An entertaining account of the Danish painter Asger Jorn's time as a founder and member of the Situationist International. From "Asger Jorn - The Crucial Years 1954-1964".
"What was basically wrong with the S.I. was that it focused exclusively on an intellectual critique of society."
The MIBI congress which took place from 2-8 September 1956 in Alba, laid some of the foundations for the Situationist International movement. The chief participants in Alba were Jorn, Pinot Gallizio, Constant, and Gil Wolman. The latter was a delegate from the International Lettrist movement. His main contribution to the conference was a statement on ‘unitary urbanism’, the total play-town theory which later figured large in the Situationist literature.
Baj came to the congress but left almost immediately. His departure marked a final split between MIBI and the Movimento Nucleare. Two visitors from Czechoslovakia, Pravoslav Rada and Jan Kotik, arrived at the end of the congress, just in time to add their signatures to the six-point programme drawn up by the others.1
This congress was followed by the ‘unification conference’ which took place in the little Italian town of Cosio d’Arroscia in July 1957 (Fig.37). It was attended among others by Guy Debord and Michele Bernstein. Like Wolman they were members of the dissident International Lettrist group which had split off from orthodox Lettrism.
The Lettrist movement, amongst its other extravagant claims, described itself as ‘le seul mouvement d’avant-garde artistique contemporain’. It dated from 1950, though its leaders, Isidore Isou and Maurice Lemaitre, were preparing the ground for Lettrism during the second half of the 1940s. Lettrist aspirations were literary and philosophical, but branching out into educational theory, art, sociology, Marxist economics and politics.2 The group also claims to have been the first to recognize the importance of the strip cartoon as a serious medium of communication. ‘We lettrists were the first, from 1947 onwards, to love the strip cartoon as presaging a means of communication that is greater than ordinary writing. We defended it against the retrograde art critics and literary critics of the period, who regarded it as a medium fit only for children and infantile adults.’ 3 Strip cartoons held an important place in Situationist literature and polemics, as well as in most of the other protest literature of the ’fifties and ’sixties.
The ‘unification’ which took place at Cosio d’Arroscia was a merger of MIBI with the International Lettrists under the title ‘Internationale Situationniste’ (Situationist International). Guy Debord soon afterwards took charge of the secretariat and central apparatus of S.I. in Paris, as well as becoming editor-in-chief of the periodical Internationale situationniste (IS).4 He was and remained the dominant personality of the movement.
Six months after the meeting at Cosio d’Arroscia a two-day conference was convened in Paris. It set the pattern for the hard line adopted by Guy Debord and Michele Bernstein in the matter of discipline. Michele Bernstein, in an article entitled ‘No useless leniency’, explained the necessity for a disciplined organization (IS, I, pp.25-6). The first victims of this closing of the ranks were three members of the Italian section: Walter Olmo, Piero Simondo, and Elena Yerrone. They were expelled for persistently voicing reactionary views. Next in line for expulsion, two months later, was the young English painter Ralph Rumney, who had done some notable ‘psychogeographical’ research in Venice but had then fallen by the wayside, and - ‘the Venetian jungle . . . closed in on the young man’ (IS, I, p.28).
The Situationist movement, during the decade of its main influence, went through three phases. The first, formative, tentative, and relatively tolerant phase, lasted from 1957 to 1961. This coincided with Jorn’s membership. He resigned in April 1961 owing to ‘various personal circumstances’, but probably in part because he felt that the formative period, during which he could exert some influence, was coming to an end. 5 His interest in the movement had been literary and intellectual rather than political, as can be seen from his contributions to IS magazine. It is also safe to assume that some aspects of S.I. will have appealed to his sense of humour. Like his friends Prevert, Arnaud, and Dubuffet, Jorn was a title holder in the College de Pataphysique.
From 1962 to 1965 S.I. broke up into four main factions. A small nucleus remained grouped round Guy Debord and the magazine IS. The German ‘Gruppe Spur’ members were expelled in February 1962, but continued for a short time to publish spur and other ephemera on their own. In March Jorgen Nash and fellow-‘Nashists’ from the Scandinavian section seceded and were consequently expelled. They set up their headquarters on Nash’s farm in southern Sweden. The fourth element, expelled the same month, consisted simply of Jacqueline de Jong, who edited the situationist times from Hengelo in Holland. These three years had been a period of mounting dissension and acrimony.
Finally, 1966-8 saw the vindication of Debord’s policy, sustained against every kind of opposition, of adhering rigidly to the uncompromising pursuit of a singleminded plan. When the time came - in Strasbourg in November 1966 and in Paris in May 1968 - Debord was ready, with his two or three remaining supporters, to take over the revolutionary role for which he had been preparing during the past ten years. 6
Phase I (1957-61)
Jorn took an active part in the organization of S.I ., as well as helping to edit the magazine IS, to which he contributed five articles. His main effort, however, lay in the recruitment of new members. Through his brother Jorgen Nash a number of other Scandinavians came into the movement. Jorn himself brought in Constant, Pinot Gallizio, Jacqueline de Jong, and ‘Gruppe Spur’.
In the autumn of 1958 Jorn had his first one-man exhibition in Munich. There he met the members of ‘Gruppe Spur’. They were a small group of young and impressionable artists, who must have been surprised and flattered at being noticed by someone of Jorn’s standing from abroad. They were amenable to Situationist ideas, though they never grasped the finer points. This was partly because of the language barrier. S.I. sessions were conducted in French and someone had to make two-way translations for the benefit of the Germans.
Jorn helped the young Munich artists to finance their magazine spur and he introduced them to various influential people, among them Paolo Marinotti, who gave them an exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice. The artists were Lothar Fischer, Heimrad Prem, Helmut Sturm, Hans-Peter Zimmer. The German section of S.I. also included Uwe Lausen and Dieter Kunzelmann. Lausen served a short prison sentence as the result of an obscenity and blasphemy trial in Munich, for which ‘Gruppe Spur’ had provided most of the provocation. The ‘Spur’ artists went into exile.
‘Gruppe Spur’ created trouble not only vis-a-vis the Bavarian authorities but also for some of those who helped them in their careers as artists. It did not take them long to quarrel with Paolo Marinotti in Venice and Otto van de Loo in Munich. Even Jorn finally came to realize the truth of Matta’s remark to him a propos of ‘Gruppe Spur’: ‘If you pick up a strange baby, don’t be surprised if it craps on you!’
One of the most successful conferences of S.I. was that held in London in the autumn of 1960. As the conference date drew near the participants arrived in ones and twos from their various countries. When they reached London they were set the ‘psychogeographical’ task of finding their way to ‘The British Sailors Society’ in the heart of the East End (Fig.40). A room had been booked there for the conference.
The gist of the conference is reported in IS, V, pp.19-23, but one of the main events took place outside the conference room. This was the public meeting held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, which was then in Dover Street. This meeting was a triumphant success for the Situationists, but the audience was merely bewildered.
The following description is based on some notes I made at the time. The meeting had been advertised to start at 8.15 pm, but shortly before 9 o’clock the group of Situationists who occupied the anteroom and bar of the ICA were still wrangling over the English translation of their ‘declaration’. At this point Mrs Dorothy Morland, the director of the ICA, asked me to tell Guy Debord (who doesn’t speak English), that she would cancel the meeting if he was not ready to begin by 9 o’clock. I thought that such an ultimatum would be counterproductive, so I reversed the message. I told Guy Debord that the directrice was most anxious that the text of the statement should be as authentic as possible and that the audience was quite willing to wait as long as necessary. At this Debord immediately gathered up his papers and the group filed into the auditorium. Jacqueline de Jong went out to fetch Jorn who was having dinner with his American dealer, Jon Streep, in a restaurant across the road.
The meeting, from beginning to end, was a parody of a normal ICA evening. Toni del Renzio was the ICA’s chairman that night. He opened the meeting by giving some of the historical background of the Situationist movement. When he mentioned the conference in Alba there was loud applause from the Situationists. At the mention of the ‘unification conference’ at Cosio d’Arroscia the clapping was terrific, accompanied by loud footstamping. The ICA audience was clearly baffled by this senseless display of euphoria. Del Renzio then introduced the S.I. spokesman Maurice Wyckaert. 7
Instead of beginning with the usual compliments, Wyckaert scolded the ICA for using the word ‘Situationism’ in its Bulletin. ‘Situationism’, Wyckaert explained, ‘doesn’t exist. There is no doctrine of this name.’ He went on to tell the audience ‘If you’ve now understood that there is no such thing as “Situationism” you’ve not wasted your evening.’
After a tribute to Alexander Trocchi, who had recently been arrested for drug trafficking in the United States, Wyckaert launched into a criticism of UNESCO. We were told that UNESCO had failed in its cultural mission. Therefore the Situationist International would seize the unesco building by ‘the hammer blow of a putsch'. This remark was greeted with a few polite murmurs of approval.
Wyckaert ended as he had begun, with a gibe at the ICA. ‘The Situationists, whose judges you perhaps imagine yourselves to be, will one day judge you. We are waiting for you at the turning.’ There was a moment’s silence before people realized that the speaker had finished.
The first and only question came from a man who asked ‘Can you explain what exactly Situationism is all about?’ Wyckaert gave the questioner a severe look. Guy Debord stood up and said in French ‘We’re not here to answer cuntish questions’. At this he and the other Situationists walked out.
One of the interesting features of the evening had been the remarkable consistency of the play-acting by the Situationist audience in an unrehearsed situation.
This meeting was the second time that the ICA had let itself in for a Situationist hoax. Some months earlier Hurlements en faveur de Sade had been shown there. This film is Debord’s masterpiece, made in 1952 while he was a Lettrist. It was first screened at the Musee de l’Homme in Paris, where it caused an uproar. After the performance several people showed their disapproval by ‘desolidarifying’ themselves (i.e. resigning) from the Lettrist movement.
Hurlements ... is a completely blank film (cf. Fig.41) in which nothing at all is shown on the screen. The sound track comes on occasionally and consists of odds and ends of prose spoken in a deadpan voice. The film is black-and-white in the sense that the screen is black during the silences, white for the sound track. Four of the spoken passages are random extracts from the Civil Code. Other utterances are bits of chit-chat such as ‘II est amusant, le telephone’; ‘Veux-tu une orange ?’; ‘Paris etait tres agreable a cause de la greve des transports’.
During a final silence of twenty-four minutes, when the only sound in the room was the turning of the reel, a member of the audience got up, thanked Mrs Morland for an interesting evening and apologized for having to leave early. Everyone else stayed to the end, hoping that a sensational titbit might still be coming. When the lights went up there was an immediate babble of protest. People stood around and some made angry speeches. One man threatened to resign from the ICA unless the money for his ticket was refunded. Another complained that he and his wife had come all the way from Wimbledon and had paid for a babysitter, because neither of them wanted to miss the film. These protests were so odd that it was as if Guy Debord himself were present, in his role of Mephistopheles, hypnotizing these ordinary English people into making fools of themselves in public.
The noise from the lecture room was so loud that it reached the next audience, queueing on the stairs for the second house. Those who had just seen the film came out of the auditorium and tried to persuade their friends on the stairs to go home, instead of wasting their time and money. But the atmosphere was so charged with excitement that this well-intentioned advice had the opposite effect. The newcomers became all the more anxious to see the film, since nobody imagined that the show would be a complete blank!
Afterwards one realized that Debord’s use of emptiness and silence had played on the nerves of the spectators, finally causing them to let out ‘howls in favour of de Sade’.
Phase II (1962-5)
The discord that was building up inside the Situationist movement came fully into the open during the 5th Conference, held in Gothenburg in August 1961. It was the first conference at which Jorn was not present, as he had resigned in April. Without his calming influence the Germans and Scandinavians, most of whom he had personally brought into the movement, began to voice their dissent from the orthodox Paris line. Before long the mood of the conference became distinctly unpleasant, as one can see from reading the official report in IS. Yet by the time the conference ended, several of those who were shortly to be expelled had been voted into responsible posts on the central administration.
A few months after the Gothenburg conference the mass expulsion of ‘Gruppe Spur’ and three other Germans took place. The names were Erwin Eisch, Fischer, Kunzelmann, Renee Nele (the sculptress), Prem, Gretel Stadler, Sturm, Zimmer. A month later five Scandinavians were eliminated: Ansgar Elde, Steffan Larsson, Katja Lindell, Jorgen Nash, Hardy Strid. Another casualty was Jacqueline de Jong from Holland.
This purge left several countries unrepresented in the movement. Among those who remained, J. V. Martin (Denmark) showed unusual powers of survival during the next few years, unlike his colleague from Norway. The Norwegian member, Ambrosius Fjord, committed the offence of signing one or two ‘Nashist’ manifestoes. After his expulsion the authorities in Paris realized that Ambrosius Fjord was in fact Nash’s Norwegian horse. Nash had used his Norse horse to make his list of signatories look more impressive.
The root cause of the rupture between the loyalists round Debord and the rebels round Nash was their difference of opinion on the strategy for bringing about the desired cultural revolution. Debord believed in the total rejection of the prevailing consumer society, whereas the Germans and Scandinavians maintained that the existing institutions could be successfully infiltrated and undermined. At Gothenburg Heimrad Prem put forward the view that artists should work within the limits of the possible, but Debord maintained that a ‘conniving avant-garde’ was Public Enemy Number 1. By the end of the third session late at night, tempers were frayed, and epithets like ‘cultural pimp’ were hurled around. The plain dilemma, shared by all the artists from Prem to Jorn, was that painters have to sell pictures in order to live. Even Debord, the revolutionary soul and conscience of the movement, could not avoid selling paintings given to him by Jorn in order to meet the printing costs of IS. The rumour that he lived by cheating at poker was just a happy fantasy.
After the breakup that occurred early in 1962, Jorgen Nash set up a ‘Situationist Bauhaus’ on his farm ‘Drakabygget’ (‘Dragon’s Lair’) in Sweden (Fig.44). He built a studio there for Asger Jorn, who never used it.
The German painters, who now called themselves ‘Spur im Exil’, spent some time at Drakabygget, as did the English poet and painter Gordon Fazakerley and the Danish film maker Jens Jorgen Thorsen. The atmosphere on the farm was gregarious and hospitable, with an undercurrent of intrigue, not unlike the Giamaica Bar in Milan, and for the same reasons.
At Drakabygget, during the summer, a dozen or more people would normally sit down to table every day, not counting the children; and Katja had a tough time catering for these hordes. The farm’s telephone bills alone must have been alarming. Nash and his guests were compulsive long-distance callers. Another extravagant habit was that letters carrying the ‘Situationist Bauhaus’ emblem were almost automatically sent by ‘express’ mail.
Drakabygget had an air of bustle and artistic activity, even though the things produced there were mostly rather ordinary. Michele Bernstein’s claim that the Situationists ‘insist on recruiting only geniuses’ was an exaggeration.
The magazine Drakabygget 8 was written mainly in Swedish and had a limited circulation, as did the other booklets and manifestoes produced at the farm. From time to time the dissident situationists organized joint exhibitions and demonstrations. The most publicized stunts were the daubing of ‘Co-ritus’ slogans on walls and hoardings in Copenhagen, and the decapitation of the bronze mermaid in Copenhagen harbour. 9 Jorn’s association with Drakabygget was shortlived. The final rupture was caused by the ‘Co-ritus’ activities, against which Jorn spoke out in the press.
Another dissident centre was Jacqueline de Jong’s retreat at Hengelo near the German border in Holland, The Situationist Times was originally intended as an orthodox Situationist periodical to run alongside IS, but at Gothenburg it was decided that a second paper would be too expensive, besides presenting the problem of translation into English. Jacqueline de Jong, after her expulsion, launched and edited the magazine singlehanded, though many of the photographs and ideas were supplied by Jorn. Two heavily illustrated issues of The Situationist Times (on ‘knots’ and ‘labyrinths’) attained a respectable size of around 200 pages and a print run of 1,600 copies.
The Situationist Times was nominally written in English, but the editor did not feel bound by this or any other petty restriction. Even her ‘British’ edition (No.3) contained extracts in French, German, Danish, Dutch, and Spanish. Her personal contribution in English showed such a disregard for standard English grammar, spelling and vocabulary, that much of what she wrote was unintelligible. The pictures, however, told their own story. The ‘knot’ and ‘labyrinth’ numbers have a visual vitality which is lacking in the rest of Situationist literature, although the editors of IS made some effort in the direction of appearances. They chose dazzling metallic outside covers in different shades for the twelve issues of the magazine. The text itself was enlivened with girlie photos and a variety of cartoons and diagrams. These features were a sign of skilful journalism, but they had little to do with art. Debord did not have much sympathy or understanding for artists, which explains why they all left the movement. Although Jorn had resigned in 1961 he remained on friendly terms with Debord, who turned a blind eye to the contacts which Jorn maintained with dissident members in Sweden and Holland.
When we read of the continual expulsions and resignations from S.I. it would be easy to get a completely wrong impression of the overall size of the membership of the Situationist movement. Raspaud and Voyer have shown (Bibl.462, p. 14) that only seventy persons belonged to S.I. during the twelve and a half years from the foundation conference in July 1957 to the end of 1969. Out of these seventy members no fewer than sixty-six either suffered expulsion or resigned (often under the threat of expulsion). The names of those who still belonged to S.I. at the end of 1969 were Gilles I vain (classified as a ‘membre de loin’; his real name was Ivan Chtcheglov), Guy Debord, J. V. Martin, and G. Sanguinetti.
As an interesting corollary to the many purges, Raspaud and Voyer have compiled an index of those who were insulted in the pages of IS. They number 540, but Raspaud and Voyer add the consoling statistic that a further 400 persons were mentioned in the magazine without insult. The terminology of S.I. abuse has a certain curiosity value.
At the bottom of the scale are the routine expressions of disapproval which come most easily to hand: ‘braggart’, ‘cheat’, ‘cretin’, ‘hypocrite’, ‘idiot’, ‘impostor’, ‘liar’, ‘mafioso’, ‘nonentity’, ‘pimp’, ‘scoundrel’, ‘traitor’, ‘upstart’. Next comes a more precise group of epithets: ‘anti-Semite’, ‘deist’, ‘lapassadist’, ‘mentally deficient Buddhist’, ‘militarist’, ‘mythomaniac’, ‘necrophage’, ‘plagiarist’, ‘royalist’.
Political invective also has its scale, from the simple to the more complex, starting with ‘argumentist’, ‘confusionist’, ‘integrationist’, ‘reformist’, ‘Trotskyist’ and proceeding to more sophisticated aberrations such as ‘anarcho-Maoist’, ‘anti-Boumediennist’, ‘Bourguibist’, ‘sub-Leninist’, ‘stalino- surrealist’.
At the very top there are maledictions which reach poetic heights: ‘coagulated undertaker’s mute’, ‘monogamous police hound’. The lavish nature of all this surrealist abuse leads one to think that either the libel laws must be rather lenient in France or else that the magazine did not circulate very widely among the 540 insultees.
Phase III (1966-8)
The events of May 1968 in Paris and the preceding riots in Strasbourg and Nanterre have already been the subject of many books and articles. Debord, in his book La veritable scission dans Vinternational (Bibl.459), has given his own interpretation of the role that the Situationists played. A key sentence is ‘La theorie de 1’I.S. est claire au moins sur un point: on doit en faire usage’ (p. 119). Debord’s revolutionary theory was vindicated only by being put into action, as he knew from the start when he coined the striking phrase ‘Nous n’organisons que le detonateur’ (IS, VIII, p.28).
Jorn’s role in the Situationist movement (as in cobra) was that of a catalyst and team leader. Guy Debord on his own lacked the personal warmth and persuasiveness to draw people of different nationalities and talents into an active working partnership. As a prototype Marxist intellectual Debord needed an ally who could patch up the difficult human relationships and who could rise above the petty egoisms and squabbles of the members. Their quarrels came into the open the moment Jorn’s leadership was withdrawn in 1961.
Jorn’s contribution to S.I. literature consisted of five articles printed in the official magazine. These were designed (to use Jorn’s phrase in another context) to strike a balance between the serious and the fatuous (IS, I, p.23). He regarded absurdity and fatuity as important social values. Games, in his view, are absurdities conducted under a system of rules. In one of his articles, Pataphysics: a religion in the making (IS, VI, p.23), he quotes the anarchist slogan ‘to each man his own absurdities’. This article (printed after his resignation from the movement) earned him a footnote from Guy Debord, who vented his dislike for pataphysical humour by calling such humour ‘static and non-creative’. Better static humour, one feels, than none at all.
Jorn’s interest in any particular movement did not usually survive its novelty by more than a year or two. His four-year allegiance to S.I. is therefore something of a record. In its heyday the movement had sufficient international ramifications to provide him with new personal contacts which gave colour and drama to his life. It must be remembered that Jorn had few personal friends, so he needed a pretext of this sort to provide him with meaningful companionship. While not underestimating the originality and dynamism of S.I. (its vitality was proved by later events), it is not surprising that artists were eventually put off by the growing atmosphere of pedantry and chauvinism at Paris headquarters.
Libcom note: the full book with many illustrations is availabe at archive.org.
- 1A summary of the proceedings is contained in a one-page cyclostyled report La plate-forme de Alba.
- 2Its publications included a host of reviews: la dictature lettriste, front de la JEUNESSE, NOUVELLE GENERATION, LETTRISME, SLOVO, LA REVUE LETTRISTE, UR, POESIE NOUVELLE, LA LETTRE, ARGUMENTS LETTRISTES . The sheet Called POTLACH was started by the ‘international’ dissidents.
Some of the early exploits of the Lettrists, as well as their techniques of ‘drifting’ and
‘psychogeography’, are described by Christopher Gray in his recent study of Situationist origins,
ideas and influences (Bibl.491, pp.3-5).
- 3M. Lemaitre, Le lettrisme dans le roman et les arts plastiques ..., Centre de Creativite ([Paris] 1967), cyclostyled.
- 4Throughout this book the ‘Situationist International’ movement is abbreviated as S.I., whereas the magazine Internationale situationniste is in roman capitals: IS. Quotations are from the Van Gennep reprint of the magazine (Bibl.444).
- 5After April 1961 Jorn’s official status in the movement was that of a ‘clandestine’ member (Ralph
Rumney: verbal communication).
- 6Incredible as it may seem, the active ideologists (‘enrages’ and Situationists) behind the revolutionary events in Strasbourg, Nanterre and Paris, numbered only about ten persons.
- 7With typical black humour the Situationists had picked Maurice Wyckaert as their conferencier. He is stone deaf when he dispenses with his hearing aid, as he did on this occasion.
In a similar spirit of fun Adelhafid Khatib, an Algerian, was sent to explore Les Halles at night during the Paris curfew caused by the Algerian bomb scare. After his second arrest Khatib decided that he had had enough (IS, I, p. 18).
- 8Drakabygget, edited by Katarina Lindell and Jorgen Nash, appeared sporadically in five or six issues between 1962-4.
- 9Jorgen Nash was widely believed to have been responsible for this act, but there was no legal evidence against him.