This is an essay that I did during my time in Camberwell trying to get a foundation diploma in Art & Design. I feel pretty bad that I passed with this essay for some reason.
Psychogeography has become the most influential in terms of innovation and in my way of thinking. The emphasis on descriptive recording on one’s emotion and behaviour on a specific location infused with imagination has affected my travels and wondering around London by allowing me to play around with the environment itself as a narrative.
Perhaps my interest in psychogeography starts with the word itself, the combination of two words that are seemingly have no relation to each other piqued my interest. Its vagueness along with the sound of the word itself also was an influence on exploring the term itself (likewise with other previous words such as existentialism and gnosticism which both grew into topics for me to study in my free time).
Psychogeography originated from Ivan Chtchglov’s “Formulary for a New Urbanism” as part of the Lettrist’s technique of re-imagining the city by exploring the city through purposelessly drifting and detachedly observing the surroundings. The group primarily focused on arts; whereas its offshoot, Situationist International (led by Guy Debord) would convert it into a political tool for the preparation of a revolution. Debord would define psychogeography as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”
However, Merlin Coverley’s retrospective application reveals the roots of psychogeography to have started with a number of writers prior to Guy Debord’s definition in 1955; William Blake, Thomas de Quincey, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Machen, Alfred Watkins, Edgar Allan Poe, Walter Benjamin, Andre Breton and Louis Aragon.
For example, De Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” provided the basis of a psychogeograpichal novel thanks to the opium induced wanderings around London, which blurred the barriers between reality and fiction. De Quincey’s drug fuelled recordings of his aimless drifting and detached observation were an ‘exploration of the role of the imagination and the power of dreams to transmute the familiar nature of our surroundings into something strange and wonderful.” (Coverley, 2010 p.43) And his account can be seen as a prototype drifter, which would be developed in novels such as Poe’s “The Man in the Crowd”, Benjamin’s “The Arcades Project” and Breton’s “Nadja.”
Whereas the mystical element of psychogeography can be found in the works of William Blake and Alfred Watkins’ theory of ley lines. The visionary writings of Blake have a prophetic tone which suits the context of psychogeography itself. Watkin’s theory of ley lines, on the other hand, was a normal theory about the placement of certain ancient locations being planned with environment in consideration. By the 60s, the theory was revived with a new age focus and involved the so called “earth mysteries.” And this was used to suggest the certain places had sources of supernatural power and influence on individuals (and this was utilised in Alan Moore’s graphic novel “From Hell” which I will delve into later on).
Debord’s intention was to unify two opposing realms; sound, time and ideas with actual physical constructions as a means of opposing the restrictive characteristics found in contemporary architecture. With psychogeography, the individual creates situations that are unique because the thoughts, emotions and experiences for him or herself. As a result, it is usually anti-Euclidean in architecture as a means of achieving the unification of the two sides.
Debord’s ‘Exercise in Psycho-geography’ gives a number of examples for the reader to ponder and understand. I immediately understood ‘Piranesi is psychogeographical in the stairway’ and ‘The postman Cheval is psycho-geographical in architecture’ thanks to my encounter with both figures’ works (especially the former). To my understanding, Piranesi’s exploration of the stairways as found in his etchings involved the exaggeration in perspective and scales which created a dreamlike (or Kafkaesqe) setting for the viewer to admire and sink into. Whereas Cheval’s visionary architecture was a product of his imagination and lack of formal education. The mix of different styles of architecture such as Christian and Hindu creates a wonderful dreamlike experience and environment for the individual to explore. Therefore, the role of the individual’s imagination plays a prominent role in psychogeography, because he/she is encouraged to do so as a situationist.
Debord’s psychogeographical map, “Guide Psychogeographique de Paris” divides a map of Paris into a collage with a number of red arrows to indicate directions and/or the flow of traffic. Another map, “The Naked City” which was completed with Asger Jorn in 1958 has a similar construction and purpose. Andy Merrifield, author of “Guy Debord” commented that ‘this kind of map gave all power to subjectivity, was ‘psychogeographical’, and expressed insubordination and chance rather than certainty.’ (Merrifield, 2005 p. 48) In other words, it gave the user the chance to play around and explore Paris in a new way through the means of adventure and discovery. Perhaps it is a reaction to the standardised and modernised roads and transport of Paris where the everyday life is now mundane and banal; and the map allowed to the user to wonder and to experience Paris with a new perspective as a labyrinth.
In terms of narrative, psychogeography is potentially a fertile ground for ideas. For example, Alan Moore’s graphic novel “From Hell” builds on the conspiracy theories of Nicolas Hawkmoor’s churches architecture suggested by psychogeographers Iain Sinclair (Lud Heat) and Peter Ackroyd (Hawkmoor) by dealing with the killings of Jack the Ripper and they are shown to be points of a pentagram in the city of London. A journey made with the pentagram in mind reveals ‘certain churches and other places throughout London [that] are invested in historical or symbolic meaning.’(Parkin, 2009 p.67) The use of occult ideas suit these works thanks to the use of pagan imagery in Hawkmoor’s architecture such as Egyptian sphinxes and pyramids.
In conclusion, perhaps it is this blending of reality and fiction (or in Andre Breton’s “Surrealist Manifesto”, surreal and reality into “surreality”) through the introduction of occult and Fortean elements with the most basic information of the location and its history that appeals to my imagination and it allows to combine reality with the absurd in order to create something personal and exciting for the viewer to experience and explore. Also, psychogeography can be applied in a number of different areas of media such as film, literature, and graphic novels which is very liberating because it can allow me to explore other areas in interest.
Coverley M. (2010) Psychogeography Great Britain J.F. Print
Merrifield A. (2005) Guy Debord Great Britain CPI/Bath Press
Parkin. L (2009) Alan Moore UK J.F. Print
Online journal article:
Debord G. Exercise in Psychogeography [Online]. [Accessed 3 November 2011] Available from the World Wide Web <http://members.optusnet.com.au/~rkeehan/presitu/potlatch2.html>
Nothingness.org & The Situtationist Archives (2011) [Online]. [Accessed 3 November 2011] Available from the World Wide Web <http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/>
St. George in the East Church (2011) [Online]. [Accessed 3 November 2011] Available from the World Wide Web <www.stgite.org.uk>