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?”

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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Rivers and Tides

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A good way to spend an evening: last night I watched Rivers and Tides, a documentary about the artist Andy Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy’s work uses natural materials and is often produced for specific locations. Many of his sculptures are intricate and fragile – a few times the documentary captures moments when a work in progress falls apart. It’s almost unbearable to watch Goldsworthy’s disappointment before he summons the strength to continue.

In my favourite scene, Goldsworthy is with his family as his children prepare for school. He then sets off to work, strolling through the village collecting dandelions in a metal bowl. Finally he comes to a river where he fills a pool with the bright flowerheads, producing a sculpture for the camera.

In some way’s Goldsworthy’s job seems ridiculous – although maybe no more ridiculous, really, than most of the jobs I’ve done. What’s interesting is how convincing Goldsworthy is: art is how he interrogates the world, at one point describing a sculpture he made while negotiating his grief at a relative’s death. He comes across as humble and unpretentious and, by the film’s end, I felt that he performed a useful and important service.

It’s fascinating to watch Goldsworthy working with materials that no other artist might use  – bracken, icicles, pinning leaves together with thorns. He crumbles stones containing red iron ores, making balls of powder that he throws into water, red dyes floating down river. The documentary makers have done a fantastic job of capturing the works, whether they are still or in motion, and several times I gasped in awe at their beauty.

In the final scenes, Goldsworthy stands in snow, flinging powdery handfuls into the air, watching it drift through sunbeams. It’s a simple piece, just snow and sunlight and, if it hadn’t been captured on film,  might not have been worth mentioning, its simple beauty unremarked.

“I am so amazed at times that I am actually alive.”

(Apparently there is a sculpture trail in Sussex, containing a series of chalk stones placed by Goldsworthy near the village of Cocking, as well as some of his pieces in Petworth. I’d love to see them)

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