Situationist Painting in the Tate

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A few months back, I went to the Tate Modern with my friend Sophie and found a surprise in the galleries – a painted strip of paper on a roller. It was a piece I’d read about but hadn’t realised was on display. This was Pinot Gallizio’s Industrial painting from 1958, made on a piece of canvas, rolled up and intended to be sold by the meter.

One of the most fascinating thing about the Situationists is how relatively little work they produced to demonstrate their theories. Much ink has been spilled on DeBord’s psychogeography, for example, but the groups associated with him produced few examples of the form: their practical work is far outweighed by their ideas.

Gallizio described himself as “archaeologist, botanist, chemist, parfumer, partisan, king of the gypsies” – to which McKenzie Wark suggests adding “chancer, amateur, dandy and dilettante”. He is famous as one of the founding members of Situationist International. The group was formed in July 1957 as a unification of several small avant-garde groups. One of them, Ralph Rumney’s ‘London Psychogeographical Association’, was formed on the occasion to make the event look more supported than it was.

Gallizio’s ‘Industrial Painting’  was first exhibited at a Turin Gallery in May 1958. The painting was unrolled and stuck on the walls, with sections sold by the meter. Models paraded in the gallery wrapped in the fabric. As well as being sold in the gallery, sections of the fabric was sold in a street market.

Another of Gallizio’s fascinations was gypsy communities. He offered a home to a gypsy community and this inspired Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys. A recent article on Atlas Obscura detailed Nieuwenhuys’ work on nomadic architecture and his playful and visionary city designs.

Gallizio’s work was intended as a protest against the commodification of art. he produced original work through mechanical means, offering it for sale by the foot. But everything gets recuperated. Gallizio’s work is now an artifact, to be expertly displayed in a gallery. Maybe it should be chopped up and sold? Sections handed to people as they enter the gallery. Maybe the idea of this piece is more important than the piece itself.

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The Power of London Road’s Stone Circle

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Towards the end of last year, I noticed a couple of numbered stones in the pavement around the New England area. I was curious – there had to be a reason why they were there – but I couldn’t work out what they were for.

During a conversation with Jake Spicer, I found out that the stones were part of a circle laid out around by The Brighton School. This circle was their first work and featured stones laid in pavements, on the Level and in private gardens. Apparently this is the “first urban stone circle in England, and probably the world”. (A good description of the work is here). I love this project – it’s playful and connects to some fascinating English traditions.

Last night I was reading Britannia Obscura by Joanne Parker, a book on ‘mapping Britain’s hidden landscapes’. The third chapter of this was about megaliths and includes an interview with Philip Carr-Gomm, who heads the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids.

Carr-Gomm explains how the stone circles are part of a magical landscape that includes some very modern features: “We don’t worry about time… Whether a monument or a hundred years ago or a thousand, what matters is that it’s important to me today. There’s a reality between linear time.” The druids even worship at some ‘fake’ stone circles made in the nineteenth century – so the London Road certainly has the potential for power.

Parker also refers to the tradition that some stone circles could not be counted. She suggests that this is because it is sometimes hard to tell which rocks should be included, but also refers to folklore – a baker who tried to count the Rollright Stones by putting a loaf on each one, only to find they were disappearing. Given that some of London Road’s stones are on private property, they are equally hard to count.

The chapter concludes by questioning what gives stone circles their power. It can’t simple be their scale or the work involved, says Parker, as there are many larger man-made objects. After considering some sort of healing effect, Parker concludes that they put us in touch with a deeper sense of time: “maybe, just maybe, something of what we are and do might endure beyond our scores of years”.

2: The Dérive

Most discussion of psychogeography centres around the practise of the dérive, the Drift. According to the Situationists, this is “quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll”, since it involves “playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects”.

The essay Theory of the Dérive provides discussion and techniques of Drifting. Those involved suspend their normal obligations and motives, letting themselves “be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there”. Rather than a single group, the best results are achieved from several small groups that can cross-check their impressions to produce “objective conclusions”; too many people and the Drift loses cohesion. The average duration is a day, from waking to sleep, but the time can range from a few hours to several days. The results taken allow the city to be mapped and navigational charts produced of the relationship between different zones and ambiences.

Given how influential Situationist ideas of psychogeography and drifting are, there are few examples of what they intended, of exactly how walking through a city was supposed to further revolution. Merlin Coverley writes that “one cannot help but notice that, while the theoretical and instructive elements of psychogeography are manifest, the actual results of all these experiments are strangely absent… one is hard pressed to find any concrete evidence… of psychogeographical activity.” Indeed, Ralph Rumney was expelled from the Situationist for being late with a psychogeographical report on Venice.

The random methods so beloved of modern psychogeographers are treated cautiously in Theories. “If chance plays an important role in dérives this is because the methodology of psychogeographical observation is still in its infancy”. It will do for now, in place of more useful techniques. What’s interesting is how modern few psychogeographers are exploring the methods that might take the place of an arbitrary shape drawn on a map. It’s as if any desire to develop the Drift ended with the Situationists.

20,000 days on earth

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A month or two back, I saw the Nick Cave documentary, 20,000 Days on Earth. I’m a huge fan of Cave’s music, but I wasn’t really interested in him as portrayed by the film. But it was a great movie, reminding me of My Winnipeg, Guy Maddin’s ‘docu-fantasia’ about the Canadian city.

The film is particularly strange to watch as a Brighton resident. Having Nick Cave move to the city and seeing him about still seems weird – particularly when he’s doing things that seem out-of-character with his artistic persona. The editing of the film makes for some odd geography too. Cave spends much of the film as a sort-of mystic taxi driver, giving lifts to other celebrities. He’ll do things like drive West from the old pier and arrive at the Marina. Zenbullets had similar problems: “Watched (and loved) the Nick Cave film last night. Although as a Brightonian I was distracted wondering where he parks around Brunswick.

(Back in 2004, The Argus had an article on “Rock king Cave” supporting plans to turn the West Pier into a jungle. His friend Doug Leitch was quoted as saying “Nick has this thing about wisteria but I don’t know if it would grow.” Cave was apparently concerned about any pier redevelopment opening the way for developers: “I watched my home town of Melbourne, which was designed on the Brighton model, destroyed in a few years“. It looks as if we will indeed be seeing a redeveloped, commercialised West Pier cultural quarter)

Much of the film is invention. The office Cave uses is, apparently, a set; the heavily-staffed archives of Cave’s life are a means of interviewing without a tedious question/answer format. The film’s makers said in interview that the movie was a fiction that aimed to produce deeper truths. At one point,Cave says about his songs, “It’s a world I’m creating… one where god actually exists,” and the film creates an interesting world around Brighton.

(The sort of imaginary worlds Nick Cave talks about are called paracosms, and there’s a lovely article on them in the NYT: “It’s a paradox that the artists who have the widest global purchase are also the ones who have created the most local and distinctive story landscapes“. One of Cave’s most peculiar works is Bunny Munro, a story set around the outskirts of Brighton. I never expected a character of his to utter the words “Is Newhaven a nice place, Dad?“)

Asked about why he is in Brighton, Cave replies that he used to visit from London. “It was always cold and it was always raining [but] you’ve got to drop anchor somewhere“. Nick Cave has an obsessive love of weather. As an Australian, he found himself upset by the “relentless miserable weather that England has”. Keeping weather diaries was a way of taking control of this, since bad weather is better to write about.

The sky in Brighton is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Living by the sea and looking out of my windows, I feel like am part of the weather itself. Sometimes the sky is so blue and the reflection of the sea so dazzling you can’t even look at it; and other times great black thunderheads roll across the ocean… Funnily enough the more I write about the weather the worse it seems to get and the more interesting it becomes and the more it moulds itself to the narrative I have set for it. You know I can control the weather with my moods. I just can’t control my moods.

(It was also funny to hear that Cave uses a similar writing technique to me: “Then you send in a clown on a tricycle. If that doesn’t do it, you shoot the clown“)

Lovecraft in Brighton

I’ve been reading a lot about Lovecraft recently (more than I’ve been reading Lovecraft himself — his prose is so dreary). I found a couple of references to a brief trip to Hampshire/Sussex, including an unpleasant few days spent in Brighton. Which got me thinking about Brighton and cosmic horror, which then got me scribbling little weird tales about Lovecraft coming back to life in Brighton, a city he loathed when he’d been there in life. Here’s one of them:

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I am Brighton

Lovecraft and I stroll the Brighton promenade. We pass the skeleton of the West Pier, blackened iron bones left behind when it was torched. We come to the stone jetty a little further along and walk to the end. Once there, Howard puts his hands deep in his coat pockets and sags. I look toward the ruins. “Do you ever wonder what’s under the sea?”

“All the time,” he sighs, then turns to face the shore, his back to the water. “We should go inland.”

“Why are you here if you hate it so much?”

He has walked a few paces. He stops, turns a little but not enough to face me. “I had no choice. I was summoned.”

He’s told me that a few times but never elaborates. He is resentful, hates being here, marooned in Brighton three quarters of a century after he died. This is a man who was disappointed by his first life, where he sometimes had to go without food to have enough money for stamps, a life that was too lonely. I tell him he should come out with me to bars, to parties, try to let it go, but he never does. He makes no effort to do anything with his second life.

“The problem with the sea is this,” he declares, turning to face the shore once more. I move closer to hear properly. “You can never see what the depths hold. There might be hideous things in the dark waters. And most of our world is ocean, inhospitable to all life. It amazes me that any human tribe ever lived in sight of the ocean.”

He shudders and walks away. But I continue staring at the sea. Its strength and power captivate me. The water here is too cold and cloudy to see more than a few inches down. Howard sometimes claims that something monstrous lives in the waters off Brighton. I don’t know if he’s joking when he says this, but he may well be right. That’s the thing about the sea. At least outer space is open – nothing can hide there and we are tracking every object for millions of miles. The sea is so much closer yet we have no idea what it hides.

The thing sleeps. Occasionally people are drawn to this shore. Sometimes I feel its pull too, a gravity, as if Brighton is tilted, as if it inclines towards the shore. Not everyone can resist this force. August Bank Holiday 1973, the writer Ann Quin drowned herself near the pier, ‘given to the sliding of the water’. Once considered a giant of British literary fiction, her books now only rarely surface into print. I feel so sad for her, stepping into the cold water, nobody to call her back.

I wonder how long I could keep going in that cold water. Once you’re a certain distance from the beach, it doesn’t matter how deep the ocean is, it might as well go down forever. Once you can no longer dangle your toes down and touch the bottom, there could be anything below you.

I turn back and Lovecraft has vanished. I scan the shore and can’t see him, which means he probably went to buy a coffee at the Meeting Place Cafe. I always tell him to try the rock cake, but he declines. I’m tempted to leave him, to walk in the other direction, but I don’t. I’ll buy a coffee and we’ll walk further. Lovecraft and I, bound together, unable to escape one another.

While often loathesome, Lovecraft is a fascinating character to write about. Long before I knew about his time in Sussex, I wrote another HPL story, Eat at Lovecraft’swhich features Howard Philip reincarnated to run a greasy-spoon near Hastings. There is also an audio recording from when it was performed at Liar’s League.

Two Towns

This was originally performed as a spoken word piece at the ArtistsModelsInk event Life Cycles, on October 3rd 2011.

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There are, in fact, two Brightons, a summer town and a winter town. The streets might look the same, but everyone knows deep down that Brighton is a different place in summer than it is in winter.

The winter Brighton is cold and mean. The wind whips straight off the sea, cruel and unrelenting. Brighton becomes a place of buildings and rooms as people spend as little time as possible in the streets. Lives become smaller as the days grow shorter. In shared student houses, communal rooms are abandoned to the cold, and some people resort to evenings spent lying directly in front of their heaters. The winters’ nights can be so bitter that you feel alone, even when sharing your bed with another body.

Brighton began as a winter town. Even in its occasional prosperity, it was a town of mean, tumbly cottages, of fishermen whose fate was, most likely, to be claimed by storms at sea. Brighton’s fortunes ebbed and flowed until the Great Storm of 1703 “stript a great many houses, turn’d up the lead of the church, overthrew two wind-mills, and laid them flat on the ground, the town in general (at the approach of daylight) looking as though it had been bombarded.”

Two years later, the winter town drew down another storm. Brighton suffered greatly, its buildings destroyed and shingle flung over the wreckage. Few people responded to a national appeal to pay for sea defences. Daniel Defoe claimed that the cost of saving the town was more than the town was worth. It appeared that the winter town had destroyed itself.

But Brighton’s fortunes are ever-changing. In 1750, Dr. Richard Russell published his dissertation De Tabe Glandulari, promoting the healing powers of the Brighton waters. Patients were ordered to swim in the sea and drink its brine – for many years, the rooms in the Grand Hotel had a third tap for sea-water. With the seawater cures came the season, an act of magic that gave birth to Brighton’s summer town, pushing the winter town into retreat.

Winter is still hard here. The wind still howls and waves still crash against the shore. The staff at the pier’s pizza-stand huddle close to the oven, taking turns to lean against it, sometimes melting the plastic logos on the back of their uniforms. People can freeze to death on these streets. When it snows, ice makes the steep streets of Hanover treacherous. And more: a dark secret, known to only a few, there are hideous things in the waves near our town and, during the winter, they come closer to the surface.

But these days, no matter how deep the winter, it always ends. The watery daylight of winter’s days is replaced by something stronger. The Carousel is removed from its canvas wrappings and restored to the seafront. Brighton becomes a town of ice-cream alchemists and chance meetings, where plans are abandoned after finding old friends. Where entire days can be scattered on the pebbles, lying on the beach to watch far-off jets sketch contrails across blue skies.

The winter town can never last too long now.

But I want more than this. No more hiding in rattle-windowed rooms ever, wishing the wind would stop. No more lying against plug-in radiators, praying for warmth. I want a Brighton where it is summer forever, where the cold never gets a firm grip.

I want a New Brighton, and a New Hove, for the old Brighton and Hove to be passed away. A place where nobody is ever bored; where there is a Temple of the Sun, translucent concrete and Hotels of Strangers. Where timber is thrown off ships to make a wood slick every January, and people marvel at the piles of planks on the pebbles. A town where there is no sign banning sleeping in the pavilion gardens; where seagulls never shriek. A place where hangovers are outlawed and you can drink all night and never feel ill.

I want a new Brighton and a New Hove, to see the Winter town banished so that teeth never chatter and nobody shivers unless they want to. A town where summer lasts forever and never grows dull.

Fuck Psychogeography

“…far from being the aimless, empty-headed drifting of the casual stroller, Debord’s principle is nearer to a military strategy and has its roots not in earlier avant-garde experimentation, but in military tactics, where drifting is defined as ‘a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus.’ In this light, the dérive becomes a strategic device for reconnoitring the city, ‘a reconnaissance for the day when the city would be seized for real.’”

– from Psychogeography by Merlin Coverley

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The English have done terrible things to psychogeography.

In England, psychogeography is most often considered as a literary technique. This bookish reinvention can be traced back to Iain Sinclair’s book Lights Out for the Territory. Sinclair drew lines across London, reinventing the city as a place of maverick philosophy. Subsequent works such as Merlin Coverley’s excellent study, Psychogeography, explore Sincliar as part of an English tradition of psychogeography avant la lettre, taking in visionaries such as Blake, Defoe and de Quincey.

It was this stream of thought that introduced me to psychogeography. I came to understand it though personalities like JG Ballard and the comic-book writer Alan Moore. My only knowledge of Situationism was through the use of slogans in punk or references in works like Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. For the music press, Situationism’s most significant thinker was Malcolm McClaren, who used detournement and Debord as the theoretical structure for his ‘rock and roll swindle‘.

When I returned to university in the mid-noughties, I took a course on Marxism which introduced me to psychogeography’s other tradition, original yet younger: a revolutionary art movement based on the philosophy of Hegel and Marx, emerging from ultra-left politics. I was exposed to the uncompromising force of Debord’s thought and became aware of his rage, even against his own attempts to escape capitalism’s confines.

The most obvious trace the Situationists left were their slogans. As great as the core texts are, they are incredibly difficult compared to the slogans’ Zen simplicity. What better statement of anti-capitalist revolution than “Never work”? Arguably the most famous statement from May 68 was the graffiti ‘Sous la pave, la plage’: Under the paving stones the beach. It’s seen as a cute moment of utopianism, perfect for putting on T-shirts.

Debord was not seeking a beach. The slogan came from a violent time, as de Gaulle struggled to maintain control. That slogan ‘sous la vide, la plage’, urged the enrages of 1968 to pull up the paving stones, the implication being that they could be broken up and hurled at the authorities. Psychogeography was intended as part of this revolutionary struggle, reconnaissance for a coming urban war.

With his writings on recuperation, Debord was aware that whatever he did would, in time, be sold. Nothing is so chaotic that one cannot make cash from it: Banksy’s rebellion advertises his role as a fine artist; Grant Morrison satirises royalty yet is happy to take an OBE; Iain Sinclair, the saint of walkers, did an advert for Audi. And TV panellist Will Self started his Psychogeography column, bankrolled by the British Airways in-flight magazine. Self and Sinclair were eager to hawk psychogeography and their reputations for advertising. Debord always knew his ideas would be stolen, turned into fuel for Capital. But that makes what has happened no less tawdry, shameful and treacherous.

There has long been a tension between French and English psychogeography. When Debord visited the English Situationists he was shocked at their shabbiness and lack of preparation. Later, punk stripped away Situationism’s the complex political theorising to leave a simpler call to action. From early on it was obvious that Debord’s ideas, as powerful as they were, would be diluted and recuperated.

Sometimes it feels like a tragedy that this English tradition has the same name as Debord’s discipline. Both are important, but English psychogeography seems a quivering, obedient thing in comparison to Debord’s spitting fury. This is a man so uncompromising that he bound his first book in sandpaper to destroy anything it was shelved besides. It’s a long way from the lettrists. It’s a long way from revolution. Psychogeography has become safe and cosy, no threat to anyone.

I’m not interested in car salesman Sinclair and his sesquipedilian prose. I want short, punchy phrases, ones that bruise. We live on the home front of a global war, deafened and blinded by the propaganda of marketing which leads to, say, a famous walker hawking himself for petrol-gulping car companies.

At the same time, the world is stolen from us.  Take Jubilee square: once a derelict gap in the North Laine, with little in its favour other than some pleasant graffiti. The square in front of the library should be one of Brighton’s main town squares but it has no buskers, no community, just controlled PFI-funded private property. Sometimes the square is rented to corporations for advertising, or even the project of filling the space with a huge mat of fake grass. And we are supposed to be grateful.

Maybe it’s time to tear up the paving of Jubilee square and hurl the broken stones through the windows of the library. I’d like to see every sign that bicycles can’t be chained to a railing obscured. By bicycle welded in place over the fucking sign. I’d like to see Churchill Square and Jubilee Square reclaimed for the town, places to play hopscotch without being chased away by security guards. We need a more aggressive psychogeography. We need to beat the bounds, mark out what is ours.

If psychogeography is not revolutionary, it is dead. And if psychogeography is revolutionary it brings conflict. By all means, wander the city between greasy spoon cafes, chatting with artists, and recording your explorations for TV cameras. But remember that what you’re doing should be reconnaisance too. Psychogeography is about recapturing occupied territory.

Fuck psychogeography – it cannot exist without revolution. Guy Debord was a strategist. It’s about understanding how Paris was redesigned to allow the army to put down insurrections. It’s about breaking down the illusions of the spectacle in the hope of being free. It’s about territory.

Tour Guide

My friend Amy spent six days working as a tour guide before being fired. I sneaked onto a couple of her tours and loved them.

She’d passed the interview without knowing much local history. She made things up instead, pointing out the park where circus performers wintered; she would praise the annual cake-making competitions in the Pavilion. She told people bus conductors were first introduced in Brighton and were so-named because they led the passengers in communal sing-songs.

Amy didn’t last long. The night she was fired, I toasted her work, but it didn’t cheer her up. “Can’t they see that my version of the city was better?”

Psychogeography Workshop

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On Saturday I ran a a two-hour psychogeography workshop. It was based on one I originally devised for Kate Shields‘ Ways of Seeing season, in May last year. My interest in psychogeography has been piqued recently, which led to running the session again.

This time we were based in the Friends Meeting House which was a great location, right in the centre of Brighton’s most historic area. I knew a lot of the participants but there were a couple of people I didn’t know, including one who was told about the course by a university tutor. One of the great things about events like this is meeting new people.

I gave a brief introduction to the subject before we went out in Brighton to try some experiments. We were very fortunate to have good weather, as I’d not prepared any alternative activities. One of these, pictured at the top of page, involved being the participants being blindfolded on the beach. Being Brighton, very few people paid it any notice, apart from one passer-by telling a friend that “it must be some sort of sex game“. Then, as I led my housemate, someone leaned over the promenade railings wearing a lion’s head. Brighton is a fantastic place for events like this one.

Teaching a subject is an excellent way of deepening your understanding of it. Some interesting questions were asked, particularly about the role of women in the subject. There were also some good ideas for activities to try in the future.

The session sold out and a lot of people who wanted to come couldn’t attend. I’ll run the workshop again in the Spring, possibly in an expanded form. Email me at james@orbific.com if you’d like me to send you details.

Seafront photos by sooxanne soox

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