Choosing Asger Jorn (1914-1973) and his contribution as the subject matter in my final paper for European Art was not random: Jorn was an illustrious Danish painter, and his contributions toward the Situationist International (SI) in particular, interested me the most.
During my first year at Denison, I studied Environmental Psychology with Dr. Heft and explored a bit about Cognitive Map— the concepts from American psychologist Edward Tolman and American urban planner Kevin Lynch. Later in Dr. Sandin’s Early Renaissance course, I further explored this kind of notion of cognitive map under the Marxist political theorist Fredric Jameson’s theory. Spurred on by the interests on urbanism and space, this semester I continued to study something relevant. Borrowed around 10 books from the Danish National Art Library and library of DIS about Asger Jorn and modern art, I learned about Psychogeography, Jorn’s collabrative work with Guy Debord (1993-1994) and the founding of SI.
The following includes some excerpts from my final paper aiming at a brief introduction to SI and Asger Jorn.
SI was an international social revolutionary group emerged as a synthesis of the movement for the Lettrist International which included Guy Debord, who later became the key founder of the Situationism and the Imaginist Bauhaus which itself descended from CoBrA- including Asger Jorn as a leading member.
The Situationist theory was an articulation and an expansion of several classical Marxist concepts on the advanced capitalism. Namely, the concepts of capitalist mode of production, the theory of capital alienation. They asserted that the misery of capital alienation and commodity fetishism had already been penetrated and spread-out to the everyday life. So the objective of the SI was to practice an artistic and theoretical criticism of modern consumer society, which included the rejection of appropriation and commercialization of art that smothered radical initiatives.
Even though few years later the focus had shifted to the political and revolutionary theory, one cannot deny that the SI had had predominately artist focuses in the very beginning. One of the main concepts of SI which was adopted from Lettrist International, was the theory of Psychogeography. Defined by Guy Debord himself in 1955, Psychogeography is “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals”. In the other words, psychogeography is a playful experiment to understand how individuals can be affected by the surrounding environment. It is an unique experience to explore the city, to enjoy life, without any boundaries between life and objects, art or space.
The notion of psychogeography contains two major parts: the theory of Dérive and the theory of Détournement.
Dérive, also known as “drifting”, is one of the main strategies of psychogeography, which defined by Debord as “a techinique of transient passage through varied ambiances”. To be distinguished from the classical notion of journey and stroll, Dérive puts an extra emphasis on the idea of playfulness, the rational of self-exploration and randomness, and the awareness of psycho-geographical effects. As discussed in Andy Merrifield’s book Guy Debord: Critical lives, Guy once recalled how one of his friends wandered through the Hanz region of Germany blindly following the direction of map of London. The notion of Dérive was intended as the spatial practice and central to the concern of urbanism and urban experiences.
Another technique, Détournement, was also brought over from Lettrist International. By its given definition, it is the “integration of past or present artistic production into a superior environmental construction” This term refers to the group’s intention of appropriating, by modifying the existing art through recaptioning or other means, adding new contexts, to alter the original meaning, while still continuing to index the original artworks. The fundamental laws of détournement are the negation and prelude. To be more specific, each of the détourned autonomous element and the complete original sense should be disregarded, and the new sense and new scope should be conferred.
Asger Jorn was a Danish contemporary artist, painter, sculptor, ceramic artist as well as author. Before collaborating with Guy Debord to establish the SI group, he was the founding member of the avant-garde movement CoBrA which was typified by neo-primitivism amalgamation of surrealism. He stayed in this group until the group dissolved in 1951.
Later he met with Guy Debord who was to be a very close friend in Paris in 1954. Since then, Jorn worked with Debord closely and they led to the merger of Imaginist Bauhaus, Lettrist International, and London Psychogeography Association to form the SI. During the few years Jorn was in the group, he and Debord collaborated on two artists books, one called “Fin de Copenhague (1957)”, and two years later, “mémoires (1959)”. Other than the two collaborated books, Jorn had several international solo exhibitions as well. However, he did not stay too long in the group, because of the gap between the two fractions. On the one hand, there were artistically experimental supporters represented by the Scandinavian wing, on the other hand, the so-called orthodox group represented by Guy Debord and others from French-Belgian wing with a strong political and theoretical bent rejected the notion that art objects possessed any critical potential at all.
Jorn and some other Scandinavian members insisted on the continued relevance of art while Debord believed that art objects would inevitably become commodified and recuperated by consumer society. The orthodox group therefore rejected the idea and Jorn decided to leave the group voluntarily.
Asger Jorn’s contribution towards the ideology of the SI group, specifically the techniques of dérive and détournement, can be illustrated in his artworks and publications. Especially his collaborated art works and publications with Guy Debord, as well as his solo exhibitions or series such as On the Silent Myth and Modification ( 1959, 1962).
Andersen, Troels. “Jorn and International Situationism,” in Asger Jorn: Modifications, ed. Ronny Van de Velde. Antwerp: Ronny Van de Velde, 1998.
Debord, Guy. “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography.” Situationist International Online. Accessed May 07, 2019. https://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/presitu/geography.html.
Harrison, Charles, and Paul Wood. Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2014.
Kurczynski, Karen. “Expression as Vandalism: Asger Jorn’s “Modifications”.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 53/54 (2008): 293-313. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25608823.
Merrifield, Andy. Guy Debord: Critical Lives. London: Reaktion Books, 2005.
Miller, Tyrus. “Utopian Interiors: The Art of Situationist Urbanism from Reification to Play.” In The Spell of Capital: Reification and Spectacle, edited by Gandesha Samir and Hartle Johan F., 67-90. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1pk3jqt.7.
Rasmussen, Mikkel Bolt. “Counterrevolution, the Spectacle, and the Situationist Avant-Garde.” Social Justice 33, no. 2 (104) (2006): 5-15. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29768366.
Sørensen, Jens Erik. Jorn International. Århus: ARoS, 2011.
Statens Museum for Kunst. Asger Jorn: Restless Rebel. Statens Museum for Kunst, 2014.