Published in André Tehrani: Popular Disorder (Lord Jim Publishing for NoPlace; Bergen, Entrée; 2013).


The Lemons Are Real

The lemons aren’t part of the picture, they’re real lemons, nailed on because it was photographed on the wall – the photographer didn’t have a rostrum camera. It ties in with the lyrics of ‘Bye Bye Badman’, to do with the Paris student uprisings in May ’68. Me and Ian saw a documentary on it and liked the clothes: there was a guy chucking stones, with a really nice jacket and desert boots. The students used to suck on lemons to nullify the effects of tear gas. That’s why the tricolor’s there. – John Squire, speaking to Select Magazine, November 1997

Action painting and acid. The sliced lemons in question were nailed to a faux-abstract-expressionist canvas, and then were photographed as the cover art for The Stone Roses’ first album in April 1989. The Stone Roses were an English rock band from Manchester. Formed in 1983, they were important in what became known as the Madchester scene, active from the late 1980s until the early 1990s. Typical Mancunian bands of the time fused acid house rhythms with a pop sensibility. Lead guitarist John Squire articulated the band’s aesthetic decisions clearly and without apparent irony – the lemons are real because someone didn’t bring the right sort of camera. The band was trying to tie the cover art to the lyrics of one of the album’s songs and, by extension, to the memory of collective determination and solidarity in the face of police assault during the May events in France in 1968. The French flag slapped on the left side of the record cover, like a hiking-trail marker, was not specific enough to signify resistance on its own. The Stone Roses needed lemons.

In Bye Bye Badman, Ian Brown sings, Choke me smoke the air / In this citrus sucking sunshine / I don’t care you’re not all there. The fact is that sucking on lemons is more effective as an emblem of resistance than a protest strategy. Breathing air through cloth soaked in vinegar or citric acid neutralizes some of the chemicals in tear gas, but the effect doesn’t last long. The layers of history are, however, slippery with photo emulsion when it comes to May ’68. All The Stone Roses needed from those riots was the look of rejecting authority. They reached for the clothes, the anger, and the symbolism. They left the political subtext and the intricacies of class conflict, along with the reverberating tensions of failed colonialism that haunted those Parisian streets.

André Tehrani’s work from 2013, Come Taste the End (Industrial Painting), borrows, in turn, the Stone Roses’ tricolor brushstrokes. Red, white and blue bands march repeatedly along the side of a roll of canvas cloth. Tehrani abstracts further still the Stone Roses’ abstraction of resistance. He means to draw attention to the empty movement of signs from one surface in history to another, but this movement is perhaps not as empty as he, or John Squire, would have us believe. Both are playing with the visual codes of politics, resistance, and refusal. Both draw on the sexy urgency of twenty-somethings lifting the paving stones of Paris to find social equity and freedom from a rigidly structured hierarchical society. At the same time, both want something from this history and it is too easy to say that they only want the clothes, the style of the moment emptied of its anger and desire.

There is, quite literally, more to Tehrani’s work than an inventory of the aesthetic echoes of May 1968. Come Taste the End (Industrial Painting) nods towards the Stone Roses, but it is primarily a citation of the Situationist International painter and scientist Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio. Tehrani’s roll of canvas has the exact measurements of one of Gallizio’s earliest so-called industrial paintings, which were sheets of canvas coated with liquid chemical resins and then splashed with explosive powders, pure pigments and essential oils made from herbs. [1] The canvases were left in Gallizio’s basement laboratory near the water boiler, and the combination of chemicals with heat often resulted in unpredictable reactions and abstract visual effects.

Gallizio was fascinated by the Surrealist notion of automatic writing and drawing, or the discovery of freedom through a forced suppression of intention and the abandonment of rational language. His project was conceptualized as an extension of this gesture, drawing out ‘primitive’ forms through the intuitive application of natural and chemical materials. [2] The assembly line became the choice instrument of manufacturing as Europe bent itself to the task of modernization and Gallizio reproduced it, critically, as an inversion of itself. His assembly line was a combination of mechanical gestures and human improvisation whose aim was to produce chaos, or chemical and visual instability, instead of uniformity and predictability in its products. Gallizio’s political project, if there was one articulated as such, was close to that of the destructive impulse latent in early surrealism, an impulse towards desire and accident that veered away from ideology and propaganda. For this reason, Situationist International leading figure Guy Debord ultimately deemed Gallizio’s project incompatible with that of the SI. According to Debord, the SI was moving toward the street and Gallizio was moving toward the gallery.

In June of 1963, at the end of Gallizio’s involvement with the SI, Debord paid a final tribute to the Italian and to his critique of mass-production with a series of works entitled Directives. These were graffiti inspired slogans hand-painted onto white canvas, with one exception. The phrase “Abolition du travail aliéné” (Abolition of alienated labor) was painted in white lettering on a scrap of Gallizio’s colorful industrial painting. The Directives was shown at an exhibition at the Exi Gallery in Odense, Denmark, which was scheduled to coincide with an important anti-nuclear demonstration. Debord intended the works to function as he titled them – as directives for SI activists. The work also bears a striking visual resemblance to the white lettering over an abstract ground used by the Stone Roses for their cover art two and half decades later, although Squire does not mention the coincidence in his list of borrowed effects. The painting thus moves across a wide swath of 20th century history – a basement laboratory in Italy, a gallery in Paris, an exhibition-cum-protest in Scandinavia. The painting, in the late 1980s, haunts the image on the Stone Roses’ debut album, reproduced on thousands of record covers and spread throughout the world in record stores, basement clubs and garages.

Greil Marcus wrote a very popular book about, among other things, the conceptual links between the SI and musical subcultures in the 1970s and 1980s. [4] Marcus argues that punk and the subgenres it fostered inherited the drive to create spaces for autonomous experience, to make space for freedom of expression outside the profit machine. Spaces for anger and desire. He points out that capitalism benefited tremendously from these experiments in autonomy. Rebellious youth culture very quickly became one of its most productive markets. Well-orchestrated provocation was, and is, enormously lucrative. Revolution has, according to Marcus, been transformed into an icon for freedom, an icon that can be used to sell almost anything. Self-indulgence sells, true, whether what is being indulged is mindless anger or mindless desire. But Gallizio’s industrial painting is more complicated than mindlessness, which is why the Stone Roses reached for it (consciously or not) as the background for their first album cover. It is impossible to ignore the way capitalism uses pictures against themselves, but it’s equally impossible to account for the hold both the pictures and narratives that surround them have on the collective imaginations of several preceding generations of artists.

Tehrani, in his turn, reduces the symbols of SI, May 1968, and their echoes in the music scene decades later to their own implicit silences. He is looking for the thing, the lemons, and the acid that cuts through the bullshit. There is a cynicism in Tehrani’s distillation, but there is also, I think, the same impulse to parse the evidence until the “real” emerges that John Squire intuitively acted upon and that the like-minded retrophiles of Factory Records tried to capture with their re-purposing of May ’68 aesthetics to sell records. Tehrani’s interest in the SI’s visual detritus is its lilting promise of authentic resistance in the face of a ballooning, impersonal, and corporate hegemony. He is tracing the contours of our wish that refusal will be acknowledged as such. He is attuned to our persistent collective yearning despite capitalism’s absorption of it.


Howls and silences

The political legacy of the SI is contested, to say the least. As T.J. Clark and Donald Nicholson-Smith sardonically point out, the movement is either maligned as “an art organization that strayed belatedly into ‘art politics,’” or it seen as a pseudo-political organization whose politics were “’subjectivist,’ or hyper-Surrealist, propelled by a utopian notion of a new ‘politics of everyday life’ that can be reduced to a handful of ’68 graffiti: ‘Take your desires for reality,’ ‘Boredom is always counter-revolutionary,’ etc.” [5] Clark and Nicholson-Smith argue that the SI was always already more subtle in its engagement with Marxism and had more valence as an organization that it is typically given credit for by the current histories. The SI can’t be killed by art because the SI never depended on art to produce the meaning of its experiments. Rather, the SI used art to address underlying political conditions until they needed to evolve to address the conditions differently. What Clark and Nicholson-Smith don’t elaborate in as much detail is the SI’s serious commitment to the condition of representation, the condition of the image itself, as well as to how the image participates in politics. This commitment is one stage in the evolution of an impulse to reach freedom through the manipulation and destruction of the image. To consider it without taking Surrealism or Dada into account is to underestimate the SI’s complex relationship to the aesthetic.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, in 1912 and 1914, believed that if the artist whole-heartedly embraced the ferocious speed and violent simultaneity of technology, the bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie could be eliminated. Antithetical to the Futurists politically, the international Dada movement was united with them in their refusal to participate in politesse, or coded rituals of power, and their rejection of reason above all else in the wake of World War I and its senseless violence. In 1924, the Surrealist manifesto defined its mission as “pure psychic automatism … Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.” For the historic avant-gardes, freedom was to be found by committing to the deep underlying irrationality latent in war and language. Better to destroy meaning than to participate in complacent structures that had led to the enormous waste of the World War: autonomy lay in spaces of disjuncture.

These efforts to produce spaces un-ruled by capitalism’s logic was extended after the second War – first by the Lettrist group founded in the 1940s by Isidore Isou, then by a splinter group founded in the late 1950s by Guy Debord called the Lettrist International, which served as a draft for the more well-known Situationist International. The group was founded on a rejection of Isou’s linguistic experimentation in favor of constructed situations. SI advocated wandering, occupying the city in ways it was not designed to encourage. In a text on critical urban geography from 1955, Debord wrote that the antidote to alienation was to “delineate some provisional terrains of observation, including the observation of certain processes of chance and predictability in the streets.” [6] He wanted to apply strategies developed by Dada and Surrealism to the very fabric of the everyday, and through them to develop a capacity for autonomy from the prescribed modes of encounter, vision, and experience.

Tehrani’s series of drawings from 2011, Storyboard (Hurlements en faveur de Sade), takes Debord’s debut film (as referred to in the title) from 1952 as its point of departure. Four voices alternated speaking their lines, all non-sequiturs, almost idiomatic in their tone and delivery, against an alternating white and blackened screen. Tehrani’s drawings address the pauses, the meaning that Debord withholds from the viewer. The work is a series of blank screens drawn in powdered charcoal, alongside text drawings of the script’s notations on duration and blankness. However, the film’s spoken soundtrack nuances Debord’s refusal to yield an image and so sheds light on the larger project of the SI as well as the relation of image to refusal, representation to politics.

Voice 5: Just as the projection was about to begin, Guy-Ernest Debord was supposed to step onto the stage and make a few introductory remarks. Had he done so, he would simply have said: ‘There is no film. Cinema is dead. No more films are possible. If you wish, we can move on to a discussion.’ [7]

Debord begins by refusing the image and by disallowing the viewer to sink into the artist’s imagination. When he claims that film is no longer a possibility, he echoes Theodor Adorno’s edict that poetry is no longer possible after Auschwitz. For Adorno, to represent the horror of the war and the concentration camps aesthetically is to manufacture false understanding. The incomprehensible must be allowed to remain incomprehensible, or it will be normalized and we will forget how inhuman the war and its ancillary chambers actually were. Hurlements en faveur de Sade is not entirely about war, but war and the impossibilities of representation it inaugurated are inescapably linked to its refusal of representation.

Voice 2: The arts of the future can be nothing less than disruptions of situations.

Voice 1: He was well aware that nothing of his exploits would remain in a town that revolves with the Earth, as the Earth revolves within a galaxy that is only an insignificant part of a tiny island endlessly receding from us.

Debord proposes to operate on a micro-scale, nothing less than disruption, yet his call to action also acknowledges its own insignificance in the face of history and the Earth. This acknowledgement is, in a sense, Debord’s pre-recorded answer to Greil Marcus. Resistance must be total, it must occur on the level of the body in space and time, it must concern the way people perceive their lives – yet it is also always already obsolete, insignificant, deeply fashionable.

Voice 4: Paris was real fun because of the transportation strike.

Voice 2: My dear Ivich, unfortunately there are fewer Chinatowns than you think. You are fifteen years old. One of these days people will stop wearing such gaudy colors.

Resistance is insignificant for Debord not simply because the earth is small. Resistance is insignificant because it is so tied to pleasure, to fashion, to entertainment. Already, in 1952, the transportation strike was fun and the fifteen-year-old lacks the perspective to see cultural identity for what it is, a misguided decision about color. It is perhaps in his admission of that which is not considered political – clothing, the affective register of a strike, the accidental re-perception of the city through creative misuse – that Debord’s radicalism actually lies, as well as his connection between aesthetics and politics.

Voice 2: So close, so gently, I lose myself in the hollow archipelagos of language. I bear down on you, you’re as open as a cry, it’s so easy. A hot stream. A sea of oil. A forest fire.

Voice 2: Mademoiselle Reineri of the Europe Quarter, you still have your wonderstruck face and that body, the best of promised lands. Like neon lights, the dialogues repeat their definitive truths.

Debord does not spare language either. Pictures are malleable and subject to distortion in service to the Spectacle, but so is discourse. Language that overwhelms the senses, like hot water and fire, like the neon lights of the carnival. He is trying to articulate some deep instability at the core of representation, both visual and linguistic. It is this instability that allows for the movement of signs Tehrani traces, yet Debord will argue that this instability is also a necessary pre-condition for the absorption into spectacle of every meaningful sign. And so, we return to the paradox – signs are radical because they can be made to drift into new, counter-hegemonic meaning, yet they are compromised for precisely the same reason.

Voice 2: Like lost children we live our unfinished adventures.

By 1961, Debord had given up some of the poetry of his earlier approach and articulated the urgency of the SI’s task in straightforward Marxist terms: “Through its industrial production this society has emptied the gestures of work of all meaning. And no model of human behavior has retained any real relevance in everyday life.” [8] This was a call to collapse earlier experimentations with play and nonsense into the very fabric of life – to take art into the world and through this dissolution to reinvest meaning into activities that capitalism had coopted. Debord argued that art needed to stop being a picture, in other words, and this call would culminate in the central role SI played in the events that ignited riots and protests in Paris in May of 1968.

Debord abandons “art” in favor of the streets, but these very streets nevertheless produced some of the most powerful iconography of the era. Atelier Populaire was one of many guerilla-printing operations set up during the protests in art schools throughout Paris. They were very specific about the role they envisioned for their collective, un-authored work. A statement the Atelier issued during the protests makes their position clear:

The posters produced by the Atelier Populaire are weapons in the service of the struggle and are an inseparable part of it. Their rightful place is in the centers of conflict, that is to say, in the streets and on the walls of the factories. To use them for decorative purposes, to display them in bourgeois places of culture or to consider them as objects of aesthetic interest is to impair both their function and their effect. This is why the Atelier Populaire has always refused to put them on sale. Even to keep them as historical evidence of a certain stage in the struggle is a betrayal, for the struggle itself is of such primary importance that the position of an “outside” observer is a fiction, which inevitably plays into the hands of the ruling class. That is why these works should not be taken as the final outcome of an experience, but as an inducement for finding, through contact with the masses, new levels of action, both on the cultural and the political plane. [9]

In his pair of drawings, Comparative Analysis (Fac 120 ? La Lutte Continue), 2013, Tehrani seems to be asking, “What now?” We are well past the struggle and they lost. Their pictures not only became highly valued historical and aesthetic objects for the shrines to bourgeois culture that the Atelier despised. Some of the posters have also been transmuted precisely into emblems of revolt, rather than catalysts for action. They have become place markers for a demand, but they have ceased to demand anything with real urgency. Nothing makes this evolution more clear than Tehrani’s juxtaposition of one of the Atelier’s original designs with Peter Saville’s logo for Factory Records, in which the latter appears as little more than a hollowed-out abstraction of the Atelier’s historical poster proclaiming the struggle of the proletariat. The factory and the raised fist were enormously successful emblems, in other words, capturing the imagination of an entire generation, and not just in the music industry. The same images re-appeared during the anti-globalization protests and anti-war demonstrations in the early-oughts, as well as during the more recent Occupy movements throughout the world.

In regards to this cultural recycling of radical signifiers Tehrani asks, “Is it merely a fascination with uncompromising, aggressive rhetoric and countercultural mystique or about a deeper identification with the revolutionary programs of said groups?" [10] No, I don’t think so. What too often falls out of the discussion around the migration of signs is that groups like the Atelier Populaire operated at the threshold, already, of fashion and protest and art. They are drenched in style, and always were. Their style was not superficial; the lemons were real, but they were also symbols already, even in the moment of their invention.


Here are your fucking balloons

In 1956, four years after Debord’s Hurlements en faveur de Sade, Albert Lamorisse released what would become a hugely successful metaphor for post-war French society, a thirty-four minute short film called The Red Balloon. The film tells the story of a young French boy, Pascal, who finds a big, bright red helium balloon one sunny day. Though mute, the balloon appears to be possessed of will, or consciousness. It follows him around, lingering outside the windows to his room, forbidden access by Pascal’s rather severe mother. When it follows him to school and into his classroom, the other students protest against the balloon (without apparent reason other than hostility to difference) and the principle disciplines Pascal for the disruption. At every turn, children and adults respond with hostility and violence to the playfulness and buoyancy of the boy and his red balloon. Bullies eventually destroy it, out of envy perhaps, but also out of discomfort with the quality of simple joy the balloon evokes. After the death of the Red Balloon, a multi-colored swarm of other balloons arrive to rescue Pascal and the film ends with a long shot of the boy flying out over the Parisian skyline, vindicated by a dream. Film critic Brian Gibson, writing for Vue Magazine in 2007, captures the historical tension in the film perfectly:

So far, this seems like a post-Occupation France happy to forget the blood and death of Hitler’s war a decade earlier. But soon people’s occasional, playful efforts to grab the floating, carefree balloon become grasping and destructive. In a gorgeous sequence, light streaming down alleys as children’s shoes clack and clatter on the cobblestones, the red globe bouncing between the walls, Pascal is hunted down for his floating pet. The film’s ballooning sense of hope and freedom is deflated by a fierce, squabbling mass. Then, fortunately, Lamorisse’s film floats off, with the breeze of magic-realism, into a feeling of escape and peace, The Red Balloon taking hold of Pascal, lifting him out of this rigid, petty, earthbound life. [11]

The balloon is precisely antithetical to the raised fist and the factory in the Atelier Populaire’s graphics. The balloon signifies giving in, rising above the terrible and ugly struggles between classes, between ideologies. It signifies pure delight, weightlessness, ahistoricity.

Tehrani’s work, Potlatch (Running Joke Running Dry), also tries to picture the moment when the revolutionary submits to balloon logic, although he does not reference the French film directly. The work is a pair of drawings, “HERE ARE YOUR FUCKING BALLOONS” and “HERE ARE YOUR OTHER FUCKING BALLOONS” that rather literally illustrate a 2-minute video made by the musician and author Joe Pernice. The video shows a conversation between two unshaven thirty-something men on their cell-phones. One explains patiently to the other that their working relationship is founded on antagonism, and that this is how working relationships work in the music industry. The other responds with equal patience and suppressed rage that he is quitting the business to open a balloon delivery service, which he will name, “Here are your fucking balloons.” If the business works, he plans to open a second store, etc.

Tehrani’s work presents Pernice’s balloon delivery service as a visualization of potlatch, an economic system used by the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and United States. A potlatch ceremony could take any number of forms, but one of the most extreme was the aggressive destruction of goods to prove one’s wealth and power to a rival. Tehrani was interested in the reference, in part, because Potlatch was also the title of the Lettrist International magazine from 1954 to 1957. He writes, “The typographical displacement of the word HERE in the right panel is intended to recall the competitive element in the Potlatch economy, shortly put the point of asserting dominance by giving away an object of greater value than the one(s) received.” [12] The link, for Tehrani, is the aggression involved in meaningless consumption.

There is another logic here as well: balloons are entirely useless. To give someone a balloon is a useless gesture. Yet despite its uselessness, giving people balloons is also lucrative in capitalist society. A person can make money delivering balloons, even if they can’t make money making music. Some small part of this value might be their symbolism, exemplified by the Red Balloon, of insouciance in the face of the Spectacle. When rage fails, when revolution fails, we are left with balloons as the anti-emblem. I interpret this pair of drawings by Tehrani as a comment of the state of revolutionary desire today. We are all too aware of how seamlessly capitalism absorbed both May 1968 and the raging energy of punk, Madchester and Acid House that was its echo ten and twenty years later. The problem of revolution today is how to do something with the anger and the desire that is not useless, that cannot be reduced to the fantasy of transformation depicted in the Red Balloon. Tehrani doesn’t attempt an answer to this dilemma, but he does persistently point out the ways in which pictures both succeed and fail to represent the radical impulse.


[1] Nicola Pezolet, The Cavern of Antimatter: Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio and the Technological Imaginary of the Early Situationist International, Grey Room, Winter 2010, No. 38, 68.

[2] Pezolet, The Cavern of Antimatter, 69.

[3] Pezolet, The Cavern of Antimatter, 72.

[4] Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1989).

[5] T. J. Clark; Donald Nicholson-Smith, Why Art Can’t Kill the Situationist International, October, Vol. 79, Guy Debord and the Internationale Situationniste. (Winter, 1997), 21.

[6] Guy Debord, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, 1955.

[7] Guy Debord (translatated by Ken Knabb), Howls for Sade, Bureau of Public Secrets website. Accessed August 14, 2013.

[8] Guy Debord, Perspectives for Conscious Alterations in Everyday Life, 1961

[9] H. Bourges, The French student revolt: the leaders speak, trans: B.R Brewster (New York: Hill and Wang, Inc., 1968).

[10] Email to the author, April 23 2013.

[11] Gibson, Brian, Vue Weekly, What childhood films are these?, film review, Issue #634:Jingle Bell Rock!, December 11, 2007. Accessed: July 29, 2013.

[12] Email to the author, April 23 2013.