BY MIN CHEN
In 1953, a 19-year-old Ivan Chtcheglov delivered a manifesto that ripped a hole in the modern landscape. The contemporary city had grown tedious, the French theorist and poet decided, as urban space and time had been squandered on hackneyed surfaces, dated relics, and cold mechanization. “A mental disease has swept the planet: banalization,” he wrote. “Everyone is hypnotized by production and conveniences.” Staleness had set in; imagination and experimentation evaporated. This tired urbanism was not just an aesthetic crime, but more so, a psyche-crushing offense. As Chtcheglov so protested, “We are bored in the city.”
Some years after penning “Formulary for a New Urbanism,” Chtcheglov and his pal Henry de Béarn would be arrested for attempting to blow up the Eiffel Tower. Apparently, the tower’s “reflected light shone into their shared attic room and kept them awake at night.” Fair enough. Chtcheglov would subsequently be committed to a mental institute, where he dwelled for five years.
Chtcheglov’s formulary and scheme to detonate a national monument were both incendiary, but only one did real damage as a clarion call. His missive appeared in the June 1958 issue of Internationale Situationniste, and did go on to fuel the Guy Debord-led Situationist movement. Notably, the group’s practice of dérive (drift) was directly prescribed by the young Frenchman. The experiment involved roaming a city without aim or destination, if only to marinate in its ambiance. Out of these excursions would emerge revelations of how urban spaces shape and shake psyches, and in turn, engender new maps, fresh psychogeographies. This subversion of cities further aligned with that other Situationists custom: détournement (diversion), a method of rerouting or disruption existing works and expressions to create something new.
Dérive and détournement effectively redesigned cities through play, chance, and desire, realizing Chtcheglov’s invitation for “new, changeable decors.” In his manifesto, he’d also gone on to envision a new city, one containing “buildings charged with evocative power, symbolic edifices representing desires, forces and events, past, present and to come.” This Temple of the Sun, this promised land—where humor and poetry run riot, and free play and desire reign—can and should come to pass. “The hacienda,” he insisted, “must be built.”
Almost three decades on, the hacienda is built in Manchester, England. Well, sort of. The brainchild of Tony Wilson’s Factory Records and financed by New Order, the Haçienda was a club that despite some growing pains, would live long and hard enough to grow into a nightlife icon. From the early ‘80s through the ‘90s, it featured bands from Primal Scream to Einstürzende Neubauten and provided a UK launchpad for Madonna, before acid house and rave swept in to dominate its dancefloor. The venue would weather the Madchester boom and the city’s gangster element, coming into its own as a physical monument to post-‘80s hedonism, the Balearic beat, and Ecstasy-fueled euphoria.
Not all of which had to do with Chtcheglov’s new urbanism; Tony Wilson, however, did believe, “Buildings change the way people think.” Likely no one could claim to be bored in the city during the Haçienda’s lifetime, but the club was really more a testament to Wilson’s enduring fixation with Situationism. After a meeting with Situationist International member Christopher Grey in his early Cambridge years, the Factory father would proudly tote the movement’s ethos of disruption and subversion through his many adventures in music (an inclination he shared with Sex Pistols impresario Malcolm McLaren). “The Situationists offered, I thought then and I still think now, the only future revolution I could imagine or want,” he said. “We all wanted to destroy the system but didn’t know how.”
And so the backbone of the Factory was fixed. For one, the label’s early recruitment of The Royal Family and The Poor was telling: its members were part of the Liverpool Situationist Youth Collective, whose tracks involved recitations of Situationist theory (and on 1980’s “Vaneigem Mix,” snippets from Situationist figure Raoul Vaneigem’s Revolution of Everyday Life) over an electronic pulse. As journalist James Nice observed of the band in Shadowplayers, they were “less of a group than a pseudo-Situationist provocation.”
Wilson’s greatest piece of Situationist fan art, however, came in 1978 when he endeavored to form a band around drummer Chris Joyce and guitarist Dave Rowbotham, who’d just been ejected from Mancunian punk outfit Fast Breeder. In his search for a lead guitarist, Wilson stumbled onto one Vini Reilly in a Victorian house in South Manchester (it was Vini’s girlfriend’s father’s house). A delicate and sensitive figure, Reilly didn’t actually play guitar, but according to Wilson, “it seemed irrelevant” because “his music would clearly be him and he was in.”
Wilson then cribbed the band’s name from a Situationist poster campaign in Strasbourg for reasons of “no real reason, except wilfulness, in our music, in our politics.” The 1966 event had seen Situationism-informed students at Strasbourg University attempting to take over their union by fly-posting the city with a comic strip they’d created. One of the strip’s panels was a détourned image of two cowboys conversing de la réification, under the heading “The Return of the Durruti Column.” That title referred directly to the anarchist military unit that coalesced around Buenaventura Durruti during the 1930s Spanish Civil War to agitate for a fairer society. One crucial misspelling later, Wilson’s Durutti Column was born.
But when it came time for the band to lay down tracks, the Durutti Column was no more. Following an explosive row, all of its members had departed—that is, save for Reilly, who persisted. “What remained in the cold winter of ‘78,” remembered Wilson, “was two managers [Wilson and Alan Erasmus], an obscure advert for a bizarre offshoot of the anarchist canon, and a sick guitarist.” The one-time band would neatly transition to become Vini’s solo platform, a showcase for his guitar instrumentals, which incorporated elements of jazz, blues, and his own idiosyncrasies into atmospheric, otherworldly shimmers. A foil to the era’s weighty post-punk, the Column’s quixotic reveries offered a low-key sanctum.
All that was gathered on Reilly’s first cut, titled (of course) The Return of the Durutti Column. Wilson’s genius went further: the first 2,000 copies of the 1980 album were packaged in sandpaper—an abrasive, confrontational act, and yet another nod to his Situationist forebears, notably Guy Debord and Asger Jorn’s 1959 publication Mémoires. The book was the product of Debord’s many dérives, containing collaged maps of London and Paris, détourned texts, Rorschach spatters, and a Marxist bent. As a final touch, the volume was jacketed with heavy-duty sandpaper, as suggested by its printer V.O. Permild. “‘Can you imagine the result when the book lies on a blank polished mahogany table, or when it’s inserted or taken out of the bookshelf?’” Permild remembered Jorn asking him. “It planes shavings off the neighbor’s desert goat.”
Or as Tony Wilson put it, in the context of Return, it was “a marketing device that really fucked on the opposition.” Yes, as a means of wrecking neighboring records, Return’s sandpaper sleeve was an unparalleled destructive maneuver. (And in case the reference was lost on anyone, a print of the Strasbourg cowboys was reproduced in the album’s liner notes.) Members of Joy Division were enlisted “at a reasonable piece-rate” to glue square pieces of sandpaper to each copy of the record, before its catalog number FACT14 was stenciled across it. “They did it on the big table in the Factory flat, while a porn movie played on the VHS—brush fulls of white mucus paste slapped onto the flesh-colored abrasive,” Wilson recalled with undisguised glee.
Thus was submitted an artifact to the Situationist legacy. Its ties to actual Situationist concepts and praxis are questionable, though Wilson did studiously preserve the movement’s spirit of insurrection—even if only for superficial ends. Still, the Debord who pressed “the systematic provocative dissemination of a host of proposals tending to turn the whole of life into an exciting game” might subscribe to it. And the Chtcheglov who reckoned that “as the gestures inevitably grow stale, dérive will partially leave the realm of direct experience for that of representation” might even approve. The Return is no plot to dynamite the Eiffel Tower, but hey, even the most destructive of acts begins with a scratch.