In the May issue of Dazed & Confused, we spoke to curator Johan Kugelberg about the legacy and iconic artwork of the Paris student uprisings in May 1968 which became the yardstick by which all youth demonstrations today are judged
Beauty Is In The Streets: A Visual Record Of The May 68 Uprising presents, for the first time, many of the posters created by Parisian group Atelier Populaire (“Popular Workshop”), an autonomous political art movement organised by students of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, alongside photos, manifestos and pamphlets of the time. It tells the story of how millions of French students, workers and citizens took to the streets in 1968 in opposition to Charles de Gaulle’s right-wing government, forcing him to call an election that he ultimately lost.
As the yardstick to which all subsequent demonstrations are measured, Paris 68 has become a touchstone in the discussion of modern dissent; none more so than in portrayals of recent student protests in London, Paris, Rome and elsewhere. But is this comparison valid? And why has it become such an important moment in history when its immediate impact was limited only to France?
Dazed & Confused: So, what sparked the idea for this book?
Johan Kugelberg: Well, it started life as an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in May 2008, on the 40th anniversary of the student and worker protests in Paris, as a collaborative effort with one of the founders of Atelier Populaire – Phillipe Vermés – who is the co-author of the book.
D&C: Have you always been interested in French radicalism?
Johan Kugelberg: Yes! As a kid I even used to spraypaint slogans from Siuationist texts in my hometown. But we totally faked having read the books and were just fronting to impress girls. I mean, at 16, I couldn’t read [seminal situationist tract] Society Of The Spectacle by Guy Debord or any of that stuff! But as an adult, I’ve returned to the texts and concluded that they were probably right.
D&C: And what about the posters produced by Atelier Populaire – do they still hold a similar pull?
Johan Kugelberg: Definitely! These images reflect the immense potency of the human spirit! These strikes were done without leaders and central committees and made enormous accomplishments in a collectivist fashion, way before the use of Twitter or Facebook, which modern activists have recently adopted. They were just so ahead of the curve, and still are! And there is also something fantastic about the urgency of the way these posters were made, whereby the group would come up with an idea for a poster in the morning, do their editorial stuff during the day, print everything in the afternoon, and poster in the evening. This might not sound so fascinating in itself, but bear in mind that the people involved also faced the real threat of the cops coming and kicking their ass at any point during the entire process.
D&C: What do you think of the enduring legacy of 68?
Johan Kugelberg: I feel that it was a brilliant thing, because it’s still the greatest ‘wildcat strike’ in history, where people switched off their radio and TV and went out into the town square and spoke to one another, regardless of their socio-economic privilege. The very idea shakes me to my very foundations! Meanwhile, during the same era, people like Allen Ginsberg and his hippie pals wanted to levitate the Pentagon… Well, in a way, these people in France actually did levitate the Pentagon. For me, what I believe is that, at the time, the people that fucked the workers and the students were not people like de Gaulle, but the Maoists and the Socialists and the Trotskyites who sold their brothers and sisters down the river by stopping short of their aims of completely overthrowing the government. And that is what was has caused a huge hangover that still makes people depressed, even today. But that in turn, however, does not devalue what happened.
D&C: How do you feel about the impact these posters have had? Their bold imagery and dogmatic sloganeering has been an influence not just in radical circles but in pop music promos and advertising, too.
Johan Kugelberg: Again, that does not change what happened. Just because a bad artist wants to rip something off for money, it doesn’t devalue the original article that they’re ripping off. Of course, schmucks will always expropriate everything that kicks ass! Those things will always happen! But, to quote the noir writer James Kayne when asked if he was angry about the way in which Hollywood was taking his novels and turning them into shitty movies, ‘The books are right there on the bookshelf.’
D&C: And what do you think about the comparisons between the recent student protests in Europe and 1968 – are they valid?
Johan Kugelberg: The recent stuff was just about money! Of course, I’m talking a little bit of shit here, and maybe I’m being too romantic… But to me, May 68 was an attempt to go beyond longer leashes and bigger cages by rejecting the authority of de Gaulle, and not just about cash. I just wish that the students would become more pissed off than they did last year! This service-based economy that we’ve had in the last few decades is one of the biggest mistakes that ever happened, and it’s part of how this generation got shafted, because universities keep churning out all these service professionals. And what can they do? Become web designers? Writers? Journalists? Curators?
D&C: How do you feel about ‘viral activism’ online as successors to the posters in Paris that kept people informed of protests and gathered support?
Johan Kugelberg: Online political activism, I fear, is 60 per cent luxury consumption. They sound like this: ‘Oh boy, that’s a nasty politician, I’m going to go home and write something about them on my blog!’ That is obviously a facsimile. This is Debordian: ‘Everything that was directly lived has receded into representation.’ Nothing on a screen is directly lived. It is a representation. That means that every aspect of political activism becomes defined by the medium that it uses because the medium is ultimately the message. And if the way that you communicate costs £600, requires a socket and software made by corporations using an email system created by a nasty-ass company... well, my friend, beware the Ides of March.
D&C: Twitter functioned very well though, by keeping protestors informed of what was going on around them at demonstrations. Do you not think there are some positive aspects?
Johan Kugelberg: I hope you’re right, but I don’t feel that. I fear that the relationship with the device supercedes life itself. One of the things that I’m hopeful about, however, is that all these young people can group together on a grassroots level and start doing things, even in small ways. History is what’s happening all around us, and you can’t escape that.
Beauty Is In The Streets: A Visual Record Of The May 68 Uprising is published by Four Corners Books