A note on psychogeography and the dérive

I recently came across an essay on ‘Situationists and Architecture’ by Peter Wollen in The New Left Review from 2001. I thought it was worth sharing these passages on psychogeography  and the dérive as it’s a subject I’m often asked to explain or define, so scholarly sources are always very welcome.

 

psychogeography

from Memoires by Guy Debord & Asgar Jorn 1959

 

Guy Debord wrote the classic text on the ‘Theory of the Dérive’—usually translated as ‘drift’ or ‘drifting’—in December 1958, in the second number of Internationale Situationniste. He defines it as ‘a technique of transient passage through varied ambiences’. Note, again, the taste for transience and spontaneity. Debord’s basic idea is that this project of wandering through the city should be determined not by any preconceived plan, but by the attractions or discouraging counter-attractions of the city itself. It requires a ‘letting go’ of ‘the usual motives for movement and action’—we might almost say, a letting go of everyday identity. Debord seems to have been inspired in part by Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe’s study of Paris et l’agglomération parisienne, published in 1952; and particularly by its maps, which are frequently used as illustrations in the Situationist journal and in Debord’s own art works. He was especially struck by a map detailing all the movements made over a year by a student living in the 16th Arrondissement: ‘her itinerary delineates a small triangle, with no deviations, the three apexes of which are the School of Political Science, her residence and that of her piano teacher.’

Shocked by this rigid repetition of a fixed pattern of mobility, Debord conceived dérive as a way of creating completely new, unpredictable itineraries, dependent on chance and the spontaneous subjective impulses and reactions of the wanderer. The recourse to chance reminds us, unavoidably, of André Breton’s doctrine of ‘objective chance’ and above all of his great book, Nadja, which traces a series of just such aimless journeys through Paris, punctuated by a pattern of attraction and repulsion to certain buildings, or kinds of buildings, rather than others. Debord notes that this technique of dérive is, in a way, only necessary because his larger project of ‘psychogeography’ has not yet been sufficiently far developed. Psychogeography would make possible the creation of maps in which particular locations or regions had already been designated as favouring the arousal of one kind of affective or aesthetic response, so that a certain amount of pre-planning could take place. Meanwhile, chance was the best method. (This text, interestingly enough, was written just as John Cage was conducting his seminars on chance procedures at the School for Social Research in New York. Probably a coincidence.)

A dérive could take place over a few minutes or even a few days. Duration didn’t matter. Taxis could be used for rapid transport outside one’s usual environment. (One Situationist demand was for the abolition of private cars and their replacement by fleets of low-cost taxis.) As in Breton’s book, the dérive also implied the possibility of chance encounters, meetings with strangers. Debord even suggests that the subject of a dérive might be invited to visit a particular place at a particular time, with the expectation of meeting an unknown person, thus being forced to introduce themself to random passers-by in an effort to identify whether this was the person he or she was looking for. This was called the technique of the ‘possible rendezvous’. He also reveals a taste for straying in uncanny locations—‘slipping by night into houses due for demolition . . . wandering in subterranean catacombs forbidden to the public, etc.’ Here we see the dérive as a kind of dream journey, even an invitation to break taboos—or, perhaps, simply to enjoy what we might think of, in the architectural register, as the Gothick picturesque.

…from the start, psychogeography was bound up with the creation of situations; and the concept of situations was expanded, in time, to cover not just the city, but the whole of society, the totality of possibilities open in an unalienated community.”

PETER WOLLEN, New Left Review 8, March-April 2001

Eden’s Dreaming – The Whalebone Box

Whalebone Box

The Whalebone Box by Andrew Kötting

The dark cave of the box room where I write and make videos was the perfect lockdown hideaway to watch Andrew Kötting’s hypnotic odyssey The Whalebone Box. It’s a further collaboration with Psychogeographer in Chief Iain Sinclair, a dream ticket that began with Offshore in 2007 and continued through By Our Selves, Swandown, and Edith Walks (and you could add Iain’s book London Overground which I then filmed with Kötting playing a major role).

The star of this film though is the film-maker’s daughter Eden Kötting, now an established artist in her own right, who first beguiled us as a child in her father’s debut feature Gallivant (1996). Eden is the sage, the spirit guide for the journey that lies ahead, to return a whalebone box carved by artist Steve Dilworth on the Isle of Harris thirty years before, lined with lead and filled with calm water and placed in the care of Iain Sinclair. The Whalebone Box spent the intervening years on the London magus’ desk whispering to him as he produced a string of highly influential works predicting the future shape of London. Eden wonders if returning the ‘animal battery’ to its source will stop the flow of words.

The Whalebone Box
The film unfolds as Eden’s dream in a forest, gun on lap, hunting. The box drifts through the pine trees like the Rendlesham Forest UFO. Later whales swim between the twisted trunks of a gnarly copse. Eden casts Sinclair as ‘The Man’ (in black) ‘he wants to tell things … (he has) knowledge about this moment’.
Writer Philip Hoare relates how whales have the heaviest bones as they are full of oil. And the box has been lined with lead, filled with water and sealed with beeswax. The aim of the quest is to return the whalebone box to the beach where the whale washed up, to test whether the calm water sealed inside possesses healing powers and return health to the body of the sick. The box must first traverse the landscape, mountain tops and forests, the Fells, a tower to be charged with ‘insane energy’. The poet MacGillivray enchants a mermaid voice into the whalebone box in a church through haunting song. Kötting trails Sinclair to the ruined Cathar castle at Montségur, ‘the plug of the entire mythological system’. Philip Hoare tells us that whales can breach dimensions. Eden hears witches in the trees. At the Callanish Stones Sinclair says that this is where ‘the person dissolves in the place … we’re in this long dialogue with our ancestors’.

The Whalebone Box

The magic extends to the form of the film with its multi-layered soundtrack of present tense non-synced voice, sounds from the archives, whale-song, music conjured from peculiar instruments. The images merge between archive film, animation, and iPhone movie clips but in Kötting’s hands, ‘This isn’t a phone, it’s a 16mm camera’.
The whalebone box makes its eventual return to the beach where it washed up, accompanied on its final leg by the voices of Jonathan Meades and Peter Whitehead. Eden stands by the sea at night, in silhouette, it’s cold and she wants to go home. Is the journey complete? I’ve a feeling that this is another chapter in an on-going saga that will take us who knows where next.

 

Watch The Whalebone Box on Mubi until the end of April 2020

Secrets of the City with Iain Sinclair

Iain Sinclair walk – Austin Friars to Mile End Road

This was a mystery walk, and a walk of secrets revealed. It seemed to come out of the blue. I thanked the great writer Iain Sinclair for the directions he’d provided for the Austerlitz walk I did with Bob and Roberta Smith and sent him a link to the video. He replied saying that he’d show me the house in Alderney Road where he believed the fictional character in Sebald’s book had lived. In addition, he said, we could add to the Van Gogh walk we’d done at the back end of 2018, and loop in two of Iain’s recent projects – his journey to Peru following the footsteps of his great-grandfather, and a piece he’d written for the Swedenborg Review.

Iain Sinclair John Rogers

John Rogers and Iain Sinclair at Austin Friars

I met Iain outside WH Smith at Liverpool Street Station, once part of the opulent Great Eastern Hotel. Among Iain’s many casual jobs in the past, he’d worked night shifts at the Station (from memory as a baggage handler?) in the days when it was a dark and dingy terminus, as described in Austerlitz. We moved on quickly through the City, heading south down Old Broad Street, breeching London Wall, then diving into Austin Friars Passage off Great Winchester Street. Iain touches the ‘pregnant’ wall in the alleyway, “you actually can put your hand on it, avoiding the chewing gum, and you take the temperature of another era of London,” Iain says. ‘Taking the temperature’ of London is a good description of Iain Sinclair’s work. He’s had an amazing knack of finding the territory that contains the story of London at that particular time, the Thatcher era in Downriver, the mid-90′ end of Tory rule in Lights Out for the Territory, the early bravado Blair years at the turn of the millenium with London Orbital, through to the new city being spun out of the Overground railway with London Overground. Today we’d be slicing across these timelines ending back with one of Iain’s earliest works, Lud Heat, where he accidentally gave birth to a particular Anglo-Celtic variation of psychogeography while working as a gardener in the churchyards of the East End.

 

Iain Sinclair John Rogers

Plantation Lane

The church at Austin Friars was home to London’s Dutch community in the 19th Century and was visited by Vincent Van Gogh. His sketch of Austin Friars Church is one of the few artworks he produced during his time in England. We follow this leg of the Van Gogh trail into Gracechurch Street, where the commercial gallery he worked for had a branch.

A coffee shop triggers the next chain of assocations on our walk, which now diverts its theme to Iain’s recent travels to Peru tracing the journey of his great grandfather, who had been sent there in the late 1800’s by the Peruvian Corporation of London. His mission had been to travel deep into the upper Amazon to see what crops could be grown there. The conclusion that the land would be suitable for the cultivation of coffee has its legacy in coffee shops and supermarket shelves the world over. You pick up references to this notable ancestor in various Sinclair works, particularly in Dining on Stones. This Peru expedition will be the subject of Iain’s next book, and you can read his blog posts of the trip here. There’s  a podcast in post-production and a film, The Gold Machine directed by Grant Gee, is due in the autumn.

Thames Wapping

 

We inevitably find ourside by the Thames, passing through the tourists laying seige to the Tower of London, talking of the legend of Bran the Blessed and the alignments linked by myth laid out in E.O. Gordon’s book, Prehistoric London, its mounds and circles (1904). From the start of this walk I’ve had no idea of the route, just following Iain through the City, knowing only that we will at some point arrive at Alderney Road in Stepney. We retrace some of our steps through Wapping from one of the walks for our London Overground film, passing the Thomas Rainsborough memorial and Turner’s Old Star.

Iain Sinclair walk

Chigwell Hill

We cross The Highway, the spire of St. George in the East lancing the East End sky. Designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and tagged as a nodal point in the psychogeography of London, largely thanks to Iain Sinclair’s early writings, you’d assume that St. George was where we were heading. But it turns out to be a site with possibly more tangible esoteric resonances.

Dodging into a small park beside the throbbing road, I find Iain stood looking at a London plane tree on a raised oblong of graveled ground. Swedenborg Gardens marks the spot where the Swedish philosopher and mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg was buried, in a churchyard since destroyed. It links to the Sebald story via Rabbi Chayim Samuel Jacob Falk, who was also said to be a kabbalist and alchemist. Falk, a friend and neighbour of Swedenborg’s in nearby Wellclose Square was buried in the Alderney Road Jewish Cemetery where Jacques Austerlitz lived in an a house overlooking the burial ground. “Both of these celebrated aliens, seekers and scholars, were buried in the ground of the territory: Falk at Alderney Road and Swedenborg beside the Highway,” wrote Iain Sinclair in the Swedenborg Review.

Iain Sinclair walk

Iain Sinclair in Swedenborg Gardens

From Swedenborg Gardens we pass along storied Cable Street and up through Watney Market as the traders are packing away for the day. The dangling lights from the metal stall frames sway like lanterns in the late afternoon darkness. Sidney Street is yet another location on this schlepp with a tale to tell, Seige House feels like an odd tribute to the events of 1911 that took place down here.

Across Mile End Road and we home in on the end of the walk at Alderney Road, still calm and peaceful as described by W.G Sebald in Austerlitz. Iain guides me to the house where he believes the fictional Jacques Austerlitz would have lived given what can be extracted from the book. By now it’s pitch black and I ask Iain to stand under a street light for the camera. He willingly poses in the shower of lamplight, the occasional passing car casting additional illumination – the perfect end to an incredible walk.

Iain Sinclair walk

Iain Sinclair – Living with Buildings

“I use my own ways of digressing and picking up on other stories that you don’t expect to find by walking and wandering over the ground that’s been described by other people.” – Iain Sinclair

July 2018 and I found myself back out walking with Iain Sinclair, this time retracing one of the walks in his latest book, Living with Buildings and walking with ghosts. We met by Canada Water Station and Iain explained how the book was associated with the Wellcome Collection exhibition of the same name, but was its own beast driven by Iain’s narrative.

John Evelyn's Mulberry Tree, Sayes Court

John Evelyn’s Mulberry Tree, Sayes Court

We proceeded past the old Evening Standard printing works, now slated for development, through Greenland Dock bound for the Pepys Estate – once the home of film-maker Andrew Kötting and featured in the book. After paying homage we moved on to the next key location in this particular chapter of Living with Buildings – John Evelyn’s Mulberry tree at Sayes Court Park.

Iain Sinclair Living with Buildings

Walking with Iain is always a magical experience, layers of London history and lore kicked up and chewed over with every step along the way.  The book, in some ways, is Iain Sinclair’s most traditionally psychogeographical work, exploring the very tangible relationship between the built environment and  human health and psyche.

I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to further discuss the book and Iain’s work in general at the brilliant Wanstead Tap when Living with Buildings was published in October – as you can see in the video below.

London Overground with Iain Sinclair – watch the full documentary online

London Overground retraces legendary London writer Iain Sinclair’s journey with film-maker Andrew Kötting around the Overground railway for the book of the same name. Directed Shot and edited by John Rogers.

The film follows Sinclair reprising the walk over the course of a year rather than the day’s walk of the book. Iain is once again joined by Kötting in parts, along with Chris Petit (director of Radio On) and Bill Parry-Davies on the 35-mile circular yomp.

London Overground charts Sinclair walking through this changing landscape from his home in Hackney, through Shoreditch down to Wapping where he revisits his earlier book Downriver. In the company of Andrew Kötting once more they ramble in both senses from the Thames foreshore at Rotherhithe through Canada Water, Surrey Quays to Queens Road Peckham. At Willesden Junction he is joined by film-maker and author Chris Petit as they survey the developments around Old Oak Common. Sinclair and Kötting walk through the night to reprise their original yomp in reverse. Dalston is surveyed with local campaigner Bill Parry-Davies logging what has been lost in the rampant redevelopment and checking in on cherished corners of the area. We meet noir novelist Cathi Unsworth at Shepherds Bush/Westfield and artist Marcia Farquhar in Kentish Town.

What emerges from the film is a snapshot of the city in transition and also a unique insight into the most important chronicler of contemporary Londoner. ‘The city’ Sinclair says at one point, ‘is a series of psychic mappings that reinforce our own identity’.

Featuring original music by Standard Planets, Bill and Adam Parry-Davis, and Free Seed Music.

London Overground premiered at the East End Film Festival with a screening at the Rio Cinema, Dalston – 2nd July 2016

Wycombe revisited – 100th Episode of the Walking Vlog series

I felt an undue amount of pressure when trying to choose where to go for the 100th Episode of my Walking Vlog series. When out walking from Theydon Bois to Chigwell Row for the 98th Episode I’d asked the YouTube viewers for suggestions and they’d really come up with the goods. But one particularly resonated, from talented author Scarlett Parker:
“The hundred dilemma got me thinking about ‘hundreds’, the geo-administrative divisions of yore. Not sure how you could rein in this concept for a manageable walk. There are the famous Chiltern Hundreds, which is your, erm, jurisdiction.”

This was perfect – the Chiltern Hundreds > The Desborough Hundred Psychogeographical Society that I formed with my sister Cathy for our Remapping High Wycombe project > the significant sites walk we devised to bring the project to its conclusion. There was added significance in that I started my YouTube channel for this project to host some of the video documentation.

Walking into town from Wycombe Station I ticked off the first of the significant sites/’nodules of energy’ – the Dial House, home to Charles I’s physician Dr Martin Lluelyn; the ancient lane of Crendon Street; the supposed ‘mark stone’ by the Guildhall, and Robert Adam’s market house which we used as the HQ of the DHPS and installation site for the event on 18th June 2005.

The temperature that day 13 years ago was hitting the high twenties and again the mercury was pushing upwards at 27 degrees. It’d be hard going in the hills. I’d mustered some walking partners back then to make it more of an event – an old friend Jerry White, who’d brought along a mate, my Dad, and Nick Papadimitriou who’d I’d recently met for the first time. Today I’d be reprising the experience alone.

I gathered my thoughts in the churchyard before pushing on up Castle Hill Mount, said by some of the old Wycombe antiquarians to be partly formed of the burial mound of a Saxon warrior. The route onwards into the Hughenden Valley takes me through the grounds of Wycombe Museum, past the house where poet & composer Ivor Gurney stayed, and along the path above Wycombe Cemetery.

Looking back down into the valley there’s a stretch of newbuilds that highlights one of the major changes in the town. Gone is the great engineering factory of Broom & Wade and also Harrison’s Stamp Factory, and a student accommodation colony has taken the place of the industrial heart of Wycombe. When I’d led Nick, Jerry and Mike through this section in 2005, this was what made them see Wycombe as a town with its own distinctive industrial heritage, not just another satellite commuter town. Now that it’s gone – what does this say about Wycombe today?

Hughenden Manor
The heat is taking its toll as I climb up the Hughenden Valley to admire the view from the terrace of Benjamin Disraeli’s grand mansion. I daren’t rest yet as I have to drop back down into the valley then climb again to the (Isaac) Disraeli monument on the edge of Tinker’s Wood. Beneath this monument is where I’d rested on previous variations of this walk and it’s where I take a moment to pause once again and consider the passing of the previous 13 years since I was here last.

The zig-zag streets of Downley offer yet more great views across the valley to the Iron Age Earthwork at Desborough Castle – my next point of interest. The outer banks are high and imposing, but thankfully the dense tree canopy offers respite from the sun. I imagine the Desborough Hundred Moot taking place within the sunken enclosure in the deep past, as envisioned by Annan Dickson in his 1935 book, Chiltern Footpaths.

Desborough Castle Wycombe

Back down in town it feels as if another kind of grand gathering is taking place upon the Rye. The grass is dotted with puddles of pink flesh soon to turn lobster red. Boaters splosh their oars in the Dyke. The open air pool where I learnt to swim is sadly closed for the rest of the day.

Cut Throat Wood Wooburn

Cut Throat Wood

From the Rye I follow the patron stream of the area – the Wye, or the Wyke – trundling quietly behind the Marsh and the Mead to Loudwater where my Mum grew up. By now I’m tired and just want to sit in a nice pub garden with a cold pint. I could drop down Watery Lane to the Falcon at Wooburn, near the field where I played as a kid. But that would be the end of the walk. No, I stick to my plan to climb one last hill (so I thought) up Whitehouse Lane and along Grassy Bank looking over to Cut Throat Wood – a place that so dominated childhood days walking with my Dad and many a wistful recollection of those happy days. It’s the perfect ending to this revisiting of memory grounds, that further pushes me on under the railway line and up into the quiet roads leading into Beaconsfield Old Town and the train back to Marylebone.