This essay will try to define and comprehend the concept of the spectacle as understood by Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard. It will look at how this concept, together with Baudrillard’s concept of Simulation, and the Situationists International have influenced contemporary art, particularly in the category of performance, happenings and arts criticism of the mass media. It is relevant to mention, that as the Situationist International have influenced contemporary art practice, they themselves were continuing a Marxist project which Dadaism and Surrealism pursued. For the purpose of a clearer understanding, I will start by the deconstruction of the parts which comprise the Situationist International history.
In 1956, various artists, such as Asger Jorn converged at the First World Congress of Liberated Artists in the Italian town of Alba. Here, the International Movement for an Imagist Bauhaus (IMIB), the London Psychogeographical Society and the Letrists International (LI) were brought together and made way for the formation of the Situationst International one year later. Asger Jorn had formed part of the COBRA group (COpenhagen, BRussels, and Amsterdam), which established a northern network of revolutionary artists. Revolution had been a common denominator for these groups of artists who saw their revolutionary struggle as a continuation of what the Dadaists, and later on the Surrealists, had started in the midst of a world “turned upside-down by the war” (Plant, 2002, s. 41). The Dada’s movement aim, as Marcel Janco wrote, was to “demolish the whole prevailing order”, including art itself. They attacked the political and social order of the bourgeoisie and showed them the unreality of their world. These provocations found “a direct political expression in Germany, where the Spartakist agitation poised the country on the brink of revolution.” (Plant, 2002, s. 45). The Situationists would later say, that the failure to accomplish a political revolution was the failure that dissolved the Dada movement.
A number of Surrealists that had been engaged with Dada, felt that the nihilistic qualities of the movement had had negative repercussions on its structure. Their new revolutionary aims would find a safe place in assuming the roll of an artistic and literary movement. They considered their actions to be political and were much influenced by Marxists projects, and connected to the French Communist Party (PCF), who failed to see why the surrealists did not drop their artistic agenda in favour of political activism. Yet, the Surrealists saw their artistic endeavours as part of the political propaganda necessary for the instigation of a revolution against a capitalist world.
After the disintegration of the official Surrealist movement, some of the revolutionary Marxist thoughts managed to seep into the Situationist International through various little papers and groups that kept the revolutionary flame alive. When the Situationist International came into being in 1957 the post-second-world-war society and culture was being seriously questioned. The war had given space for the advancement of consumer culture, with which society was being pacified and sold the illusion of happiness and freedom. The mass media was at this stage an important collaborator in what Guy Debord, a member of the Situationists, would later call “The Society of the Spectacle”.
The Situationists argued against the power of manipulation. Their initial interest was the space in which we live our everyday lives, and the situations of everyday life in the urban context. For them, architecture was more than mere urbanism designed to sustain society and specular life. They believed that architecture “must reach the point of exciting passion” and the city be a space of atmospheres and creativity. As they saw it, architecture imposed a conditioning of emotions, desires and experiences. They pointed out how the current model of urban planning was a manipulative environment where the individual’s experiences, attitudes and behaviour was manipulated, pacified, and opiated, through the arrangement of space, colours, structure, materials, etc. Psycogeography, meant for the Situationists a mode to understand the geographical environment and sow a collective “awareness of the ways in which everyday life is presently conditioned and controlled”.(Plant, 2002, s. 58) One of the methods of surveying the city was the dérive, which consisted of aimlessly walking through the city, with no particular direction or objective, letting themselves be drawn by the “attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there” (Guy Debord). As futile as this may seem, this was a way to create and experiment with the city environment and discover the hidden potential of these psychic areas to experiment and play in the everyday life. This was the process by which the Situationists distinguished different areas in the city and how these had an influence on the states of minds.
The modern and postmodern city was and is, a place where communication between individuals is not at a personal level, or for the sake of social relations, but only exists through, and for the purpose of commodity exchange. Communication is not an exchange of experience and pleasure, but a commodity exchange, and occurs exclusively for this purpose. “People live separated from one another, separated from what they are in others, and separate from themselves.” (The Revolution of Everyday Life s.87, quoted on A World of Pleasure to Win).
Ten years after the SI was formed, Guy Debord, wrote his book “The Society of the Spectacle” which functioned as a kind of guide-book to understand his understanding of late-capitalist society. It continued the Marxist agenda in the context of late-capitalism. Marx had initially identified the social alienation and separation produced by commodity culture and consumerism, and around profit and accumulation. In the later form of capitalism, organized around consumption, media, information and high-technology new forms of domination and abstraction disrupt social reality. Debord and the Situationists saw late-capitalism as a rupture in capitalist organization and social control exerted through dominance in the cultural sphere, and its transformation from a commodity society into a society of the spectacle. The society of the spectacle involves a consumer society for whom the world is fabricated by others instead of being produced by the individual. As a clear example of this we have fashion, where the individual consumes more than the garment, for its use-value, but consumes an identity fabricated, and an appearance-value.
The Spectacle refers to mass media society but also to the institutional and technical apparatuses of late-capitalism. Through these apparatuses – educational, democratic – and their power, the creative and critical characteristic of subjects is demoted, and the effect of this perverting power enshrouded. Thus, the spectacle becomes a tool of pacification, depolitization and opiate that is spread through consumption, entertainment and services.
Debord believed that “The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life.” This can be seen as a mode of control of individuals through controlled consumption. In earlier capitalism the worker was exploited and remained a part of the force of production, but in the later stage, the worker becomes a consumer and is pacified by the social equality which advanced consumer society allows for. This was the model used in the car industry by Ford, where the producers were the consumers of their own production. And the difference between early-capitalism and late-capitalism (spectacle society) can be found in the distance that separates Latin American societies and western European societies.
As Marx spoke of the transformation of being into having, where emotions are reduced to greed, Debord identified a further stage in this transformation where having is transformed into appearing. Here, the material object is no longer important, existing through representation as sign and “’draws its immediate prestige and ultimate function’ as image.” (Best, 1994, s. 48) The exchange-value of the commodity object is now supplanted by the appearance-value, which ruled by its symbolic load, and the appearance is now more important than the use-value. Debord’s Spectacle, as previously stated, a continuation of the Marxist project, can be seen as a political theory with social implications, where the social alienation of the spectacle is directly influenced by the political abstraction, and ultimately derived from the latter, but in constant communication with it: “Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the outcome and the goal of the dominant mode of production. (…) In form as in content the spectacle serves as total justification for the conditions and aims of the existing system.” (Debord, 1998, s. 13)
In contemporary art, the work of Francis Alÿs is closely linked to the Situationists. Most of his work is based on performance and the idea of the psychogeographic dérive is always present. Through the 20th century, walking has become a central point of art and politics, and a mode of protest and resistance. Continuing the dérive which the Situationists practiced as a mode of construction of situations in the different psychogeographical atmospheres of the city, Alÿs tries to create events that remove the inhabitants of the modern city from their alienation, and at the same time, create fables that will transcend time and space and become part of the city. One of his most famous walks, was called “Narcotourism” and consisted of walking through Copenhagen, “the stereotype city of bourgeois European society” (Francis Alÿs), on different psychotropic drugs for 7 days. Intending to be “physically present in a place, while mentally elsewhere.”(Phaidon, 2007, s. 32) The Situationist derive, was simply meant to gather physical and psychical atmospheres of the city as experienced by the participators. Guy Debord made psychogeographic maps of his “continuous derive based on complete disorientation”. Alÿs aims not at gathering “information” from the city, but at directly disturbing and criticizing the “homogeneous, synchronic, universal and classified notion of urban space.” His walks were conceived with the assumption that they would be remembered and retold by others, becoming fables, or even urban myths.
Other work of Alÿs can be linked to the concept of Simulation. In his “re-enactments” work, he juxtaposes two videos. The first one being of the true performance, in which he buys a 9mm gun and walks around Mexico City holding it visible to everybody. This walk ends with him being arrested and spending time in jail.
The second video, is the re-enactment of this event, and it is followed step by step, with the police as accomplices and a fake gun, Alÿs performs this in a decisively Situationist manner, and makes a critique on the general acceptance of violence in society. The re-enactment poses a simulation that is hyperreal, for the video is based on a performance, on a simulation, previously executed by the artist. This comments on the medias manipulation of reality and the exaggerations that might come with re-enactments.
The work of Thierry Geoffroy / Colonel is potentially Situationist. He has produced several TV clips where he creates situations as he derives through the city of Copenhagen. His interest is especially centred in the visibility the media and the public sphere produce on individuals, and the social interaction of subjects in the city. In one of his various clips he did a description to camera of what he saw in a walk through Copenhagen. Colonel believes that art is everywhere in the public space. In his walk, he finds art in Copenhagen’s Rådhus Pladsen, the central square of the city: the military are arranging a Happening. As they show their weapons to passers-by, they apply fake injuries, prosthetic toy injuries, to adults and kids. Colonel lets himself be intervened as well, and notices that he is now visible to the passers-by. People comment on the injuries saying they look very real. Moments
after, Thierry Geoffroy removes the injuries and puts them in a bag as evidence of the real. He then notices that he has become invisible again and is reduced to “l’air de Paris”.
In another performance, or “penetration” as he calls it, he lurks in the background of a live news reporter on the scene, where Danish football fans have gathered to celebrate victory. He holds a fake corn as a microphone and mimics the reporter. He has now become visible to society, and Denmark.
His work critiques the idea that for acquiring visibility, it is necessary to do it through the media or by becoming a public figure and succeeds in demonstrating the inherent ambiguity of the media. He addresses the difference between event and portrayal, and between fiction and reality.
Jean Baudrillard, spoke of a similar concept to the spectacle. In his book Simulations, he draws attention to the spectacle but mentions that it has ceased to exist, and the distinctions of power between the political aspect of the spectacle and the social aspect have imploded into hyperreality. To define the hyperreal it is necessary to follow the different phases which simulation transits ultimately leaving reality behind.
Baudrillard speaks of three orders of simulacrum. In the first order of simulacrum, reality and simulation exist simultaneously, and reality is only concealed under a mask, there is a clear distinction between them. A clear example of this in the visual arts is the trompe l’oeil painting in which the painting mimics reality. But Baudrillard’s theory of Simulacrum is not exclusive of visual arts, politics or social reality, it exists without them and can be applied to every aspect of post-modern society, and define the post-modern. We can also see the first order simulacrum when a person pretends to be sick. At first sight perhaps one can’t tell whether his illness is real or not, but a simple medical analysis would suffice to prove that the individual is feigning the illness. Thus, this person is simulating to have something that he hasn’t. Baudrillard also distinguishes simulation from dissimulation. “To dissimulate is to feign not to have what one has. To simulate is to feign to have what one hasn’t. One implies a presence, the other an absence.” (Baudrillard, 1983, s. 5) The implication of absence and presence implies a relation to the “true” state of affairs. Baudrillard explains that dissimulating leaves reality intact “whereas simulation threatens the difference between true and false, between real and imaginary.”(Baudrillard, 1983, s. 5) He also gives the example of the military, explaining they no longer condemn and punish those individuals who pretend to be mad, who feign madness; the military now treats them as mad and reforms them in order to be reincorporated into their duty. The second order of simulation comes into play here and the notions of truth and false are no longer present. Military psychology has retreated from drawing a distinction between true or false and look beyond the simulation to uncover the truth. Simulation is taken as real.
To understand the third order of simulation, Baudrillard gives the example of Disneyland. It is easy to see Disneyland as a second order simulation, where the park mimics the real (the castles, mountains, etc) and seems to be more real than the real as it carries emotional and romantic weight. But Baudrillard considers Disneyland as a part of the third order simulation: “Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America, which is Disneyland.” (Baudrillard, 1983, s. 25) And Disneyland is there to remind us that it is unreal, and that the real is outside Disneyland, when in fact, the order of the real has ceased to exist and given in to a world of the Hyperreal and of Simulation. Baudrillard also compares Disneyland with prisons, and says that they are there to remind us that real freedom is outside of them: “prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, which is carceral.” (Baudrillard, 1983, s. 25)
Further on, Baudrillard mentions illusion. He says that in a hyperreal society, “illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible.” (Baudrillard, 1983, s. 38) He puts the example of the “repressive apparatus” reacting to a simulated hold up, and concludes that the system would react ever more dangerously to a simulation, as this is an interference with the principle of reality.
An example of the hyperreal, are the TV recruitment adds for the British Army. Their resemblance is not at all with reality but with the virtual world of computer and platform war strategy games and first person shooters. For some time now, war games have dominated the market of entertainment amongst the younger generations, where one has the opportunity to engage in simulation combat. The creators of these games have strived to achieve the most real feeling and dynamics of the “real thing” in the game. Moreover, the advertisements for these games and the in-game movies that are virtually created, have paved the territory for spectacular politics to utilize as a point of reference to reality. Now that these generations have been formed through war games and eventually felt the dissatisfaction that this commodity ensures, time has come for those who are left with the urge for the real experience to be recruited. War, now looks more like a computer game, and less like the real thing. But the real has now disappeared, as what is depicted as real has more resemblance to the virtual world of entertainment. This has paved the way for army recruitment ads to function as entertainment and commodity ads. War has become hyperreal.
In the photography art scene, I find Thomas Demand to be a perfect example of the third order simulacra. Throughout his work he recreates historically loaded places. His photographs recreate reality, but present it as a cleaner version of reality. Through the construction of paper and cardboard set, Demand presents a simulated reality, like the one presented in Disneyworld. Demand’s photographs have an impact on the viewer even before one comes to realise their historical reference. In an age of digital imaging, Demand works with analogue photography, but his work seems to have a digital quality and a feeling of artificiality, not produced by the imaging method but by the method he constructs the sets, “challenging our assumptions of what it means to live in an age of simulation.”(Karmel, 2005, s. 148) Even in an age of simulation, paper remains the main archival medium for the storage of information. In Demand’s images, papers, phones and other elements are deprived of any text. Papers on the office desk in “Poll” remain blank, representing a sense of collective amnesia of a society that prefers to forget history. This is again visible in “Office”, where the papers lying around a chaotic office present no text. This is Thomas Demand’s recreation of the former Stasi (State Security) Headquarters following the storm of furious East Germans. As with the case of Disneyworld, I would put Demands work in the third order simulacrum, for it presents a reality victim of collective amnesia, and in the process of the (re)construction and documentation of the models, they become hyperreal. While talking about simulation in the work of Thomas Demand it is not necessary to mention political or social projects. The concept of simulation as previously said, does not necessarily carry a political or social load, but is a philosophical theory connected to the postmodern era.
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From The Spectacle to the Hyperreal by Tomas A. Hein is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.