Obituaries: Gil J. Wolman

Those who live by obscurity die by it also, so the minimal response to the disappearance of Gil J. Wolman is hardly surprising. Wolman led a brave, ferociously independent existence at war with the forces of contemporary conformity, the celebrity machine of the mass media being high amongst the accused.

Born Gil Joseph in Paris in 1929, Wolman was an active agent provocateur from an early age. At 24 he published a brief summary of his activities: member of the Young Communists, journalist for the magazine Combat, drug trafficker in the Algiers Casbah, long-distance lorry driver from Greenland to Pompeii, merchant marine captain, published poet and accomplished knitter. But Wolman's anti-career really commenced after meeting Isidor Isou in 1950, when together they developed the principles of Lettrisme, a radioactively nihilistic form of late Dada in opposition to everything that might be termed Culture (capital C representing Class interests) and status quo.

In February 1952 Wolman was part of a major scandal, mounting a screening of five films, including his L'Anticoncept, the first of his experiments in "Cinematochrone", abolishing images altogether, a violent flurry of black and white strobes projected on a balloon accompanied by a very loud soundtrack of assorted noises. This was nothing compared to the film of his best friend, the agitator Guy Debord, whose Hurlement en faveur de Sade was dedicated to Wolman and resulted in police intervention.

In April the same year Wolman led a systematic disruption of the Cannes Film Festival and was only saved by a police escort. Most importantly, in May, he founded the Internationale Lettriste with Debord in Belgium. At the end of 1952 he was under arrest again, this time for breaking through a police cordon to shower Charlie Chaplin with insulting pamphlets declaring, "Go home Chaplin."

From their Cafe Bonaparte HQ Wolman planned other Lettriste attacks, including a rescue mission to liberate a reform school for young girls. Such attacks extended to Andre Breton, whose Surrealism they particularly disdained. Wolman's published letter to Breton ended: "You should shut it down and let your daughter look after her old dad. The Surrealist movement is composed of imbeciles or FORGERS."

Wolman's aesthetic innovations, films like Atochrone, which reversed the cinematic process by breaking up a second into 24 parts, or "Megapneumie", a sort of organic noise music, and his researches into new forms of painting such as the canvas HHHHHH, were part of a radical change in the arts, which, if dated and tamed by half a century, were vital to the spirit of post-war Europe.

More important were Wolman's collaborations with Debord, including the seminal "derives" throughout Paris, walks that laid bare the "psycho-geographic" structure of the city. The Lettristes were much concerned with the nature of urban life, especially the detrimental effects of town planning, which they saw as an assault on the erotic and criminal vitality of the metropolis. At a time when progressive artists were supposedly committed to the "modern", Wolman published open attacks on Corbusier and his "Unite" housing.

In 1955, responding to an article on the planned demolition of Limehouse, the Times published this manifesto-letter from Wolman and Debord:

We protest against such moral ideas in town planning, ideas which must obviously make England more boring than it has in recent years already become. We hold that the so-called modern town planning which you recommend is fatuously idealistic and reactionary. The sole end of architecture is to serve the passions of men. If modernisation appears to you to be historically necessary we would counsel you to carry your enthusiasms into areas more urgently in need of it, that is to say, to your political and moral institutions.

Lettristes were ahead of their time in this critique of Modernist planning and their approach to the city, as a site of negotiable personal experience with unclassified pockets of resistance, has had a permanent influence on architectural theory and teaching. Likewise, the radical ideas of the Lettristes and their descendants the Situationists came to fruition in May 1968, as well as in the graphics, tactics and f-you aesthetics of UK punk, not to mention a horde of anarcho-squatter-travellers who live out the ideals of Wolman and his collaborators without having heard of him or his demise.

Adrian Dannatt

Gil Joseph (Gil J. Wolman), film-maker, writer, political activist: born Paris 7 September 1929; died Paris 3 July 1995.

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