Another web article on psychogeography? Why not! In the run-up to a highly promising weekend of street theatre, surrealism, vintage markets and sacred geometry in Glasgow here is a quick look at the history of psychogeography and, more importantly, what it can do for you.
What is psychogeography?
Psychogeography is an ambiguous, debated and occasionally derided concept that in the last few decades has gone through cycles of discovery, rediscovery, acclaim, pretension, caricature and backlash.
The most illustrative definition I have read is by Joseph Hart who describes it as “a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities… just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape.” Its main device for exploration is aimless, drifting ‘derives’ or wanderings through the landscape.
The history of psychogeography
Modern psychogeography was first outlined by the political theorist Ivan Chtcheglov in an influential essay, Formulary for a New Urbanism. After his fall-out with the Lettrists in 1955 psychogeography was further developed by radical avant-garde mid-20th century movements such as Situationist International (SI) and the Lettrist International who were heavily influenced by Marxism, surrealism, Dadaism and revolutionary architecture. Marxist intellectual and SI founder Guy Debord and others gave psychogeography much intellectual theory and discourse.
Debord’s biographer Vincent Kaufman however points out that psychogeography might have been a bit of a situationist wind-up launched out of “an art of conversation and drunkenness, and everything leads us to believe that Debord excelled at both.” In other words it was born out of drunken rants and some might say it still has a tendency for psycho babble
The situationists developed urban wandering from the concept of the flaneur, French for stroller, and the man of the crowd. Flaneur evokes a 19th century Parisian act of strolling as something of leisure, dandyism and literature, found, for example, in the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. The man in the crowd is more associated with the London-based writing of Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas de Quincy. Other British writers used gothic, romantic and occult elements to explore urban landscape such as William Blake and Arthur Machen.
For some it goes even further back. An academic research team from the University of West Scotland now traces psychogeography 300 years back to the romantic poets as well as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his article another place called nowhere Darran Anderson mentions that early psychogeography can be found in Irish pre-Christian literature and is known as Dindsenchas meaning ‘lore of places’.
Since its early avant-garde political origins psychogeography’s ambiguity has allowed it to explore diverse themes and concepts including sacred geometry, politics, surveillance, graffiti, personal resonance, secret history, occult, forgotten art, lost characters, architecture and the psychic imprint of trauma in an area influencing its atmosphere down the years – a much used example by writers are the Jack the Ripper murders in Whitechapel although the area itself in reality has much changed since that period.
Art and writing continue to be defined or labelled psychogeographic, often in retrospective and without the original intention of the writer or artist. Nonetheless an extraordinary diversity of films, comics, writing and music now belong, whether intended or not, to the psychogeography canon. The most famous writing can be found in the books of London writers Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd and Will Self. Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor for example explores the link between dark Satanism and churches built by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor although commentators will point out that there is no historical evidence for this. Sinclair is not to everyone’s taste but is in my opinion simply one of the great British writers and, along with Dickens, a master of London writing.
However, it’s not just about London, books or the urban landscape. In Edgelands Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley explore the uneasy areas that exist between urban and rural such as canals, quarry pits and piers. Robert Macfarlane journeys through wild places and mixes myth, memory and landscape. The Psychogeographical Commission create high-concept recordings based on derive journeys and suggest listening to suitable music that, during a wander, will allow the street noises to infiltrate and fuse with it.
Bloggers are unearthing some fascinating material, recording their experiments and writing about their experiences. The Fife Psychogeographical Collective digs up fascinating lore and connections in rural and urban Fife, a kingdom mostly bounded by the sea and strewn with the echoes of history and rural secrets and debris of industrialisation. In another place called nowhere Darran Anderson uses a photo of nowhere and skillfully peels back hidden layers rich in history and personal association.
Of course in a modern age technology, maps, apps and GPS location are also being utilised and created for the active psychogeographer, although some would argue that this is contrary to the original true spirit of the movement.
What psychogeography can do for you
Perhaps everyone and everything is too easily labelled psychogeographic these days and certainly it is ripe for satire. However, the brilliance of psychogeography is that anyone can be a wandering flaneur, it does not need to end up as serious literature or a blog piece and everyone knows walking is good for soul, body and mind.
All it requires is an open mind, curiosity, a taste for the pleasure of a purposeless stroll and an eye to look and see. I used to play a game with my daughters where the direction of street walks were determined with the toss of a coin, this was inspired by a friend who used to eye London from the top deck of buses also arbitrarily decided by the coin. I never considered this psychogeographic at the time but both are games that can certainly be described as such. Often I wonder when walking the dog whether her random park wanderings are guided by principles of canine psychogeography based on smell, favourite trees for sniffing, squirrels and the leftovers of student barbecues.
Psychogeography’s political overtones, its potential playfulness, Hart’s toy box for street connections, will allow you, the subversive wander, to reclaim and love your landscape, relish new discoveries and resist ‘banalisation’. It’s investigating your personal and emotional relationship with your landscape and the life of your streets.
Cynics would boil it down to: just go for a walk and get some fresh air lad!
Whatever the case have a go and enjoy yourself! Grab a greyhound if you have to.
“Unfold a street map of London, place a glass, rim down, anywhere on the map, and raw round its edge. Pick up the map, go out into the city, and walk the circle, keeping as close as you can to the curve. Record the experience as you go, in whatever medium you favour: film, photography, manuscript, tape. Catch the textual run-off of the streets; the graffiti, the branded litter, the snatches of conversation. Cut for sign. Log the data-stream. Be alert to the happenstance of metaphors, watch for visual rhymes, coincidences, analogies, family resemblance, the changing moods of the street. Complete the circle, and the record ends. Walking makes for content; footage for footage.” http://lostlondon.org.uk/pages/about-the-the-lost-london-project
Coming soon: psychogeography and sacred geometry in Glasgow (if the weekend works out).