Detournement For Fun And [Political] Profit


Detournement For Fun And [Political] Profit

Sunil Gupta, ed.
Disrupted Borders: An Intervention In Definitions Of Boundaries.
(London: Rivers Oram Press, 1993).

A melange of voices brought to a unified signifying field for the New World Order, “[t]his Utopia, or new internationalism” (Gupta, “Introduction”). An attempt to unify disparate “issues not only into context with each other but also to confront the failure of modernism to take into account the wide variety of constituencies for the production and consumption of art on a world wide scale.” (ibid.) An artistic manifesto for groups marginalised by society. Therefore, a collage of the voices for the oppressed in various media disrupting borders, a journey across boundaries in order to claim a common humanity — a humanist document in a time of antihumanist theory, a humanist document in a time of antihumanist practice (the whole of history). Myriad voices in the wasteland crying for assention in the face of a prevailing wind of dissention. Is it a profound challenge showing the arbitrary nature of the predominant weltanschauung, or is it a pastiche of contrary voices raised in cacophony? The practice pioneered by Marcel Duchamp with his ready-mades, his objets trouves, that practice later utilised by the situationists and termed by them detournement [viz. the practice of appropriating common objects or images from their usual cultural contexts and resituating them in an incongruous and disorienting fashion so as to confront/challenge society’s norms (biases)] is a dominant motif throughout Disrupted Borders. This technique, also known as pastiche or sampling, is an attempt to create a new unity (in art, a new work) out of the fragments of other works. This practice is a landmark along the trajectory that ends in postmodernism and the end of history.

This motif is made explicit by Sunil Gupta in his introduction to this catalogue for his first curatorial project with the Institute of New International Visual Arts (INIVA) in the UK: “The idea behind this project lies in the interaction between the kind of specialized projects I had been involved with in the last few years and the need to tie those ideas together.” (Gupta, “Introduction”) Diane Neumaier takes up the use of detournement by post-Soviet photographers in her contribution to Gupta’s pastiche, “Re- representing Russia”. She sums up these photographers’ project thusly: The vast majority of Russian artists who consciously or unconsciously appropriate or recycle images certainly do not maintain a self-conscious post- modern identity. Russian re-representations (that is, pictures of pictures [often garishly recoloured in way very reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s pop portraits]) often look more up-to- date in a Western sense than any other Russian art photography style; but rather than positing critique of representation, these images function conceptually, or as documentary reports on the social life of pictures in Russia. Soviet artists’ experiences of being driven by principles and manifestos was displaced politically by a less theoretically oriented art. (Neumaier, 30)

An element of disorientation (an effect of detournement) is apparent in Neumaier’s discourse. If the purpose of this project “is to rewrite, not to remember, the past” (ibid., 33), then surely one can hold that as a theoretical orientation. Neumaier even reluctantly grants this: “While socialist principles are attached to a totalitarian political history they are also attached to a Utopian imagination and to activist manifestos. Capitalism cannot substitute in a post-Soviet culture for revolutionary ideals.” (ibid., 41)

Another very similar project is presented in Jorma Puranen’s photo-essay, “Imaginary homecoming”: “The idea was to metaphorically return people [the nomadic Sami of Upper Lapland] who had been buried in archives back to the landscape and culture from which they had been separated.” (Puranen, 96) History recycled, rewritten, detourned by Nikon!

Two very different results are given for the fragmentation that is inevitably a part of pastiche, although this time the pastiche is that of fragmented lives. The first is a more positive albeit ambivalent view, an artistic mimesis cum detournement given by Stephen Dodd in his contribution, “The railway as rupture: the writings of Shimazaki Toson”. Dodd explains that Shimazaki Toson, born “a member of that literate, land-owning rural upper class which formed, in the Edo period [Japan], a kind of country gentry” (Dodd, 48), became a novelist of the late Meiji period who evoked a nostalgic and idealized, simpler and more tranquil country life which was being disrupted, destroyed, by the introduction of Western-style capitalism. This effected the dissolution of “a long standing and mutually beneficial dependency between people” (ibid., 48) and replaced it with “the impersonal and transferable feature of money exchange.” (ibid., 48) Toson had moved to the city and made a life as a writer; therefore, he was ambivalent, torn, fragmented, in his view toward the new capitalist order. As Dodd points out: “The railway really does speak of his tragedy, his break from settled patterns, his disrupted memories. But it also offers a breaking free, a chance to put those fractured pieces [detourne those fractured pieces] together in a manner more to his liking, even if such an undertaking inevitably brings with it great loneliness.” (ibid., 54)Marian Pastor Roces shows that there is a danger inherent in trying to form a new person from the fragments — the danger that society presents. “Desert song: a hanging (a beheading?)” tells of “[t]he paradoxical figure from a South-east Asian island [the Philippines] who believes himself heir and vessel of a Middle Eastern religion, through the auspices of European conquest, and thenceforth returning the religion to the desert, provides the story with a pall of utter futility.” (Roces, 86-87) The destiny of this poor fragmented preacher is given in the essay’s subtitle. But, ambiguity again! Those Filipinos who return home from Arabia Felix contribute further to an already fragmented and heterogeneous “Philippine landscape of signs. […] Not only disrupted, but permeable borders.” (ibid., 95) The real risk that such projects as detournement brings: society can and often does re-appropriate the detourned objects/images and reassimilate them back into the spectacle from whence they originally came. This was well recognized by those seminal practitioners of detournement, the situationists. Lisa Reilhana addresses this issue in her piece, “Skinflicks: Practices in Contemporary Maori Media” wherein she describes how various Maori filmmakers (herself included) detourne Western film practices: “What is interesting, and often painful, is the balancing act required in reinterpreting our cultural heritage through contemporary Western traditions. Here lies the risk inherent in experimental filmmaking: not only does it stretch and reframe our way of thinking; it runs the risk of diluting our culture, our Maoritanga.” (Reilhana, 84) Instead of disrupting the borders of the society of the spectacle, it becomes part of the spectacle.

“Wild mothers: Khepis and Matajis”, the feminist project by Sheba Chhachhi refers to this re- appropriation. Her project uses traditional female power images “[c]alled Khepis (ecstatic/crazy ones), Matajis (spiritual mothers rather than biological ones), Yoginis (who seek union with the divine), these are dangerous women. Women who, while functioning within a traditional culture, question and subvert the assumptions underlying the domestication of women.” (Chhachhi, 150 & 152) Although these sorts of images would appear to be ideal subjects/objects for detournement in a liberationist art project, there is risk. “Religious images today, including those of female power and divinity, are increasingly appropriated and abused by fundamentalist ideologies in their desire to further control the lives, bodies, minds and imaginations of both women and men.” (ibid., 152)

The didactic purpose of detournement is to demonstrate that all social constructs are arbitrary, as Millie Wilson in her photo- essay, “Disturbances: from the Museum of Lesbian Dreams”, explains: “I was particularly interested in summoning up stereotypes in order to reposition them humorously, to invest them with power for lesbians, and to demonstrate what fictions those constructions are.” (Wilson, 159)

Social constructions as fiction is to enter into the simulacrum of neo-situationniste thinker Jean Baudrillard’s thought. Detournement can be used to combat this tendency toward simulation: Claire Harris in “Desperately seeking the Dalai Lama” describes the development of art in the two Tibet’s, the one the capital-in-exile (Dharamasala, India) where photo-realist pictures of modern monks (e.g. one monk astride a motorcycle) are juxtaposed with traditional Tibetan iconography, the other occupied by the armies of the People’s Republic of China where artists utilize “influences […] ranging from Analytic Cubism and Surrealism to Abstraction reminiscent of the American Colorfield painters”. (Harris, 113) Harris sees this as an artistic resistance to a moribund tendency to turn Tibetan culture into a simulation, Dharamasala already being a tourist attraction, a “Tibetan Disneyland”. (ibid., 107)Another feature further along the trajectory that includes detournement and simulation is the Baudrillardian declaration of the end of history, where there is nothing new, only the past cleverly re-presented. Helen Grace (“Pavilions of the ego: the critic as art object”) discusses:

a return to the supposed certainty of aesthetic values, an insistence on the primacy of the visual as a pre- verbal order of knowledge, coinciding in the first place with the return of the market as prime arbiter of value and then with its collapse. The decline of the art market and the loss of value which accompanies this involves a search for more permanent values — rather like a ‘gold standard’ — with self-styled arbiters of taste (and old-guard positivists) returning to declare the end of modern art again. (Grace, 200)

And these “arbiters” are, undoubtedly, declaring themselves a part of a new vanguard! Although there are contrary voices to this detournement motif within Disrupted Borders — even some of the voices I have cited use contrary tones — that does not devalue Sunil Gupta’s project as an important artifact on the situationist-postmodern trajectory. After all, what sort of pastiche results from a collection of the same voice? As Kaucyila Brooke states in her photo-essay, “Are you politically correct?”: “I’ve always been uncomfortable with speeches when the audience claps for the ideas it believes in.” (Brooke, 210) In the end, where the original situationists went wrong was their insistence that all members of the International situationniste toe the correct “party-line”. “Correct? Now that’s an odd idea in a corrupt world.” (Brooke, 202)

W. Ted Rogers is the Serials Librarian of Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia. He discovered the politics of postmodernism when he read two books: Ecstasy Of Communication, by Jean Baudrillard and The Postmodern Scene, by Arthur Kroker and David Cook and moved on to discover one of its sources in the International Situationiste.