Situationists at the Aquarium

The S.I. and After: What is Living and What is Dead in the Situationist International.
The Aquarium, 10 Woburn Walk, London WC1H 0JL
1-31 August 2003 (visited 27 August)

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Chalked on the doorstep of The Aquarium was the legend: ‘Nostalgia Stops Here’. This was a good sign: stepping over the threshold of a gallery which is excavating an organization that aimed to transform the individual’s experience of society should be seen as entering a new world. A world, or even a couple of rooms, without nostalgia in a land obsessed with it is no small aspiration, and displays an awareness of the problems in disinterring the artefacts of a movement which officially ceased to exist more than thirty years ago. Hence the exhibition’s subtitle: ‘What is Living and What is Dead in the Situationist International’; it is not a question, and there is a didactic element to the exhibition – ‘here we explain what matters and what does not matter’ – an attribute shared with many of the original S.I. texts.

Like many who were born or came of age after the late nineteen-seventies, and who came to the S.I. not through academia, I first became aware of them through Punk. I was in my teens when Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming was first published, and reading it at that age, I was more concerned with the human drama of Sid Vicious’s demise than the broader political and intellectual background to the music, although some elements were ineluctably appealing. And while I became vaguely conversant with the ideas of the Situationists through England’s Dreaming, it was not until my punk reading took me to Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces that my mind was irrevocably opened. Reading Marcus’s book in conjunction with the accompanying album was revelatory. I had imagined that I would be reading another fairly straightforward history of the Sex Pistols and was impressed by the sleight of hand by which Marcus referred across time to the S.I. and to Dada. It was Dada which struck me first with the descriptions in the book and the sounds on the record. Phonetic poetry revealed to me a form of vocal or written expression reduced to its most basic component. The radical possibilities of art had never before been clearer to me. Through the post-Dada Lettrists, it seemed to me that the S.I. was able to theorise this radicalism.

In the evening of the day that I visited the Aquarium, there was to be a talk on King Mob, which I had half intended to attend, but — in tribute to Debord, of course — I was too busy drinking to make my way back there. That same night I also missed the Crass Collective evening at the Vortex in Stoke Newington where they were, among other Dada-inspired events, reciting Hugo Ball’s Karawane. I abstained from this event for the same reason, aided by the fact that it the entry fee was £7 (see forthcoming broadside, ‘the gentrification of radicalism: punk’s not dead, it just lives in Hampstead’). I wonder if there were any other Punk/Dada/S.I. events occurring that same evening that I have also quite clearly missed. I occasionally think that one’s diary can best be filled by detailing all the things that were not done, especially those missed opportunities that should have been a pleasure.

Appropriately enough, information about the Aquarium exhibition was not easy to find: an A6 flyer taped to the window in nearby Skoob Books, a very small article printed in a free magazine called Nude, no mention in Time Out. Before I visited the gallery, I found its website. Aside from the perfunctory descriptions of the exhibits and events, it contains notes to the exhibition and ‘The Opening Address: TOWARDS A NEW CRITIQUE OF MODERN CAPITALISM’. These articles attempt to replicate the confrontational and allusive style of the pieces written for Internationale Situationniste. ‘The Situationist International is DEAD and the grieving is over. It is imperative for us to come to terms with this reality and to move on.’ To have to state this in 2003 suggests an extraordinarily long period of mourning. Why are we still in thrall to this ghost? What, indeed, is living in the Situationist International? The Aquarium address continues, ‘Guy Debord once said that the Situationist International would be superseded. He welcomed the idea! It is thus important for everyone who visits The Aquarium to try and contribute in this direction. Nostalgic positions will be met by the Silence of the Sea.’

The accompanying web page, ‘Notes On These Events: WHAT IS LIVING AND WHAT IS DEAD IN THE SITUATIONIST INTERNATIONAL’ also pilfers freely and wittily from Debord’s style of détournement, or, should I say it recuperates the corpse of the S.I. for the ironic amusement of urban gallery visitors? Here is a sample warning:

WE FEEL IT IS OUR DUTY TO WARN ANY CIVIC MINDED PROVO CYCLISTS TO MAKE SURE THEIR BICYCLES ARE SECURELY LOCKED AS OUR ELITE GROUP OF ART HISTORIANS WILL BE PATROLLING THE GALLERY OUTSKIRTS IN SEARCH OF DUCHAMP MEMORABILIA.

This is followed by a statement of putting theory into practice:

We will also be seeking to offer diversion from the poverty of our organizational skills by instigating investigations into detournement, psychogeography (people will be dropped off in areas of London, or if we don’t like them Dartmoor, to track down the cheapest bottle of absinthe). At the end of each evening a derive will be organised for those wishing to participate. (Those who are still sober or who can guarantee to find their way to the 73 bus stop in Euston please contact the organisers who have participated in this particular derive on numerous occasions).

This is, of course, just a bit of fun, but if the concept of dérive depends upon being led to the 73 bus stop at Euston to get home, then it takes on the character of a particularly uncommitted historical re-enactment society, and hardly scares off nostalgia.

In the gallery itself, there are amusing insults directed towards such S.I. heirs as Stuart Home and Malcolm Imrie, scattered among détourned art, or, rather, bits of The Guardian that have been written on. One such extract derides renowned S.I. translator Ken Knabb for translating Dérive as Dérive, preferring ‘drift’ and conjugations thereof. Exhibit captions are bilingual: English and Welsh; but the most exciting exhibits are not even to be looked at. This is not directly the fault of the gallery, but is in accordance with the wishes of the collector who supplied them. I understand the curators’ obligation to honour the wishes of the donor, but there is a sense of failure and missing the point in a pristine copy of Asger Jorn and Guy Debord’s Mémoires. This book was famously housed in a sandpaper jacket: a gesture of violence towards other books on the shelf. The copy in the exhibition had seemingly never so much as scratched another book. Downstairs, a small television continuously broadcast the bootleg video of Debord’s film of La Société du spectacle. But here it competed with unrelated artefacts, and I confess to being distracted by a copy of Mark E. Smith’s English-German Fall lyrics book.

So did nostalgia stop? Was it greeted by the Coleridgean Silence of the Sea? Or are such hopes met instead by Baudelaire’s laughing ocean? Was it a celebration of the living or just a belated wake? It quickly became apparent that the exhibition was only a small part of the Aquarium’s contribution to life. A great pile of empty beer cans was stacked in a corner, dedicated to Debord. It may contribute to a romantic, and adolescent revolutionary ideal, but the debris from previous revels also indicates where the exhibit takes off: in the inebriated socialising that occurs around the evening presentations. As such, by failing to attend any of these, I understand that I only witnessed half of the exhibition. What is dead are the pristine editions locked away in the cabinet, what is living are the possibilities which may haunt us beyond the life of the exhibition.

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