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Détourning the Acropolis with Pigeotto

There’s a Pokémon Go gym at Checkpoint Charlie. I took it over and put a Flareon in there. There’s also a Pokémon Go gym at the Acropolis of Athens. I added a Pidgeotto I’d named Pericles to the group.

At first, when I noticed these gyms were in such significant locations I felt a kind of horror—how disrespectful! How trashy! Of course, I enjoyed the absurdity of playing a video game about collectible monsters on these sites of world historical significance and gleefully thought of myself as a terrible person for a minute. Then I thought, actually, maybe this is the best way to relate to being here. Maybe, there’s a strange kind of value in this ridiculous situation.

As the leading visual artist of the Situationist movement, Danish painter Asger Jorn was known for his absurd “modifications” of existing paintings. He would buy paintings of landscapes and other classical subjects from thrift stores, and paint over them with bright, hypermodernist abstract forms.

If you have old paintings, do not despair. Retain your memories but detourn them so that they correspond with your era. Why reject the old, if one can modernize it? — Asger Jorn

Détournement takes an existing aesthetic product and revalues it by applying one’s own art in such a way that it twists and inverts the original meaning or value of the product. Jorn’s “Modifications” were an example of this, as he took safe, predictable, classical pieces and made them startling, absurd, even disturbing.

Détournement is a game born out of the capacity for devalorization. Only he who is able to devalorize can create new values. And only there where there is something to devalorize, that is, an already established value, can one engage in devalorization. It is up to us to devalorize or to be devalorized according to our ability to reinvest in our own culture. — Asger Jorn, from his first Modifications show at the Rive Gauche gallery, Paris 1959.

Pokémon Go applies a filter to the real world where the player sees everything that is really there, but also experiences an impossible digital landscape. Pokémon can be seen in the world through a smartphone, and Pokémon Gyms that can be occupied and battled over are geographically located in real places. I’d argue that Pokémon Go in places of historical and cultural significance is a kind of détournement; a hypermodern, abstract new way to relate to geographical locations.

Is there value in this? I would argue that there can be. It starts, as Jorn says, with the ability to devalorize. We are already relating to places like the Acropolis of Athens in a way that has nothing to do with their original intention. We have a vague sense of the sacred and profound, we’re exhorted not to touch the marble, we wander up and down the steps, gazing at them, taking photographs—we don’t sacrifice to Artemis or Poseidon. We don’t do anything the builders would recognize as appropriate to the location. These places are valued and experienced now just because they are old, they link us back to human history. But what value does this experience of history really have? Pokémon Go at the Acropolis lets us experience the location in an entirely different, hypermodern way, one that has as little to do with taking selfies or buying postcards or idly imagining Aristotle wandering around as it does to making offerings or consulting oracles.

Maybe by embracing new ways of relating to significant places, like taking over Pokémon Go gyms, we can retain their memories but détourn them so that they mean something unique to our era? This doesn’t have to be a spiteful gesture dismissing history entirely—Jorn’s own aim in his modifications was not to spoil painting as a medium, but to détourn it.

For a look at some of Asger Jorn’s paintings, go here:

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