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The Concept Of Situationism Film Studies Essay

Situationism refers to the ideas and ethos of the Situationist International, a Paris based avant-garde movement that took place within 1957 to 1972. The Situationist International’s primary aim was to transform everyday life and reconstruct the city. The Situationists conveyed great hostility to every aspect of modern capitalist society and believed that everyday life was suffocated by the spectacle: “a frozen moment in history in which it is impossible to experience real life or actively participate in the construction of the lived world” (S. Plant 1995 p1). They believed that one’s life had been degraded by capitalist society and mass production, and that you no longer seen yourself as separate, you became a consumer and controlled by the spectacle.

The Situationist International wanted to eradicate the spectacle and transform the real image and meaning of the everyday life. During this period of Situationism, the 1950’s and 1960’s was bursting with technological achievement, capitalism was promising change and development within society. For example, artistic, political and sexual liberation was encouraged, inequalities seemed to reduce, and anyone could purchase or consume anything; capitalism was expanding. However, this fundamental achievement within society seemed superficial to the Situationists, and the economic structure remained the same. In Paris, De Gaulle speeded up urban development due to political and social instability, thus; urban planning and architecture was becoming heavily controlled by this capitalist inspired modernism. In consequence, it was destroying the old city even more than Haussmann’s renovation in the 19th century.

Dadaists, surrealists and the Bauhaus deeply influenced the Situationists. The Situationists wanted to restore the revolutionary spirit these modernist groups once had, as they had given up due to functionalism and mass production of capitalism, which allowed machines to dominate the workers, rather than the other way round. It was this revolutionary spirit and rebellious attitude that the Situationists lived for.

A significant influence that is often disregarded when discussing Situationism is Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialism. In accordance with Sartre, “the human subject is always free to choose her freedom at any moment, and for that reason, is always ‘en situation’.” (N. Whybrow 2010 p93). Therefore it can be argued that the Situationists reinterpreted this existentialism idea and related it to their left wing politics. In addition, ‘en situation’ or a situation is a moment of political freedom and self empowerment. So by creating a situation, you are authentically engaging with the world, using it to defeat the spectacle. The Situationist International believed that capitalism and consumerism was overpowering authentic life, that it had been replaced by its representation, acting like a superficial façade: which is the spectacle. The Situationist International believed that within a consumerist society, relations between commodities had replaced relations between individuals; that life is not about living, but having; and commodities and being materialistic is more important. Society of the spectacle uses the image to determine what people need, and consequently have. Thus, life distances itself from the authenticity and becomes a condition of ‘appearing’. As a result, the Situationists create these situations within the city in attempt to defeat the spectacle.

By only using theatre as a way of defeating the spectacle seemed impractical and too ambitious, therefore they rejected this ‘conventional form of artistic expression’ (N. Whybrow 2010 p92), and sought alternative creativity; this was the city. The Situationists utilised the city as one great urban performance space and “all the people as performers”(S. Sadler 1999 p105). Much like Shakespeare’s famous words ‘All the worlds a stage, and all the men and women are merely players’. The Situationists used the city like a continuous and never ending performance which engaged its players (the public) to see the city in a different light and attempt to escape the spectacle.

The Situationists utilised psychogeography, a rebellious strategy for interfering with everyday life within the city. It was an exploration of the effects of geographical environment and how this affected the behaviour of people. They did this by developing the notion of dérive or drift. The drift rejected any concept of walking with a purpose, getting from point A to point B. As an alternative, the dérive/drift was usually a prolonged discovery of the city as if it were unfamiliar or alien. It was an exploration of the urban landscape without reason. “Groups of Situationists would float across Paris in the pursuit of anarchy, play and poetry” (N. Whybrow 2010 p96). In the eyes of the Situationists urban space was one huge playground oozing with poetic spirit. They analysed the areas and places within the city which affected their mood, behaviours and areas which created ambience, revealing the poetic nature of the city seeping through the cracks of the spectacle. The more you drifted, the more you detached yourself from the spectacle.

After completing dérives or drifts, the Situationists created psychogeographic maps, these illustrated the journeys they had completed. One of the most popular psychogeographic maps is The Naked City, created by Guy Debord and Asger Jorn. Instead of being designed in a customary standard way, which brings order to the city, these maps were disorientating and attempted to convey what the Situationists believed within the everyday city. The map was an attack on the principles of urbanism, and to alert individuals to their imprisonment of routine. But the most important reason was to illustrate what metaphorical qualities Paris had. The Naked City was “an attempt to capture the moment of the city in time without freezing it into spectacle […] It is a map of experience rather than of activity” (N. Whybrow 2010 p98). Therefore the areas which were shown on the map where places across Paris where the Situationists identified poetic significance and therefore crucial to the figurative meaning of the city.

It is apparent that the role of the city played a significant part of the Situationists concept, and performance within the urban landscape played a huge part within their process of attempting to liberate individuals from the suffocations of a capitalist society. Although they were interested in performance and play, they rejected any form of structured theatre. They did not want to perform, and be watched by an audience, they wanted to break the forth wall. Before the development of the Situationist International, theatre practitioners shared similar views. For instance, Bertolt Brecht developed epic theatre that could possibly help change the world, illustrating the conditions of society; making the familiar strange, much like the Situationists notion of the drift, making the familiar city alien and foreign. Brecht did not want to perform to his audience, he wanted to politically engage with them, eliminating the forth wall. Brecht said “Between one thing and another there hangs a curtain: let’s draw it up!”(B. Brecht 1949 p189). This is similar to the Situationists outlook, but alternatively using the city as the performance space, not the stage. Similarly Artaud believed that “we must look for it in the streets, not on stage” (Artaud 1974: 57-8 p7ppc). Using the city as a performance space seemed popular in attempts to defeat the spectacle.

On the other hand, after the events on May 1968; one could argue that the spirit of Situationists came to an end. Their political practices became deflated by the effect of this modern day revolution and Guy Debord ended the Situationist International in 1972. However, this is not to say that the essence of the Situationists is dead. The political avant-garde movement of the Situationist International has crucially influenced many performing artists and theorists across the world, and the Situationists notion of the dérive/drift can be found in many modern day artists and performers, in attempt to defeat the spectacle of the everyday life within the city.

For instance, Wrights & Sites is a theatre group which was formed in 1997, and consists of four performers who produce experimental, site-specific work within the city of Exeter. They are influenced by the Situationists conception of the drift. Rather than inviting audiences to specific theatres and perform, they invite people to walk with them, discovering and finding the city, “jumping fences and making cuts down alleyways, [and seeing the city as] an animated art gallery […] inscribed by monuments, footprints, havens and danger zones” (Wright & Sites website). The theatre group created a manifesto entitled “An Exeter Mis-guide”; it is a small book which offers the adventurous pedestrian an interesting exploration of misguided tours of the city of Exeter. By following step by step instructions it allows pedestrians to explore the urban space, and give the opportunity to ‘drift’ rather than directing them where to go and what to see. Interestingly, An Exeter Mis-guide is disrupting the regular conventions of tourism and offers the adventurous pedestrian “a forged passport to an ‘other’ city” (Wrights & Sites website), the one which is unfamiliar. By creating this mis-guide it could be suggested that it defeats the spectacle of the capitalist society.

Mis-guided tours have been a significant part of their work and development, and they wanted to share and present the hidden ambience of the city to the public. They believed, much like the Situationists that the city’s atmosphere remained imperceptible to the habitual walker, so by producing their manifesto it gave opportunity to anyone to re-establish the city as something unknown. Wright & Sites utilised different methods of attempting to recreate the city, and one of them which they call ‘catapults’. This system involved them taking arbitrary bus rides, or asking a taxi driver to choose a destination at random, hand them some notes over and blindfolded themselves, while listening to music. This way, they discovered new areas of the city, but with a feeling of excitement and apprehension. Another example of Wrights & Sites is that they would find council yards and rearrange discarded road signs and cones, this form of practice is quite similar to the Situationists ‘détournement’, hijacking or in an other view creating corruption of society’s existing aesthetic elements, using the road signs and cones to recreate art or conveying some sort of political message and playing with the city.

In contrast, Wrights & Sites’ philosophy differ from the Situationists concept of unitary urbanism. Instead of the Situationists in turning life into one continuous drift, and defeating the spectacle, Wrights & Sites value the city, they appreciate its “its dark tales of conspiracy […] mistakes, lies and rumours” (Wrights & Sites website); whereas the Situationist International wanted to confront the city and defeat capitalism. They use their manifesto ‘An Exeter Mis-guide’ to see the city in new perspectives, however this is deliberately sought. Questionably, it is more organised and than the Situationists drifts, it pays particularly attention to areas within the city that cause concern. In other words, Wrights & Sites invite the adventurous pedestrians as a novice human geographer. Interestingly, engaging the public to re-map the city as their own, and sharing the same felt ambiences that the Wrights & Sites once felt as they discovered parts the city that unlock the metaphorical and poetic significance that Exeter has to offer. So, by engaging in their dérives/drifts, Wrights & Sites believed that the novice human geographer would become more deeply involved and occupied with the city, opening up likely constructive input for the city’s development and expressive potential. However, in regards to the Situationists mission to defeat the spectacle, they would possibly be against the city’s development in relation to capital, but in favour of its expressive possibilities.

Their ‘Exeter Mis-guide’, and the Situationists’ ‘dérive’ is not at all futile or just something exciting for experimental tourism. Its significance and meaning is crucial within today’s society. The city and its urban space are important and productive. To be able to find the city’s poetic and metaphorical meaning you must “Push to the edge of your comfort zone. Notice if you reach it, the point at which you no longer feel safe. Then take one more step” (Wrights & Sites, 2006:24). Mentioning this quote is very appropriate, because until you push yourself out of your limits, like the quote suggests, you don’t feel or experience the true ambience of the city that Wrights & Sites and the Situationists pursued in their exploration of the city’s everyday life, in order to break away from the suffocation of capitalism.

**The playfulness of the drift can be compared to childs play, as they create stories and adventures using the space around them. For example, windows as doors, walls as mountains, gardens as magical realms etc, children are recreating the world and their space all the time; dreaming of things which are bigger, taller, smaller and more dangerous, a world with different customs and conventions. The life of a child is already a drift. Thus, to understand the full potential of the drift, perhaps you have to rediscover your childhood imagination and explore the city as if you were a child, lost and vulnerable in an unfamiliar realm.**

The article ‘A new way of walking’ discusses a group of artists from Copenhagen gathered in New York City in 2004, which were all interested in participating in an organised dérive. Participants contributed to a tour of the city, using a map of Copenhagen instead of New York, in order to make the city foreign and attempts to remap the city and discover metaphorical meanings which are masked by the spectacle. The article states that the drift, inspired by the Situationists “lets us experience our landscape anew, that forces us to truly see what we’d otherwise ignore” (J. Hart 2004)

The article ‘The Road to Utopia’ discusses the artist Hamish Fulton, his form of art is walking. One could suggest that his passion was influenced by the Situationists psychogeography, and their notion of drifting. Fulton felts that “walking across a place was an act so meaningful, distinct, conscious, that it deserved to be thought as art” (J. Jones 2002). His art exhibitions consisted of striking photographs of remote landscapes. However, it is important to mention that Fulton reminds his observers that the photographs are not the core of this art, whereas it is the ‘walking’ that is the true art. The photographs are merely evidence that his art occurred. One could suggest that his photographs and walking is a goad. His exhibition, allocated in London; one of the most populated cities in the world, is to create a sense of realisation that city life is not where it is at. There are other places in the world that are more exciting and pulsating that make you feel alive, transient and small. Hamish Fulton’s photographs are “no more than an inadequate souvenir of the walk to which it alludes” (J. Jones 2002). Fulton uses the role of the city to remind us of our mundane, repetitive capitalised inspired lifestyles. His pictures tease and frustrate us, their purpose it not to satisfy our artistic needs, but to point out that something is missing within our lives, his pictures can be seen as some form of advertisement, advertising a form or art or way of life which is thrilling and exciting, in comparison to our urban lifestyle.

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