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Site and Situation - The Street


This week’s reading for Critical Debates was on the subject of Situationists, taking as its main text, not a piece specific to situationists, but a paper from an advertising journal about street art. This was set against some writing by Situationists and papers with specific reference to Situationists.


In the paper Symbiotic Postures of Commercial Advertising and Street Art (Borghini 2010), the authors present a coherent analysis, focused on rhetoric, of synergies between commercial advertising and street art while determining whether or not there are lessons from street art rhetoric that can be learned and applied beneficially in advertising… making it more effective, contemporary and socially aware.


The paper presents street art itself as a form of advertising, though is careful to caveat this as being something that is disruptive in nature, e.g. “activist exhortation”, rather than a promotion of commercial consumption.


The legitimacy of the premise of the research is established by considering, among other things, how visual rhetorical practices have only recently entered advertising researchers’ agenda and how, in attempts to arrive at a general theory of advertising creativity, scholars identify contributing elements to these practices as: paradoxical thinking, associative ability and risk taking which are also present in the visual rhetoric of street art.


In response the extensive research conducted, the paper presents seven “rhetorical practices” employed in street art and attempts to determine the extent to which they are already integrated in advertising, or could be co-opted to “stimulate” advertising practice:

  • Aestheticization (of functional media). Visually enhancing dull street furniture/object/feature (the author refers to this as media), not hiding it, but using its properties to create something new, “cheerful and pleasant”.

  • Playfulness and cheerfulness. Creating a happy fantasy or representation of one as an escape from the mundane

  • Meaning manipulation (détournement – we’re in situationist country now). Combining stuff in unexpected ways, but more specifically, re-use and combining of pre-exiting creations. Elaborating on companies’ brand logos and other corporate image assets in “brandalism” (Banksy).

  • Replication. Repeating subjects, traits, logos (tags), or using the same surface/street objects (supports according to the author). Little Easter Eggs to discover and take delight in. The paper identifies this as the rhetorical practice that is most resonant with advertising.

  • Stylistic experimentation – features of this practice that would help advertising to engage urban audiences: replicability, desirability, accessibility, participation – engaging with the “urban dweller” (consumer) to change behaviour.

  • Rediscovery – Making the unseen seen. Opening up new ways of seeing something with greater meaning, or greater breadth.

  • Competitive collusion – respect for the work of others, while still working alongside, on the same surface and in competition with other street artists.

Aestheticization, playfulness and cheerfulness and replication are all utilised by my local street artist Ben Wilson.

Ben Wilson (The Chewing Gum Man) - Queens Avenue, London N10

The Situationists or Situationist International were:

Revolutionary alliance of European avant-garde artists, writers and poets formed at a conference in Italy in 1957 (as Internationale Situationiste or IS),

The IS developed a critique of capitalism based on a mixture of Marxism and surrealism. Leading figure of the movement Guy Debord identified consumer society as the Society of the Spectacle in his influential 1967 book of that title. In the field of culture situationists wanted to break down the division between artists and consumers and make cultural production a part of everyday life.


Debord’s writing in Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography (http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/urbgeog.htm), The Theory of the Dérive (http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/2.derive.htm) and Situationist Definitions (http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/1.definitions.htm) introduce some of the ideas and practices of the Situationist International. He wraps their philosophy in pseudo-scientific/academic language that is difficult to decipher between tongue-in-cheek and a serious attempt at a unifying theory of interaction with urban geography. For example, the definition of Situationism as, “A meaningless term improperly derived from the above” and “The notion of situationism is obviously devised by antisituationists”, reads as humour. The tone of the writing is also reminiscent of Marinetti’s Futurist Cookbook (Marinetti 1989) - another Manifesto, but one which is certainly an artistic joke and from the opposite end of the political spectrum.


The terminology introduced (or at least heavily leant upon) by the situationist writing such as psychogeography and dérive led me to read about film maker Patrick Keiller (https://www.tate.org.uk/press/press-releases/patrick-keiller-robinson-institute), whose work I have not seen, but am now resolved to do so, and also reminded me of W G Sebald’s Rings of Saturn (Sebald 2003) where the narrator walks the East Anglian coastal path being overcome by the psychogeography encountered in what could certainly be described as a dérive.


I’ve struggled to see the relationship between our main reading source, i.e. the advertising paper, and the Situationist writings. Yes, it’s focussed on the urban and much of what has been researched and discussed relates to the impact of street art on the psychogeography experienced by the urban dweller. Also, the term détournement that is at the core of situationist ideas is one of the 7 rhetorical practices used by street art that is identified as a tool for the advertising industry with an outcome of “more contextualised ads”.


Ultimately, the paper appears to be proposing co-opting something whose roots and data-to-day practice is subversive, and anti-capitalist to serve one of the greatest underpinning elements of capitalism – the advertising industry. There does not, at first reading, appear to be anything as antipathetic to the ideas of the Situationist international than this act. However, it echoes almost exactly Debord’s device for dissemination of proposals to provoke crisis in bourgeoise happiness: “The greatest difficulty in such an undertaking is to convey through these apparently extravagant proposals a sufficient degree of serious seduction. To accomplish this we can envisage an adroit use of currently popular means of communication”. Though he does go on state that “a disruptive sort of abstention, or demonstrations designed to radically frustrate the fans of these means of communication, can also promote at little expense an atmosphere of uneasiness extremely favorable for the introduction of a few new conceptions of pleasure”

The main issue I have with Borghini’s paper, and this is understandable as it is from an advertising journal, is that it presents advertising as some sort of force for good, introducing us to beauty and enjoyment, “through the processes of consumption, young consumers produce grounded aesthetics that make the consumption of advertising vital and pleasant, emphasizing the search for beauty through the symbolic use of common culture, experienced and reinterpreted as an authentic form of art.”



Borghini, V. (2010) ‘Symbiotic Postures of Commercial Advertising and Street Art’, Journal of advertising, 39(3), pp. 113–126. doi: 10.2753/JOA0091-3367390308.

Marinetti, F. T. and Chamberlain, L. (1989) The futurist cookbook . London: Trefoil.

Sebald, W. G. (2003) The rings of Saturn . London: Vintage.

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