The City Is Your Playground: The Situationists

Photo of The Situationists

The Situationist International (or the Situationists) were a collective of artists and philosophers that were active from 1957 to 1972 and were lead by Guy Debord. In terms of timelines, their work follows that of the Surrealists, and kind of runs parallel to the Fluxus movement in America. They were known for publishing books, journals, collages and graffiti.

A central theme in the Situationists’ work is they were critical of capitalism and its effect on society’s happiness. The major work central to this idea is Debord’s book The Society of the Spectacle.

In it he argues that capitalist society functions on the idea of taking care of our basic needs such as food and shelter, and then makes us feel empty again as we are sold newer goods such as the latest gadgets or vehicles. In other words, you will never have enough in this society as the system helps induce a sense of boredom as we strive to keep attaining more things.

So one of the answers that the Situationists had to this dilemma was to find ways of having fun that did not involve buying more goods. They envisioned the city as a playground of sorts, and encouraged people to take long walks and explore the city. They would create ‘situations’ as sort of games, also known as psychogeography. This would be similar to the idea of the flâneur, a kind of artist who’s work is defined by strolling through the city and making observations. One potential modern realization of this dream is augmented reality games such as Pokemon Go, or the group Improv Everywhere who bring people out for fun experiments in the city. You can also look at sites like Meetup which enable groups to get together and do things around the city, or Jane’s Walks which are educational tours through different neighbourhoods.

Another central theme to the Situationists would be the act of collage. They would not be afraid to take previous works of art, literature or advertising and combine it to make new works of expression, almost as a form of protest. You might be able to see how the act of sampling music can be considered part of this lineage as well, especially in the 80s and 90s when artists typically did not clear the copyright on samples before releasing them. Under the category of collage, the Situationists were very much graffiti artists as they used the walls of the city in Paris to write various anti-Capitalist slogans.

These slogans were seen all over the student uprising of May 1968, and while they did not create this movement, it is said that it would probably not exist without the work they had done prior.

In the current age of social media in which many people feel sort of forced to participate in networks that are owned by large corporations and function on the basis of advertising, the ideas of the Situationists are more important than ever. Some of their ideals might be considered too extreme, however their warnings will help explain why many people might feel dissatisfied with the realities of Western society.

Situationist International on Wikipedia

Psychogeography on Wikipedia

Society of the Spectacle: WTF? Guy Debord, Situationism and the Spectacle Explained

The Situationists documentary

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