During the fifteen years between its formation in Northern Italy in 1957 and its dissolution in 1972, the Situationist International analysed the modern world from the point of view of everyday life, responding to capitalist degradation and alienation with alternative life experiences (or ‘situations’). These situations involved play, freedom and critical thinking, as well as the study of the effects of specific environments on the behaviour and emotions of individuals within capitalist urban space (‘psychogeography’).
From these ideas came the practice of the dérive, previously conceptualised as a tactic in the French military, ‘a calculated action determined by the absence of a greater locus’, and ‘a manoeuvre within the enemy’s field of vision’.[i] The dérive as a term was appealing in the way it defined a determined operation as wanderings throughout the city. Among urban Situationist International explorers, this was a way of shaping a psychology in preparation for the eventuality of the Situationist city. French theorist, writer, and filmmaker Guy Debord (1931–1994) was a founding member of the Situationist International. He was cautious to differentiate between the precedents of the dérive and its Situationist version, and emphasised the latter’s active character as a mode of experimental behaviour.[ii]
However, this tactical approach did not originate with the Situationists. It can be found much earlier, in the performative activity of Baroness Elsa. Canadian literary historian Irene Gammel describes how the American art historian and critic Amelia Jones has used the urban theories of German philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) and French philosopher Michel de Certeau (1925–1986) to advance a spatial argument theorising the innovative nature of Baroness Elsa’s New York art: ‘Claiming the Baroness as a spectacular flâneuse,[iii] Jones’ compelling argument is that the Baroness perfected a rhetoric of walking, as a radically new form of art’.[iv] For over a decade up until the early 1920s, Baroness Elsa sought out spectators, rather than distance from them, in her ‘spontaneous theatrical street performance’.[v] Her performative actions and distinctive costumes all encapsulated an anti-capitalist narrative that directed her within the everyday. Baroness Elsa epitomised a high-spirited nature, drawn from her experiences in Munich’s Dionysian movement of around 1900, and her particular style of urban radical activism worked against the alienation caused by the loss of an immediate, vital connection to the life force.
The tactical process of rupture is known as détournement. This is a complex practice of dismantling existing aesthetic structures and reassembling them in altered and subverted ways in order to question or critique society, traditional values, and the status quo. In devising this tactic, Baroness Elsa provides a utopian social promise of dissenting action, demonstrating how allodoxic interventions can gain traction and take shape. Within such a process, risk is a way of finding meaning, while rupture provides people with an intuitive grasp of the dimensions of the task and a capacity for surprises.
As with Baroness Elsa, allodoxic artists today use dérives for tactical planning and accumulating diverse forms of potentially resistant knowledge. No longer relegated to walking spaces in the city, sites of dérive now include cyberspace and a broad range of protracted interactions with the tools of governance, both of which are increasingly becoming capitalised spaces. This performative practice requires a type of systems thinking and involves what Michel de Certeau calls practiced space. Spatial practices operate in the same way as walking, reading, listening, or viewing. They do not reproduce fragments of a given order, but instead operate as an ordering activity.[vi] In this sense, mobility relates to the ongoing revision and redesign of allodoxic tactics to order and expand a set of patterns involving artists, participants, audiences, bureaucracy personnel, and other stakeholders.
American art theorist, James Meyer, in his essay ‘The Functional Site; or, The Transformation of Site Specificity’, says the functional site is not necessarily a physical place, but rather an ‘operation occurring between sites, a mapping of institutional and textual filiations and the bodies that move between them.’[vii] As situation-specific processes, allodoxic interventions can be considered functional sites. They are defined by the discourse they create from the gains and setbacks they undergo, while using tactics to apply pressure and create change involving networked sites. The intangible networked sites of allodoxic interventions include some or all of the art, media, political, and legal fields, as well as the specific issue in which individuals and groups are engaging within the community. In this way, the facts of the specific situation become the materials of the work. This includes aspirations relating to the desired outcomes for the commons, and changes that occur within the sites of the network, both during the execution of the intervention and as embedded change. These facts materialise as emails, text messages, letters, reports, and policies, as well as in more conventional art forms that can be used as catalysts, and remain as remnants of the actions.
In his essay ‘Post-hegemony? I don't think so’, British political theorist and academic Richard Johnson argues that post-hegemony theories replicate only one particular reading of Gramsci’s work from the 1980s. Johnson explains how Gramsci’s notes on Americanism and Fordism make clear that hegemony is about the relation of superstructure to structure, including the relation of social and cultural organisation to the economy, ‘the necessities of production’. Johnson says that hegemony cannot be reduced to cultural politics and considered away from the combined effects of economic and social pressures on people’s lives. He says that there can be no rule by cultural means alone, despite culture shaping the lives of both the powerful and those who seek emancipation.
Baroness Elsa worked with the complexity of what Johnson describes, drawing attention to the fact that under capitalism our lives and our environment are continually depleted, and that capitalism tries to hide such depletion. For over a decade up until the early 1920s, she used her pioneering performative practice to address that aspect of consciousness. Like the aforementioned work Wink, she created access points for participants and viewers of her interventions and material outputs, helping them to develop an understanding of the ways in which hegemony and allodoxia interconnect. Three examples from her practice illustrate this.