With the whole of my Saturday evening at my command I decided to delve deeper into the culture surrounding a yet-unread title on my bookshelf – The notorious Illuminatus! Trilogy. Little did I know that the exploration would bring a number of my artistic and musical favorites full-circle in a sphere of related influence!
Having read Malaclypse the Younger’s Principia Discordia, (a wonderful bit of counter-cultural madness), I already had a fundamental (mis)understanding of the lunacy that is Discordianism. But in my readings, there were multiple references to its earlier incarnation – the social revolutionaries known as The Situationist International.
For those unfamiliar with the group, their philosophy is, for the most part, summarized thusly:
[Situationism] is derived primarily from anti-authoritarian Marxism and the avant-garde art movements of the early 20th century, particularly Dada and Surrealism. Overall, situationist theory represented an attempt to synthesize this diverse field of theoretical disciplines into a modern and comprehensive critique of mid-20th century advanced capitalism.
Essential to situationist theory was the concept of the spectacle, best-illustrated in Guy Debord’s 1967 book and found-footage film – each titled, La société du spectacle (The Society of the Spectacle).
The Spectacle is a criticism of advanced Capitalism, where real-life experiences are replaced with the commodified consumerist culture of living through one’s possessions. The Situationists viewed this passive consumption as damaging to the quality of human life for both individuals and society. Instead of living vicariously through one’s purchases and property, the Situationists sought to create situations – moments of life deliberately constructed for the purpose of reawakening and pursuing authentic desires, experiencing the feeling of life and adventure, and the liberation of everyday life.
The film, The Society of the Spectacle (1973) is available in its entirety, dubbed Fr subbed Eng here:
And only a few years later, the film Network (1976) would similarly address the societal dangers of mass media.
This philosophy was clearly an influence on the hippie art scene of the 1960 with their staging of nearly-spontaneous Happenings. I was honored to attend the first Happening of the season in Buffalo for an impromptu performance of Terry Riley’s In C with participation from children in the audience.
Tracking the influence back even further (and then again, to the present) I learned of the French avant-garde movement, established in Paris in the mid-1940s by Romanian immigrant Isidore Isou known as Lettrisme (Lettrism) and his concept of Hypergraphics in 1954.
Here is an Orson Welles Interview featuring Isidore Isou and Lettrist poetry – rich with Dadaist influence.
In 1958, Columbia Records issued the very first recordings of Letterist poetry – Maurice Lemaître presente le lettrisme.
This poetry adds another level of historical context to the performance I attended by composer Ethan Hayden at the University at Buffalo this past January. While there was likely a Situationist influence on his work, “…ce dangereux supplément…” (2015) for solo voice (with optional electronics & video), Hayden’s piece is phonetically and linguistically more refined (though equally absurd!) both in its content and his delivery. While I absolutely recognize the importance of Isidore Isou’s philosophy and his primitivist poems, Hayden has a far-greater command of language (or perhaps of nonsense?) and I look forward to his future performances.
And in 2007 to celebrate the life of Isou, The End of the Age of Divinity was published in his honor. The book is available for free below.
Once again coming full-circle to more recent artistic movements, Lettrism brought me to aforementioned Lettrist hypergraphical art, pictured below.
While I am by no means a scholar of art history, the influence here is clear as day on the 1990s typographic art of David Carson (famed for his work in Raygun Magazine and for Nine Inch Nails) and on Karl Hyde and John Warwicker’s Tomato art collective, which created the deconstructivist typographical art for Underworld’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman.
The work of David Carson…
and of Tomato…
Art of this nature is rooted in the cut-up technique first employed by the Dadaists in the 1920 and again in the late 1950s and early 1960s by William S. Burroughs. But it was the audio incarnation of cut-up that I first encountered in music culture, from the earliest (and quite literal) tape cut-ups of musique concrete, to the resurfacing of the method by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Eno, and others, to the explosion of sampledelica culture in 1980s and 90s hip-hop and turntablism.
And around the same time, the radical and subversive art of culture jamming was born. The term, coined in 1984, refers to any form of guerilla communication, such as the vandalist works by The Billboard Liberation Front and the illegal-art sample-based music of Negativland.
All of this brought me back, yet again full-circle to The KLF. The documentary, On the Passage of a few People through a Rather Brief Moment in Time: The Situationist International 1956-1972 contains flashes of the phrase,
“The Time for Art is Over.”
This very notion was later reiterated by Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond of the KLF in the K Foundation’s cryptic adverts appearing in UK national newspapers in 1993. The first ad proclaimed,
The Situationist documentary is available on Youtube in 3 parts.
It is only now that I realize that John Higgs’ endlessly fascinating book, THE KLF: Chaos, Magic, and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds directly referenced the Situationists, the Discordians, Alan Moore and “Ideaspace”, and Robert Anton Wilson – all of the key figures I am now exploring.
Incredible discoveries are waiting to be made every day, and quiet Saturday evenings, like yesterday’s, are gleaming with potential for magic just like this. I’ve now a week ahead of me and a century of exciting new art to explore.