The Anti-Situation of Amsterdam - Asger Jorn

Asger Jorn 'Those Left Behind' painting 1950

A previously unpublished text by Asger Jorn, introduced by Peter Shield. From Transgressions #5 (2001).

Submitted by Fozzie on April 2, 2024

Introduction by Peter Shield

In 1960-61 Asger Jorn was moving away from his involvement with the Situationist International into a number of other projects. This was in line with his usual practice of a passionate involvement in the groups he joined or founded for about three years', followed by a disillusionment which led to his departure for fresh fields. Both in the case of Cobra, when he sent out a round-robin to the other members (reproduced in Asger Jorn, Lettres a plus jeune, 1998) and of the Situationist International, when he composed. a text intended for the Internationale Situationniste (I.S.) magazine, committed his dissatisfactions to paper.

The latter document, written in Jorn's "picaresque rather than picturesque" French (as one of his Cobra collaborators had put it), was probably never sent to Debord for publication, At any rate, with its repetitive text, spelling and grammatical errors, erratic capitalisation and occasional Danish-isms, it lacks the polish given to his published texts in French by the copy-editing of Dotremont (in his Cobra days) and Debord. Nevertheless, it is of great interest, exposing the many antinomies of his position at the time. The support given to him and his colleagues by museum directors like Sandberg is weighed against the clean sweep creation of new situations, as is the eternal problem of professionalism versus amateurism, current in Cobra as well as the S.I., and the idealism of the individual's commitment to the group. Jorn was on the point of developing "a complete revision of the existing philosophy" (which is described in my recent book Comparative Vandalism, reviewed elsewhere in this issue of Transgressions), which took into account national differences and the role of history and the future. All these points are emerging here in a text obviously written at speed and with great urgency. Published here for the first time, I have not attempted to reproduce the various textual anomalies in my translation, but instead have gone for as readable a text as possible.

For those unfamiliar with the events of the time, Troels Andersen admirably summarises them in his recent biography of Jorn, which draws heavily upon the extensive archive material at Silkeborg Art Museum.

[Jorn] met frequently with Debord. Together they attempted to realise the decisions of the Munich meeting. Sandberg [director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam] had promised to put exhibition space at the group's disposal in May 1960. The Dutch 'bureau', which consisted of Constant, supplemented by two architects [Oudejans and Alberts], were to negotiate the details.

During February, when Jorn and Debord became aware that nothing had happened, they travelled to Holland to talk with the Dutchmen. They met at the museum on 4th March. Jorn wished to speak with Sandberg alone and stated afterwards that neither the finance nor anything else were in place. The idea had been, as in Debord's suggestion from 1956, to construct a labyrinth that began inside the museum and led the visitors out into the street, where the whole city would become a 'psychogeographic' extension of the exhibition. A description and a schematic plan of the labyrinth was published in the June number of Internationale Situationniste (also included in this issue of Transgressions).

There Sandberg was portrayed as the representative of a cultural-political reaction. Jorn defended him in an unpublished text as the museum leader who had had the courage not only to carry out Constant's first New Babylon exhibition, but also to have earlier supported Constant, Gallizio and Jorn himself with purchases. He compared the attack on Sandberg with the scandal around the Cobra Exhibition of 1949 and called the new attack coarse and vulgar. Debord resorted to his usual means, the exclusion of the two architects. In true totalitarian fashion, Constant was made to transmit the news. In the magazine the motive for their exclusion was that they had designed a church. Jorn wished, as in his time with Cobra, to preserve the tension and dynamic that the opposition between himself, Constant and Debord could create. However, Constant had had enough and in June announced his departure from the collaboration.

...The 'central committee' [of the I.S.] met on 11th - 13th April [1961] in Munich. The Spur Group, which took the Situationist rhetoric very seriously, had come into conflict with Otto van de Loo [Spur's and Jorn's art dealer], who had made it known that he did not wish any connection with the Situationists. Maurice Wyckaert had taken van de Loo's side and had been excluded. With his strange logic, Debord maintained that "it was completely unacceptable that the art dealer could or could not freely 'break with the I.S.', which had absolutely nothing to do with him. It was simply an obvious attempt to interfere in the affairs of the I.S. by an art dealer who had personal connections with several Situationists...". Jom visited van de Loo in Munich to attempt clarification, but then took the consequences of both this discord and the previous conflicts. He had been on the point of breaking with the group after the magazine's complaints against Sandberg. He now announced his resignation and thereby robbed Debord of the opportunity of excluding him. At the same time, he continued to finance the magazine and maintained personal contact with Debord.

Troels Andersen, Asger Jorn: En biografi: Arene 1953-73, (1997, pp.102-3, 112)

The Anti-Situation of Amsterdam - Asger Jorn

In 'Die Welt als Labyrinth', I.S. [Internationale Situationniste] (number 4)1 explains the accident of Amsterdam in an extremely traditional and classical manner from the perspective of absolute and idealised progress, or a perspective of history necessarily and absolutely surpassing the old, but without recognising that the old in our epoch could have been either revolutionary or reactionary. Thus in the eyes of Constant, Sandberg just becomes the worse k kind of reactionary. What astonishes me is that this attitude is addressed unilaterally at me.

The great value of situationism is, on the one hand, of having opened out new creative perspectives towards the future and, on the other, of having highlighted the immediate, the present, as the crux of each situation. This opening towards the future is made by the fixation of a new conversion point, a zero point, which is the realisation of unitary urbanism. All the activities of the international situationist movement thus become preparations for the realisation of this goal, this zero point, from which the true radiation of situationist creation is able to start, thus transforming idealistic utopianism into an experimental and conscious utopianism.

If the realisation of unitary urbanism becomes the unique goal of situationism, as it has in Constant's programme, then at that moment unitary urbanism becomes anti-situationist, and the step in that direction will only be that of the precursors condemned by later true situationists as dirty reactionaries, as it has been possible to do in the case of Sandberg. With time our efforts thus take on a character which perfectly reflects a cultural reformism. This is uniquely a question of distance. Seen from a distance, each revolution takes on the perspective of simple reform. The difference between revolution and reform and even stasis is not a simple question of presence or distance, or even absence, it is what is called reification or Entfremdung, and situationism is above all the revolt against reification or situationism is nothing. It is possible that the post-war cultural reformists have not been able to do anything for the true innovators. This will always be so. [...] Knowing and deeply detesting these post-war cultural reformists as I do, I am unable to accept that Sandberg should be considered as their norm or perfect model. I continue to regard him as the exception that confirms the rule and gives him a merited glory. However, at the same time this exception remains above all an exception. There are those who constantly balance at the limit of what is not possible and, contrariwise, those who see an ethical position in being able to say say 'they could have done better'. Closely following developments in my own domain, Sandberg seems to me the only representative of cultural ability after the war that cannot placed in the latter category. The attacks against Sandberg on the 4th March. were violent only in the vulgar meanness of the insensitive insults, in the manner of current Catholic propaganda. The immediate resignation demanded with much fuss after the COBRA exhibition in 1949 was a much more serious attack. These two incidents have been far from isolated. To explain his invitation of a situationist exhibition as a last moment revolutionary detournement to save his reputation seems to me even more absurd seeing that, since 1949, he has exhibited and purchased works by Constant, declared Gallizio and by me, as well as his invitation for the situationist exhibition being in declared opposition to all the other cultural reformists. Sandberg has had the skill to remain in his place whilst we others have been considered lepers by the reformists. That is all.

This is a critique, a purely spatial critique, not of the attitude of Sandberg, but of the extreme extents of his capacity and an efficacy always pushed to the limits, and thus, with due consideration, in Sandberg, I am obliged to recognise that what I call true revoltionary. However, those, who, for one reason or another, delay the course of events and the blossoming of human action, those I call reactionaries. It is for this reason that I do not hesistate to call the Amsterdam Bureau of Unitary Urbanism reactionary. The plan for the realisation of the labyrinth by May 1960 was entrusted to the Bureau in Munich in Autumn 1959. The Bureau made no contact with the museum where the manifestation was to take place, nor with Sandberg who had to realise it, before 5th March, and then only provoked by the presence of Debord and myself, and with a demonstrative contrariness on the part of Constant.

The plans should have been prepared months in advance and discussed by members of the movement and by practical authorities. The required money should also have been requested in time from the Prince Bernhard Foundation, as had been meticulously arranged for the monograph on Constant on the occasion of his personal exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum.

The Munich Congress gave full powers to the Amsterdam Bureau to realise the exhibition and the publication of the Potlatch review, because the latter confirmed its revolutionary intent. A reactionary activity which comes into effect in a revolutionary movement is called sabotage. The lack of activity on the part of the Bureau in these two domains can only be characterised as sabotage against situationist activity. The unwarranted or even casual insult is a situationist method able to cut across useless arguments in order to reinstate the truth in all its purity. We used this method successfully in 1956 against the Milan triennial which wished to conceal its refusal to realise the labyrinth we had proposed, and this was effective in prompting a distinction between the activity of Cobra and that of Situationism when Sandberg proposed a mixed exhibition to us, and if our aim had been to distance ourselves from the museum of Amsterdam and from Sandberg, I would have supported an even more spectacular provocation. But a provocation can have two contradictory aspects according to whether it serves a revolutionary movement in the struggle for its interests, or, on the other hand, if it is to serve to camouflage a sabotage organised from within a movement at the moment it risks being unmasked. The situationist movement can insult whosoever it likes in my name, providing that the general direction is pure, but if I now complain, it is to demonstrate that neither insults nor provocations directed outwards can hide the fact that the Amsterdam affair can in its principal aspect be described as a disadvantageous provocation against the movement itself. The publication of Oudejans's sketches of churches in Constant's article in Forum is thus not at all surprising, nor the undertakings for ecclesiastical ambiences by Alberts and Oudejans. On the contrary they explain everything, and the former discourses, already denounced at the Munich congress as a shabby Americanised pragmatism, had already indicated what was to come.

The fact that Constant could censor a text by Debord to use it under the latter's signature in a catalogue for an exhibition exhibition in a text in Germany, has incited the latter to write in I.S. (number 4) that "it is completely unacceptable that our publications should be revised - if this is not done by the S.I. in concert - and that they should appear to continue to honour the responsbility of the authors. It must be made evident that one's signature will be withdrawn after the least censorship."2

What I have written here is a clarification of the censored part of my consideration upon of the Amsterdam affair. The rest can be read in [I.S.] number 4. I am not against the modification of texts which have to appear to represent a movement, even with a signature, provided that this allows a homogeneity in the communal processes. Theoretical detournement can also be as fertile as practical detournement. But since I have not read this account about me and I feel obliged to add these commentaries, I ask myself, since this account is made by the IS in concert, if I am still part of this ensemble on whose behalf I take editorial responsibilities. An equivocal situation on this question would be inadmissible to me.

A reification necessary for the absolute originality of the individual creation is imposed in every organised collaboration. This is done in accordance with a communal discipline, in itself anti-artistic and anti-situationist, but which takes on a creative scope under the creative direction of someone who makes the others, so to speak, creative instruments for the multiplication of creative ideas. This direction could pass constantly from one person to another following the development of inspiration, as in the improvisations of jazz, or be definitively established, as in the classical orchestra, where a hierarchy of degree of inferior importance to the conductor becomes impossible. It is evident that the system of classical hierarchy is inconsistent with the situationist method. On each occasion the individual situationist is at the same time occupied with maintaining the directed development and with preparing himself to follow the temporary direction of the movement at the most favourable moment to realise an effort, in creating an immediate situation which is linked with or interprets a liaison with the determinant perspective of the movement. A deviation from this perspective cannot be made by the detournement and exploitation of our efforts in a utilitarian propaganda, be it commercial, political, confessional, etc. which thus breaks the autonomy of the movement. This deviation becomes evidently more and more easy and dangerous the more one approaches the tentative neighbours of situationism, which because of their decrepitude are incapable of renewing themselves but can, perhaps, put off their death a little by purchasing an external novelty. All this is, however, of less importance in connection with the internal problems of the movement. The danger for each situationist is of becoming a specialist whether of a determinant goal or in the perpetual creation of situations in the [immediate moment].

It is here that an unresolved conflict can be found in the movement and which is the very essence of the Amsterdam affair, and which shows that the accord which was the result of the Munich conferences has been a manoeuvre, a compromise and not the result of a superior comprehension.

If Sandberg, as I am supposed to have said, was truly the normative or complete representative of cultural reformism after 1945, he would be a symbol of this attitude like Chaplin, and one would be able to place him there and one would then be able to discuss, under the name of Sandberg, whether this cultural semi-modernism after 1945, in all its neutrality, is preferable to open reaction at its worst. But one cannot ignore that the attitude and the brilliant career of, for example, Oudejans, had been perfectly known to Sandberg during the discussions of the exhibition, even though neither Debord nor I had been in the picture about all this. If we were at this moment to accept the proposition of Constant to make a demonstration against Sandberg, with Oudejans as a collaborator, our role would be that of rotten apples, and situationism would reduced to a joke.

At the time of M.I.B.I., we had to pit ourselves against the perfect type of neutral reformism in our conflict with the founder of the Hochschule fur Gestaltung in Ulm, the architect Max Bill. Our critique only served to assist the reaction by replacing him wimth, that sinister imbecile Maldonado. At any rate, this development allowed the Spur Group to put the futility of the theoretical knitting of Max Bense in its place in 1958. The situation in Germany would be much less brilliant if the same Maldonado had been a member of the situationist movement or supported by one of the members. At that time Constant was very clear about refusing the offer to become a professor at Ulm. This time he does not seem to have evaluated the various damages according to their exact proportions.

Sandberg, being about to retire, is a finished man as far as being a cultural politician. No exists to continue his line in his environment, where he was placed by hazardous circumstances, the war, a possibility that cannot be repeated in the circumstances of a new social disruption. And so? I only know of one problem here, the problem of the dignity with which the revolutionary movement treats its past. One could ignore it. But history is self-made, even that of Danton and Robespierre. If we are for a future without history, we are for a future without situations because these are the events of history. It is here that I have to ask if I am of the situationist movement.

In the manifesto of I.S. (4), it is written that situationism is "against preserved art, being an organisation directly of the actual moment."3 This notion of the non-future, also formulated by Andre Frankin in his "Programmatic Sketches"4 , is to me rather enigmatic and I fear that Sandberg would really be much closer to signing up to it without asking for explanations than I would.

I am against the fabrication of preserved art, art eternal, art the goal of which is to preserve or be preserved, and for an art which is directly the expression of the actual moment and the goal of which is the intensification of this instant. I am for the organisation of this initiative because it is the unique means of realising it today, when organisations are becoming more and more efficacious in preventing precisely that. But I have behind me the disappointing experience of the poet Jeppe Aakjaer, who, when he was 50 years old, criticised exactly the over-simplified way in which this goal of the living word had been implemented, by saying after a stay at Folk High School, "I learn nothing from the dead words of living men. I learn everything from living words of dead men - long live the dead." The words of this combative socialist were certainly paradoxical, but I am persuaded that the theoretical and artistic work of the situationist movement is not comprehensible overnight and that this is not a question of a temporary state. That time possesses different speeds will always be so, and for me this is exactly the situationist's domain to profit from. For me urbanism can never be a spatial construction. Only spatial constructions with durations that stretch from a minute to thousands of years can be situationist instruments for me, no other.

I have never properly deliberated upon the criterion of a collaboration. For me the essential thing is the instinct for extraordinary momentum which exists in the situationist movement and my pleasure is in discovering each day new aspects of this endeavour. I am of the opinion that the revolutionary movement possesses a development and, by this fact, a history of progress and visible stages. I am of the opinion that the situationist movement itself possesses its own history already. I do not wish to indicate the stages marked by the members of the situationist movement through the creation of new and precise situations in the various domains already, established in the history of art and culture.

I just want to attempt to explain the reason for the basis of the anti-event of Asterdam. Up to now all the situations which mark the situationist movement have been internal realisations by individuals or fractions of the movement. The manifestation of Amsterdam was the first essay in orchestrating the whole movement and the entire responsibility was given to the Amsterdam Bureau, after violent discussions on the subject of individual creation in Munich. In recognition that the orchestration of play required knowledge of the principles of orchestration and accepting the superiority of an architectural education over that of the free and spontaneous artists' knowledge of materials, we yielded everything. The mistrust which reigned in Munich can, perhaps, excuse or explain why the Bureau has not since made contact with the various national sections for the realisation of this orchestration, even though they had the Potlatch publication to hand for this purpose. The silence on the subject of the theoretical realisation itself only served to enlarge this mistrust, which found its complete justification after total failure had created a complete hostility and irreparable fissures within the group by definitively separating the elements out which were only interested in the creation of immediate situations at any price and, on the other hand, those who could only agree with pure initiatives for the definitive goal, both extremes abandoning the situationist idea.

The failure of Amsterdam could be excused and tolerated if the labyrinth as a project had been capable of stating in the new and original situation the principle of the construction of labyrinths themselves, if the project could have turned the concept of the labyrinth itself upside down in putting it in rapport with the problem of the network of Galton's apparatus, where the essential problem of situationism is a game. It is regrettable that the project itself shows us that the reason for the labyrinth itself as an elementary phenomenon of situationism has eluded them, and that they do not even know of the geometria situs or situ analysis which has marked the last 100 years. If the Bureau had taken the trouble to study the principle of labyrinths in Chr. Weiner's Ober eine aufgabe aus der Geometria situs, which appeared in 1873 in Mathem, Annalen, their construction would at least have had interesting aspects, as they would have included all the extraordinary evolution that situlogy under the name of topology had made since the end of the last war.

[...] If situlogical investigations are not capable of surpassing or at least taking account of general topology, as one can see on the evidence of the project of the labyrinth of Amsterdam, the practical realisation of which would only ridicule our pretensions [sic]. That this criticism has to come from a free artist is rather troubling.

It is, nevertheless, important for the movement that such a criticism does not only come from outside, especially because we cannot be satisfied with a topology, i.e., that which is present in its actual formula. In the immediate future, we will be obliged to absorb topology in a general situlogy and, at the same time, to establish a general situgraphy which embraces, amongst other things, the geometries and the topologies. We are also capable of this.

As we have surpassed technical methodology by, on the one hand, the establishment of a scientific methodography and, on the other, by the anti-methodical method of play and of derives, we will go on to utilise the scientific aspects for our purposes, in contrast to the socialist perspectives which allow themselves to be used for scientific and technical purposes. Amateurism is an essential force of situationism, but the anti-situation created by the dilettantism of the Amsterdam Bureau has only diverted the external situation towards the movement internally. The situation is there. To be sorted out.

Translated by Peter Shield.