:: Article

No one wants to be here

John Douglas Millar interviews McKenzie Wark.

3:AM: Can you tell me about the Australian intellectual culture that you grew up with? I think in the UK mainstream Australian intellectual culture is kind of seen as Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer and Clive James, and I wondered if you could give a richer account?

MW: Well Germaine Greer herself came out of what we in Australia call the Sydney Push, or the libertarian left. It was a whole subculture that had its origins in the philosophy department at the University of Sydney but which moved out into the space of everyday life. It was leftist, vigorously anti-Stalinist, and quite pessimistic. Interestingly, for something coming from the anarchist tradition, it was based on a pessimistic view of human nature; it was quite a distinctive formation.

Then there was the Australian Communist Party itself, an extremely interesting and lively organisation, and frankly, the most successful in the English-speaking world. It ran a huge chunk of the union movement and it broke with Moscow in 1968. Once that happened they had to, in a sense, do it all over again, it’s like ‘oh my god, what is orthodox Marxism now?’ So you’d be taught Gramsci and Trotsky at classes and I guarantee you that’s the only CP where that happened in the Anglophone world at that time.

Then there was the whole punk universe that had its own local roots. So you had the mix of these established milieu’s with that punk energy, plus the discovery of Foucault and Deleuze in the late 70’s when I was a teenager. So imagine these universes somewhere between politics, philosophy, the arts and media and throw in Sydney’s incredibly rich tradition of what used to be called critical drinking, a pub based culture, rather masculine – but not without its charms. Then there was the feminist movement, of which Greer was an unrepresentative offshoot. You put all those pieces together and Sydney was a really interesting place, I mean it was provincial, but it was a really interesting place to arrive as an eighteen year old. I was there around 1979, 1980 when all those things were firing and it was great.

I’m not a scholar of French, I’m not an art historian, I’m neither of those things and I’m from a provincial version of it, but bohemia is something I know. That’s the way it’s been for many years of my life. That was my school and my ‘method.’

3:AM: That’s something I’m interested in with both the books on the Situationists (The Beach Beneath the Street and The Spectacle of Disintegration), to what degree would you say you stage a defense of bohemianism?

MW: A little bit. There are certain conditions necessary for bohemianism. It tends to require a forgotten part of the city, there have been times when that has been somewhere central but it doesn’t have to be, in New York now it certainly isn’t. So you need a domain, you need the right space. You need a mixing of the classes, you need at least two genders, it needs an intergenerational component, it needs a commitment to experimentation with gender roles and sexuality, it needs inter-race and inter-ethnic dialogue as well. It’s about carving out a zone where those things can happen and it needs to be based on a refusal of the bourgeois definition of success. Now in the long-run people do succeed out of it into exactly that, but the coordinates of it are something else.

To me it was important in The Beach Beneath the Street to get at that other side as well. Some people are destroyed by bohemia, if you don’t come in with certain privileges it can be hard to get out the other side. I start the Beach Beneath the Street with the Australian Vali Myers who didn’t manage to endure Paris bohemia in the 1950’s, even though she was Saint-Germain’s ‘it girl.’ To me it’s important to recognize that the driver of the avant-garde, of real critical thinking is that extra-institutional space. It’s never gone away, it still exists, they just hide now a little more than they used to.

3:AM: That brings us to the idea of low theory. I think all three of the books on the Situationists you’ve written can be seen as low theory interventions at the level of style. They’re written in this quite punky, aphoristic, throw everything at it kind of style that is a distance away from the hallowed tomes of high theory. There’s a real attack in these books on the practice of academic high theory as well as the celebrity triumvirate of Agamben, Zizek and Badiou, or at least their popular canonization.

MW: Well, you know, life and thought are two different things. You get thought that tries to add a dimension to life and thought that tries to subtract itself from life. Philosophy is the school of death. Badiou is about death, Critchley is about death, Agamben is about death. But there is another way to think. There is a way to think critically and rationally and through concepts that orients itself outside of that space and has a different objective and which subordinates itself to another goal. Philosophy is continually enriching itself from without, from low theory, but Spinoza was not a philosopher, Nietzsche was not a philosopher, Marx was not a philosopher. This is the ‘canon’ – as if it could have one – of low theory, these are the people who are outside the space of philosophy, who were refused by it or who refused it. Spinoza was a lens grinder, Marx was a revolutionary, they are not philosophers; they do not belong to philosophy, other than via its recuperations.

The thing about low theory is that it’s always having to create its own space where thought and life join. It has no institutional givens though it might need institutions to sustain it, but its relation to them is always tactical and inventive. It’s why I write about the Situationists. Guy Debord was not a philosopher, even Agamben admits this. Agamben wants to call Debord a philosopher but he says ‘no, I’m a strategist.’ It’s the strategy of how to live everyday life, how do you do that?

3:AM: There’s this triangulation with the Situationists between aesthetics, political action and philosophy that is always spinning, and Debord is trying to keep it from stopping on any one point. An example of that is when he ejects all artists from the movement. Maybe that can lead us on to what is happening with art today.

MW: Boredom, boredom is what’s happening.

3:AM: Yes, there’s this thing Critchley says, something like contemporary art has become mannerist Situationism. Do you agree with that?

MW: Yes, in a way. There’s a sense in which recuperation is to be expected, there’s an inevitable declension. The Situationist International called this already in the 50’s. They say culture works through detournement, all of culture is a commons that everyone is parasiting and plagiarizing and remixing. Now, one can act consciously with that knowledge and try to reverse the privatization of bits of culture into property, but it’s tough. It’s tough to find the levers through which you can reverse culture back into a commons and open the passages again, open the flow. I think the Situationist International try various tactics. They’re in the art world but not of it, they’re associating with fringe left groups in the 60’s and then they withdraw from that. There are all sorts of dalliances with higher education as well which go unmentioned, Debord is invited to seminars and that kind of thing, although it doesn’t go very far. The thing that is actually really contemporary about Debord’s methods is patronage. Debord is really great at attracting patrons and that to me is a really good 21st Century talent. Institutional support for autonomous life is really collapsing; higher education is the last one standing, and even then only just. We’re going to have to learn to have patrons and Debord did that well.

3:AM: And I guess that’s how he avoided ever having to become part of academia.

MW:Yeh, I mean Debord is not a hero, he’s not someone to valorize, interesting people are always difficult, but it isn’t boring. But in both the books I’ve wanted to tell stories about a range of people who carved their own path and made their own work and there are lessons for us all in that.

3:AM: Yes, it’s noticeable in both books, your desire to bring in what we might think of as peripheral figures and give them a voice, but to come back momentarily to art, I was thinking when reading in The Beach Beneath the Street about Alex Trocchi’s Project Sigma and his idea of a continual world conference, well that is essentially what Hans Ulrich Obrist is trying to do, only his version is massively spectacularised.

MW: Trocchi anticipates a certain art-intellectual human ‘currency’, yes.

3:AM: Yes, so I guess my problem with what Critchley says is that he’s coming at the art world as a philosopher who experiences that world primarily at the level of the biannual, he comes down from the high mountain of philosophy to throw his net over the phenomenon of art. I mean, this is perhaps unfair, I think to a large degree Critchley recognizes that more than others, but I’ll use him as an example anyway.

MW: I mean, perhaps we just have to admit that since we started calling it contemporary art it’s mostly a world of boredom. It’s interior decoration. I mean, good luck to anybody who can make a living doing this stuff, I’m not slating artists who have managed to succeed in this and find patrons, but this is a very, very bad era for patrons, and that makes it hard to create an autonomous life making art. I mean if you think about who collected abstract expressionist art here in New York in the 50’s, I mean they were interesting people, they weren’t hedge-fund managers; they were dentists and psychotherapists and lawyers, interesting folks who thought ‘I don’t know what this is, but this is fascinating and you saw a connection forged between bohemian and bourgeois culture. But patronage is now dominated by a quite different model and it’s not an interesting one. I mean, by all means try to succeed at art but the art world is not that interesting. The marketing for art now is a network of globalized trade shows. It’d be more fun to go to the door-handle trade show or the carpet trade show, I bet that’s a hoot and I bet the parties are a lot better too. I mean these are the places to go, not…

3:AM: Frieze

MW: Ha ha, yeah. I mean go and see artists work in their studios; that’s what’s interesting to me.

3:AM: Yes I guess the point I would make is that there is a lot of artists and work that is not succeeding if measured against that trade show measure of success, but which is being made and making its mark in other ways, a kind of low theory art.

MW: Low art. Yes. Low artists, if they are lucky, get collected just moments before they die. But they have their friends.

3:AM: Whist reading the section on T.J Clark in the Spectacle of Disintegration it occurred to me that the practice of art history mobilized as critique is presented as perhaps more valuable right now than the production of contemporary art, is that fair?

MW: I wouldn’t want to put it in those terms because people will always most value the thing that they themselves can do. I write books, I don’t make art. So I’d refuse to put that in a hierarchical relationship. What I will say is that I think it’s a difficult time to be an interesting artist but that there are people who are struggling to do it. What one can do is refuse the formalistic game-world that contemporary art has become and then ask the meta-question: ‘what is the aesthetic really for?’ Is the aesthetic really a space of experimentation for how life is to be lived collectively? This is Asger Jorn’s whole subject, art as cult; art is about processes, rituals, symbols practices, the objects are only there to facilitate an interaction, so how does one reconceive that, and not in a mystical vein at all, because after all these are practical, material questions? How are we to live? That strikes me as what the interesting work in the aesthetic is all about.

So it might not be unhelpful in that context to think about T.J Clark’s early books – they’re mostly on French modernism – he thinks’s it’s all modernism, starting with David’s Death of Marat – and it’s the traps that an explicitly political art gets caught in that those books are really brilliant on. Here are all of these strategies over 200 years of attempts to forge some kind of relationship between the aesthetic and the political, and where the political has a capital P, well I think that’s a mistake, that’s to get too close to the state, too close to the sun and burn up. Clark tries to retrieve Courbet and Pisarro and a few others and he shows these few moments where there were paths. I think you can see, well I think I can see, that there are things in Debord’s film work that’s related to Courbet, I think you can make that connection. Clark wasn’t kidding, there is a kind of strategic front that artists had been working on at moments all through that period up ;til now.

3:AM: Did you see Clark’s recent piece for the New Left Review called For a Left with No Future?

MW: ‘No future’. Ha! That was my generation’s slogan.

3:AM: I was reading it again the other day after reading the stuff on Clark in The Spectacle of Disintegration; can I read you a quote?

MW: Yeah, of course.

3:AM: He writes: ‘Left politics is immobilized, it seems to me, at the level of theory, and therefore practice, by the idea that it should spend it’s time turning over the entrails of the present for signs of catastrophe or salvation.’ That piece got a lot of grief over here, the usual issue of negativity, melancholia, whatever. You know the usual crap, you can’t tell the truth because you’re bringing down my revolution.

MW: Yes, I mean Debord’s late style is also melancholic, and I think it’s an important tone. It’s an important tone to be able to get a handle on and muster and to not have flip over into despair, and to not have it be mourning, to not have it have a too-specific object is also helpful. To me this connects to the whole pessimistic strain in Australian left-libertarianism. To not have great hopes for our species being is helpful and liberating in its own way. I think Clark errs a little towards a conservative way of thinking about tragedy, interestingly he goes to Bradley for this, I would go to Raymond Williams. The question to ask is ‘who’s tragedy? Who’s tragedy are we allowed to understand and have purchase on?’ Is it really the tragedy of what is now the 7 billion? Or are we talking about some special, privileged characters? I don’t think Clark has quite understood the tragedy of the many. Tragedy is a bracing tonic in relation to the revival of left spiritualism. I mean we’re all meant to read fucking St Paul, and it’s all about the universal which of course is death, right? So I think he was trying to thread the needle.

He’s trying to work out how not to collapse into that longing nor keep open this fantastical belief that, quote-un-quote ‘the political’ is going to save us at some time. It’s a strange affliction, particularly of intellectuals; we are all actually bad at, and loathe and despise actually existing politics. We suck at it and we don’t like it. We all seem to believe in this magical kind, and there are allegedly magical instances when it happens, like the Paris Commune, but there is just this huge gap between those two things. We don’t believe in the magical version of anything else, we don’t believe in the magical version of technology, we don’t believe in the magical version of the commodity so why do we believe in the magical version of politics for crying out loud?

So we need to steer away from that and to get back to the business of what Debord would call ‘strategy and tactics.’ Debord wrote about military affairs rather than politics, as he says, in order to be free from the ‘weary chatter of optimism’ about politics, and military discourse is incredibly clear about what is at stake. Not that I’m any fan of militarism and neither was he, but what do people think when they have to confront circumstances that they don’t get to choose or fantasize, you know? What are the actual circumstances telling us? To the extent that Clark was pointing towards that a little bit, it’s helpful. So I think that piece in the NLR is one on which you can’t do an either/or thing. It’s a step in the right direction but it’s not quite where I personally would want to aim things. I mean who said this was an era when nothing was happening? Have you read the fucking news? The world is in flames but you have to read between the lines sometimes to see it.

3:AM: Vaguely tying in with that, I was really interested in the Situationist’s critique of Maoism, particularly in Vienet’s detourned kung-fu films. Why do you think Maoism clings on in the French left even now, particularly in Ranciere and Badiou?

MW: Well Ranciere and Badiou were Maoists of one sort or another. Debord never makes the Maoist mistake. I mean this is not to slight the French Maoists who went into the factories and communities, I really respect all that, but the notion that you always have to have the figure of the leader is mystifying. I mean the great man of history view of things seems to have been defeated everywhere except philosophy. Maybe philosophers didn’t read their E.P Thompson. The people make history, the people! Not fucking Lenin and Mao, they’re effects of a process, they’re not drivers of a process, and to me this is fundamental to a Marxist view of the world.

Vienet’s films provide a useful debunking of this, he was the great resistor to this Mao idolatry in France and the publisher of The Chairman’s New Clothes by Simon Leys. We’re in this weird cold-war logic where if you admit the starvation and murder of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution you belong to the enemy. I mean these are just facts, but there’s a reluctance to think and this is what T.J. Clark is drawing out attention to. There’s a reluctance to think the melancholy facts of modern history. In Clark there is a calling to attention to the struggles of real, ordinary people. To me that’s the backbone to any critical progressivist approach to history. It’s the struggle of the people.

3:AM: Are you sympathetic or critical of an avant-gardist cultural logic?

MW: Avant-gardes are always a little ambiguous and are a privileged domain to some extent for those of us from petite bourgeois backgrounds, often from the provinces, who on the one hand are not proletarians but who on the other don’t have an immediate claim to the highest reaches of existing cultural institutions. There are exceptions to this, but you’ll notice that it’s a bit of a constant, that the avant-garde is the petite bourgeois from the provinces. Debord is the perfect example of that incidentally, and he knew it when he was fifteen, he knew that was his path. Personally I’ve always been attracted to that too in my minor, low key way. The avant-gardes detourn their own pasts, they’ve never stopped or given up. There was a myth in the 80’s that they’d died but it was just that art critics couldn’t be bothered, and the they all went back to writing about the old ones, like Dada and so on, but the avant-garde never gives up, it’s always there, just not always that visible, and sometimes you have to shuffle the deck a bit.

I’ve been wondering lately if we can make the Futurists work for us again. I mean we know about the misogyny and the obsession with war, but that clearing of the decks and looking forward, that could be useful. If there’s one thing that stops so-called contemporary art in its tracks it is, by definition, Futurism. So I’m interested in whether that is one of the places we can get some leverage.

It’s true that there is a sort of clip-art version of ‘Situationism’ everywhere, and the Bataille version of Surrealism is played out. I think though, that Constructivism could be a lively thing to look at again. Can we get out of art and into the space of design, which in some ways is much more interesting and lively. Can we build things that work and create practices of everyday life? That strikes me as a really valid thing to be doing in the climate change era.

3:AM: So I wonder what you think of some of the actors who lay claim to being part of a contemporary avant-garde, the conceptual writing crowd, people like Kenny Goldsmith, or Information as Material, or Tom McCarthy and Simon Critchley and the whole Necronautical thing, is that just a melancholy restaging, is it detournement, mannerist Situationism?

MW: I want to reverse the stock avant gardists answer that all the other ones are rubbish. I mean you’re sort of obliged to start from that place but I want to do the opposite. I love all of that stuff! You know, Kenneth Goldsmith’s greatest work is Ubuweb. I love the conceptual writing thing, but Ubuweb to me is a great work of art in its own right. To play out the last embers of what the book can be, well I’m all for it, but there’s this other thing that he’s done that is just a work of genius. He turned the whole history of avant garde recordings into the most ‘contemporary’ thing: a database.

I love Tom McCarthy’s books. I’ve missed every time when he and Critchley have appeared together in New York City and I’m sorry that I’ve missed those events because I think they are really special encounters. It’s not a version of the avant-garde I particularly subscribe to, I mean it’s the Necronauts, it’s death, I’m in the other camp, but I love the fact that they did it and they did it so well. Remainder is one of my all-time favourite novels. Another person I’m really interested in is Stewart Home, I’m a massive fan of his, he’s like a walking encyclopedia.

3:AM: Especially of the Situationists.

MW: Yes, and his version of it was very influential on people, he wrote against Debord, and I was very conscious of that in writing these books, I wanted to synthesize that in and not be for or against. He was right that you moved forward by looking to Jorn and Jacqueline de Jong and so on. It wasn’t all about Debord. Home is connected to that punk energy and that’s a way in which that avant-garde work can connect to a non-specialised audience, it’s key. You have this stuff that has this sophisticated formal dimension but then you put it in front of punters and they go ‘yeh!’ So there are all sorts of versions of the avant-garde. Laura Oldfield Ford’s version to me is way past the Situationist version of derive. I think she’s writing the best accounts of derive.

3:AM: Yes, she’s a good writer.

MW: Yes, and she draws as well! You know? I mean, fuck off. She shows me a London that is a mystery to me because it’s not a city I know well. I read her stuff and I realize there is a whole other city here, or cities rather. Cities within cities.

3:AM: It’s interesting you bring her up. I mean I really love the kind of punkish energy of Kenny Goldsmith and all that crowd, but it can all get a bit macho, it’s a bit of a case of whose avant-garde is biggest whilst standing at the urinal of art history and she’s kind of a counterweight to that.

MW: Yes, if anybody can do this then anybody should. You know people like us from the provinces who are weren’t perfectly educated, we have a route into the avant-garde, but what did change in the 80’s was a sense that that game was over, we had to diversify in terms of who it is one looks at and pays attention to.

3:AM: I think you say in The Spectacle of Disintegration that détournement is perhaps the Situationists’ greatest strategic legacy, but I wonder whether you’d agree that the dérive is a useful strategy for negotiating the networked environment, or what you called the coming ‘topological world’?

MW: Yes, the dérive resonated with me as someone who wandered the streets of both Sydney and New York excessively. I can’t really do it anymore. I was born with club-feet so I hobble around now. The great tragedy of my life is that I can’t dérive like I used to. The other thing that was really important for me was the Internet. You know, from the eighties when you’d stick your phone on the modem and connect up through the phone line. It was this exciting space. People called it surfing the Internet. You don’t hear that anymore, no one surfs the Internet. I thought about it through the dérive. One of my personal experiences of avant-garde energy was nettime.org in the nineties and how it connected to all these media theories, politics, avant-gardes all over the world. Its main mission was to cross the divide between Eastern and Western Europe, to find languages and create networks. It was our Dada, in a way.

I wanted to write about the 90’s, but it’s very rhizomatic and I thought ‘well how do you write a book about that?’ Then I re-read The Society of the Spectacle and I thought ‘holy crap, that’s not the book I thought it was.’ Its most important chapter is the second last one on détournement, not the stuff on the spectacle. That was a prequel for writing about this stuff. So for me in the 90’s there was this great global derive going on and it’s bifurcated, it has two layers. One is the internet itself which was a kind of wild west area, and the other was about networking together across various cities, we’d travel around and visit each other and form temporary associations. You know, like ‘we’re all in Amsterdam next Tuesday, let’s get a book done’, that sort of thing. A sort of détournement of art fairs. We’d be paid to go there for one reason or another, but really we were taking over little corners to plot our own work.

3:AM: How has the promise of that played out? The internet seems to be a lot more policed and there are basically three companies controlling access. Has that promise been betrayed?

MW: Not betrayed. One has to tell this story and get the historical contours of it right. What I’m describing loosely as nettime.org was just one of dozens of nodes of a nineties avant-garde that used the space of the internet in exactly the same way that Dada used the free mail services available in Switzerland during the war. The embassies would send stuff into other countries for free, so Dada was all based on postal networks. Exactly the same is true of cheap printing and journals in the Surrealist era. It’s all based on networks. The Situationist International is partly based on Asger Jorn being able to speak five languages and travelling from one end of Europe to the other getting to know everybody and connecting everybody up. All this becomes explicit with ‘mail art’ a bit later, and then nettime.org.

I mean we now have to recognize that one of the great social movements of the nineties and the first decade of this century was file sharing, détournement, quote-un-quote ‘piracy.’ It’s not piracy, it’s our property, all of culture belongs to me and to you and to everybody, we’re not stealing anything, we’re just taking it back. That’s what billions of people decided. It’s ours. Why are we not talking about this as one of the great social movements? It’s up there with feminism and civil rights. We took our culture back!

But like all these things it gets recuperated at the next level. So feminism has victories but then it gets recuperated into consumer lifestyle. The social movement of détournement gets recuperated in the form of ‘you can do all your file-sharing and all that stuff but Google and Facebook and whoever is still going to collect the rent. So we won the battle and lost the war. We need a strategic rethink. I still want to tell that story. I think great stuff happened in the nineties. The internet was like punk then: it was cheap, dirty, do it yourself. It was great, but we won and then we lost so we need to regroup and start again.

3:AM: Do you have any ideas for that strategic rethink?

MW: It’s about unreadability. I mean you can withdraw all together; that’s possible and it could be interesting. Sneaker-net is back. All sorts of things that only pass from hand to hand on usb drives. Or you can be present in all sorts of networks but not quite as what you appear to be. Are there ways to be unidentifiable objects? That strikes me as interesting. I think there are a lot of people doing that but I couldn’t even describe how they’re doing it because by definition it’s opaque. It’s like the dark matter of the internet, the mystery substance of networked life, it’s out there and interesting and curious and weird.

3:AM: Unmappable?

Yes, totally unmappable. It’s about how to be delocated, but not to then disappear into the romantic fantasy of going back to nature. On that I’m with that accelerationist, Futurist vibe, we can only go forward. But then sometimes you take two steps back to make three steps forward and that’s why I wanted to write about the SI. Here are all these resources we can steal from. Let’s ransack this stuff, let’s hack it. You can think of détournement as hacking, that’s exactly what it is, and it’s not specifically a computer thing, everybody hacks.

3:AM: In your commentary on the recently web published Accelerationist Manifesto you say that you have to love any manifesto that gets to climate change in its second paragraph. In The Beach Beneath the Street you compare our 21st Century obsession with things environmental with the ban the bomb movement and suggest that perhaps it diverts us from other areas of critique. How do those two positions fit together? You’re teaching a course at Lang College on environmental design right?

MW: I haven’t taught it yet. I’m making that up as I go along. One thing low theory might be about is to take your agenda from the world around you, rather than take your agenda as driven by the internal moves in the game of high theory or fine art. Boris Groys is right, that’s how contemporary art works. It’s just this formalist game where you stick a bit of new stuff in and change a few rules if you’re lucky, but there’s a different world outside that which has a different logic – or none at all – and one has to draw from that.

Debord and Jorn wrote a really strange ‘Mutant Manifesto’ against the whole ban the bomb thing; although it’s a really significant moment in British counter-culture. Jeff Nuttall’s book on that has never been bettered. He was close to Trocchi and probably did most of Trocchi’s crazy proto-networked-internet-zine based stuff for him. Ban the bomb was really useful for trying to negotiate the different agendas of this mashing together of the avant-garde, bohemia and the political left. Ban the bomb was useful in channeling all those strands, not to the same place, but in getting those different agendas to acknowledge each other and trying to get their edges to mesh a little bit.

I mean it’s not just about climate change now, it’s about what Marx called ‘metabolic rift’. The split between use value and exchange value in capitalism has got to the point where exchange value is it’s own autonomous logic and we’ve committed the use values of this planet into the maw of the future. So that’s not going to end well, it is accelerating and not in a good way. The thing is to not be too focused on that because it is disabling. I think one needs to know that’s where we are and then put it in the back of your mind and get on with doing stuff and teaching stuff that is enabling and affirming and building the little bits of life that we’re going to need. We all thought this was in the future, it’s not, it’s now. Everybody knows it. It’s like the Leonard Cohen song, ‘Everybody Knows.’ It’s difficult, it feels bad, no one wants to be here. The avant-garde’s job now is one of making new life in the ruins of the old. Let’s get back in touch with the making of things.

3:AM: Talking of which, Debord was a great maker of books. The Situationists made beautiful books and that seems to go against a lot of what is happening now where everyone seems to be embracing this bureaucratic aesthetic.

MW: It needs to be said, Guy Debord was a great book maker. In the Beach Beneath the Street I draw attention to the correspondence between him and Jorn where he’s talking about the Lumaline covers on issue two and how they tear during stitching. If you’ve ever tried to make stuff, as I have, you’ll know that feeling. You know? ‘Damn, the covers won’t fold right’ or whatever. You get down to the design and the manufacture of things. That has to be one of our agendas now, to try and connect critical negativity to the positivity of the making of the thing. For example: consider the dialectical paradox that the SI’s journal was beautiful, rare and expensive as an object, but the contents of it were explicitly made copyright-free.

There’s always a huge, yawning gap between theory and practice. They never line up. I’m coming round to the view that they never did. There was never a unified theory and practice that worked. The important thing is the gap that thought is always exceeding in all sorts of crazy ways. There’s a calling to account of materiality that practice in its limited and specific nature will have. But practices can also gesture towards things. There is such a thing as conceptual design, where the concept is literally proof of that concept, to take that part of what people say literally when they say design is proof of the concept.

So yes, some other aesthetics of making. Jacqueline De Jong’s The Situationist Times is a great antidote to bureaucratic art making. It was all about how visual, spatial forms can be topologies for situations, a whole visual knowledge left out of the Renaissance tradition of perspective. We need to be assembling different discourses and different practices of making into the task of inventing new forms of life.

John Douglas Millar is a writer. He lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 7th, 2013.