A Situationist Record
11 June 2017, from point a to b
The distance from point a to b is 7 km. It takes between 90 minutes and approximately two weeks to cover the distance on foot. Much depends on good will, faith in supernatural phenomena, and the reading matter that one has absorbed. 11 June 2017, 11:00. Our plan is good, as simple as can be – we drift from a to b. Next, however, we want to shift ourselves from b to a, via the longest possible route through c. We fantasise about a ‘rapid passage through a changing ambiance.’
It is very hot and dry, there is dust floating in the air; we quickly tire. More than half of the group withdraws from participation in the experiment before we have even left the building. The building is marked with the letter a. We are very well prepared; the letter can be seen even from the plant – to pour it onto the roof of hangars A and O, they use amphetamine confiscated from football hooligans, which has been held at the No. 7 Regional Police Station.
Having crossed the river, we are beginning to understand why "chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think" and that this stems from the underdevelopment of psycho-geographical research. For lack of anything better to do, or perhaps from the feeling that our reflection on (we are not about to abandon the jargon even for a moment) ‘art in post-artistic times’ and "interspecies pollination" is more advanced than was the case in November 1956, we have decided to make the adventure more attractive by the means of small protocols and instructions. We are to cover certain sections of the drift, or dérive:
● Holding hands with strangers;
● Walking backwards;
● Under the influence of psychotropic substances;
● Speaking in tongues;
● Leaving behind spilt paint and condiments.
We have decided to split into three-person teams by drawing lots. Seven teams reach point b. Only five report back to point a. The following day, from the first of the absentee teams, we get a fax (yes indeed – a fax!) with a riddle. It runs like this: what does not have its place on Earth (and whose boundaries are not defined)?
The second lost group should not have been taking part in the venture at all. G. was in the group (throughout, she was wearing a Charlotte Posenenske mask, which we took as a rather simplistic commentary on the problem of ‘migration beyond the territory of art’); she usually moves between point a and point b, then from b to a, bypassing c (these are points on the axis of time, and they do not coincide with those on the map), and subsequently she finds herself simultaneously in a and b. How, then, could we possibly look for her? She is somewhere in the near future (but never tomorrow). b is always some 42 years earlier. c (which G. bypasses) is the year 1969 that we have fetishised so much. Yes, the year that witnessed a run of 600 of Robert Barry’s poster Inert Gas Series/ Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, Xenon. From a Measured Volume to Indefinite Expansion/ April 1969/ Seth Siegelaub, 6000 Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood, California, 900028/213 HO 4-8363. Los Angeles: Seth Siegelaub, 1969.
The dérive can be performed motionlessly (as well as on your own), without moving from point a to point b, combining this activity with a "certain general attitude to life." One can spend a whole day in the railway station, looking at passengers and throwing popcorn at pigeons. In the 1980s, an enthusiast for dérive passed a week in front of the chimpanzee cage in a zoo, communicating telepathically with the animals, "We are here; however, we are not real – not in the way that you consider real."
The knowledge that stems from the dérive is combined with an understanding of the tension which accompanies the mixing, shifting and fusion of non-place and place. This is a somewhat archaic concept, which has been frequently referred to and compromised in popular culture. Nevertheless, it is difficult to do without, if one believes in the creation of "international megaports designated for the dérive." Let us thus attempt to define these two notions.
The non-place is unruly and anachronistic, its surface is porous, it implodes; inside it, rotting processes take place. It dries up and starts peeling; it is impossible to define its volume. It is non-proportional, unstable, unedited, insatiable. It has no corners; it is impossible to identify its backdrop. It is dark. It shrinks and it undergoes erosion; one cannot delineate its boundaries. It has a number of indentations, it is dubious. It consists of verbs; its temperature and humidity vary according to the time of day and year. It grows; it is generous; it aims at entropy. The alphabet has no function within it; some species die there and others mutate and displace the weaker ones.
The place is familiar, stable, clean, edited, restrained, proportional, bright; its substance is homogenous. It has a smooth surface. It leans towards the alphabetical order from A to Z; it consists of nouns and it has corners. Its volume is measurable; it stands out against its backdrop; it is free of parasites and invasive species. It does not shrink, the symptoms of erosion are concealed, its boundaries are possible to outline, its temperature and humidity are stable. It is possible to describe it using numbers. It does not grow; it leans towards order. It is the environment in which the same species continue to exist, and the average length of their life keeps getting longer.
Therefore, is any other art possible?
We are looking for strong scenes to edit. We are looking for places. Oh, yes, this one is good. We get there in the morning. Rural scenery (a rake, cowpats, a field of stubble, a small pond with a great crested newt, smoke from the chimney, orchard, orchard, orchard, orchard, orchard, orchard, a field of stubble, orchard, orchard, orchard, a rake – in various configurations, of different size, variety and colour). J. is holding a small pink loudspeaker, as usual. J. starts by singing her question (in mezzosoprano):
What is it
That changes its shape,
But retains its inner order?
J. hastens to provide the answer, "I know that you will all find this question difficult, because it refers to content that is understandable solely in the context of specialist knowledge regarding South American conceptual art of the late 1960s. I will therefore answer this question for you. And at the same time, I will not answer it. Perhaps in this short story about poultry you will find the 'spirit of dérive', that can be awakened by things such as 'slipping at night into houses designated for demolition, traversing the city ceaselessly in all directions during a public transport strike on the pretext of adding to the general mayhem, or wandering through the corridors of catacombs out of bounds to tourists.' This is my parable" (and she reads from a piece of paper – a page torn out of Honorata’s catalogue):
"Two Black Cockerels lived in a village. They were both pugnacious, eager to have a fight; stupid rather than brave. Whenever their paths crossed, feathers flew. So it was to be on this occasion."
There they are, the two males – their feathers up, all eager to peck out each other’s eyeballs and tear out their crests. They stare each other down – you could swear they were growling but all it is is just crude crowing to hype themselves up. They tense up; a red mist comes over their eyes and they are coiled, ready to pounce for the fatal clench. And suddenly, à propos of nothing, both Cockerels calm down, and start pecking maize as if nothing had happened at all – even though there is no maize there to peck, but who could be bothered to check, and why bother anyway. As the saying is, they are trying to suck it up and make nice. They figured out that it’s not worth crawling through the mud dragging your ripped-out guts behind you only in order to ensure that your sworn enemy, minus its feathers, is lying somewhere in the corner of a shed. So there they are, meekly pecking at the invisible maize.
An old crow, watching the scene from a cosy vantage point on the roof, blinks and comments, “See, this is how the defence mechanism works. Making up for stupidity and blind fury. The last correction before the scum dies. Before the day is out, they will die by the hand of Man. They already know this – they could save their skins by escaping to the woods. But they are still like small chicks, whose hearts die for fear of leaving the mother hen”.
We all clap. We are satisfied with the answer, or rather the lack thereof. Yet, not everyone is satisfied. A. and J. interpret the answer as too journalistic. Things are what they are. Things are what they are and also something else. They appreciate the “dual ontology” of the tale, albeit for different reasons. A. – because of his dislike for maquettes and models; in fact, any objects that have been made to scale (for this very reason, he does not use maps or globes and detests dolls). J. – because she values “open form”.
Whilst on our way, we read a letter out loud. We don’t stop, there is no need. We pretend that it is the Pope himself who has written to us. From memory (on the way back we all put a lot of effort into learning it by heart down to a tee):
Can you sense what I am about to impart to you? It seems to me that on this occasion, verbosity is a mortal sin, so I shall be reticent. We are experiencing in the history of humanity a singular moment, in which – spellbound – we are succumbing to a catastrophe.
Call the community of my brothers and sisters just a sect, if you wish. I admit that sometimes we whirl round holding hands, laughing and kissing. We are a happy gathering. A community of Nothing. We have nothing and there is nothing we must do. We have swapped meadows and huts for an old factory. We like it here, with no-one to disturb or distract us.
We use telepathy. From one human brain to another. But also from a plant to a stone. From a raindrop to a chicken’s head. From a swill bucket to a swallow’s nest. We have built a telecommunications network employing meat grown in the lab. We have levitated; we have learnt to curve space and control time. We have created things by thought and destroyed them by neglect. We have gained comprehension of the problems with eternity and travelled to the event horizon. This is how far we have come. To Phase Zero.
We do not earn money, we do not study and we do not modify our genes. Nor do we seek out death needlessly. We certainly do not practise conventional art, since there would be no betrayal greater than to work with matter. We do not kill and we do not give names.
Here’s a short list of successful scientific experiments that we conducted in the 20th century:
1. Gastroliths rattling in the chest of a dinosaur (from one extreme to the other)
2. Everyday objects that change into black holes
3. Blocks of light in windowless tunnels
4. Exceptional situations where the boundary between up and down disappears
5. A flying tombstone that poses as an aircraft
6. Projection of underground colonies on new planets (a dance of mighty giants)
7. The model of a beach in a dark chamber.
I wish you success in your journey; I trust that it will lead you to wonderful discoveries and free you from the burden that rests on the shoulders of artists. I send you my love. Continue fearlessly with your dérive. Hell does not exist.
K. stays behind the group, pensive. Finally she disappears amongst the trees at the edge of the cemetery. She is deep in thought about "objective passion territory" that can be delineated with "intrinsic markers" as well as "relationships with social morphology".
We had been wary of the "conservatism of chance" – a situation in which in new surroundings there takes place a regeneration of "the habits and consequences of a specific number of variations". As a result, we have decided to recreate meticulously the scores prepared earlier. We have called this whole set of rules the Museum of Obligations. We have posed ourselves many questions, each one making us mildly euphoric. We have been incorrigible enthusiasts.
Can a museum last only 24 hours?
Can a museum be a set of obligations? Can it collect ideas rather than objects?
Can a museum be a cookery book? Can we learn a museum by heart?
Can a museum be people rather than architecture?
Can a museum sleepwalk?
Does a museum exist when we are not looking at it? Could we carry it around in our pockets?
Could we take it out for a walk?
Can a museum suffer from hallucinations? Can we share it – that is, me, you and everybody that we know?
Can a museum be cultivated as a garden?
Can you send a museum to someone telepathically?
Can a museum be simultaneously in many places?
Can a museum fall in love with no-one else but you?
A dérive can be monotonous, if one does not devote too much attention to it; it can become little more than aimless wandering. In order to saturate it with significance, it is worthwhile imbuing it with (often illusory) profundity by sharing a story, doing certain performative exercises together or making use of archaic forms and compromised content. On 12 June 2017, in the last hour of our dérive, we shared such an educational tale, which was intended to sensitise us to natural phenomena and non-human beings (we took turns to read it out loud, albeit two voices are sufficient to perform this text in public). Taking on the air of an expert, K. reminded us that "discoveries linked to ecology majorly enhance the psychogeographical theory." We performed the text together in a small garden next to a derelict 18th-century palace – an apt place for a micro-spectacle about the relationship between a psychoactive mushroom and a carnivorous plant.
"Good morning! What an elegant hat!"
"Hello! The entire world shimmers in your drops! But, am I much mistaken – or is our meeting not a mere coincidence?"
"Why? Whatever makes you think that?"
"You have spent the day following me around, twinkling."
The sundew blushes, her shimmer becoming even more intense.
"I probably know what you are thinking. It’s a long time since we last played 'visions of the world', isn’t it?"
"More than a year, the beautiful memory has now faded. It must be the smell of leaves being burnt and the humidity that so fuddled my brain. I was dreaming about the world where bee-keepers put hives into museums. I woke up early in the morning and decided to look for you. For a while, the mushroom and the plant look at each other."
"Feel free to bite me!" The mushroom says invitingly.
The sundew does not have to be told twice – she gently nibbles the mushroom who giggles.
"Teehee, you are tickling me! I am sweating soma from the profusion of stimuli!"
For a while they carry on the banter, running around the garden a little, stroking each other’s faces and licking their fingers.
"I think I’m hallucinating!"
The sundew suddenly stops dead in her tracks, staring at the palace.
"You must be. My blood is toxic."
"And if one were to use the world as its own map?"
"You can do that at any time."
"But how will we know that what we are doing is still art?"
"And if one were to learn all the texts by heart and recite them at the appropriate moments?"
"This sounds splendid. A manifestation of true genius. Without the correct names and terms there will be nothing left of us but dry shavings."
"But it’s you who has all the texts in your head. How shall we go about this?"
"You know yourself how."
"Would you really let me?"
"There is nothing else that I desire!"
The sundew embraces the magic mushroom and begins to devour her whole. The black mushroom juice begins to flow down the stem. Soon the entire plant is purple and swollen. Above its head a cloud appears, on which dragons and skeletons dance.
We have conducted the final leg of the dérive almost motionlessly, sinking a little into the wet grass and the earth. To round it off, we declaim, all together, the motto of the day, "People cannot perceive anything around them that is not their own reflection. Everything tells them about themselves, even their landscape is alive."
Translated from Polish by Anda MacBride.
Sebastian Cichocki is the chief curator at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw and curator of the long-term public art project Bródno Sculpture Park, also in Warsaw. Selected curated and co-curated exhibitions include the Polish pavilions at the 52nd and 54th editions of the Venice Biennale with, respectively, Monika Sosnowska (1:1, 2007) and Yael Bartana (...and Europe will Be Stunned, 2011); The Resistance of the Form (Powszechny Theatre, 2017); Rainbow in the Dark: On the Joy and Torment of Faith, (SALT, Istanbul, 2014); Making Use: Life in Postartistic Times (2016), Zofia Rydet: Record. 1978–1990 (2015), and New National Art: National Realism in Poland in the 21st Century (2012), all at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. Cichocki’s curatorial work is currently focused on the ‘postartistic’, Arte Útil, and land use-related practices, as well as literature as a form of exhibition-making.