Demand the Impossible: part 1
By Karma Pound on February 16, 2012
“Be realistic – demand the impossible!” – Anonymous graffiti, Paris 1968
There is a hidden history of anti-establishment art, which has had profound, though not generally recognised, consequences on society and culture. Characterized by a surrealist perspective on aesthetics and politics, a small group of international political and artistic agitators with roots in Marxism, Lettrism and the early 20th century European artistic and political avant-gardes, sought to challenge the separation of art and politics from everyday life.
In Newcastle during 1966 brothers David & Stuart Wise produced a ‘radical’ arts magazine called Icteric (meaning jaundice as well as a cure for jaundice). It was, said David Wise in retrospect a “confused attempt – though brave for the time – to get to grips with a profoundly conservative cultural establishment.”, “We wanted the authenticity of real life. And we wanted, like the surrealists, ‘to relive with intensity the best moments of childhood.’ This phrase was never far from our lips and we gave it, and others, a renewed lease of life by reproducing them and plastering Newcastle with stickers.” Icteric was a brief moment in an altogether much bigger creative unfolding taking place all over the world from the mid 60s onwards. The critique it had been moving towards was realised in greater coherence in 1967 by the Situationist Internationale.
The journal Internationale Situationiste defined a Situationist as “having to do with the theory or practical activity of constructing situations.” The core arguments confronted the supposed capitalist degradation of the life of people and the fake models advertised by the mass media. They argued that “people’s everyday lives were taken up by a meaningless and trivial waste of time, such as commuting and commodity consumption. “As people consume they become part of ‘the spectacle’, making rebellion against it difficult.” A significant idea developed in the first phase was that artists were to “break down the divisions between individual art forms, to create situations, constructed encounters and creatively lived moments in urban settings, instances of a transformed everyday life”.
Their cryptic phrases were the perfect medium for the near-revolution that occurred in Paris during May 1968. Mainstream images were altered and subverted so that their meaning became an oppositionist message. The posters and graffiti were novel and paradoxical. Phrases like “Demand the Impossible” or “Imagination is seizing Power” inverted conventional logic and made complex ideas suddenly seem very simple.” These were works of art but not in the traditional sense of being attributable to one person. They were anonymous.
The British sections of the Situationiste Internationale were excluded in 1967 after refusing to break off contact with the New York based Black Mask group. Black Mask produced a broadside of the same name declaring that revolutionary art should be “an integral part of life, as in primitive society, not an appendage to wealth.” From Black Mask grew The Motherfuckers!, referred to as “a street gang with analysis” or “a middle-class nightmare… an anti-media media phenomenon simply because their name could not be printed”. They contributed to the artistic philosophy by setting up free-houses, serving free food, starting a free store, and helping radicals connect with doctors and lawyers.
“Same thing day after day – tube – work – dinner – work – tube – armchair – TV – sleep – tube – work – how much more can you take? – one in ten go mad – one in five cracks up” – King Mob – Graffiti on a wall beside the London Underground line stations in west London.
Inspired by Black Mask and The Motherfuckers!, King Mob, based in London during the 1970’s, was an attempt to give a specifically British context to the rumblings of discontent. They sought to emphasize the cultural anarchy and disorder that had previously been ignored in Britain and contribute to worldwide proletarian social revolution. The name came from the 1780 Gordon rioters, who scrawled the words ‘His Majesty King Mob’ on the walls of Newgate prison in London. King Mob distributed their ideas through various posters and through their publication King Mob Echo. David Wise wrote, the group was a “spontaneous coming together… sheer passion and the desire to live a life free of money, the intensified invasion of exchange”.
King Mob was witty and confrontational and responsible for various attacks on art galleries. Members dressed in gorilla suits and pantomime horse outfits, led a crowd that tore down the high fences surrounding a square in “London’s Notting Hill, reopening the place as a playground for local children. They sneaked their own float into the Notting Hill Carnival, and ran riot in London’s Selfridges department store, as one member dressed as Father Christmas gave away all the shops toys to children. Members of the London constabulary subsequently forced the children to return the toys.
The Situationist International was an early influence on Malcolm McLaren, who was apparently present at the Selfridges ‘riot’. He introduced these ideas to punk through his management of the band Sex Pistols, claiming he commandeered the band members’ rebellious working-class tendencies and placed them in the context of his radical politics. His partner and the band’s designer and stylist, Vivienne Westwood, also expressed these ideals through album cover art and fashion.
The shock, rebellion, and discontent of Punk culture found a slightly more mainstream outlet in The KLF. One of the seminal bands from the 1980’s British acid house movement the KLF gained notoriety for various anarchic situationist manifestations. In 1989 they published a book called: The Manual, (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way), a step-by-step guide to achieving a number one hit single with little money or talent. They released a series of international top-ten hits on their own record label and became the biggest-selling singles act in the world for 1991.
In 1993 they set up The K Foundation as an artistic outlet for the royalties earned from the now defunct band. Having created an artistic machine that created money they set about inventing a machine to destroy it. The money was spent in a number of ways, including a series of Situationist-inspired press articles. The first was a series of cryptic adverts in UK national newspapers, one for their new single which was “Available nowhere … no formats” and which was “not planned for release until world peace was established”. Each advert cost between £5,000 and £15,000. The K Foundation presented their first artwork – ‘Nailed to a Wall’, consisting of one million pounds in fifty pound notes, nailed to a large framed board. ‘Nailed To a Wall’ had a reserve price of £500,000, half the face value of the cash used in its construction. In 1994 they incinerated one million pound in cash on a remote Scottish island.
People say graffiti is ugly, irresponsible and childish… but that’s only if it’s done properly. – Banksy
Anonymous English graffiti artist Banksy, known for his “distinctive stencilling technique”, is perhaps one of the most famous living artists in the world today. Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie reportedly spent £200,000 on his art – satirical graffiti commenting on politics, culture and ethics. Among the works was a £120,000 painting in which a white family lunch under an umbrella watched by 15 starving Africans. In 2004 Banksy produced a quantity of spoof British £10 notes substituting the picture of the Queen’s head with Princess Diana’s, changing the text “Bank of England” to “Banksy of England.” Someone threw a large wad of these into a crowd at Notting Hill Carnival that year, which some people then tried to spend in local shops. The individual notes sold on ebay for up to £200 each.
In 2007, a new record high for the sale of Banksy’s work was set with the auction of the work ‘Space Girl & Bird’, part of a series of works commissioned by the band Blur for their Think Tank album, fetching £288,000 at Bonham’s of London. His collaboration with Damien Hirst sold for £950,300 at the Sotheby’s Red auction in New York this year. Banksy’s three works in the sale sold for a total of £1.5m – further proof of his international reputation.
In 2009 the Czech Republic proudly commissioned artist David Cerny to mark the start of its six-month presidency of the European Union. His artwork “Entropa”, an enormous installation outside the European Council building, was meant to symbolize a unified Europe by reflecting country in the European Union. The 172-square-foot, eight-ton installation, consisted of a sort of puzzle formed by the geographical shapes of European countries.
When Bulgaria, depicted as a Turkish lavatory, objected the Czechs government started to question the project and Mr. Cerny admitted that the whole thing had been a hoax. He and a few friends had created all the sculptures themselves and invented the names of the “up-and-coming” artists from the 27 member states, giving some of them web sites and writing pretentious, absurd statements to go with their supposed contributions. The Germans were represented as a series of highways. Spain was a huge construction site, while Romania was shown as a Dracula-themed amusement park. There was also the question of what became of £350,000 in funding meant for the artists…
“I take my desires for reality because I believe in the reality of my desires” – Anonymous graffiti, Paris 1968