaches among his own circles in various phases, a practice that emphasizes the aesthetic of production as performance and blurs the distinctive signature of the kind of singular genius that had inspired sentimental bourgeois notions of the artist since Romanticism.
In the exhibition, an Archive of Last Images attempts to bring together as many as possible of the collaborative works made by the Situationists in a wall installation. Most previous museum exhibitions on this subject have treated the paintings left behind by Internationale Situationniste and their reception as a purely aesthetic phenomenon, as if there were nothing else to show, sometimes even disparaging individual exhibits or being fully aware of the failings that were sure to arise from such a narrow focus on art products.
In his film On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time (1959), Debord mythologized his lost youth at Chez Moineau, the legendary bar in Saint-Germain-des-Prés where the most radical elements of Lettrism spent their nights. Soon after the founding of the Internationale Situationniste, then, youth was already a problematic topos. At its center, the exhibition deals with the prevailing ideological view of history that yearns to celebrate the unrest of 1968 as a figure of progress, as the beginning of a universal liberalization, and as something achieved by a social maturity that has contributed to the liberation of individuality and its most intimate treasure, that of sexuality. Any attempt to portray what happened in the streets of Paris and in the occupied factories in May 1968 must take into account the purpose for which the images in question were made and who commissioned them. There is no visual document without deliberate framing, without a choice of viewing angle and moment in time, without techniques for abstracting from and directing reality.
The Most Dangerous Game also documents the way authors with an anarchist background who wanted to transgress the prevailing moralism in gender discourse exploited a slackening of censorship to open up a source of easy income, viewing the pornographic novels and images they created as a subversive and controversial affront to good taste and good manners, an act capable of shocking the establishment. They could hardly have imagined that the consumer world would quickly appropriate sexuality as a sphere previously inaccessible for such commercial exploitation. The pioneers of détournement – the construction of situations by which the structures and strategies of modern consumer society are exposed, before being appropriated and recoded – ended up becoming a driving force in the field of sexploitation. And once again, Isidore Isou was the first to boldly advance into the dubious ambiguity of this subject matter. In this field, too, the revolt was dispersed and found its scandalous content immediately integrated into the market of the universal department store. Symbols that were meant to articulate upheaval and resistance suddenly appeared as smart décor for consumer items. In a totalitarian shop window display of commodities, what had once been angrily demanded now seemed to have become buyable, thus being reconciled with a society against which one believed one had fought for these same things.
In the historiography of the Internationale Situationniste, the year 1968 – after a century of ceaseless attempts at revolution – signifies the ultimate crushing of all practical rebellious criticism of an economic regime which, by granting widespread permissions seemingly in response to the concerns of protest movements, had secured total and lasting approval. Approval that needs were to be satisfied by no means other than by consuming commodities, thus accepting all the hardships required by these purchases for those with limited funds. This moment marked the failure of a historically unprecedented attempt to use the concept of art to prove the need to realize play as the universal purpose of the community of human subjectivity, something the efficiency of a globalized development of productivity – freed from the political dictates of property – could long since have afforded itself as a generalized way of life. Instead, the leap year of 1968 saw the establishment of a pacified order whose hegemonic belief in a neoliberal ideology of the unquestionable nature of state and society was most pointedly summarized in Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum: “And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” (Interview in: Woman’s Own, October 1987)
Wolfgang Scheppe, Roberto Ohrt