Mark Vallen - July 2002

During the early 1970s, Christopher Gray edited an important collection of writings he titled Leaving the 20th Century. Gray's anthology compiled the declarations and tracts from an obscure circle of late 1950s French dissident artists and intellectuals who called themselves "Situationists". Observing the present state of society, it's easy to conclude the rants of the Situationists still pertinent... with Gray's book simply needing its titled updated to Leaving the 21st Century. The Situationists were predicting in the 50s that capitalism would transform society into a "commodity spectacle" where people would be transfixed and depoliticized by a never ending barrage of manufactured events and enticing products.

Himself a member of the Situationist movement, Gray wrote: A new form of mental illness has swept the planet: banalization. Everyone is hypnotized by work and by comfort: by the garbage disposal unit, by the lift, by the bathroom, by the washing machine.

Young people everywhere have been allowed to choose between love and a garbage disposal unit. Everywhere they have chosen the garbage disposal unit.

Gray's Situationist cohorts proposed battling the ills of society by creating "situations from which there would be no turning back" (hence their name). Situationism never had an explicit political platform, instead it relied on human desire and the subconscious to act as triggers in the quest for liberation. In short, the Situationists wanted to expose people to creative acts that would force a reconsideration of society and its functions, subsequently making a "return to normal" impossible.

The screaming banality observed by the Situationists more than 40 years ago has now grown so pervasive that few seem to notice any longer. Collectively submerged in a whirlpool of useless information, frivolous distractions, and unneeded products, people everywhere have been reduced from citizens to mere consumers. A-historical and self-possessed, we stare incomprehensibly at the world through our television screens. We live in a drowning pool of hyper-materialism. As Situationist inspired rebels wrote on Parisian walls in 1968, Life is elsewhere.

The transformative art the Situationists spoke of would not necessarily spring from a calculated political approach launched during times of great social turmoil. Sometimes artists working in isolation during socially conservative times can set greater things in motion, which is something we need to grasp in our present condition. Today's expressions of cultural/political dissonance are forming all around us.

Different times and places always produce artists that speak for that particular frame of reference, and conservatism supplies fertile ground for new ideas and actions insofar as it provides something to push against. So rest assured, the next resurgent cultural tsunami is just around the corner.

Essay by Mark Vallen All rights reserved.

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