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In both undergraduate and graduate school I was pretty fascinated by the Situationists International. Unfortunately, I never found a practical way to incorporate them into a large project or assignment. Even still, I find them aspects of both the Situationists International and the Letterists International interesting, and as a result, their ideologies have snuck into several smaller projects – i.e., these blog posts.

The reason that I became so enthralled with the SI is because of this one particular image that I saw in my Contemporary Art class with Professor Mario Ontiveros at UMass Amherst in the Spring of 2007. The image was Guy Debord’s The Naked City, and it looked like this:

I’m not entirely sure why I was so sucked into this image, but it was probably because of the system or organized chaos. The network of arrows and buildings that do not make sense at first but slowly appear to be suggesting the free movement of an object or a person through space. Simply put,  I appreciate the effort of trying to illustrate how a person interacts with the space around him or her, which is exactly what this image does.

My fascination with The Naked City and the SI led me to explore more about the politics, beliefs, and practices of the SI. I was first led to Guy Debord’s most famous publication, The Society of the Spectacle:

I have to admit that I am pretty much in love with the cover of this publication. The Society of the Spectacle could be considered the manifesto of the Situationists International, who were a group of artists, philosophers, poets, and intellectuals. This publication contains the ideologies of the SI as number bullet points, each one expanding off the last. From here I was led to another of Debord’s publications regarding Psychogeograpy: Theory of the Dérive, which explains the Situationists concept of “public drifting.”

“One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive, a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.

But the dérive includes both this letting-go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities. In this latter regard, ecological science, despite the narrow social space to which it limits itself, provides psychogeography with abundant data.” – Guy DeBord, 1958

The dérive and psychogeography are, as made apparent by the above passage, closely linked, though not mutually exclusive. I found myself interested in the dérive and psychogeography because I often times find myself gravitating towards certain landmarks or walking on an unmarked path. For example, when walking around a college campus, it is bizarre to see just how much power the sidewalks and marked walkways have over the campus’s inhabitants. I’d say that well over half, probably closer to 75% of the campus community does not veer off the designated path. I find myself to be part of the minority who all of a sudden realizes that they are walking through the middle of a field because, well, “I felt like it.” Going with your instinct and reacting to your surroundings, whether you are conscious of it or not, is an incredibly intriguing concept to me.

Because of my interest in these concepts, I find myself sometimes hyper-aware of the space that I am occupying and how I am interacting with it. One space which, to me, felt like a consciously constructed, sort of forced psychogeographically is the interior of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, aka MoMa. Specifically, MoMa’s 2002 – 2004 renovations by Yoshio Taniguchi. It is four stories high, with a pair of escalators on each floor, one going up and the other going down. Each escalator, however, only goes to one floor above or below, i.e. – you couldn’t go directly from the fourth floor to the second floor without stopping and walking through lobby of the third floor, unless you took the elevator. This forces visitors of the museum to sort of be herded along from floor to floor, and also makes it impossible to miss a floor. The artificially constructed psychogeographic landscape made me feel uncomfortable, as I was limited in the ways I was able to interact with the space.

So, the next time that you are walking through a park, around a university campus, to the bus stop, or around a large building, make a conscious effort to think about the way that you are interacting with the space you are occupying. Is the space constructed for you to interact in a certain way? How does the space make you feel as an inhabitant? These are all questions that will make even the most boring trip to the supermarket a thought provoking and possibly enlightening experience.

In a public lecture discussing the conclusion of his work on the Rwanda Series currently displayed at the UConn Contemporary Art Gallery, Alfredo Jaar (Chilean born “architect that makes art”) stated that his two main objectives when making art are exploring: 1) public desensitization to images and 2) the limitation of art when trying to express/manifest genocide (trauma) and its effects. Discussing his involvement in three arenas” 1) the “privileged” museum/gallery space (art world) 2) public interventions including the community, and 3) teaching and learning from the new generations, I noticed a common theme – the spectacle used for accountability.

Jaar uses the spectacle to create a sense of shame and shock in order to make its viewers accountable for their (in)actions. His works – which will be discussed later – provide possible and temporary solutions/answers to societal problems. His pieces are active, creating experiences that require the viewer to engage in a tremendous amount of self reflection. In this way, Jaar uses the spectacle in an unconventional way that makes people aware of their humanity.

In regard to art/art history, “the spectacle” refers to the ideological concepts of Guy Debord and the Situationists International. In Debord’s 1967 publication of The Society of the Spectacle, he states:

#5: “The Spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual deception produced by mass-media technologies. It is a world-view that has actually been materialized, a view of the world that has become objective.”

Here, Debord explains that the spectacle is not merely a creation of the media, but that it is actually the manifestation of the dominant world view of the society in which it is created.

#18: “When the real world is transformed into mere images, mere images become dynamic beings – dynamic figments that provide the direct motivation for a hypnotic behavior. Since the spectacle’s job is to use various specialized mediations in order to show us a world that can no longer be directly grasped, it naturally elevates the sense of sight to the special pre-eminence once occupied by touch: the most abstract and easily deceived sense is the most readily adaptable to the generalized abstraction of present day society. But the spectacle is not merely a matter of images plus sounds. It is whatever escapes people’s activity, whatever eludes their practical reconsideration and correction. Wherever representation becomes independent, the spectacle regenerates itself.”

In this statement, Debord emphasizes the way in which the bombardment of images (the spectacle) of mass media has created a separation between reality and how people experience reality. All human experience is now mediated by images – representations of “a world that can no longer be directly grasped” in other words, directly experienced.

Debord’s ideas in The Society of the Spectacle mixing Marxist and Situationist ideologies, is relevant to and manifested in Jaar’s work. Jaar’s interest in “the public desensitization to images” is an interest in a societal phenomenon many years in the making. Due to the fact that images are simply mediations of reality – not reality – they are easy to dismiss, regardless of subject matter.

The invention of photography started this desensitization. When the first photos of exotic animals, people, and places were disseminated they shocked and entertained. The first ever motion picture caused people to scream and shout in the theatre due to the shocking “realism” of the crudely constructed scenes. With rapid industrialization, technology advanced at an alarming rate, and within a century these novel, impressive advancements became commonplace, banal, boring. Today we can sit in a 3-D IMAX motive theatre watching the latest blockbuster action movie without even blinking an eye. No shock, no awe. If anything, we are underwhelmed, under enthused.

This is the very reason why we (the Western viewer) can see photographs, watch videos of heinous scenes – genocide, war, famine – happening a world away and say “oh, that’s so sad,” think about it for a few minutes, push it out of our minds, and move on with our lives. Despite “seeing it with our own eyes” these images are not real too us – they’re merely another mediation of reality – of a world we cannot, will not, do not want to experience, which is, therefore, not real.

Jaar’s work is so effective because indifference is not an option. His works are connected to real people and real situations that are too important and too personal to ignore. If for only a moment, his works overcome the public’s general desensitization through their poignant yet shocking messages. His Rwanda project from 1994 to 2000, makes people acknowledge the devastating genocide that the Western world tried to ignore. In his final installment of this series, a 26 minute video now on view in UConn’s Contemporary Art Gallery, Jaar points the finger and finally calls the world out for its collective delinquency.

In early 1994, Dallaire (a Canadian UN Ambassador in Rwanda) discovered from an informant that they were planning to exterminate the Tutsi. Despite Dallaire’s best efforts, after the deaths of 10 Belgian soldiers, Western governments began pulling their troops from Rwanda, stating that it was merely a “tribal conflict” and that they did not want to lose and more of their soldiers. Once Western troops were evacuated, over 800,000 Tutsis were murdered in three short, terrifying months. This genocide could’ve been stopped, but instead of sending more troops, troops were evacuated. Africa didn’t matter – it was nothing more than what the Eurocentric media depicted it as: poor, unhealthy, insignificant.

Regardless of the amount of images and videos depicting the situation in Rwanda or direct pleas from Rwandan Tutsis, it was all too easy for the world to turn its back and ignore the devastating genocide taking place in this “far away,” out of sight out of mind, place. To this day, the guilty parties that removed troops and ignored the cries for help will not admit to their mistakes and injustices. Jaar’s work makes the viewer, simply as a human being, feel like a responsible party – which is essential to ensuring that this type of delinquency does not happen again.

Jaar’s work is not “art for art’s sake.” It is an art of purpose. It’s thoughtful, calculated, and it purposely puts the viewer in an uncomfortable position, where he/she has to come to terms with his/her accountability as a human. His works have important social purposes which focus on the societal phenomenon of public desensitization to images and he uses “the spectacle” as a way of making images powerful again by forcing the viewer to have a reaction that is difficult to forget.