Several months ago I wrote briefly about Guy Debord, psychogeography and the Situationist International group, and how they viewed the city. Debord was obsessed with the power of images, and a man who had been behind the most well-known slogans written across Paris in the 1968 uprisings. It seemed somehow entirely appropriate therefore to see his image stencilled onto a wall beneath the colourful drips and swirls of tags and graffiti.
Somewhere in the East of Paris an artist has created a stencil of the radical thinker Guy Debord and is now decorating walls and doors with his image. This figure is sometimes accompanied by a message, “Deux bords pour un dérive” (two sides for a drift), a rather non-sensical play on words on Debord’s name and theories. Debord both criticised and used text and images to inspire change, but what would he have thought about seeing his image become spectacle?
Debord’s most well-known work, “Society of the Spectacle” was published in 1967, and has been credited by many as a major inspiration behind the 1968 Paris uprising. In very broad terms, this book deals with post-war modernism, and how images in the media create a spectacle that produces alienation and division in society. Debord not only criticised though, but also proposed ways to break down or away from this society, with the most well-known strategy being the ‘dérive’ or drift.
Images though are not simply physical representations, but can also be generated by words. Debord quotes the sociologist Chombart de Lauwe who noted that “an urban neighborhood is determined not only by geographical and economic factors, but also by the image that its inhabitants and those of other neighborhoods have of it”. Studies had shown that individuals in cities often become trapped in banal triangles of work/home/leisure, and rarely deviate from these points. The solution to break out of this trap, and by extension to change people’s perception of their living environment would be to embark on a drift.
In practical terms, the drift would be a way to escape from the physical limits of the city. Built-up environments are necessarilly restrictive for Situationists, being designed to direct and control inhabitants. As Debord wrote, “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”. If everybody drifted on a regular basis, psychogeographical barriers would be broken down and the city would change. As the famous 1968 phrase summarised, ‘Sous les pavés la plage’ (Beneath the pavements, the beach).
Today’s stencil artist clearly feels that this is an image that can still inspire today, but does it still have relevance? Debord once wrote that “all that was once directly lived has become mere representation”, and it is ironic that this should apply to the man himself today. Debord’s drifts took in many bars and too much alcohol, a factor that is said to have contributed to his suicide in 1994, and the images of uprising and the slogans used in 1968 have since become something akin to capitalist commodities.
Simply choosing Debord’s profile seems to me to be approaching idolatry, rather like wearing a t-shirt with the face of Che Guevara on it. The message is an empty one, particularly for this face which is little known. However, this is an image that may provoke thought and reflection, and a single thought still has the capacity to grow into something more powerful. At the very least, it may encourage people to investigate a very original and fascinating personality.
Note: If you are interested in learning more about Debord, psychogeography and the Situationists, Ken Knabb's Bureau of Public Secrets website contains translations and discussions of all major texts: http://www.bopsecrets.org