Fuck Psychogeography

“…far from being the aimless, empty-headed drifting of the casual stroller, Debord’s principle is nearer to a military strategy and has its roots not in earlier avant-garde experimentation, but in military tactics, where drifting is defined as ‘a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus.’ In this light, the dérive becomes a strategic device for reconnoitring the city, ‘a reconnaissance for the day when the city would be seized for real.’”

– from Psychogeography by Merlin Coverley

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The English have done terrible things to psychogeography.

In England, psychogeography is most often considered as a literary technique. This bookish reinvention can be traced back to Iain Sinclair’s book Lights Out for the Territory. Sinclair drew lines across London, reinventing the city as a place of maverick philosophy. Subsequent works such as Merlin Coverley’s excellent study, Psychogeography, explore Sincliar as part of an English tradition of psychogeography avant la lettre, taking in visionaries such as Blake, Defoe and de Quincey.

It was this stream of thought that introduced me to psychogeography. I came to understand it though personalities like JG Ballard and the comic-book writer Alan Moore. My only knowledge of Situationism was through the use of slogans in punk or references in works like Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. For the music press, Situationism’s most significant thinker was Malcolm McClaren, who used detournement and Debord as the theoretical structure for his ‘rock and roll swindle‘.

When I returned to university in the mid-noughties, I took a course on Marxism which introduced me to psychogeography’s other tradition, original yet younger: a revolutionary art movement based on the philosophy of Hegel and Marx, emerging from ultra-left politics. I was exposed to the uncompromising force of Debord’s thought and became aware of his rage, even against his own attempts to escape capitalism’s confines.

The most obvious trace the Situationists left were their slogans. As great as the core texts are, they are incredibly difficult compared to the slogans’ Zen simplicity. What better statement of anti-capitalist revolution than “Never work”? Arguably the most famous statement from May 68 was the graffiti ‘Sous la pave, la plage’: Under the paving stones the beach. It’s seen as a cute moment of utopianism, perfect for putting on T-shirts.

Debord was not seeking a beach. The slogan came from a violent time, as de Gaulle struggled to maintain control. That slogan ‘sous la vide, la plage’, urged the enrages of 1968 to pull up the paving stones, the implication being that they could be broken up and hurled at the authorities. Psychogeography was intended as part of this revolutionary struggle, reconnaissance for a coming urban war.

With his writings on recuperation, Debord was aware that whatever he did would, in time, be sold. Nothing is so chaotic that one cannot make cash from it: Banksy’s rebellion advertises his role as a fine artist; Grant Morrison satirises royalty yet is happy to take an OBE; Iain Sinclair, the saint of walkers, did an advert for Audi. And TV panellist Will Self started his Psychogeography column, bankrolled by the British Airways in-flight magazine. Self and Sinclair were eager to hawk psychogeography and their reputations for advertising. Debord always knew his ideas would be stolen, turned into fuel for Capital. But that makes what has happened no less tawdry, shameful and treacherous.

There has long been a tension between French and English psychogeography. When Debord visited the English Situationists he was shocked at their shabbiness and lack of preparation. Later, punk stripped away Situationism’s the complex political theorising to leave a simpler call to action. From early on it was obvious that Debord’s ideas, as powerful as they were, would be diluted and recuperated.

Sometimes it feels like a tragedy that this English tradition has the same name as Debord’s discipline. Both are important, but English psychogeography seems a quivering, obedient thing in comparison to Debord’s spitting fury. This is a man so uncompromising that he bound his first book in sandpaper to destroy anything it was shelved besides. It’s a long way from the lettrists. It’s a long way from revolution. Psychogeography has become safe and cosy, no threat to anyone.

I’m not interested in car salesman Sinclair and his sesquipedilian prose. I want short, punchy phrases, ones that bruise. We live on the home front of a global war, deafened and blinded by the propaganda of marketing which leads to, say, a famous walker hawking himself for petrol-gulping car companies.

At the same time, the world is stolen from us.  Take Jubilee square: once a derelict gap in the North Laine, with little in its favour other than some pleasant graffiti. The square in front of the library should be one of Brighton’s main town squares but it has no buskers, no community, just controlled PFI-funded private property. Sometimes the square is rented to corporations for advertising, or even the project of filling the space with a huge mat of fake grass. And we are supposed to be grateful.

Maybe it’s time to tear up the paving of Jubilee square and hurl the broken stones through the windows of the library. I’d like to see every sign that bicycles can’t be chained to a railing obscured. By bicycle welded in place over the fucking sign. I’d like to see Churchill Square and Jubilee Square reclaimed for the town, places to play hopscotch without being chased away by security guards. We need a more aggressive psychogeography. We need to beat the bounds, mark out what is ours.

If psychogeography is not revolutionary, it is dead. And if psychogeography is revolutionary it brings conflict. By all means, wander the city between greasy spoon cafes, chatting with artists, and recording your explorations for TV cameras. But remember that what you’re doing should be reconnaisance too. Psychogeography is about recapturing occupied territory.

Fuck psychogeography – it cannot exist without revolution. Guy Debord was a strategist. It’s about understanding how Paris was redesigned to allow the army to put down insurrections. It’s about breaking down the illusions of the spectacle in the hope of being free. It’s about territory.

Tour Guide

My friend Amy spent six days working as a tour guide before being fired. I sneaked onto a couple of her tours and loved them.

She’d passed the interview without knowing much local history. She made things up instead, pointing out the park where circus performers wintered; she would praise the annual cake-making competitions in the Pavilion. She told people bus conductors were first introduced in Brighton and were so-named because they led the passengers in communal sing-songs.

Amy didn’t last long. The night she was fired, I toasted her work, but it didn’t cheer her up. “Can’t they see that my version of the city was better?”

The slow, sad demolition of the West Pier

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The West Pier trust continues to oversee the  demolition of the West Pier with the removal of the pillars on the beach. As the Trust’s web pages point out, their aims no longer include any form of restoration of the pier. Instead their focus is “to preserve and enhance for the public benefit the area comprising the Pier” – which, for them, involves building the i360. The idea of a new pier is roundly rejected as impossible. The West Pier Trust is now, effectively, working for the area’s redevelopment, pushing for an expensive and unloved attraction in place of the pier.

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This latest act of demolition was announced in the Argus on Friday 30th May, with the work due to start on the Monday – leaving no chance for people to respond or object. The columns on the beach are to be “removed, stored and reused as part of a landscaping project in conjunction with the area’s redevelopment alongside the i360”.

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For me, the saddest thing about this is that the columns on the beach were loved just as they were. In particular, they were used to practise slack-lining. It was wonderful to sit in the sun and watch.

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We seem to have major problems with Brighton seafront, with a whole section of raised promenade near the Concorde inaccessible and falling down. The reconstruction of the old Concorde club is a disaster, with most of the buildings left empty for years. And now, an aspect of the seafront that people loved and used is being removed. Sometimes I think the regeneration takes no account of how people actually  enjoy and use the seafront.

The MechaPoet’s first performance

The MechaPoet had its first performance at the Brighton Fringe last week as part of Chris Parkinson’s Moonshine show. The interesting thing about any performance is that you learn a lot when a piece encounters an audience. Responses can greatly – I’ve delivered the same story to both helpless laughter and stony silence – but seeing your work in front of a group of people adds new dimensions.

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I’m reasonably happy with how the performance went. We had no technical hitches with the MechaPoet, and the audience seemed interested by it. The main problem was that it slowed down the flow of Chris’s show. Chris’s work is funny and energetic, whereas the MechaPoet’s voice was a little too slow and there were just not enough funny lines.

Which means an interesting weekend of hacking around with the software, trying to make it funnier. The audience laughed most at lines about actual real things, references to Brighton and the like. So I’m going to try building a simple Bayesian Classifier to filter out bad lines and find funny ones. The perfect thing to do on a weekend that’s supposed to be a heatwave.

Bayesian classifiers are, basically, the tool used for a lot of spam detection. As usual, I’m using rather crude algorithms for the project. While this was part of the idea, when I spoke to a proper digital artist this week, he suggested moving away from the Markov Chains. Once I’ve got the current run of performances out of the way, I definitely want to do something more sophisticated – along with my plan for using the MechaPoet to destroy haiku.

It’s amazing how much work a silly project can generate.

 

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And Chris’s show? Of course I’m going to say it was excellent. It was particularly good to see a sustained performance from Chris (outside of a timed slam that is, ha-ha). It’s sometimes hard to take in exactly how much poetry Chris has done over the years I’ve known him. The middle section of the show is a sequence of his political poems, which make an interesting retelling of the last 7-or-8 years of Westminster life. There are short films too, including the stunning Pigeon in a Pizza Box. And Unreal City is still the greatest poem ever written about Brighton. The remaining shows are on the 22nd and 29th May.

 

 

The mechaPoet at work
The MechaPoet visits Chris’s work (photo by rmmbs)

The MechaPoet’s first outing

Exciting news! The MechaPoet’s first outing will be as part of Chris Parkinson’s solo show, Moonshine. The MechaPoet will have a short set, but I’d recommend going for the (human) poetry, short films and outright lies. Tickets are £5 each and the shows are on the 8th, 22nd and 29th of May. But don’t leave it till the last show to go see it as everyone else is planning to do that too.

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MechaPoetry

The MechaPoet is my attempt to rescue humanity from the drudgery of writing verse. I’m not quite sure when the idea emerged, but as Chris explains, we were originally considering a computer program to generate real-life slash fiction. Which might still happen, but these things take time (we originally hoped to debut the MechaPoet in February’s Brighton Science Festival Slam, which will give you an idea of our pace).

ChrisP, MechaPoet and me
ChrisP, MechaPoet and me

The MechaPoet finally made its public debut at this month’s Brighton Java meeting. It’s a mix of Chris’s hardware skills and my programming. MechaPoet takes a big pile of texts (tweets from me and Chris along with the texts of Jurassic Park and American Psycho), learns the patterns in them, improvises a rhyming poem, then recites it. The results are surprisingly good – occasionally a line will make me laugh or even prove moving. A lot depends on the soiurces used. Tweets tend to produce something quite emo, whereas novels produce something more consistent.

The techniques I’m using are not particularly obscure. Computer-generated poetry has a long history, dating back to the 1950s. Most of the techniques were outlined by the time Oulipo‘s ALAMO project wound down. The MechaPoet text itself is generated by Markov chains, not a particularly sophisticated technique (a really good, gentle introduction is here).

The Mechapoet is unveiled!
The Mechapoet is unveiled!

Chris has done a good job of explaining the non-technical aspects of the project, so I should probably talk a little about the programming. The MechaPoet was written in Java, which is a lousy language for hacking together prototypes, particularly for text manipulation – but when I wanted to produce the robot, I didn’t want to fiddle about learning Groovy, or sharpening my blunted Python skills.

The first version of the MechaPoet used the FreeTTS voices, which were good enough to tell that you were hearing poetry, but many of the words were garbled. There is a recording of the original voice on Youtube. I tried a number of different voice packages but couldn’t get any of them running on Ubuntu.

The good thing about sharing a project at an event like Brighton Java was getting feedback. Luke from Brandwatch showed me the latest Google TTS voices, which were incredible. I spent Good Friday hacking together a new version of the MechaPoet to run on my phone. The solution involved a microservice using Spring Boot with an Android client. It’s interesting to see the places a good project will take you, and making my first Android app was fun – although it would have been easier if I’d read more about programming Android in advance.

The only problem with the current version is that the new Google voice is a little too good. With a scratchy robot voice, people are more willing to forgive little errors in pronunciation and emphasis. The Google voice is so clear that there is something of an uncanny valley problem – errors are jarring rather than charming. The next piece of work I need to do is to reduce the quality of the voice a little to make it flow better.

The first stages of the MechaPoet
The first stages of the MechaPoet

There are some interesting questions about whether what the MechaPoet does is poetry or not. After all, many human poets such as Tristan Tzara and Kenneth Goldsmith have worked with algorithms or arbitrary techniques. William Burroughs argued that the cut-up technique was still authorship, since the user chose the source texts, where to cut etc. I’d argue that the MechaPoet’s work is actually written by Chris and I rather than the algorithm. Poetry is a wide and complicated artform: a good example of this is Bot or not, a website that asks you to choose whether a piece of poetry is human- or computer-generated. The crossover between those two categories is significant.

What’s next? Well there’s the possibility of an appearance at a gig, as well as some poetry performances. The main aim is to enter the robot into a slam to see how it performs against human poets. I also want to work on generated haikus: I genuinely believe is that a program can be written than will produce better haiku than any human does. Chris and I are also trying to find a bootleg copy of Alastair Campbell‘s diaries so we can generate new entries from that. (Imagine mixing his diaries with Jurassic Park? Wouldn’t that be incredible?)

Jet-lag and transitions

In William Gibson’s novel, Pattern Recognition, the main character says that jet-lag is waiting for the soul to catch up after a flight. I could check, but my copy of Pattern Recognition (if I still have one) is in a box somewhere. I could look online, but I don’t have broadband.

I set off from the hotel in Kochi, South India, at 1:30am on Saturday – 8pm on Friday GMT. I only slept a little on the flight to Dubai then had a dash through the airport to make the connection, led through corridors and on buses to the gate. It was my eighth visit to Dubai and the first time I’ve stepped outside. The flight to Gatwick was seven or so hours that dragged on and on. I watched Day of the Doctor and the combination of tiredness and travel left me teary. England provided a disappointing welcome, aggressive police greeting the plane and an expensive train ticket home.

After nineteen-hours’ travel I arrived at my flat about three; it would’ve been sooner if I’d not walked via the West Pier. I was jetlagged and useless, pottering through the rooms. I moved in less than 48-hours before my flight to India and had only spent a single night here. I’ve been living in single rooms and have few pieces of furniture. Boxes of books take up very little space.

I have no idea how I will fill this space. I quickly realised I needed a thing by the door to put things on – keys, bike lights and so on. And I have so many places to hide odds-and-ends – a cupboard with travel items, a drawer of cables. My possessions have been squeezed into such small spaces and I can feel myself expand.

But jet-lag. I roamed the house, unpacked my rucksack, unpacked a box, took a bath, watched Donnie Darko, fell asleep about six. Woke at one. I might have some adjusting to do. So I’ve tidied a few things up, unpacked the boxes of ‘useful things’. My sprits were lifted by the Indelicates Podcast with Michael James Parker. I remember seeing Julia and Simon Indelicate and MJP perform together years ago at the Komedia, all under different names. Back then, I didn’t even get that the night’s name was a reference to Howl.

This is the first home I’ve had to myself since Coventry, and the first place I’ve lived with the expectation of staying for years. Everything feels different. Having a stable base, even one without little furniture, makes me feel calmer. A lot of worries have vanished and I’m looking forward to seeing what other worries turn up in their place. I have more space in my head and my life now and I wonder what will fill it.

Psychogeography Workshop

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On Saturday I ran a a two-hour psychogeography workshop. It was based on one I originally devised for Kate Shields‘ Ways of Seeing season, in May last year. My interest in psychogeography has been piqued recently, which led to running the session again.

This time we were based in the Friends Meeting House which was a great location, right in the centre of Brighton’s most historic area. I knew a lot of the participants but there were a couple of people I didn’t know, including one who was told about the course by a university tutor. One of the great things about events like this is meeting new people.

I gave a brief introduction to the subject before we went out in Brighton to try some experiments. We were very fortunate to have good weather, as I’d not prepared any alternative activities. One of these, pictured at the top of page, involved being the participants being blindfolded on the beach. Being Brighton, very few people paid it any notice, apart from one passer-by telling a friend that “it must be some sort of sex game“. Then, as I led my housemate, someone leaned over the promenade railings wearing a lion’s head. Brighton is a fantastic place for events like this one.

Teaching a subject is an excellent way of deepening your understanding of it. Some interesting questions were asked, particularly about the role of women in the subject. There were also some good ideas for activities to try in the future.

The session sold out and a lot of people who wanted to come couldn’t attend. I’ll run the workshop again in the Spring, possibly in an expanded form. Email me at james@orbific.com if you’d like me to send you details.

Seafront photos by sooxanne soox

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