Private jokes and public pleasures

Roberto Ohrt

Marco Lavagetto, The House of Asger Jorn in Albisola

“... in the good memory of the past that
refuses to end and afflicts everyone
with its obstinate presence”.
Asger Jorn, 1964

The main events of the Situationist International – its foundation in July 1957 and break-up at the beginning of the Seventies – surprisingly coincide with the most important dates involving the garden in Albisola. Asger Jorn bought the land on the hills above the seaside town – rather difficult to access and in poor condition at the time – during the same summer in which, with some friends, he went to Cosio d’Arroscia, a maze-like mountain village in the Maritime Alps about an hour by car from Albisola, where the plans and preparations of a new International finally became a reality. Fifteen years later, in September 1972, Guy Debord wrote De l’architecture sauvage, the well-known text about the very colourful work that had been created in the meantime, his contribution for the superb illustrated book Le Jardin d’Albisola. Six months earlier, Debord had arranged to publish a not-so-onsolatory article that he wrote with Gianfranco Sanguinetti, La vera scissione dell’Internazionale, the infamous conclusive document on the movement, the last act in a tragic drama that, from one disillusion to another, destroyed the precious ideas of many contemporaries. In this way, even the last projection screen, the Situationist International, became a thing of the past. Jorn died in May the following year, and the town of Albisola became the new owner of the garden property.
And so, a beautiful garden overlooking the sea and a modern revolutionary threat stood together in front of the same window in time. In the Seventies, the followers of the Situationist ideas and positions had no inkling at all about such connections. They juggled intentions and dimensions in which a garden, both because of its modest size and, above all, as a subject, would not have had any place. The fact that Debord thought it was so important to say so much about his friend’s “private property” was not noticed by most and, at the best, would have surprised them. Naturally, Debord himself put this “propriété privée” between quotation marks, since he knew of the paradox of his text; he knew the limitations, the warnings and the precautionary measures that had to accompany it. He also knew the limits of all those “that recently claimed that they based their great imaginative skills only on the proclamation of a complete, but totally unused ‘revolutionism’”.
Of course, even some advocates of the real Situationist theory would have preferred to be consulted as that kind of “revolutionist” and Debord emphasises, as opposed to the ingenious eloquence with which they knew how to avoid anything practical, the passion and the talent of Jorn: “... no one ever prevented him from intervening, even to the smallest extent, in each field accessible to him”.
In the Seventies, the Situationist International was by then something completely different than when it had been when founded. After the unexpected loss of its reference model, the various followers, although arguing passionately about the most diverse issues regarding its resurgence, easily reached an agreement on one point: the field of action that had characterised the beginning of the history had not been valid for some time and had become perfectly irrelevant. Already in 1962, the Situationist International had irrevocably cut off its relationships with art, relegated from that moment on to the concept of prehistory; in the best case, art was dismissed as an inevitable folly, an infantile disease of the movement. Some even wanted to consider this break-up as a general test of the Situationist International, which in the following years would have immunized the Situationists against similar seductions. It was a rosary made of a bunch of rather hard-to-die convictions and, regardless of whether it involved a disdain of art, a Hegelian construction of history or a Leninist discipline, they pursued a model that corresponded to what was currently in vogue. Naturally, at that moment – and for an extended period of time – all this made it impossible to look at the past. From this point of view, the De l’architecture sauvage could only be considered as an absurdity, and a backward looking fragment that contradicted the logic of the historical process.
Things went no different with Contre le Cinéma, the extravagant book published in 1964, more or less in the period between the foundation and the break-up of the movement, i.e. close to the borderline area where the certainties of the final period inhibited a vision of the early years. Even Contre le Cinéma did not adapt to the unidirectional orientation that, around 1964, considered the course of history as something that had already been established. Contre le Cinéma was a nuisance to the hegemonic claim maintained by the Situationist International within the contemporary conflict. Each indication of its influence was recorded and comments were made to each declaration. Within such a framework there was no room for deficiencies. So, how could Jorn publish a book about Debord and his films, more than two years after being eliminated from the organisation? And in any case, how had he dared to deal with this fundamental sphere? In addition, and as if it were not enough, he had also defined the Situationist Debord as a great artist, the secret creator of the keywords of the period. He talked of his success in art, certainly refused, but still an intense illumination. A contradiction that remained unresolved for decades, since surprisingly, up to today, Jorn’s evaluations about his friend’s artistic originality were discussed quite infrequently. In reality, they merit more attention than everything that recently, with a delay of no less than forty years, was accidentally published about the “genius” of Debord and the excellent meaning of his “initial work”, according to today’s mainstream interpretation.
Debord was notoriously one of the persons most responsible for drawing the line that the Situationists created to separate them from art in 1962. When, in 1972, he again focused his thoughts on wild architecture, looking backward on a discussion that had taken place within the context of the Situationist International in 1960, he did so in a surprisingly open yet not unfettered way toward the artistic part of the history. His statements flow virtuously around the question of what was possible for situationists and what they were allowed to do, between the extensive need for a radical critique – often synonymous for a no-compromise refusal – and the small steps toward practical realisation, for example, of a garden. Debord bridges the gap with some terms and phrases that put all the various pawns into play, moving them in a surprisingly artistic manner, but his role game does not resolve the contradiction.
“Wouldn’t it have been possible to placate the situationists, around 1960, with some lucidly salvaging reformism, giving them two or three cities to build, instead of pushing them to the extremes, forcing them to unleash into the world the most dangerous subversion that had ever been seen? But others certainly replied that the consequences would have been the same and that, giving in a bit to the situationists, who already had no intention of being satisfied with just a little, would have done nothing but increase their demands and their needs and would have only reached the same result more quickly”. These are the words that Debord uses to conclude his text, basically repeating the trajectory toward the “same result”, without considering the question of what was exactly, now, the garden’s place. A few lines earlier reference was made indirectly to “Guy Debord and the problem of the infamous”, Jorn’s introduction to Contre le Cinéma. He quoted the words – changing them slightly – with which Jorn began his discussion: “It would have been better for humanity if these persons had not existed”. At the time, Jorn had spoken only of one man, i.e. of Debord.
The script of Critique de la Séparation is published in Contre le Cinéma. This 18-minute film was completed in 1961, i.e. during what was the decisive phase for the question of art, as well as of the realisation of the situationist project: it was also the last film made by Debord during the Situationist International’s existence. Today, Debord’s Correspondance provides the opportunity to check the chronology of the events (an indication of another attempt at privatisation of collective history). The second book reviews the protocol of the first few months of 1961, when one event followed the next one at a truly breathtaking pace: January, central council and creation of the Utopolis project; January/February, editing of Critique de la Séparation; April, ousting of Maurice Wyckaert and resignation by Jorn.
After the London conference at the end of September in 1960, the situationists met on several occasions, such as at the beginning of November in Brussels, to spell out their ideas concerning architecture and, above all, to continue at a practical level. They discussed the situationist support and criteria for building a city, or ships, because of their juridical status external to the area over which a country can exert its sovereignty, or castles and groups of islands. During that period, Jorn wrote a letter to his dear Jacqueline de Jong, who was part of the Situationist International, announcing incredible innovations. In Veneto, Jorn had met with Paolo Marinotti, one of his Italian collectors. “Paolo is very interested in the construction of a fantastic situationistic city. We are thinking of calling it Utopolis. It has to be made somewhere in Italy. What do you think of that? Of course, it is top secret, since nothing has been fixed yet, but I think we can fix it. As you can see, this practical work corresponds in an astonishing way to your work in Brussels”. In effect, what Jorn wanted to make clear was that the millionaire was ready to finance the construction of a situationistic city. This is the offer that Debord was alluding to in the conclusion of his text on the garden of Albisola, when he said that “wouldn’t it have been possible to placate the situationists, around 1960... giving them two or three cities to build ...”. Thus, it was absolutely not a secondary issue and this is why the first sentence began as follows: “It is known that the situationists, to begin with, wanted at least to build cities”.
“To begin with”, the idea of revolution, an unfaltering need to which the situationists have always been faithful, was really famous. To this regard, among other things, they had been thinking of extensively reorganising the urban context and, for this purpose, had developed the most fascinating visions. This was rendered famous because of its particular plasticity that, not only in the field of architecture, clearly distinguished all the situationist projects developed mainly during the Fifties from other forms of “revolutionary” propaganda. This involved the real plan from 1960 and its possible realisation to a minimum extent; in any event, the Situationist International had done nothing to make it public. In the best of cases, there were rumours, something that should not have surprised anyone considering the incredible financial context involved. The intense activities during the winter of that year – Debord was shooting his film, sometimes remaining 14 hours a day on the set – matched their extraordinary prospects. However, not even six months later, at the beginning of the spring of 1961, the Situationist International had already accepted Jorn’s “resignation”. To this regard, it was said that his success as a painter had reached such heights to have become incompatible with his membership in the Situationist International. And so, how could they have reconciled this with the words written about him by Debord in 1972: “Jorn is one of those persons who are not changed by success, but who continuously transform success into other challenges”?
In Critique de la Séparation, Debord again identifies his friends Wyckaert and Jorn as supporters of the ideas he presented in the film on the prospects of a common project, but also with respect to the sense of representing a message for the cinema. And what he says about the “zones of a city” in this context, also applies to his images. They are “interpretable… at a precise level. The meaning, however, that they had for us at a personal level cannot be conveyed, like the secrecy of a private life of which no one ever possesses anything other than a ridiculous documentation”. At the end of the short firm, he focuses again on the difference between the two meanings of the term “privée”, private, or taken from: “It’s absolutely normal that a film about private life consists only of private jokes”.
Critique de la Séparation already involved various paradoxical constructions. Even the poetic turning point that, through a stroke of genius, revealed how possession includes loss was a private joke, a wink of understanding between dialectic experts who didn’t care if allusion was not immediately understood by its recipients. The film is made in a way that the line does not lead to any certainty. “Before knowing what should be done or said, we were already far away. We abandoned the path. We are facing the sea. We can’t improve ourselves”. The collective undertaking of the Situationist International was also a game that encompassed all its specific elements: fate, high stakes, losses, tension, tiredness, surprises or luck. When, in 1972, in hindsight, he presents the entire range of potential that remained untapped, Debord even more strongly emphasises the deviations from the path and the subsequent opening of the situation. Evidently, after the curtain had come down, he no longer felt obligated to respect the dictates of how to write history based on which all the elements had to be coherent with such a logical construct, since he no longer had any qualms about assigning greater importance to the initially dreadful prospects. The same applied to the garden, even if in the last sentence he chooses to eliminate indications that show other ways, or alternative paths toward the same objective.
The Situationist International, on the other hand, could not be dealt with like a game in which the public is deprived of the surprise ending, like a joke without a punch line, while the actors returned to their privacy, or perhaps a nice garden. Instead, the idea was the socialisation of art within society and its potential; in this way, it was a new social construction that did not obey the concept of sacrifice and its logic. Critique de la Séparation is the cinematographic poem of this revolutionary project, the attempt to give it a voice with images and thoughts that was up to the level of new technologies and current media, the poetic outline of a new possible revolutionary language. With regard to the film, the question was inevitably posed of how a public environment can be constructed without resorting to power, to existing institutional structures and to communication based on eliminating participation and on separating spectators and actors. “I had just begun to make you understand that I don’t want to play this game” – states Debord in the conclusion of Critique de la Séparation.
After Sunset Boulevard (1950), the critics of the movie industry could not ignore to what extent the critique of that industry was already represented in cinema and in Hollywood itself. The reflection on the star system had become a mass media subject, a part of the overall blindness within the context of which the public interpreted its misery as the suffering of its movie heroes. Leading actors such as Ava Gardner and Humphrey Bogart were hired for this purpose, as in 1954 in The Barefoot Contessa, a rather dry film that chronicles the construction of a Hollywood starlet and the price that the successful actress must pay for such celebrity in terms of losing one’s private life: solitude, lack of respect, unfilled wishes, denied reminiscence and lonely pleasure that the leading lady, despite everything, is able to obtain. The fact that along this path the leading actress is barefoot is the prevailing theme of the film whose surprise ending – the role of the poor in the squalor of that actress’ private life – is something she shares with just one confident (and with the film’s public). This is the private joke and the subject of constant reference, a sign of the origin of what are quite different conditions of the leading actress and her sexual adventures – adventures that she seeks within this different world on the street or in courtyards, like a thief, and for which she must die in the end.
Furthermore, The Barefoot Contessa is a film in which the story remains mute – more often and longer than the conventional use of this stylistic expedient – with comments made only by a voice off-screen (Debord will utilise this technique in an almost exclusive way). Deprived of their voices, the images have an imperceptibly deviating and slightly fatalistic effect, afflicted by the permanence of the past. At the same time, the director used editing to explicitly strengthen the pathetic effect of the actions, making everything resemble the static images of picture stories. In fact, the narrator spends all his time in an Italian cemetery in front of the star’s grave, a life-size sculpture that is also her portrait in stone. This is only an indication, since for the Situationist International the question regarding the meaning of a film, or of art in general, was often taken to the extreme in the overly sentimental theme according to which life would be petrified in the work of art, like that sculpture on the grave… the destiny of a barefoot contessa.
The details of the discussion about Utopolis were not explained by Debord by any means, as if they were a private joke. Its realisation probably contrasted with the system of private property, therefore with the issue of who had the right, sooner or later, to reduce into ashes the “fantastic situationistic city” if someone felt like doing so. A reflection of the imaginary explosion that, at the time, put an end to any other discussion with the sponsor, appears in De l’architecture sauvage, from the moment in which Debord describes in even greater detail the sculptures and the maze in its entirety, putting Jorn’s garden on the level of the project of the situationists, but by force of circumstances as its negative, once again evoking a paradoxical image for that purpose: “To those who remember the conflicting and passionate relationships, and by necessity remained quite distant, between the situationists and architecture [a few lines earlier Debord had said about the garden: “what is painted and what is sculpted, the never uniform stairs between the different levels of the ground, the trees, the additioinal elements, a tank, a part of a vineyard, various odds and ends that are always welcome, thrown there in perfect disorder”], this must seem to be a kind of reverse Pompei: the reliefs of a city that wasn’t built”.
Like a faded picture, but absolutely real and perfectly integrated into the contour of the hill, the garden is always there, facing the Mediterranean, even if unfortunately it has lost its colours. With a very steady hand, Jorn had indicated the symbol of Debord’s artistic value in “having in mind something better, which can be compared to what is refused”. This is really the distinctive feature of artists, the ability to recognise the conditions for something better, not to reveal the idea in the actions involving its realisation and to get increasingly closer to the work thanks to interactions with the material. Jorn had joined forces with Umberto Gambetta when he had created the garden and Gambetta, up to about ten years ago, had taken steps so that the scenario constructed together with his friend would lose nothing of its value and its energy. After his death, the garden became a paradox that Jorn bequeathed to the town.  How can such a special piece of land, created as a garden within the context of private utilisation, be made accessible to the public without allowing its public institutionalisation to deprive it of all its value? Everyone wants everything in relation to such a question. Otherwise, the same result would in fact have been achieved more rapidly: from possession of an extraordinary source of pleasure to its loss.

Text published in the catalogue of the 3 rd Biennial of Ceramics in Contemporary Art, “Undisciplined”, Attese, Albisola (Italy), 2006.