white mirror didactic© Sam Durant, White Mirrors, from the project Scenes from the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres and Monuments, 2006. Inkjet print, 42 x 36 inches.

9_pilgrim39© Sam Durant, Natural History Part II, from the project Scenes from the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres and Monuments, 2007. Mixed media; Dimensions vary; Photo credit: Scott Massey.


May 1968 and France on the verge of anarchy… An atmosphere of martial law in Paris and hundreds of factories occupied… one hundred and forty American cities in flames after the killing of Martin Luther King… German and English universities occupied… Hippie ghettos directly clashing with the police state… The sudden exhilarating sense of how many people felt the same way… The new world corning into focus… The riots a great dance in the streets…

Today – nothing. The Utopian image has faded from the streets. Just the endless traffic, the blank eyes that pass you by, the nightmarish junk we’re all dying for. Everyone seems to have retreated into themselves, into closed occult groups. The revolutionary excitement that fired the sixties is dead, the ‘counter-culture’ a bad joke. No more aggression, no more laughter, no more dreams. “To talk of life today is like talking of rope in the house of a hanged man.”

Yet there were thousands and thousands of people there. What has happened to us all?

The Paris May Days were the end for the SI. On the one hand, the police state pressure on the French left after May made any overt action virtually suicidal. […]

The presence of the SI never made itself properly felt in either England or America. The English and what could well have become the American sections of the SI were excluded just before Christmas 1967. Both groups felt that the perfection and publicising of a theoretical critique was not sufficient: they wanted political subversion and individual ‘therapy’ to converge in an uninterrupted everyday activity. […]

Henceforward the dissemination of situationist ideas in both countries was dissociated from the real organisation that alone could have dynamised them. 0n the one hand this led to obscure post-grad groups sitting over their pile of gestetnered situationist pamphlets, happy as Larry in their totally prefabricated identity. On the other, the more sincere simply went straight up the wall: The Angry Brigade, very heavily influenced by situationist ideas (translate Les Enrages into English … ), destroying themselves at the same time as they took the critique of the spectacle to its most blood-curdlingly spectacular extreme. […]

9_pilgrim18© Sam Durant, Male Colonist (cornstalk), from the project Scenes from the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres and Monuments, 2006. C-print, 60 x 48 inches.

9_pilgrim16© Sam Durant, Female Indian, Male Colonist, from the project Scenes from the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres and Monuments, 2006. C-print, 48 x 60 inches.

What then remains of the SI? What is still relevant? Above all, I think, its iconoclasm, its destructiveness. What the SI did was to redefine the nature of exploitation and poverty. Ten years ago people were still demonstrating against the state of affairs in Vietnam – while remaining completely oblivious of the terrible state they were in themselves. The SI showed exactly how loneliness and anxiety and aimlessness have replaced the nineteenth century struggle for material survival, though they are still generated by the same class society. They focused on immediate experience – everyday life as the area people most desperately wanted to transform.

Rediscovering poverty cannot be separated from rediscovering what wealth really means. The SI rediscovered the vast importance of visionary politics, of the Utopian tradition – and included art, in all its positive aspects, in this tradition. […]

What was basically wrong with the SI was that it focused exclusively on an intellectual critique of society. There was no concern whatsoever with either the emotions or the body. The SI thought that you just had to show how the nightmare worked and everyone would wake up. Their quest was for the perfect formula, the magic charm that would disperse the evil spell. This pursuit of the perfect intellectual formula meant inevitably that situationist groups were based on a hierarchy of intellectual ability – and thus on disciples and followers, on fears and exhibitionism, the whole political horror trip. After their initial period, creativity, apart from its intellectual forms, was denied expression and in this lies the basic instability and sterility of their own organisations. […]

Look, after so many, many pages, let’s try and be honest, just for a moment. I feel very fucked up myself, and I know it’s my responsibility. Yet whenever I go out on the streets my being somehow reels back appalled: these terrible faces, these machines, they are me too, I know; yet somehow that’s not my fault. Everyone’s life is a switch between changing oneself and changing the world. Surely they must somehow be the same thing and a dynamic balance is possible. I think the SI had this for a while, and later they lost it. I want to find it again – that quickening in oneself and in others, that sudden happiness and beauty. It could connect, could come together. Psychoanalysis and Trotskyists are both silly old men to the child. Real life is elsewhere.

9_pilgrim34© Sam Durant, Still Life (speaker, bowls, bread), from the project Scenes from the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres and Monuments, 2006. C-print, 40 x 50 inches.

9_pilgrim32© Sam Durant, Still Life (head, jug, electric parts), from the project Scenes from the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres and Monuments, 2006. C-print, 40 x 50 inches.

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