Psychogeography: deciphering the dérive

I have been working more with my idea of the haunted place. I wanted to see how I interpreted the idea of making something “site-specific” before researching what others mean by this term. I started by directly using materials which are sourced from within a specific area in order to make impressions / marks / imprints which capture the feeling of the genius loci (spirits of place). Progress going ok so far with this, I currently have a range of samples of natural dyed calico which are in various stages of steeping and drying. There are a number of artists who work by using materials which they find in situ – either directly (such as land artists Richard Long or Chris Durey) or for mark marking (Helen Goodwin).

I thought I would take this idea one step further and look into the idea of capturing the genius loci and “site-specific-materials” from psychogeographic inspired urban wandering – or dérive. In a location where one feels placeless – without belonging or connection with the surroundings – understanding the place through experiencing it is perhaps a first step to gaining a new narrative. The basic ideas of psychogeography are somewhat ambigous, with various people describing it as confusing, nonsensical, or only understood in the mind of the psychogeographer. Well, before I tried it out myself, I thought at least it worth an understanding of a little history.

Historically, Guy Debord defined Psychogeography in 1955 as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.” This history along with the writings of Monsieur Debord are tied up with the radical mid-20th century Situationists who were heavily influenced by Marxism, surrealism, Dadaism and revolutionary architecture. Monsieur Debord was the founder of Situationist International he (and others) gave psychogeography much intellectual theory and discourse. Martin Coverley offers the following expansion, that psychogeography is “…reflecting a wider awareness of ‘spirit of place’ through which landscape, whether urban or rural, can be imbued with a sense of the histories of previous inhabitants and the events that have been played out against them…This visionary continuity is described as a ‘chronological resonance’ and is the point at which place, history and identity converge…”[1]

The landscape outside of the city is easier to understand and relate to places from a deep, sort of tribal like human perspective. The sea, sky and earth as raw elements are much neater than than the horizonless place of the cityscape, with people, history, stories, buildings, vehicles, commerce, past, future and present overlapping in an endless motion of change. Psychogeography apparently offers a way to explore this challenge and see the unseen, harnessing the unintentional. “a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities… just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape.” [2]

This quote refers to the practice of urban wandering developed by the situationists from the concept of the flâneur from the poetry of Charles Baudelaire; the “man of leisure, the idler, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street.” The practice is the dérive, a technique of an unplanned journey through varied ambiences (usually urban), letting go of your everyday identity and allowing yourself be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters you find there.

So if you can only understand through practice, I decided to go out on my own dérive to see what I would find without any preconceived plan – just a camera and a carrier bag. I printed off a street map of the area directly around my house and randomly drew a circle on it, then wandered off to try to walk that circle as closely as possible – going round any obstacles I found in my way. This is the record of the wandering:

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Finally, as I was going I picked up a few things found left on the pavement which caught my attention, each with its on story; why was there a seashell tucked into the gravel at the side of the railway embankment?

2015-04-10 21.18.11

I have to say I thought it a fascinating experience and notably different from an ordinary stroll. I think you do notice things you wouldn’t otherwise see when you allow your mind and feet to wander away. Perhaps there are some elements of the local genius loci in there as well. My next plan is to take the things I collected and make something, perhaps also using them to imprint another piece of my plain calico stash.

References: 

[1] Psychogepgraphy, Martin Coverley
[2] http://www.utne.com/community/a-new-way-of-walking.aspx https://adcochrane.wordpress.com/2013/07/24/psychogeography-and-how-it-can-help-you/
https://libcom.org/thought/situationists-an-introduction
http://newleftreview.org/II/8/peter-wollen-situationists-and-architecture

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