De Sade liberated from the Bastille in 1789, Baudelaire on the barricades in 1848, Courbet tearing down the Vendôme Column in 1870—French political history is distinguished by a series of glorious and legendary moments which serve to celebrate the convergence of popular revolution with art in revolt. In this century avant-garde artistic movements took up the banner of revolution consciously and enduringly. The political career of André Breton and the surrealists began with their manifestoes against the Moroccan war (the ‘Riff’ war) in 1925 and persisted through to the Manifesto of the 121, which Breton signed in 1960, shortly before his death, denouncing the Algerian war and justifying resistance. In May 1968 the same emblematic role was enacted once again by the militants of the Situationist International. The si was founded in 1957, at Cosio d’Arroscia in northern Italy, principally out of the union of two prior avant-garde groups, the Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus (Asger Jorn, Pinot Gallizio and others) and the Lettrist International (led by Guy Debord).footnote1 The Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus itself originated from splits in the post-war Cobra group of artists, which Jorn had helped found, and the si was soon joined by another key Cobra artist, Constant. The ancestry of both Cobra and Lettrism can be traced back to the international Surrealist movement, whose break-up after the war led to a proliferation of new splinter groups and an accompanying surge of new experimentation and position-taking.footnote2 The si brought together again many of the dispersed threads which signalled the decay and eventual decomposition of surrealism. In many ways, its project was that of re-launching surrealism on a new foundation, stripped of some of its elements (emphasis on the unconscious, quasi-mystical and occultist thinking, cult of irrationalism) and enhanced by others, within the framework of cultural revolution.

In its first phase (1957–1962) the si developed a number of ideas which had originated in the Lettrist International, of which the most significant were those of urbanisme unitaire (integrated city-creation, unitary urbanism), psycho-geography, play as free and creative activity, dérive (drift) and détournement (diversion, semantic shift).footnote3 The si expounded its position in its journal, brought out books and embarked on a number of artistic activities. Artists were to break down the divisions between individual art-forms, to create situations, constructed encounters and creatively lived moments in specific urban settings, instances of a critically transformed everyday life. They were to produce settings for situationsfootnote4 and experimental models of possible modes of transformation of the city, as well as to agitate and polemicize against the sterility and oppression of the actual environment and ruling economic and political system.

During this period a number of prominent painters and artists from many European countries joined the group and became involved in the activities and publications of the si. With members from Algeria, Belgium, England, France, Germany, Holland, Italy and Sweden, the si became a genuinely international movement, held together organizationally by annual conferences (57—Cosio d’Arroscia, Italy; 58—Paris, France; 59—Munich, Germany; 60—London, England; 61—Gothenburg, Sweden; 62—Antwerp, Belgium) and by the journal, which was published once or twice a year in Paris, with an editorial committee that changed over time and represented the different national sections.footnote5

From the point of view of art, 1959 was an especially productive (or should one say, dialectically destructive?) year. Three artists held major exhibitions of their work. Asger Jorn showed his ‘Modifications’ (peintures détournées, altered paintings) at the Rive Gauche gallery in Paris.footnote6 These were over-paintings by Jorn on second-hand canvases by unknown painters, which he bought in flea-markets or the like, transforming them by this double inscription. The same year Pinot Gallizio held a show of his caverna dell’antimateria (grotto of anti-matter) at the Galerie René Drouin.footnote7 This was the culmination of his experiments with pittura industriale—rolls of canvas up to 145 metres in length, produced mainly by hand, but with the aid of painting machines and spray-guns with special resins devised by Pinot Gallizio himself (he had been a chemist before he became a painter, linking the two activities under Jorn’s encouragement). The work was draped all round the gallery and Gallizio also sold work by the metre by chopping lengths off the roll. His painting of this period was both a ‘diverted’ parody of automation (which the si viewed with hostile concern) and a prototype of vast rolls of ‘urbanist’ painting which could engulf whole cities. Later in 1959 Constant exhibited a number of his ilôtsmaquettes (model precincts) at the Stedelijk museum in Amsterdam.footnote8 These were part of his ongoing ‘New Babylon’ project, inspired by unitary urbanism—the design of an experimental utopian city with changing zones for free play, whose nomadic inhabitants could collectively choose their own climate, sensory environment, organization of space and so on.

However, during this period a series of internal disagreements arose inside the organization which finally culminated in a number of expulsions and a split in 1962, when a rival Second Situationist International was set up by Jörgen Nash (Asger Jorn’s younger brother) and joined by others from the Dutch, German and Scandinavian sections. In broad terms, this can be characterized as a split between ‘artists’ and ‘political theorists’ (or ‘revolutionaries’). The main issue at stake was the insistence of the ‘theoretical’ group, based around Debord in Paris, that art could not be recognized as a separate activity, with its own legitimate specificity, but must be dissolved into a unitary revolutionary praxis.footnote9 After the split the si was reformed and centralized around an office in Paris. Up to 1967 the journal continued to appear annually, but only one more conference was held (1966—in Paris).

During the first, ‘art-oriented’ phase of the si, Debord worked with Jorn on collective art books and also made two films, Sur le passage de quelques personnes `travers une assez courte unité de temps (1959) and Critique de la séparation (1961).footnote10 Debord’s future orientation can already be clearly seen in the second of these films, which makes a distinct break from the assumptions of the first. Debord had been auditing a university class taught by the Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre, and subsequently began to collaborate with the revolutionary Socialisme ou Barbarie group and issued a joint manifesto in 1960 with its leading theorist, Cornelius Castoriadis. Fairly rapidly, his political and theoretical positions clarified and sharpened to the point when a split was inevitable.

After 1962 Debord assumed an increasingly central role in the si, surrounded by a new generation of militants who were not professional artists. The earlier artistic goals and projects either fell away or were transposed into an overtly political (and revolutionary) register within a unitary theoretical system. In 1967 Debord published his magnum opus, The Society of the Spectacle,footnote11 a lapidary totalization of situationist theory, which combined the situationist analysis of culture and society within the framework of a theoretical approach and terminology drawn from Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness (published in France by the Arguments group of ex-communists who left the party after 1956footnote12) and the political line of council communism, characteristic of Socialisme ou Barbarie, but distinctively recast by Debord.footnote13 In this book, Debord described how capitalist societies, East and West (state and market), complemented the increasing fragmentation of everyday life, including labour, with a nightmarish false unity of the ‘spectacle’, passively consumed by the alienated workers (in the broadest possible sense of non-capitalists and non-bureaucrats). Not until they became ‘conscious’ (in the totalizing Lukácsian sense) of their own alienation could and would they rise up to liberate themselves and institute an anti-statist dictatorship of the proletariat in which power was democratically exercised by autonomous workers’ councils.