Psychogeography for Beginners

Later today, I’m giving a talk at Brighton’s Sunday Assemly about Psychogeography. I originally spoke on this topic there back in 2018. As part of the preparation, I wrote out this simple introduction to Psychogeography. The exercise at the start is an adaption of one in A Road of One’s Own by Robert MacFarlane.

Psychogeography is about finding new ways to explore familiar spaces. It’s a fancy name for a playing with an environment. There are various definitions, but the best way to approach it is through an example:

Take a map of the area where you live. Place a glass upside-down on the map and draw around the edge. Now, go outside with the map, and try to walk as close as you can to the edge of this circle. Make a note of the things you see, staying alert for novelty or strangeness. You could take photos, scribble notes, use voice memos, post to social media, or just remember what you see. At the end of the walk, review what you have produced.

It’s a simple task, and shouldn’t take long, depending on the scale of the map used. The important thing is trying. There is a difference between reading about something and doing it.

What you get from the experience will depend on where you live. In a city centre, you’ll be dragged away from the usual thoroughfares, and find yourself cutting through your regular lines of travel. In the countryside, paths will be sparser, and attempting anywhere near the circle’s edge will make you very aware of private land. In suburbia, the roads are unlikely to co-operate with making a circle at all, making you even more aware of how your routes are restricted.

What about the places you’re passing through? What do you see/hear/smell on this expedition? What have you not previously noticed about a familiar areas? For me, I tend to pick up on things like graffiti, the little ways people interact with places they don’t own. For other people it’s architecture, or advertisements. The important thing is being open to what the environment communicates.

You can explore different ways of documenting the experience: a set of photos or a simple social media post (“I saw this!”) through to a zine or a poem. Or, if this feels too much like homework, just look back on whatever you did to record the experience. It doesn’t need to be shared if you don’t want to.

This is a simplest example of psychogeography. If you want, you can stop reading anything else about the subject, confident you know enough to explore the idea. You can decide for yourself how to expand this. Rather than walking, you could explore an area through bus routes. If mobility means you can’t leave the house, then you can explore through Google Maps, or giving a friend instructions for the journey and asking them to report back. You could pick random routes through an area. You can find different ways to record the walks – maybe pick words that you see and write them down.

The important thing is attempt the experiment. Then you’ve done some psychogeography and, if you want, you can call yourself a psychogeographer. There’s little more to it than that.

Works of art as places

Nick Cave’s recent long interview with Seán O’Hagan, Faith, Hope and Carnage, is an amazing book. Cave talks frankly about the last few years, and his grief at losing his son, Arthur. He also talks about his working methods, particularly in relation to Ghosteen, his most recent album with the Bad Seeds, leading to this remarkable passage:

Well, I think Ghosteen, the music and the lyrics, is an invented place where the spirit of Arthur can find some kind of haven or rest. Seán, this idea is as fragile and as open to question as an idea can be, but for me, personally, I think his spirit inhabits this work. And I don’t even mean that in a metaphorical way, I mean that quite literally. This isn’t an idea I have articulated before, but I feel him roaming around the songs.

I’m fascinated by the concept of artwork as virtual place (for example, in Alan Moore’s concept of Ideaspace), but Cave takes this a step further, with the idea of an artwork as a place to encounter a spirit that is not accessible in the real world.

Coin Trees

The Centre for Folklore Myth Magic in Todmorden is putting on some excellent talks, and this weekend’s session on Coin Trees by Ceri Houlbrook was particularly good.

A coin tree is one that has had coins hammered into it. It usually happens with fallen trees, and while the tradition can be documented back to Victorian times, it seems to have taken off in the 21st century. Dr Houlbrook ascribes this to change in forestry practises since 2000, when fallen trees were moved off paths but otherwise left to rot in place.

The first coin tree I encountered was one in Malham, while walking the Pennine Way:

I also encountered something similar in Kathamandu, where a large block of wood has had nails hammered into it. This is said to ward off toothache, and the site is detailed in Atlas Obscura. It was interesting to hear that the earliest British coin trees were also used as a means of dealing with toothache.

Dr Houlbrook’s research has explored various forms of what she describes as “unofficial embellishments to landscapes”, particularly where this has become problematic, or is likely to. The earliest example she discussed with relation to coin trees was a site on Isle Maree, which began as a rag tree, before people took to nailing the rags to the trunk, before directly hammering in coins.

I attended the session with Will, one of the CERN pilgrims, so we were obviously considering coin trees in relation to money burning. At one point, the use of coins in wishing fountains and coin trees was described as ‘sacrifice’. There was also a mention of how coin trees produce sacred zones in secular areas – “turning a space into a place”. This can be seen in how queues develop at coin trees, with people taking their turn and approaching the act with a certain severance. We also learned about coin-folding to cure disease, which sounds like an interesting approach to currency destruction.

Rag tree at Avebury

One of the most interesting aspects of traditions like coin trees is how people explain it. Dr Houlbrook interviewed a number of people who had placed coins in trees and many could not clearly explain what the tradition was and why they had done it – participation went before explanation. Dr Houbrook went on to talk about how she had begun considering folklore as improvised in response to children’s questions rather than the model of it being taught by the old to the young. It’s fascinating to see the growth in coin trees, and how the retrospective explanations of these things generate references to traditions that do not truly exist.

Earlier this year, Dr Houlbrook released a book ‘Ritual Litter’ Redressed which I’ve ordered from Amazon to learn more about this subject.

Plotting the Liverpool Ley Line

Over the past five months, I’ve been working on a monthly page in Bodge, the Liverpool Arts Lab magazine, called Ley Lines for Fun and Profit. As part of this, I began plotting strange and interesting points in Liverpool and looking for alignments between then using GIS software.

Even with only ~30 points, there are already promising alignments emerging, such as these two which run between Eleanor Rigby’s grave and the Mathew Street Manhole, via Calderstone’s park. I’ve put an interactive map online.

One of my favourite things about ley lines is that the arrangements have been shown to be a statistical quirk. While a lot of people have dismissed the idea for this reason, it makes me more excited. A surprisingly small number of points can produce some fascinating alignments. Alignments of random points are inevitable, particularly at the threshold of 4-5 points used to make a ‘classic’ ley line. Given the power of modern Geographic information Systems it should be possible to find some incredible geographical coincidences.

A few years back, I generated the alignments between Brighton pubs. During lockdown, I followed the most interesting of these with Ben Graham and found that it included some fascinating resonances. It would be easy to believe that there is real significance to these lines, even if they are only examples of apophonia.

Since Bodge is produced by the Liverpool Arts Lab, I thought it would be interesting to try to find a Liverpool ley line. I’ve been plotting points related to the Beatles and Cosmic Trigger. I’ve added some items from Atlas Obscura. I am hoping to find some items related to Julian Cope as well as Courtney Love’s time in Liverpool. I’m listing the ones I’ve found here, and I’d be grateful for any suggestions, which you can add at this link.

(I recently received a great suggestion, Liverpool’s Bold Street, which is the site of a time slip).

So far, I’ve gathered about 35 points. I’ve yet to find a truly convincing ley, but I’m starting to see possible candidates. Hopefully, as I add more places of interesting, something all emerge that tells an amazing story. I’m visiting Liverpool at the end of the month, and I hope to trace one of these lines and see what I find on the ground.

Thinking about ley-lines

Over the past few months, I’ve been writing a page on ley-lines for Bodge. It’s a subject I’ve been thinking about for years, and I’ve accumulated several books on the topic. I’m very aware that ley lines are a statistical effect, drawing meaning from random data: they still fascinate me. They’re part of British landscape folklore.

Most of my books are from the 1970s through to the the 1990s. The more recent volumes focus on the new age/earth energy side of the topic. Indeed, wikipedia refers to this in their summary:

In 2005, Ruggles [in Ancient Astronomy: An Encyclopaedia of Cosmologies and Myth] noted that “for the most part, ley lines represent an unhappy episode now consigned to history”. However, belief in ley lines persists among various esoteric groups, having become an “enduring feature of some brands of esotericism”.

Considering the amount written about the subject, the books I’ve read are slightly flimsy. Mitchell’s New Views of Atlantis spends a lot of time discussing the metrology of the pyramids. Later books on ley-lines move into shamanism and death roads. There is a huge amount of material in magazines such as the Quicksilver Messenger and the Ley Hunter, both available online. But, the books informed by this are not particularly complicated.

The 1983 book Ley Lines in Question, by Liz Bellamy and Tom Williamson, performed a fairly clear demolition of most of the historical theories about ley lines and computer mapping easily demonstrates alignments of spurious data such as phone boxes, public toilets and pizza restaurants.

My interest is in ley-lines as a form of land art and storytelling. A paper on the Tate website links Alfred Watkins to artists like Richard Long. There was also the Seattle Ley Line project from the Geo Group, which caused controversy by receiving public funding.

Ley lines might be ahistorical, but there’s a beauty to how they cut across time and landscape, connecting places. While there may be little evidence to support them, I’m excited about the idea of creating ley lines and what stories they can be used to tell.

Eazy-E: Pilgrimage to Newhaven

I first heard Eazy-E around 1990. His verse on Gangsta Gangsta stood out, even on a record that sounded like nothing I’d heard before. Of course, part of it was the edginess of the language – but more than that was the anger and energy. Ever since then, I’ve loved hip-hop. I think that love is more nuanced now, and these days I find misogyny hard to listen to; but no art since has blown me away like those three tracks from Straight Outta Compton copied onto a C-90 cassette.

Yesterday, I made a pilgrimage to the English seaside town of Newhaven, where there is a bench in memory of Eazy-E. There’s an element of hipster prank to the whole thing (and the tedious Lancing/Tupac thing plays into this). But there is also a genuine love at the heart of it.

I donated to the bench crowdfunder because I loved the incongruity of it. Another thing I liked about hip-hop from the start was the sense of place. Hip-hop is rooted in locations and neighbourhoods a long way from Sussex. NWA would speak about their neighbourhood of Compton, a city about half the size of Brighton. But hip-hop has reached out from the US round the world. And I remember my first visit to Brighton’s Slip-Jam B night, where someone promised to “tear through Sussex like the Norman conquest“, the first time I’d heard someone rap about places I know.

Even in Brighton or Henfield or Newhaven there were people listening to Eazy-E, feeling a connection to Compton, as ridiculous as that might sound. And a bench memorialising the man who spoke about that city, in a quiet riverside park… that seems right.

It was a good walk, along the cliffs from Brighton, in glorious weather. I have some September sunburn on the right side of my neck.

It’s been an odd weekend for musical memories, with a Tori Amos tribute night on Friday. At the same time I was listening to misogynitic hip-hop I was also obsessed by female singers such as Tori Amos, Courtney Love and PJ Harvey. The Tori night was incredible and I need a little more time to think about it before writing anything. But I will.

Finding A New Route through Psychogeography

I was delighted to be asked to talk at the Sunday Assembly. And possibly a little flattered at the invitation, which meant I said yes more eagerly than I should have done, particularly when the subject was something as contentious as ‘psychogeography’.

I’ve given talks on this before, at the Catalyst Club and White Night, and they were well received. But I didn’t want to give that same talk again. One issue was the slightly unfashionable reputation psychogeography has developed, such that many practitioners disavow the term. I also hated the idea of another talk where a middle-aged man explains things, with slides, about things other men have done. So I decided to take a different route through psychogeography that I normally would.

I’ve had a number of friends who’ve talked about representation in art to me, particularly Kate Shields. I wondered if I could give the talk without hitting the usual litany of names – Guy deBord – Iain Sinclair – Richard Long. What if I gave the talk without saying any men’s names, focusing on art by women? My aim with this was not virtue signalling – but I needed to find a way to make this subject fresh for me.

At first I worried that this constraint would ruin the talk – where would I find the resources to do this? But then there was Amy Sharrock’s response to Iain Sinclair saying there were no women doing art around walking: “male artists and curators have a responsibility from their positions of power to do better research, as do we all.”

And that research was not so difficult. There are many women who have done art relating to walking, and books such as Walking and Mapping by O’Rouke have even done the work of collecting these. Tina Richardson’s recent book about contemporary British psychogeography has some other examples. And there are some excellent papers on women walking artists by Dee Heddon and Cathy Turner.

The talk soon opened out. The subject felt more excited, no longer carrying about that air of male dampness and bad fry ups that had emerged. As Morag Rose has written “An uncomfortable undercurrent of misogyny and colonialism lurks within much psychogeography and has since its inception”. There was more than enough material to produce a 15-minute talk, and Morag Rose’s vision of psychogeography provides a more compelling framework for introducing psychogeography than the incomplete experiments of the Situationist International.

Diagram by Morag Rose

In giving the talk, I didn’t want to discuss this common lack of focus on female psychogeographers. Noting the imbalance would simply reinforce the idea that women’s work was secondary. Anyone googling the subject will quickly find the male figures; but I wanted to show a different view of the subject for anyone seeing it for the first time.

I don’t know if it worked, or if not mattered – or even if this approach to the subject was perhaps patronising or rude. Possibly it should not have been a man giving this talk. But I enjoyed taking this subject in what was, for me, a new direction. I’ve revitalised my interest in the subject and produced a talk I’m very happy with – even if it was a lot more effort than regurgitating the same talk I did in 2011.

Speaking at the Brighton Sunday Assembly on June 24th

This Sunday, June 24th, I’ll be speaking about ‘Psychogeography’ at the Brighton Sunday Assembly. The event is free and starts at 11am, at St Andrew’s Church on Waterloo Street, Hove (opposite the Southern Belle pub, formerly the Iron Duke).

The Sunday Assembly is “a worldwide network of non-religious gatherings which aims to uplift and inspire through readings, talks, silent contemplation and classic pop songs”.

There will be a food-bank collection at the main entrance for “any in-date, non-perishable food and toiletries that you can spare (ie. tins, packets, jars and bottles)“. After the service there is free tea and cake.

Being asked to give a talk about psychogeography is interesting as many practitioners take issue with the subject as it’s normally defined. I’ve tried to find a different way through things than the usual Guy deBord to Iain Sinclair route. Hopefully, I’ve made the subject seem fresh and avoided the usual cliches.

(Not that there’s anything wrong with Iain Sinclair, obviously; but even he has been pushing back against the psychogeography label recently)

Psychogeography Beyond Men

I’m giving a talk next month on ‘psychogeography’. I originally agreed back in February, when June was a long way off. I’ve spoken about the subject before, so it could be easy to do; but as the talk approaches, I’ve become increasingly troubled.

I’ve spoken in the past about some of my problems with psychogeography. But at the moment what concerns me is how the subject is dominated by white men. Beyond the issues of representation, it’s a massive flaw that a subject about perceptions of the city is often blind to how these are affected by privilege. Experiences are described as universal without noting the groups for whom these activities are contentious or dangerous.

To be absolutely blunt: hiking around a city is difficult when women face harassment and intimidation on the streets; when walking into new areas can be dangerous for some groups.

A damp funk of blokeyness has grown up around psychogeography. As Lauren Elkin wrote in her book Flâneuse, “The great writers of the city, the great psychogeographers, the ones that you read about in the Observer on weekends; they are all men, and at any given moment you’ll also find them writing about each other’s work, creating a reified canon of masculine walker-writers. As if a penis were a requisite walking appendage, like a cane”

Elkin goes on to quote Will Self in a footnote. Self writes: “A digression: do I believe that men are corralled in this field due to certain natural and/or nurtured characteristics, that lead us to believe we have — or actually do inculcate us with — superior visual-spatial skills to women, and an inordinate fondness for all aspects of orientation, its pursuit, minutiae and — worst of all — accessories? Absolutely.”

Amy Sharrocks, founder of the Walking Women project, describes being at a talk by Iain Sinclair and Will Self at the V&A on the history of walking art. No women were mentioned in the talk; Sharrocks said “I asked Iain about it and he said that there weren’t any women doing this kind of work. Established male artists and curators have a responsibility from their positions of power to do better research, as do we all.”

Psychogeography is an interesting subject, but it tends to regurgitate the same names and figures. It would be easy to give the talk I gave in 2011, with a few updated references, but doesn’t seem good enough. I want to be able to communicate my enthusiasm while acknowledging these issues. And, at the same time, I need to make it entertaining and approachable, so that the politics is not the central point. It’s going to be difficult, but if I’m going to give this talk then I need to find a way around it.

Situationist Painting in the Tate


A few months back, I went to the Tate Modern with my friend Sophie and found a surprise in the galleries – a painted strip of paper on a roller. It was a piece I’d read about but hadn’t realised was on display. This was Pinot Gallizio’s Industrial painting from 1958, made on a piece of canvas, rolled up and intended to be sold by the meter.

One of the most fascinating thing about the Situationists is how relatively little work they produced to demonstrate their theories. Much ink has been spilled on DeBord’s psychogeography, for example, but the groups associated with him produced few examples of the form: their practical work is far outweighed by their ideas.

Gallizio described himself as “archaeologist, botanist, chemist, parfumer, partisan, king of the gypsies” – to which McKenzie Wark suggests adding “chancer, amateur, dandy and dilettante”. He is famous as one of the founding members of Situationist International. The group was formed in July 1957 as a unification of several small avant-garde groups. One of them, Ralph Rumney’s ‘London Psychogeographical Association’, was formed on the occasion to make the event look more supported than it was.

Gallizio’s ‘Industrial Painting’  was first exhibited at a Turin Gallery in May 1958. The painting was unrolled and stuck on the walls, with sections sold by the meter. Models paraded in the gallery wrapped in the fabric. As well as being sold in the gallery, sections of the fabric was sold in a street market.

Another of Gallizio’s fascinations was gypsy communities. He offered a home to a gypsy community and this inspired Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys. A recent article on Atlas Obscura detailed Nieuwenhuys’ work on nomadic architecture and his playful and visionary city designs.

Gallizio’s work was intended as a protest against the commodification of art. he produced original work through mechanical means, offering it for sale by the foot. But everything gets recuperated. Gallizio’s work is now an artifact, to be expertly displayed in a gallery. Maybe it should be chopped up and sold? Sections handed to people as they enter the gallery. Maybe the idea of this piece is more important than the piece itself.