review of Expect Anything Fear Nothing: The Situationist Movement in Scandinavia and Elsewhere
edited by Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen and Jakob Jakobsen
with contributions by Peter Laugesen, Carl Nørrested, Fabian Tompsett, Gordon Fazakerley, Jacqueline de Jong, Hardy Strid, Karen Kurczynski, Stewart Home and the editors
Nebula (Copenhagen) and Autonomedia (Brooklyn), 2011
This book is a badly needed English language introduction to the stories of northern Situationism. While this political and aesthetic avant garde movement of the 1960s is most famous for the work of Guy de Bord (especially Society of the Spectacle, 1967), it had many other adherents and accomplishments, as the Expect anthology makes clear. Most notably for me is the description of a 1963 exhibition produced in Copenhagen in solidarity with a British direct action anti-nuclear group, “The Destruction of RSG-6.” But the northern Situationists also published an important artists' magazine, The Situationist Times, organized a commune in Sweden called Drakabygget, produced many short films and participatory art installations, painted slogans on drab public fences, and for years launched provocations against the smug consensus cultures of post-war Europe.
Since the 1970s I've had a sidelong relationship to the Situationists. They were really out there, politically, when I bought my copy of Debord's "Society of the Spectacle" published by the Detroit anarchist Black and Red house. Now there is a handsome MIT edition at many times the price of that pamphlet as the Situationist movement has emerged from the fog of the underground into the dry bright light of academic industry. In the 1990s, I used the resources of my artists' video distribution project to make pirate copies of De Bord's film for Bill Brown as he intervened in the commodification of the drunken sage's oeuvre.
But the story didn't end with MIT Press. Recently, Ben Morea of the infamous Black Mask and Motherfuckers group – excluded from the Situationist International in 1966 – emerged from the underground after decades of silence. A hardcore anarchist activist in his time, Ben just finished a tour of Europe, riding out of the west like a cowboy wearing literally, a ten gallon hat atop his wiry frame. It wasn't until 2005 that I found the tracks of the SPUR Group in Munich at the 500th anniversary exhibition of the Munich Art Academy. The wild illegalized publications of Gruppe SPUR were safely enclosed in a glass vitrine -- but there was a videotape of their students reacting to 1968 with all-night discussions, public interventions, and riding motorcycles through the halls.
This was Situationism – not Debordian, for sure, because in 1961-62 he and his cronies kicked them out! Debord also excluded and railed against the “Nashists,” the artists working with former SI Scandinavian secretary Jørgen Nash. In New York I excavated one of the publications of the “2nd International Situationist” movement and found photos and newsclippings celebrating the pranks of a couple of art punks, most notably decapitating the "Little Mermaid" sculpture in Copenhagen harbor. Their book was really beautiful physically, but on the whole struck me as pranky.
For the editors of this book, the emergence of the SI from obscurity in the later 1980s finally reduced the group to “just one signature.” In academia, Guy Debord emerged as the “great melancholic political writer.” His only competition on the historical stage is Asger Jorn. Debord is beloved of academics and politicos, while Jorn is the favorite of art historians and collectors. Although he was a prolific writer and theorist, Jorn was an “anti-specialist,” thus in the eyes of academics, not a “true theorist.” (A collection of Jorn's writings in English before 1958 has only just appeared from 010 in Rotterdam, some online at bopsecrets.org.)
This book, of course, seeks to open up “Situationisms.” The group split in '61-'62, like the Surrealists, another crackling crispy-fried avant-garde, continually breaking apart. Yet exhibitions described as Situationist were organized afterwards by J.V. Martin, who continued in Scandinavia as a bonafide Paris-approved SI member, and by Jørgen Nash, the brother of Asger Jorn, who announced the start of another Situationist group after he was excluded by Paris.
The matter which provoked the breakup of the first Situationist International was the refusal of the Munich-based SPUR group to work with the central committee, the outcome of arguments which developed during the 1961 Gothenburg conference of the SI. The SPUR members were purged by the SI during their trial by the state in Munich on charges of obscenity and sacrilege. This lack of solidarity offended the Scandinavians, who were in turn excluded by the Paris central committee directed by Debord and Raoul Vaneigem.
The “Situation”: A Charged Moment in Copenhagen
The conference Expect and Fear records was held in Copenhagen shortly after the police stormed the Youth House, the famous Ungdomshuset in March 2007. For the organizers, it was an attempt to “wrench” a necessary history back from the academics, to make it resound somehow in the realm of real political/cultural action. It is hard to say how the display and reconsideration of a radical past, and the presence of its actors on a public stage during a charged moment redounds into the public sphere of political action. One's vision is always a little blurred by tear gas...
In their essay, editors Rasmussen and Jakobsen discuss the “Situation,” the class-divided metropolis of Copenhagen (like most other big cities in the neoliberal world). The Youth House building was sold by the city, with disregard for the youths who had used it for years, and quickly demolished. The editors also discuss the right wing strategy of what they call “authenticity totalitarianism,” involving a “battle of culture” with mainly Muslim immigrants. (This tenet of the right became tragically real recently in Norway with the mass murder of scores of left-wing youth by an ethnic nationalist extremist.) Denmark went along enthusiastically with the Bush-initiated “war on terror,” and the government has sought to purge all civil institutions of remnant “68ist” tendencies – especially multiculturalism – which favor ethnic integration.
But when the boot comes down, as they say, you may expect resistance. When the government moved on the Youth House located at Jagtvej 69, suddenly thousands of streets throughout Copenhagen were renamed “Jagtvej.” Demonstrations and riots and actions of all kinds were continuous; the police repression was relentless, with no negotiations, as a parental government punished what they called “misbehaving kids.” After a year the city relented on the Youth House issue, and gave a new building. But their habits persisted. Soon after, at the COP 15 climate conference, 1000 people were arrested preemptively. Today the slogan of Copenhagen anarchists is “Nothing Forgotten, Nothing Forgiven.”
Carl Norrested's telegraphic account of films produced by the SPUR group and others is tantalizing, as is his equally curt mention of the activities of Gerard Lebovici, the producer of Debord's films, whose murder in 1983 has never been solved. Norrested discusses the film festivals at Drakabygget, the artists' commune run by Jørgen Nash. Nash and close collaborator Jens Jørgen Thorsen expressed solidarity with Jonas Mekas' manifesto in Film Culture magazine out of New York. Thorsen produced “Pornoshop” in 1965, a collaborative film juxtaposing commercial pornography with images of love-making. (Thorsen's best known work is the fiction film about Henry Miller, Quiet Days in Clichy, 1970.) While Norrested's essay is cryptically short, many interesting questions pop out, such as the theme of sex and its role in the international avant-garde – boundary-breaking, publicity-seeking, and the political revolution in sexualities – and the relation of the collage film to Situationist theory. Another difficulty is that most of the films Norrested discusses are locked away from distribution. This is always a problem with experimental film, which anyhow often only forms the background of discussion by afficionadoes around various feature films, which are themselves obscure.
The text by Fabian Tompsett – an activist artist and translator of Jorn – is rather frantically garbled. Tompsett bores into controversies over the wartime development of the atomic bomb, appropriate in that the most coherent Situationist art show was produced as part of the anti-nuclear movement, which was then more along the lines of “ban the bomb.” Indeed the activism of nuclear scientists, while it was ignored by the powerful, had a deep impact among artists. It is important to understand the bridges artists in the '50s and '60s tried to build between their work and scientific inquiry, as it was a vital part of the avant-garde project. But in his slog along a personal pathway, Tompsett drags into the argument the positivist polemicist Alan Sokal. We could use a better idea of Asger Jorn's “triolectics,” but Tompsett's take on Sokal's idea of Kristeva's mathematics? Wrong book.
Bigwigs' Bunker Blasted
Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen analyzes the exhibition “Destruction of the RSG-6,” the show the Situationists made to celebrate and reflect on the 1963 activist attack on a secret bunker the British government had constructed to ensure its continuance and members' safety in the event of nuclear war. The exhibition included a furnished fallout shelter (bomb shelter), a shooting gallery of world leaders, the documents produced by the group Spies for Peace, and a catalogue with an essay by Guy Debord (“The Situationists and the New Forms of Action in Politics and Art,” cited to “Destruktion of RSG-6,” Odense: Galerie Exi, 1963).
This radical exhibitionary critique of the “geopolitics of hibernation” was a clear precedent for the most stridently engaged of cultural activism today, in which artists work in tandem with political activists to put a clear message across to a public. Rasmussen richly describes a show with slogans hand-written by Debord, maps projecting nuclear devastation made of plaster on wood, with cheese, hair, red and black paint by the organizer J.V. Martin, and Michele Bernstein's “battle paintings,” modeling victories of Spanish Republicans, Communards of 1871, etc. – all part of a “new unrealism” intended as a critique of Nouveaux Realiste art and Pop. They thought of it not as an exhibition, but a “manifestation” in which the “supercession of art and politics occurred.”
Debord's essay text spells out the aims of the Situationist movement, “an artistic avant-garde,” an experiment in “ways of freely constructing everyday life,” and a theory and practice of “revolutionary contestation. From now on,” he continues, “any fundamental cultural creation, as well as any qualitative transformation of society, is contingent on the continued development of this sort of interrelated approach.” This is why we pay attention to these people. Because maybe Debord's prescription wasn't true “from now  on,” but it sure is now.
Rasmussen backgrounds the Cold War and its culture well, and gives a good primer in the broader current of Situationist theory and in-group politics. The “RSG-6” show took place two years after the split with the SPUR group and other Danish Situs. Led by Jørgen Nash, the excluded had undertaken projects under the banner of Situationism which Rasmussen writes, threatened to “drown” the original project of Debord and his group. Hence the vitriol from Paris against the “Nashists.” They were playing the old game of bad boys in the art world, not “refusing the spectacle” in Vaneigem's words, but “elaborating the spectacle of refusal.”
The “RSG-6” show then was tactical, an attempt to draw a line between the Situs and the “Nashists.” Nash and friends sought to use Situationism as a label for a new avant-garde movement. This was a wrong usage, according to Debord and company, a perversion of a revolutionary project for personal ends. As an answer to the “Nashist” art movement, the “RSG-6” show was sited in a non-commercial gallery located in a political house. The nearly contemporary rival CO-RITUS exhibition forwarded an art of the street, as well as a gallery project of participatory collective creation. (Editor Jakobsen takes up the case of Nash, the Drakabegget farm, and CO-RITUS later in the book, in chapters reviewed below.) With our long hindsight these seem like not just different but also interrelated positions, with complementary implications for contemporary practice. The aims of the CO-RITUS project were shared with the broader artistic avant-garde, whereas the project of Debordian Situationism was clearly political, an expansion of Marcusean ideas about the inutility of art under conditions of “repressive tolerance.” It is theory out of action, out of practice, which then rejects all artistic practice as corrupt, compromised, as collaboration with the spectacle.
While revolutionary in concept, the self-professedly “heavy-handed” artworks of the Situationists seem slight in the context of other contemporary avant-garde expressions, Their heart wasn't in it. Debord and his allies preferred to contest in the realm of theory. For the Paris Situs, the gallery was an obstacle to the liberation of potential creative energies, a kind of revolution in absentia. In their view there could be no Situationist art, like painting or music – “only a Situationist use of those means.” The exhibition had a contested finale as the gallery director treated it as a normal exhibition, violating the spectatorial premises the Situs had decreed.
Karen Kurczynski's text discusses the six issues of “The Situationist Times,” the publication edited by Jacqueline de Jong. It was designed as an international review, in a sense continuing the Surrealist publications. Conceived before but executed after the Paris exclusions, the review was open-ended and often contradictory. In this, “The Situ Times” reflected a “Nordic” outlook on Situationism as a broad front avant-garde movement without a Leninist central committee with inquisitorial and censorial powers.
Three issues explored the subject of topology in collaboration with Asger Jorn, who was developing his ideas of triolectics at the time. Kurczynski zeroes in on the issue of topology – “mathematics in context,” which deals with the transformation of forms. “The Situationist Times” devoted three issues to the subject, with a “heteroglossic” approach, from pure math in cartoon form to analyses of archeological remains. Kurczynski, a Jorn scholar, develops parallels between his triolectics and Russian formalist Mikhail Bakhtin's polyglossia. “The Times” was dialogic in Bakhtin's sense, foregrounding “discourses in overt disagreement.” She further contrasts Jorn's “playful theorizations” with the French SI's call for “theoretical lucidity” arrived at by thinking “rigorously...in common.”
Kurczynski also contrasts the ST's “heteroglossic” investigations of topology with the Informel painter Georges Mathieu's metaphorical use of mathematics. and the rationalizing usages of the method by modernist visual theorists, like the sculptor Max Bill. (Bill's reorganization of the Bauhaus in the mid-1950s inspired Jorn to start his International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus in opposition.) Through considering artists' uses of that classical topological object the Möbius strip, Kurczynski arrives at Lygia Clark, the Brazilian signator to the Neo-Concrete manifesto, the classic statement of Brazilian artists' reaction to their Bauhaus teachers. Clark moved from geometric relief paintings to “manipulable objects that facilitated bodily interaction,” like sense-distorting goggles and body suits. Kurczynski compares Clark's choice to continue her work in the context of group therapy instead of art to the Situationist aim of surpassing art for life.
Kurczynski also uses George Kubler's notion of collective formal development popularized in the '60s through his book “Shape of Time,” which leads to Robert Smithson, who also collaged Kubler. At a certain point, many readers may throw up their hands. While the essay is certainly rich, it synthesizes far too many disparate currents of '50s, '60s and '70s art in dizzying turns that at times takes on the drone of inexhaustible erudition. Of course this is only normative art historical procedure, and to admit this history into the canon of postmodernism is going to disturb a lot of narratives. But, like Tompsett, one has the sense that a species of wantonly dense bush-wandering analysis may be the peril of being a student of Asger Jorn, that underacknowledged master whose writings collaged ideas in a manner that seems to defy exegesis.
Kurczynski has another turn interviewing Jacqueline de Jong about “The Situationist Times,” and here the talk is straightfoward, discussing the concrete details of journal production, its history, its relations. After a series of exclusions of Dutch collaborators, the young de Jong suddenly became the Dutch section of the SI. Together with Michele Bernstein, de Jong was the only other active woman in the group(s). Her interview brings out some nasty little anecdotes about what assholes these men could be, especially towards women, in ways that seem hardly conceivable today. The technics and interrelations behind producing an avant-garde journal open an intersting window into continuities and interrelations between movements, people, places and intentions. These kinds of artists' magazines almost don't exist anymore, and certainly not with the kind of importance they had in the era before the internet. Sadly, the end of “The Situationist Times” is an all too familiar story of dire financial straits: The materials for de Jong's #7 remained unpublished because of a distributor's malfeasance. The same day a court case came down against her, a copy of #6 was sold at auction for 15 times its cover price, broken up and exhibited in a gallery.
Besides describing the mechanics of a publication that, in Parisian terms, is as unSituationist as one could imagine – “Every contribution got printed” – the interview unearths some interesting personal details. For example, Asger Jorn continued his involvement with the SI after he had quit, working under the name George Keller. De Jong also explains how her art work, images and texts, along with other collaborators were bizarrely deformed by Nash and his pal Jens Jørgen Thorsen.
Kurczynski also reiterates an idea she develops in her essay. Jorn, even while he continued to support the French SI with proceeds from sales of his art, immersed himself in the study of antique Scandinavian cultural forms (in his Institute for Comparative Vandalism). He saw these as addressing and opposing the military legions of the ancient Roman empire, a “deep political” intention Kurczynski relates to the gradual emergence during this period of the European Union dominated by France and Germany.
The main story being developed in this book is that of Asger Jorn's circle and the “other brother,” Jørgen Nash – i.e., the Scandinavian Situationists. Stewart Home, the infallibly amusing author of “The Assault on Culture” (1988), doesn't do that. He works another side of the street, taking a backwards look at Situationist life in England and the U.S.. The main ax Home grinds is against historians of punk rock, especially Greil Marcus whose book “Lipstick Traces” Home faults as “one among many” which wrongly links punk to the Situationist International. For Home, the “mythology” of the Situationist link to rock and punk was the phantom “stalking horse” that led to the rise in popularity of the SI today.
He devotes much of his ink to his youthful enthusiasms, particularly the English group King Mob. They were lovers of the crusty New York art gang Black Mask (aka Motherfuckers). Home recounts in capsule form the geneaology of Black Mask (mostly from Iain McIntyre's excellent interview with Ben Morea, also online), emerging from the anarchist milieu in New York. Debord “considered franchising” Black Mask as the SI in the USA, but “after a considerable amount of manipulation on the part of Tony Verlaan (a BM fellow traveler, who went on to become a member of the American section of the SI),” the Debordists broke with Morea, the charismatic leader of the Motherfuckers. (Andrew Hussey in his book says Raoul Vaneigem was the SI rep sent to New York to sniff up Black Mask in 1966.) This purge in turn led to the expulsion of the English section for remaining in contact with Morea.
Home's point is that Black Mask and King Mob were “less sectarian” and “less intellectually rigorous” than the Parisian SI, and part of the “wilder aspects of the '60s counter-culture.” This “countercultural” work, Home says, is the source of the idea that the SI influenced English punk rock. Well, yes. Ben Morea was a poetic street fighter and radical left ass-kicker, not a theorist. But he was convincing, even spell-binding. And Ron Hahne edited “Black Mask” with a number of Situationist texts. And Osha Neumann, whose recent book about the Motherfuckers tells his story of this time, was the literal son of Herbert Marcuse (although the genetic parentage is obscure), and so may be assumed to have absorbed some ideas osmotically. While none of them hung out with John Lydon (aka Rotten), that is sure, Black Mask/Motherfuckers are surely as pure a case of anarchist ideas in action as may be found in the “wild” '60s counterculture.
Home also usefully notes the collaborative nature of Debord's theory, as well as important critiques (e.g., that the SI privileges the circulation of commodities over their production). He observes that in constructing histories, the textual is privileged over the visual, the main reason for the preeminence of Paris. The Scandinavians, Home contends (and we may guess the SPUR group also), were better visually than the French. This evidence remains to be seen. Much more than this book needs to be published for English readers.
Meanwhile, Back at the Farm
After the SPUR expulsions in '61-'62, the Scandinavians got busy. Although she too was bounced, Jacqueline de Jong went ahead with plans for “The Situationist Times.” The first issue was devoted to responses to the actions from Paris. Nash announced a “Second Situationist International,” and he and his friends organized a series of shows, including the participatory CO-RITUS exhibition. The French SI also acted, as we have seen, and J.V. Martin and Debord quickly organized the “RSG-6” show in Copenhagen which staked out formally and institutionally an artworld position distinct from what the French came to call the “Nashists.”
Jørgen Nash organized his activity at the Drakabygget farm, a derelict rural property in Sweden which he and his wife bought, and to which they invited artists to live and work. This was to be the “Situationist Bauhaus,” a utopian anti-recapitulation of the Ur-modernist art education institution. Drakabygget didn't turn out that way. It was, according to Gordon Fazakerley, “a madhouse,” an asylum run by the lunatics.
Editor Jakob Jakobsen strives to untangle this story, starting with interviews with Fazakerley and de Jong. Drakabygget got its impetus from an all-too-familiar problem faced by artists at the time. Copenhagen was too expensive for artists to live in, so they were moving to rural Sweden. Nash's farm became a center by default. The farm project never became self-sustaining as planned, and was supported primarily by brother Asger's money. After a while, Jorn fell out with his brother and stopped coming, so the higher aims of the place which Jorn had well articulated never materialized.
The best thing about Drakabygget in the artists' recollection was that people could just show up and work there, and do whatever they wanted. Also, in those pre-internet times, the farm housed a store of catalogues and magazines about earlier movements like CoBrA, part of the aborted plan for an archive there. The SPUR artists came from Munich in 1961, in exile from their obscenity trial. While the interviewees have fond memories, they also harbor resentments. Nash was a generous host, but he also lived by dealing in other artists' paintings. In this his business was complex, and not straightforward. He often did not pay his guests for work of theirs he sold, and also put about many fakes purporting to be by his more famous brother.
Digging in the Historical Compost
Jakob Jakobsen's consideration of Nash and his group begins by noting the extensive folders of legal papers in the (as yet publically inaccessible) Nash-Jorn archive in Copenhagen. Jorn wrote, “artists are an army of liars and swindlers in society” because he believed that artists must breach all norms and accepted truths in their experiments to create the new.
Jakobsen's account clarifies the dense institutional history of the SI during the early 1960s. He analyzes the development of the group in the later 1950s from its disparate beginnings, and proposes that, finally, the two tendencies of this formation may be described as an artistic avant-garde and a coherent political organization, the former represented by the figure of Jorn, and the latter by Debord.
It was Jorn's theories, Jakobsen contends, and the two brothers' emphasis on experimental action that led to the 1960 purchase and provision of the Drakabygget farmhouse in Sweden as a site for a utopian artistic community. It was also to be the site for an archive of Jorn's research on Scandinavian cultural forms (Kurczynski also discusses this). In 1961 the painters of SPUR came to Drakabygget, exiling themselves from legal prosecution for obscenity and blasphemy in Munich based on their journal.
Breaking Up the Party
Jakobsen describes the contentious 1961 Gothenburg conference, where the role of art was furiously debated. The conference, paradoxically, was financed by the sale of a collaborative painting. Debord's allies Raoul Vaneigem and Attila Kotányi “didn't lift a brush.” Instead, Debord and they soon after hammered out the “Hamburg theses” on the future of the SI, and their plans to visit Drakabygget were cancelled. These unpublished theses consolidated the direction of work towards unambiguous theoretical coherence that the Paris SI would henceforth pursue, with Debord's “Society of the Spectacle” to cap the labor in 1967.
The “Hamburg fraction” of Debord, Kotanyi and Vaneigem proceeded to vote the expulsion of the SPUR group because they had not worked with the SI central committee, nor had they followed agreed-upon procedure in publishing their journal. De Jong and Nash, who were at the meeting in Paris were outvoted. They disagreed with the explusion, especially since SPUR members were then on trial for obscenity and blasphemy. So they in turn were expelled.
Jakobsen notes that the conflict over freedom of expression which the SPUR case represented was a continuous issue for avant-garde artists, and the lack of solidarity with SPUR was rankling. Nash and close collaborator Jens Jørgen Thorsen had first met in 1961 at a private opening of paintings by the Surrealist painter Wilhelm Freddie. These were copies of works Danish authorities had confiscated in 1937 and never returned. When Freddie's show opened, the police came and took the copies also.
But Nash and De Jong both refused to accept the authority of Paris. They did not stop being Situationists. De Jong published “The Situationist Times,” with a handwritten critique of the actions of the French. The SI was an “anti-organisation,” she wrote. “Now anyone is free to become a Situationist.” The Parisians, however, continued to villify Nash as a fraud and traitor, turning his name into an insult. This villification, Jakobsen insists, had the opposite of its intended effect. It marked the broadening of the Situationist movement. (One must also respect the axiom that “any press is good press”; the strategy of counter-publicity, of excoriating the “Nashists,” surely helped to keep them alive in the public eye as the excluded Loki-like clowns of the north.)
In 1962, the manifesto of the 2nd Situationist International was written, with the participation of Asger Jorn under the name Patrick O'Brien. (Although he had withdrawn from the SI, Jorn continued to support Debord's work financially.) This document declares the “2nd SI” to be in reality the “development of a current Situationist double tendency with two independent programs.”
Fucking with the Public
While he had largely financed that project as well, by 1963 Jorn had withdrawn from the Drakabygget farm, and no longer came. Nash, with Thorsen and Hardy Strid, continued activities apace, operating multiple projects under different names. Nash, Jakobsen writes, was an “anti-specialist.” Neither a gifted painter nor writer, he made use of others' materials as his own. He and his pal Thorsen called this practice “absorption.”
The artists of the 2nd SI (which de Jong insists never existed) were primarily working in the realm of provocation, installation, and stunt. Like the SPUR artists, Nash and friends played with blasphemic and sexual references, dragging a decorated cross through the streets before one exhibition opening, and named another show CO-RITUS (from “collective rites,” yes, but also nearly “coitus”). The CO-RITUS show was an open social process in which the artists provided the materials, and all who visited the gallery helped to make a dense labyrinthine collage painting.
Arting up a gallery led passers-by to suggest that the artist paint an ugly gray fence around a nearby building. The CO-RITUS gang proceeded to do so, employing slogans against the culture industry, and others drawn from the Situationist playbook of Unitary Urbanism like “City = organized emptiness.” The publishing company behind the fence sued to have it painted gray again.
The CO-RITUS artists' published “demand that the inner city [be] opened as workplace for artistic activity” presaged the movement of graffiti art in our day, as well as the occupation of buildings to use as social centers (like the Ungdomshuset or Youth House which “situtation” begins this book). This, like the move to Drakabygget, is a contemporary response by artists to economic conditions that make their lives very difficult.
Finally, as the controversy and court case over the public fence-painting dragged on, Asger Jorn wrote a public letter against the CO-RITUS action. Jakobsen sees this as a repudiation of Jorn's earlier position for a free creativity, and a defense of the special prerogatives of the specialist artist. Nash, Jakobsen writes, wanted to give creative opportunity to everyone he engaged with, while Jorn sought to preserve his special role as privileged creator. Seeing as how Jorn was really good at it, and his work made a lot of money which he used to support the movement (whether or not he agreed with specific acts and positions or not), I would finally have to side with Jorn. But the open artwork is an important idea, a cardinal idea, and it doesn't have to exist against individual creativity. Unless “toys” tag over masterpieces – in which case, there's a crew who will beat them up on sight.
CO-RITUS followed on the heels of a multi-day Fluxus festival in Copenhagen, and the participatory mechanic of the show is clearly related to the larger movement of what chef d'ecole George Maciunas called “Neo-dada” and “anti-art.” The CO-RITUS artists critiqued Fluxus as simply a new means of continuing the artist-audience dynamic of passivity. Hardy Strid writes in this book that after the exclusions, CO-RITUS had more members and did more actions than the SI in France. He further insists that they launched themselves before Fluxus, a formidable competitor among avant gardes invested in participatory art. (It is indisputable that, powered by the Duchamp- and zen-derived aleatory theories of John Cage, Fluxus artists went much further in this development.)
Good, Bad or Beyond?
The work illustrated in fuzzy black and white in this book – which is, after all, not an art book – is collage and expressionist painting. The content and context are radical, but the work seems largely indistinct from contemporary global expressionist currents, including postwar CoBrA, 2nd and 3rd generation Abstract Expressionism, Neo-Dada and Informel. One begins to see why the simultaneously emergent formal developments of Nouveau Realiste, Pop, Minimal and Conceptual art were so warmly welcomed in the international artworld, since all these styles offered a formal change.
Again, it must be said, this is not an art book, but more a kind of family history of a left-connected movement. One wishes then to think well of all this. But, finally, I confess a certain disappointment. The hard question remains, what more did this work contribute besides a local variation of broader currents in art? There may be good reasons why the art of the Scandinavian Situationists after 1962 has been little regarded. Certainly this book is full of reasons to distrust Jørgen Nash, both as contemporary compatriot and as significant artist. The theoretical strength of the movement was surely Jorn's, the editorial backbone De Jong's, and the formal innovations of the artists relatively slight. Their achievement seems to be to have made a movement appear at all, and to have beguiled many into wondering what it was all about.
Nash, Thorsen and Strid, Jakobsen notes, continued to provoke the public, and never became established accepted artists. By the end of this book, we have heard a lot of bad things about them. They are perhaps the stereotypical bad avant garde artists, “liars and swindlers” by anybody's lights including their own. There is certainly a set of moral questions – rights of the artist, as well as basic respect – involved in Nash and Thorsen's usages of other artists' work. Still, the idea that art is immutable, and somehow the preserve of absolute truth, and that the privilege of lying and deception is reserved only to the advertising industry can be usefully questioned. Asger Jorn perceived duplicity as a necessary tool of the artist in order to advance ideas that are new. His brother carried it out, in actions and provocations that at times seem mendacious and useless. In this respect, the sense behind the hijinks of this band of Lokis of the north remains to be explained.
In a rambling, nearly unedited conversation at the end of the book, Peter Laugesen made a perceptive comment about the concept of potlatch so dear to the Situationists: “Art is simply a gift. Art should be a gift. Art should be given freely to everyone. Not because they maybe want it, but maybe because they don't want it. That's potlatch.” It's also a succinct statement of the ever-tantalizing and regularly hopeless task of avant-gardes in relation to the public.
– Lugo, Spain, August 2011