Guy Debord and René Viénet, from Lettrism to Situationism

Film Is Dead: If You Want, Let’s Proceed to the Debate

21 February - 22 March 2020 - (see programme) / Museo Reina Sofía and Círculo de Bellas Artes

Guy Debord. In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni. Film, 1978
Guy Debord. In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni. Film, 1978

Lettrism and Situationism were two intellectual and artistic movements that foreshadowed the transcendence of the idea of the avant-garde. In the wake of Lettrism (1945–1952), a critique of the rational order of language was encountered; after Situationism, the discovery of the analysis and dismantling of a new regime based on the spectacle. Decisive to both movements was the reflection on film and cinephilia, and on the image and its transformation into a commodity. This series, therefore, joins both movements across three blocks: Lettrism, Guy Debord and René Viénet.     

In “Esthétique du cinéma”, published in Ion No. 1 in April 1952, Isidore Isou wrote: “When the screening was supposed to start, Debord had to get up on stage to say a few introductory words. He simply had to say: ‘there is no film to screen’. I thought about intervening and associating his destructive scandal with the constructive theory of pure debate. Debord should have said: ‘Film is dead. There can be no more films. If you want, let’s proceed to the debate’”.

In barely a year, between the springs of 1951 and 1952, a series of films and filmic performances were presented in France which even today, in retrospect, can be seen among the most radical points of rebuttal towards the cinema institution. Isidore Isou, the founder of Lettrism — a movement which synthesised much of the energy in the post-Second World War avant-garde in France — presented, at Cannes Film Festival, the first version of his film Traité de bave et d’eternité (1951), which revolved around a complete separation of the image track and soundtrack; “discrepant editing”, in his own terminology. The screening unleashed a storm of controversy since the last third of the film was sound only and showed a black screen, opening the way for an even more radical practice by other young film-makers: in the two months that followed, different Lettrists conducted exhaustive research into the key components of the cinema device. Aspects to be vehemently desecrated were: the film screen and image in L’Anticoncept (Gil J Wolman, 1952); the film theatre and screening device in Tambours du jugement premier (François Dufrêne, 1952); and the support and public reception in Hurlements en faveur de Sade (Guy Debord, 1952). The last of these would also cause a rift to run through the group, and would definitively split the paths of Debord and the other Lettrists.       

Although only recognised as such on a few occasions, Guy Debord wanted to be known as a film-maker. The central role cinema played in the “spectacular” society in the second half of the 20th century, which he would describe with acuity, afforded him the chance to become its only “accursed film-maker”. Therefore, Debord aligned his film practice with the permanent rejection of the institution — a practice which meant experimentally applying the Situationist directive of transcending art. His first public action entailed screening an imageless film, while his last rested on depriving the world of the chance to see his films, which actually occurred in the last ten years of his life. The publication, in book form, of the comments in his films (Oeuvres cinématographiques complètes, Gallimard, 2005) or the barren film version of his most acclaimed work (La societé du spectacle, 1973) were part of Debord’s calculated strategy to undermine the foundations of film culture and the society of the spectacle — the image — favouring instead its age-old adversary, the text. 

The film work of René Viénet represents a counterpoint to Guy Debord’s abstractions and challenges in the Situationist movement. In his films, restored for this season, the film-maker takes detournement, or deviation, to the extreme, appropriating and re-signifying newsreels, Maoist documentaries and karate films to question, in a perpetually humorous and playful way, bureaucratised society.

Program

Museo Reina Sofía, Sabatini Building, Auditorium

Programme 1. Lettrism

Isidore Isou. Traité de bave et eternité (Treaty on Venom and Eternity). Película, 1951, Museo Reina Sofía Collection

Friday, 21 February 2020 – 7pm

Session 1

Second session: Saturday, 22 February – 7pm

Isidore Isou
Traité de bave et d’éternité (Treaty on Venom and Eternity)
France, 1951, b/w, original version in French with Spanish subtitles, DA, 123’. Museo Reina Sofía Collection.

– Presented by Kaira M. Cabañas, art historian specialised in Lettrism, and author of the book Off-Screen Cinema: Isidore Isou and the Lettrist Avant-Garde (University of Chicago Press, 2015) [audio intervention]

Isou, a young Romanian poet and intellectual who had moved to Paris, was only 27 when he presented this film at Cannes. His aspirations included: resuming Russian Dadaist and formalist investigations into language, akin to his compatriot Tristan Tzara, and surmising the end of the then exhausted Surrealist movement. His goal: the birth of a new artistic avant-garde movement based on the liberating potential of the letter between sign and sound; that is, outside the logical order of word and language. This cult film constitutes his birth certificate and, produced on discarded footage from the French army, is an essay on artistic unrest through the life of a young artist. It also innovates in a hugely significant way: the ‘discrepant’ edit, in which the image becomes dissociated from the sound and is thus no longer the grounds for what we see on the screen, and ‘chiselled’ cinema, with scratches, crossings-out and other physical attacks on the actual film.       

Gil J Wolman. L´Anticoncept (Anti-Concept). Film, 1951. Photography: recreation made for the Specters of Artaud. Language and the Arts in the 1950s exhibition. Museo Reina Sofía, 2012. Museo Reina Sofía  Collection

Friday, 28 February 2020 – 7pm

Session 2

Second session: Saturday, 29 February – 7pm

Gil J Wolman
L’Anticoncept (Anti-concept)
France, 1951 b/w, original version in French with simultaneous interpretation into Spanish, DA, 60’. Museo Reina Sofía Collection.

“I am immortal and I am alive” are the words which conclude the audio of this unprecedented film work and which appear to allude to the fascination that still stirs in artists and theorists today. A huge hot-air balloon ushers us into the film theatre, acting as a volumetric screen folded upon itself, in which an abstract 35mm film with circles and opaque black blocks is projected. The sound comes from the voice of Gil J Wolman, who leaves behind discursive logic utterances, returning the voice to the phoneme, the breath, the body, in memory of Artaud. The film was censored in France from 1952 onwards due its strobe lights; “when the powers of the cop are added to professional blindness, we have idiots banning anything they don’t understand”, Guy Debord would write. Anti-Concept would be key in Debord’s first film and also to the film experiments of Brion Gysin and William Burroughs. For this series, the film is reactivated adhering to Gil J Wolman’s maxim: “recounting a work lacks a relationship with the work; revive it”.         

François Dufrêne. Tambours du jugement premier (Drums of the First Judgement). Sound work, 1952

Friday, 13 March 2020 – 7pm

Session 3

Second session: Saturday, 14 March – 7pm

François Dufrêne
Tambours du jugement premier (Drums of the First Judgement)
France, 1952 (1973 register), 72’. Reinterpreted by Gran Circo Indómito

A film with no screen and no sound. The Lettrists would become pioneers in disarming the film device; namely, in thinking of the cinema experience in another way. Therefore, they would not only presage film installations and expanded cinema, they would also reconnect with their own origins, despite them not being encoded in a dominant form. This film of “imaged cinema”, in the words of Dufrêne, takes us to the variety show, fair, and cinema in an unpredictable and uncontrolled situation. The recital, the voice and aphorisms articulate a series of events that occur in the room and which, on this occasion, an ensemble of Gran Circo Indómito poets and artists adapt to the present.  

Museo Reina Sofía, Sabatini Building, Auditorium

Programme 2. René Viénet

René Viénet. La dialectique peut-elle casser des briques? (Can Dialectics Break Bricks?). Film, 1972

Monday, 2 March 2020 – 7pm

Session 1

Second session: Friday, 6 March – 7pm

René Viénet
La dialectique peut-elle casser des briques? (Can Dialectics Break Bricks?)
France, 1972, colour, original version in Cantonese with audio modified in French and with Spanish subtitles, DA, 90’

– First session presented by René Viénet and Carlos Prieto Acevedo, editor, film programmer and translator of Viénet’s films.

René Viénet develops the ludic and subversive possibilities of Situationist détournement (diversion), a technique for appropriating, resignifying and making images and mass-culture materials circle again with a new and critical meaning with respect to the original. In so doing, the Situationists managed to reveal the ideological workings of the entertainment industry. In this film, Viénet appropriates Crush (1972), a martial arts film from Honk Kong made by Kuang-Chi Tu, in which some Japanese thugs terrorise Korean peasants, culminating in a fight. Viénet turns it into a confrontation between bureaucrats and proletariats inside State capitalism, between the use of dialogue and the use of violence, resulting in an aesthetically and politically avant-garde Situationist comedy demonstrating that play and humour are at once two effective and essential weapons in social critique.    

René Viénet. Chinois, encore in effort pour être révolutionnaires (One More Effort, Chinamen, If You Want to Be Revolutionary). Film, 1977. Film poster, 1977

Wednesday, 4 March 2020 – 7pm

Session 2

Second session: Saturday, 7 March – 7pm

René Viénet
Chinois, encore un effort pour être révolutionnaires (One More Effort, Chinamen, If You Want to Be Revolutionary)
France, 1977, colour, original version in Mandarin with audio modified in French and with Spanish subtitles, 35mm, 90’

– First session presented by René Viénet and Carlos Prieto Acevedo, editor, film programmer and translator of Viénet’s films.

In May 1965, Guy Debord and Gil J Wolman published the article “Mode d’emploi du détournement” (A User’s Guide to Détournement), where they assert: “clearly it is in the sphere of film where diversion is at its most effective and, undoubtedly, for those concerned about it, most beautiful (…). We can say that Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is one of the most important films in the history of cinema due to the mass of new contributions it represents. On the other hand, it is a racist film: in no way does it merit being screened in its current form. It is much better to divert its whole (…). A diversion like this, a very moderate one, would be nothing, in short, but the moral equivalent of the restorations of ancient paintings in museums”. René Viénet continues with the masterful use of detournement in this anti-Maoist film — a “spectacular” concentrated regime, according to Debord — together with newsreels and fiction films. 

Círculo de Bellas Artes and Museo Reina Sofía

Programme 3. Guy Debord

Guy Debord. Hurlements en faveur de Sade (Howlings for Sade). Film, 1952

Thursday, 5 March 2020 – 7:30pm / Círculo de Bellas Artes, Cine Estudio

Session 1

Guy Debord
Hurlements en faveur de Sade (Howlings for Sade)
France, 1952, b/w, original version in French with Spanish subtitles, DCP, 79’

Guy Debord’s first film and an example of his temporary allegiance to Lettrism. The film conveys a denial of the image, with alternate black-and-white screens and an independent soundtrack, in which dialogues are held on politics and love, news, extracts from the Civil Code, and readings of novels with the voices of Gil J Wolman, Isidore Isou, Barbara Rosenthal and Debord. Among these phrases, there is a resounding overview: “I decided to destroy cinema because it was easier than killing passers-by”. This anti-film inherits from Isou (discrepant cinema or the separation of image-audio) and is hugely influenced by Wolman’s Anti-Concept, not only in the extreme denial of the visible, but also in a specific idea: ending cinema is associated with the broadening of its critical possibilities.   

Guy Debord. Critique de la séparation (The Critique of Separation). Film, 1959

Sunday, 8 March 2020 – 7:30pm / Círculo de Bellas Artes, Cine Estudio

Session 2

Guy Debord
Sur le passage de quelques personnes à travers une assez courte unité de temps (On Some People Passing Through a Rather Short Time Unit)
France, 1959, b/w, original version in French with Spanish subtitles, DCP, 19’

Critique de la séparation (The Critique of Separation)
France, 1961, b/w, original version in French with Spanish subtitles, DCP, 18’

This session features two films made by Debord while Situationist International (1957–1972) existed. Both adhere to this movement of cultural and political agitation that promotes the rescue of life, with the latter having been turned into commodity, according to the logic of the spectacle. Therefore, they set out from the “creation of situations”, interactions between people and places that give rise to emancipatory social relations from the production-consumption axis. The conquest of a daily time and an existential space outside of this axis dominates both beautiful manifestos. In terms of audiovisual language, Debord appropriates the documentary genre of art devised by Alain Resnais (voice-over, still shots, subtitles, the fiction-documentary rupture) with an implicit objective and critique: transcending art in the recovery of life.      

Anonymous. Announcement of the screening of Hurlements en faveur de Sade. Poster, 1952

Tuesday, 10 March 2020 – 7:30pm / Círculo de Bellas Artes, Cine Estudio

Session 3

Guy Debord. Writing Cinema
A round-table discussion, with the participation of Amador Fernández-Savater, Hugo Savino and Manuel Asín

The cinematic writings of Guy Debord form an essential corpus for approaching the thought of the theorist and his relationship to images. Translated into Spanish for the first time by the publishing house Caja Negra, they include scripts and letters, most notably unrealised projects, for example the one in which he dedicates his last film to Spain. Participants in the round-table comprise Amador Fernández-Savater, theorist and editor of Panegírico (Acuarela Libros, 1999), the Guy Debord autobiography, Hugo Savino, essayist and translator, and Manuel Asín, editor of the book and co-curator of the series.

Guy Debord. Society of the Spectacle. Film, 1973

Thursday, 12 March 2020 – 7:30pm / Círculo de Bellas Artes, Cine Estudio

Session 4

Guy Debord
La société du spectacle (Society of the Spectacle)
France, 1973, b/w, original version in French with Spanish subtitles, DCP, 90’

A film adaptation of one of the most profound, ludic and revealing literary essays of our times, Society of the Spectacle (1967), also by Guy Debord. The theoretical analysis in the film-maker’s own voice-over and the flow of appropriated and resignified images from Westerns and Hollywood war films, Soviet propaganda, advertising and pornography, seek to show the workings of this political regime, whereby, according to Debord, all forms of social relations are obstructed by images and the spectacle; in short:  “[…] capital in such a degree of accumulation that it has become an image”. Debord uses this image overload to formulate a radical critique of the system based on two principles: not filming in order to not generate any new image prone to being turned into a commodity and examining the potential of cinema, in its recoding, as a weapon of ideological critique.  

Guy Debord. In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni. Film, 1981

Sunday, 15 March 2020 – 7:30pm / Círculo de Bellas Artes, Cine Estudio

Session 5

Guy Debord
Réfutation de tous les jugements, tant élogieux qu'hostiles, qui ont été jusqu'ici portés sur le film La Société du spectacle (Refutation of all Judgement, Eulogist and Hostile, Made Until this Point on the Film Society of the Spectacle)
France, 1975, b/w, original version in French with Spanish subtitles, DCP, 22’

In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni
France, 1981, b/w, original version in French with Spanish subtitles, DCP, 100’

Two films with a semi-wakeful, melancholy tone that reflect the belligerence of the political and social establishment towards Debord and the end of the untamed youth uprising represented by International Situationism. In Réfutation (…), the author takes charge of answering different critiques and rejections involved in the film version of Society of the Spectacle: “The most tenacious among those defeated liars still pretend to ask themselves whether the society of spectacle actually exists or whether, by chance, I am its inventor,” he said. In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni is a palindrome in Latin, and is known as a verse of the devil meaning “we move in the night and we are consumed by fire”. Scenes from Westerns, war and social films narrate the heroic times of Situationism as the party’s end. Debord, transformed into Errol Flynn or General Custer from They Died With Their Boots On, admits its rejection in the face of a drugged and self-complacent society.

Anónimo. Retrato de Guy Debord en el rodaje de “Critique de la séparation”. Fotografía, 1959

Saturday, 21 March 2020 – 7pm / Museo Reina Sofía, Sabatini Building, Auditorium

Session 6

Brigitte Cornand y Guy Debord
Guy Debord, son temps et son art (Guy Debord, His Time and His Art)
France, 1994, colour, original version in French with Spanish subtitles, DA, 60’ 

A documentary on Guy Debord with a screenplay by the theorist, who says of himself: “Guy Debord made very little art, but he did make it extreme”. Screened and subtitled for the first time in Spain, the film is a deliberate testament. It was shown on Canal+, its producer, on the agreed date of 9 January 1995, together with La société du spectacle and Réfutation. Only a month or so earlier, on 30 November 1994, Debord committed suicide in Bellevue-la-Montagne.  

Domingo 22 de marzo, 2020 – 18:30 h / Museo Reina Sofía, Nouvel Building, Auditorium 400

Session 7

Guy Debord
Songs of the Contemporary Social War
Concert and screening
Length: 1 hour

Jorge Manrique, Baltasar Gracián, conceptist baroque, Spanish anarchism, miners’ protests during Francoism… Guy Debord became passionate about Spanish culture, leading him to spend some time in Seville and even want to make a film as the culmination of his work, a project that would slip by the wayside: “thus, I will have dedicated an empty statue to Spain, a profound statue of nothing. Is there a more beautiful statue?”, Debord wrote to Jorge Semprún in 1986. The film is replaced by a songbook that narrates post-Francoist Spain: social movements, proletariat autonomy, neighbourhood organisations and the whole world of transformative energy and possibility moulded in the Transition to democracy. The coplas, summaries of the origins of contemporary Spain, are reinterpreted by choirs, artists and present-day musicians following invaluable research by artist Pedro G. Romero.      

  • Admission:

    Museo Reina Sofía: free, until full capacity is reached.
    Círculo de Bellas Artes: €5.50  – Over 65s, Youth Card €4, Pass €3.60, CBA members €3.50 (apart from the round-table discussion on 10 March, where admission will be free, until full capacity is reached).

    Curators:

    Manuel Asín and Chema González

    Organized by:

    Museo Reina Sofía and Círculo de Bellas Artes

    With the support of:

    Instituto de México en España
    Institut français d’Espagne

    Force line:

    Avant-gardes

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