1964: Under the umbrella of his recently established Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism (sic) Asger Jorn wants to put out a series of some 30 coffee table books relating 10,000 Years of Nordic Folk Art through “continuous collages” (the phrase belongs to his friend and collaborator, the archeologist P.V. Glob) of photographs. Along with two photographers (the Frenchman Gérard Francechi and the Dane Ulrik Ross) and his Dutch partner Jacqueline de Jong, he travels around the island of Gotland in order to capture its archaeological riches: stone figures and carvings, churches, frescos, mazes. The island comes to figure centrally in the Danish artist’s conception of a specifically Nordic tradition going back to pre-Christian times and significantly influencing European culture tout court. Reflecting Jorn’s enduring interest in popular art forms, the project was not only retrospective in character, but also connected to contemporary political and artistic concerns, such as the artist’s opposition against what would later become the European Union and his recurring need to redefine his own position vis-à-vis the international art scene. He would, for instance, distance his brand of vandalism from the auto-destructive art then in vogue and sometimes jokingly adopt the moniker “10,000 Years of Nordic Pop Art”.
Fast-forward fifty years and I receive an invitation to represent the recently established Scandinavian Institute for Computational (sic) Vandalism at something called The Scandinavian Mutant Summer Camp. Hosted by Livia Páldi (director at the Baltic Art Center) and Swedish artist Henrik Andersson, the campers include artist Jakob Jakobsen, publisher Mathias Kokholm (both Danish) and, most notably, Jacqueline de Jong. During a few glorious summer days we drive around the island, using the 1964 contact sheets as a navigational tool and an interface to the past, retracing the movements of the vandals fifty years earlier while looking out for new revelations. Stop the car, there’s a megalith out in the field! Is that Mohammed painted on the church wall? (The answer, it turned out, was positive: a fresco depicted the prophet side by side with the pope and St Christopher as a statement in a post-reformation controversy.)
For de Jong, this was her first visit to Gotland after the sojourn in 1964 and a chance to visit the grave of her former lover. I took the opportunity to sit down with her to enjoy the local specialty of saffron pancakes and talk about what is arguably two of the most remarkable art-related publication projects of the 1960s: Jorn’s ambitious but aborted 10,000 Years of Nordic Folk Art (only a pilot volume on 12th Century Scanian Stone Sculpture was ever published) and de Jong’s heretic Situationist Times, an international, multi-language organ of a Situationist movement from which she was expelled before even putting out the first issue. Ranging from a wild archaeology to a contemporary cultural topology, these ventures are very far removed from the melancholy and theoretical orthodoxy that came to define late Situationism, and they resonate strongly today as precursors to the idea of “artistic research”.
Ellef Prestsæter: I would like to begin with what is perhaps the most emblematic photo of the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism at work. Taken by Franceschi on Gotland in 1964, it shows Ulrik Ross zooming in on the portal of the Hablingbo church from the roof of a Citroën, with you, Asger Jorn, and an unidentified fourth guy posing around the car. For me this photo makes it pretty clear that the Institute was all about setting yourselves, the world, and the image in motion. What comes to your mind when you look at this photo today?
Jacqueline de Jong: Not much, except vague memories of a lovely and inspiring dérive… The pleasure consisted in finding stuff par hazard as well as through the research Asger and I did. It was the same thing in Norway. We knew about the stave churches, and thus knew where to look. The greatest surprises in Norway were the pieces of graffiti, just like it was here yesterday.
Yesterday we also visited Henrik Andersson’s exhibition Comparative Vandalism at the Art Museum of Gotland. He had scanned and printed the contact sheets from 1964.
It was a delight, Henrik’s exhibition. Amazing to see the material in such a way.
One of the striking things about the display was that the enlarged contact sheets provided a kind of storyboard to your “research dérive” back in 1964. The single shot is never isolated, always relational, appearing in an order that allows us to retrace and reimagine the movements of the photographer and his fellow travellers. You may, for example, count how many images were captured of each object, or look for moments of distraction. Suddenly images of the sky appear, of the landscape, different meteorological phenomena, a bike race even! A second temporal layer allows us to study how the contact sheets were worked with, using a grease pencil to select certain images, to delineate cropping etc.
It was of course Jorn who did the work on the contact sheets.
Do you remember having any discussions about the role of photography in the project?
Of course there were discussions about how to obtain the best possible photographs. How to photograph was left to Franceschi, what to photograph was up to Jorn. So the days were spent like we did yesterday, travelling around. Asger didn’t have a driver’s licence and I was not supposed to drive – I don’t know why – so Franceschi was driving.
Also on display in the show was a photo Henrik took of Jorn’s grave, in the churchyard of Grötlingbo.
Yes, Asger decided that he wanted to be buried on the island when we were here in 1964. He didn’t want to be left in Danish ground!
The whole project of the Institute also started outside of Denmark?
The first trip we did took place in Normandy in 1961. Apart from the well-known churches and cathedrals it was all about finding small Roman churches and look for graffiti.
The material that would end up in Signes gravés sur les églises de l’Eure et du Calvados [Engraved signs on the churches of Eure og Calvados] from 1964.
In addition to the graffiti, we were interested in these marks in the church walls that didn’t form images or text. The theory goes that they were traces of how someone had grated or carved cuts into the stone in order to eat the stone dust that came out of it, thinking that it would bring them good health.
A very different way of relating to the stone.
Yes, this was not about images, but about the literal consumption of the material. Anyway, we were detectives, sort of, doing archaeological research, but in a different way than traditional archaeologists. I personally didn’t know much about graffiti. It was Jorn who initiated me and taught me what to look for.
Franceschi was a traditional museum photographer and mainly knowledgeable about the art represented in museums. Indeed, he had to free himself of that traditionalism when working with Jorn.
Detectives, you said?
It was a bit like that, and even more so during our next journey, to Spain, in the winter of 1962. This was during the Franco regime. It was a strange and awkward thing for Jorn to go to Spain at that time. One morning in a hotel restaurant I brought up his role during the civil war. [Jorn actively supported the Republicans and wrote about the war in Arbejderbladet, the organ of the Danish Communist Party. EP] How naïve and thoughtless of me to mention this in French! There were people sitting next to us in the hotel restaurant, and when I dropped my serviette on the floor one of them came up, gave it to me and said, “Voilà, mademoiselle”, thus making it clear that he understood French perfectly well and had been eavesdropping. From that moment on, during the whole journey, we were followed. Of course that made our research more detective-like but also rather paranoiac. When I decided to stay on some days to recover from my pneumonia on a peninsula near San Sebastian, Jorn chose a small hotel for me and dropped me there with the film rolls. I was to take them with me when leaving the country. Very clever, and a resistance man, he was.
So this was like a group of spies travelling around Spain photographing medieval churches – did you have a plan?
Yes, Jorn had made a list of churches and monasteries he wanted to photograph.
Could you say something about what you were looking for? I don’t think this material was ever used.
It was used in the Situationist Times! We basically looked for the same things we would be looking for here on Gotland two years later. Everywhere, most of the time, we were looking for “pagan” images, such as monsters and devils, in the churches.
Did you feel that you were collecting evidence for a specific archaeological argument?
Yes, sure! It was the argument that there had been people, like the Visigoths, travelling all over the globe. Jorn wanted to show that the images are the same in Italy, Spain, Portugal, wherever you go.
So this was the comparative component of the project?
Yes, to show the comparative imaginary. We wanted to make these facts available through the photographs. This is, after all, what the Institute was about.
It is interesting that the project would begin in France and Spain, not Scandinavia.
Why? Why would you say that?
Because the Institute of Comparative Vandalism was said to be Scandinavian.
Well, do not take the name too literally. There’s a joke in there.
Sure, but it is also true that one of the planned outputs of the Institute was a multivolume book series on 10,000 Years of Nordic Folk Art.
Absolutely, and that was not a joke. Yet the folk art in question was not only Nordic, but spread all over the world.
Exactly, that’s why I think it’s interesting that you started outside of the Nordic countries, deconstructing the narrative about an inherently Nordic culture from the beginning. It also implies that the Institute cannot be reduced to the 10,000 Years of Nordic Folk Art book project. There was more at stake.
Yes, and after all we were living in France, so it was logical to begin there. Later we went to Spain, Italy, Switzerland and Scandinavia. I think everything is okay with the name of the Institute, except “Scandinavian”, because that implies a limitation. It should have been the Institute of Comparative Vandalism, quite simply. Still, and this is important: the opposition between the North and the South of Europe was a hang-up of Jorn. He wanted to emphasise that a lot of culture had travelled south from the north, and not only the other way around, which was still a hegemonic archaeological idea in the Christian and Greco-Roman-oriented countries.
How would you describe the whole concept and project of the Institute?
It was such a big and perhaps even utopian project that you couldn’t imagine the whole thing being realised. However, travelling and doing the hands-on work was so enjoyable that you would forget about the 25,000 pictures that eventually got made. It was something of a snowball effect: you start, then through one thing you discover the next, and through the travelling, the comparative aspect of the project becomes more and more important and gets its form. So there you are. I don’t think there ever was a document specifying what was to be done. It was all very intuitive, and that is what made it so beautiful.
How do you understand the vandalist component of the name?
It was because of the historic Vandals! That’s very much Jorn. The Vandals were not berserk-like. They were no vandalists: they were a people that travelled and spread themselves around.
And the whole project began with the graffiti, right? The very definition of vandalism.
Jorn recognized the graffiti as art, as folk art. The notion of folk art is misleading, though.
Because it sounds so boy-scoutish. It’s just art.
I find the name of the Institute ambiguous. On the one hand you can read it literally as referring to the comparison of different vandalisms, whatever that means. On the other, there’s a strong sense of a vandalist ethos to the project itself. This is perhaps most striking in a publication like La Langue verte et la cuite [The Green Tongue and the Cooked One] from 1968, which is clearly about comparing in a vandalist manner. Its assemblage of tongue images vandalises the established ways of comparing image cultures.
Yes! But then it becomes a philosophical more than a practical issue. On the other hand you could say that in the beginning the name was just a word play, which then became a serious and practical issue.
You mentioned the other day that Claude Levi-Strauss came to the launch of the tongue book. Did you speak with him?
Yes. I believe he considered the book very interesting. I think he liked it because it was quite different. It was not really an attack on structuralism, more of a persiflage.
So he had a sense of humour?
Absolutely. When you read him he may come across as dry and academic, but his influence has been tremendous. There is very much that is comparative in Levi-Strauss’ work. Structuralism is a kind of comparatist philosophy.
Sure, but still I always thought of La Langue verte as a vandalising of structuralism.
It became more: a sort of complementary structuralism. La Langue verte opposed structuralism because of its restrictions. Everything was put into fences – structures – by Levi-Strauss.
Also important here, I guess, is the central structuralist notion that any kind of cultural expression can be analysed as a form of text.
Yes. The formality of structuralism.
I think this linguistic model, a kind of linguistic imperialism, was seen as problematic by Jorn.
Yes, because it overlooked form, which was what we were working with.
You already mentioned that you used some of the photographic material of the Institute in the Situationist Times (ST). Indeed the ST was one of the primary places where this imagery was published. Could you describe your method for working with these images?
Yes. You used a lot of images from other sources as well.
You can say that again! With the third issue I entered into a more theoretical and topological exploration than in the first two. I was interested in labyrinths, for instance, from a topological perspective, not a mythological. Topology, or the Analysis Situs, was brought up but never worked out or developed in the Internationale Situationniste. I wanted to do that with the Situationist Times. So I started explaining, probably more to myself than to the readers, what topology was, in a simple way. I asked Max Bucaille, a Pataphysician and friend of Noël Arnaud, to participate in the magazine, as he was a mathematician specialising in topology.
Topology is the mathematical study of shapes and spatial properties that are preserved under continuous deformations. While Situationist Times #3 (1962) is all about knots and interlaced patterns, the magnificent fourth issue from 1963 focused on mazes and labyrinths, some of them from Gotland. Situationist Times #5 (1964) followed up with some 700 images devoted to rings and chains.
I took images from everywhere. Many of them I just copied by hand. And then there were these fantastic photographs taken by Franceschi, many of which were showing the very same figures that appeared in mathematical books about topology. So this is the comparative approach of the Situationist Times.
Did you see topology as an alternative to other approaches to visual culture?
Jorn and I were very fascinated by the fact that in topology the use and interpretations of images were very similar to forms found in medieval art, archaeology (the Scythians, La Tène and so on) as well as in more recent times.
What were you hoping to achieve with the topological emphasis?
What more can I say than I did in issue 5?
Well, in your short editorial text in that issue you state that it is up to the reader to make his conclusions. Still I wonder whether you drew any conclusions yourself.
No conclusions, only comparisons and openings.
Openings towards what?
I was hoping to stimulate people to engage in similar activities.
Actually I have a good example of that. A friend of mine, the artist Guttorm Guttormsgaard – he is more or less your age – has told me about how he stumbled upon the Situationist Times when looking through a box of discounted titles in an Oslo bookstore in the 60s. He says it changed his life. The past decade or so he has been engaged in an enormous archival project; the two us have been talking about how the Situationist Times, at least in retrospect, may be said to have provided a kind of basis for that project. At least you share a certain irreverence towards established cultural hierarchies as well as a willingness to experiment and play with new associations across large quantities of cultural material.
There you are! The opening worked… I didn’t want to fence things in or suggest how people could go further. It was not exactly an educational program!
Did you feel that your way of handling the images of the Institute was different from Jorn’s?
Not at all. After all, the basis, to me, was his book Guldhorn og lykkehjul [The golden horns and the wheel of fortune] which was published in 1957.
In what sense?
In Guldhorn og lykkehjul he created comparative analyses – of objects, images and theories. He was trying to explain things to himself, without trying to convince the reader about a particular interpretation. A lot of space is given to images: this is a space for the reader to make her own comparative analyses. Don’t you agree?
Indeed, that’s one of the decisive features of the book. The images have a life of their own; their organisation carries an argument which tends to overwhelm the argument of the text. In the running text there are a lot of references to images on specific pages. However, and I am sure this was intentional on Jorn’s part, the pages are not paginated… The layout of the Situationist Times is very different. What was your modus operandi here?
I invited people to write and also picked writings from other sources. Then I made a collage. The whole thing was a big collage.
In line with the collage dynamic, the Situationist Times contained writings in a lot of languages: English, French, German, as well as occasional phrases in Scandinavian tongues.
Yes, I would simply publish the texts in the languages in which they were written.
To me the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism and the Situationist Times come across as related projects.
No! How can you say that? The Situationist Times was very contemporary, not interested in the historical stuff.
Still you used a lot of the same images.
Yes, because these images were available to me. So some of the images are the same, but the concepts are very different. The Situationist Times was much larger. Unlike the Institute, it was not focused on one particular part of culture. The Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism was an archaeological project. The Situationist Times was not a scientific publication like that.
How would you describe the magazine then?
I wanted it to be a bit like the Dutch magazine i10 of the 1920s: a general, cultural, intellectual, artistic, scientific [laughing] collage, without any restrictions in its language, images or form. Freedom of speech and freedom of image. It was completely different from the Institute, which was always restricted to specific subjects, topics and geographical areas.
Well, on another level it’s clear that two projects share a deep interest in images and in organising large quantities of images in experimental ways. This is of course interesting considering the Situationist context and their iconoclastic theories.
Indeed. Remember that this all started in 1962, when the artists got kicked out of the Situationist International. The image was kicked out of the pages of the SI magazine as well, for the most part. The Situationist International became a sociological and theoretical movement. I wanted the Situationist Times to be something else.