Situationists For Open City Makers

Amongst the “avant garde” revolutionary intellectuals, the situationists are one of a kind. Though they are few, they often are waging battles under the leadership of a young Guy Débord, to surpass and make obsolete other contemporary movements such as Letterism and Surrealism.

Quoting Carlos Granés about situationists: “in a society that annihilates adventure, the only adventure is to annihilate society”. With such an overwhelming enterprise in mind, it is not surprising that this avant-garde group quickly suffered from their own contradictions, for their fondness of purges and procrastination rather than practical action. However, their intellectual footprint in the arts, politics and urbanism has filtered through to our times, through movements like the Spanish 15M or America’s “Occupy”.

The following is a selection of situationists’ texts over time. Although most of them are excerpts from “Magazine of the International Situationist” (from the extensive compilation found at “The Situationist International on-line”), their main publication while the group was active, we have added other texts that complement or update the vision of Débord and his comrades over the 3 topics more relevant to city making, and thus to OpenYourCity readers: arts, urbanism and automation.

Arts and the "Avant Garde"

Morel’s map

The invention of Morel. Adolfo Bioy-Casares. 1941. Bioy-Casares’ 7th novel, praised by J.L. Borges and Octavio Paz as “the perfect novel”, it features a fugitive trapped in an island where the same situation repeats endlessly everyday thanks to a machine (invented by a certain Morel) able to capture and display all our five senses. Although we have not been able to find references to this work in the Situationist International, Morel’s machine is clearly a full realisation of the future of cinema, not merely limited to images and sound, that Débord envisions.

The Bitter Victory of Surrealism. Magazine of the International Situationist #1. Paris, June 1958. Opening editorial note in which situationists reckon that the adoption of some of the surrealists’ techniques (e.g. brainstorming) by the political and economic establishment, combined with the absence of a revolutionary mass action, means an irreversible degradation of surrealism. Ironically, as we will see through the current selection of writings, many situationist concepts are currently being adopted by counter-revolutionary forces, in which seems to be “a bitter victory for situationists”.

The Sound and the Fury. Paris. Magazine of the International Situationist #1. Paris, June 1958. Where situationists denounce the futility of the different “angry young men” protests spreading over Western countries (from England to Sweden), derived from the inmense boredown that youth experiences. A boredom that only situationists (and not “decrepit” surrealism), holding the torch of individual freedom, can turn into a revolutionary force. Half a century later, other “angry young men” flooded Arab plazas in the “Arab spring”, Spanish streets in the 15-M movement, and New York’s main avenues in the “Occupy Wall Street” protests. In the aftermath of this wave of protests, right-wing prime minister Mariano Rajoy replaced social-democrats in Spain, Trump replaced Obama in the U.S.A. and a plethora of dictators (with the sole exception of Tunisie) still hold the power in Northern African and Middle East countries.

Contribution to a Situationist Definition of Play. Magazine of the International Situationist #1. Paris, June 1958. The task of situationists is to stress the values of play (a liberation force) over work (an anihilation force). But not any type of play; only the “disappearance of any element of competition” can revert the act of playing to its original social functions: that is, an exercise of collective action. Today, play as an innovation technique has replaced the surrealist “brainstorming” in many business-related events. On the other hand, some schools are banning competitive sports from their playground activity in an attempt to improve educational environment.

Preliminary Problems in Constructing a Situation. Magazine of the International Situationist #1. Paris, June 1958. Situations are composed of gestures inside a transitory decor, and they are set to facilitate the fulfillment of our desires. They must be collectively prepared and developed, led by a producer or director. Passive spectators must be “forced” into action. On the urban front, we have to free ourselves from the automobile (a functionalist toy) and embrace play. We, passive spectators of industralism, must step up as real actors and live life as a continuous collective play that blurs the distance between desire and reality. Two casualties were expected on the way: theater and poetry, as we know it. However, in 2019, both, poetry and theater, are still alive and in good health. In the case of the theater, this good health is visible in the myriads of grass-roots groups of improvisation, which can be considered, with the situationist’s permission, a small and reconforting, though posthumous,”victory of surrealism”. In the case of poetry, youngsters (many of them angry), have developed new bottom-up styles such as rap, a style not entirely empty of situationist traces.

Definitions. Magazine of the International Situationist #1. Paris, June 1958. Constructed situation, situationist, situationism (a meaningless term improperly derived from the above. There is no such thing as situationism, which would mean a doctrine for interpreting existing conditions. The notion of situationism is obviously devised by antisituationists ;-), psychogeography (the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment on the emotions and behavior of individuals), dérive (a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances) unitary urbanism (the theory of the combined use of arts and techniques as means contributing to the construction of a unified milieu in dynamic relation with experiments in behavior), détournement, culture, decomposition.

Theses on Cultural Revolution. Débord. Magazine of the International Situationist #1. Paris, June 1958. Where situationism is defined as participation, passion, abondance, life and inmediacy. And art is defined as an “organization” in charge of producing, not new paintings, nor sculptures, nor music, but people. In this sense, the Situationist International is a sort of trade union whose members are the workers of an “advanced culture.” To be noted that, although Lefèbvre is criticized in this text as a “conformist” because of his renounce to abolish established cultural paradigms, Debord acknowledges that situationists comply to what Lefebvre calls “romantic-communists”, however in an unexpected manner: they can be seen as romantic, not because their endeavour is impossible, but because they are not made to succeed. By anticipating their failure, Debord skillfully sets the framework for a future narrative of succeed.

Action in Belgium Against the International Assembly of Art Critics. Magazine of the International Situationist #1. Paris, June 1958. Situationists claim responsibility for an incident in the House of the Press, in Brussels, where a text demanding the cancellation of the event was distributed between attendants. The text claimed that situationists where the sole organizers of the unitary art of the future and, therefore, art critics should “dissapear”. The text is relevant because, ironically, this appears to be one of the few actions that situationists created during the decade that the Situationist International was active.

On Our Means and Our Perspectives. Constant. Magazine of the International Situationist #2. Dec 1958. This article is both about machines (reviewed in the automation section) and about arts. On the arts front, it considers both painting and litterature as dead ends, and therefore unacceptable. Even the renovation of these arts should not be supported by situationists. On the contrary, they must invent “new techniques in every domain, visual, oral, psychological, in order to unite them later in the complex activity unitary urbanism will engender.”

Urbanism (and Psychogeography) 

Formulary for a New Urbanism. Chtcheglov. Magazine of the International Situationist #1. Paris, June 1958. (First published at the Letterist International, by Gilles Ivain in 1953). What is the outcome of a mechanized civilisation? Boredom. Against it, mobile decors must be invented. The cold architecture of today must change and design evocative buildings. Buildings that change with nature and respond to the citizens’ desires. In what is a first approach to a “hacker ethics” and “open source” vision into urban design, this new urbanism will lead to an experimental civilisation living in reconfigurable cities producing vast amounts of knowledge. Sentiments will be mapped in the different districts of the city of the future, evoking play and amusement even when approaching to their darkest zones (as the “tragic quarter”, a Tim Burton’s precursor in the sense of a certain playful view of shadows and death).

Venice has Vanquished Ralph Rumney. Magazine of the International Situationist #1. Paris, June 1958. The first article of the Situationist International about psychogeograpgy never arrived on time. Its author, a young Ralph Rumney, founder and only member of the London Association of Psychogeography, was “swallowed” by Venice and its night life. As a result, Rumney was abruptly expelled from the group. He continued a life of a wanderer, marrying Pegeen Guggenheim (the daughter of Peggy Guggenheim) and leading an experimental life with few material attachments (he would also marry in 1974 Debord’s first wife, Michelle Bernstein). In that sense, although he almost never belonged in the Situationist International, he was probably one of most coherent situationists until his death in 2002. His thoughts and ideas about psychogeography are published in the book The Map is not the Territory. with Allan Woods (2001).

‘Provisional Demos: The Spatial Agency and Tent Cities’. Mabel O. Wilson. Borders Elsewhere, Oslo: Oslo Biennale and Lars Muller, 2016. If in the projected city of situationists (Deriville or New Babylone), neighborhoods are shaped and named after sentiments (e.g. the “tragic” quarter), Martin Luther King Jr.’s posthumous project, Resurrection City, echoed psychogeography by adopting similar patterns for naming its different parts (e.g. “funk city” or “soul city”). Nevertheless, while situationist urbanism had a utopian character and thus impossible to materalize (New Babylone was an ideal city favouring encounters constructed on top of a set of pillars), Resurrection City succeeded in developing the sense of agency in the dispossesed by means as simple as mere tents. It is unclear whether Debord paid much attention to Resurrection City in 1968, the very same year when he was celebrating the triumph of situationists after the events of May 1968 in Paris.

Tents in Resurrection City, 1968. H. Zbyszynski. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Attempt at a Psychogeographical Description of Les Halles. Abdelhafid Khatib. Magazine of the International Situationist #2. Paris, December 1958. In is work, Khatib develops new means (apart from the “dérive”) to carry out psychogeographical studies: “the reading of aerial views and plans, the study of statistics, graphs or the results of sociological investigations, are theoretical and do not possess the active and direct side which belongs to the experimental dérive. Nevertheless, thanks to them we can arrive at a first representation of the environment under study. In return, the results of our study will permit imbuing these cartographic and intellectual representations with greater complexity and richness”. After Ralph Rumney’s failed attemp, this study is the first psychogeographical work included in the magazine. Thanks to direct observation and manual data collection, Khatib depicts in a map the internal main corridors of the Parisan Les Halles, as well as its real frontiers.

Theory of the Dérive. Guy Débord. Magazine of the International Situationist #2. Paris, December 1958. In this article, Débord depicts the goals and practical implementation of a dérive, defined as the act of drifting through the city in order to gather data that could later be used to build the psychogeographical maps of the urban networks. These psychogeographical maps are the ‘navigation charts’ of the city. They visualize currents and boundaries, as well as vortexes drawn by attractions of the terrain. All separated by perceived distances (which are different from physical distances). The collected data from these dérives will be, in Debord’s words, the new poetry, capable of inspiring sentiments like rage or joy.

The Image of the City. Kevin Lynch. The M.I.T. Press, Cambridge (MA). 1960. In this fundamental guide for city design, Lynch argues that people “read” cities by constructing mental maps composed of paths, edges, nodes, districts, and landmarks. In a way, these five elements do not differ much from the currents, boundaries and vortexes described by Debord’s theory of the dérive. Lynch also shares a common view with situationists when he writes that “there is some value in mystification, labyrinth, or surprise in the environment”.

Cómo los datos urbanos nos revelan la vida oculta de las ciudades. Daniel Sarasa. Zaragoza, Noviembre 2019. Starting at Chombart de Lauwe’s primitive map of Paris itineraries in 1952 (included in the first issue of the Situatonist International as a last minute fix of Rumney’s map of Venice), the article shows examples of latest attemps to build a new geography based on automatic data collection, and some of its applications.

The Amsterdam Declaration. Constant, Debord. Magazine of the International Situationist #2. Amsterdam, November 1958. The declaration contains eleven statements: eight of them on (unitary) urbanism, one of them on culture, one on automation and one about the organization of the Situationist International itself. Unitary urbanism is the “minimum” program of the situationists, and it can only be achieved through a creative collective effort, in which scientific and artistic methods are applied. Housing, recreation and mobility in cities can be solved through a combined synthesis of psichological, artistic and social perspectives into new lifesyles.

Automation and Information Society

The Struggle for the Control of the New Techniques of Conditioning. Magazine of the International Situationist #1. Paris, June 1958. Where situationists reckon the progress of and possibilities of applying andvanced psychology techniques to model or condition human behaviour and, at the same time, they warn against the use of these techniques only by counter-revolutionary forces. This, as other texts in the magazine, is a wake up call for “revolutionnaires” to pay close attention to the new scientific experimental discoveries and use it for liberation purposes. Psychology can help the working class, it says, to “forget” everything, throwing away the heavy social and cultural burden and enter a new phase where everything is permanently reinvented and new.

Stafford Beer, Director of Cybersync

The Situationists and Automation. Jorn. Magazine of the International Situationist #1. Paris, June 1958. In this mind blowing article, Jorn opens new angles on automation. He opposes the general opinion between intellectuals and sociologues against automation by highlighting its liberation potential. Indeed, if one of the situationists’ motto was “never work!”, what is the problem with robots taking up our working time? In fact, Jorn says, socialism, whose main pursuit is to create material abondance for everyone, should embrace automation with joy. The problem, states Jorn, is that engineers (especially the youngest ones) lack enough culture to understand what is really at stake with automation. The goal is not to turn men and women slaves of robots, but their masters. And to organize our free time in true liberating ways. If in every person there is a sleeping creator, the challenge is to use automation to wake it up. In current times, the debate about automation is central to our economies and politics, and Jorn’s arguments have not yet been surpassed. Ideas such as the need of a “robot tax” that compensates for the loss of working time could effectively have an impact in a more equal income distribution as a result of increasing automation and thus protect the socialdemocrat wellfare state. Because, acknowledging that automation is having the effect anticipated by Jorn in the sense that it increases the general accesibility of products for the majority, it does not close the inequality gap. On the contrary, since in our capitalists societies automation is led by private corporations, the effect is just the opposite. Robots divide the working class in two: those that control, program, repair or invent them, and those who are replaced.

On Our Means and Our Perspectives. Constant. Magazine of the International Situationist #2. Dec 1958. “The machine is an indispensable model for all of us, even artists, and industry is the sole means of providing today for the needs, even aesthetic ones, of humanity on a worldwide scale” […] “Those who scorn the machine and those who glorify it display the same inability to utilize it.”

The Planning Machine. Evgeni Mozorov. The New Yorker. New York, October 2014. In the early 70’s, in the socialist Chile of president Salvador Allende, the project Cybersync attempted to create a public-owned platform with similar traits to today’s Amazon, capable of predicting demands in the whole supply chain network of goods throughout the country. The text complements Asger Jorn’s vision on the pursuit of automation by socialism with a little-known real project. It’s author, Evgeni Mozorov, is a thinker that regularly writes about dangers and concerns of increased privatization of digital services and technology.

A final note: already in #2 of the Situationist International magazine, we find the following text about intellectual property: “All texts published in Internationale Situationniste may be freely reproduced, translated and adapted, even without indication of origin.” It was 1958 and these people had already invented copyleft, in its most radical version. They left other absolute freedom to publish situationists’ texts, totally or partially, with or without attribution, with the sole exception of their own names. It wasn’t until 1984 that Richard Stallman decided to apply these very same principles to software. Stallman is widely recknognized as the inventor of copyleft and GNU Public License (GPL), which he applied to software, but maybe Debord and his friends should also get some of the credit.

I am not as avant-garde as Debord, but I also think that ideas should be freely used and spread. That is why this article, like the rest of this blog, is published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.


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