Moscow Protests Recall the Situationists

by Shriya Malhotra

The goal of the situationists is immediate participation in a passionate abundance of life by means of deliberately arranged variations of ephemeral moments. The success of these moments can reside in nothing other than their fleeting effect. The situationists consider cultural activity in its totality as an experimental method for constructing everyday life, a method that can and should be continually developed with the extension of leisure and the withering away of the division of labor (beginning with the division of artistic labor).
— Guy Debord, "Theses on Cultural Revolution," 1958
The Occupy movement in Moscow is a response to very different political conditions than those of Occupy movements in other parts of the world. However, it shares an orientation toward performed resistance based on a desire to claim the right to space and challenge the abuse of power. Occupy tactics call to mind the Situationist International in their creative integration of art, politics and everyday life in cities.

A symbolic representation of Constant Nieuwenhuys's "New Babylon." Source: Vague Terrain

The Situationists: Art and Urban Activism

The Situationist movement emerged as a critique of capitalism in 1957 and played a key role in the May 1968 uprising in Paris. Although the organization officially dissolved in 1972, its ideas and tactics have been adopted in social movements throughout the world. Recent financial and political crises have spurred a particularly strong revival in cities like Paris, New York and now Moscow.

According to Simon Sadler, author of "The Situationist City," the Situationists argued that professional architecture had led to "a sterilization of the world that threatened to wipe out any sense of spontaneity or playfulness." They believed that people should have a say in how the spaces they inhabit are designed and organized. "This would instantly undermine the powers of state, bureaucracy, capital, and imperialism, thereby revolutionizing people's everyday lives," Sadler writes.

Ideas for a Situationist city exist in texts, drawings and films by members of the movement. Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys envisioned a "New Babylon":
The need to work is replaced with a nomadic life of creative play, in which traditional architecture has disintegrated along with the social institutions that it propped up... Social life becomes architectural play. Architecture becomes a flickering display of interacting desires.
The Situationist city is more of an approach to urban living than a prescriptive plan. Cities once dedicated to work and capital accumulation become sites of playful experimentation based on the involvement of urban inhabitants in shaping their environments. Art and technology are combined in creating places that more fully coincide with human needs.

The Situationists developed a series of concepts and practices aimed at realizing their visions of societal change, including psychogeography (an often ambulatory exploration of the ways different environments influence human feelings and actions), dérive (drifting, or walking without a set course through landscapes primarily in cities) and the situation (a "revolutionary" moment arranged to inspire people to examine and improve their daily lives through creative exploration).

Such practices — whether adopted with the Situationists in mind or not — are evident in Occupy movements worldwide, and most recently in Moscow.

A street sign near the site of Occupy Abai, hacked with a white ribbon that symbolizes the Russian pro-democracy movement. Source: Shriya Malhotra

Occupy Abai: Performed Resistance

Moscow's Occupy Abai movement is part of a new pattern of tactical resistance to the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The name refers to a statue of the Kazakh poet Abai Kunanbayev, located along the Boulevard Ring, a tree-lined path that curves around central Moscow. People began camping there to protest the violent suppression of a rally on May 6, just before Putin's inauguration. Many others visited to show support. Some gave speeches and engaged in debate, reflecting on current conditions and collaborating toward change. The atmosphere was festive and peaceful, unstructured but somehow orderly.

There was a strong element of art and performance at Occupy Abai, characteristic of Occupy movements around the world. Participants displayed a humor and poetry in their signs, reminiscent of Situationist tactics. The movement included lectures, discussions and small participatory concerts. It transformed at times into mass strolls through the city to avoid restrictions on congregating in public space. The events have become an ever-changing mix of performed resistance.

Moscow's protest movement is both a stand against corrupt autocratic rule and a response to daily living conditions of massive traffic jams, unaffordable costs of living, environmental degradation, income inequality and exclusion. A lack of pedestrian-friendly streets alienates many in Moscow. Walking and cycling become a form of resistance when prohibited or highly restricted. This "movement" includes a call for more healthy, vibrant, people-oriented street life, in keeping with the ideas of William Whyte, Jane Jacobs and Jan Gehl.

Politics of the Everyday

The practice of daily life is part of the resistance, and its performance is in public space. People appear to be performing a version of daily life in the city that they would like to see come true — one of free expression, wandering, social life and gatherings in public spaces.

Particularly interesting is the role of the Internet, which may be seen as a form of wandering in the virtual realm. It is part of what Debord called the society of spectacle ("a social relationship between people that is mediated by images"), but it also serves as a tool for interaction in the physical world. In Moscow, the use of online "public space" for community-building is blossoming in urban spaces where it didn't comfortably exist before. In the process, these spaces are being reconfigured and reclaimed.

Philosopher and investigator of daily life Michel de Certeau, in his book "The Practice of Everyday Life," asserts that a person walking on the street moves in ways that are tactical and can never be fully determined by the plans of governing bodies. This may take the form of mundane private transgressions as well as collective public protest. In Moscow, protesters have been detained for "wandering." In response to social, political and economic alienation in cities, people are reinterpreting notions of strolling and loitering in hopes of revitalizing public space.

A Situationist map of Paris. Source: Spatial Design

Like the Situationists, protesters in Moscow are calling for greater participation and collaboration in creating the city. People are engaging in public life through activities like cycling, walking, conversation, sharing food and planting flowers. They are acting within legal limits, moving about in public and using public spaces for what they were meant for: public use!

The Occupy movement has sparked a re-examination of urban space and how it is used. As the Situationists understood, cities need the ability to reinvent themselves based on the expressed requirements and dreams of the people living in them.

Shriya Malhotra is an urbanist from New Delhi, India who believes in arts-based participation and mapping to create better cities. She writes for Pattern Cities and is an editor at Partizaning.

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  1. nice reading of the connections between different occupy movements and urbanism. i hadn't thought of the situationist elements, but now i see them everywhere. and thank you for a thoughtful introduction to the events in moscow, showing how they also fit within global movements for political and economic change.

  2. Interesting how protesters in Moscow have applied Occupy tactics in a quite different context, also seemingly adapting them and coming up with others based on local conditions. Like patterns, or open-source methods of protest.

  3. I like the way you discussed the role of the Internet. I wonder what Guy Debord would say about it if he were alive today. When he died it was still in its early stages of mass adoption, and I don't know if he ever used or referred to it.

    Occupy Abai actually felt kind of like using the Internet. There were all these different things going on — someone was milking a cow, there were discussion circles, street musicians with small crowds singing along, there was a lecture on nonviolent protest, people were checking out a kind of gallery of protest images posted over an advertising board — and no central focus of attention. It was really like going from webpage to webpage, governed only by curiosity.

    I agree that being online is really a lot like wandering.

  4. im intrigued by how you tie moscow protests to local urban problems. very timely as govt cracks down on gathering in public. local problems, activism, restrictions strengthen democracy mvmt.

  5. Yes! And I think occupy abai (following initial protests) is increasingly driven by artists and intellectuals, and can't be de-linked from the local urban situation. Which is why I think in St. Petersburg there is an emphasis on higher education, while the Moscow movement is more a responsive to restrictions faced by the artists / intellectuals / activists. I think that it started as a response to the political crisis, but it now appears to be more of the beginning of a 'revolution of way of life' in the city and a response to a global systemic crisis taking place in a particular space and time. I don't know if its directly or overtly related, but I can't help but see all different ways of 'moving' through the city as forms of activism and demands for the right to move 'freely' in public spaces - like walking, cycling.

  6. For updates: is a good article that again links walking as a tactic in Moscow. The other update is a law that was recently passed which makes it illegal for groups to picnic, or cycle or gather as an opposition risk.

    1. Thanks for adding those links, Shriya!