Détournement

As beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella! – Comte de Lautreamont

Détournement is the artistic practice of sampling and remixing messages from the mass media and subverting or “détourning” their predetermined meanings so that new, antithetical messages can emerge and divert the package of commercial propaganda that was originally intended for the targeted audience. Employing the practice of détournement first came into usage in the late 1950′s by the revolutionary artist group known as the Situationist International. The Situationist International was a collective of artists and intellectuals interested in dissolving the persistent alienation of living in a commodified capitalist society and instead imbuing it with creative intuition and passionate forms of personal expression that undermine mainstream political culture. One of the leaders of the group, Guy Debord, aptly summed up their intentions by stating: “Free the passions, never work, live without dead time!”

In remixthebook, author Mark Amerika reinvigorates situationist dogma and puts a more contemporary spin on things by asking us if distributed networks of remix practitioners and theorists, online hackivists, Net artists, and other assorted pataphysicians of the digital culture are beginning to model new methods of passionate creativity that refuse to be seduced by the slave labor “opportunities” of turbo-charged technocapitalism? Or do we all eventually succumb to the power of network induced hypnosis and complacency, losing ourselves in the morass of creative class struggle that’s just dying to fill us up with more dead time?

The Situationist International used the practice-based methodologies associated with détournement to express their radical political theories in hopes that they would be able to successfully challenge the prevailing capitalist lifestyles in France in the 1960s. Guy Debord, along with another important Situationist leader Gil Wolman, published the text A User’s Guide to Détournement in the Belgian surrealist journal Les Lèvres Nues (1956) where they outlined their tactical media strategies. Today we no longer need these site-specific user guides since we can easily access the working methods of (h)activist artists like The Yes Men and Ubermorgan, pseudonymous artist networks who creatively remix the Situationist’s methods of détournement for their own uses, employing digital hacks that successfully intervene in corporate media networks.

One very prominent mode of contemporary hacking that builds on the methods of détournement employed by the Situationists is the practice of culture jamming. Culture jamming was a term first used by radio pirates and media archivists such as Negativland in the 1980s. The original use of the term was employed as an extension of radio jamming, or taking over the radio frequencies used by the mass media to express one’s own ideas while derailing the propagation of corporate-influenced modes of information permeating the airwaves. Today, one of the most common instances of culture jamming can be seen in subvertising. Subvertising is a specific form of détournement where the original meaning initially intended by an advertisement is replaced by one the artist finds more truthful or “correct.” The power of this creative hack comes when the subvertisment is circulated back into the public sphere and the audience who receives it initially thinks it is a “real” advertisement. This then creates a hacked impression of original intent and discloses how media narratives are themselves remixed versions of a shared reality that are being manipulated by others who may have political, economic, or social agendas that benefit corporate entities more than people. One of the innovators of subvertisements is the network of artists affiliated with the magazine Adbusters. In this regard, it should be noted that a July 13, 2011 blog post on Adbusters is where the first Occupy Wall Street event was announced and subsequently launched the worldwide hactivist action we now know as #ows.

A contemporary pop-art example of post-Situationist détournement is Society of the Spectacle (A Digital Remix) composed by the digital art collective DJRABBI.  DJRABBI consists of artists Mark Amerika, Rick Silva and Trace Reddell. SOS is is a ten-minute digital video art-loop that uses source material from the writing, images, recordings, and other psychogeographical wanderings of Guy Debord. On the DJRABBI website, the artists state their intention is to

[...] filter the Situationist icons, concepts and strategies through an eclectic mix of contemporary software and “net art ideology”, a space of mind where the society of the spectacle becomes hostage to “the virtual condition.” But locating a post-Leftist pleasure politics of new media hactivism and social engagement does not require an overturning of terror; rather, it demands an improvisational detour into the spiritual unconscious. Here, an emerging model of the network-distributed art collective decomposes the raw elements of a runaway information economy in order to resituate the role of the artist as intellectual sabateur. Using hyperimprovisational methods and techniques to invent a provocative style of digital poetics, the artists encounter the immediate presence of terror and fear in both political and media culture. Offering neither a spectacular critique of the spectacle nor an apology for their own tendencies toward spectacularly accidental juxtapositions, the artists behind the SOS remix host a polysensory potlatch of conceptual and material resistance against the official, separatist amnesia of historical practice.

The SOS digital remix has appeared in over 40 international exhibitions and/or screening venues.

An Exercise in Digital Détournement:

Take a famous political document, advertisement, speech, or public relations statement from a prominent corporate Web site and remix the language so that it tells your version of the story. This remixed version can be approached as an experiment in counter-propaganda, poetry, Dadaesque nonsense, or metafictional play. What would the Gettysburg address read like if written in the voice of Sarah Palin? What would a cigarette company PR statement read like if written by William Burroughs? After having created your digital détournement, where will you exhibit and/or release it? Who is your target audience? How will you measure the degree to which your work is having its intended effect?

Every work of digital détournement has the potential to crack open the preprogrammed uses of language as propaganda and to boldly disclose the extra-real potential of words to combat predetermined forms of meaning.

For another example, read this remix of “The Bill of Rights” filtered through a comical yet incisive ultra-conservative filter.

Questions for discussion:

1. What are the similarities and differences between Situationist methods of détournement and more the calculated acts of culture jamming performed by contemporary tactical media artists?

2. Is it necessary for remix artists to “wear their politics on their sleeve”? What would be the advantage to politicizing ones remix practice? Would it be better to remain indifferent, apolitical, or to at the very least compartmentalize ones politics separately from ones artistic remix agenda?

3. In remixthebook, Amerika takes jabs at Debord yet also uses Debord as source material for his own theoretical remixes. Reading the “original” (actually “already remixed”) samples of Debord in remixthebook and Amerika’s subsequent remixes of Debord’s ideas, what do you imagine to be the difference in their approach to politics and the practice of everyday life?

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