The Wisdom of Malcolm MacLaren

Malcolm MacLaren, foppish punk architect provocateur probably has more to do with the British interest in Situationism and psychogeography than anybody else. His co-opting of the posture and imagery of detournement gave Punk its intellectual edge – after all wasn’t punk just detourned Rock and Roll? The first time I encountered the word ‘situationism’ was in the pages of the NME and Melody Maker in the mid-80s in the articles of journalists raised on punk. So it was nice to see that MacLaren still has something to say in this vein in his dotage living out a bourgeois dream, elegantly slumming in Paris:

“We are at an end of the culture of desires; we may be going back to a culture of necessity
Real magic is found in flamboyant, provocative failure rather than benign success
Turn left, if you’re supposed to turn right; go through any door that you’re not supposed to enter – it’s the only way to fight your way through to any kind of authentic feeling in a world beset by fakery”
– Malcolm Maclaren, extrapolated from The Observer magazine 16.11.08

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Return to Wycombe – No escape from Eden

Returning to Newlands was a peculiar experience. I always thought it would be – maybe that’s why I delayed it so long. I attempted to adopt an air of professional detachment which was only partially successful as the remapping high wycombe project was always a personal journey – as Cathy had printed on the large scale Significant Sites map ‘This is no project – this is my life’.

Eden they have somehow branded this red brick consumerist behemoth, a moloch that will devour our children. A retail concentration camp, shoppers with bar codes burnt into their retinas, the whole scene directed by George A. Romero or John Carpenter – the no-comedy, spoof-free remake.

The development process that we documented in our project was one of ultra-artful deception from start to finish – a slick PR-savvy campaign by arch corporate colonists, like the alien invaders in the 80’s sci-fi earth invasion ‘V’ who adopt the guise of friendly attractive humans in order to seduce the human race and offer us amazing visions of the future they will bring us – then once we have given ourselves over to them, lowered our defences they remove their masks revealing their reptilian form and their true intention to farm us for food to feed their insatiable appetite. David Icke would probably close the circle and claim that the head honchos at Multiplex and the quisling Council Leaders who sold out the town are in fact lizard-like shape-shifters, a genetic throwback to a master race who aim to enslave us poor innocent homo-sapiens.

(a recreation of the orbital tour of the site that I did with Cathy in 2004)

I don’t agree with Icke about the lizard thing for the record. I met many of the people responsible for the ‘Horror of Newlands’ and they just looked like perfectly pleasant corporate suits, in much the same way that British colonial viceroys were often urbane, cultured souls. This didn’t prevent the brutality of imperialism – merely meant that it was administered by men who could relate it to the relevant precedent in the classical world. The mark of the colonist was to change the names of local landmarks, towns and villages. And so the Octagon has gone, that dark noxious place full of wonder – a piss-reeking reminder that shopping malls are places to be avoided at all costs. There was no deception with the old Octagon – it spelt it out for you ‘Shopping is Shit’. Where the Octagon still stands now the name reads ‘House of Fraser Eden’. The Octagon is erased from the collective memory – now there is only Eden. Shopping as Soma.

And so the Eden Shopping Centre was rationalised in terms of jobs and economic benefits. The havoc it would wreck on the psyche of the town, the scar it would gouge into its flesh was a concept they were unable to engage with. I presented this idea to both the architect of the scheme and the fella at Mulitplex – they simply didn’t have a vocabulary for the experiential qualities of space and place. That a building, especially a large lump of buildings could effect the way you feel, could influence your psychology. They had sophisticated models showing how to drive footfall through the mall, of how to enhance the shopping experience to maximise the consumer spend. But when confronted with the idea that a person might have an emotional response to such a place they were at a loss.

The evidence is there now – the gormless zombies listlessly perambulating from one chain-store to the next. The minimum wage jobs barely paying enough to cover the price of a double-caramel frappucino at BigBucks. The traffic on traction gliding from home to parking-space located conveniently close to the anchor store. The bus delivering you to your retail heaven. This other Eden that looks a lot like Hell to me.

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The Lunchtime Derive – video

This is a video that I made with Cathy Rogers back in 2004 capturing the experience of the Lunchtime Derive. This was one of the first interventions in the Remapping High Wycombe project and engages in a kind of playful-constructive activity
aimed at tinkering with the psychogeographical articulations of the town and its primary economic motors – work and consumption. Our grand plan was to roll this out en-masse and get large town centre employers involved and then study the changing relationship that people have with the town once they have been jolted out of their regular routines. The idea is still very much alive.
The maps and notes recording the derivistes pre and post derive movements and the text reproduced below were published in ‘Remapping High Wycombe: journeys beyond the western sector’

The aim of the LunchTime Dérive was to study how, by following a simple instruction, a group of workers could re-experience the town during their Lunch Break. The daily hunt for a prawn sandwich or Chicken Tikka Marsala Ready Meal will be replaced with a drift motivated by following a basic algorithm provided Dutch psychogeographers Social Fiction.
In an email to Cathy I sketch out the theoretical background to the exercise and how we might go about organizing it:
According to geographer David Pinder (1996) part of the purpose of the dérive was to allow “participants to drift from their usual activities and to become more aware of their surroundings while simultaneously seeking out ways of changing them.”
Our intervention is in part in reference to Chombart de Lauwe’s study of the movement’s made in a year by a Paris student. Guy Debord referred to the data produced by this study as ‘a modern poetry capable of provoking sharp emotional reactions.’ By asking the office workers to map their usual lunchtime routines we may find that this precious hour of free time is also similarly limited.
Debord describes the dérive as a period when one or more persons “drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.” We will be asking people to drop their usual lunch-time routine of the trip to M&S for a sarnie or surfing the net a their desk and to follow an algorithm wherever it may take them and experience the town as they find it.
We will employ an algorithm to jolt people from their routines and drive the drift most likely taking them into areas they wouldn’t normally consider going to at lunch-time. Debord suggests that the dérivers may discover new ‘psychogeographical attractions’ to which they may be drawn back, in this way our intervention may have deeply subversive consequences in changing the lunch-time habits of a group of office workers, the hunt for grub between 12 and 2 being one of the town’s primary motors. By mapping this dynamic then by interfering with it we can start to truly understand and interact with the ‘psychogeographical articulations’ of the town.

Process:
1. Organize an initial meeting with the workers 1 week or so before the derive. Ask them to map their usual lunchtime movements.
2. On the day of the derive meet the volunteers outside their workplace. Issue them with: notepad, disposable camera, piece of paper containing the algorithm.
3. Make sure that everybody understands the instructions and send the groups of 2-3 people off in different directions.
4. We will accompany the groups to record the event but not intervene. The groups record their route, observations etc. on the notepads.
5. The derive finishes after 30 minutes and we reassemble for lunch and debrief.
6. We collect in notepads and cameras and process the results creating maps of the routes followed.
(we could give them a small amount of money to collect food along the way for the lunch at the end)

Rules for a Dérive
1. One or more persons may dérive
2. The most fruitful numerical arrangement consists of several groups of two or three people.
3. It is preferable for the composition of these groups to change from one dérive to another.
4. Drop your usual motives for movement and action, relations, work and leisure activities.
5. The average duration of a dérive is a day, considered as the time between two periods of sleep.
6. The times of beginning and ending have no necessary relation to the solar day.
7. The last hours of the night are generally unsuitable for dérives.
8. A dérive seldom occurs in its pure form.
9. The spatial field of the dérive may be precisely delimited or vague.
10. The spatial field depends first of all on the point of departure.
11. The maximum area of this spatial field does not extend beyond the entirety of a large city and its suburbs.
12. The minimum area can be limited to a small self-contained ambiance (the extreme case being the static-dérive of an entire day within the Saint-Lazare train station).
Extrapolated from Guy Debord’s 1958 Theory of the Dérive

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Psychogeography with Kids in Paris


On Wednesday I arrived in Paris with my family after setting out for Los Angeles alone that morning. I realise that this sentence comes across as both pretentious and preposterous but I hope to redeem myself by steering this in the direction of the heartland of French psychogeography.

We were in Paris to visit some my wife’s friends who live in Canberra (true and yet another dimension to what could also be a missive on ‘time-space compression – but isn’t). Los Angeles – well that’s better left unsaid.

After some of the usual family-friendly fun at the Natural History Museum perusing their collection of dusty old bones laid out like a Damien Hirst installation (that sentence would work in reverse if I were writing about Hirst – of course the museum was there long before BritArt) we allowed ourselves to drift through the frozen streets. Children are natural psychogeographers and flaneurs. They live for the moment, are completely guided by their senses and desires, and are inherently iconoclastic and anarchic prepared to challenge conventional norms with virtually every step. And we had four of them of various ages between us.

So I reckon it was the kids rather than the Paris-born Mathew who led us to Rue Mouffetard. It rang a bell, I think from the Will Self vs Iain Sinclair event at St. Lukes in 2004. As Mathew sat us down in the traditional café of Le Mouffetard, I asked him whether there was any link to Debord. He confirmed that it was in fact an area with Situationist associations, as later confirmed by this passage from The Situationist City by Simon Sadler:
“Situationsists regarded the best urban activity as human, unmechanised, and nonalienating, and their texts, films, and maps indicated some possibilities, variously idealising the marketplaces, like Les Halles or the Rue Mouffetard, the traditional cafes, notably those around Saint-Germain-des-Pres, and the places of student congregation, such as those around the Pantheon” (p.92).

He led me up the street to Place De La Contrescarpe where Debord frequented the cafes – possibly whilst plotting dérives that he got too soaked to carry out. I would have a cheesy photo to mark the occasion had I not by now have been carrying my youngest child.

View Larger Map

Indeed Debord mentions the location in the Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography: “Is it illogical or devoid of interest to observe that the district in Paris between Place de la Contrescarpe and Rue de l’Arbalète conduces rather to atheism, to oblivion and to the disorientation of habitual reflexes?”
I was going to note how strange it was that a family outing should find its way to this exact location with such psychogeographical resonance, but this would be to ignore the articulations at work in the urban realm – particularly when guided by children.

The photo at the top is of the Memorial de le Deportation

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Russell Brand Neo-Situationist Revolutionary

I’ve long been of the opinion that had Lenny Bruce found his way to Paris and mated with a drunken Guy Debord then the resulting child reared in front of a flickering screen irraditing the infant’s brain with images of ‘Ripping Yarns’ and ‘Pete and Dud’ followed by ‘Black Adder’ and ‘Filthy, Rich and Catflap’ for dessert with Radio 4 on in the background and books on the English Radical Tradition lying around open on the floor – then that child would be Russell Brand the comedian. To prove my point have a look at this footage of him leading the audience from one of his shows onto Hastings Pier.

Update:
Chris from Dollyhead Books (who was at the Hastings gig) saw the video and has come up with the precedent that Russell mentions in the clip. Here’s what Chris said in his email:

“As far as the precedent for Russell’s walkabout after the gig (as he mentions on the YouTube clip)… I refer you to Andy Kaufman’s April 1979 Carnegie Hall “milk and cookies” show. The performance is most famous for Kaufman ending the show by actually taking the entire audience, in 35 buses, out for milk and cookies. He invited anyone interested to meet him on the Staten Island Ferry the next morning, where the show continued. I seem to recall somewhere that Steve Martin also used to end his shows like this in the 1970’s (it might have been mentioned in the John Belushi biog ‘Wired’)”

Thanks Chris.

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