CONFESSIONS OF A CLOSET SITUATIONIST

08 November 2006
Véronique Vienne
Véronique Vienne

Trapped in mouse-potato-dom, most of us are docile spectators, our idle hands forever deprived of the tactile satisfaction of actually making things. This enforced passivity has dire consequences for the brain. There is evidence that toolmaking is linked to the development of language. Our hands are connected to our gray matter by a crisscrossing network of nerve pathways that travel back and forth from the right brain to the left hand and from left brain to the right hand. So, while manual dexterity stimulates our central nervous system, simple spectatorship numbs the mind.

But with nothing to fabricate, the majority of people are reduced to buying ready-made products—examining them, poking them and fondling them in the process just to satisfy the yearning in their fingers. Shopping is a substitute for producing. When my daughter was a teenager, she would often say, like so many of her contemporaries, “Mom, I have nothing to do. I am bored. Let’s go shopping!” It soon became a family joke. We worked out a couple of silly variations, including “Mom, my closet is full of clothes. I have nothing to wear. Let’s go shopping,” and “Mom, I have too many pairs of sneakers. I am confused. Let’s go shopping.”

From time to time, I indulged her shopping impulses, but I also suggested fun alternatives: fix toys, repaint the bathroom, make jam, wax the furniture. One of her favorite mood-uppers, it turned out, was doing the silver. I will always cherish the memory of her sitting at the kitchen table, a big apron secured around her chest, happily polishing our odd collection of forks and spoons. “In his or her daydreams the passive worker becomes an active consumer,” wrote John Berger, Britain’s eminent critic and novelist, in his 1972 best-seller Ways of Seeing. Acquiring things, he believes, is a poor alternative for fashioning objects. The spectator-self, no longer involved with the making of artifacts, envies the consuming-self who gets to touch and use new gadgets, appliances, devices and goods.

This perception is not new. More than 40 years ago in Paris, an obscure group of cultural critics calling themselves “Situationists” began protesting against the escalating commercial takeover of everyday life, and against the artists, illustrators, photographers, art directors and graphic designers who manufactured this fake gee-whiz reality. In his book, The Society of Spectacle, French Situationist leader Guy Debord wrote: “In our society where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.” Yet, by today’s standards, the spectacle hadn’t even begun. This was before the Cuban revolution, before the invasion of Tibet, before the Pill, before La Dolce Vita, before Pop Art. In the 1958 Paris of the early Situationists, Edith Piaf was singing “Milord,” François Truffaut was shooting The 400 Blowsand demure Danish Modern was the cutting edge.

Yet, with a clairvoyance that’s startling in hindsight, the short-lived (1957-1972) Situationist International movement predicted our most serious current dilemma. According to the latest findings, we spend 58% of our waking time interacting with the media; people sleep less and spend less time with their family in order to watch more television; megaplexes and superstores are increasingly designed to resemble theme parks; and the Mall of America in Minneapolis hosts more visitors than Walt Disney World, Disneyland and the Grand Canyon combined. In his new book, The Entertainment Economy: How Mega-Media Forces Are Transforming Our Lives, Michael J. Wolf asserts: “We have come to expect that we will be entertained all the time. Products and brands that deliver on this expectation are succeeding. Products that do not will disappear.”

No wonder the Situationists’ ethos has become the mantra of critics and detractors of our imagineering culture. Everyone who is anyone these days is dropping their name—from Adbustersto Emigrémagazines, and from Greil Marcus to J. Abbott Miller. Debord’s seminal book, The Society of Spectacle, is on the list of the trendy Zone Books, and MIT Press has recently published The Situationist City, a comprehensive investigation of the Situationists’ urbanist theories, written by Simon Sadler. Move over Paul Virillio. SI, as the Situationist International movement is now labeled, is the latest French intellectual import.

An underground movement that shunned the limelight—the members of this elusive group lived by the precepts they preached—SI’s subversive ideology at first defies comprehension. Unless you understand the specific context of the period, many of their assertions make little sense today. Influenced by Lettrist International, a radical group of the 1950s that sought to revitalize urban life through the fusion of poetry and music, Debord and his colleague Raoul Vaneigem used Dada slogans to spread their message. “The more you consume, the less you live,” and “Be realistic, demand the impossible,” are two of the most memorable SI pronouncements.

Yet in spite of its so-called anarchist mentality, the SI methodology was precisely constructed. The name of the group was born out of the realization that participants had to create special conditions in their everyday life—special “situations”—in order to resist the insidious appeal of the pseudo-needs of increased consumption and to overcome the mounting sense of alienation that characterized the post-modern age. They conducted open-ended experiments that involved playful constructive behavior aimed at scrambling mental expectations. Most popular of these strategies was taking aimless strolls through a busy neighborhood, deliberately rearranging the furniture in their apartments to create as many obstacles as possible, systematically rejecting labor-saving devices and voluntarily disorienting themselves by consulting the map of London when visiting Amsterdam. Called “Drifting”—Dérivein French—the technique was an effective way to “reclaim the night,” to momentarily defy the white patriarchy of traditional space-time.

Like most rational people today, I too would find this approach naïve and dogmatic, if I hadn’t experienced it firsthand. In 1960, as a student at the Paris Beaux-Arts school of architecture, I was unwittingly part of an SI experiment. The very first day I showed up at the studio with a dozen other new recruits, the young instructor announced that we should reconvene at La Palette, a bistro across the street. At nine in the morning, the sidewalk had just been washed and the waiter was trundling the cast-iron tables out onto the boulevard. We each grabbed a wicker chair from a tall stack in a corner, picked our spot on the terrace, angled our seats to catch the morning sun, stretched our legs, yawned and ordered a round of black coffee.

“This is your first lesson in architecture,” said the instructor, a gaunt young man in a black turtleneck—the trademark look of the avant-garde back then. “For the next three months, we will spend six hours a day sitting right here. I want you to learn about space/time-particularly how to use space in order to waste time. Unless you understand that, you’ll never be good architects.”

I now know that this is straightforward SI doctrine. Embracing Arthur Rimbaud’s assertion that laziness is a refusal to compartmentalize time, Situationists advocated “living without restrictions or dead time,” and “never work—never risk dying of boredom.” They wasted time deliberately, and playfully, as a guerrilla strategy against the sense of emptiness imposed by the relentless spectacle of consumption that was quickly subsuming French culture.

And so, for the first semester, we sat at the bistro from nine a.m. to two p.m., five days a week. Except for mornings when we would drift through Paris, sketchbooks in hand, making detailed drawings of whatever caught our fancy—a stairway leading to the river bank, an abandoned gazebo in a park, the monumental gate of a hospital—you would find us huddled at the terrace of La Palette. This was in situ urban anthropology. I learned to observe how people choose the best spot to sit; how lovers fight, how couples brood and how friends compete; how everyone sits straighter when a pretty girl walks in; how people celebrate on payday—and how they scrutinize a menu when they are broke.

Sometimes we would get into conversations, sometimes we would draw, sometimes we would read, sometimes we would argue—and often we would simply daydream. As promised, the space/time equation became a reality, one rich in surprises and discoveries. We became familiar with the angles of the various streets, the movements of the sun, the sounds of the city, the rhythm of life around us. No two minutes were ever alike. As we sat there, absorbing what felt like vital information, we developed a perception of the human scale—a critical notion for architects. And then, almost reluctantly, after lunch, we drifted across the street to the studio where we worked late into the night to acquire the rudiments of the classical orders of architecture.

I never completed my architectural studies. Instead, I moved to the States and eventually became a magazine art director. During my career in design, I often used the dérive technique to avoid the pitfalls of linear thinking. Another Situationist construct also came in handy. Called détournement, translated as “rerouting,” it consists of transforming images by interpreting them to mean something of your own making. SI theorists liked to describe the method as “hijacking, misappropriation, corruption of preexisting aesthetic elements.” I simply call it sticking words on top of images.

Rerouting images is the basic M.O. of graphic communication. The minute you put a caption under a photograph, place a headline next to a picture, create a collage, single out a pull-quote or write cover lines, you subvert the significance of both word and image. I believe that most of the creative tensions between editors and art directors, or between clients and designers, evolve from a misunderstanding of how visual artifacts can be reconfigured into constructed situations.

Chris Dixon, art director of Adbustersmagazine, the anti-consumerism publication that has wholeheartedly embraced the SI legacy, is probably one of the few North-American designers to consciously use détournement. “Often the captions we use in the magazine are much more provocative than the images themselves,” he says. “In fact, we deliberately use rather conventional photographs to let our readers know that we speak the same language they do.” Even though its overall message is anti-commercial and anti-advertising, Adbusters is surprisingly well-designed, as if to mock the very aesthetic that drives the advertising community.

Where Adbustersand SI part ways is on the discourse they have chosen to promote similar ideas. “We link anti-consumerism to the environmental movement,” explains Dixon. “Readers understand the correlation between buying too many useless products and depleting the natural resources of the planet.” Concern for the environment never appears in the newspapers, journals, tracks, graffiti or manifestoes left behind by the SI. They didn’t have much of a social agenda either. Their mandate was to resist the cultural imperialism that drains human beings of their joie de vivre, a very French concept, indeed. Boredom was their enemy; happiness their goal. Another of their maxims was: “They are buying your happiness—steal it back.”

The Situationist idea of happiness is very different from the “hedonomics” of the buying experience, as defined by Michael J. Wolf in The Entertainment Economy. Whereas Americans equate feeling good with having “fun,” the French in general, and the SI in particular, describe happiness as liberating—as being euphoric, mischievous, prankish. It’s the feeling that swept over France during the first weeks of the May 1968 general strike, when all Paris took to the streets in what was at first a festival more than a student revolt.

The Situationists were responsible for initiating the construction of barricades in the streets of Paris that month (Pull up some cobblestones, add a half-dozen trash cans, more cobblestones, some discarded lumber, maybe a broken bicycle. Borrow chairs from a café, sit and wait). They also encouraged students to cover the walls of the city with Lettrist-inspired graffiti (“It is forbidden to forbid”). Last, but not least, they were credited with giving the rebellion its upbeat and high-spirited signature.

But the events of 1968—not only in France, but all over the world—were eventually “rerouted” by the establishment. As Thomas Frank, editor-in-chief of The Baffler, explains in his book, The Conquest of Cool, the anti-consumerism rebellion of the post-war era was commodified by Madison Avenue into what is now known as the “Youth Culture”—one of the greatest marketing tools of the second part of the 20th century. The Society of Spectacle was here to stay. Blaming themselves for their failure to change society, but also grieving for the millions of consumers who would only experience euphoria through shopping, Debord and his troops dispersed in 1972. Tragically unable to recapture the joie de vivre of the early days of SI, Debord took his own life in December 1994, soon after completing a documentary film on his work.

Five years after Debord’s suicide, events would prove that the spirit he had championed still survives. On December 5, 1999, the front page of the New York Timesfeatured a photograph that would have cheered him up. Taken by Jimi Lott of the Seattle Times, it showed Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus being escorted home by four riot policemen wearing Ninja-turtle combat boots and padded breastplates. The violent protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle had so disrupted holiday shopping, explained the caption, that the Yule pair had to be put under police protection.

As one flipped through the newspaper, one quickly realized that the former Saint Nicholas (a historical figure incidentally recast in 1931 by Coca-Cola as the beloved red-and-white icon we now identify with Christmas shopping) was not the only consumer icon that needed police protection. National guards troops and riot paratroopers had been posted in front of all retail stores in downtown Seattle—guarding Starbucks, Banana Republic, Coach, Gap and Gucci, just to name a few. The entrance of Niketown in particular looked like the set of Star Wars, with hooded figures in black armor standing at attention, their four-foot bludgeons poised to strike.

It looked like the police were confronting rowdy crowds not to protect civil liberties and political institutions—but to protect global brands. Though one didn’t have to be a trend forecaster to feel that brand backlash was coming (“My wish for the New Year was to get through meetings without someone mentioning branding,” joked Web page editorial designer Jessica Helfand recently), most of us never expected it would be so sudden, so graphic, or so ready-for-prime-time television. “The revolution will not be televised,” sang Gil Scott-Heron in 1974. Wishful thinking, indeed. The anti-consumerism, anti-brand revolution, complete with demonstrators smashing store windows, was on the eleven o’clock news. Replays showing the same scenes over and over were aired every ten minutes, as if to “brand” the violent images in the mind of viewers.

Kalle Lasn, editor of Adbusters magazine in Vancouver, Canada, and famous for advocating what he calls “culture jamming,” was one of the few people who wasn’t surprised by the Seattle uproar. In fact, the December 1999 issue of his magazine had an article predicting that the WTO conference would be “a historic confrontation between civil society and corporate rule.” His book, Culture Jam, The Uncooling of America, had just been released. Time magazine had praised him for taking arms against our 3,000-marketing-message-a-day society. Still he wasn’t prepared for what he saw when he went to Seattle to observe the riots.

“It was like a festival,” he says. “Except for a few people confronting cops, demonstrators were laid-back, happy, having fun. There was a lot of street theater, spontaneous happenings and cheerful pranks being played.” It had a Situationist ambiance, for sure. But then, unexpectedly, Lasn got his first whiff of tear gas. “I’ll never forget that smell,” he says. “Nor will I forget the savage look on the face of the policemen. They really didn’t get it.”

But who gets it? Why are the global brands a threat to our very existence—a threat so real it galvanized 30,000 protestors to take to the streets? “There were more than 100 different groups,” tells Lasn. “Environmentalists, students, anarchists, but also musty old socialists, Christians tired of the violence on TV, critics of genetic engineering and card-carrying union members—every single one of them worried about some unofficial global government body enforcing an elite corporate agenda.”

During the WTO riots, the design community was in a state of complete denial. No one talked about what was happening in Seattle. Heck, we were still nursing our Las Vegas hangover following the “hedonomic” AIGA conference held two months earlier. There had been practically no references to the social or environmental responsibility of designers, let alone their role in “supporting, or implicitly endorsing, a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond, and interact,” to quote the language of “First Things First,” the Adbustersmanifesto signed by 33 prominent designers worldwide. In fact, when AIGA president Michael Bierut, in his closing statement in Las Vegas, had made a passing reference to this controversial call for moderation-in-marketing, some people in the audience had booed his comments.

But, as luck would have it, that same week—for the fifth anniversary of Debord’s death—I had given my graphic design students at the School of Visual Arts a series of dérive exercises directly inspired by my own SI experience and studies. First they had to draw a map of all their travel/wanderings/whereabouts in New York City during the last three months, plotting on paper their perception of time/space in the Big Apple. Their map, I told them, was supposed to be an “aid to reverie,” a tool for “annexing their private space into the public sphere.” Then, they had to explore and draw the Beaux-Arts colonnade at the Manhattan Bridge anchorage, with the idea that urbanism was in fact “the organization of silence.”


No one really got it. But the discussions, laughter, confessions and astute comments generated by my students as we reviewed their serendipitous maps and awkward sketches reaffirmed my faith in design and art education. As long as we encourage each other to observe, imagine, construct and manufacture things—whether useful objects or useless situations—we will never become bored and depressed consumers. Let’s not use design as an inducement to shop, but an inducement to joie de vivre.

Editor’s Note:
Many designers are in the position of both designing to promote consumerism and consuming. How difficult is it for that designer to detach and assess the right and wrong of consumerism? Vienne has helped frame the discussion: the May/June Design Issues column will further the debate.


—DK Holland




About this article
© Véronique Vienne, First published by Communication Arts Magazine, March/April 2000 Coyne & Blanchard, Inc.

About Véronique Vienne
Véronique Vienne, is a writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. For years a practicing exhibit designer, she later became a magazine art director for publications such as Interiors, Image magazine, Parenting and Self. She now writes about design and cultural trends. Her articles have been published in numerous design publications and journals, including Communication Arts, Metropolis, Graphis, Print, Eye and the AIGA Journal as well as magazines including House & Garden, Harper's Bazaar, Town & Country, InStyle, Mirabella and American Photo.