Sunday, October 08, 2006

Paris's "Nuit Blanche": Institutionalized Psychogeography

(Also syndicated at Blogcritics e-magazine)
How do environments, landscapes, human- and nature-built, influence and structure the behavior, emotions, thoughts of human beings? In 1953, the French iconoclastic cultural critic Guy Debord turned his attention to this very question. The question and its range of answers has everything to do with Paris’s City-organized festival “Nuit Blanche,” or “Sleepless Night,” which took place yesterday night.

In the early 1950s Debord set about exploring this theme as well as other forms of structure and play in the increasingly globalized consumer society. Psychogeography, he wrote in 1955, is a term that combines what he saw as common considerations mobilizing the fields of geography and psychology. For him, geography was about the natural environment’s determination of economic structures and consequently its possible effects on the way societies might thus imagine the world. Psychology for him, though he doesn’t say it directly, is about the laws by which the mind works, structures of thought processes, emotions, memory, and consciousness.

Psychogeography would then be a study “of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” It was a sort of everyday experimental practice by members of his cultural avant-garde, drifting (dérive) through the various urban landscapes of Paris to reflect later on how they felt, why, and, in some cases, how such environments might be transformed (detourné) into something more playful or liberating instead of being the exclusive domains of buying, selling, and the facilitation thereof. The situationists even went so radically far as to call for cathedrals like Notre Dame to be ;transformed into playgrounds and zoos.

Fast forward roughly fifty years. The City of Paris holds its fifth “nuit blanche” event October 7, 2006. The event is part art expo, part carnival of eating, drinking, and extended leisure time. Its official aims will sound familiar to the last living situationists.

From 7 at night until 7 the next morning, various establishments across town stay open: museums, cafés, and movie theaters as well as churches, libraries and swimming pools. And there will be art and lighting displays at landmarks like the Hôtel de Ville.” Streets, buildings, monuments and so forth are re-imagined by artists and transformed into spaces and encounters that aim to deviate from, even revivify the everyday.

As the City of Paris' website explains: "Nuit Blanche opens the city to a world of art and to discover today's art in a street's detour, in an unfrequented spot as well as a prestigious building. Open to the public, Nuit Blanche discard's art for a circle of initiates and proposes another vision of it instead--one that is generous and accessible. Contemporary art mixes with the city and creates a singular time-space where each person is invited to circculate, rediscovering a transformed everyday terrain or exploring some overlooked places. Through the course of a night, the works construct an ephemeral temporal structure for discovering the broad daylight of contemporary art in the middle of the night" (my translation, though the final antithesis of daylight and nightlight doesn't really come through from the French).

The city's explanation ends with an invitation from the "directeurs artistiques" for everyone to come out and "reinvent" Paris. But such temporary deviations from the humdrum are probably not what everyone has in mind when they hear a call to "reinvent" something in a non-institutionalized context. It raises questions about the degree to which metaphors of art are exploited by governments to maintain order, allowing citizens the temporary pleasures of participating in a symbolic marketing version of transformation, which never loves you the morning after--especially after a nuit blanche.

Strolling through the 18th arrondissement last night, my group beheld a surrealistic (though one could argue the entire affair is surrealist-inspired) view of household furniture suspended on the sides of buildings several floors above ground. Wacky attacky. Put that in your “this is not a pipe” and smoke it, Magritte.

Another one consisted of giant white radiant balloons hovering over an urban soccer court. I couldn’t stop thinking of the X-files. Mulder, it’s just an installation commissioned by the city of Paris. Chill.

Still others took place in churches, as if following Situationist tenets—religiously. Unfortunately, the lines were too long for me to get in to the church installation. But I’m sure it was mind-blowing.

I’m not against the idea of a huge city-wide festival, involving more and less traditionally structured artistic exhibits, lines, and spectators. But psychogeography it is not, though it would surprise me very much if its organizers had not read and appropriated the situationists’ concept. To me this was just a cut above the average American haunted house at Halloween.

While it was free, and largely a jovial affair and marginally reoriented everyday consciousness of lived urban space the situationists seemed to adore, there was just one big problem with all of this from a situationist point of view. It was not organized by people themselves, nor by avowedly radical artist-thinkers who wanted to reclaim space from complete market colonization. It was organized by the local government as a kind of controlled version of situationist psychogeography, detournment and derive. That is to say, it was organized through the very structure of traditional artistic and consumerist entertainment encounters where publics were called in to gaze upon the beauty or strangeness of the artist’s work (instead of making their own lives works of art by launching themselves on minimally structured experiments of urban reflection and the reclamation of urban space for a public life not limited to consumerism), feel edified, and then politely file out of the viewing area and buy a drink next door. The long lines through which spectators were herded was just another characteristic of the genre of entertainment that had appropriated the event.

Guy Debord and other situationists railed against a contemporary media-saturated consumer society where images of living were sold to spectator-consumers who did not live those experiences themselves. They participated in those experiences only in fantasy. Needless to say, such a reactive and non-participatory life frightened the situationists, and they declared cultural war on it.

The “nuit blanche” celebrations were interesting to see; indeed, they partially though ephemerally transformed one’s encounter with everyday spaces and built environments. But their highly controlled nature made for an exercise that would have disappointed the situationists. In a word, it was spectacular.

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