Report on “You Are the City’s Feet”

On June 13 2015 at Wontonmeen in Prince Edwards, Kowloon, The Wandering Scholars presented, and experimented with, the concepts of psycho-geography. This program started with the images included here, the bi-lingual lines aided by additional verbal explanation that went into the background of Situationism, its own program of psycho-geography, its importance to the events of May 1968 in France and how all that relates to the pro-democracy occupations in Hong Kong in 2014. 

2_2b2486ee-0173-48a2-a2d5-6bc946eb87df_grandeAs indicated above, Situationism was not solely a political movement or organisation, though it might generally be called a post-Soviet reconsideration of Marx’s critique of Capitalism. At the time of Situationism’s inception, two world wars and three major revolutions had occurred, yet Communist hierarchies and Capitalist oligarchies still monitored and controlled “the people” or turned them into disaffected and alienated consumers. On the Capitalist side, the U.S.A. had emerged from World War 2 as the pre-eminent consumer economy, inventing, marketing and exporting brands that came to symbolise its idolised and/or abhorred cultural ambitions.

3_02d65024-7bd4-487a-b544-464263da3d4a_grandeSituationism came out of various pre-World War 2 artistic and theoretical practices, along with the post-World War 2 programs of Lettrism. In the 1950s, gatherings or congresses that included artists and writers were held in different European cities that eventually led to the establishment of The Situationist International. The individuals who attended these meetings had most certainly had been influenced by Dada/Surrealism, which in turn had responded to the political tenor of its own times by considering (and deciding how to align itself in relation to) the then recent Russian revolution and the practices of psycho-analysis as posited by Sigmund Freud. What was also noted, when the above slide was shown, is that in the image of the Surrealists (to the right), Andre Breton has placed himself in the top/center. A comparison in the organising practices of Breton (the titular head of The Surrealists) and Guy Debord (the titular head of The Situationists) was then made, noting that both Breton and Debord were prey to expelling “impure” or aberrant members of their relative organisations. In particular, Debord eventually began eliminating the artists involved in Situationism, believing that art was tainted by its connection to the market and that Situationism required a more rigorous theoretical point of view.

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Nevertheless, Situationism is now associated with a broader program of cultural change which utilised such practices as graffiti and “détourned”comics in order to bypass and subvert the ever-present saturation of urban advertising and mainstream media. The Situationists were savvy aphorists, reverting the pithy tag lines of advertising back into the memorable terseness of poetry. 

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Putting aside any critique of Debord’s personality or dictatorial inclinations, it was noted in this presentation that he produced one of the most well known and central texts of Situationism, “Society of the Spectacle”,  an essay that included his own writing as well as plagiarising various philosophers. The text identifies capitalism’s ability to absorb all production (including revolutions or anti-capitalist insurrections), and then incorporate them into the glossy and shallow surfaces of “entertainment”. 

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The social and economic conditions concurrent with Situationism saw the working class struggles of the past being ameliorated by the wide availability of consumer goods and the possibility of credit from the banking industry. The youth of Europe and the United States had more leisure time, yet were become increasingly disaffected by what was expected of them in terms of “fitting into society”. The life of the mind, or the independence of the individual, was seemingly sacrificed in the pursuit of material well being, let alone that nuclear annihilation was ever present. Given these conditions Hebert Marcuse proposed that the disaffected youth of the west were more apt to overthrow or disrupt the status quo, and that they had indeed become the contemporary revolutionary vanguard. 

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Unlike the era of Surrealism, when many members chose to unblinkingly support the Soviet revolution (or at least the ingrained tenets of Marxist/Leninism), Stalinism was now judged a totalitarian sham, a torturous bureaucracy as deep and corrupt as anything seen in the capitalist west. The two artworks above illustrate the dry social realism of the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. (as represented by Norman Rockwell and an anonymous Soviet artist), both of which might indicate the cult of “my country, right or wrong”. 

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Here we finally reached the intersection of Situationism, psycho-geography and the pro-democracy occupations of Hong Kong in 2014. The photograph above of the sign-holder was taken shortly after the initial occupation of a major roadway directly adjacent to the seat of the Hong Kong government. The quote itself (“Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible”) has been attributed to Che Guevara, but was also used by the Situationists and well represents their frame of mind. The youth in the photograph has been savvy enough to cite the quote in French, which leaves us to wonder about his original source, while also giving credit to his international outreach and surprising sensibility. After the occupations had been dispersed, many Hong Kong people were discouraged that they had “lost” as the pro-establishment government had not conceded a single point, while conversely the occupations themselves were fantastically “unrealistic”, had suspended the normal (business-as-usual) for a long period of time, and had allowed citizens to wander in the city in a way that had never been experienced before, a manner antithetical to the usual mode of “window shopping”.

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Here the audience was given a moment to peruse various Situationist slogans and to take note of the important open source website “Bureau of Public Secrets” .

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. . . while also being introduced to the fantastic events in France in May 1968. The above text was excerpted from a Wikipedia entry in order to highlight the similarities of May 1968 to Hong Kong 2014. May 1968 was also seen a “failure” of sorts, as no significant political change was affected, while it yet left a deep impression on the historical psyche of France. A direct connection to Situationism and May 1968 was then made by pointing out that the student union at the University of Strasbourg, utilising university funds, printed and distributed 10,000 copies of “On the Poverty of Student Life” written by Tunisian Situationist Mustapha/Omar Khayati. This led to a scandal and the expulsion of the students who were responsible, while alternately raising the profile and influence of the Situationist International.  

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A number of books were then introduced illustrating the continuing influence of Situationism on contemporary culture and theoretical practice, these included: “The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in the Postmodern Age”, “What is Situationism: A Reader”, “Lipstick Traces”, and “The Beach Beneath the Street”, among others.

The program now entered the psycho-geography phase, in which the audience was eventually going to be recruited in exploring the Prince Edwards neighbourhood and, after half an hour, reporting back on their findings.

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Another photograph taken at the Tamar, Admiralty occupation site in 2014

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Before this period of audience exploration, a random example of psych-geography taken from the internet was exemplified. This one from an individual who blogged his results . . .

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. . . while also taking photographs and posting them on Flickr . . .

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. . . here (above) is the individual’s psych-geographic map, which the subject used to re-discover areas that he was already overly familiar with, stopping and noting random thoughts, overheard conversations, questions about the landscape, along with the state of the weather.

For purposes of simplicity, the audience and explorers at The Wandering Scholars’ Wontonmeen event were asked to pick a random small slip of paper from a bag (examples of which were also included in a free “zine” that reproduced the above bi-ligual text along with a Guy Debord essay about dérive). The slips of paper gave audience members a simple task to complete related to the topic at hand, such as “Find the oldest person you can and ask them about the neighbourhood”.

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. . . and then what happened (when the explorers returned)? The very nature of psych-geography (not to mention The Wandering Scholars intentions) are erratic and unclassifiable, and in this particular case, ephemeral and perhaps most important to the lives and memories of the participants. Needless to say, much significant and unexpected information was gathered and then recycled back into the neighbourhood . . .

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