NOSTALGIA STOPS HERE: A REVIEW OF THE "SI AND AFTER" EXHIBITION AT THE AQUARIUM
"Some of their writing and art -- although the Situs gave up that particular practice at quite an early stage -- is clearly influenced by alcohol. For example, the enlargement in the mind of the drunk of the human condition so that the pathos of life is unbearable is evident. Moreover, some aspects of the work read like, not just the product of a hangover, but the hangover itself -- full of peripheral visions and paranoias, pointing at what's under the surface, unknowable -- dreams we will never remember, images we may never understand. There are imperceptibles; demonic impulses just outside of consciousness, lurking with murderous rage and inconsolable sadness."
By Richard Cabut
COPYRIGHT © 2003, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
"Nostalgia stops here"
So reads the bold graffiti on the step of The Aquarium, "a new art'n'ideas space" in central London which hosts a month (the whole of August) of talks, films and exhibits based on all things Situationist. But since our Guy Debord-led, Paris 1968-and-all-that revolutionary chums gave up the ghost in 1972, how can nostalgia possibly be avoided?
Perhaps the graffiti artist meant that many of the issues addressed, thoughts expressed and visions created by the Situs in their ultra-smart attacks on society during the 60s now seem strangely prophetic -- and that in this respect, the message and meaning of the SI is, in a sense, entirely relevant?
It was the Situs who pointed out that people were no longer participants but spectators of life -- that what hapless folk were living was not real life. With no sense of purpose or any tangible feelings of authenticity, they are separated from themselves and their products. This is because, said the Situs, everywhere and in all areas of human activity reality is consistently replaced by images -- the society of the spectacle, as it were. Life has become akin to a gigantic advert, they said: the economy of daily life is based on a continued exchange of humiliations and aggro; the central function of modern life is to accumulate dead gifts; there is no value, meaning or direction in a world where the logic of the market and the sign conspire to suggest that nowadays, there's nowhere else to go but to the shops.
With a stylish cockiness, the Situs emphasised that "work was a disgrace", "the concept of leisure was an insult" and "real life was elsewhere" - to be rich today is to possess the greatest number of impoverished objects.
Modern society, claimed the Situs, is a closed system, which through the process of recuperation absorbs and negates opposition and critiques. It is a feedback system akin to the type of artificial intelligence systems that information theorists dream of. And against this unreal avalanche of things real -- which ring loud bells in the here and now, no? -- Situationist practice was a glorious "Non!" to the world of television, consumerism, alienated work, and holidays in the sun.
The spiky little buggers hated modern life and imagined another world, another way of living. They were not scared of the future and imagined it as a world of endless possibilities. They were not in the least afraid of the ruins. The real questions, they said, were not about capitalism and restructuring economic systems, or about pursuit of rights, but about how quickly and effectively modern society could be dissolved or destroyed. Cool, or what! They were entirely reasonable in their demands for the impossible.
Or perhaps, the no-nostalgia graffiti-ist was simply referring to the style and format of the exhibition?
The last big Situ affair in London, at the ICA in 1989, was considered by all and sundry to be a prime example of that big Situationist bugbear, recuperation, the process by which the dreaded spectacle takes a radical or revolutionary idea and repackages it as a saleable commodity. At the ICA bash both original situationist manifestos, and contemporary Pro-Situ influenced works (records, fanzines) were presented as museum artifacts for the mass consumption of the art establishment. The proceedings took place with joyless resolve.
This event, of course, contrasts sharply with the occasion when the Situationist International gave a presentation at the ICA themselves, which famously ended when an audience member asked the group "What is situationism?" to which one of them answered "We are not here to answer cuntish questions" before exiting to the bar.
The most recent ICA event also contrasts sharply with this bash, which is a sprawling, ramshackle, chaotic series of interactive lectures (including David Black on Acid and Social Control), workshops, discussions (eg Lucy Forsyth on SI History), films (including Society of the Spectacle) and plenty of parties. Meanwhile, the gallery features a mish mash of graffiti, pictures (including the original 1957 Psychogeographical Map of Paris by Guy Debord donated, along with other artifacts by Factory man Tony Wilson, a big Situ fan and collector), hand-outs, posters and magazines (including the complete run of the SI magazine). It's a jumbled-up treasure trove of much-loved bits and pieces of SI inspiration intended to act as a departure point, rather than something to merely point at and pontificate over. "We're trying to get the SI out of that gallery environment," says John Levin, a member of the Aquarium Collective, who organised the event. "Some of the stuff is historical -- although critical historical -- but part of the purpose of the exhibition is to talk about what is important and what isn't in the SI. Debord is iconic and, to some extent, this exhibition is a laxative, getting over this spectacular theorist, trying to show that life went on beyond 1968."
You get the idea that the Aquarium guys don't care too much about about whether or not the Situs were a distillation of Hegel's abstract universalism into a totalising critique, or whether they were a mere echo of Adorno and the Frankfurt School -- the sort of post post-Marxist debates which sometimes replace real life with textual theory, if you let them. The in-fighting which marred -- or, enlivened -- previous Situ bashes (eg the aforementioned ICA do and the Jamie Reid launch of the same era) is no longer in evidence (much) and the thrust of the event -- if the lurching launch party is anything to go by -- is positive fun, involving much booze.
Drink is, of course, a somewhat central ingredient in the mix -- an essential part of the Situationist (Molotov) cocktail. Debord himself was a massive drinker. "Guy always drank in an amazing way, taking little sips from morning till night," said Jean-Michel Mension, one of the Situ tribe. "You didn't notice him drinking, the result being that it was hard to say that he was in an alcoholic state. But he was stewed." Booze was a catalyst in the Situ lifestyle of talk and revolt, of doing nothing on a grand scale, of drift and derangement, creation and destruction, of traversing an environment you could only find by chance and whose pleasures were random and furtive -- a signpost to a world of adventure. Debord was considered a great theorist until he wrote the first volume of his memoirs, after which it became clear that he was an even greater drinker -- and that boozing was, in fact, more important to him. "Among the small number of things that I have liked and known how to do well, what I have assuredly known how to do best is drink," Debord wrote. "Even though I have read a lot, I have drunk even more. I have written less than most people who write; but I have drunk much more than most people who drink."
Indeed, some of their writing and art -- although the Situs gave up that particular practice at quite an early stage -- is clearly influenced by alcohol. For example, the enlargement in the mind of the drunk of the human condition so that the pathos of life is unbearable is evident. Moreover, some aspects of the work read like, not just the product of a hangover, but the hangover itself -- full of peripheral visions and paranoias, pointing at what's under the surface, unknowable -- dreams we will never remember, images we may never understand. There are imperceptibles; demonic impulses just outside of consciousness, lurking with murderous rage and inconsolable sadness. Debord, it has been pointed out, had a boozer's gloom and eventually, suffering from alcoholic polyneuritis, took his own life.
But at The Aquarium Gallery launch, we relax into the deterioration, spill the wine, dig the girl/boy, and celebrate escape and resistance --and raise a glass to the power of passion bestowed on all of us, the wretched, numbed and dumbed.
Or, perhaps our anti-nostalgia graffiti meister was simply referring to the gallery itself.
The Aquarium is, after all, a new and fresh space/counter culture bookshop/gallery. Run by Andrew and Steve it is, in the words of one of the Aquarium Collective: "All about doing events, exhibits, and art -- but not in the normal sense; poncey and clean. We're not dead like Cork Street; we're very much alive. It's a place where, if someone's got an idea, something to show, and needs a space, give us a ring. We're not too formal, poncey or arty -- although if you are arty, we'll still let you in..."
The first Aquarium event in July featured Paul Mattson and Guy Smallman's photos: Images of Dissent. Future exhibits will be based around squatting, punk and Billy Childish. Already, the place has become something of a focal point for the counter-culture scene. Concludes John Levin: "There is a spectre haunting the world and, regarding this, we have seen ideas circulate from Prague and Seattle to London and throughout India, South Africa, Ireland -- everywhere -- and all we wish to do is to have a good time while contributing to this revolutionary current."
The Aquarium, 10 Woburn Walk, London, WC1H OJL (Tel: 0207 387 8417)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Cabut, has written on popular culture for the NME, The Guardian, The Sunday Telegraph magazine, ZigZag, Vague, Offbeat, Comic Strip magazine, Hello!, travel site Hotbunk and Siren mag. Pen names include Richard North. Richard also published his own punk mag Kick, played in punk rock band Brigandage (album: Pretty Funny Thing), and worked with handicapped kids as Arts, drama and literary worker at the Hackney Community Workshop. He has been interviewed by countless fanzines, pirate shows, The Face, LWT etc. He currently works for the BBC, writes fiction, cycles around London and takes photographs.