ABOUT THE HISTORIFICATION OF THE SITUATIONIST INTERNATIONAL: Ralph Rumney in conversation with Stewart Home, Paris 7 April 1989
I've removed the introduction that was written to accompany this interview when it first appeared in "Art Monthly" because to me it now appears redundant. However, if you know nothing about the Situationist International you may want to check chapters 1 to 8 of my 1988 book "The Assault On Culture" (available free here on this site).
HOME: I'm curious to know how you feel about a Situationist exhibition being held at the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Institute Of Contemporary Arts.
RUMNEY: My feelings are rather mixed. We held protests against the Stedelijk and the Triennalle because we wanted to do our own thing. That was a long time ago. What's happened now is that our work has entered the public domain and so we can't really stop museums taking an interest in it. It's there, it's history, it's recuperation, it's whatever you like. At the same time, I thought the title of the exhibition was quite nice. I especially liked the subtitle, "About the Situationist International." And now that I'm getting older and I want to earn a living, it's nice to see this work doing something for me after all these years.
HOME: I notice there's been little support for the show from Bernstein or Debord.
RUMNEY: There wouldn't be. Michele Bernstein because she doesn't need it. It's pointless to her, it's something she did and from which she now more or less dissociates herself. Not that she's ashamed of it, or disagrees with it, but because she's doing other things and that's it. Debord just has to keep up this view of himself as being totally intransigent.
HOME: Whereas the Scandinavians, the Situationist Bauhaus and Group Spur would seem more supportive of the exhibition.
RUMNEY: They all turned up at the private view and were doing little happenings, which I rather disapproved of. I went to the opening to see the exhibition and because I wanted to meet old friends and learn a few things. There's a lot of work in the show which I'd not seen before.
HOME: I think the exhibition is going to surprise a lot of people in London. Situationist theory is considered relatively sophisticated, whereas most of the painting is extremely primitive.
RUMNEY: Gallizio was a total primitive. Jorn was not an unsophisticated painter but he created the Institute for Comparative Vandalism, he was an intellectual primitive. Primitivism had a very strong influence on COBRA and also on the Germans. I don't know if I'm wrong to make this distinction but I think of myself as a completely different kind of painter. I could never have joined COBRA.
HOME: But it's this type of painting which dominates the exhibition.
RUMNEY: Yes, it does, it's very strong painting. The curators asked me to lend paintings and I said no, my paintings aren't anything to do with it. I would have been inclined to lend some of the erotic things, but the dates are wrong.
HOME: These are the polaroids and plaster casts that you exhibited at Transmission Gallery in 1985 and which were also included in your recent retrospective at England & Co.
RUMNEY: Which I regard as more situationist, more political, than most of my other work.
HOME: To return to the Situationist exhibition, how do you see the public reacting to it?
RUMNEY: I read the visitors book and that was very interesting. Almost everyone who'd written in it had said this is disgraceful, situationists in a museum, what a load of rubbish! I, however, believe that history should be recorded. I have also come to believe in museums. One of their functions is to make ideas available to people. When we were making our work, the last place we wanted to find it was in a museum. But it's all over now and I don't see why it shouldn't be recorded, catalogued, documented and so on.
HOME: One of the good things about the exhibition is to demonstrate that there's post-war work which stands up alongside the achievements of the futurists, dadaists and surrealists. It's as strong as anything they did. What are your feelings about this?
RUMNEY: My feelings are somewhat mixed because I regard my painting as very much distinct from Nordic, COBRA based, Expressionist works. I don't like this type of painting very much. I liked Asger Jorn's work, it's extremely distinguished. I liked Gallizio as a person but I'm not crazy about his work.
HOME: I thought his "Anti-Material Cave" was the strongest thing in the show.
RUMNEY: Of course it was, it's amazing. There's this primitive reality about Gallizio. I think the splits within the movement were due to it containing both intellectuals and these rather marvellous primitives. I'm not convinced that the intellectuals necessarily made the greatest contribution to the group. It was what was actually done that was important, far more important than the theory. Theories are evanescent. Situationist theory was intentionally inspissated, to make it difficult to understand and extremely difficult to criticise.
HOME: And also to give an impression of complete originality! But what about influences?
RUMNEY: The College Of Pataphysics was an influence on the Situationists. Debord hated anything which could be seen as having influenced him. He saw the College Of Pataphysics as a wretched little coterie. I declined to become a member of the College because of the Situationists. I liked their publications, they had a coherence and a persistent line of thought running through them which if you look at the twelve issues of "Internationale Situationiste", is not there. Now then, that may actually be in favour of the IS and say something rather good about it, because where I would criticise Debord is that he wanted to be in charge of the group, he wanted to set up a party line and he wanted everyone to toe it. In fact he never really achieved this and consequently you get this amalgam of divergent ideas which did amalgamate in the first three days of May '68 and in the punk movement. It's not every little group of twelve that can lay claim thirty years later to having had any influence on two events as important as that.
HOME: To return to Debord, what I find interesting about him is this sense that he always needs a collaborator, whether it be Wolman, Jorn, Vaneigem or Sanguinetti.
RUMNEY: Sanguinetti is where he met his match. He got a collaborator who was smarter than he was. Sanguinetti is absolutely brilliant.
HOME: There's a figure who I feel is always lurking in the background of the situationist saga and that's Michele Bernstein. I get this feeling that she played a key role within the movement, but I can't specify exactly what it was she contributed.
RUMNEY: You can't put your finger on it because she won't tell you and she wouldn't thank me if I told you. Since she was my wife, I've got to respect her wishes. I can tell you various little things. She typed all the "Potlatchs", all the "IS" journals and so on. One of the curious things about the IS was that it was extraordinarily anti-feminist in its practice. Women were there to type, cook supper and so on. I rather disapproved of this. Michele had, and has, an extraordinarily powerful and perceptive mind which is shown by the fact that she is among the most important literary critics in France today. A lot of the theory, particularly the political theory, I think originated with Michele rather than Debord, he just took it over and put his name to it.
HOME: Something I found strange about the exhibition was that there was no real acknowledgement of influences. There was very little about the Lettristes or the International Movement For An Imaginist Bauhaus.
RUMNEY: That's the fault of the curators. They might have found it very difficult to do in any other way.
HOME: The presentation of the exhibition is very low-tech, the books are displayed on weathered boards, how do you feel about this?
RUMNEY: I don't feel anything one way or another, they can present it how they like. It's their exhibition. It's not my exhibition, it's the curators, Beaubourg, they've done the exhibition. Apparently there was a vast shortage of money for the show. On the one hand, Beaubourg's been crying out about this. On the other hand, they're apparently charging the ICA an absolute fortune to have it. It seems extremely odd that they didn't have enough money to do a little bit more. I think the curating was wrong because whatever one says or feels about Isou, it should have started with him. That would have made the historical exhibition I'd have liked to see. I feel that the Situationists have somehow achieved this trick of commandeering and imposing a version of history, rather than allowing it to be told as it was.
HOME: I found the inclusion of Art and Language and NATO rather mystifying.
RUMNEY: That's the curators, Peter Wollen and Mark Francis. I met them both and neither of them struck me as serious experts. They were asking questions about things I'd expect them to know. The English tend to be a bit soft intellectually. You could say they are supermarket intellectuals, anything that'll go in the trolley, let's have it.
First published in Art Monthly, London June 1989.
First chapter on Situationist International form The Assault on Culture
Assault on Culture contents page
Chapter on non-relationship between Situationist International and punk rock from Cranked Up Really High
Review of Guy Debord's suicide
Ralph Rumney: born Newcastle upon Tyne (England) 5 June 1934, died Manosque (France) 6 March 2002.
The Tribe by Jean-Michel Mension (Verso £10) and The Consul by Ralph Rumney (Verso £10). These two books are about drinking and the avant-garde, and in them the pursuit of the former proves to be inseparable from the latter. Both contain edited transcripts of interviews conducted in various bars by Gerard Berreby, and they have been subtitled “Contributions to the History of the Situationist International and its Time”. “The Tribe” is tightly focused, dealing with the period 1952 to 1954, when Mension was a petty criminal who went drinking in the Saint-Germain-des-Pres quarter of Paris with Guy Debord. Rumney’s book covers several decades, and since he was a painter rather than a juvenile delinquent, he spends more time giving due consideration to the art of the post-war era. That said, Rumney married into the super rich Guggenheim family, so some of his eminently sober observations about this union will simultaneously titillate lovers of celebrity gossip. The books are well illustrated, Rumney’s mainly with art works and manifestos; Mension’s with Ed van der Elsken’s famous photographs of young drinkers at Moineau’s Bar.
Mension tends to stick to the familiar, Rumney is more given to abstraction, but this distinction can become blurred in their drinker’s tales. Mension on Eliane Brau: “Here’s a good Eliane story. Often, around two in the morning, when Moineau’s closed, we would take the same short route... By tradition, we would take a piss en route in a corner... One night... the cops came down on us... Eliane, who had pissed along with everyone else... was now shouting... ‘I would never piss in front of guys!’... Her cop was pretty good-humoured... Then Eliane goes: ‘Look, I can prove that I didn’t piss.’ She pulls down her panties, squats, and starts pissing all over again in front of the cop.” Rumney’s booze soaked anecdotes carry the same anti-authoritarian message: “When Mendes-France put up posters warning ‘alcohol kills slowly’... we wrote underneath: ‘We’re not in a hurry.’ ” I interviewed Rumney in Paris in the late eighties, and while unhurried, his drinking was simultaneously excessive; indeed, he proved incapable of walking more than a few hundred yards down a street without stopping at a bar for a drink.
Mension and Rumney are absolutely certain that what they got up to in various fifties dives was of world historical importance, and in this self-belief there are undertones of the belligerence and nostalgia that typifies drinkers everywhere. However, it needn’t concern the casual reader whether Mension and Rumney really are charming rogues, or if a careful editing of their conversations facilitates this impression, since the results are delightfully entertaining. While Mension’s appeal is almost universal, Rumney will find his readers among those who have at least a passing interest in modern art. Mension gives Bukowski a run for his money, and his book is an ideal gift for literate delinquents. However, given that Rumney never allowed his pursuit of art to impede his drinking, “The Consul” may yet induce barflies to imbibe at the font of modernity - since this is a work that refreshes parts others fail to reach.