Codes, Weeds, Barriers by Anthea Buys, written for the publication André Tehrani: Popular Disorder (2013)

There are no inanimate objects. In the night, city bridges shrug off the day’s heat and groaning gird themselves for tomorrow’s. Paintings grow cataracts. Wooden chairs and tables disappear secretly, even as we work and dine, very slowly, not a splinter at a time. Plastic packets and cigarette butts mutate from inorganic to organic, like waking pupae. With enough time, the landfills eventually become empty, and gulls float to other landfills. Like all living things, objects slowly, slowly stop. They have always started stopping.

One night in Brussels, a car mounted the wrong side of a weedy traffic island on Avenue Van Volxem and crumpled a steel barrier. The impact happened so quickly, too fast to see. The driver only heard it and felt the thick shock of contact. “Putain,” he must have said, and after extracting himself from the vehicle and spitting in the phlegm-addled kerb, he must have surveyed all these still things. The car hissed a curse as its spree was halted, and the barrier folded in shame as it stopped being a barrier.

Alongside the crumpled barrier was a second like it that survived the crash intact, levered out of the earth by the force. One of its feet was bared to the air for the first time in decades. It was cold and sharp. The two barriers stayed like that for weeks, or even months. Weeds were the first to invade the bit of loam they had exposed in the accident, then came worms, and before long, pepsi cans, piss, used tram tickets, a stray sock from the laundromat on the corner. Now at a diagonal to the street, the barriers made good seats for the young mothers who waited for their laundry, the soapy breath from the dryers making it too sticky indoors. This new ecosystem was not an unlovely change after years of darkness and buttlessness. But it meant that soon there could be a cleanup.

The cleanup never happened, and the weeds grew tall. And then André Tehrani arrived at his studio one day with a barrier heaved over his shoulder like a forlorn antelope. Intact, but not pristine, it was the second barrier, the collateral victim of the car crash, because it was the second and not the first that was the real waste. Its rescue would be made complete by quiet, a clean wall against which to lean, the smell of graphite and the muffled sound of cold grey rain elsewhere.

That is how the story of the barrier in the studio went for the barrier. One is tempted to reconstruct Tehrani’s story like this: the artist, naturally attuned to the wonder in things, finds an object that no one cares for and sees in it potential. He feels magic in the things desk workers regard as trash, he coddles his discoveries in spite of their filth, careful not to upset their delicate aura.

That the word “aura” should find its way from Walter Benjamin’s lamented artwork, the last unique thing in the age of mechanical reproducibility, to the waste of that age and its powers of production, owes much to the early Surrealists. As an antidote to Marcel Duchamp’s prescient notion that art could be “readymade”, like so many items of household clutter to come later in the twentieth century, the early Surrealists imbued selected objects with occult powers. André Breton introduced the term objet trouvé (found object) to the art world’s lexicon, and for him and his colleagues, it referred to a thing found on a walk. The thing needed to “[exert] a unique and inexplicable magnetism”, and the walk was an otherwise aimless search for this thing.[1] When one found it one would know. That was it. These fetish objects, once hoarded, were spliced with other objects or images. They enjoyed afterlives as hybrids, decommissioned of any possible use and inducted into an economy in which the destiny of that auratic spark sensed on the streets was fulfilled: they became artworks.

But when Tehrani filched his barrier, he was not looking for magic. In fact, almost as if to show that it wasn’t about the barrier, other street accessories migrated into his studio as well: two wooden bollards, also just uprooted, and some vermilion construction netting. He looked at these things for some weeks, and then painted the barrier a flat, hueless grey, wiping out the blemishes from its former life. He sanded the skin off the wooden bollards and sealed their reflective metal ribbons from the outside world with a coat of lacquer.

In changing these objects in this way, Tehrani rejected the romantic impulse to preserve something “authentic” of their past, to be true to history, to be “archival”. In short, he rejected the opportunity to reify the detritus of the capitalist city. In this respect, Tehrani behaved perhaps more like a Situationist than a Surrealist.

The Situationist International (SI), founded in 1957 by Guy Debord, Michèle Bernstein, Asger Jorn and Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio (amongst others), shunned not only the making of art objects, but also the acquisitive values that undergird economies of private ownership. The deliberate contrariness of Surrealist practices was an important touchpoint for the Situationists, who saw their efforts as an improved continuation of the revolutionary ideas explored by the Surrealists. Indeed, Debord was open with his esteem for the radicalism of early Surrealism. In the 1957 text Report on the Construction of Situations, Debord writes that in “asserting the sovereignty of desire and surprise and proposing a new way of life,” Surrealism was “much richer in constructive possibilities than is generally realized”. He goes on to attribute the early movement’s “limited scope” to “the lack of material means for fulfilling its aims” (Ibid.).[2] It is unclear from the text whether Debord intended to suggest that the movement was financially limited, or whether he uses the term “material” in an implicitly Marxist sense, suggesting rather that the Surrealists’ socio-political context was not equipped to respond to their efforts.

In the same text, Debord identifies the Surrealists’ fatal weakness, an over-investment in the potential of the unconscious to unlock revelations about “the ultimate force of life”, some essential quality that would burnish away superficial distinctions between high and low class, and fine and course taste. It is not that Debord questioned the existence of this “ultimate force”, but rather its provenance. For him, revelation would come through the critical interpretation of material reality, and this would be effected via an interface of the psyche, the sentient body and space. This was the foundational premise of the dérive and psychogeography.

The extent to which the Situationists’ worked with found materials was guided by the related concept of détournement, which entailed the juxtaposition of discordant elements in a single work, often to propagandistic ends. Debord advocated détournement as the most effective of activist tools, “a powerful cultural weapon in the service of a real class struggle.”[3] Not only would the provocative manipulation of recognizable source material clash “head-on with all social and legal conventions,” but it would serve a pedagogical end too (ibid.). Détourned popular images and text could act as “a real means of proletarian artistic education, the first step toward a literary communism” (Ibid., Italics in the original). Because of the dissemination of images and text in the media, and because of the central role of periodicals in the presentation of the group’s activities, détourned works were often graphic or textual appropriations, rather than three-dimensional pieces.

Although consumable images, détourned works were sanctioned as reproducible, non-exclusive material, so that they were never at risk of becoming commodities. In this way, in the early years at least, the Situationists managed to maintain an occulocentric programme without succumbing to the pressures of “the spectacle”, a state of affairs in which “the commodity has succeeded in totally colonizing social life”.[4] Over time, however, the concept of détournement was absorbed into the discourse of urban action and activism as well. And by the late 1960s, an increasingly militant Debord all but vanquished images from Situationist output, and expunged many SI adherents whose attachment to the visual exceeded their taste for propaganda.

Notwithstanding their intolerant rhetoric, the Situationists enjoyed certain luxuries that could only have existed in a capitalist Europe: all-day café society in Paris, and hedonistic beach holidays of indeterminate duration, such as the one described in Bernstein’s novella All the King’s Horses. In this getaway from nothing in particular, the protagonists Gilles and Geneviève – stand-ins for Debord and Bernstein respectively – laze, drink, sunbathe and invent games with each other and their additional lovers, until Gilles is called away to Holland to work on an exhibition. He announces that instead of showing works, he plans to stage “A real scandal… in a museum,” which he will pass off as an accidental occurrence.[5] Gilles will make a “situation” without calling it one, paradoxically sabotaging the conventions of the art establishment, while participating in them.

The languid, impetuous lifestyles enjoyed by Debord and Bernstein, and whomever fell into their favour, was grafted into the SI’s carefully maintained image as an avant-garde movement. The ostensibly revolutionary aims of practices such as the dérive – a term for aimless wandering in search of ambiences, rather than objects – and their agitating force in the Parisian riots of May 1968 were tempered by constant unproductivity and sybaritism that flouted the increasingly Fordist values of Western European urbanites.

This is where Tehrani and the ghosts of the Situationists part ways, and indeed several works featured in the exhibition are concerned precisely with establishing the distance between them, conceptually and ideologically. While frequently referring to Situationist works and historical anecdotes, he maintains a cautious, critical detachment from the romantic sensibility that infused the SI’s interests in revolutionary culture. The ideological mistrust built into Tehrani’s work often manifests as an interpretive opacity, built up in this exhibition through layers of allusions to the Situationists and groups that have subsequently revived elements of their discourse.

The modified barriers and bollards introduced above are the constituents of the work Built by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing, the title of which is a double allusion to one of Macbeth’s soliloquies in the eponymous play,[6] and to Debord’s disparaging description of Georges-Eugène Hussmann’s planning interventions in Paris in the eighteenth century. The original connection of these materials to the regulation of traffic reminds us of the Situationists’ great nemesis, the automobile, and the several texts published by the SI on the destructive effects of automobile traffic in cities. In Debord’s Situationist Theses on Traffic, published in Internationale Situationniste in November 1959, he presents nine succinct points on the implication of automobiles in a great American capitalist programme of world domination. These are the first and the last:

A MISTAKE MADE by all the city planners is to consider the private automobile (and its by-products, such as the motorcycle) as essentially a means of transportation. In reality, it is the most notable material symbol of the notion of happiness that developed capitalism tends to spread throughout the society. The automobile is at the center of this general propaganda, both as supreme good of an alienated life and as essential product of the capitalist market….

REVOLUTIONARY URBANISTS will not limit their concern to the circulation of things, or to the circulation of human beings trapped in a world of things. They will try to break these topological chains, paving the way with their experiments for a human journey through authentic life.[7]

Beyond Tehrani’s collection of traffic regulators, and contrary to the populist citations typical of the Situationists, the references embedded in the installation test the breadth of the viewer’s cultural knowledge. The multicoloured geometric patterns of adhesive vinyl affixed to one of the barriers make use of the colour alphabet code designed by Peter Saville for the cover artwork of the 1984 album From the Hip, by the British post-punk band Section 25. From the Hip was released by Factory Records, an independent label which had also signed Joy Division and New Order in the in the early 1980s. As Tehrani notes in a short expository text for the drawing diptych Comparative Analysis (Fac 120 La Lutte Continue), Factory’s founder Tony Wilson was an “SI sympathiser”, and notably the label sponsored the production of the exhibition catalogue for the SI’s 1989 exhibition at the London ICA. Saville was a permanent member of the creative team of Factory Records, and designed the label’s iconic logo, an image that appears in Comparative Analysis (Fac 120 La Lutte Continue) alongside a reproduction of a socialist-themed poster distributed by the students of the Ecole des Beuax Arts’ Atelier Populaire during the May 1968 riots in Paris.

Because Saville’s work and reputation are inseparable from the subculture that emerged around Factory Records, Tehrani’s inclusion of From the Hip, and of Saville’s coded alphabet invokes post-punk Britain, an era in which guitar destruction was committed in freshly pressed shirts and brothel creepers. Today, there are pouting 20-year-olds (not many, but some) who mourn the passing of Ian Curtis, and Jersey Shore girls who wear Joy Division t-shirts they found at H&M. It is possible that no other musical subculture has endured such a tortuous and purely aesthetic revival. More importantly though, the Factory Records connection in Built by an Idiot…represents the revival of a revival. If the activities of Factory Records paid homage to the Situationists, implicitly and, sometimes, explicitly, Tehrani’s citation pays homage to this homage – rather than merely to its contents-, to the fact of cultural revival and its complex social and psychological contours.

The structural echo of revival justifies the contents of this installation; just as for so many other artists working with found objects the conventions of archival presentation justify theirs. It is precisely on the grounds of a certain deliberate circularity, and even a subdued formalist sensibility, that one is able to differentiate Tehrani’s work from the tiresomely frequent presentations of nostalgic historiography that are passed off in museums and galleries as contemporary investments in archival practice. The latter are possibly no less formal than Tehrani’s highly literate frame, but they are too often guileless, illiterate by comparison, and, like uncouth neighbours, leave open too many windows.

The seamlessness of Built by an Idiot…is completed by the coded inscription on the backside of the metal barrier. The viewer who takes the time to decode the message, will find with only muted satisfaction that it repeats the title of the work. It says nothing important enough to conceal. It does not reward patience or intelligence. Moreover, it breaks the pattern of proliferate external references with an internal one. In a sense, the work asserts its own conclusion upfront, like a circular argument, or a Situationist polemic. More importantly, the circularity of Built by an Idiot…seals the work hermetically and formally, like the flat industrial coatings of grey paint on the metal barrier insulates it from the elements. It is impermeable, not only because viewers will almost always require Tehrani’s expository intervention to reveal all the allusions built into the work, but also because it does not seek extra content outside of that which it already comprises. Just as a circle is drawn with the intention to join two ends of a line, the beginning and the end of this work meet.

In a different work, the figure of the circle is replaced by a triangle – an impossible triangle, whose ends meet, although they shouldn’t. A representation of a shape impossible in three dimensions, the collaged Penrose Triangle in The Letter V in Various Media 1963-1998 is one of five framed elements in the work. A short fictional story presented in three panels, and a minimal collage that foregrounds a photograph from the May 1968 riots, make up the other four panels. Both the title of this work, and the text frag ments used to construct the story, are drawn from Thomas Pynchon’s 1963 novel V, a convoluted narrative constellation that connects the aimless activities of a group of young pseudo-intellectuals known as the Whole Sick Crew with pre-war espionage, colonial massacres, the sewer fauna of New York City, and a mysterious place called Vhiessu. The existence of Vhiessu is in question throughout the novel, as is the possibility that the letter V stands in for a full word. In this respect, in both Pynchon’s novel and Tehrani’s work the mercurial letter draws us into an act of decoding that might lead nowhere, just as the coded panels in Built by an Idiot… produce a tautology.

The story presented in the three text panels of the installation is composed from détourned text fragments from several copies of V, many of which lie in Tehrani’s studio like a herd of defective livestock. Some have had only a few fragments excised from the 547 pages, but they are just as compromised as novels as if a more dramatic defacement had taken place. Tehrani’s excision has the protagonist of Pynchon’s novel, Benny Profane, in the midst of vague journey through a city – perhaps a dérive – in which he encounters “Guy”, “Michèle” and “Constant”, a reference to the SI members Debord, Bernstein and Constant Nieuwenhuys. Profane, who in Pynchon’s novel “yo-yos” through life, wandering back and forth achieving nothing, feels some existential pangs in connection with his fruitless life, but with the Situationists he is in fine company. It is not obvious, however, that the Situationists would find their new literary habitat as agreeable. Despite having encouraged Bernstein to write All the Kings Horses as a détournement of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ eighteenth century novel Dangerous Liaisons, Debord maintained that “there is not much future in the détournement of complete novels.”[8]

Although Tehrani’s artificial history of Profane and the Situationists is coded as fiction, by virtue of its use of the literary conventions of the short story, its unreliable depiction of the past tarnishes other references incorporated into the work which would otherwise be presumed historically sound. The most notable of these is Christopher Gray’s history of the SI, Leaving the Twentieth Century: The Incomplete Work of the Situationist International, the allusion to which is hidden in the smoked blues of the Penrose Triangle. On the cover of the 1998 edition of Gray’s book there is a pocked glacier and on a narrow bridge between two chasms, an ice climber treads precariously towards the book’s title. Collaged shades of the glacier build up the illusory three-dimensional form of the triangle, but its surfaces are unpeopled and free of typographical elements. Again, without Tehrani’s expository help, associating these blues with their source would be nearly impossible. The triangle thus presents two unsolvable puzzles, its own form and that of the work’s anchor in cultural history.

The final panel in the installation draws, like Built by an Idiot…, on twentieth century musical history. The photograph, attributed to photographer Georges Melet depicts a pile of debris in an abandoned Parisian street after riot activity in May 1968. However the image is better known for its publication on the cover of Vangelis Papathanassiou’s 1972 album Fais que ton rêve soit plus long que la nuit, a musique-concréte collage of found sound elements from the May 1968 uprising.

Knowing about a scream is one thing, hearing it is another. In The Letter V in Various Media 1963-1998 the violence of this uprising is muffled by layers of culture. Tehrani mediates Vangelis’ mediation. The seriousness of a real revolution, even one stoked by aesthetes and intellectuals, is tempered by trivialities: Profane’s sartorialism, the “pedestrian philosophizing” of the left bank comrades in Tehrani’s détourned story. Tehrani presents to us the protagonists of revolutionary culture with what feels like a mixture of sympathy and disgust. They are idiots, but at one point or another we have probably been them.

Pynchon’s Whole Sick Crew exemplifies this cast of characters, kindly souls, thinkers, hedonists, and, most importantly, yo-yo’ers. Their circuitous narrative never brings them close to a legitimate revolutionary cause, but their mutual enlightenment seems to them cause enough. At one point near the middle of the novel one of the peripheral associates of the Crew, Dudley Eigenvalue the “soul dentist”, senses the baselessness of the Crew’s art and thought. He becomes deeply anxious that his own contribution to their “cause” – reduced-rate dental care and sound counsel – is a waste of time. His epiphany reads as follows:

If they were all bums but still providing society with valuable art and thought, why that would be fine…. But they produced nothing but talk, and at that not very good talk. A few like Slab actually did what they professed; turned out a tangible product. But again, what? Cheese Danishes. OR this technique for the sake of technique – Catatonic Expressionism. Or parodies on what someone else had already done.

So much for art. What of Thought? The Crew had developed a kind of shorthand whereby they could set forth any visions that might come their way. Conversations at the Spoon had become little more than proper nouns, literary allusions, critical or philosophical terms linked in certain ways. Depending on how you arranged the building blocks at your disposal, you were smart or stupid. Depending on how others reacted they were In or Out. The number of blocks, however, was finite.[9]

Eigenvalue distracts himself from these dark reflections by going to look at the various sets of dentures in his consulting room, because “teeth and metal endure”.[10]

In museums, objects mean more than texts, which mean more than memories. Those objects that make it into display cases are often the least important things, or they are replicas of real things too precious to let out of the very dark, very secret storerooms. Texts and facsimiles of texts are just words, which describe objects that can’t be got. Memories alone might as well be fantasies. Tehrani’s exhibitions place us in the midst of a historiographic nightmare whose ugly subconscious is this hierarchy. Objects and texts reify themselves, and anecdotes tie together the most distant nebulae. Activists become increasingly inert as the momentum of their causes dissipate with the decades. History responds by making its contents inert in the way that certain gases are: self-sufficient, sexless.

This process of cessation is perhaps best metaphorised in the work Alternate Routes, a set of four drawings, the largest of which is made using sifted graphite dust rather than traditional gestural techniques. This drawing depicts a number of simplified diagrams of a Galton board (more commonly known as a bean machine), which is an analogue computational device invented by Sir Frances Galton in the 19th century to demonstrate normal distribution of random variables introduced into a controlled system. In a vertical hermetic container, horizontal pins divide the available space into diagonal pockets and paths. Below the pins is a catchment area, divided into columns each equal in width. Several balls are funneled into the top of the board, and gravity and a series of collisions with the pins draw them downwards along different paths. Galton observed that despite the random nature of the balls’ journeys, most of them landed in the central columns, producing an overall distribution resembling a bell-shaped curve.

In the 1958 text The Situationists and Automation Asger Jorn used the Galton board as an illustration of “the artistic problems of the dérive”. Invisible forces impel people along unpredictable paths. Peculiarly, although free to move in any direction, the majority pick the same few paths. Although Jorn does not elaborate the example, it is clear from the rest of the text that he is interested in the possibility of automation at a sociological level, or at least of expanding the the concept of automation to sociological models. More revealingly in this context, the Galton board demonstrates the controlling effects of the constant, in the machine’s case the distribution of pins and gravity. In the case of the dérive the urban constant is the existence of planned cities, designed to encourage certain patterns of movement and conduct.

What is at stake in Jorn’s Galton board illustration is motion, and Alternate Routes is thus a representation of a representation of motion. Paradoxically, at the same time the composition of the work, particularly of the large graphite dust drawing, depends on the stagnation of matter. Before graphite dust is fixed to a surface, it is so mobile it is nearly impossible to control. It covers everything in a fine, grey, glossy film, as if it were itself a gas at some point. But as Tehrani sifts the dust over a stencil of the Galton board image, an action that counts on its motility, it is forced to stop suddenly on the surface of the paper. Before it has a chance to escape it is fixed there with a substance invented for just this sort of thing. The fixative keeps artworks from being sloughed from their supports like dry skin from the body. The dust stops, the work is there.

Back on Avenue Van Volxem people are still walking to work or the laundry and back, like yo-yos in the hands of a beginner. Eventually, a machine came and clawed out the weeds that had by then grown into a savanna, and hurled them aside under a heap of dry sand and concrete. They hung onto whatever weed life bestows, but cigarette butts and a want of any decent sort of moisture ended them. Soon though new, stronger, more uniform barriers came and filled those hungry mouths that the machine had gouged in the earth. Shiny and erect, they were drawn on, scratched, pissed at by man and beast, kicked, and decked with Pepsi cans as quickly as they had replaced their forebears. But they have stood against the traffic, and the pedestrians are safe.

Anthea Buys (b. 1984, Johannesburg) is a writer and independent curator based in New York. She is a research associate with the Research Centre for Visual Identities in Art and Design, University of Johannesburg, and has just begun work on her PhD through the Department of Art History at Columbia University.


[1] M. E. Warlick, The Magic Objects of Surrealism, in Elmar Schenkel and Stefan Welz, Magical Objects: Things and Beyond (Berlin: Galda + Wilch Verlag, 2007), 9.

[2] Guy Debord, Report on the Construction of Situations and on the International Sitautionist Tendency’s Conditions of Organization and Action, first published in Potlatch, June 1957. [link]

[3] Debord, A User’s Guide to Détournement, in Mode d’emploi du détournement originally appeared in the Belgian surrealist journal Les Lèvres Nues #8 (Brussels: May 1956). [link]

[4] Debord, Society of the Spectacle, § 42 (Italics in the original). [link]

[5] Michèle Bernstein, All the Kings Horses (Paris: Semiotext(e), 2008, english edition), 78.

[6] Act V, Sc. V, ll. 25-27. [link]

[7] [link]

[8] Debord, A User’s Guide to Détournement, 1958, [link]

[9] Thomas Pynchon, V (Harper Perennial: New York, 2005 [first edition 1963]), 324.

[10] Ibid. 325.