Upon their arrival in the English capital, delegates were set the ‘psychogeographical’ task of locating the British Sailors Society, where the conference was to be held.
The following report appeared in Internationale Situationniste #5 (December 1960)
[Edited from translations by Ken Knabb and Reuben Keehan]
THE 4TH CONFERENCE of the Situationist International was held in London, at a secret address in the East End, 24-28 September 1960, seventeen months after the Munich Conference (April 1959). The situationists assembled in London were: Debord, Jacqueline de Jong, Jorn, Kotányi, Katja Lindell, Jörgen Nash, Prem, Sturm, Maurice Wyckaert and H.P. Zimmer. In fact, to ensure that the proceedings were kept well away from any contact with London journalists or artistic circles, the conference took place at the British Sailors Society hall in Limehouse, “an area famous for its criminals” (Spur #2).
The first session began on 25 September with a debate on the adoption of an order of the day on seventeen integral points, the discussion of three of which was postponed and rescheduled for a later SI debate. Asger Jorn acts as this session’s chairman, a function he performs for the remainder of the conference.
The conference then hears a report by Attila Kotányi; it lasts a only few minutes but is followed by two days of discussion. For Kotányi, the SI is characterised primarily by the appropriation of resources for constructing fields of encounter. Commenting on the definitions he has proposed, he shows that the philosophical concept of dialogue and the encounter as alienation and tragedy, as attempted communication filtered negatively through its means, is an insufficient critique because “we know that, for very different reasons, these encounters don’t produce themselves.” The role of the void, of lost time, in possible displacements can be calculated statistically.
The lack of encounters is expressible by a concrete figure, which could characterise the historical state of the world . . . Following this analysis, our activity must undertake a practical critique of the reasons why there are no encounters (independent of any “progress” of the means of communication, for example); create bases (situationist “castles”) representing an accumulation of the elements of the encounter and the dérive: more concretely, buildings of our own; and facilitate communication — permanent or otherwise — between these bases. This is the minimum requirement for the construction of situations.
Kotànyi proposes that this plan be considered within definite limits, and thus the limits of time: a planning of the time necessary for the installation of this basic network that subordinates other situationist instruments, including the devices of its propaganda and its publications.
The discussion of these perspectives leads to posing the question: “To what extent is the SI a political movement?” Various responses state that the SI is political, but not in the ordinary sense. The discussion becomes somewhat confused. Debord proposes, in order to clearly bring out the opinion of the Conference, that each person respond in writing to a questionnaire asking if he considers that there are “forces in the society that the SI can count on? What forces? In what conditions?” This questionnaire is agreed upon and filled out. The first responses express the view that the purpose of the SI is to establish a program of overall liberation and to act in accord with other forces on a social scale. (Kotányi: “To rely on what we call free.” Jorn: “We are against specialisation and rationalisation, but not against them as means. . . . Movements of social groups are determined by the character of their desires. We can accept other social movements only to the extent that they are moving in our direction. We are the new revolution . . . we should act with other organisations that seek the same path.”) The session is then adjourned.
At the beginning of the second session, on September 26, Heimrad Prem reads a declaration of the German section in response to the questionnaire. This very long declaration attacks the tendency in the responses read the day before to count on the existence of a revolutionary proletariat, for the signers strongly doubt the revolutionary capacities of the workers against the bureaucratic institutions that have dominated their movement. The German section considers that the SI should prepare to realise its program on its own by mobilising the avant-garde artists, who are placed by the present society in intolerable conditions and can count only on themselves to take over the weapons of conditioning. Debord responds with a sharp critique of these positions.
An evening session returns to the examination of the German declaration. Nash speaks against it by affirming the SI’s capacity to act immediately when it comes to social and political organisations. He recommends systematically organising infiltration by clandestine situationist elements into such groups wherever it would be useful. Nash’s proposal is approved in principle by everyone, with a few circumstantial reservations. The debate on the German positions, however, does not end there, returning to its nucleus: the hypothesis of the satisfied worker. Kotányi reminds the German delegates that even if since 1945 they have seen apparently passive and satisfied workers in Germany and legal strikes organised with music to divert union members, in other advanced capitalist countries “wildcat” strikes have multiplied. He adds that in his opinion they vastly underestimate the German workers themselves. Jorn responds to Prem, who has made a distinction between spiritual and material questions, that this distinction to be done away with, that it is necessary “for material values to regain a ‘spiritual’ importance, and for the value of spiritual capacities to be increased only through their materialisation; in other words, it is necessary for the world to become artistic in the sense defined by the SI.” In order to simplify the discussion, which is becoming obscure, and complicated further by certain translations (the dominant language at the conference is German), Jacqueline de Jong requests that every participant declare whether or not they approve of Jorn’s statement. All are in favour of it. Debord proposes that the majority openly declare that it rejects the German theses. It is agreed that the two tendencies separately decide on their positions. The German minority withdraws to an adjoining room to deliberate. When they return Zimmer announces, in the name of his group, that they retract the preceding declaration, not because they think it unimportant, but in order not to impede present situationist activity. He concludes:
We declare that we are in complete agreement with all the acts already done by the SI, with or without us, and with those that will be done in the foreseeable future. We are also in agreement with all the ideas published by the SI. We consider the question debated today as secondary in relation to the SI’s overall development, and propose to reserve further discussion of it for the future.
Everyone agrees to this. Kotányi and Debord, however, ask that it be noted in the minutes that they do not consider that the question discussed today is secondary. The German situationists agree to delete their reference to it as such. The session is adjourned, very late at night.
The fourth session, on the 27th, adopts a resolution on the imprisonment of Alexander Trocchi; and decides on what attitude to take the following night toward the Institute of Contemporary Arts, where Wyckaert is to make a public declaration in the Conference’s name. Everyone is of the opinion that this circle of modernist aesthetes should be treated with contempt. With regard to the Manifesto of 17 May, approved by all, Jorn stresses that for us, “the liquidation of the world of privation, in all its forms” means that the end of privation also involves the freedom to deprive oneself, to refuse every obligatory comfort, no matter what; failing which, the disappearance of privation will introduce a new alienation.
The Conference decides to re-organise the SI by instituting a Central Council that will meet in different European cities at six to eight week intervals. Any member of the SI can participate in the affairs of this Council, which must communicate related information and decisions made to everyone immediately after each meeting; but the essential feature of this institution is that a majority of its members — named by each Conference — may make decisions on behalf of the entire organisation. The federative concept of an SI founded on national autonomy, established by the influence of the Italian section at the time of the group’s founding in Cosio d’Arroscia, is thus abandoned. The clarity of discussions on the SI’s direction within such an organism seems preferable to the arbitrariness of an unchecked de facto centralism — inevitable in such a geographically widespread movement — as it leads to real collective action. Every year, the SI Conference, which remains the movement’s highest authority, must gather all situationists together and, insofar as this is not realisable in practice, it is decided that, as soon as possible, those absent should either submit a precise mandate to the conference in writing, or nominate another situationist to represent them by proxy. Theoretical debates will usually be dealt with at the Conference, while the Council’s primary role should be to ensure the development of the SI’s powers. Between Conferences, however, the Central Council does have the right to admit a new section into the SI, and in this case, can invite a delegate of this section to become a Council member.
The first Council, chosen by the London Conference, is composed of members of the old Editorial Committee of the SI bulletin, plus Nash, unanimously named to represent the Scandinavian countries, and Kotányi, invited to occupy the place left vacant by the resignation of Constant.
The session concludes with the choice of where to hold the next conference. Several proposals are turned down, with the vote settled as between Berlin and Gotëborg, in Sweden. Gotëborg is the favorite.
On 28 September, the fifth session adopts a Declaration on Insanity, presented by the German section, which asserts:
As long as society as a whole is insane . . . we will by all means oppose the definition of insanity and the consequences that it may entail for members of the SI. With modern psychiatry’s criteria for reason and madness being based, in the final analysis, on social success, we refuse absolutely the definition of insanity when it comes to any modern artist.
The conference adopts a resolution transferring the Bureau of Unitary Urbanism to Brussels, with Attila Kotányi named as director.
Kotányi then declares that he will concern himself with the legislative control of urbanism: “All that is currently built is built not on the ground, but on the law,” and failing that, never progresses beyond the stage of maquettes. Jorn talks about establishing a new geometry, for there is an obvious relationship between Euclidian geometry and current legislation. The session ends with a few practical decisions, notably concerning the takeover of UNESCO.
At the Institute of Contemporary Arts the same evening, Maurice Wyckaert closed the conference by reading an official declaration which was, in this instance, not followed by a discussion. As Jorn pointed out to the audience, “the discussion lasted four days; everything is now clear and we are all agreed.” Furthermore, the first translation made by the ICA for the evening was found to be so bad, its meaning altered so much that the situationists refused to take the floor until a completely satisfactory translation had been provided. As the SI occupied the place with enough force, and as time was visibly on their side, the ICA’s officials immediately set about the task, taking around two hours. The audience began to lose its patience, especially during the last hour, but very few people left in the course of this long wait; far more walked out during Wyckaert’s excellent discourse. This was because the text had finally been very well translated.”
We particularly like this eyewitness account of the final night at the ICA though…
“The meeting, from beginning to end, was a parody of a normal ICA evening. Toni del Renzio was the ICA’s chairman that night. He opened the meeting by giving some of the historical background of the Situationist movement. When he mentioned the conference in Alba there was loud applause from the Situationists. At the mention of the ‘unification conference’ at Cosio d’ Arroscia the clapping was terrific, accompanied by loud foot stamping. The ICA audience was clearly baffled by this senseless display of euphoria. Del Renzio then introduced the S.I. spokesman Maurice Wyckaert.
“Instead of beginning with the usual compliments, Wyckaert scolded the ICA for using the word ‘Situationism’ in its Bulletin. ‘Situationism’, Wyckaert explained, ‘doesn’t exist. There is no doctrine of this name.’ He went on to tell the audience, ‘If you’ve now understood that there is no such thing as ‘Situationism’ you’ve not wasted your evening.’
“After a tribute to Alexander Trocchi, who had recently been arrested for drug trafficking in the United States, Wyckaert launched into a criticism of UNESCO. We were told that UNESCO had failed in its cultural mission. Therefore the Situationist International would seize the UNESCO building by ‘the hammer blow of a putsch’. This remark was greeted with a few polite murmurs of approval.
“Wyckaert ended as he had begun, with a gibe at the ICA. ‘The Situationists, whose judges you perhaps imagine yourselves to be, will one day judge you. We are waiting for you at the turning.’ There was a moment’s silence before people realized that the speaker had finished. The first and only question came from a man who asked ‘Can you explain what exactly Situationism is all about?’ Wyckaert gave the questioner a severe look. Guy Debord stood up and said in French ‘We’re not here to answer cuntish questions’. At this he and the other Situationists walked out.”
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online