Art and Politics

Beneath the Pavement, the Beach! — Detroit from a Situationist Perspective, Part III

This post continues the analysis begun in Part I of this series, relating art in Detroit to concepts of the Situationist International. Part I provides an introduction and discussion of the concept of psychogeography. Part II discusses the concepts of derive and detournment. The final part, part III, looks at the gift and potlatch.

A fourth Situationist concept that can be discerned in the art of the commons in Detroit is that of the gift. Working off the research on gift economies of early social scientists such as Franz Boas and Marcel Mauss, and as subsequently interpreted by the renegade Surrealist Georges Bataille, the Situationists envisioned “a new type of human relationship.” This would entail neither the cold calculations of bourgeois exchange nor the asymmetrical obligations of aristocratic bequest, but would instead be based on the egalitarian reciprocity of gifts freely given and received. (See chapter 8, “Exchange and Gift,” in The Revolution of Everyday Life by Raoul Vaneigem for an outline of the Situationist conception of the gift.)

The gift is central to the practice of art in the face of the money economy argues Lewis Hyde in his now famous book of the same name. The gift economy informs many aspects of relational aesthetics, for example in the work of Rikrit Taravanija, who creates installations that are the setting for sharing meals and other types of social interaction. Detroit Soup similarly features monthly sharing of meals as a collaborative situation for building an aesthetic community. Dinners are prepared by volunteers who share their current projects and thoughts with attendees who contribute $5 toward the evening. Others then present ideas which are voted upon. The selected proposals are given the entire proceeds to fund execution. Additional events along the model of Detroit Soup are now proliferating around the city.

Below: Vanessa Miller and Amy Kaherl discussing Detroit Soup at University of Michigan.

The final concept proceeds directly from the gift and that is the notion of potlatch. A gift-giving festival and economic system practiced among indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest prior to the arrival of European colonizers, potlatch was taken initially by the Letterists, who named one of their official journals after it, and subsequently by the Situationists as a way out of what they perceived to be the increasingly reified relationships of capitalist commodity culture. The concept of potlatch figures prominently in Bataille’s book The Accursed Share, first published in France in 1949, where it constitutes a rejection of classical Western economic theories based on notions of rational choice. For Bataille, the excess accumulation of any system is destined to be released in luxurious waste, of which the arts were a form however admittedly noble. And for the Situationists, “release” meant first and foremost escape from the tick, tick, ticking of time ruled by the punchclock of capitalist production, which is divided between labor and leisure (the inverse and obverse of alienation within the commodity-spectacle system), starting with the dissolution of art as a separate activity into the practice of everyday life. (See, for example, “Theses on Cultural Revolution” by Debord published in Internationale Situationiste #1, June, 1958.)

In contemporary art, a degraded variety of potlatch takes the form of what Peter Schjeldahl terms “festivalism,” art that exists only in exhibitions and thus ostensibly resists commoditization. (Happily, however, “documentation” is there to step up to the plate and pay the bills.) Another well-known festival of luxurious waste is Burning Man, a week-long event that began in the mid-1980s in San Francisco and now takes place each year in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, culminating in the immolation of a large wooden effigy built for that purpose. In Detroit, a more Goth (and in my opinion more interesting) festival is Theatre Bizarre, a delirious extravaganza that takes place on a Saturday near Halloween in a decaying residential neighborhood near the old Michigan State Fairgrounds in the northern part of the city.

Begun by artists John Dunivant and Ken Poirier a decade ago, Theatre Bizarre is part carney side show, part burlesque theater, and part performance art. Dozens of volunteers come from all over the country in the weeks before to construct the midway, stages, and other attractions. The evening’s revelry features several hundred performers and other workers with attendance of approximately 2500-3000. In 2010, the City of Detroit shut down the project citing numerous code violations. In a New York Times article on the event, Dunivant stated, “We couldn’t have gotten away with this anywhere else in the world but Detroit.”

Below: Theatre Bizarre highlights.

How long an environment amenable to an art of the commons will last remains to be seen. Forces of what the Situationists termed “recuperation” are already at work. I, for one, hope that it turns out to be more than the passage of a few people through a rather brief moment in time.