Time forecast, democratization of visual art

Criticism to the society of the spectacle and democratization of visual art through Debord and Fluxus’s work.

We are going to talk about rain and fine weather, but don’t think these are nonsense, because our existence depends on what the weather is like.

A heavy shower during a dérive, also in the Happy Quarter, will actually make us understand how important the weather is in our life.
By dérive one means an experimental behavioural way linked to urban society conditions: the technique of a hurried passage through various environments. It is also used , more particularly, to denote the duration of the continuous exercise of this experience. A modern flânerie in the metropolitan environment, that wants to oppose the conventional leisure time allowed to alienated workers, opens instead to real true life, to casualness of meetings and places feasibility. This strange practice is elaborated by scholars of a strange discipline, psycogeography.
is the study of the precise effects of the geographical environment, more or less consciously disposed, that directly affects people emotional behaviour. The instruments this science gives to those who want to practise dérive are maps of various urban centers, that are revised, with some arrows showing a possible route to follow. All these concepts are part of the Theory of new Urbanism. The new urbanism suggests a new idea of architecture: it is the simplest means of articulating time and space, of modulating reality and engendering dreams. It is a matter not only of plastic articulation and modulation expressing an ephemeral beauty, but an influential modulation in accordance with the eternal spectrum of human desires. Architecture is the only means of knowledge and means of action. This vision of time and space will lead to experimentation of behaviours in towns reserved for this effect, where symbolic buildings will be planned representing desires, forces and events past, present and to come. A rational extension of the old religious systems: in a certain sense everyone will live in their own personal cathedral. There will be rooms more conductive to dreams than any drug, and houses where one cannot help but love. The districts of this town could correspond to the whole spectrum of diverse feelings that one encounters by chance in everyday life: bizzarre district, happy district (reserved to houses), noble and tragic district (for good children), historical district (schools and museums), useful district (hospitals and stores).
The inhabitants’ main activity will be continuous drifting and the changing of landscapes from one hour to the next will result in total disorientation. In a few years it would become the intellectual capital of the world and would be universally recognized as such.
Gilles Ivain elaborates the Theory of new Urbanism within one of the most important and foresighted movements of the 1960s, Situationalist International. One of the most unexplainable movements and difficult to understand, under the guidance of one of the most unexplainable and difficult to understand personalities of the 20th century: Guy Ernest Debord.
But back to the International, that is presented as an artistic avant-garde, experimental research along a free construction of every day life, and a contribution to the theoretical and practical edification of a new revolutionary protest, writes Debord in 1963. International Situationalist is a political-artistic movement, or better it is a movement that cannot be defined with adjectives: it is not simply political, it is not artistic because it tends to overcome art, it is not ideologic because it aims at destroying ideologies. It is the negation and overcoming of all these things. It is a movement that proposes a revolutionary modification of culture present forms, that tries to wake up man from his passive state of spectator. A reading of consumer society one cannot avoid listening to, studying, understanding and revising. All art after Debord must take account of the results of his thought, to avoid becoming part of the society of the spectacle. The movement initially includes artist and intellectuals, it comes from the fusion of Lettrism International with International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus guided by Guy Debord and Asger Jorn respectively. The meeting point is the interest in the criticism of the everyday, developped by the sociologist Lefebvre and in Jean-Paul Sartre’s notion of ‘situation’. Aser Jorn and Pinot Gallizio are the best known artist of the movement, they both suggest new techniques: they include a capitalistic criticism in the work, Gallizio by selling his paintings to the square meter and Jorn by using already existing paintings on which he paints his modifications. Debord continues with the elaboration of social analysis and psycogeographical maps for the dérive.
The cooperation between Debord and Jorn brings to the realization of a book Mémoires, composed of quotations only, no original text and decontextualized images: it is the first example of détournement, the action of re-using pre-existing aesthetic elements, of past or present artistic production into superior construction of the environment. This text has a limited distribution, it is given to few friends, Debord himself asserts: I had felt my sober indifference towards the judgement of the public, as the latter was not even allowed to see the work.

Debord has a similar attitude when planning his feature film Hurlements en faveur de Sade, of the same year. The second showing, after the first had been interrupted by the club managers, takes place in Paris Latin quarter, in a well known film club, and creates a great expectancy fostered by Serge Berna’s declaration: Ladies and gentlemen what we are going to present here tonight is a deeply erotic film. An unknown audacity up to now. A work that will mark an epoch in the history of cinema; cheese after pears. That’s all I can say for the moment, I leave the surprise to you.

Debord’s cinematic debut is a feature film without images: his only support is the soundtrack . During the projection of the dialogues the screen is blank. The dialogues that last about twenty minutes, are dispersed in short fragments throughout an hour of silence. During the projection of the silences the screen is black and consequently the room too. The black sequences increased their duration, until the last one which lasted twenty-four minutes.

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 funded. Another complained that he and his wife had come all the way from Wimbledon and had paid for a baby-sitter, because neither of them wanted to miss the film.
These claims were so strange that one could think that Guy Debord himself was present in that moment, in the role of Mephistopheles, hypnotizing these average English people to numb them. 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! From a distance, one could understand that Debord’s use of void and silence had affected the spectators’ nerves, stirring them to shout
Hurlements en faveur de Sade.1

Debord himself underlines the film strong references to the letterist atmosphere of that period, but also some anticipations of situationalist positions as the use of detonasse sentences, taken from papers, from Joyce’s texts or the Civil Code, as derisive use of different writing styles. The film as the book Mémoires provokes the public trying to highlight how the passive condition of the spectator is necessary condition for the approval of the work. Debord succeeds in moving the public’s judgement without showing anything.
After the description of these works, Debord’s thought may be more comprehensible in one of his exclamations: revolution is not in showing life to people but in bringing them to life.

The second phase of Situationalist International is characterized by the refusal of artistic practice or better by the impossibility of separating art and politics, that brought to Gallizio’s expulsion for artistic opportunism, to the separation of a group of Scandinavian artists and Asel Jorn withdrawal. For the Situationists the relation between author and spectator is only a transposition of the fundamental relationship between manager and executants the spectacle-spectator relation is is in itself staunch bearer of capitalistic order. The point is not to engage in some sort of revolutionary art-criticism, but to make a revolutionary critique of all art.

Afterwards the major intervention of International is in May 1968 supporting the students’ protest. This protest made as its symbol Debord’s best known text La Société du Spectacle. A widespread essay in 1968, whose title was stamped in the minds of many but few seem to have read it, a visionary text only comparable to George Orwell’s 1984.

There are books whose title soon becomes an embarrassing wreck, tattered by the abuse of journalism; there are books that let themselves scorched by the flashing metaphor that inspired them.2
Perhaps the problem of this essay was the too explicit and successful description of contemporary society, too exaggerated and easy for a world that is used to absorbing every form of protest and make it live again as spectacle. Debord develops from the theories of Marx’s Das Kapital, most of all from those on the fetishist character of goods, a historical prediction that doesn’t predict an armed revolution but the birth and development of a new consumer society: the criticism he makes to this world based on representation doesn’t tarnish spectacle but it almost favours its realization.

As Carlo Freccero underlines: Criticism worked as those moral bans, those prohibitions that spark off curiosity and interest, that generate an unending and obsessive talk just about what one would like to remove or repress.3
At the time of consumerism birth, when it could still be called pre-consumerist world, Debord predicted the appeal that representation, the development of immaterial reality and spectacle illusionism, would have had. He goes beyond scientific socialism perceiving its limitations with relation to consumer society: if capitalism provided the worker with only enough to satisfy his primary needs, it would not allow him access to consumerism. The marxian analysis belongs to the first industrial revolution, when needs satisfy primary necessities.
Today the fetishists, symbolic character of an object is more important than its use: goods are deprived of their material character and become abstraction. Also with regards to work, man is getting less and less active, he becomes contemplative. The media conclude the world dematerialization, they are pure spectacle delivered to our houses and become the world representation for the man who doesn’t feel the need to know the real world. In 1990, four years before Debord’s suicide, Milan Kundera in a chapter of his Immortality makes one of his characters speak about the theory of imagology, he himself has invented: it is the overcoming of ideologies and the overcoming of reality, it takes courage from his role, making it evident and accepted.

Imagologues create systems of ideals and anti-ideals, systems of short duration that are quickly replaced but other systems but that influence our behaviour, our political opinion and aesthetic tastes, the colour of carpets and the selection of books, just as in the past we have been ruled by the system of ideologues.4

To explain what he means by overcoming of reality (virtual reality for Debord) he makes the example of the experience of knowledge of a grandmother, a person grown up in a world of ideologies. The kind of knowledge was completely personal, from bread recipes to the number of the dead in the village: nobody could have deceived our granny on practical matters that she could easily check.
On the contrary today, the example of the employee who goes back home after an eight hour working-day and turns on the television, makes us easily see how mediated and untrue our knowledge is.

These new social theories, dated by now, are description of an evident reality that doesn’t upset us any longer. However I think that all the contemporary art tendencies I have outlined so far, are strictly connected, more or less voluntary, to this criticism of the consumer society and are often born from a reaction to it: the dematerialization of the work, the disappearance of aura, the will to involve the spectator, the will to leave traditional contexts, the interest for new disciplines.

One of Debord’s favourite sentences, used also as the title of one of his films, is the palindrome In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, a sequence of characters that reads the same forwards and backwards. The film partly filmed in Venice, speaks about time as flowing, through the metaphor of water.
The group Fluxus chooses its name for the same reason, with the meaning of being active and never still to avoid time tyranny. Fluxus is an artistic group in line with the poetics (if one is allowed to call it so) of the first Situationalist International defined by Achille Bonito Oliva:
[…] the ecological zone of international experimentation that overcomes the tension towards the production of an aestheticism of things. Action painting, New Dada, Pop Art, Nouveau Réalism still constitute the polarity of a mentality that places its trust in the value of project making and of the historical linguistic process.5

Fluxus believes in nothing but reality, it chooses the principle of contradiction implying confrontation and not reconciliation. The group aims at reifying art and life, as an intuition of the world fast virtualization. This is possible only with the recovery of the object as real and no more as metaphoric memory.
Art cannot take Duchamp’s provocations as a new planning method, but instead it has to become reality, it has to enter everyday life, to be aggregation method, to bring knowledge. Fluxus is one of the first artistic groups that in postwar time underlines how the phenomenon of commodification was acquiring identity and interpersonal relationships.

Fluxus’s focus on reality, like that of Internationa,l leads to two completely different choices: Debord overcomes art while Fluxus takes it in real space.
The group Fluxus is so heterogenous as for nationalities, disciplines and poetics that it couldn’t make use of planning imperatives. Being part of Fluxus does not limit the artists’ expressive modes but it includes them in a new global strategy. It is fundamental the respect for common intentions, the most important of which is the breaking off with the everyday gesture, meant as functional and economic, aimed at a purpose. The works of Fluxus artists are not saleable but feasible events. They are experiences that want to shake the public’s unconscious thanks to the force of the a-functional. Bonito Oliva again describes them as a mobile front of people that use a strategy of social contamination: the possibility of creating a series of chain reactions. In the group there is a strong insistence on the participation of the spectator, starting from a criticism of traditional concepts of identity and authorship. The concept of art as play enjoys in associating the discipline to something that is furthermost from the sacred aura of the work, ludic activity.

In an official speech George Maciunas describes the newly born Fluxus with two words, art and amusement that:
To establish artist’s nonprofessional, nonparasitic, nonelite status in society, he must demonstrate own dispensibility, he must demonstrate self-sufficiency of the audience, he must demonstrate that anything can substitute art and anyone can do it. Therefore, this substitute art-amusement must be simple, amusing, concerned with insignificances, have no commodity or institutional value. It must be unlimited, obtainable by all and eventually produced by all.6

Amusement, play is the only space open to the a-functional in today’s society.
If man differentiates from the animal through work, the passage from homo faber to homo sapiens, he feels the need to infringe on work itself thanks to artistic urgency. But this art is nothing but play, feast, freedom from work. Art, play and transgression are the negation of work regularity, as representation of the futile. Art and play are forms of expression and activity that have their origin, their aim, their rule in themselves. Friedrich Schiller, German poet, dramatist and historian of the late 18th century writes:
Man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays.7

He considered the conception of art meant as symbol of the idea, dynamic and active symbol for the liberation of man.

For the poet real art is the only one that gives the greatest enjoyment. But the greatest enjoyment is the freedom of the soul in the living play of all its forces. Every man expects from the arts of fantasy a liberation from the restrictions of reality.8

Referring to Schiller’s theories, the artist Joseph Beuys considers that freedom in its pure form can be only found in ludic activities, that it cannot be compared to scientific freedom that has to subordinate to logic. Freedom comes from the creative will that is constitutive of man, Beuys carries out his thought of redescovery of man’s natural creativity and this mission becomes his work. Beuys’s artistic action looks for a new way to intervene on reality:
We want a new way to intervene on environment and modify it, a way in which man can make use of his freedom in a full and radical way. Exactly as it happens in the field of art. Only the man in his self-determination is free.
Art meant in a ludic sense: this is expression of absolute freedom.

Beuys carries on his attempt of giving art back to the everyday of Fluxus, he asserts the indistinction between artist and artisan and the need of the spectator’s cognitive intervention to complete the meaning of the artistic act: a large part of his work consists of lectures or happenings that wouldn’t take place without the presence of the public. But one is even more interested in Beuys’s work as it is revealing for the spectator: he sees a revolutionary force in thought, a vital nucleus for the change that, however, has to start in an artistic cultural process. In his lectures the words he more often writes on the board are democracy, brotherhood, socialism, equality. He contests the delegation system that characterize politics and that does not leave decisional power to the collectivity, the national income administration in the hands of a few selected people and the concept of democracy used by some governments that lack so much in transparency that they do not deserve the use of it. This strong political character is perhaps his tightest link with the group Fluxus, a group he has always wanted to belong to. The link between his work and the emerging culture of the spectacle is evident in Bueys’s performative choice: through these events he wants to take away the subjects from productive participation to the spectacle world by using the spectacle itself, but in an a-functional way, as a means to take them back to natural creativity.
The internationalism of Fluxus however is in contrast with Beuys’s specifically German character and also with his maddened eclecticism. The risk the artist runs is to fuel with too many legends his figure (among which false autobiographies) creating again the figure of the artist-bard that all the art of the 1960s had committed to destroy. The model Beuys adopts is strictly connected to the needs of a country as Germany, that is in a post-war period, that has to fly away from memory to be able to believe and live again. For Beuys performance is a return to the ritual, to the past, his interventions assume a strong symbolic character (for example How to explain paintings to a dead hare) in which it is difficult and sometimes impossible the intervention of the spectator to whom he asks unreserved trust. Yet in his lecture texts he often writes the requests of questions from the public: turning his person into show as a star is in clear contrast with his same democratic attitude.

After being dismissed from his faculty position at the Art Academy of Düsseldorf for opening his classes to anyone who wanted to attend it, he transforms the news photos with the police into a work of art, simply by designating it as such. The game Beuys and the group Fluxus start with spectacle, is highly hazardous, it oscillates between criticism and the indiscriminate use of it, it confuses the public and sometimes it takes it back to the position of passive spectator.
The Group in spite of professing a collective identity, and the demolition of the figure of the artist, sometimes it seems to be guided by strong figures like Maciunas, whose role is described by Dick Higgins in his A Child’s History of Fluxus:

Once fame began to happen George Maciunas and the other Fluxus people had to figure out what to do next to keep Fluxus fun and working for everybody. George liked to be the boss; but he was smart enough to know that he couldn’t be boss and tell the Fluxus artists what to do, because they’d quit and they were mostly better artists than he was. So he became the chairman instead. That meant that he couldn’t tell people what they had to do, or what they must not do if they wanted to stay part of Fluxus; instead he could tell the world what Fluxus was, and anyone who wanted to do that kind of thing was Fluxus.10 In Higgins’s description a certain disappointment is evident because of Maciunas’s tendency to keep the control of the group, but he solves the problem by underlying this personality’s versatility.
Maciunas and Higgins often work together, also planning some monographic text on Fluxus artists, printed by Higging’s Something Else Press. It is important the interdisciplinary attitude of the group that does not hyerarchize the arts but on the contrary, to dismantle
all traditional conventions, raises the level of the so called minor arts.
The purpose is to abolish culture classist character through the use of new forms of distribution of the work of art and the artist’s deprofessionalization, against the tide with regards to social division of labour that tends to specialize every single worker, making him unable to carry out a task autonomously.

After Dadaism and the Russian avant-gardes also Fluxus hybridism expresses itself through visual communication with a special interest for typography. The perceptive-linguistic revolution of the group is expressed also with a choice of types and in the page-layout. Another influent avant-garde in this field is certainly Surrealism: the practice of obsolescence consisted in the indiscriminated recovery of past graphic elements seen as opposed to contemporaneity. Maciunas, with the modern Composer IBM, makes personalized business cards for every Fluxus artist, using a varied range of modern types among which stood up in sharp relief a 19th century font someone identified in Ptofil/Decorated 035. Also in this project the personalization of the single business cards seems to respond more to the artist’s individualism than to the dissolution of the cult of subjectivity.

In the typographical design of these cards, subjective individuality oscillates between the allegorical adornment and trademark, between the utopian abatement of the artist’s exceptionality by the group Fluxus and the rule of the business culture that dismantles any form of subjective experience.11

The figure of Maciunas as typographer is very interesting, as he shows us a new possible way to see or better not to see, to cross the boundaries between arts. In the large production of communicative artefacts of the group Fluxus, there are many posters, postcards, stamps and a great deal of newspaper heads, short lived magazines of great experimentalism. In his graphic design, Maciunas used the same principles of casualness and entertainment that guided the group’s events or festivals, always with the purpose of liberating everyday life from the control and rational rules. In a posthumous interview of the curator Riamundas Malasaukas, thanks to the help of the medium David Magnus, Maciunas underlines the importance of the spectator’s participation also in artefacts like magazines. To a practical question on the publication layout that will include the interview, Maciunas through the voice of Magnus answers:

Take not necessarily the usual approach, apparently, the more eclectic. Present what it is that you have to offer. […] Yeah! There is an enthusiasm that will be expressed to the reader. The reader will pick up on that energy. It may be symbols. Little, tiny little letters, you know, but inside, that is energy.
Don’t be limited. Not to limit it, again, in short, not to limit it to any one particular thing right here, right now. Your doubts, your concerns, your fears, whatever. Leave a little bit more to the imagination. They’ll thank you for it. You don’t have to explain everything. It doesn’t have to be verbatim. Because you want the reader to be a part of the process, you don’t want to just inform them. You want them to be a participant, much like the audience is the participant of the theatrical experience. You just don’t tell them. You share with them. Kind of what is going on right now.

Guy Debord’s quotations are intentionally
omitted in the notes according to the
Situationist use of detournament.

As thumbnail we used George Maciunas
Fluxkit (2), 1966, Archive Hanns Sohm,
Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, © George Maciunas

  1. Guy Atkins, Asger Jorn, the Crucial Years, 1954-64, Lund Humphires, 1977. The text refers to a London projection in 1960.
  2. Aldo Grasso, Radio e televisione, Vita e Pensiero, Milano 2000.
  3. Carlo Freccero, Daniela Strumia, Introduzione in Guy Debord, La società dello spettacolo, Baldini&Castoldi, Milano 1997.
  4. Milan Kundera, Immortality, Grove Pr, London 1991.
  5. Achille Bonito Oliva, Gabriella De Mila, Claudio Cerritelli, Ubi fluxus ibi motus 1990-1962, Mazzotta, Milano 1990.
  6. Foster Hal et al., Art since 1900. Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, Thames & Hudson, London 2005.
  7. Friedrich Schiller, Saggi estetici, Utet, Torino 1968.
  8. Marino Freschi, L’utopia nel Settecento tedesco, Liguori Editore, Napoli 2004.
  9. Joseph Beuys, La rivoluzione siamo noi, lecture at Palazzo Taverna, Incontri Internazionali d’Arte, Rome, 1972
  10. Dick Higgins, A Child’s History of Fluxus in Horizons: The Poetics and Theory of the Intermedia, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale 1979.
  11. Foster Hal, et al., Art since 1900, op. cit.
  12. Life after life, an interview with George Maciunas by Raimundas Malasauskas featuring psychic medium David Magnus published in “Dot dot dot”, January 2007.