Situationist Histories

The anthology Expect Anything, Fear Nothing enriches the established narratives of the postwar avant-garde movements with its depiction of the Scandinavian Situationists.

Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen & Jakob Jakobsen, Expect Anything, Fear Nothing: The Situationist Movement in Scandinavia and Elsewhere, 2011

The Situationist movement occupies an important place in art history after World War II. It lies in a direct genealogical line from the century’s earlier avant-garde movements with their manifestos, group culture, and esthetic-political utopias. It also remains unavoidably significant as one of the historical models for present-day critical and artistic production: the Situationists formulate their revolutionary position in terms of a growing, late-capitalist consumption society, which in a developed and mutated form constitutes the reality we still inhabit.

But the historical and critical reception of the Situationist movement has most often focused on the Paris-based group around Guy Debord: L’Internationale situationniste, the Situationist International. Instead the anthology Expect Anything, Fear Nothing: The Situationist Movement in Scandinavia and Elsewhere, edited by Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen and Jakob Jakobsen, directs attention to a number of the movement’s marginalized, less known or forgotten members and sections, primarily from Scandinavia but also Britain, Holland, etc. It is a noteworthy collection of essays demonstrating that the Situationist movement was extremely heterogeneous both artistically and theoretically—and so the book also shows how we really should understand the legacy of this group and the eventual actuality of its techniques, theories, and concepts.

Guy Debord, Michelle Bernstein, Asger Jorn

For example the Swedish painter Hardy Strid’s short article offers a corrective for the established picture of Debord as a Situationist high priest who like André Breton had absolute power over the movement and could excommunicate all who deviated from his doctrine (whether this is an accurate description of Breton is another question). Strid, also known as «The Situationist Superman» and himself a member of several of the movement’s constellations, said that «everyone can be a Situationist»: the French section’s claim of exclusive rights to this appellation was at best ridiculous. With Strid and his compatriots—foremost the bandit Jörgen Nash, Asger Jorn’s brother—the Situationist movement seemed more a precursor of Fluxus than a group of hard, programmatic revolutionaries.

From the exhibition Destruction of RSG-6, 1963.

But the best contributions in Expect Anything, Fear Nothing—which has its origin in a large conference in Copenhagen in 2007—are the thoroughly worked out commentaries that go back to little noticed phenomena in the Situationist movement’s multiple histories. Here must be named Bolt Rasmussen’s article on the Situationist exhibition Destruktion af RSG-6 [Destruction of RSG-6]in Odensein 1963, Jakobsen’s well-documented examination of the history of the collective farm Drakabygget, and Carl Nørrested’s study of the films produced there. Bolt Rasmussen’s «To Act in Culture While Being Against All Culture: the Situationists and the ‘Destruction of RSG-6’» describes this odd organization, which with characteristic modesty sought to stop nuclear power, end alienation, and enact what was called a «realization of philosophy». Bolt Rasmussen may not necessarily convince us of the epoch-making significance of this particular exhibition—where one was supposed, among other things, to move from art into direct political action by shooting air rifles at pictures of politicians. Even so, his essay is a sterling treatment that situates the project in two frameworks: first, the history of various Situationist factions and their conflicts (the exhibition, organized by the Debord group a year after the famed «split» of the Situationist International, mounted an attack against Jörgen Nash’s jovial artistic romanticism); and second, the era’s political climate (the Cold War, the threat of the nuclear bomb, the growth of «The Society of the Spectacle»).


Similarly Jakobsen’s ambitious essay is presumably the richest study until now of Drakabygget, the farm outside Örkelljunga in southern Sweden where Nash and his friends settled and created the offshoot faction called the Second Situationist International. Jakobsen has had access to the private Nash-Jorn archive; he gives a detailed account of the origins and development of this chaotic, international avant-garde collective where the Scandinavian Situationists lived, partied, and worked together with members of the German Gruppe SPUR and «culture designers [kulturgestalter]» from many countries. Norrested’s article returns to the relatively comprehensive—and today nearly forgotten—film production by the group around Drakabygget, foremost the Dane Jens Jørgen Thorsen. These texts, as a group, give a complex picture of the Scandinavian Situationists’ activity, a portrait which advances and enriches established accounts of avant-garde movements in Europe after World War II.

From the seminar in Copenhagen in 2007. (Photo: Susanne Christensen)

Perhaps the most interesting article in Expect Anything, Fear Nothing is the American art historian Karen Kurczynski’s examination of Asger Jorn’s «eccentric morphologies» in the periodical The Situationist Times. This journal, founded by the Dutch Situationist Jacqueline de Jong in 1962, was originally thought to function as an English-language organ for Debord’s Situationist International, but after the expulsion of Gruppe SPUR and Nash and his adherents it later became a forum for the «artistic» Situationists. From its third issue on, The Situationist Times drastically changes character: it stops being a sprawling avant-garde pamphlet and becomes the site of an experimental and speculative examination of various motifs and forms of historical transformations and migrations on the basis of Asger Jorn’s peculiar ideas of the possibilities of mathematical topologies. The thick issues of the periodical, dedicated to topological figures like the knot, the wheel, and the labyrinth, are filled with pictures tracing the reappearance of these forms in many fields across history: runic inscriptions, road signs, modern artworks and architectural forms, microscopic patterns in flora, and macroscopic formations of the infrastructure. Accompanying these images are commentaries from writers spanning a wide range of disciplines: physicists, sociologists, artists, etc. The gatherings are so heterogeneous they can become reminiscent of Bataille’s journal Documents. Kurczynski accounts for the logic behind this multidisciplinary editorial work of montage, also showing how the topological experiments of Jorn and de Jong differ from the scattered fascination with topology in a series of contemporary artists.

The Situationist Times, cover

The experimental, absolutely wild historiography in The Situationist Times is a reminder that it’s an oversimplification to reduce the Situationist movement to the creators of a group of facile slogans and suggestive theories with vague links to the student revolts in Paris in 1968. But this also points to a central question: how does one write the history of the Situationist movement? Is there a critical historiography responsive to the radicalism of the movement’s subversive experiment? An obstinately recurring cliché in the discourse about the Situationists is that their subversive conceptions and forms might be especially receptive to assimilation or co-opting by the powers of capitalism. But perhaps one shouldn’t be concerned about whether the Situationists’ shaping principles and forms would be overtaken and disarmed by the mechanisms of capital and the theater before their real revolutionary potential could be realized. Perhaps one might sooner ask if the developed forms were too complex, too ambiguous, too slow, or too refractory to be subsumed and exploited by these powers; and if so, whether it is possible to save these forms from history’s forgetfulness and render them once again accessible as models for artistic, intellectual, or political activity. We should at least think of asking such a question. With impressive results this is the historiographic line of action at work in Expect Anything, Fear Nothing.