I was recently contacted by Emma James, a researcher at Newcastle University studying the recent re-emergence of psychogeography. The following is a short interview I did with her.
Emma James: How / where did you first hear about the concept ‘psychogeography’?
Bradley L. Garrett – The first time I heard the term psychogeography was on the cover of a book by Merlin Coverley in the London Review Bookshop, I think I read half of it standing in the store! It was a good introduction and branched me into the work of academics working with the concept like David Pinder and Alastair Bonnett, then deeper into the Lettrist Movement, Raoul Vaneigem, Guy Debord and ‘work’ of the Situationist International (SI).
E.J. – In various articles I have read, people have observed that there has been a recent re-emergence of psychogeography in the last decade. From your research have you found this to be true?
B.L.G. – I absolutely see a renewed interest in psychogeography. There are numerous clubs on the internet devoted to the practice and the mass-market work of Ian Sinclair and Patrick Keiller in particular really make me feel like psychogeography has ‘gone mainstream’. A quick youtube search of the term reveals that many people are using psychogeographic techniques to navigate city space in new and interesting ways all the time, such as walking the city using algorithms, applying random models to a (supposedly) fixed template, replacing one arbitrary motivation (I am walking to work) with another one (I am walking 4 streets North, 2 streets East and 1 street North until I can’t walk anymore).
E.J. – ‘Who’ do you understand to be modern practicing psychogeographers (e.g. artists, geographers, everyday civilians’ etc)?
B.L.G. – I see geographers are the preeminent drivers behind the modern psychogeographic movement, primarily because their inspiration has come from reading the work of the situationists who pioneered the concept, the problem is that a lot of them write about it without ever practising it, which I see as a failing. But there popular writers such as Ian Sinclair and Will Self who are quite aware of the lineage and practice the techniques also produce work is much more widely read, so they might be considered the primary ‘practitioners’. But, of course, we also find a lot of artists, counter-cartographers and people on the street using these techniques, even if they are not (wholly) aware of the theory behind the practice.
The other thing I find interesting is that this ‘new’ psychogeographic movement appears to be centred primarily in Britain (and especially London), which implies to me that it may be reactionary – perhaps due to the increase in government control and surveillance that has taken place over the last 10 years, making people feel a greater need to defy order, even in small ways such as walking across a piece of grass signposted not to or speaking through a bullhorn for a day. The time and space in which this resurgence is taking place sure feels a lot to me (from my readings) like the governmental regulations and reactions that led to the founding of the SI, and ultimately to the French Wildcat revolts of 1968.
So I would say that although psychogeographers tend to invoke small actions, it would behove both academics and governments to pay attention, as these small resistances may be an indication of a larger social consciousness of boredom, restlessness or downright anger. People using psychogeographic practices are just one of the groups who dare to push back a little sooner than others.
E.J. – I understand that you are studying ‘urban explorers’. How would you view them in relation to psychogeography (e.g. as a branch of psychogeographers? Or just another term to use for practicing psychogeographers?)
B.L.G. – In my discussions with urban explorers, most would not want to be labelled as psychogeographers, though there are some clear similarities in their practices; both are instances of what I might call mobilities of transgression or, maybe more specifically, place hacking. Both psychogeographers and urban explorers seek to redefine and/or experience space and place on their own terms, regardless of pre-existing rules, social templates or cultural norms.
E.J. – As part of my dissertation question, I am interested in people’s motivations behind practicing psychogeography. According to various writers there are a few different ideas, e.g. political motivations/an interest to connect with the past/as a sort of rebellion against modern consumerism e.t.c. From your research and interaction with urban explorers, what have you found their motivations behind practicing it to be?
B.L.G. – I think that most people would find that they have a range of motivations behind anything they do that requires some effort, there is rarely just one driving force behind action, especially when that action is activistic, dangerous or trangressive. There is an investment/reward ratio at work where you think to yourself “okay, yes, I could climb that crane and get some photographs, but is the experience, or the photograph I bring home, worth the possibility of arrest?”
Most urban explorers would I think contend that they are interested in the historic background these places, though one person did tell me that they “could give a shit about the history, I just like to explore.” I have heard the suggestion that urban exploration is about bearing witness to the failure of capitalism, especially in seeing sites such as industrial ruins folding back into the landscape after their abandonment. I don’t think this is true at all. To be honest, most urban explorers are in these places to get photographs that most people do not have; to see something that no one else has seen. So it is both the experience and the production/acquisition (which is of course part of the capitalist system they are supposedly subverting) that becomes the motivation.
I would say that people who define themselves as psychogeographers are much more likely to have political motivations than people who define themselves as urban explorers, though the practices are intertwined.
E.J. – As a geographer, I have noticed that there is very little writing on psychogeography within the discipline, though I have come across a few lecturers who have tried to introduce it within the course. Would you say that there is a valid place for psychogeography within the discipline of geography, and should it perhaps be promoted/expanded?
B.L.G. – I think that geography has a lot to learn from psychogeography, both in terms of its historical roots and trajectory and in terms of modern practice. It certainly seems like there is some resistance to the concept, great publications like Alistair Bonnett’s journal Transgressions came and went, snuffed out, I think by academia’s inability to challenge theory with practice, or maybe more fairly, academia’s inability to ground theory in practice. A similar stigma exists against participatory geographies, I think, for the same reason – essentially many academics are afraid of becoming activists, afraid of getting their hands dirty, afraid of testing an armchair theories, afraid of failure. I believe, as I think many psychogeographers would, that we should celebrate failure. We would like to think that academia is a haven for free thinking, but the Ivory Tower also has its social and cultural models.
E.J. – What is your opinion on the argument that psychogeography could be applied as a new way of re-writing and representing the city (e.g. the idea of psychogeography maps alongside ‘mainstream’ mapping)?
B.L.G. – I think that this is a wonderful idea, the thing is that psychogeography, and psychogeographers, tend to not want to be boxed in. This poses difficulties when, for instance, writing grant proposals for projects. If you were to suggest to a funding body that you were going to spend a year following the ‘densest’ flows of people off of the London Tube to try and psychogeographically map nodes of interest at different times of day in the city (as I have done for fun!) you would find this funding body likely feeling that the research has no ‘research question’ or ‘direction’. The fact of the matter is that it does have a direction, it’s just that you have taken that power of direction out of the hands of the ‘elite’ academic and put it into the hands of the anonymous city dweller. I think that there is something profound in that. That is where, I would argue, the real solid tendrils of politic challenge come from in psychogeography, not from the esoteric writing style or wandering corporeal experiences, but from having the openness to resist being the one who defines what those experiences should be.
Just as psychogeographers work to subvert political, social and cultural templates, they also, I think, would be reluctant to create those templates, making playing the dual role of being both an academic and a practising psychogeographer a rare one. Would we benefit from melding those illusory dichotomous positions? Absolutely.