Longread — 7 Feb 2019 — Ellef Prestsæter
More than a decade had passed since the magazine’s first issue came out, to document and affirm, in the most aggressively unyielding manner, a split within the S.I. Moreover, almost six years had passed since its most recent iteration, an “International Parisian Edition,” which consisted of original lithographs by thirty-three artists who were living in Paris at the time, and thus produced a snapshot of the Parisian art scene. None of this is mentioned in the 1973 letter’s account of the magazine’s history. The editors instead focus on what arguably forms the core of the magazine’s contribution to culture: its third, fourth, and fifth issues, devoted to interlaced patterns, labyrinths, and rings, respectively. In these issues De Jong collated hundreds of pictures informed by topology, the mathematical study of shapes, and spatial properties that are preserved under continuous deformations. The projected “Pinball issue” would have marked a return to the topological explorations of these three issues and their way of researching and assembling an exhaustive inventory on a particular subject. As De Jong and Brinkman put it in the letter quoted above: “Actually anything on the subject is of great use to us.”1
In the history of print culture there is nothing quite like the three middle issues of The Situationist Times. The precise way in which this “semi non-commercial art (avant-garde)” magazine stood out was recognized in the March 1964 edition of the bulletin of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London. Under the heading “Something different,” the magazine was recommended for the way in which it differed from other art magazines, “which tend to look extremely alike”:
The Situationist Times, published by a young girl, Jacqueline de Jong in Paris, appears three times a year and each issue deals with a different specific subject. It is a periodical to experience rather than just read. The last issue, on the theme of labyrinths, includes articles on topology, tarot cards, new music, labyrinthian clarity, prehistoric labyrinths, analytical labyrinths and just labyrinths, in almost every language under the sun including an impossible, though thoroughly enjoyable, English.
Indeed, The Situationist Times did differ. Its editor even begged to differ from the laudatory description of her magazine. In a letter to Jasia Reichardt, who was assistant director of the ICA and would later curate landmark exhibitions such as the 1968 Cybernetic Serendipity, De Jong responded with characteristic humor. Noting that she was “not at all that young anymore” and that “painting makes people grow old very fast,” De Jong insisted that the entire description in “the bulletin is quite wrong, only that our English is hilarious is absolutely right, but we come out when we feel like it and can, practically, and not 3 times a year.”2
The letter is characterized by the offhand, pragmatic orientation necessary for any successful editor of a magazine of this kind, the keen sense for what, at any moment, can be done. For instance, De Jong asks Reichardt if she knows of any printer in the United Kingdom that might accept paintings rather than cash in exchange for their services. The Situationist Times was made from art and by an artist, but it would be misleading to see it as an art magazine in any narrow sense. In its multilingual and transdisciplinary exuberance, as cross-cultural as it was countercultural, The Situationist Times became one of the most exciting and playful magazines of the 1960s. Throughout its six remarkably diverse issues published in the years 1962–1967, the magazine challenged not only the notion of what it means to be a Situationist, but also traditional understandings of culture in the broader sense and of how culture is created, formatted, and shared.
These riches are now made accessible through an online interface that allows you to explore all the issues of The Situationist Times, accompanied by Jacqueline de Jong, who tells the history of the magazine’s creation in a series of video clips. It is a fun exercise to imagine the ideal reader of The Situationist Times, which indeed was something to “experience rather than just read.” He or she would not only have to read German, French, Italian, and English, in addition to a touch of the Scandinavian tongues, but also be able to perform music from notation, execute complex algorithms, and put political programs into practice. The sixth issue even calls for an “analphabet” reader. Not even Jacqueline de Jong herself would fit the bill, and this, of course, was partly the point. The Situationist Times consistently overwhelms any attempt to take in and master the whole. Acknowledging this, the online interface invites you to navigate the magazine’s riches in three ways: you can scroll sideways through the pages of each issue, follow the video recording’s flow, or read the transcription of the conversations with Jacqueline. The three levels are interlinked, so that whenever you jump to a new place (by moving the time cursor in the video player, scrolling the pages, or clicking on a paragraph in the transcription), the other two will sync automatically.
“To publish a magazine is to enter into a heightened relationship with the present moment,” asserts Gwen Allen in her study Artists’ Magazines, adding, “Unlike books, which are intended to last for future generations, magazines are decidedly impermanent.”3 In this respect, too, The Situationist Times differed. It is not just that it had an irregular publishing frequency, but that it aspired to the condition of the book “intended to last for future generations,” or perhaps more accurately, to that of an archive holding materials for future use. I am not saying that the magazine was not of its time, and that it was not a site of contestation, intervention, and expression in its immediate present. A quick glance at the material will confirm that it was. But there is also a strong sense in which the magazine addresses us today as its contemporaries.
This, at any rate, is the working hypothesis of the exhibition, publication, and digitization project These are Situationist Times (2018–2019). The project’s name seeks to designate a double gesture of making the historical material available and present (through exhibitions and an online interface) while proposing that, in certain ways, the time of The Situationist Times is our own. This idea is discussed and tested by a wide range of scholars, artists, and activists in a forthcoming publication.4
Points of interest will include, for instance, how The Situationist Times pioneered what today is called “artistic research” and that its unembarrassed embrace of a non-native, impossible, and hilarious English is potentially liberating at a time when the phenomenon known as International Art English is codified, disseminated, and contested globally.5 Most crucial, however, is the sense in which The Situationist Times was put forward as a contribution to a culture of sharing, conceived as a transformative archive of the commons: “All reproduction, deformation, modification, derivation, and transformation of The Situationist Times is permitted.”6
Some historical pointers and facts might be useful here for the contemporary reader. De Jong joined the Situationist International (S.I.), a revolutionary avant-garde movement founded in 1957 that included leading figures such as the French writer and filmmaker Guy Debord and the Danish artist Asger Jorn, who would later become her partner, in her early twenties. In a meeting of the central committee of the S.I. in Brussels in 1961, De Jong proposed the publication of a magazine in English called The Situationist Times, to accompany Internationale Situationniste and Spur, the journal published by the group’s German faction. By the time the first issue appeared in 1962, however, De Jong had been excluded from the S.I. and had also transformed the magazine project beyond all recognition. The first two iterations of The Situationist Times were co-edited with the French pataphysician Noël Arnaud.
Both issues deal extensively with the trial against the Munich collective SPUR, whose magazine had become subject to obscenity charges in Germany at a time when the group’s members were being excluded from the S.I. In the ensuing conflict, De Jong was excluded as well. Her scathing showdown with Guy Debord and the S.I. spirals and deviates across eleven handwritten pages of the first issue. “I’m proud that you call us gangsters, nevertheless you are wrong. We are worse; we are Situationists.” When the magazine arrived from the printer, Arnaud was euphoric, and baptized De Jong the “Goddess of the Situation.”7 Debord, for his part, would refer to the magazine as the De Jong Times.
The Situationist Times had a completely different tone and color from the sober layout of the Internationale Situationniste. Essentially, De Jong treated the magazine as an expansive collage of sorts, adopting a cut-and-paste procedure that went hand in hand with the offset printing process and its preparatory “paste-ups.” The first issues of the magazine included cut-outs from Spur as well as Internationale Situationniste, printed on a range of different paper qualities. The collated space of The Situationist Times was a site of contestation, but also presented a coming together of different systems of expression, from drawing exercises à la exquisite corpse to manifestoes, and included mathematical as well as musical notation (for the second issue, De Jong even proposed inserting a disc with an audio recording of Boris Vian’s song “Le Prisonnier”8).
As an alternative site for creative practice and the processing of widely different materials, The Situationist Times both prefigured and exceeded the artists’ magazines that would proliferate in the ensuing decades9 How, then, are we to read The Situationist Times? To suggest that the reader of the magazine needs instruction would, however, be to underestimate the reader and misconstrue the magazine’s peculiar mode of address. Jacqueline de Jong has always been quite clear on this herself, stating that “it is up to the reader if he wants so, to make his conclusions.”10 This refusal of explanation defines the editorial program of The Situationist Times and has incurred friction in the project of digitization presented here. Consider the following outburst, transcribed from the video conversation on the third issue:
The whole idea of The Situationist Times is not to explain. And what you want me to do is to explain, which is in contradiction with the whole magazine… I can go on, image for image, telling what they are, but people have to look themselves. The whole concept is so against the idea of The Situationist Times, because explanation is not what I ever wanted with it. It is just showing the things and then people themselves make their combinations.11
The magazine’s mode of address is as generous as it is challenging. In classic situationist terms we could think of the reader’s engagement with The Situationist Times as a dérive, not through the “varied ambiances” of a city,12 but through the landscape formed by “a heap of images” and other materials.13 Like a pinball machine, the magazine provides a training ground for the topological sensibility. It invites you to play and to indulge in the sheer joy of making connections, all the while unraveling historical chronologies, cultural hierarchies, and behavioral patterns. However, such an experiment is not without its dangers.
The theorist Anton Ehrenzweig, a prominent contributor to the third issue and the author of books such as The Hidden Order of Art (1967), noted to De Jong “the manner in which the reader [of The Situationist Times 3] becomes knotted up, entangled in the superabundance of matter.”14 You are allowed to play in this labyrinth, but you may also get lost, chained, tied up, entangled. The anti-copyright statement should thus be read not only as an admission and injunction but also as a warning to the reader. In this situation everything is permitted, but you may find yourself transformed, modified, or even deformed in the encounter.
About the author
Ellef Prestsæter (Norway, 1982) is an art historian and a member of the art and research group Scandinavian Institute for Computational Vandalism. His recent curatorial projects include The Gutenberg Galaxy at Blaker and These are Situationist Times. He is currently working on a PhD in art history at the University of Oslo about Asger Jorn and the Scandinavian Institute for Comparative Vandalism.
1. The documents assembled for the “Pinball issue” include original photographs by Hans Brinkman, correspondence with prospective collaborators, an inventory of pinball machines in Amsterdam, publications, clippings from magazines and newspapers, and essays by Brinkman and the psychologist Joost Mathijsen. The material was first shown to the public as part of the exhibition Jacqueline de Jong & The Situationist Times: Same Player Shoots Again, Torpedo, Oslo, Norway, May 11–September 2, 2018.
2. Jacqueline de Jong to Jasia Reichardt, no date. Jacqueline de Jong Papers, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.
3. Gwen Allen, Artists' Magazines: An Alternative Space for Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), 1.
4. These are Situationist Times is developed by the Norwegian publishing venture Torpedo Press and myself in collaboration with Jacqueline de Jong. The traveling exhibition Jacqueline de Jong & The Situationist Times: Same Player Shoots Again was shown at Torpedo in Oslo, Norway and Malmö Konsthall, Sweden in 2018 and will be shown at Museum Jorn in Silkeborg, Denmark in 2019. The online interface is developed by the Institute for Computational Vandalism and launched in conjunction with Pinball Wizard: The Work and Life of Jacqueline de Jong at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. The book These are Situationist Times is forthcoming from Torpedo Press in 2019.
5. Alix Rule and David Levine, “International Art English,” Triple Canopy (2013), https://www.canopycanopycanopy.com/contents/international_art_english.
6. The statement was conspicuously displayed in issues 3–5 of The Situationist Times.
7. Noël Arnaud to Jacqueline de Jong, May 8, 1962. Jacqueline de Jong Papers, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.
8. See the letter from Arnaud to De Jong, August 14, 1962. Jacqueline de Jong Papers, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. The idea proved difficult to realize for financial reasons, but the lyrics and original score by the recently deceased Boris Vian were printed in the magazine.
9. See Gwen Allen’s Artists’ Magazines, which primarily focuses on magazines associated with conceptual art. In his contribution to These are Situationist Times, McKenzie Wark underlines the crucial way in which the mode of assembly in The Situationist Times differed from that of conceptual art.
10. See the editor’s note on the very last page of The Situationist Times 5.
11. The statement occurs at 00:28:15 in the video devoted to The Situationist Times 3.
12. Guy Debord, “Theory of the Dérive” (1958), trans. Ken Knabb, http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/2.derive.htm.
13. The quotation is taken from a letter from Jacqueline de Jong to Evelyn Burkhardt, January 23, 1967. Jacqueline de Jong Papers, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.
14. Anton Ehrenzweig to Jacqueline de Jong, September 3, 1963. Jacqueline de Jong Papers, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.