Tag Archives: Situationist International

The Greying of the Internet: The Grey Album and the Rise of the Mashup (Part 2 of 2)

This is the second part of this article. Please read Part 1 in the previous blog entry.

The Greying of the Internet: The Grey Album and the Rise of the Mashup (Part 2 of 2)

4. Downhill Battle and Grey Tuesday

“A time is marked not so much by ideas that are argued about as by ideas that are taken for granted. The character of an era hangs upon what needs no defense.”

–Lawrence Lessig

I do not want to suggest that remix practices are a priori liberatory in a political sense. Neither remix culture nor social computing are guarantees that progressive values will be advanced, that the Internet will be the locus of a renewed democracy and engaged citizenry, or that if we keep making remixes we will solve longstanding, intransigent problems associated with copyright law, globalization, or neoliberalism. But I do wish to note that remix and activism have and will continue to cross, and that there have been politically informed activities to protect remixed works valued by certain kinds of media producers and consumers. And without such activism in the early days of the mashup, we would be telling a very different story in this paper.

In this historical-political vein, it is worth noting that things could have turned out very differently for The Grey Album. Right after its release, its very existence was threatened by EMI. According to EMI, DJ Danger Mouse did not have rights to use the Beatles music. It was a classic David vs. Goliath battle. EMI lawyers sent cease and desist orders letters to outlets that were distributing the album. In practice, this meant that EMI wanted all record stores to destroy physical copies of the album, and for all websites that contained the digital files to immediately remove them from their servers. This approach is the most consistently used weapon in the copyright war as fought by corporate media companies. They choose to go after the “nodes and networks” instead of the creators, and usually instead of the end-user. They choose to choke off the source for further piracy and dissemination by making service providers accountable for whether their end-users are obeying existing US copyright law. As EMI embarked upon this approach, The Grey Album was about to become a famous “lost project” in remix circles. EMI’s desire was to criminalize downloads of the Grey Album that would make Danger Mouse’s effort a “digital media pariah” which few website owners, let alone music lovers, would want to risk putting on their servers or placing in their digital music libraries. EMI wanted the stigma of litigious retribution attached to The Grey Album. But the same energy that EMI was willing to expend because one of its most cherished copyrights was at stake (the Beatles music catalog) is the same energy harnessed by music and copyright activists on the web. How DJ and activist culture intertwined is an important part of The Grey Album story.

A historic online protest known as Grey Tuesday was the result. Grey Tuesday was organized by Downhill Battle, a music activism project begun in August 2003. As stated on their website: “Downhill Battle is a non-profit organization working to break the major label monopoly of the record industry and put control back in the hands of musicians and fans…[and to] counter the distortions of the RIAA and the major record labels.”[1] While there are echoes of utopian battle in the group’s description, most of its efforts work to productively inform music buyers about the business nature and legal maneuvers of the music industry. For the protest around The Grey Album, Downhill Battle wanted to stress the need for new laws governing sampling and loops, otherwise remix culture would be severely curtailed if this form of creativity had no ability to fairly use existing bits of music.

Grey Tuesday was a very successful day of protest that resulted in over one million downloads of tracks from The Grey Album. In ways that social computing portend, Downhill Battle successfully organized a massive protest using social networks and the architecture of the web as a key part of its strategy. Therefore, Downhill Battle sent out a call for sites that would be willing to host the files for the Grey Album on Tuesday, February 24, 2004. Hundreds and hundreds of sites participated in the protest[2], and the publicized generated around Grey Tuesday, helped to account for the number of downloads that took place. Grey Tuesday can be understood as a tipping point in what had been up until that moment a fairly small online movement.

A legal assessment of Grey Tuesday done by the Electronic Frontier Foundation demonstrates that EMI might not even had had a case regarding “cease and desist” orders of The Grey Album. nasIt is important to note the critical difference here with Napster, Grokster and other cases involving the peer-to-peer sharing of digital music. Ultimately, Grey Tuesday was not about illegal downloads, digital rights management, or CD piracy. The sites were not hosting the copyrighted files of the original Beatles’ white album nor Jay-Z’s black album, but a remix album called The Grey Album.

Even when copyrighted material is involved, the law does make a distinction regarding what constitutes “infringement.” In a court of law, EMI would have had to prove that The Grey Album infringed on the rights of Lennon-McCartney compositions. Legal statues are clear that for a violation to occur, “a substantial portion” of the original work has to be involved. It is unclear whether a court would have taken Danger Mouse’s snippets of Beatles music as “substantial” infringements. But even if a court of law deemed Danger Mouse’s samples were “substantial,” the protesters could still advance another legal claim: that their hosting of the files constituted “fair use.”

As Lawrence Lessig points out in his book Free Culture, fair use is a very nebulous concept, and the lack of clarify around fair use is one of the motivations behind the flexible copyrights of the Creative Commons movement. But within existing legal definitions of fair use, the protesters who participated in Grey Tuesday could claim:

1. It was a non-commercial effort

2. The Grey Album is not a substitute for the original albums

3. The Grey Album is transformative of the White Album

4. Grey Tuesday is a commentary on copyright law

Logo for E.F.F.

These arguments, advanced by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are fairly persuasive and remind us that remix culture operates somewhere between the “free culture” of the public domain and the permission culture of copyright law. And the fair use argument picks up another ally when you consider that Jay-Z’s Roc-a-Fella record label did not follow in EMI’s footsteps. One key difference is probably Jay-Z’s roots in hip-hop culture; sampling has been a major element of his artistic output, just like other hip-hop artists. For example, the only way to understand Jay-Z releasing an a cappela version of his vocal tracks is in the spirit of encourage remixes, just like DJ Danger Mouse’s. And in ways that benefited Jay-Z, the popularity of the Grey Album lead to his Linkin Park mashup reaching number one on the US singles chart.

Furthermore, the real concern here–the issue that spurred on Downhill Battle–seems over how creativity will be allowed to develop in DIY culture on digital networks. Lawrence Lessig, among others, have persuasively argued that copyright laws have to be reconsidered in the age of social computing. Otherwise, culture itself might be compromised. Lessig’s line of reasoning, for example, argues that the US Constitution always intended to allow for cultural works to build off one another. While artist rights need to be protected, the trend toward microcontent challenges traditional notions of the copyrighted work, and how does copyright law operate in a world of Flickr and YouTube? Ultimately, Creative Commons and public domain archives like the Prelinger Archives are important in this regard, but beyond the scope of this paper to address in any detail.

Finally, now that some time has elapsed since the release of The Grey Album, it is clear to see that there was no harm to the Beatles music sales or their musical legacy. In fact, I think Paul McCartney’s response is instructive here. He has publicly admitted that he has listened to The Grey Album, and it encouraged him to collaborate with DJ Freelance Hellraiser, and the two produced an album called “Twin Freaks,” that mashes up the music of Wings and McCartney’s solo career.[3] And remix music is played before many of his concerts. It was his willingness to open his oeuvre to remix artists that can properly contextualize his Grammy appearance.

The work of Downhill Battle and Grey Tuesday helped open up the debates around copyright activism, and clarified how remix culture and musical samples needed new rules governing their use. While Grey Tuesday has not stopped the music industries pursuit of copyright violators, it did mark a visible turning point in the movement. I would argue that certain remix experiments, such as one pursued by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails who has released many of his songs in Garageband and Acid formats, is a growing part of a movement by commercial artists that recognizes a key difference between peer-to-peer file sharing of complete songs, and the microcontent behind the remix aesthetic.

5. Ramon and Pedro’s The Grey Video

“Warning: The following was done as an experimental project”

–Opening words of The Grey Video


If the preceding argument surmised that The Grey Album is lucky to remain in existence, then The Grey Video is an object that never needed to exist at all. The very existence of The Grey Video intrigues me because it is not just another audio mash-up of Jay-Z’s vocal tracks. The idea of a mash-up of the music of the Beatles and Jay-Z is something that might have been confined to the sonic realm. But Danger Mouse’s tracks jump from the musical register to a high-end video project. How would any video designers be able to translate to a visual medium? What indexical footage would be able to capture a moving image mash-up of the Beatles and Jay-Z? This is part of the growth of remix culture. The video is a creative demonstration of the stimulative effects of DJ Danger Mouse’s remix activity; remixes beget remixers.

The creative design team of Ramon and Pedro made The Grey Video as a “bootleg homage” to Danger Mouse’s Grey Album. Ramon and Pedro are excellent examples of the pro-amateur and how the DJ metaphor is influencing the arts beyond the music world. The Grey Video is a dynamic and technically demanding work of the highest artistry. In what sense then, is it amateur? Here the notion of “experimental” project is provocative. Both DJ Danger Mouse and Ramon and Pedro assert that these are “experimental projects.” But what does that mean? Such statements can act as legal defenses against charges of copyright violations, and I am sure that is one potential motivation. But I would argue that such language highlights the works “amateur status” and singles out the important role that can be played by amateurs outside of the commercial sphere.

The Grey Video is a very sophisticated video. It is not typical of video mashups. It is not just the taking of an audio track from one source and marrying it to the video track of another object, like “This Place Sucks,” which mashes the dialogue of Office Space with the cartoon of SuperFriends. Nor is it a parody, in the spirit of the Brokeback Mountain spoofs that proliferate on the Web, such as the one involving recontextualized scenes from Back to the Future. And this is not the work of unskilled creative workers. Finally, in many ways, it is not just a mash-up of the song “Encore” from The Grey Album. While it seems like the video is going to restrict itself to playfully placing Jay-Z concert footage within the confines of the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night, a major change occurs about halfway through the video. Beyond simply combining two pre-existing video tracks into a new melding, Ramon and Pedro use motion graphics and green-screen technologies to extend their video remix. They in essence create footage they don’t otherwise have. They use motion graphics to place words behind the Beatles performance–the words are the lyrics to “Encore.” They create a “hip hop” version of the Beatles and this is part of its most dynamic vernacular. We witness as Ringo Starr becomes “the Brooklyn Boy”—this linkage is achieved through word and image relations—and then Ringo starts scratching on the song. We watch as John Lennon breakdances. And surprisingly, we watch as Paul McCartney and George Harrison both leave the stage for two female back-up singers. Intriguingly, for all the visual excitement of The Grey Video, it actually has the wrong reference for the Beatles. Danger Mouse samples from the Beatles later musical period, and A Hard Day’s Night still shows the Fab Four in their early days with their matching suits and their Beatles boots.

It is unclear how Ramon and Pedro could be possibly compensated for The Grey Video. This is a work that had to take a tremendous amount of time and resources. There is no commercial venue where the footage was released, and if the video did by some method make money, the copyright holder of a Hard Day’s Night would probably sue immediately. Why do it then in the first place? First, Ramon and Pedro are highly regarded motion graphics artists who have several notable commercial projects on their resume.[4] Second, Ramon and Pedro definitely are expressing in a visually kinetic sense, an analogue kinship to DJ Danger Mouse. Like Danger Mouse, Ramon and Pedro is a pseudonym. Like Danger Mouse, this visual design duo is a rising star in the mainstream culture industries. And like Danger Mouse, they are probably better known for their work than for their “names.” In fact, if you watch the Grey Video, you will realize that it is an “unsigned” work. There is no obvious name attached as author of this project, but this is not unusual in remix culture. Even searching the Internet, it is not easy to locate the “authors” behind the Grey Video. Once however it is known that it is the work of Ramon and Pedro, the final shot of The Grey Video (R+P) makes much more sense.

The existence of The Grey Video strikes me as a kind of proof for theories of postmodern authorship; Grey Video = remix = QED. DJ Spooky ruminates that his “work asks about how the networks of creativity that we have inherited from the “bricks and mortar” world of the 20th century have imploded, evolved and accelerated the ‘im-material’ networks of the frequencies, fiber optic networks, and mathematically drive world of the 21st century. That’s the real ‘dematerialization’ of the art object’–it becomes patterns meshed, working between the spaces of pre-scripted behavior.”[5] In this regard, DJ Spooky recalls a description of the “postmodern artist” as articulated by Francois Lyotard, who stated that:

“The postmodern artist or writer is in the situation of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he performs are not in principle governed by already established rules, and they cannot be subjected to a determined judgment by applying known categories. It is these rules and these categories which the text or the work seeks. The artist and the writer work therefore without rules, in order to establish the rules of what will have been done. Hence the work and the text have the quality of an event; they arrive too late for their authors, or–what amounts to the same–their realization begins always too early. The postmodern needs to be understood through the paradox of the post anterior tense.” [6] (Italics in original)

Lyotard’s deployment of the term “post anterior” is decisive here. Coming from Lacanian psychoanalysis, Lacan’s work on the future anterior suggests that “What is realized in my history is not the past definite of what was, since it is no more, nor even the present perfect of what has been in what I am, but the future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming.”[7] It is in this sense, that the role of the DJ is instructive. The DJ, that designer of beats and rhythms, is driven by performance, is in “the process of becoming.” The DJ aesthetic does not necessarily know where it is going to end, and it is very event driven.

Ramon and Pedro demonstrate how the DJ can now challenge the film director as authorial force. They reveal the potential stories embedded in the previously sealed archives of our Hollywood memories, display the range of new tools of visual creativity, and open up the “already mixed” to new interpretations. The Grey Video is a template for the rise of the video mashups: a post anterior re-performance of a cinematic icon through a rap dialectic, conditioned by the reverberating logics of digital video recorders, channel surfing, music videos and the viral mentality of YouTube.

6. Today and Yesterday

Through tracing these moments in the tale of The Grey Album, I have suggested that remix is a style of cultural production that can influence the emerging directions of social computing, and that remix activities participate in a “greying” of the Internet itself. But I am not advocating a naïve belief in something like remixism or remixology. And while there might be some wisdom in tapping into the underlying ethos of the remix, there is no inherent virtue that resides inside the act of remixing itself. Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics reminds us of that: “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”[8] As remixes circulate and amplify around the world there are no guarantees that such acts will be a progressive, trangressive, and generative. Remix, after all, might just stay in the register of “play” and fail to bring about any meaningful social and political change.

However, in closing, I would like to draw attention to a similar historical moment when an artistic movement contributed to meaningful social change. I feel that there are important parallels between the Situationist International (SI) and remix culture.[9] SI and its major innovator, Guy Debord, came out of a critique of the society of the spectacle, and some of its major aesthetic maneuvers, such as detournement, derive and psychogeography, are part of the legacy behind remix culture. And as SI burst into political consciousness in May 1968, one can imagine how remix culture might have similar impacts, if Grey Tuesday is more of the movement’s seedbed rather than its major political flowering. And while this type of stance might be more associated with the ideas of DJ Spooky–an avowedly political DJ–, more than DJ Danger Mouse, the act of DJing has its “virtuous” aspects.

Remix is filled with potential. Remix can resist totalizing narratives and open up texts to new meanings. It can be deeply multicultural. The Grey Album was more than just underground entertainment; it lead to new moments of activism and creative expression. Remix is an activity that can celebrate our diversity, explore our differences, and renew our histories. In these uncertain times, there are more reasons than ever to embrace remix culture and give mix a chance.


[2] There is no easy way to confirm how many sites participated, but it was at least in the hundreds.

[5] See DJ Spooky Interview with Carlo Simula for his book
MILLESUONI. OMAGGIO A DELEUZE E GUATTARI
(Cronopio Edizioni) http://www.djspooky.com/articles/deleuze_and_guattari.php

[6] Bennington, Geoffrey. Lyotard: Writing the Event. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988. p. 104

[7] See Time and the Fragmented Subject in Minority Report by Martin Hall in Rhizomes 8, spring 2004. Though it is beyond the scope of this paper, I see Minority Report as a key remix allegory, especially in its innovative gestural interface. In many productive ways, and as I have argued in several of my course lectures, Tom Anderton (Tom Cruise) in Minority Report–though obstensibly a law enforcement officer– is coded as “a DJ” and a remix artist. His remix abilities are the basis of his skill in reading the clues given by the Pre-Cogs. The “Larval Subjects” blog has a great analysis of Hall’s argument if you would like to pursue this line of argumentation further: http://larval-subjects.blogspot.com/2006/11/future-anterior.html

[8] See Plato’s Nichomachean Ethics.

[9] See my previous blog entry on Guy Debord’s Memoires for more on the Situationist International.

Uneasy Arrangements: Looking at Guy Debord’s Memoires

This paper started its life back in 2000 in a course taught by USC Art History professors Richard Meyer and Nancy Troy. The course was on the topic of the writing the history of Art, and it was a marvelous experience. This summer course met at the Getty Research Institute, part of the Getty Museum campus in Los Angeles. You couldn’t ask for a better place to gather to think about or discuss art. At the time I had already begun writing my dissertation New Media Activism: Alternative Media Collectives and New Technologies from Video to the Internet. I also was actively researching Guy Debord’s works as models and inspirations for media activists. I was particularly drawn to Debord’s pre-Society of the Spectacle artworks and his collaboration with Danish artist Asger Jorn. But the book, Mémoires, like Paul Strand’s “House and Billboard,” drew my attention the most.

I am reprinting a revised version of that paper here for a couple of reasons. First, I find Debord’s work completely irresistible and utterly challenging, but also not as prominent as I would expect it to be in new media or digital media studies. Part of that problem, which I address in this paper, is that Debord’s work tends to get coded (and worse, dismissed) as “Situationist” and political (which it is), leading towards the neglect of its artistic legacy and its creative potential. Critic Greil Marcus has done a great job of showing Debord’s “lipstick traces” on the punk movement, but I would like to see more about Debord’s influence on the digital age, especially as one of the key figures impacting digital remix culture. In terms of progenitors of remix culture, I believe Debord’s art practices (he was an early multimedia artist) should be considered alongside the “cut-up” technique of William Burrough and artist Brion Gysin.

Second, this paper lays out my preference for a certain approach to analyzing complex artworks, whether a photograph, a book, a painting, or a film noir. I favor an analytical frame that focuses on a close reading of the work at hand and which minimizes one’s reliance on historical, biographical or theoretical frameworks. However, that is not the same as saying I am dismissing those other important frameworks. Rather I have found it useful in my own scholarship to rely on my own close reading of a work, for reasons that hopefully become clear in the essay below. A similar analytical approach is on display in my recent Paul Strand talk and perhaps more so in my long-running podcast series with Shannon Clute, where we perform close readings on films in the noir tradition.

Third, I want to expand discussions around Mémoires. It is a very complex and polyvalent work, but many people are only familiar with the book’s famous cover “gag.” The original book cover was made of sandpaper. Of course, a sandpaper cover has the effect of making the book literally “abrasive” when shelving it next to other books, and it can “scratch” a nice table. But I am more interested in what Debord and Jorn are up to under the cover.

Uneasy Arrangements: Looking at Guy Debord’s Mémoires

1.

let no one claim I have nothing new to say: the arrangement of materials is new

—From Mémoires[1]

One is never at ease before the works of Debord

—Asger Jorn[2]

Image found online at http://www.interencheres.com

 

You get the idea. You locate a copy of the book you want to analyze. You find it at the Getty Library, and you will write your description of the book based on your first hand experience, since until now you have seen only pieces of it: here and there a fragment appearing as an illustration in an article or an occasional color frame in a museum catalogue. And even though it will be hard to do, you will try to put aside what you know about the book from your readings. You want to write an extended description of the book based on your insights and your observations. Moreover, you will try not to think about having to view it in the Special Collections room at the Getty Library, since something seems wrong about looking at it in such a space—a betrayal of the book’s original intentions or perhaps something more banal: that this book had better be “special” after all the hoops (appointments and handwashing, to name just two) you have to go through to look at it. On the other hand, you are anxiously waiting for the book in all its archival glory and rarity. You are hoping for a glimpse at the original Pormild and Rosengreen edition, published in Copenhagen in 1959. You know that there are only about one thousand copies of this edition in existence, maybe less. You want to run your fingers over its cover made of sandpaper,[3] see the potency of its use of color, and hold it in your hands to gauge its original size of 27.5 by 21.5 cm. And you are disappointed when you are given a 1977 reproduction of the book, the Phosphore edition.[4] While you are glad to be able to see the book in its entirety, many aspects of the original edition are missing. The Phosphore edition contains a soft cardboard cover with a curious drawing,[5] the reproductions are often badly executed (resulting in unintentionally missing words or images) and finally, the whole edition is reproduced in faded blacks and whites. Now you worry that in attempting to describe this book, you will have to somehow imagine the book in front of you through your memory of full color reproductions or determine the meaning of some barely legible image from the readings you have done. Far from being able to put aside what you know about this book, you seem relieved to know something about it beforehand. You find some comfort in being able to mentally fill in some of the gaps in the Phosphore edition. You let your memory serve as a kind of map as you peruse the book. You sometimes find the book’s play of words and graphics conforming to the Lettrist International notions of dérive and détournement.[6] Other times, the book seems a willfully obscurantic text and not at all what you were expecting. You are on a slippery slope and feeling uncomfortable. This book poses multiple problems of description: original versus reproduction, black and white versus color, theory versus practice, as well as complicated issues relating to art, history, language, commodity culture, politics, etc. Somehow as you reach the end, the last words of the book come alive, revive themselves as challenge, threat and limit on your ability to describe this work: “je voulais parler la belle langue de mon siécle. (I wanted to speak the beautiful language of my times.)”[7] You get the idea.

2.

…turning a page is like waking from a dream, or falling into one.

—Greil Marcus discussing Mémoires

Image found online at wikipedia.org

Mémoires, by Guy Debord with Asger Jorn, is a difficult visual object to describe. Besides the issue of two different published editions,[8] the book itself is a long work of approximately fifty pages.[9] Each of its fifty pages is different. As the book proceeds (literally in the sense of moving from the front cover to the back cover), different visual and textual approaches are undertaken. The book’s breadth of artistic and literary invention seemingly confounds any attempt to reduce the work to a single page or even cluster of pages. Moreover, Mémoires is intentionally perplexing and vexing with wordplay and graphic touches that complicate linear thinking and fight against totalizing meanings. Finally, history itself poses difficulties for the description of this work. One of the few things most everyone agrees on about the book is that it is clearly divided into three different sections: June 1952, December 1952 and September 1953. These three dates coincide with the initial years of Debord’s involvement in the Lettrist International (LI). As such, in many critical accounts of this work, Mémoires is seen through a biographical, or at least a historical, lens that helps situate this work in a cherished position as both an archive of early Situationist thought and as a privileged instantiation of Lettrist and Situationist theory.

 

Before I analyze what problems of description other critics have encountered with this work, I want to discuss my own difficulties in describing it. I try to minimize theoretical or historical models in attempting to describe the page. I do not want to dismiss the necessity of seeing this page and/or book within other discourses such as the history of the Situationist International or the careers of Debord and Jorn. Rather I want to return to an object that is often “lost” when analyzed solely through these discourses. It is possible to get a skewed view of the book if you only know it through written sources or a few illustrations. The sheer polysemy of Mémoires gives it a certain feeling of being both about everything and nothing. The problem is that any particular page of this work can lead toward the impression of a Rorschach test: the beholder (or reader) may see (or read) what he or she wants.[10] This leads to methodological problems surrounding the book often given short shrift in the critical literature about Debord, Jorn and Mémoires. What is the relationship of text and image? Can you discuss the meaning of a particular piece of text outside its relationship to the page and the book as a whole? What precisely is the nature of this object—should it be understood as a book? A collage? A painting? A lithographic reproduction? Is this book art or an instance of social activism? Is the meaning of Mémoires to be found through formal art-historical techniques, for example the precise description of image/text relations and the book’s use of color, shape, line, etc that I focused on? Or is the meaning of the book located in a strategy of reading (a dérive of reading) and a reaction to Debord and Jorn’s collages (a détournement of viewing)? Or some combination of all of these approaches?

To begin to answer these questions, I need to discuss some of the difficulties I have in describing Mémoires. There are four important issues I wish to foreground that both constrain and construct my description of this work: the collage aesthetic, the transformative context of the book, the use of repetition and variation, and the problems surrounding the book’s use of language.

No single page can make a claim as being representative of the overall project. Each page is a complex collage of prefabricated elements. But the difference between each individual page needs to be understood in relation to the overall text and the organizing formal logic of each page, as well as the book itself, is a collage aesthetic. When looked at serially throughout the course of the book, the accumulation of the various collage pages creates a type of visual rhythm.[11] The rhythm, similar to the editing of a movie, is concocted through matching (and indeed, mismatching) elements of color, shape, texture, and size, as if pages in Mémoires could exist as frames in a motion picture. Independent of the words on any given page, the artistic construction of each page frequently recalls the brush strokes and use of paint in the Abstract Expressionist movement, such as the work of Jackson Pollock. The collage aesthetic also helps structure the book’s use of language. For example, some of the phrases that occupy any particular page may be understood as a type of fragmentary sound collage one would hear standing for a time on a Parisian street or sitting in a lecture hall.

Second, Mémoires is a book whose meanings on any particular page change as it is read over and over.  This makes sense since the overall context for any single page is the total framework of the book. For example, when I first read the book, it appeared as if there was possibly a progression from simpler forms to more complex forms. But upon a second reading, I recognized that this was not so. What I read as “complexity” was the insertion of different graphic elements (cartoons and photographs, e.g.) which made the earlier paint-and-text-only combinations seem simple. But that dismisses the complexity of the word/image relations of the earliest pages of the book. Another context is the role of maps and mapping functions in the book. Early in the book, one might not read the painted lines as lines in a map. But after finishing the book, it is almost impossible not to. Towards the end of the book, actual maps of cities become inserted and due to their graphic similarity to Jorn’s painted lines, force us to recognize that a mapping function is part of the book’s graphic design.[12]

Comparison of two pages in Memoires (right side is the original; left side is reprint) From http://www.virose.pt/vector/b_13/nolle.html

Third, an analysis of a single page of Mémoires cannot account for the importance of repetition and variation. For example, in the first section (June 1952), the name “Barbara” crops up on many pages. The appearance of the name reminds one of its previous presence, and helps connect various pages together. Diagrams of a prison floor plan surface throughout the second section (December 1952). There are multiple city maps used in the third section. Another good example of repetition and variation is Asger Jorn’s painted lines that flow throughout the work. Early in the book, the lines tend to connect words together. In later sections, the paint can cut across images or even imprison an image. On one page in the third section, there are illustrations of villages and towns.

However, the paint crisscrosses the image, creating a sense of prison bars and confinement. This type of variation in the paint strokes links up with the repetition of prison images in the second section. Like notes in a symphony, these repetitions and variations help give the book a lyricism that unites particular themes and ideas. The repetitions and variations help unify the work formally without demanding a singular meaning or theme be attached to any one instance of repetition or variation. In this sense, the repetitions and variations create a tone or mood for the overall book more than generate a determinate meaning or theme.

Finally, the status of the words and text blocks that appear on each page is problematic. How should we discuss the use of words in this book? For one thing, in places the words themselves become images, as when Debord crumples them up into graphic objects. For another, as meanings in their own right, do we accept the words as “literal” and attempt to account for them in the overall meaning of the book—as parts of an overarching discourse? Or are the words an instance of “detournement” and perhaps we should only remark upon their randomness, their new context and possibly their ephemeral quality. It is impossible to ascertain the answer definitively, since the answer lies somewhere between the two positions. But most critics have seemed comfortable taking the words out their original context and quoting them.[13] One way to contain the unruliness of this book’s language is (paradoxically) to read it through the increasingly structured discourse of contemporary Situationist theory and practice. And perhaps this is inevitable in a work that at some level is a Situationist project. The problem is that it becomes increasingly difficult to separate our own historical and theoretical understanding of the Situationist movement with an object that has a particular materiality and unique conditions of production.

My preferred method was to look at each single page, as standalone works, to determine if there was something that I was missing by already approaching the work for a particular theoretical or historical construct. Surprisingly, after I finished my analysis, I felt that I truly had looked at the object versus looking for an object. In the precision of a page-by-page analysis, I uncovered elements of its formal composition I had previously missed, especially the significance of how items were placed and how that created particular viewing effects that I describe metaphorically (floating, rays of light, etc.) Second, it recovered something else that was essential: a pleasure in looking. Why has this object attracted so much attention over the years? After wiping away the sedimentation of theory, the object itself has a beauty and an artistic intelligence that is riveting. Moreover, the politics of the Situationist International may be in part wrapped up in this type of pleasure—perhaps fetishizing this object in a politics of pleasure.

3.

has everything been said?

—From Mémoires [14]

The problem of description for Mémoires also needs to address published accounts as well. The subsequent reputation of Guy Debord has complicated descriptions of Mémoires. Debord became the renowned author of Society of the Spectacle. His stature grew after the events in Paris of May ’68, and he is also known for his work as a filmmaker. However, part of it has also do to with the Debord’s status within the Situationist International. He became that group’s best known member and Mémoires, in Greil Marcus’ words, is a “Situationist primer.”[15] Importantly, we can examine two descriptions of Mémoires and attempt to assess how these descriptions have constructed (and constrained) the object.

One of the earliest descriptions of the work was in fact by Asger Jorn. In his preface to Debord’s book Contre le Cinema (1964), Jorn describes Mémoires in glowing terms (Jorn collaborated on Mémoires as well, so we should take his words with some circumspection)[16]:

Thus the moment was ripe for our hero [Debord] to write his Mémoires, which was done with the grating effect of broken glass – a book of love bound in sandpaper, which destroys your pocket as well as entire shelves in your library, a nice reminder of the time past that refuses to end and distresses everyone with its obstinate presence.[17]

Importantly here, two ideas are summoned by Jorn that have more or less appeared as parts of other critical accounts: Debord as “hero”[18] and the lack of a formal analysis of the work itself. Jorn’s assessment of the book is fairly typical: the book as an artistic “success.” In other words, part of the problem of writing about Mémoires is the consideration that the book might fail to live up to these expectations. Alternatively, perhaps too much is read into this book in light of Debord and Jorn’s subsequent successful careers. Indeed, the book is readily deployed in many essays as if it may be a “perfect text.” The sandpaper cover is a good example of this phenomenon. While the sandpaper cover forces you to recognize that this book might literally have a “grating” quality, it is unlikely that it would destroy “entire shelves in your library.” But it is precisely that type of desire and utopian optimism that imbues descriptions of this book.

Greil Marcus’ description is probably among one of the most widely known. His description appeared in the museum catalogue for the 1989 exhibition of Situationist art works: “On the Passage of a few people through a rather brief moment in time: The Situationist International 1957-1972.”[19] Marcus’ descriptions of Mémoires are very celebratory. A brief sampling of comments from his essay include:

Mémoires affirms that everything needed to say whatever one might want to say is already present, accessible to everyone; the book defines a project, and tells a story. (page 126)

…the book feels like a drunken sprawl through the encyclopedia of common knowledge. (page 127)

Mémoires is about the sense that along with the struggle to change the world, to make or find a new civilization, comes the conviction that one will fail those hopes, that the true struggle will be to remember what, once, one meant to do. (page 128)

A recurring idea throughout Marcus’ analysis is that Mémoires tells a story. This has to do partially with the common idea that Mémoires, on one level, is a history of the Lettrist and Situationist movement. But I am not sure what story is being told (at least not in a standard narratological sense). Second, I feel that Marcus reads the book through the lens of Situationist theory and practice. As such, I am not sure if Mémoires supports the theory or the theory supports the book. Moreover, there are no critiques of the book offered by Marcus and most of his writing about Mémoires does not contain close formal analysis. When he does discuss particular pages, it is usually in general terms and then in conjunction with biographical or historical information. Finally, there seems to be no attempt on Marcus’ part to analyze how the book as a whole has been constructed as a visual (art) object. Again, this is not necessarily his goal, but Marcus’ essay does demonstrate the difficulty of describing this text and how intertwined interpretations of this text have become with Situationist theory and practice.

4.

fin

In terms of my broader project regarding the role of new technologies and alternative media, I have always seen Mémoires as a prefigurative model for a particular type of communication. If we remove the accumulated layers of Situationist theory, the description of Mémoires that I forward in this essay can be aligned with issues that influenced Web 1.0 (hypertext) and the remix aesthetics and social media of Web 2.0. Mémoires, in this sense, explores issues of how communication, political economy and desire will become increasingly interconnected through networks. It also warns about the danger of the commercialization of information, and the transformation of personal information into mere data. The network becomes the mode of communication and connection central to Mémoires. Debord’s notions of the derive and detournement, first explored on the city streets of Paris, can now find new and unexpected uses in the digital pathways of the remix and the mashup.


[1] Translation from Marcus, p. 125.

[2] Jorn, Asger. “Guy Debord and the Problem of the Accursed” Preface to Debord’s Contre le Cinema (1964). Translated by Roxanne Lapidus. Reprinted at http://www.panix.com/~notbored/cursed.html. 6/23/00.

[3] Greil Marcus comments about its sandpaper cover: “…bound in heavy sandpaper, Mémoires pretended that, when placed in a bookshelf, it would destroy other books…” See Marcus, Greil. “Guy Debord’s Mémoires: A Situationist Primer,” in On the Passage of a few people in a rather brief moment in time: The Situationist International 1957-1972. Ed. by Sussman, Elisabeth. (The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA, 1989), p. 130.

[4] See Debord, Guy. Memoirs: structures portantes d’asger jorn. Editions du Phosphore, Paris, France, 1977.

[5] For no discernable reason, the Phosphore edition has a large pencil sketch of a male figure on the right hand side of the cover.  This inclusion of the male figure becomes all the more puzzling in light of the original cover of the Pormild and Rosengreen edition, which simply gives the name of the two authors, the title of the work in simple block letters, and a line in French translated as “composed entirely of prefabricated elements.”

[6] Greil Marcus’ definitions of derive and detournement are among the best and most succinct I have seen: “Detournement (literally ‘diversion,’ with connotations of criminality and delinquency) meant the theft of aesthetic artifacts from the Old World and their revitalization in contexts of one’s own devising…The derive (literally, ‘drift’ in the nautical sense) was a matter of opening one’s consciousness to the (so to speak) unconsciousness of urban space; the derive meant a solo or collective passage down city streets, a surrender to and then pursuits of alleys of attraction, boulevards of repulsion, until the city itself became a field of what the LI called “psychogeography,” where every building, route, and decoration expanded with meaning or disappeared for the lack of it…” (p. 127).

[7] The last line of Mémoires is translated in Greil Marcus’s article as “I wanted to speak the beautiful language of my time.” Marcus, p. 125

[8] Please note that this does not preclude the possibility of even more published editions of Mémoires. My research indicates that there is a third edition (by a different publisher) of Mémoires in the 1990s, but I was unable to locate a copy of this edition to verify what changes or differences it may have.

[9] The problem of page length and the problem of identifying specific pages in this book are complicated by the lack of pagination in the work. In most published accounts, there has not been an attempt to give the book a definitive length. Most critics appear to favor to describe its length with a certain indeterminacy. For example, Claire Gilman refers to the work as “approximately fifty pages long.” Gilman, Claire. “Asger Jorn’s Avant-Garde Archives,” October 79, Winter 1997, p. 43.

[10] As an aside, the allusion to a Rorschach test might apply to my experience of the 1977 Phosphore edition. On several pages instead of the vibrant colors intended in the Rosmild and Rosengreen edition, the Phosphore edition renders the graphic elements as blotches of black ink. I saw a distinct parallel in the abstractions of Debord and Jorn to the purpose of a Rorschach test, that is made more concrete with the desaturated and faded black and white hues of the Phosphore reproduction.

[11] While Greil Marcus uses the word “rhythm” in his essay to describe the work, I feel I am using the word in a slightly more formal way than Marcus is. For example, Marcus states: “The rhythm of Mémoires becomes one of isolation to contact, contact to community, community to broken contacts, broken contacts to isolation.” See Marcus, page 131. This footnote also highlights my sensitivity to published accounts of the work that are continually playing in my head as I write this account.

[12] In light of Svetlana Alper’s analysis of the mapping impulse in Dutch art it seems interesting to me that two of Debord’s books, Fin de Copenhague and Mémoires were published in Copenhagen. Moreover, Craig Sadler in his book, The Situationist City, makes explicit connections between maps and Situationist theory in Debord’s art, which is not surprising given the Situationist’s interest in the dérive and psychogeography.

[13] See Marcus, p. 125. Greil Marcus lists several phrases that he lifts from different places in the book with no apparent concern for their contextualization (or decontextualization). There is no attempt, as far I can discern, to initiate a project similar to Marcel Duchamps’ Green Box, whereby a  typotranslation (in some sense a guide to a text that is difficult to obtain) is attempting to abide with certain types of word/image relations found in the original object.

[14] Translation from Marcus, p. 125.

[15] Marcus, page 124.

[16] Also, we have to take its publication context into account since he was writing a preface to a book for Debord. However, the important point is not Jorn’s positive assessment of the book, as much as how that positive assessment seems axiomatic for this work and how later critics accept Jorn’s views. For example, Greil Marcus quotes Jorn as support for his own arguments.

[17] Jorn, “Preface to Guy Debord’s Contre le Cinema,” no page number.

[18] For example, see the following quote from Marcus: “…the book has its own voice: the voice of romantic, heroic, questing, dissipated, reflective, melodramatic, even schoolboy adventure.” (p. 126)

[19] The exhibition was shown, on a rotating basis, at the Centre George Pompidou in Paris, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, MA.