Podcast: What on Earth is Psychogeography

I had the great pleasure of being interviewed live onstage at the fantastic Wanstead Tap about the subject of walking and psychogeography for the Tap Into Podcast. And appropriately I did ramble all over the place a bit.

Here are some of my notes.
Original definition of Psychogeography by the Situationist International:
“the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” S.I.
dérive
A mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. The term also designates a specific uninterrupted period of dériving.

Note on psychogeography from my book This Other London:
“In 1953 a young poet and activist, Ivan Chtcheglov, writing under the pseudonym of Gilles Ivain, produced an article called ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’, in which he put forward this utopian vision: ‘Everyone will live in their own cathedral. There will be rooms awakening more vivid fantasies than any drug. There will be houses where it will be impossible not to fall in love. Other houses will prove irresistibly attractive to the benighted traveller.’

Quote about the S.I and the City
One article from 1958 sums up the group’s feelings about the city: “The world we live in, and beginning with its material decor, is discovered to be narrower by the day. It stifles us.
“We yield profoundly to its influence; we react to it according to our instincts instead of according to our aspirations. In a word, this world governs our way of being and it grinds us down.”

Video I made about Mathieu O’Neil’s Situationist Library in Paris.

Link to part of the Chris Gray Memorial Lecture at Housmans bookshop October 2012.

Extract from an article I wrote about British Psychogeography and the 90s psychogeography revival:
The revival of the London Psychogeographical Association had been announced with a statement in their first newsletter in 1993, “The revival of the LPA corresponds to the increasing decay in British culture, and indeed of the British ruling elite. It has been, in fact, an historical inevitability”. In an essay entitled ‘Why Psychogeography’ Stewart Home reinforced the point, “Psychogeography is not a substitute for class struggle, but a tool of class struggle.”

Sacred alignments of London map
Lud Heat map

London Psychogeographical Assocation NewsletterWhy Psychogeography
“There is a spectre haunting Europe, nay, the world. The spectre of psychogeography”
The publications of the London Psychogeographical Association forthrightly present a reconstruction of urban life.

Previous posts about Iain Sinclair and Psychogeography

Proto-psychogeography
The Fringe of London
“On rambling round the outskirts of London, and the unexpected turns, trials and triumphs that lie in the path of the wayfarer”. 

Discovering Maxwell’s The Fringe of London had been an epiphany for me, realizing that there was a heritage for this odd practice of wandering around neglected streets, following the city’s moods, tracking myths, retracing old paths and uncovering forgotten histories. – out-take from TOL

“The border-line between folk-lore and fairy-tales is not more nebulous than that between topographical research and “nosing about.”
The former, in either case, is but a grander name for practically the same thing. I mean the outdoor part of topography, not the many hunts in the land of books that usually follows later.”

“There are two ways of topographical hunting: one is to follow the “scent” of a clue, and the other is to go into the unknown to find what may be. Each way has its own charms and surprises. “

“The way of the topographical rambler is sometimes hard, often muddy, usually interesting; but never dull.” – Gordon S. Maxwell – The Fringe of London, 1925

England’s Character by SPB Mais 1936
“So make up your mind to be bound by no programme, to travel with complete irresponsibility, to start nowhere in particular, and the odds are that you will catch a glimpse of England that is vouchsafed only to the privileged few.”
“What you are looking for is as elusive as the faery music of the piper at the gates of dawn. What you see may be incommunicable to others, but it will provide you with a vision that may well alter the whole of your outlook on life.”

“Londoners live and sleep in places that in one’s lifetime had been remote and inaccessible”
Walter George Bell, 1926

“… I decided that these little towns must be celebrated. I would lock up, gather toothbrush, comb, and razor, and revisit them; make a Grand Tour of the true heart of London”
The Outer Circle Rambles in Remote London, Thomas Burke 1921

Some previous posts about psychogeography

The Pleasure of Discovery psychogeography podcast

Radio Wolfgang on Wanstead Flats

It was a great pleasure to work with Radio Wolfgang on the production of this podcast as part of their Good Nature series. We used the device of the algorithmic psychogeographic dérive to talk about how to unlock the ‘unknown facets of the known’ (in the words of Greil Marcus) and explore the world around you anew.

I first came across the idea of the algorithmic dérive via Wilfried Hou Je Bek some time around 2002 and it proved very useful in generating community participation in the Remapping High Wycombe project (2004-05). It was subsequently used in a psychogeographic intervention in artist Bob and Roberta Smith’s 2015 General Election campaign and became the subject of one of his paintings that ended up in a feature in Elle Decor.

You can download the podcast here

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

Interview about psychogeography and London Overground on Celluloid Wicker Man

celluloid wicker man

A couple of weeks ago I met up with film-maker Adam Scovell in the Olympic Park and we had a great chat about my London Overground film with Iain Sinclair, psychogeography vs deep topography, the development of London etc.

A: So where does London Overground fit into this then?
J: Part of Iain’s genius is, in the book (and I hope it comes across in the film), dealing with a really unwieldy idea and set of issues to get your head around by addressing it with such a universal idea.  I’ve been documenting various campaigns around London over the last few years, starting off with the E15 and even before.  And where you look at it on a case-by-case basis, there are economic patterns that underpin this and ways which different local authorities deal with this.  But, if you try and find a universal narrative, something that links it all together, it can be quite difficult.  Also, from a campaigning pointing of view, you deal with specifics.  So London Overground takes the simple device of walking in a day around the Overground, looking at that circuit, which is newly completed (before you had fragments) so we have a new circuit from disused track that ran from Dalston Junction to Whitechapel and other bits to complete a circuit that didn’t exist.  In doing so, in a microcosm, it tells you the story of what’s happening in London today.

Have a read of it here on Celluloid Wicker Man – and also check out Adam’s Super 8 films

There’s also an edited version of the interview here on 3:AM Magazine

New Mounds rewiring the psychogeography of London

Stave Hill Rotherhithe

It was on the Refugee Tales walk that we ascended Stave Hill, Rotherhithe – a peculiar recently constructed mound in the centre of an urban park. Iain Sinclair remarked that we may be entering a new era of mound builders with Beckton Alp (a grass covered heap of arsenic) the Silbury Hill of this new epoch.

Taking in the view from the summit Iain says:
“The triangulation of the Shard, the Gherkin, and this new Omphalos – it’s trying rewire the psychogeography of London and undo the great energy lines and ley lines of Greenwich from the top of Greenwich Hill – this is the alternative thing and it’s deeply sinister.”

The London Hospital, Whitechapel: seen from the northern side

The London Hospital, Whitechapel: seen from the northern side
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Iain then talks about the mound at Whitechapel beside the London Hospital.
“It was built up at the time of the civil war as a defensive mound against the Royalists and it stayed there until relatively recent times,” and although it was demolished “the sense of it is still there”.

He spoke of how the early foundations of London were based on the four principle sacred mounds of London as described by E.O Gordon in ‘Prehistoric London – its mounds and circles’, and the relationship between the mounds “and the geometric patterns that emerged. Now the Hawksmoor pattern that you could have seen from the top of Greenwich Hill has been obliterated by Canary Wharf someone’s got to set up a new system to replace it”, and the Stave Hill mound is part of that system. “So we’ll link this to Beckton Alp, which is a mound of arsenic and a few shells left behind by Stanley Kubrick after re-staging the Vietnam War”.

Iain had found traces of the palm trees Kubrick had planted around Beckton when using it as the setting for Full Metal Jacket. He was on a walk with film-maker Chris Petit from Aldgate Pump down to the sea and they found a strange park near Beckton Alp which had stubs and “dying remnants of the palm trees that Kubrick had imported from Spain to create a sense of Vietnam”.

He took Will Self to the gigantic Woolworths at the retail park at Beckton built on the site of the old gas works – apparently it reminded Self of America due to the scale of the store, “but yet you could actually could get a very good cup of coffee”, Iain laughs, “and a big collection of dvds, I liked it a lot, but then it disappeared.”