General 2-11-2005

The Free Republic and the Situationists

Allen and Jim Richardson occasionally issue position papers and statements of political philosophy to undergird their political action--sort of like the Federalist Papers. Here's a seminal document of the Free Republic.

A war memorial

The Free Republic of Duluth provisional government has come to focus on the Situationists as part of its ongoing study of Autonomy and art, and in particular, cultural experiments fueled by art’s ability to alter consciousness.

The Situationist International

Eight men and women assembled in 1957 to form the Situationist International. The salient point about the Situationists is that they were determined to live life as art. It was a vibrant scene, arguably no more than a group of feral artist drunks who couldn’t stand working and rejected the so-called art world. They were alienated, fed up, rejected, misanthropic weirdos. Like has been said of the Velvet Underground, they had no peers, no rivals, and no one to answer to. They were essentially trying to split the social atom by total derangement of the senses through sheer adventure. It has been said that they considered boredom to be pathology. Their radical freedom philosophy wound up influencing the general strike and total freakout in Paris of May 1968, when the city went off its rails for a month of fierce anarcho-autonomy.

The Drift

The Situationists’ main contribution to art was the “derive,” or drift. On a derive — which could last for weeks — one studied, critiqued, and experimented with how architecture and city planning impacted the possible set of experiences, the senses, and the emotions.

The derive was life purposefully lived as a work of art – “realized art.” It was kind of a “moment appreciation tour” of the city, engineered to alter perceptions of time and space. Author Greil Marcus sums up the derive nicely in the epic book Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century: “These would be ‘moments of life concretely, deliberately, and freely created,’ each one ‘composed of gestures made in a transitory decor’ … Each situation would be an ‘ambient mileu’ for a ‘game of events’ … the city would no longer be experienced as a scrim of commodities and power; it would be felt as a field of ‘psychogeography (p. 164).’” Was the derive a method, or a supra-art object?

Another excellent insight into the derive can be found in the book Situationist International Anthology, edited by Ken Knabb: “The sudden change of ambiance in a street within the space of a few meters; the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance which is automatically followed in aimless strolls (and which has no relation to the contours of the ground); the appealing or repelling character of certain places …. the variety of possible combinations of ambiances, analogous to the blending of pure chemicals in an infinite number of mixtures, gives rise to feelings as differentiated and complex as any other form of spectacle can evoke …. The new beauty can only be a beauty of situation (pp. 6-7).” The Situationists left with their boots on, and with one step, entered a completely different city.

They deliberately courted the random in order to increase the chances for a miraculous, boredom-crushing confluence of situational elements. In a way we can barely conceive of, they were trying to beautify the world with their truly transitory art. They broke up the calcified, commodified work-leisure cycle of the late 20th century that they found suicidally boring. They demanded nothing less than the reinvention of everyday life.

Like alien anthropologists appreciating their city for the first time, they poked and prodded the tolerances of the experiential fabric, roaming the cities in endless detours, totally free, snooping around, endlessly at play, lubricating their senses with novelty and spirits. Sound familiar, Duluth?

The Situationists strongly echoed their 50-year predecessors the Dadaists, who were a scene of similarly-themed, quasi-political, unpredictable anti-“Art” artists. Author Greil Marcus hypothesizes that the same impulse to negate society and its strictures gave rise to the Dadaists, the Situationists, and punk rock too, a thread stretching through the twentieth century and beyond. The connection between punk rock, the Situationists, and the Dadaists is that in times of war or other social anxiety, art explodes, and whole crews of people make a break for it into some kind of existential freedom-state.

There are other cases of isolated locales and wider regions gaining temporary autonomy, as in cases when government is neutralized by economic collapse or natural disaster. An organizing principle seems to exert itself like an enzyme and galvanizes the populace. The Situationists tried to jump-start something of the sort, a living freedom of thought and action only dreamed of in art. They were not political anarchists, but more like freedomnauts.

Which brings us to Duluth secession fever. History teaches that these movements are ultimately transient and flickering. With election season just around the corner, Duluth is on the launch pad, hissing steam, juiced up, and ready for lift-off. It will undoubtedly explode in mid-trajectory. But it will die as a free nation.