There Will Be no Cinema in Utopia

By John Jordan


22 March 2008

Dear Dad

I’ve always wanted to ask you about your experience of May 1968. You’d been living in Paris throughout the sixties, studying at the Sorbonne, then working for NATO. But on the eve of ’68 you were forced to relocate, De Gaulle kicked NATO out of France, you followed.

But you loved that city, you loved the Latin Quarter, the intellectuals, the bars, the drink. You might not have shared much with Guy Debord except for your age, but you were both simultaneously poisoning your livers in the great city of light. Did you ever bump into him? Did you ever cross his merry drunken drifting gang? Were you ever drawn to the glossy golden covers of the Situationist International journal? Did you ever realise that beneath the cobble stones Paris was simmering, and that soon its streets would belong to those who were digging them up?

As you were packing your bags in 1967, Guy Debord was publishing his most famous book Society of the Spectacle written in 221 paragraph long theses and forming the theoretical foundations for those hot May days that you missed. We have to “wake up the spectator who has been drugged by spectacular images,” he wrote. This awakening would happen throughout the creation of “Situations”: radical moments, actions, events that he believed would “bring a revolutionary reordering of life, politics, and art”. It wasn’t new forms of art that were needed but new forms of revolutionary everydaylife.

Debord’s revolution against the deep separations of consumer capitalism couldn’t wait, it had to happen now and take place through the “realisation and suppression of art”. Little did he realise that less than a year after publishing, French consumer society would be thrown into disarray by previously unimaginable events. Following the unexpected festival like riots two thirds of France’s work force went on strike, capitalist time stood still and the separation of dream and reality was broken for millions of people as they temporarily took back the streets and occupied or walked out of their factories.  

Reading about those events twenty years later and the influence the Situationists had had on them, I realised that as an artist I had to fight against the separation of art from everydaylife, I had to denounce the role of the artists as specialist, the great monopoliser of creativity, the corrupt court jester of capitalism. Charles Baudelaire, another intoxicated Parisian drifter called art “Prostitution”, for me it was simply a lie, a lie trying (and failing) to tell the truth. Cinema was the worst exponent of this, it was a cold medium that immobilised us in front of glowing screens soothing us into becoming passive consumers. With cinema there is never the possibility of participation in the present, it is always a re-presentation of the past, even when it attempts to be a call to action in the future.  

The Situationists taught me that people became radicalised through participation not spectatorship. Taking part in dramatic moments of everydaylife, in adventure, was what really changed people, not sitting still in a dark room. The trouble was I was deeply in love with cinema.  

I recognised the desires, pleasures and fantasies that art could engender, but I knew that these promises could never become reality. I wanted art to be deeply pragmatic, I wanted it to shape rebellions and I wanted to change it from being an end to being a means, from holding out a promise of perfection in some other realm to demonstrating a way of living meaningfully in this one. “Revolution” said Debord “is not showing life to people, but making them live.”  

I remember the first time you let me touch your Super 8 camera, it felt like a rite of passage, a magic moment beyond which nothing would ever be the same again. We were sitting in the stands during the pageant of the Holy Blood in Bruges. The procession took place every year to coincide with the day when the vial of Christ’s coagulated blood miraculously became fluid again. Although I never actually saw the relic close up I had vivid childhood dreams of a dry brown crusty scab suddenly exploding into bright crimson wetness.  

Soon after you let me make my first film. I squirted around lots of sickly sweet smelling ketchup and shot my 10 year old friend David being run over by your big white car. David was a “real” film star, he had just finished playing a key part in Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 classic Barry Lyndon. I remember crying my eyes out when he was killed in a horse riding accident near the end of the film. Perhaps recreating and directing his death in a car accident was my first revenge against cinema’s cruel fiction.  

I still cry easily in the cinema, even at some of the most synthetic Disney storylines. Your grandson Jack always knows at which point in the movie I start to cry, he leans across and runs his finger under my eyes to see they’re already wet with tears. Cinema sometimes wrings out my guts, it bursts my tear ducts and shoots electric currents up my spine, and yet I hate it.  

David’s death scene was filmed besides the back gate of our house, where the waste bins were kept. One morning as I was putting out the rubbish I noticed a tiny strip of broken super 8 film discarded on the ground. I picked it up, held it to the sky and squinted, trying to make out what was in the half dozen black and white frames. A tingle of fearful excitement tore through me when I realised that in my hands I was holding images of a naked woman. You couldn’t see her face clearly, but a nude buxom body was spread across gleaming white tiles that I didn’t recognise. I stuffed the tiny fragile secret into my pocket and ran upstairs to my bedroom.  

Ingeniously I worked out that I could take out the eye-piece of my telescope and sandwich the strip of film between it and the window, thus magnifying the tiny super 8 frames and creating my own private peepshow. It was to be the first of many addictive rituals which filled me with endocrine hormones. For most of my sexual life I struggled with a compulsive behaviour disorder which slid and hid me in a flickering trance world of porn, where every thing was possible and nothing real, except the fucking, and the coming, and the sucking, which was the only subject matter. Porn was the ultimate spectacle of separation, of escape.  

In the universe of porn there were no lines between fiction and fact, people didn’t pretend and yet performed, wild fantasy was fused with fleshy reality. It’s a world which holds out the promise of miracles and yet imprisons the imagination. It’s warm, wet, dripping gynaecological glamour promises everything yet always disappoints. It’s a Utopia of non stop sex, “perfect bodies”, without bills or work – without jealousy, impotence, emotional baggage, headaches, fear, embarrassment boredom or deadlines.  

The global porn industry has become a kind of postmodern Fourierist phalanster made up of millions of mirrors which distort the French 18th century Utopian’s ideas of society where everything would yield to the influence of the erotic. Charles Fourier’s extraordinary imagination anticipated many things: Freud’s psychoanalysis, climate change, the radical pedagogy of A.S. Neil, the non specialised working community of Marx and Engels, the affinity groups of the direct action movements and even the digging of the Suez and Panama canals. At the heart of his vision of a harmonious community were human passions. Written as a radical response to the violence of the French Revolution, he saw all evil as the consequence of repression and social peace could therefore only be achieved if society was built around the liberation and utilisation of passions. In his Utopia touch and taste were the highest senses, sight and hearing the lowest. Passionately attracted bodies were at its centre, not flat cold shadows shimmering on a screen. Four Fourier the only possible society was one composed entirely of lovers, therefore the only possible politics was a politics of the impossible.  

Porn was the perfect capitalist cooptation of the 1960s sexual liberation, much of which was influenced by Fourier’s dreams of passional attraction. I was not a child of the sixties but became a citizen of the society of pornography. I saw porn go from super 8 to Skype, from hard to get magazines wrapped in plastic bags to ubiquitous corporate cyber porn available at the flick of a button. I was brought up in a society that was rapidly forgetting its own gravity, losing touch with the ground beneath it, everything was being thrown up into the air, unreal cities were built with unreal money, finance fused with fantasy, everything was becoming nothing, everywhere and nowhere, dematerialised, separated, disconnected. Being “down to earth” reeked of the past of uncool hippy joy sticks. Contemporary turbo capitalism colonised everything with desire and teased us with the promises of unlimited possibilities. It was the most pornographic society in history.  

But dad, you never talked to me about sex, perhaps that was another liberation of the 60s that you missed, but I’ve always wondered whether that porn film belonged to you and was it mum on that fragile strip of film?  

Guy Debord had a love hate relationship to cinema too. His “anti-films” mostly made up of cut and pasted archive footage included a film Howls For de Sade without images punctuated with interminably long silences. “Just as the projection was about to begin,” a voice announces over a blank white screen “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.’”  

You might not have ever met Debord face to face, but I think you appear in his 1961 fake documentary – Critique of Separation – there is a long shot of crowded conference room where Khrushchev and Kennedy met just  months before the Berlin wall being built. I think you were in that blurry crowd of diplomats sitting at a conference table. “Official news is elsewhere” Debord’s soft voice narrates over the shot. “Society broadcasts to itself its own image of its own history, a history reduced to a superficial and static pageant of its rulers – the persons who embody the apparent inevitability of whatever happens. The world of the rulers is the world of the spectacle. The cinema suits them well. Regardless of its subject matter, the cinema presents heroes and exemplary conduct modelled on the same old pattern as the rulers.”  

Guy Debord made very little art, but he made it extreme,” says Debord of himself in his final work – Guy Debord, son art en son Temps. The film was a Canal + TV commission finished weeks before he shot himself through the heart, his nervous system was beginning to waste away, marinated in alcohol for too long. Impatient as always, he did not want to wait for death to arrive.  

But when you died they laid you out in a white dress, put rouge and red lipstick on your face and surrounded you with flowers. Death didn’t suit you, not this kind of death. The skin cancer that covered your body had come from the sun which our industrial society had transmutated miraculously from giver of life to killer. Whether it was depleting ozone levels or the rising heat of climate change, nature was dying, and even as a teenage boy I knew then that I couldn’t sit back and watch.  

A decade later I got involved in social movements, not to represent them, but to apply creativity directly to them, to dream up and organize collective acts of civil disobedience. The late 90s were my generation’s 60s, an irresistible global anticapitalist movement was erupting, its politics seemed exciting – it refused t see the revolution as a far off event, it preferred movements than political parties and street parties than A2B marches. It thought politics should be about pleasure rather than sacrifice, it valued diversity and the local, whilst refusing the failed monolithic global blueprints of the past. It had learnt a lot of lessons from the 60s but had the internet and communications technologies to propagate its desires.  

And so we reclaimed streets with illegal dance festivals attended by thousands and turned roads into sand pits for children to play in. Armed with jackhammers, saplings and audacity we planted trees on a motorway whilst hidden under the dress of giant carnival figure. We designed and distributed 8000 colour coded masks which choreographed a crowd of 10,000 rebels so that they could occupy London’s square mile on a hot Friday afternoon in June 1999. That was 6 months before the mainstream spot light discovered the movement of movements in Seattle, we called it “The Carnival Against Capitalism”. Parallel actions took place simultaneously in 75 cities, whilst the new neural network of the web streamed live images from the streets, it felt miraculous. The next day the front page of the Financial Times screamed “City of London Besieged by Anticapitalists.” We weren’t trying to convince people to join something through moral arguments, facts and figures, we were immersing them in events that they were part of creating, adventures during which they would momentarily taste the fantasy of what a better future could feel like.  

The greatest crime in this society is to make rebellion more irresistible than capital and we paid for it. Things got hot around the turn of the century, media campaigns of criminalization, accusations of terrorism, infiltration etc. It all culminated in 2002 at the G8 in Genoa, where the Italian police killed a demonstrator and beat people to a pulp whilst they slept in sleeping bags. I was there with Jack, he was eight, we ran from the building as the teargas rose and truncheons fell. I had never felt so much fear. Two months later two planes flew into the twin towers. The movement of movements waned and a generalized culture of fear began to spread. Inevitably I retreated to my first great love, film.  

As the dust from the twin towers was settling, Argentina’s fantasy economy collapsed, they defaulted on their debt, a grassroots uprising began and governments fell. I jumped on a plane armed with a little video camera. I filmed middle class people smashing up banks in broad daylight, I interviewed impoverished unemployed workers who were rebuilding their communities from the bottom up, it was the closest I have ever got to what May 68 must have felt like. Nearly every night thousands of citizens flowed into the streets, banging their pots and pans together in a symphony of disobedience that John Cage would have been proud of and singing “que se vayan todos” (they all must go) meaning that the entire political class goes, every politician from every party, the supreme court, the IMF, the multinational corporations, the banks – everyone out so the people can decide the fate of this economically crippled country themselves.  

I had to get these stories out to the English speaking world quickly, there was no time to make a film, so I wrote instead. I never made my Argentina film. The footage was used by many other film makers, but I landed a job as a second camera with my friends Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis on their film The Take, a documentary about the worker occupied factory movements. I left my academic job and moved to Argentina. Six months, hundreds of hours of tape, two film crews, several boom mikes, runners, production assistants, million dollar budget, boxes of equipment and translators later, I returned home with a foul taste in my mouth. Making cinema was so heavy, so resource consuming, so slow. I felt like I had become a filmmaker recuperating what revolutionaries were leaving behind, I had transmuted into a vampire, I was craving a return to action.

And so I had to think again and during one intoxicated London night I dreamt up a new methodology of protest, which replaced confrontation with confusion and merged the open magical body of the disobedient clown with techniques of direct action. It became known as Rebel Clowning and the meme spread across the world, by 2005 we had recruited 200 activists into the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army and we marched on the G8 leaders holed up in their luxury golf course in Gleneagles, Scotland. The last NATO summit that you attended was held there. Mum tells stories about how you were “piped” off the plane in your wheelchair and how you cried like a baby. Two weeks later I was walking behind your coffin through a Brussels cemetery blanketed with snow. You wanted me to make films, join the BBC etc. but I became an anarchist clown. What would you have thought? As I write, I’m checking the activists news wire Indymedia: over seven hundred people from 15 countries are trying to non-violently break into the Brussels NATO HW, your office. Four hundred and fifty have already been arrested, water cannon and pepper spray is being used, and guess what, many of them are in the international clown army. I wasn’t there, because I went AWOL after reading too many books about catastrophic climate change and falling into what felt like an interminable depression.  

Dad, I’m sorry, this letter is already way too long, but maybe I’m just catching up – the last letter I wrote to you was 26 years ago. So, to keep you up to date. Well, after the depression and working on the camp for climate action I decided to go on a little holiday in representation, a 7 month trip through Utopian communities in Europe. I visited anarchist schools run by children, we met permaculturists living lightly on the earth and an ecovillage that freed love and sexuality from the guilty constraints of society, we lived with 1968 activists who had become sheep farmers and young punks who had squatted an entire hamlet, I passed through villages where precarious agricultural workers had expropriated the count’s land and factories which were running under self management.  

Out of it will come a book of travel writing packaged with, you guessed it, a film, yes that medium haunts me once again. The film won’t be a documentary but in the tradition of Utopian literature it will present a vision of Europe after an economic and ecological collapse, shot in present it will represent the future. It was hard to film, I still feel that the camera creates a wall, a screen between people.  

Returning to London has been a shock, especially going from months of collective life, with little commerce, no adverts and lots of outdoor work, to sitting indoors stuck to a computer screen, another fucking screen, back to the cold separator. In my Utopia screens will have fallen into disuse, peoples’ desire to directly connect to each other and the world, to participate in directing their own lives rather than watching the lives of others will take precedence. Those who have to spend their lives in front of screens will be pitied. Perhaps there will be no cinemas in my Utopia, but beautiful rooms filled with delicious feasts, designed for sharing stories together, face to face.  

Guy Debord said that before its destruction by consumer capitalism, Paris was “a city so beautiful that many preferred to live there poor than to live rich anywhere else.” But you decide to move from the city of your dreams, for the dream of money I suspect, and so the “events” of 68 passed you by. What would have happened if you had refused the draw of power and wealth. Your bookshelves had anarcho-communist prince Kropotin’s Conquest of Bread on it. You avidly watched the 1970s TV serialisation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. You were “left wing” according to mum. So why did you work for NATO and why did you follow them against your wishes to Brussels?  

Maybe you did meet Debord one drunken night after all, maybe he taught you the art of detournement. That was why [you] gave up studying history and started to make it, not by creating situations, but by sitting in conference rooms and convincing people not to lob nuclear missiles at each other. Maybe you saw yourself as a mole in the system, subverting it from the inside, using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, maybe you really did believe that by bringing enemies together in the same room you could make peace. I’ll never know because the one miracle I never learnt was how to resurrect the dead.

I love you all the same;