(я) | Benjamin Gaulon aka RECYCLISM
Born in France - Living in
France, the Netherlands, Ireland, France
I’m an artist, researcher and art college lecturer, I have previously released work under the name "Recyclism". My research focuses on the limits and failures of information and communication technologies; planned obsolescence, consumerism and disposable society; ownership and privacy; through the exploration of détournement, hacking and recycling. My projects can be softwares, installations, pieces of hardware, web based projects, interactive works, street art interventions and are, when applicable, open source.
I’m currently full-time faculty at Parsons Paris, where I’m the program director for the MFA Design + Technology and the BFA AMT (Art, Media and Technology).
I’m a member of the Graffiti Research Lab France. I have been lecturer at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, associate researcher at CTVR / the telecommunications research centre (Trinity College) and director of Data 2.0 (Dublin Art and Technology Association).
Since 2005 I’ve been leading workshops and giving lectures in Europe and US about e-waste and hardware Hacking / Recycling. Workshop participants explore the potential of obsolete technologies in a creative way and find new strategies for e-waste recycling.
In 2011 I’ve created the Recyclism Hacklab - a collaborative workspace focused on contemporary DIY and hacking practices. Within this multidisciplinary space I facilitate and teach both workshops and mentoring sessions in physical computing, hardware hacking and 3D printing. The Recyclism Hacklab provides a wide range of creative practitioners an informal environment where they can engage in critical making, and receive support for self directed research and autonomous learning.
Visual Artist - Recyclism
Program director BFA Art, Media & Technology - Parsons Paris
Director - Recyclism Hacklab
Member of GRL FR (Graffiti Research Lab France)
[2006-2013] Lecturer - Faculty of Fine Art NCAD (National College of Art and Design)
[2007-2013] Director of D.A.T.A (Dublin Art and Technology Association)
[2012-2013] Associate Researcher - CTVR / Trinity College
The Rubbish is what is lost after using a material. It’s also a product without any value. It’s something that we don’t know how to use or what to do with, a resource that waits for a use or can’t be used because of a technological gap.
The rubbish is connected to the idea of property, or to be more precise it’s an object without any owner, so when something is trashed it becomes public property.
A trashcan is full of material: information data that can be used or reworked into a finished form.
Vous reprendrez bien un peu de glitch ?
Vous vouliez du high-tech ? des computers qui ronronnent ? des écrans qui brillent ? câbles invisibles, tout lisses, tout rutilants, sans accrocs. Utopie riante d’un futur technologique. Raté. Bienvenue dans une comédie dystopique où tout fout le camp, tout tremblote ou se détraque. Bienvenue chez les e-zombies, en mode train fantôme.
Benjamin Gaulon est artiste, chercheur, enseignant à Parsons Paris The New School for Design et membre du Graffiti Research Lab France. Dans chacune de ces activités, il s’attache à développer une approche créative et critique autour de la technologie, des médias et des modes de consommation qu’ils génèrent. Il organise également depuis 2005 des « e-waste workshop » où le public s’initie au circuit bending, au hardware hacking, ainsi qu’aux problématiques liées à l’obsolescence programmée : on y détourne du matériel en apparence obsolète pour recomposer ainsi de nouveaux objets électroniques. L’expérimentation pédagogique, envisagée comme mode de recherche, vient compléter l’arsenal des tactiques de cet artiste qui recycle, qui hacke et qui détourne.
Prenez, par exemple, la « liseuse » : objet miracle sensément venu sauver l’industrie du livre et offrir un accès illimité à « la plus grande bibliothèque du monde ». Chez Benjamin, avec la série KindleGlitched, la liseuse est un objet foutu, hors service, qu’on aura beau secouer, rebooter, rien n’y fait. On devine ici à son front inquiet le portrait de Friedrich Nietzche, là, par la courbe de son coude et les boucles de ses cheveux, le portrait de Jane Austen par sa sœur Cassandra. Figées dans leur ultime état ante-mortem, ces liseuses deviennent ready-mades, signés par l’artiste et accrochés comme des tableaux sur les murs. On admire bien dans les musées des toiles toutes craquelées, des fragments de statues démantelées, alors pourquoi pas ces vestiges d’une archéologie par anticipation ?
« We’d love to hear your thoughts on the Kindle experience ». La formule d’usage pour nos doléances de l’ère numérique prend ici des accents ironiques et critiques : à quoi bon formuler nos pensées puisqu’elles sont déjà sur écoute, comme la plupart de nos faits et gestes, sur tout appareil relié au world wide web ?
Par delà l’humour, il y a donc dans toute posture de loose magnifique une bonne dose d’intensité critique : l’obsolescence programmée, les ratés des technologies de l’information et de la communication, le devenir marchandise de nos vies privées sur la toile, fournissent à Benjamin Gaulon la matière de son travail de recherche, de création et de médiation.
Et ça ne fait que commencer.
Pauvre jouet canin robotique, Gameboy, Console Atari, tournes disques, walkman fisherprice, sportron, zackman, watchman, aquarius computer. Et des fils, des câbles, bref, de la connectique. A n’en plus finir. De quoi parle-t-on ? d’une foire à la brocante electronique ? D’une liste de course high-tech des années 1980 retrouvée dans un grenier ? De l’arrière boutique d’un repair-shop rétro-futuriste ?
Non, d’une installation, ReFunct Media, un écosystème en équilibre instable – ou plutôt, un bordel de vieux machins, le genre de choses qu’on néglige, qu’on a jeté depuis des lustres ou qu’on laisse prendre la poussière dans les greniers – de vieilles choses, en somme, dont Benjamin, prend le parti en une chaine qui cliquète, qui clignote, qui s’anime et se révolte.
L’objet de cette révolte, c’est l’obsolescence programmée, les mirages de la félicité technologique, et le silence qu’on impose aux compagnons des jeux, des loisirs, ou du turbin quand ils sont passés de mode – on dit bien « passés de mode » car « hors d’usage » ils ne le sont jamais tout à fait. Benjamin Gaulon le démontre, en démontant et remontant en série ces objets d’un quotidien déprogrammé, au point mort.
Avec humour, l’installation ReFunct Media fait donc parader les zombies de l’âge numérique, perfusés les uns aux autres, hoquetant ici des signaux retransmis là-bas, projetant de haut en bas ce qui est filmé de gauche à droite.
Il y a chez Benjamin Gaulon un peu du docteur Frankenstein donnant vie à son monstre hétéroclite et recyclé. On a pu lire le roman de Mary Shelley comme un commentaire, voire un soutien, aux révoltes luddites de l’Angleterre des années 1810. Les ouvriers y cassaient les machines introduites dans les ateliers et les usines, protestant par ce geste éclatant contre la civilisation technophile qui naissait alors avec la Révolution industrielle. Aujourd’hui, l’âge numérique a beau se fondre avec ce que l’on nomme l’âge post-industriel, les machines y sont plus que jamais parmi nous ; les technologies de l’information en sont l’un des avatars contemporains. Constatant l’intégration consommée de ces technologies dans nos vies quotidiennes, Benjamin Gaulon prend le parti d’en montrer les faillites et les impasses– pour la plus grande joie des usagers que nous sommes.
Le glitch. Faillite de la machine. Impasse avant rebootage. Le programme a planté. Voulez-vous envoyer un rapport d’erreur ? Non merci. Mais vous reprendrez bien un peu de glitch alors ? Uglitch est une installation interactive mais aussi une plateforme media crée en 2011 par Martial Geoffre-Rouland et Benjamon Gaulon et basée sur Corrupt, un software en ligne de corruption volontaire de fichiers vidéo. En langage technique, un glitch est un à-coup, une erreur passagère, dans un système électrique, électronique ou informatique. Bien connu des usagers de plateformes vidéo et du téléchargement en peer-to-peer, il se traduit par une altération de l’image en mouvement, créant le plus souvent un nuage de pixels qui altère la fluidité du visionnage, et vient ainsi interrompre la passivité du visionneur-consommateur. Procédé ludique et créatif, le glitch volontaire est aussi exhibition du medium à la surface d’un contenu altéré : mise en œuvre et rappel de la célèbre formule du théoricien des media Marshall McLuhan, « the medium is the message ». Ce que vous regardez n’est pas la vie véritable, mais son devenir medium dans le monde des images. « Toute la vie des société dans lesquelles règnent les conditions modernes de production s’annonce comme un immense accumulation de spectacles. Toute ce qui était directement vécu s’est éloigné dans une représentation », la phrase inaugurale du célèbre essai de Guy Debord, La Société du spectacle, de même que ses recherches sur le détournement, trouvent ici leur reformulation pour l’ère numérique.
Ce travail de déconstruction de l’apparente fluidité des images digitales se poursuit avec L.S.D., Light to Sound Device. Un écran, une ventouse, un capteur, du fil, un ampli, une enceinte – et en chemin, le visuel qui devient sonore. Le caractère artificiel des représentations, leur nature première d’accumulation de données déguisées en unité visuelle et sans défaut, est ainsi mis en évidence par leur réemploi sous forme d’input sonore. L’image devient son, comme le son peut devenir image, exhibant ainsi le caractère de pur medium de ces artefacts contemporains.
Le travail de Benjamin Gaulon consiste ainsi à rompre l’apparente fluidité des circuits, au sens propre, ainsi qu’on l’a vu, comme au figuré, avec ses recherches actuelles sur ce qu’il désigne sous le nom de Retail Poisoning. La pratique ne date pas d’hier, certes. C’est vieux comme le monde même – à tout le moins comme la guerre de Troie et son cheval. Dans les années 1970, l’artiste conceptuel Brésilien Cildo Mereiles, cherchant à éviter la censure de la dictature militaire, développait son projet d’Insertions en circuits idéologiques. Avec un sens stratégique certain, l’artiste-activiste a ainsi recouru, comme support de propagande, à des bouteilles de Coca-Cola consignées, et donc promises à une remise en circulation quasi perpétuelle. Outre des slogans anti-américains visant l’implication de la CIA dans le putsch du maréchal Castelo Branco, un schéma expliquait comment transformer lesdites bouteilles en cocktails molotov. Auguste Blanqui, qui signait en 1868 ses Instructions pour une prise d’armes, en aurait sûrement pris une rasade.
Le jeu est ce qui disjoint, comme on parle du jeu qui affecte un mécanisme, permettant son fonctionnement fluide, mais menaçant toujours de le faire imploser s’il devient trop important. Le travail de Benjamin Gaulon se situe dans ce jeu. A rebours d’une tendance forte de l’art numérique qui, visant sa légitimation dans le champ artistique, se complait souvent dans un esprit de sérieux, Benjamin Gaulon explore ce jeu là, le pousse à ses extrémités, et suscite par l’humour une distanciation salvatrice. Mieux, émancipatrice. Il s’agit en effet de remettre sur ses pieds la dialectique du maître et de l’esclave et de reprendre la main sur les machines – ou d’y foutre un bon coup de marteau qui glitche.
Hardware hacking and recycling strategies in an age of technological obsolescence
by Benjamin Gaulon
Planned obsolescence was first explicitly formulated in the 1920s and 1930s as part of a strategy to promote recurrent consumption . The term "planned obsolescence" already appears in the 1930s, as exemplified by Bernard London’s pamphlet of 1932 Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence . In the 1950s, further evidence of this dynamic can found in statements by designers such as Brooks Stevens  and retailing experts like Victor Labow .
Planned obsolescence may be described as a design strategy that pre-emptively restricts the lifespan of a commercial product, building-in factors intended to promote early replacement (of the object or intrinsic part thereof) before usability is fully exhausted. These built-in factors may be of a technical or material nature, e.g., some inkjet printer manufacturers uses smart chips in their ink cartridges to prevent them from being used after a certain threshold like the number of pages or time. Apple’s iPod, iPhones and iPads are manufactured with no user serviceable parts inside, including their batteries. After approximately three years of use, the lithium-polymer battery will no longer work and the device will either need to be professionally serviced or discarded. Sometimes they may comprise a marketing strategy in which the appearance of "new" models within the same product range relegates older models to obsolescence .
Planned obsolescence is an especially notable strategy in the consumer technology and personal electronics market, where there is a clear premium on the novelty and iterative development of new generations of the same underlying technologies (e.g., the personal computer and the mobile phone). Darren Blum, a senior industrial engineer at Pentagram Design, which builds portable devices and computers for companies like Hewlitt Packard, says "We joke that we design landfills" . The combination of short term design and marketing strategies and fast consumption behaviours tends to generate a fast increasing amount of electronic waste .
A counterpoint to the development of planned obsolescence is evidenced by the work of artists, hobbyists, hackers, activists and sustainability-advocates who explore the latent potential of apparently "obsolete" devices. Early indications of this tendency are in the work of Reed Ghazala  who initiated and first conceptualized the practice of "Circuit Bending" in the 1960s which has not been widely documented, studied or theorised . An other emerging practice is the recycling and hardware hacking processes that are driven by necessity by Hackers and Hobbyist in westerns and developing countries . Though driven by entirely different motivations, these practices can inform each other. Furthermore these practices have the potential to make significant contributions into the debate of technological obsolescence.
Hardware hacking as an art practice has emerged very recently, notably in the field of electronic music as the technique of "circuit bending" where cheap music toys and instruments are modified to create new and unique music instruments. While less prevalent for visual artists, perhaps because it requires more specific skills and knowledge, it is a practice, which has seen a growth in popularity.
While it is a new practice, it’s art historical precedents can be traced back to the cybernetic art movement of the 1960s best known through the Jasia Reichardt curated "Cybernetic Serendipity" exhibition in the ICA in 1968. Key influences would include the installation work of Nam June Paik, the machines of Jean Tinguely and the lesser-known work of French cybernetic artist Nicolas Schöffer.
Examples of artists and artists groups involved in hardware hacking would include the Institute for Applied Autonomy, Peter Vogel, Casey Smith (Junkfunnel Lab), Gebhard Sengmüller, Karl Klomp, Gijs Gieskes, Rosa Menkman, Tom Verbruggen, Jonah Bruker-Cohen & Katherine Moriwaki (Scrapyard Challenge), Ben Castro and Miguel Rodriguez of Basurama, Garnet Hertz, Niklas Roy, Todd Holoubek, Gordan Savicic, Harold Schellinx, Peter Edwards, Martin Diamant, Günter Erhart, Nicolas Collins, Cory Arcangel, Natalie Jeremijenko, Troika, Phil Archer, Michael Golembewski, John Bowers, Julius von Bismarck, Caleb Coppock, Lesley Flanigan, James Houston, Aleks Kolkowski, Alexis Malbert, Jeff Boynton, Tom Koch, Arcangel Constantini, LoVid, Stefan Jankus, Phillip Stearns, Jeff Donaldson [Notendo] and many more.
New technological developments such as the availability of low cost micro controller boards like Arduino  made specifically for artists and designers and the sharing of techniques and information via the Internet have made hardware hacking easier and as a result the popularity of hardware hacking is increasing as an artistic technique.
The significance of this type of artistic practices is clear when one considers the sheer volume of waste electronics being disposed round world. Moore’s law dictates that the complexity of computer chips doubles each 18 months. By consequence every year 20 to 50 millions tones of E-waste is generated worldwide .
 It is worth noting that some critics have suggested that the root concept of promoting unnecessary consumption through the premature “wearing-out” of a commodity is already in evidence in the 17th century, pointing to sources such as Discourse on Trade (1690) by Nicolas Barbon in which he argued that, "Fashion or the alteration of dress is a great promoter of trade, because it occasions the expense of cloths before the old ones are worn out". (See Edwards, 2005, pp.24)
 Bernard London, "Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence" (pamphlet), 1932. Reproduced by Adbusters Magazine, "How Consumer Society is Made to Break," available online at http://www.adbusters.org/category/tags/obsolescence (Last modified October 20th 2008, last modified October 18th 2009.)
 "desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary." Brooks Stevens, Talk at Midland (Minneapolis) in 1954, audio recording available at
 "These commodities and services must be offered to the consumer with a special urgency. We require not only "forced draft" consumption, but "expensive" consumption as well. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace." Victor Lebow, Price Competition in 1955, The New York University Journal of Retailing, Volume XXXI, Number 1, Spring 1955, page 7.
 Although the term has wide currency in popular discourse, considered definitions for "planned obsolescence" are not very common although both Vance Packard (The Waste Makers. Simon & Schuster. 1978) and Thomas Frank (The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, University of Chicago Press, 1997) have attempted to provide these. These definitions tend to focus on the question of consumerism and not specifically about electronic waste.
 Companies Slash Warranties, Rendering Gadgets Disposable, Tuesday, July 16, 2002, By Jane Spencer Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal.
 The average lifespan of computers in developed countries has dropped from six years in 1997 to just two years in 2005. Mobile phones have a lifecycle of less than two years in developed countries. 183 million computers were sold worldwide in 2004 - 11.6 percent more than in 2003. 674 million mobile phones were sold worldwide in 2004 - 30 percent more than in 2003. By 2010, there will be 716 million new computers in use. There will be 178 million new computer users in China, 80 million new users in India. The e-waste problem, Background - May 23, 2005. Greenpeace International. http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/toxics/electronics/the-e-waste-problem/
 Q. Reed Ghazala, "The Folk Music of Chance Electronics, Circuit-Bending the Modern Coconut," Leonardo Music Journal Vol. 14., MIT Press.
 Some interesting work exists such as Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology Into An Art Method Garnet Hertz & Jussi Parikka. July 10th 2010. Vilèm Flusser Theory Award 2010.
 Shenzhen - Phone recycling - 1 via Techtravels Blog by David Kousemaker.
 Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. It’s intended for artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments. Arduino
The Works of Benjamin Gaulon 
Playing Pong on the facade of big buildings, a paintball gun shooting pictures and messages, a musical instrument using game controllers to make music collectively, digital photos corrupted by software: Benjamin Gaulon’s artworks make clear statements that engage the public in a meaningful and playful way. Often, his works make the audience aware of issues of concerning the role of technology in culture and society. They have a quality of being immediately accessible, bringing a smile on your face, making you want to play, do it yourself. And while enjoying, the works make you aware that you could do so many more meaningful, interesting, creative ‘things’ with the old and new technologies around. The way in which Gaulon works with both hard- and software shows that technology is a toolbox to create works, to engage in making culture, to express oneself, to react to the existing culture. As Jonah Brucker-Cohen remarked very aptly in his interview with Benjamin Gaulon that "Gaulon’s projects attempt to challenge popular conceptions of how electronic objects and software should and could function in our daily lives."
Benjamin Gaulon belongs to the young generation of artists in the field of technological and new media art, that, adhering to a DIY-ideology, loves to make physical pieces. He builds software (in Processing and Max/Msp), he is very much part of the internet generation, the laptop is his home probably – being French and living in Ireland – but developing his work he isn’t content with being ‘virtual’. His works mostly involves the design of tangible interfaces, custom hardware, and aims at performances where the audience plays an active part. His attitude towards technology is that we now have so many tools and electronic parts available – partly to be found in the rubbish bins – that one can built custom devices to one’s own taste. They might not work perfectly always (in the way commercial technology should), they might just be built for one task, but they do what the maker wants it to do – and that might be something that no other piece of software or hardware does.
Recycling is a theme that informs a lot of Benjamin Gaulon’s projects. This is as an environmental issue, for instance when he points to all the e-waste that the West ships to Africa and China. But it is primarily by engaging us with old games and obsolete technology, by making new works from obsolete equipment, discarded electronic parts, and stuff found on flea markets or even amongst the rubbish, that he makes us aware of how much we just throw away, how much we discard and forget about when buying the new iPhone, the new iPod.
Gaulon likes to open up the electronic parts, tinker with it, and build something that works. Often the creative potential of the old parts is larger than that of the new gadgets with their shiny look. He shows that with the toolkit we have now (laptop, software like Max/Msp and Processing, Arduino-boards and Atmel-chips, hardware tools), we can build our own tools, robots, strange gadgets, instruments, et cetera. To emphasize this point Benjamin Gaulon has for instance led e-Waste workshops with DePonk (Gaulon with Geraud de Bizien and Karl Klomp).
In his own works Gaulon communicate this ‘message’, by packaging it skillfully, to first capture the public, that subsequently, through engaging or playing with the work, will later begin to ponder these issues. I experienced this myself, by playing his RES – the Recycling Entertainment System a custom made electronic instrument, to be played collaboratively by six people. It consists of six Nintendo game-controllers (the early NES-ones), with which the player plays and chooses sounds from a library. Every controller is connected to the main chip in a black box – which is programmed in basic to read and convert the signals from the controller to midi. This output goes to a computer that runs the Resware, built with MAX/msp. One controller plays bass sounds, another the drums, two for percussion, one for synthesiser sounds and one for various samples (voices, scratching sounds etc.) Playing together one hears a joyfully bleeping band with a hip-hop flavour coming to life. Note that for every sound (every hit on a snare drum, every bass-note, every percussion sound), the player has to push a button, the sounds do not loop: playing the RES is very much like playing a (simple) musical instrument. The RES is addictive to play, because on the one hand it gives immediate gratification (it sounds great almost from the start), but it takes hour to get to know it intimately. The real joy lies in playing it together. If it is a game, it is a game that one does not play against each other to win, but a game to play together in order to make it sound good. That is what making collectively improvised music is about, but it is also a road not often taken in commercial game development. Gaming might be is a social activity, still gamers get together to play against each other, or play together against others. The RES is a truly interactive ’system’ where several players create something together in realtime. In 2005 the RES was one of the highlights on the Sonic Acts Festival in Amsterdam, where it was installed in the basement of Paradiso, with some players spending hours playing the RES, and missing out on the performances of the electronic music acts that they’d come to see and hear.
The RES is also an example of another strand in Gaulon’s work: that of modifying existing hardware. In RES this is done with obsolete technology (at least for the visible part: the controllers), in a later project PrintBall a contemporary paintball gun is modified into a software-driven semi-automatic painting-canon that can shoot messages and images. The PrintBall is like an inktjet printer using a paintball gun as printhead. The gun is mounted on a custom made pan and tilt unit which is connected to software (built with Max/Msp). The software allow the users to load an image, that the paintball gun will shoot in a pixellated form. Every bullet is one pixel. The resolution of the image and the space between the points can be adjusted. Gaulon shows this this work in performances, that have a powerful impact, simply because the paintball gun is, indeed a gun that shoots bullets – bullets filled with paint, but still bullets. In fact Gaulon’s first idea was to build a graffiti robot that could spray messages on walls out of reach, inspired by similar projects, mostly from the scene of political activists and culture jammers. Using a gun for that is a reference to the force with which advertising, commercial media and also the political propaganda are shooting their images at us with force.
Pong, an earlier project that Gaulon developed while studying in Groningen, is a recycling of the old computer game Pong, and again a reference to the culture of retro-gaming. It is an augmented reality game played in public space. Pong is projected on a building, and the limits of that building become the limits of the playing field. The projected ball bounces against against the walls, but also against windowsills and other ‘obstacles’ on the building, while two players on the ground play against each other. The software was developed in cooperation with Arjan Westerdiep, and the set-up is portable, so that it can be played in any square without to much ado. Success is ensured as the public, expecting that the game is simply projected, finds out that the virtual ‘ball’ bounces on the real architecture.
Thanks to his background in visual design, Benjamin Gaulon knows how to make his works attractive and communicate to an audience in an exhibition or festival context. One engages there with his works, without ever asking the question if it’s art or not. (In my experience, that question pops up mostly when the work itself is not strong enough and one begins to wonder what it’s place is a a certain venue). Gaulon uses his designing skills also to make the works come across on the web. This is important since in our digital age, more often than not, we will often first encounter new artworks not while visiting a festival of exhibition, but from browsing around on the net.
Benjamin Gaulon uses the internet also in practice to engage his audience. For an earlier work on e-waste, he for instance asked people to to upload the contents of their computer trash to his site, for further recycling. His work Corrupt is a piece of software that corrupts imagefile, by reading code and changing a few lines (in practice, the software, built with Processing, opens the image-file in a text-editor and changes the binary code before saving the image again as an image). He encourages his visitors to use the software themselves and upload the results. Often people – and also Benjamin Gaulon – will choose political images: to corrupt portraits of Bush, Blair, or Sarkozy, and thereby show their corruption. In those cases the work Corrupt is a piece of cultural activism, that can be compared to painting over billboards and the skillful detournement of advertising used by the culture jammers. Corrupt is also a work in the lineage of the Situationists. Gaulon indeed prefers to regard it that way – as can be inferred from the fact that on his site he republishes, as his ‘statement’ one of the seminal texts from that avant-garde movement: A User’s Guide to Detournement, by Guy Debord and Gil J. Wolman from 1956. On the other hand, Gaulon is also fascinated by the purely aesthetic results of the glitches: sometimes through pure luck, the corruption procedure results in beautiful effects. The very first exhibition of the project, featured a corrupted filmclip, in which content and form rhymed: a second, showing a rider on a motorbike almost losing control of his machine, which might be too powerful for human beings, on a fast turn. I don’t think that image was illustrative of Benjamin Gaulon’s work in general, but it is significant as an example of his love for clear and powerful statements.
Text by Arie Altena (1966) writes about art and new media. Currently he is editor/researcher for the V2_Archive in Rotterdam and theory tutor at the department of Interactive Media and Environments of the Frank Mohr Institute in Groningen. In 2006 he was researcher at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht. His blog-research In the Loop is part of the Ubiscribe-project for which he also co-edited the POD-book Pervasive Personal Participatory, Ubiscribe 0.9.0 (2006). In the past he was editor of Mediamatic Magazine and Metropolis M. He co-curated the festivals Sonic Acts X and XI, and co-edited the Sonic Acts publications Unsorted, Thoughts on the Information Arts (2004) and The Anthology of Computer Art (2006).
A User’s Guide to Détournement
Guy Debord & Gil J. Wolman
Les Lèvres Nues #8 (May 1956)
Translated by Ken Knabb
Any reasonably aware person of our time is aware of the obvious fact that art can no longer be justified as a superior activity, or even as a compensatory activity to which one could honorably devote oneself. The reason for this deterioration is clearly the emergence of productive forces that necessitate other production relations and a new practice of life. In the civil-war phase we are engaged in, and in close connection with the orientation we are discovering for certain superior activities to come, we can consider that all known means of expression are going to converge in a general movement of propaganda that must encompass all the perpetually interacting aspects of social reality.
There are several conflicting opinions about the forms and even the very nature of educative propaganda, opinions that generally reflect one or another currently fashionable variety of reformist politics. Suffice it to say that in our view the premises for revolution, on the cultural as well as the strictly political level, are not only ripe, they have begun to rot. It is not just returning to the past which is reactionary; even modern cultural objectives are ultimately reactionary since they depend on ideological formulations of a past society that has prolonged its death agony to the present. The only historically justified tactic is extremist innovation.
The literary and artistic heritage of humanity should be used for partisan propaganda purposes. It is, of course, necessary to go beyond any idea of scandal. Since opposition to the bourgeois notion of art and artistic genius has become pretty much old hat, [Duchamps] drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa is no more interesting than the original version of that painting. We must now push this process to the point of negating the negation. Bertolt Brecht, revealing in a recent interview in the magazine France-Observateur that he made some cuts in the classics of the theater in order to make the performances more educative, is much closer than Duchamp to the revolutionary orientation we are calling for. We must note, however, that in Brechts case these salutary alterations are narrowly limited by his unfortunate respect for culture as defined by the ruling class that same respect, taught in the newspapers of the workers parties as well as in the primary schools of the bourgeoisie, which leads even the reddest worker districts of Paris always to prefer The Cid over [Brechts] Mother Courage.
It is in fact necessary to eliminate all remnants of the notion of personal property in this area. The appearance of new necessities outmodes previous inspired works. They become obstacles, dangerous habits. The point is not whether we like them or not. We have to go beyond them.
Any elements, no matter where they are taken from, can serve in making new combinations. The discoveries of modern poetry regarding the analogical structure of images demonstrate that when two objects are brought together, no matter how far apart their original contexts may be, a relationship is always formed. Restricting oneself to a personal arrangement of words is mere convention. The mutual interference of two worlds of feeling, or the bringing together of two independent expressions, supersedes the original elements and produces a synthetic organization of greater efficacy. Anything can be used.
It goes without saying that one is not limited to correcting a work or to integrating diverse fragments of out-of-date works into a new one; one can also alter the meaning of those fragments in any appropriate way, leaving the imbeciles to their slavish preservation of citations.
Such parodic methods have often been used to obtain comical effects. But such humor is the result of contradictions within a condition whose existence is taken for granted. Since the world of literature seems to us almost as distant as the Stone Age, such contradictions dont make us laugh. It is therefore necessary to conceive of a parodic-serious stage where the accumulation of detourned elements, far from aiming to arouse indignation or laughter by alluding to some original work, will express our indifference toward a meaningless and forgotten original, and concern itself with rendering a certain sublimity.
Lautréamont advanced so far in this direction that he is still partially misunderstood even by his most ostentatious admirers. In spite of his obvious application of this method to theoretical language in Poésies where Lautréamont (drawing particularly on the maxims of Pascal and Vauvenargues) strives to reduce the argument, through successive concentrations, to maxims alone a certain Viroux caused considerable astonishment three or four years ago by conclusively demonstrating that Maldoror is one vast détournement of Buffon and other works of natural history, among other things. The fact that the prosaists of Figaro, like Viroux himself, were able to see this as a justification for disparaging Lautréamont, and that others believed they had to defend him by praising his insolence, only testifies to the senility of these two camps of dotards in courtly combat with each other. A slogan like Plagiarism is necessary, progress implies it is still as poorly understood, and for the same reasons, as the famous phrase about the poetry that must be made by all.
Apart from Lautréamonts work whose appearance so far ahead of its time has to a great extent preserved it from a precise critique the tendencies toward détournement that can be observed in contemporary expression are for the most part unconscious or accidental. It is in the advertising industry, more than in a decaying aesthetic production, that one can find the best examples.
We can first of all define two main categories of detourned elements, without considering whether or not their being brought together is accompanied by corrections introduced in the originals. These are minor détournements and deceptive détournements.
Minor détournement is the détournement of an element which has no importance in itself and which thus draws all its meaning from the new context in which it has been placed. For example, a press clipping, a neutral phrase, a commonplace photograph.
Deceptive détournement, also termed premonitory-proposition détournement, is in contrast the détournement of an intrinsically significant element, which derives a different scope from the new context. A slogan of Saint-Just, for example, or a film sequence from Eisenstein.
Extensive detourned works will thus usually be composed of one or more series of deceptive and minor détournements.
Several laws on the use of détournement can now be formulated.
It is the most distant detourned element which contributes most sharply to the overall impression, and not the elements that directly determine the nature of this impression. For example, in a metagraph [poem-collage] relating to the Spanish Civil War the phrase with the most distinctly revolutionary sense is a fragment from a lipstick ad: Pretty lips are red. In another metagraph (The Death of J.H.) 125 classified ads of bars for sale express a suicide more strikingly than the newspaper articles that recount it.
The distortions introduced in the detourned elements must be as simplified as possible, since the main impact of a détournement is directly related to the conscious or semiconscious recollection of the original contexts of the elements. This is well known. Let us simply note that if this dependence on memory implies that one must determine ones public before devising a détournement, this is only a particular case of a general law that governs not only détournement but also any other form of action on the world. The idea of pure, absolute expression is dead; it only temporarily survives in parodic form as long as our other enemies survive.
Détournement is less effective the more it approaches a rational reply. This is the case with a rather large number of Lautréamonts altered maxims. The more the rational character of the reply is apparent, the more indistinguishable it becomes from the ordinary spirit of repartee, which similarly uses the opponents words against him. This is naturally not limited to spoken language. It was in this connection that we objected to the project of some of our comrades who proposed to detourn an anti-Soviet poster of the fascist organization Peace and Liberty which proclaimed, amid images of overlapping flags of the Western powers, Union makes strength by adding onto it a smaller sheet with the phrase and coalitions make war.
Détournement by simple reversal is always the most direct and the least effective. Thus, the Black Mass reacts against the construction of an ambiance based on a given metaphysics by constructing an ambiance in the same framework that merely reverses and thus simultaneously conserves the values of that metaphysics. Such reversals may nevertheless have a certain progressive aspect. For example, Clemenceau [called The Tiger] could be referred to as The Tiger called Clemenceau.
Of the four laws that have just been set forth, the first is essential and applies universally. The other three are practically applicable only to deceptive detourned elements.
The first visible consequences of a widespread use of détournement, apart from its intrinsic propaganda powers, will be the revival of a multitude of bad books, and thus the extensive (unintended) participation of their unknown authors; an increasingly extensive transformation of phrases or plastic works that happen to be in fashion; and above all an ease of production far surpassing in quantity, variety and quality the automatic writing that has bored us for so long.
Détournement not only leads to the discovery of new aspects of talent; in addition, clashing head-on with all social and legal conventions, it cannot fail to be a powerful cultural weapon in the service of a real class struggle. The cheapness of its products is the heavy artillery that breaks through all the Chinese walls of understanding. It is a real means of proletarian artistic education, the first step toward a literary communism.
Ideas and creations in the realm of détournement can be multiplied at will. For the moment we will limit ourselves to showing a few concrete possibilities in various current sectors of communication it being understood that these separate sectors are significant only in relation to present-day techniques, and are all tending to merge into superior syntheses with the advance of these techniques.
Apart from the various direct uses of detourned phrases in posters, records and radio broadcasts, the two main applications of detourned prose are metagraphic writings and, to a lesser degree, the adroit perversion of the classical novel form.
There is not much future in the détournement of complete novels, but during the transitional phase there might be a certain number of undertakings of this sort. Such a détournement gains by being accompanied by illustrations whose relationships to the text are not immediately obvious. In spite of undeniable difficulties, we believe it would be possible to produce an instructive psychogeographical détournement of George Sands Consuelo, which thus decked out could be relaunched on the literary market disguised under some innocuous title like Life in the Suburbs, or even under a title itself detourned, such as The Lost Patrol. (It would be a good idea to reuse in this way many titles of deteriorated old films of which nothing else remains, or of films which continue to deaden the minds of young people in the cinema clubs.)
Metagraphic writing, no matter how outdated its plastic framework may be, presents far richer opportunities for detourning prose, as well as other appropriate objects or images. One can get some idea of this from the project, conceived in 1951 but eventually abandoned for lack of sufficient financial means, which envisaged a pinball machine arranged in such a way that the play of the lights and the more or less predictable trajectories of the balls would form a metagraphic-spatial composition entitled Thermal Sensations and Desires of People Passing by the Gates of the Cluny Museum Around an Hour after Sunset in November. We have since come to realize that a situationist-analytic enterprise cannot scientifically advance by way of such works. The means nevertheless remain suitable for less ambitious goals.
It is obviously in the realm of the cinema that détournement can attain its greatest effectiveness and, for those concerned with this aspect, its greatest beauty.
The powers of film are so extensive, and the absence of coordination of those powers is so glaring, that virtually any film that is above the miserable average can provide matter for endless polemics among spectators or professional critics. Only the conformism of those people prevents them from discovering equally appealing charms and equally glaring faults even in the worst films. To cut through this absurd confusion of values, we can observe that Griffiths Birth of a Nation is one of the most important films in the history of the cinema because of its wealth of new contributions. On the other hand, it is a racist film and therefore absolutely does not merit being shown in its present form. But its total prohibition could be seen as regrettable from the point of view of the secondary, but potentially worthier, domain of the cinema. It would be better to detourn it as a whole, without necessarily even altering the montage, by adding a soundtrack that made a powerful denunciation of the horrors of imperialist war and of the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, which are continuing in the United States even now.
Such a détournement a very moderate one is in the final analysis nothing more than the moral equivalent of the restoration of old paintings in museums. But most films only merit being cut up to compose other works. This reconversion of preexisting sequences will obviously be accompanied by other elements, musical or pictorial as well as historical. While the cinematic rewriting of history has until now been largely along the lines of Sacha Guitrys burlesque re-creations, one could have Robespierre say, before his execution: In spite of so many trials, my experience and the grandeur of my task convinces me that all is well. If in this case an appropriate reuse of a Greek tragedy enables us to exalt Robespierre, we can conversely imagine a neorealist-type sequence, at the counter of a truck stop bar, for example, with one of the truck drivers saying seriously to another: Ethics was formerly confined to the books of the philosophers; we have introduced it into the governing of nations. One can see that this juxtaposition illuminates Maximiliens idea, the idea of a dictatorship of the proletariat.
The light of détournement is propagated in a straight line. To the extent that new architecture seems to have to begin with an experimental baroque stage, the architectural complex which we conceive as the construction of a dynamic environment related to styles of behavior will probably detourn existing architectural forms, and in any case will make plastic and emotional use of all sorts of detourned objects: careful arrangements of such things as cranes or metal scaffolding replacing a defunct sculptural tradition. This is shocking only to the most fanatical admirers of French-style gardens. It is said that in his old age DAnnunzio, that pro-fascist swine, had the prow of a torpedo boat in his park. Leaving aside his patriotic motives, the idea of such a monument is not without a certain charm.
If détournement were extended to urbanistic realizations, not many people would remain unaffected by an exact reconstruction in one city of an entire neighborhood of another. Life can never be too disorienting: détournement on this level would really make it beautiful.
Titles themselves, as we have already seen, are a basic element of détournement. This follows from two general observations: that all titles are interchangeable and that they have a decisive importance in several genres. All the detective stories in the Série Noir are extremely similar, yet merely continually changing the titles suffices to hold a considerable audience. In music a title always exerts a great influence, yet the choice of one is quite arbitrary. Thus it wouldnt be a bad idea to make a final correction to the title of the Eroica Symphony by changing it, for example, to Lenin Symphony.
The title contributes strongly to the détournement of a work, but there is an inevitable counteraction of the work on the title. Thus one can make extensive use of specific titles taken from scientific publications (Coastal Biology of Temperate Seas) or military ones (Night Combat of Small Infantry Units), or even of many phrases found in illustrated childrens books (Marvelous Landscapes Greet the Voyagers).
In closing, we should briefly mention some aspects of what we call ultradétournement, that is, the tendencies for détournement to operate in everyday social life. Gestures and words can be given other meanings, and have been throughout history for various practical reasons. The secret societies of ancient China made use of quite subtle recognition signals encompassing the greater part of social behavior (the manner of arranging cups; of drinking; quotations of poems interrupted at agreed-on points). The need for a secret language, for passwords, is inseparable from a tendency toward play. Ultimately, any sign or word is susceptible to being converted into something else, even into its opposite. The royalist insurgents of the Vendée, because they bore the disgusting image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, were called the Red Army. In the limited domain of political war vocabulary this expression was completely detourned within a century.
Outside of language, it is possible to use the same methods to detourn clothing, with all its strong emotional connotations. Here again we find the notion of disguise closely linked to play. Finally, when we have got to the stage of constructing situations the ultimate goal of all our activity everyone will be free to detourn entire situations by deliberately changing this or that determinant condition of them.
The methods that we have briefly dealt with here are presented not as our own invention, but as a generally widespread practice which we propose to systematize.
In itself, the theory of détournement scarcely interests us. But we find it linked to almost all the constructive aspects of the presituationist period of transition. Thus its enrichment, through practice, seems necessary.
We will postpone the development of these theses until later.