Bleeding in the Heat
In 1986 Cornelius Castoriadis published an article responding to a politically negative account of the productively disruptive events which took place in Paris in May 1968. His essay was directed at a book co-authored by Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut, La Pensee '68, Essai sur l'anti-humanism contemporaine (Paris, Gallimard, 1983), a work whose reading of ‘68 misrepresented, so Castoriadis argued, the actual benefits gained as a direct result of the energising, if failed, moment of May.
Castoriadis claimed that at the time of his retort May '68 was still hot, that the issues then initiated continued to have a widespread effect on people's day to day lives, as well as upon the specialist sphere of political debate. This was some eighteen years after the barricades, student riots and general frenzy of the events. Now, at a distance of thirty years, what exactly is the status of May '68, and of the Situationist International (SI), the small but vastly influential group of radicals whose participation in the troubles at Strasbourg University in 1966 has been claimed as a major instigating factor in the Paris happenings of 1968?
In recent years the SI has been the subject of numerous academic books, articles and exhibitions. That they have gained such status is itself a provocative issue, as a consideration of remarks made in Simon Sadler's book on The Situationist City suggest. In his Introduction Sadler quotes from Mike Peter's Foreword to the supplement on Guy Debord (the SI's central and now legendary figure) distributed with the magazine Here and Now, a text in which the academicisation of the SI is severely criticised. Sadler himself notes that the situationists did not want to be just another avant-garde, but the last avant-garde, overturning current practices of history, theory, politics, art, architecture, and everyday life, adding that his fastidiously academic book can do none of these things. This plain fact, he continues, will serve to damn it among...the radicals who have carried the candle for situationist ideas since the demise of the Situationist International. Sadler further observes that such radicals appear uncomfortable that they and their discourse are largely products of academia, even when they are its anti-products This sneer at, amongst others, Here and Now is merely the tip of a rather extensive iceberg. On the one hand, the author of a well-respected academic text on the SI, Sadie Plant, whose book, The Most Radical Gesture The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age, is an academic best-seller, found this little magazine an acceptable format for some of her earliest published discussions of the SI. On the other, if Sadler was more familiar with the origins and history of Here and Now he'd be aware that the group responsible for the production of that committed, if intermittent publication cannot be, nor can its influences be reduced to that of the merely academic.
The conflicting positions held by Sadler and by Peters are a microcosm of more extensive conflict, one concerned with the question of what it means to be radical today. It cannot be easily denied that the academic institution is, together with the art world, a major site of the effective recuperation of potentially radical practices. Sadler's mock-apologetic position, his tenuous yet self-asserting mea culpa does little to answer convincingly Peter's claim that the academicisation of situationist issues is a pernicious reconfiguration of an otherwise potentially transformatory critique. Within the process of academics expert analyses a certain kind of reading, one marked out by the rubrics of acceptable academic research and publication, can all too easily take precedence over approaches with serious radical intent.
Books such as those by Plant and Sadler do, I suppose, make more readily available important critical ideas. But the framework of such ideas placement, the manner in which such material is written and distributed suggests not the open-forum format of the little magazine but instead a form of dissemination grounded in the mentality of the commodity. Peters points the finger at academics whose careers are in large part based upon their supposed expertise in a radical subject. This is something which Sadler fails to address. For the SI, radical practice was not a means of climbing the academic career ladder. Revolution was, and remained, the bottom line. The SI railed against the rule of experts and the subordination of the apparently unenlightened; but with today's expansion of higher education this leader/follower model has become further entrenched. Acute critical analyses of the workings of capital are rendered virtually null and void as they are transformed into yet more material for Ph.Ds and examination papers.
The last time I attended anything claiming some kind of direct connection to the SI I encountered what I have elsewhere referred to as a sudden and disabling fall of snow. On this occasion, visiting the ambiguously titled Heatwave, a heatwave indeed there was. It was as though Esther Windsor, the exhibitions curator, had managed to act upon the weather as an integral factor in the display. Heatwave takes its title from a short-lived grouping of English radicals, part of what George Robertson has described as the SI's “penetration into British culture”. The term is an expression that might well be taken in contradictory ways - to signify, for example, the pleasant, tense, generous adrenaline of dissent and the smashing of mediocre poses - an energetic transformation of everyday life. Alternatively, such an anarchic change in the weather might well leave in its wake only death and disaster: intense heat can place the body in a fatal state of dehydration, scar the skin or trigger cancer. A further resonance is the phenomena’s temporary nature; we are dealing with freak conditions, an anomalous materialisation, something which, no matter its momentary force, cannot last.
I take it that such openness of implication was an important factor in using Heatwave to label a presentation of works all connected, in one way or another, with May '68. Windsor's press release points out that Heatwave is not an historical survey of May ‘68-related work, bringing together, rather, a generational shift of artists working with attitude to revolutionary tradition The heady days of May signal now nostalgia for artistic innocence, youthful enthusiasm and emancipatory promise The last few lines of the statement are worth quoting in full: 'In an era', Windsor writes, 'of [the] bankruptcy of ideology, Cool Britannia and political anaemia, imagery invested with the past and absorbed into everyday malaise creates a powerful utopian 'Modern'. Heatwave haunts the promise of the Modern, with its hopes for the unexpected, new and better revealing a delusional pathos of the future.'
There is something melancholic in this all-too accurate outline of a failed Modernity. Was May ‘68 the last dress rehearsal for revolution, for an authentic political [transformation] which never actually arrived? The barricades went up so that social barriers would fall. This did not happen, though, as Castoriadis suggested, many important changes did occur as a [direct or indirect] result of the Paris occupations. Yet only thirty years on the memory of May has itself become spectacle and farce.
Lindsay Anderson’s enigmatic film If..., showing in the gallery alongside various video works, drawings, photographs and texts provides a central reference point for the rest of the exhibition, not only because it portrays the cool schoolboy refusal of ideological illusion, of public school propriety, but also because of its deliriously surreal attention to the possibility that things might be made to be entirely other. Projected onto a screen rather than running on a video monitor, unlike the rest of the moving images in the show, If... was the anchor point around which drifted Heatwave’s diverse components. Completed in 1968, Anderson's film fantastically captured a certain exuberant, if edgy sensibility. Its title implied the potential re-ordering of the tepid quotidian condition of things. How did the other pieces in Heatwave relate to this measured transgression?
Lucy Gunning's video Climbing Around My Room worked well in this context. The child-like dedication to the act in question proposed a committed overcoming of the presumably self-imposed task at hand. Gunning's seriousness appeared unequivocal: after all, she could so easily fall. What exactly it was that might be gained remained unclear, though after following the loop of movements several times one saw that Gunning’s daredevil venture formed a neat model of infinite repetition (readable here as a coded map of the frozen moment of the utopia to come, or of frustrated, unfulfilled desire). Paradoxically, gunning completes her strenuous circuit whilst literally going nowhere. There was in Mark Wallinger's Angel, a different sense of loopy disillusionment, of a carefully ordered yet gravely chaotic reversal. Wallinger is cast in the role of a blind man who, as the video concludes, travels up the escalator shaft in which the piece was taped. One who was fallen thus ascends, the blind and disguised artist finally rising towards the light. The tape is running backwards as though to parallel Walter Benjamin’s description of the Angel of History.
The two remaining video works were primarily documentary. David Bainbridge, a founder member of Art & Language, exhibited in 1968 an interactive device premised upon the imaginary results of a Martian's investigations into the nature of (the Earthling institution of ) art. It was instructive to see a record of this early endeavour of conceptual art. Bainbridge also showed two recent drawings and a text previously circulated amongst trade union councils, a juxtaposition which served to remind one of how the demands for workers' councils made by both the SI and the activists of May '68 had remained essentially unrealised.
Calli Travlos’ contribution was an edited version of her Language on Art, comprising (in the full version) video interviews with some twenty artists, critics and curators, including Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, Stuart Morgan, Naomi Siderfin, John Stezaker, Mark Wallinger and Esther Windsor. Atkinson, as ever on the case when the issue of art education is up for serious discussion, stressed the importance of the role of teaching in the early practice and writings of Art & Language. 'I've always taught, and I’ve always seen teaching as part of the work', he observed, a factor which might be considered a kind of cipher of this exhibition as a whole.
The intended acts of cultural critique proposed by contemporary artists in the name of political change have been, like those of the Dadaists before them, frequently defused, classified as 'art' rather than as part of an internecine negation of that comfortable bourgeois category. Those works gathered together in Heatwave had as their greatest saving grace a didactic function Ė potentially so at least. Heatwave was displayed in a space adjacent to one of the University of Wolverhampton’s lecture theatres, an area known as 'The Waiting Room'. For what might one be waiting for the moment when the fuse of Heatwave might ignite, or for, say, another art history lecture? Could this exhibition bring home to those who meandered through it the point, today so easily forgotten, that students were at the forefront of the May demonstrations in '68? The conditions of student life have, in the last thirty years declined considerably, though the spectacular attractions of such a life, the ideological image of what being a student means, is, and does for you has undergone a public relations job the likes of which would make Hipgnosis (several images by whom are included in the show) pretty damn jealous - at least if their artistically sharp record covers had represented the kind of propagandistic intentions evident in today’s university promotion departments - which one likes to think they did not.
That all the work in Heatwave is indexed to May '68, or is convincingly reframed in relation to that historical event, does not stop it being art. Windsor's selection, seemingly disparate but in fact, on a more careful analysis, quite tightly tethered to the days of May, (even as their negative representation), takes its coherence from this point: that if May '68 was 'the real thing', the potential gateway to authentic cultural change (and not its mere spectacle), then this moment must be held to, recollected and, if necessary, brazenly restaged as a point of departure for further action. But perhaps Heatwave, true to the shifting figure of its name, presses home a different story, one of missed opportunity and blunt failure. Windsor is right to bring up the matter of 'political anaemia' and of 'Cool Britannia' in her exhibition notes, for it is surely time that contemporary art reassessed its responsibilities - or, one should say, actually developed some. Unlike today's gullible 'young British artist', so ready to subscribe to the pleasure patterns of capital, the SI recognised that pleasure has to be fought for, that it doesn't come ready made. The 'troubles' of 1968 were not for nothing: whatever exactly their legacy is, they signify a fracture in the pristine picture of reality so aptly named by Debord as the 'spectacle'.
FOOTNOTE: When George Robertson referred to the 'most interesting' post-situationist groups as being 'the Scottish Here and Now collective, the Leeds-based Pleasure Tendency and the group based around Stewart Home and Smile magazine', he was doing so in full awareness of the fact that such marginally-placed 'cultural workers' were operating, by and large, well outside the framework commonly known as the academic sphere.