The Beach Beneath the Street | McKenzie Wark

Summary of: The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International
By: McKenzie Wark


Dive into the captivating world of the Situationists, a group of writers and artists who thrived during the 1950s and ’60s. In this book summary, you’ll learn about their absurd lifestyle, their dogma of no dogma, and their steadfast commitment to never working. Discover how they combined elements of various art and philosophical movements and how their almost indescribable ideology has inspired generations of artists, filmmakers, musicians, and political agitators. Get a glimpse of the Situationists’ conception of art, which is deeply intertwined with play, social interactions, and subjective truths, as well as their novel methods such as détournement – the deft appropriation of someone else’s work to illuminate the society that created it.

The Situationists’ Absurd Revolution

The Situationists, a group of artists and writers from the 1950s and 60s, rejected any movement and sought to change the world through tactical mobility. Rejecting any classification, they combined various ideologies to make art, films, and stage “situations”. Despite their commitment to never work, they published manifestos and essays and inflamed social unrest. Their unique ideology, which inspired later artists and political agitators, was born out of a Warholian sense of the value of deadpan and nihilism, yet they were funny and deadly serious.

How Boredom Sparked a Movement

A tale of how the Letterists, a collective of artists and writers, and their successors, the Situationists, were born out of boredom and a rejection of conventional culture. These groups of bohemians in postwar France, centered around the Saint-Germain neighborhood in Paris, worked little and drank much. The Letterists were founded by Romanian poet Isidore Isou, who believed that creating was the most sublime activity and that art searches for subjective truth. Their discussions revolved around their hypocrisy and folly of conventional culture. The Situationists, their successors, were born from the Letterist International and followed a similar path of rejection of bourgeois life. The story also features dancer, artist, and femme fatale Vali Myers, who despite having no money, became a cultural icon of the time and even gave rock ‘n’ roll poet Patti Smith her first tattoo in the 1970s. In summary, this is a story of how simple boredom can trigger a movement, and how the rejection of conventional culture and norms can give way to artistic and cultural expression.

The Art of Leisure

Guy Debord believed that leisure was more than just consumption of entertainment and material goods; it could be a tool for artistic and political expression. He rejected the traditional notion of work as a means to leisure and instead sought a life of leisure as a means to freedom. As a key figure in the Situationist movement, he focused on how situations could be remembered and documented, and then recreated to cause social or artistic chaos. He surrounded himself with like-minded “alcoholic intellectuals of the nonworking classes,” who prioritized leisure and creative conversation over work. His famous public graffiti of “Never work!” was a rallying cry for Situationist thought and methods. Alexander Trocchi, another Situationist writer, echoed Debord’s ideas on the artistic life of nonaction with his advice to aspiring writers to “dedicate a year to pinball.” Overall, the shift from the Letterists to the Situationists was driven by Debord’s vision of using leisure as a tool for artistic expression and political subversion.

Repurposing Culture

The Letterists introduced détournement, an act of taking someone else’s work and repurposing it to illuminate the work’s aspects and society. Appropriation, or “hijacking” cultural artifacts, drove this creativity that still exists today, as seen in mash-up songs. The Letterists and Situationists saw the world as objects, habits, and situations that they could hijack and redefine. In 1956, Debord co-wrote “A User’s Guide to Détournement,” calling for controlling and repurposing conventional, bourgeois symbols. Détournement became a way to challenge mainstream culture while promoting subversive, creative expression.

Bee Buzz

In 2009, Australian scientists found that cocaine made bees more enthusiastic about finding nectar. While the scientists held the drug securely, situationists saw the experiment as an absurd search for meaningless truths. They believed in the subjective truth art reveals and that the art of détournement required a public sphere. Danish painter and social theorist Asger Jorn collaborated with Debord and believed that thinking up an artistic project was as good as making it. Both saw humanity as essentially free, expressed by fulfilled desire, and if you act on that desire, you are free.

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