Baroness Elsa

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. 

Ford’s America

The broad range of topics within Baroness Elsa’s performative practice demonstrate the way in which she sifted through the injustices and problems of modernity and reformulated them as commentary through her ‘bodily bricolage’ costumes.


[She] would appear like some strange mechanized figure pieced together with the debris of the industrialized city. Her appearances sometimes featured a shaved and painted head, shaved eyebrows, yellow face powder, stamps as beauty marks, celluloid curtain rings worn as bracelets, a coal shuttle used for a hat, tea balls hanging from the bust of her dress, or a set of working taillights attached to her bustle.[viii]


Gammel says that Baroness Elsa’s working bustle taillights can be read as both a comment on American industry and an exposure of the American desire to cling to Victorian gender roles via the bustle, which was already outdated in German fashion.[ix] Gammel also says that the taillights, as well as her work God, could also be associated with American businessman Henry Ford (1863–1947) and his (alleged) invention of the assembly line production. Gammel notes that in a letter to Peggy Guggenheim Baroness Elsa wrote:


All know –[God] is tinkerer—limitless of resources.

But why so much tinkering?

He better fordize [sic]—learn from America—start expert machineshop [sic]—Ford can supply experience—funds—is rumored for as yet he is clumsily subtle—densely—intelligent—inefficiently—immense—(Lord not Ford---of course).[…]

[God] better hotfoot towards progress—modernize—use his own omnipotence intelligently—smart or we’ll all expire in tangle.

Well Lord knows—(Does he?)[x]


In describing how hegemony involves the force of economic relations, Johnson suggests that the offer of higher wages is a key, but not permanent, feature of Fordist adaptation.[xi] Higher wages do not only make an impact economically, as they affect not only consumption but aspiration too. For Johnson, this involves forms of consciousness that are so tied up with physical and mental labour and local sociability that they are hard to disembed, even conceptually. Rather than idealising American assembly line production in her letter and carefully crafted costume, Baroness Elsa collapses the hierarchical way that Americans were elevating the machine and industry to the level of the gods. The ‘machine shop’ singularly focused on efficiency is in stark contrast to the urban radicality that Baroness Elsa developed to strive against the alienation caused by the loss of an immediate, vital connection to the life force. Gammel suggests Baroness Elsa’s sculpture God is a glorification of the efficiency of the American industry ‘machine shop’.[xii]


From her personal experience living as a foreigner in America, Baroness Elsa would have been acutely aware of the racism that Ford was utilising in his political efforts to cut immigration while he simultaneously embraced globalisation for his conflicted business interests. Ford was politically opposed to World War I,[xiii] but was still able to profit from it by switching to military production in his German operations, Ford-Werke, a company that was majority-owned by Ford USA. Later, during the Nazi period, the German government did not confiscate the Ford plant, in contrast with other American-owned property. It continued to produce German army trucks and turbines for the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile. Ford’s American Rouge plant was at the same time producing jeeps, aircraft motors and tanks for the American military.


Furthermore, Baroness Elsa saw how Ford was able to package and promote false beliefs that were undergirding and framing entire hegemonic world-views. Ford’s anti-intellectualism, extreme pragmatism and mediocre intelligence led him to promote racist and religious agendas in fascist initiatives, drawing on his enormous influence over the whole of society. His position of influence was established in his business dealings that disguised his profit-driven motivations, such as the marketing of his Model T petrol-powered car, as the design for the ‘great multitude’. Furthermore, his highly praised $5 workday payment was not implemented as a gesture of goodwill for the benefit of his workers, but rather as a means of dealing with high employee turnover from the new conveyor belt production. This effort also involved the founding of a Sociological Department in his business operations in 1914, which after two years comprised 160 staff. Its goal was to use Christianity to ‘save men from habits that made them late for work or unproductive’ and to provide ‘an ideological vaccine against Jewish Bolshevism, socialism and trade unionism’.[xiv]

The rise of the supermarket

Until recent decades, backyard food production was common because of its economic and health-related benefits — the latter springing from physical activity and pesticide-free crops. The rise of the supermarket is partly attributable to a campaign that successfully lowered the status of growing vegetables in backyard gardens. This trend has negatively impacted on households by reducing their financial independence and increasing costs, particularly as neighbours would meet to share their garden produce, which provided a positive social aspect as well.


Baroness Elsa, in defiance against the introduction of supermarket commercialisation in America in the 1920s, wore a hat adorned with fresh vegetables to celebrate home-grown produce to protest this industrial development.[xv] She incorporated iterations of this theme into her costumes, including ‘planting the technological and consumer items on her performing body, grafting them alongside organic matter, including gilded vegetables’.[xvi] In doing so, Baroness Elsa highlights and rebukes the way that allodoxia creates socio-economic based shame and anxiety as part of hegemonic processes that encourage new consumer behaviours over ordinary communal activity in daily life. 

Nationalism’s hollow messages

In 1924, after repeated attempts to secure a visa, Baroness Elsa wore a candlelit cake-hat to the French Embassy in Germany on Bastille Day. This was a protest against nationalism, as indicated by visa restrictions for the poor, and its hollowing out the true spirit of this event. The performance was documented in a letter she wrote to Janet Flanner.


I went to the consulate with a large-wide sugarcoated birthday cake upon my head with fifty flaming candles lit – I felt just so spunky and affluent [sic]! In my ear I wore sugar plumes or matchboxes – I forget which [sic]. Also I had put on several stamps as beauty spots on my emerald-painted cheeks and my eyelashes were made of gilded porcupine quills – rustling coquettishly – at the consul – with several ropes of dried figs dangling around my neck to give him a suck once and again – to entrance him. I should have liked to wear gaudy colored rubber boots up to my hips with a ballet skirt of genuine gold paper white [sic] lace paper covering it (to match the cake) – but I couldn’t afford that! I guess that inconsistency in my costume is to blame for my failure to please the officials?[xvii]


Baroness Elsa understood the radically disruptive effect of taking her performance art into the streets, fusing her concern with life and art with her deep critique of societal boundaries of class, nationality, and gender. The three examples presented here focus on the way that she was able to use her caustic wit and elaborate visual creativity to make visible the complex and abstract interconnections between hegemony and allodoxia through specific and current examples of changing circumstances in the currents of everyday life.

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Baroness Elsa

[i] Tom McDonough (ed.), Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, (Boston: October Press, 2004), p. 259.

[ii] In the Report on the Construction of Situations and on the International Situationist Tendency’s Conditions of Organization and Actions (1957), page 13 states that: ‘A rough experimentation toward a new mode of behavior has already been made with what we have termed the dérive: the practice of a passional journey out of the ordinary through a rapid changing of ambiences, as well as a means of psychogeographical study and of situationist psychology.’

[iii] French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) first explored the concept of the flâneur, the casual wanderer, observer and reporter of street life in the modern city. Bobby Seal, ‘Baudelaire, Benjamin and the Birth of the Flâneur’, Psychogeographic Review, (14 November, 2016) <> [accessed 14 November, 2016]

[iv] Irene Gammel, Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), p. 185. Emphasis in the original.

[v] Irene Gammel, ‘The City’s Eye of Power: Panopticism and Speculat Prostitution in Dreiser’s New York and Grove’s Berlin’, Canadian Review of American Studies 22.2 (Fall 1991), pp. 213-14.

[vi] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p. 107.

[vii] James Meyer, ‘The Functional Site; or, The Transformation of Site Specificity’, in Space, site, intervention: situating installation art, ed. by Erika Suderburg (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), pp. 24–25.

Baroness Elsa and Claude McKay

[viii] Gammel, Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity, p. 3.

[ix] Ibid., p. 42.

[x] Gammel, Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity, p. 123.

[xi] Antonio Gramsci in Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey-Nowell Smith (eds), Selections from the Prison Notebooks, (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), pp. 310–313.

[xii] Gammel, Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity, p. 42.

[xiii] In 1915 Ford launched an ill-fated Peace Ship campaign to shift public opinion against the war. Ford’s pacifism was an expression of his isolationist belief that America shouldn’t concern itself with foreign affairs, because attending to business was paramount.

[xiv] Nancy Russell, ‘Henry Ford: American anti-Semitism and the class struggle’, World Socialist Website, (18 April 2003) <> [accessed 28 February, 2017]

[xv] Gammel, Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity, p. 189.

[xvi] Ibid., pp. 193-194.

[xvii] Janet (Genêt) Flanner, Paris was Yesterday 1925-1939, (New York: Viking Press, 1972), p. 39.