Among the various drawings and postcards taped on my refrigerator is a picture of Guy Debord, Michèle Bernstein, and Asger Jorn sitting at a café, their slouched bodies and cocked eyes suggesting that they’ve had more than just a few. The image comes from Debord’s 1959 film, On the Passage of a Few People Through a Rather Brief Moment in Time, and below my photocopied still there is a fragment of text borrowed from the film’s narration: “At every moment,” it reads, “groups and individuals find themselves faced with outcomes they had not expected.” Though one imagines that such a situation would not have been too surprising for the three protagonists pictured—they all spent ample time at cafés doing just this sort of thing—the question “How did we get here?” haunts the frame nonetheless.
In addition to being a filmmaker, Debord was also the chief theorist and ringleader of the Situationist International (SI), a group of activists and artists who understood the world to be increasingly structured by spectacular social relations, the result of a steady accumulation of capital. A number of strategies were enlisted to ward off this stultification. By taking epic walks (dérives) through the neglected areas of urban centers, the group sought to both reorganize the city and rekindle subjectivity. Jorn reworked thrift-store paintings according to the principle of détournement, transforming staid landscapes into uncanny scenes, and Bernstein generated a vertiginous range of texts, from book reviews to horoscopes to novels, one of which, Tous les chevaux du rois (All the King’s Horses, 1960), has just been translated into English in its entirety for the first time. Like Jorn’s paintings and Debord’s films, Bernstein’s novel similarly seizes upon found objects—in her case, popular teen novels—infiltrating their forms in hopes of brushing thought against the grain. Unlike other SI activities, however, Bernstein’s book was produced to generate a profit for the group’s activities. Less explicit in its provocation or perhaps simply subtler than some of the SI’s other interventions, Bernstein’s novel is characterized by a deadpan tone. As Horses’ narrator, Geneviève, an intentionally poorly veiled surrogate for Bernstein, puts it: “Novels and paintings follow whichever recipe is convenient at the moment. In any case, there’s something to be said for cleverly using the clichés of one’s time.” If this is the case (and I think it is), there’s certainly something to be said for this book as well, if not for its actual story. This is not a tale of a revolt against society, but rather of submission to convention; the protagonist puts together her life much like Bernstein put together this book: by stringing together whims and readymade activities. Geneviève and her partner, Gilles (Debord’s doppelgänger), spend the duration of the novel drinking, moping, and taking underage lovers, creating an ambience that one might describe as very French. Little else happens—a young girl plays the guitar; a holiday is taken to the south. The final page of the book seems to signal little more than the point at which Bernstein stopped writing.
So why translate this book? And why now? Despite a prolonged interest in the SI, Bernstein’s contributions have often been obscured. Seen in this light, the publication of Horses uncovers another voice in the SI project—a more sarcastic and pop one at that—and provides a certain degree of gender equity to the historical record. That this book has been translated by the artist and ersatz-gallerist John Kelsey points to another set of interests. As Kelsey explains in his introduction, Bernstein’s book played a foundational role in the life of the much-discussed gallery Reena Spaulings Fine Art, with chapters of the book handed out at many of the space’s early openings. More important for Kelsey, however, is the fictive nature of Horses’ protagonists, who at one point refer to themselves as “characters in a novel.” Indeed, the most significant part of the Spaulings project, which has generated not only a gallery but an eponymous novel and an increasingly successful art practice, is the way that it has troubled questions of identity and the role of the author. If Kelsey has translated Horses as a way of sharing sources, then we must ask what other interests the book might have for us besides as a document of contemporary art. Is it open to other uses, interpretations, and readings?
These are open questions, though the book itself offers one possible answer. About halfway through the novel, after Geneviève has coldly dismissed her young lover, he asks, “Are you always like this?” “Pretty much,” Geneviève replies. “‘On principle?’ I began to laugh. ‘Do I look like someone with principles? It’s ethics, my love.’” If Horses is not heavy on principles (a good thing) or even content (maybe not so good), it undoubtedly has an ethic—slyness, humor, and intervention—and this is perhaps why at this moment it is facing an outcome that its author had very likely never expected.