Tag Archives: psychogeography

Basketry identity | Cowey Sale to Sudbury Lock

A lovely day in the spring sushine down in Walton-on-Thames to visit the Basketmakers’ Association exhibition Basketry Identity at the Riverhouse gallery.

The Basketmakers Association are hosting this exhibition of members work. The pieces on display are a response to the maker’s idea about their ‘Basketry Identity’. The exhibition will show the wide range of materials and techniques used in the creation of both functional and artistic basketry. There will be an installation and various sculptural forms. The whole will reflect the great skill and diversity of basketmaking today.

The exhibits were indeed a range of the great diversity of basketmaking, from “traditional” willow, hazel, cane baskets to things which looked like baskets made from other materials, to basketry techniques applied to create pure contemporary artworks. Very much recommended if you are in the area. Some highlights in the slideshow!

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My photos (and my attention) were drawn to the more contemporary works and particularly those using paper. What I noticed from the other works, is how much reference to place there is in the work of the basketmakers both explicitly and implicitly. Makers mentioned where the fibre was grown (and occasionally who by), where the basketry technique came from or how experiences of a place inspired a particular work.

After the exhibition, since it was so lovely out I took myself onto the Thames Path which runs behind the gallery. I walked the section up from the Walton Bridge at Cowey Sale all the way up to Sudbury Lock. My new psychogeographic thinking hat got be wondering some interesting thoughts on the way – most noticeably how many different identities a place can have. Each of us creates our own place, even as we stand out on the same road looking at the same river.

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This picture shows what I mean – I’ve never been to Walton-on-Thames before, and was slightly surprised to find that barely 30mins from my flat is picture perfect riverside England. I know nothing about the area, so all I could do is overlay my own narratives which started to surface as you try to interpret the place you find yourself in. Here, the Thames is a completely different river to the waters which run through my suburb 24miles downstream. This riverside speaks quietly of old England – of straw hats, cricket and tea on the lawn. You can imagine the long winding journey through green rolling hillsides that the waters have taken, from the elderly ash tree under which old Father Thames sits smoking a pipe. The walk so much reminds me of my childhood. I see ghosts of myself sat on a river bank somewhere in Northumberland, dad knee deep in the water with a brightly coloured fly, barely seen, whipping in and out of the shadows. This was my place – and I could see its echo imprinted on the sight of a totally different town in a totally different geography, with people and stories I have never met. Returning home, a new story emerges: here the Tideway is a different creature altogether, one made of salt, steam and blood. The lower Thames’ dark and murky brackish waters have greased the wheels of industry since the days the Romans first settled on Ludgate Hill. I am still looking for my place here.

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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?

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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

Wilding the edges

Following on from Lucy Orta’s Genius Loci talk a couple of weeks back, I had a day on a walking tour of Wimbledon, under the title of “Wilding the Edges”. The event was badged as an “interactive walking tour of Wimbledon’s unexamined places: a journey through spaces which straddle both city and countryside and where “wild” and cultivated” environments overlap.” We split into a number of groups: I went in the group led by Lucy Orta for those working on the Genius Loci project, and we were encouraged to photograph and take notes on areas which interested us as we passed through them. I have to admit to having decided to go my own way with my thoughts: I discovered I had been left off the list for those working on the project, so had missed all of the communications. Not really a big issue for me, I just concluded that I would try to make the walk relevant to my own proposal entirely.

Some photos first:

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As you can see by the pictures – I was interested in two things. One was clearly the line, broken and unbroken. Where is there continuity and where fragmentation? These paths allow us to ask where have we come from, and where are we going.

Second, I was attracted to the ‘non-places’, the areas you only ever pass through, with no narrative, no history. This got me thinking about site-specific work, and how much is about the place, rather than about any place. This has sparked off from some of the sketchbook work I have been doing on maps of the nameless city: any place, every place. These exist as the antithesis of the haunted place, soaked in memory and the spirits of the past more real than the history of the present. There is an echo of the earth in the haunted place, and we become the medium of the storytelling. In between the anyplace and the haunted place lie marker points – fixed points in time and space. Where are these found? What narratives of place are so strong that all thought from past and present converges around a single point?

After the walk we concluded the session with a ‘Barcamp’ discussion (a type of un-conference) in the pub, where we were invited to “reflect upon the social and political implications of the hybridised spaces and explore how we might respond to them as artists”. There was a number of separate interesting discussions on each table we could join/leave at will.

The discussion I spent most time in asked “What does it mean to be an urban human in the wilderness?”. We spent a lot of time trying to define what wilderness (and wildness) actually means. Most of us thought instinctively about landscape, nature – the wilderness of an actual physical location. The poser of the question had a different, and rather fascinating, perspective – that wildness is a state which exists within all people and all things – relating to an idea rather than a physical topography. ‘Wild’ is a combination of rising energy and free will. We also talked about the edge lands – the semi-wild places – where the boundaries become blurred. When you exist here, your behaviour changes, the way you look and act within the world. We become transfigured by the way we interact with the edge-land itself. This to me had echoes of the words from Boradkar’s book, Designing Things, which talked a lot about this transformation in relation to object (or thing) and the user.

So in summary, I won’t be carrying on with the Wimbledon project – although it was badged as a CCW thing, I think it was really meant for the Wimbledon MFA students. However, I gained some very valuable insights into my proposal question, and the idea of research by walking is a very interesting one. Helen Goodwin, whose research methods I very much like and which are aligned to my own proposal, talked about this in her research paper: “If everything is moving, where is here…”. I was so taken by the methodology described in here that I have been gradually working though most of the books on the bibliography.

She defines her practice like this: “I am interested in ideas that centre on what it is to define place and belonging. How inextricably bound do we become to the places in which/where we are born, live or travel to? I wonder how we develop our sense of belonging to those particular places. How much importance can we attach to these ideas as our societies become increasingly mobile? In a series of activities which possibly echo my having lived in different cultures and my sense of displacement, I have begun to collect and exchange material of place; the art works I make cease to be objects but become actions and gestures.”

Through doing this research, I have come across a rather intriguing strand of study known as psychogeography, which sounds very much like what we were doing on the walking tour. Psychogeography is the point where psychology and geography meet in assessing the emotional and behavioural impact of urban space. The intro book I have found [Coverley 2012] states that: “The relationship between a city and its inhabitants is measured in two ways – firstly through an imaginative and literary response, secondly on foot through walking the city. From Urban Wandering to the Society of the Spectacle, from the Dérive to Détournement, Psychogeography provides us with new ways of apprehending our surroundings, transforming the familiar streets of our everyday experience into something new and unexpected.”