JMBG

on media, technology & digital culture

Practices of the Situationist International in the Age of the Digital Spectacle

Abstract

This essay will examine the work of the Situationist International and how their practices, skills and goals could be applied in the 21st Century. It will examine today’s digital landscape within the contemporary society of the spectacle and numerous practices to counter the spectacle. An emphasis will be made on digital media and the way that media can be re-purposed in order to critique society, the consumerist culture, spark revolutions, change legislations, benefit society and provide people with a space where life could be lived again. Last but not least, the essay will provide an overview of the organizational structure of the contemporary Situationist International and whether they could exist in today’s still highly commoditized society.

Introduction

The SI was founded in Italy in 1957 and would go on to be active until 1972. It consisted out of artists, activists and intellectuals who were influenced by the Letterist International, Dadaism and Surrealism. Their practices consisted of détournement, dérive, unitary urbanism and psychogeography. They wrote journals, created situations, organized exhibitions, produced films and critiqued society through subversions of comics and graffiti. In addition to their founder Guy Debord, some of the key figures of this organization were Asger Jorn, Michele Bernstein, Constant Nieuwenhuys and Giuseppe Pinot Galizio. This SI sparked the uprising of May 1968 in Paris, when students, workers and the unemployed united and almost brought down the entire French government. The revolution, which was the culmination of SI’s efforts to de-alienate the society, ultimately failed but the practices of the SI echo until this very day.

One of the most notable works to come out of the SI era was Guy Debord’s ‘Society of The Spectacle’, a harsh critique of capitalism that permeated society to the point of alienating people through modes of mass media, production and consumption. Debord states, “The spectacle corresponds to the historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life. It is not just that the relationship to commodities is now plain to see — commodities are now all that there is to see; the world we see is the world of the commodity (10, thesis 42). The SI didn’t pretend to be external to the spectacle but rather to act within it and against it at the same time. This is probably most evident in the fact that the SI continued to make art exhibitions only to critique the commoditization of art.

The society was and still is mediated by images and commodities. The nature of commodities has slightly changed since the 50’s and the 60’s, but in essence remains the same. Jhally’s definition explains commodity fetishism today in four stages “1) utility/idolatry, in which commodities are freed from being merely utilitarian things; 2) symbolization/iconology, in which commodities serve as abstract representations of social values; 3) personification/narcissism, in which they are intimately connected with the world of interpersonal relations; and 4) lifestyle/totemism, in which the first three stages merge to define the group under a singular lifestyle (201-202).” In this day and age, all one has to do is look at Facebook and see how that company managed to turn people into commodities and alienate them on a global level at the same time.

Dérive In The Digital Era

Wark states that “The dérive cuts across the division of the space of the city into work, rest and leisure zones. By wandering about in the space of the city according to their own sense of time, those undertaking a dérive find other uses for space besides the functional (25).” In a highly commoditized society, people work in order to produce goods, then they consume those goods and then they go to sleep in order to be able to produce more efficiently and consume more aptly. It is a vicious cycle, one that has eliminated any notion of real leisure time. The dérive was invented to counter that spectacle and could go on for days, weeks or even months.

That has never been more relevant than in today’s society where companies create ‘playful’ spaces for employees so they could be more productive. After all, one is always available if one is always at the company’s disposal. The notion of real leisure time became practically non-existent.
According to O’Neil, one of the examples of the digital dérive “would be the use of digital technology to create situations to be encountered in physical spaces (159).” What O’Neill is talking about here is participation through the use of locative-based media. One example of a digital dérive that comes to mind would be making a GPS audio app that would guide one through New York by using audio directions based on the map of Berlin.

Mark Shephard’s mobile media platform called The Tactical Sound Garden creates a participatory environment by “using location-aware mobile phone, participants “plant” sounds (or “prune” those planted by others) within a positional audio environment. These plantings are mapped onto the coordinates of a physical location by a 3D audio engine common to gaming environments – overlaying a publicly constructed soundscape onto a specific urban space. Wearing headphones connected to the phone, participants drift though virtual sound gardens as they move throughout the city.”

There are also pitfalls to the digital dérive. Google made an app called Ingress, a mobile game on the verge of augmented reality, which uses a mobile interface that makes you interact with the real world. However, Hodson states, “a detailed record of where all the Ingress players wander – and the establishments they visit en route – is still a data gold mine for Google to use to improve its location-based services.” By doing this, Google have also turned their users into commodities. By playing the game, players work for Google. This is a good example of using dérive against itself.

Post-Situ Influence

Some Post-Situ groups misinterpreted the SI. In example, King Mob was a group that demolished the Wimpy Bar in order to protest against its interior decoration. Even though the SI has had a huge influence on the punk movement, specifically Sex Pistols, Ford states that Jamie Reid, who was a British artist and anarchists responsible for branding the Sex Pistols, “later admitted that the level of his engagement with Situationist texts was far from deep: I was never involved with the Situationists because I couldn’t understand half of what they had written (149).”

Groups inspired by the SI were Blob, London Psychogeographical Association, Spectacular Times, Contradiction and Create Situations, to name a few. Groups that were more in line with SI’s philosophy could be viewed through the lens of hacktivism, tactical media, culture jamming and the mashup culture. One such group is the Critical Art Ensemble and their organizational structure consists out “five tactical media practitioners of various specializations including computer graphics and web design, film/video, photography, text art, book art, and performance.”

Détournement’s Influence On The Remix/Mashup Culture, Hacktivism, Culture Jamming and Tactical Media

Détournement is another method of countering the spectacle. It is not about fidelity, it is about claiming ownership and repurposing it. According to Wark, détournement “could be a single image, a film sequence of any length, a word, a phrase, a paragraph (40).” The best example of détournement would be to take a comic book, erase the words from the speech balloons and replace them with statements that critique a heavily commoditized society. The very notion of repurposing advertisements (whether in the form of print, video or digital) seems like an appropriate critique of the consumer culture and commodity fetishism. AdBusters have been doing it ever since 1989.

The use of détournement in the digital sense is not particularly new. A good example would be DJ RX’s rework of the John Lennon ‘Imagine’ track where he used an audio cut-up technique and took audio samples of George Bush’s speeches and pasted them together to form the exact same lyrics of Lennon’s hit. The juxtaposition, the turning of Bush’s image against itself and the use of almost Dadaist techniques is exactly the kind of thing that would be directly inspired by the Situationist International. This type of remix/mash-up culture was also seen in the production of The Grey Album, where producer Danger Mouse heavily sampled Beatles’ White Album and mashed those samples with acapella’s rapped by Jay Z. While there is no obvious political context here, it is important to emphasize that The Grey Album created Grey Tuesday, which was basically a day of the so called copyright uprising when people downloaded tracks from the Grey Album more than a million times. The uprising protest was organized using social networks and the web and the key term here was again – digital strategy. This form of copyright activism was a turning point in the remix/mash-up culture, specifically in regards to copyrights.

Détournement also had a strong influence on hacktivism (repurposing software for creating new experiences). Whether hacktivism is legal or not really depends on whether the software is open source and what kind of permissions does it entail. One example of hacktivism would be the work of the JODI art collective who modified video games such as Wolfenstein 3D, Quake and Max Payne 2, among others. Their work can be considered to be not just repurposing for the sake that it could be done but for critiquing the nature of the code itself.

To counter the spectacle in the 21st century one can counter it through the lens of mainstream media or any media for that matter. Tactical media is a term that describes such practices with the goal of critiquing political and economic aspects of today’s society. This method was built on détournement and the most important thing that makes this practice possible is strategy. The Critical Art Ensemble defines it as “situational, ephemeral, and self-terminating. It encourages the use of any media that will engage a particular socio-political context in order to create molecular interventions and semiotic shocks that collectively could diminish the rising intensity of authoritarian culture.”

The Critical Art Ensemble has several tactical media projects, the most recent ones being the ‘Keep Hope Alive Block Party’ and ‘Public Misery Message: A Temporary Monument To Global Inequality’. The former criticizes the 20% unemployment rate in Sheffied, cultural institutions in Kyoto and the distribution of wealth in Portland. The latter also criticizes the unequal distribution of public wealth, particularly the 1%, by lifting participants with a helicopter in order to shift their perspective so they can visualize how wealth resides at the top while the 99% lies at the bottom. In addition to the Critical Art Ensemble, tactical media is used by many international artists and collectives such as The Yes Men, Electronic Disturbance Theatre, Ubermorgen, SubRosa, Institute for Applied Autonomy, RT Mark, Coco Fusco, Tactical Media Crew, to name a few.

Culture jamming and tactical media are actually quite similar as they use the same techniques, the difference being that tactical media is able to act within the mainstream media (one example would be actions taken by the Yes Men) while culture jamming only relates to mainstream media in one way or another (an example being the alternation of billboards by the Billboard Liberation Front). Additional attempts to counter the spectacle are the maker culture, urban farming, artisanal local culture, bitcoin, etc. These are all valid examples that act as a counterpoint within today’s highly commoditized.

The Revolution Will Be Digital

There are several differences between the nature of media in the 1960’s and the nature of media today. One being that media in the 1960’s wasn’t real time media. If somebody wanted to spread a message, they had the option of either spreading it through radio or television. These mediums would transmit that message at their own time, not instantly. Media in the 1960’s wasn’t interactive. All one could do is receive the message that is being broadcasted and act up on it, again with a certain delay.

Today, media is both interactive and real-time, specifically social media. Events happen in space and time that is shaped by the available media. There isn’t one specific media that is the agent; it is more about how digital media shapes what is available in that space and time. Obviously, the more flexible and distributed the media, the better the organization. However, with digital media comes surveillance, and that could endanger any social uprising. The alternative would be to act through the deep web or an encrypted network but these channels are not widely available and wouldn’t serve the purpose as much as Twitter or Facebook.

Digital media helps protesters to organize; it provides them with a channel through which they can strategize. The Occupy Wall Street Movement utilizes it. Facebook is not further along either, especially considering its role in the Egyptian revolution. Also, the Moldova Civil unrest was organized through Twitter but doesn’t serve as a good example since the number of Twitter accounts in Moldova is not that big. That is also where the problem lies. If the country where the uprising, protest or revolution is happening is digitally inept, then there will be no use of Twitter, Facebook or any other social network.

The Situationists Of The 21st Century

To exist in today’s digital landscape, the Situationist International would have to posses’ organizational skills that would keep them in that formation. A modern Asger Jorn would certainly come in handy in that regard. It would be more realistic if the SI of today would be organized through cells, as suggested by the Critical Art Ensemble. They would need to have a more hands on approach, rather than acting from the shadows. Funding would be a major issue. In the 60’s, it was Michele Bernstein who funded most of the actions of the Situationist International in the beginning. Today, with the needed infrastructure, a single paycheck wouldn’t be able to support anything, let alone a vastly organized cell structure. For all the examples and reasons mentioned throughout this paper, the skill set of an efficient contemporary SI would have to be vast.

Since power is no longer centralized, a repetition of the May 1968 uprising is out of the question. For that very same reason, what was once a team of artists, activists and political theorists, today would have to consist out of cell structures filled with graphic designers, copywriters, activists, digital strategists, hackers, software engineers, street artists, music producers and new media artists. The goal would be to use every possible form of media to critique society, evoke action, change the establishment and ultimately – change the way life is lived. The so-called revolutions of the digital era would have to be dispersed and organized through the use of the web and social media. It would be foolish to expect these so-called revolutions would change the world overnight. Change is not instant, it never was. After all, it took the Situationist International eleven years to spark the May 1968 uprising.

References:

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Zone Books, 1967 (1994). Print.

Jhally, Sut, The Codes of Advertising: Fetishism and the Political Economy of Meaning in the Consumer Society. New York: Psychology Press, 1990. Print.

Wark, Mckenzie, The Beach Beneath The Street – The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International. London: Verso, 2011. Print.

O’Neil, Shaleph. “The Interactive Spectacle and the Digital Situationist.” Exploration of Space, Technology, and Spatiality: Interdisciplinary. Turner, Phil, Susan Turner and Elisabeth Davenport. Hershey, Pennsylvania: Information Science Reference; 2nd edition, 2008. Print.

Shephard, Mark. Home page. Projects: Tactical Sound Garden. Web. 6 Dec. 2014.

Hodson, Hal. “Why Google’s Ingress is a data gold mine,” New Scientist 29 Nov. 2010: n.pag. Web. 07 December 2014.

Ford, Simon. The Situationist International A User’s Guide. London: Black Dog Publishing, 2005. Print.

Critical Art Ensemble. Home page. Web. 6 Dec. 2014.

Wark, Mckenzie, The Beach Beneath The Street – The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International. London: Verso, 2011. Print.

Critical Art Ensemble. Home page. Tactical media. Web. 6 Dec. 2014.

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