1998 – Shower Bath of the Patriarchs

BUFFALO, with Patty Wallace [collaboration], CEPA Gallery, Buffalo, NY, Fall 1998

A Psychogeography of Buffalo

In considering Robert Smithson’s A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey we were struck by how much his encounter with a landscape blighted with the detritus of the industrial revolution synchronicized with the ideas advanced at around the same time by the Situationist International (S.I.) in Europe.

Nearly half a century has passed since S.I.’s compelling amalgam of Anarchism and Dada arose out of the existential despair of post-war France. One of the leaders of the founding Parisian faction of this movement was Guy Debord. In his 1967 manifesto La Societie du Spectacle, Debord identified a cultural condition which has only become increasingly dominant: the saturation of the social environment with manufactured images. The mass production of these manipulative images (in television, advertising, etc.) now makes it possible to “stage manage” all human needs, desires, drives and functions. Debord decried “the degradation of being into having and an even further generalized sliding of having into appearing.” While to many he may have seemed like a prophet howling in the desert, Debord’s vision was actually perfectly lucid –that driven by mass media and advertising, this process would come to shape our cities, our institutions, our culture and even our very identities.

If images are now the primary means of sustaining social hierarchies, then the only way to resist those hierarchies is to establish a critical, visual dialectic between their imagistic forms and their political, social and economic context. Accordingly, as a result of S.I.’s critical analysis of the role of art in the Society of the Spectacle, their aesthetic praxis shifted toward the instigation of a “revolution of everyday life.” S.I. centered these activities around the constructed situation (a playful expression of liberated desire), derive (the imaginative drift of experience), detournement (appropriation and plagiarism), and psychogeography (the effect of geographical setting on mood or behavior), ideas that can all be seen as rooted in a Ludic philosophy.

Debord saw the replacement of old neighborhoods with modern malls, and cafes with fast food franchises as a central objective of the Society of the Spectacle precisely because they help destroy “the great good places” where the public sphere thrives. As a remedy, the S.I. deemed it essential to bring about a complete spiritual transformation through the cultivation of forgotten desires, the expression of absolute creativity, and Ludic play with architecture, space, and time. The S.I. passionately rejected all forms of utilitarianism and viewed the city instead as a space of play, human self-actualization, and a locus to generate moments of genuine democratic participation.

As Ruins in Reverse seeks to explore “the shifting critical and cultural boundaries of time, progress, and history,” we have chosen to confront the legacy of modernism in Buffalo by constructing a montage based psychogeography whose image juxtapositions demand a decisive break with routine ways of seeing, feeling, hearing, and understanding things as well as a receptivity to modes of reality which can be projected only by aesthetic imagination. According to Luc Sante, Smithson’s textual account of his experience of industrial technology in and around Passaic is a parody of the journals of nineteenth-century explorers and arises out of the mock scientific, mock documentary strategies employed in conceptual art. By 1967, Passaic was a wasteland, a graveyard of industry, despite which, as Smithson was to demonstrate, it still possessed a “spectral, reverbative beauty.” It occurred to us that a similar recontextualizing strategy might be applicable to Buffalo. We seek to transform the image of our city as a “rust-belt dinosaur” into the image of Buffalo as an extended “eroticised fun house.” We want to reclaim the entire city as vehicle for autonomous playful expression, instead of regarding it (and thus empowering it) as an engine of mass oppression. One example we propose is to transform the soon-to-be-vacated zoo grounds into “a garden for the recovery of lost dreams,” a kind of “permanent autonomous zone,” wherein passions could be liberated and Eros expressed, unfettered by social regulation.

The Erotic (an idea much maligned in Puritan America) was a central concern not just for the S.I.’s Freud-besotted Surrealist precursors but also for the S.I. itself, as their ideas were based in part upon Marcuse’s seminal 1955 work Eros and Civilization. This is also a notion of considerable concern to Smithson, who sees “signs of a compellingly active Eros” in his “plain pictures of ugly industrial remnants in a blank landscape.” “It was as though the pipe [attached to the derrick] was secretly sodomizing some hidden technological orifice, and causing a monstrous sexual organ [the fountain] to have an orgasm.” Marcuse’s theory describes the transformation of the pleasure principle (Eros) into the reality principle (Work). Smithson’s recontextualization of Passaic reverses this process, converting the reality principle back into Eros through a playful derive. Under the reality principle, humans develop reason, which is materialized in a system of institutions, laws, and social orders, to which the individual must surrender their autonomy. The fact that the reality principle has to be continually reinforced indicates that its triumph over the pleasure principle is never complete and secure. The play of aesthetic imagination is autonomous and inherently oppositional to the repression of work.

In The Shower Bath of the Patriarchs, A Psychogeography of Buffalo, we have set out to express the image of a “Newly Eroticised Buffalo,” whose psychogeography allows for a radical recontextualization of the reality principle. Because, in the Society of the Spectacle, images have become aspects of the real, we are optimistic that a radical recontextualization of pre-existing aesthetic materials can provide, as Greil Marcus so brilliantly stated in Lipstick Traces: “carefully constructed proof that the whole of received hegemonic propositions about the way the world was supposed to work comprised a fraud so complete and venial that it demanded to be destroyed beyond the powers of memory to recall its existence.” While art itself remains incapable of changing the world, it can substantially contribute to changing the consciousness and drives of the people who are capable of changing the world.