Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Ghostly Figures That Look Suspiciously Like Ray Davies

The Psychogeographer in the Urban Landscape

In a series of articles in the Guardian in 2009 called 'Secret Britain' the British psychogeographer Iain Sinclair explains the effect/affect of stumbling across 'hidden' places in the urban terrain:
These sites, come upon by accident, prick our imagination, provoke reverie. Questing for one story, we blunder into another: we must train ourselves to expect the unexpected. The thing hidden behind a high wall is still part of our true 'legacy', but buildings and sites sometimes have to wait to achieve a haunting dereliction, to be come legitimate targets for vulgar curiosity. That's how the Secret Britain guide philosophy works: when you don't see it, it is still there. And when you do, it is on the point of disappearance. (2009: 5).

And it is these sites that most contemporary psychogeographers write about and show in their films. The writing often takes the form of a personal account which is interspersed with historical or literary references - a subjective response to a particular place that "provoke[s] reverie" (or other psychic responses), combined with an interest in pursuing a particular historical direction engendered by that affective reaction. These accounts are what give the best 'flavour' of what psychogeography is, much more than any theoretical analysis or discussion can. So, I shall include a few paragraphs from some writers and will also comment on some psychogeographic films.

One of the chapters in Will Self's Psychogeography recounts a walk around the nuclear plant known as Sizewell, in the UK:
Sizewell again. This patch of Suffolk coastline, psychically irradiated by the untold ergs of electricity generated by the two nuclear power stations, exerts a strange hold on me. I far prefer it to the environs of Southwold, further up the coast, which have become overwritten by scribes as various as P.D. James and W.G. Sebald. I lived inland of here for a couple of years in the mid-1990s but was forced to evacuate when the wife of the one local acquaintance I'd made invited me to 'drop by' her gift shop in Saxmunden. I was on the phone to the self-drive van hire company that very evening. (2007: 141)

Self is known for his caustic wit and it is this type of subjective response to place that seems to be permitted in textual representations of psychogeographic walks. Below is the transcription from part of one of the films that Nick Papadimitriou and John Rogers made together about one of Papadimitriou's walks. Papadimitriou's geographic concentration is the English county that used to be called Middlesex. What was left of the county Middlesex (after the forming of the county council system in the 1800s) was taken up by Greater London and other counties before World War II. However, it is still considered a geographic area, so it remains so in that sense. Papadimitriou investigates the urban detail at its fundamental microbe-like level, almost down to the very molecules that make up the urban décor, as you will see when we look at him examining a concrete post. This film is called Deep Topography with Nick Papadimitriou. At about 53 seconds into the film we see Papadimitriou standing facing the camera with his right hand on a concrete post. There are a couple of trees to Papadimitriou's right, a road behind him; at the far side of the road we can see a building and a car. We are in Golders Green in North London. The concrete post reaches approximately the level of Papadimitriou's chest. From its appearance it looks like it is made from a mix of concrete which also contains shingle. The post is old, part of it is worn away, we can see its inner metal skeleton has been exposed. Rogers says: “Tell me about this post Nick”. This is Papadimitriou's reply:
I don't know anything about this post, but I like it and I think that, you know, I'm basically a religious writer and if I were to invent a religion this would be the type of object that people would kneel to. I think it's a kind of storage vat of regional memories, and they are contained inside it like a sort of, [pause] they radiate out slowly. Sometimes when I am in certain frames of mind, particularly on very hot days around the North Circular, I can feel time radiating off of pre-moulded concrete lintels and I've kind of developed a way of accessing them. And, I think what these things store are conglomerate images, eras passing, people's hairstyles, ghostly figures that look suspiciously like Ray Davies [pause] or his brother Dave Davies. I love this, this machining. It's fantastic isn't it?
Papadimitriou's connection with this concrete post, whilst highly imaginative and also cultural, philosophical and existential, is also extremely tactile. Papadimitriou sees the post as, somehow, storing “conglomerate images” and he explains how it has seen the change of fashion (hairstyles) and popular music (the Davies brothers from the band The Kinks), and that this history has become stored in the very matter of the concrete.

This subjective response to space will become a large part of the psychogeographic walks used in my own project and will tie in to the theory of Félix Guattari that looks at the subjective processes that can become a challenge to dominant modes of power - his Molecular Revolution texts in particular. Below is another example of Papadimitriou's which demonstrates how an individual can respond to a space in a different way to the 'intended' one. At a showing of The London Perambulator at the Curzon in Soho, London, the literature made available to the audience includes a note from Papadimitriou:
I imagine sometimes that I am on a powerful and yet undiscovered hallucinogen, one that dissolves the ego-boundaries so effectively that subject and object fuse, so that, were I to ingest this substance while visiting Watford, I would in some way pass into and become the town centre. It would be a transtemporal, multiplex, experience; a monad amidst conflagrations of men and women; young girls' eyes at Chicken Hut; your story, one among many as you surged through the Studham for work at your tattoo parlour. (2010)

In Lights Out for the Territory (1997) Sinclair traces a number of routes across London, showing us its darker side and at the same time historically connecting people and place. The extract below provides an example of how individuals - in this case a published writer and psychogeographer - who do not fit the model of a certain 'type' in the capital, can become persona non grata:
And so it was, on the fine and pleasant afternoon of Saturday 8th April, 1995, that I found myself trying to walk in through the front entrance of the Barbican Arts Complex and being treated like a bogside bomb-carrier. The sensation is not uncommon in the new City. It's how they want you to feel, uncomfortable: the stranger in town. They want you to carry a card, with a photograph and a number, that defines you as some sort of non-person lowlife. (2003: 99)

The Barbican Exhibition Hall is located in the heart of the finance district in London and during the 1990s British security was becoming very constricted because of the IRA bombings in the capital at that time. This is a common side-effect of being a psychogeographer, being treated suspiciously because a definitive label cannot be attached to you. In The Fringe of London: Being Some Ventures and Adventures in Topography (1925) Gordon S. Maxwell, a walker and writer, includes his experiences of how he is received by others when they ask what he does 'for a living'. On meeting a "commercial traveller" in an inn, the travelling salesman assumed that he was of the same profession, yet wondered where he kept his samples. Maxwell explained that his samples were too large to carry with him because he was a topographer. The other, commenting on the art of cutting trees into the shapes of animals, confused it with topiary. (1925: 27-28)

Prohibitive signs that appear in the environment are a form of urban phenomenon that can be intriguing to psychogeographers. In his essay on walking around Bromley-by-Bow in London, Dougald Hine explains how the signs that forbid action are the ones that predominate: "Spaces are defined by the games we can't play, the activities which won't be tolerated." (2011) He then remarks: "Where are the suggestive signs, I wonder - the signs which invite you to try something you might not otherwise have thought of? [...] Even the sign at Prospect Park which reads 'Play Here' feels like a command, rather than an invitation. (ibid.)

Psychogeographers have to decide what boundaries they are prepared to cross, legal or physical, in order to find their 'story'. Maxwell states: "The true rambler must never be afraid of committing the crime of trespass; fair words are a better help than fast legs." (1925: 22) However, this was 1925, when society was far simpler in structure and crimes, such as trespass, may have not even been reported. Maxwell goes on to say:
On the whole, people are courteous, when they know your errand is harmless [...] I have known an Ordnance Survey map works wonders if prominently displayed. You are sometimes then mistaken for a Government surveyor by a farm labourer - a mistake which is often useful. (ibid.)

This innocent comment is starkly contrasted to Sinclair's experience outside the Barbican. Nowadays a map in the hands of someone whose appearance might be deemed suspicious, could be the sign of a potential 'terrorist' threat. Maurice Beresford's text on the University of Leeds Walks Round Red Brick (1980) also includes similar experiences to that of Sinclair and Maxwell, and interestingly, since his walks took place in the 1970s, could be situated somewhere in between the other two, both historically and culturally. Beresford explains how one day when discovered hiding in the shrubbery of a private garden by a research fellow, his explanation for being there was dismissed by the other. The fellow exclaimed: "You're no professor, you're a thief!" (1980: 104)

Beresford, Maurice. 1980. Walks Round Red Brick (Leeds: University of Leeds Press).
Hine, Dougald, 'Dériving Scarcity', Dougald Hine, (2011), [accessed 08 July 2011]
Gordon S., Maxwell. 1925. The Fringe of London: Being Some Ventures and Adventures in Topography (London: Cecil Palmer).
Self, Will. 2007. Psychogeography (London: Bloomsbury).
Sinclair, Iain. 2003. Lights Out for the Territory (London: Penguin).
Sinclair, Iain. 'A world you never knew existed', 'Secret Britain', The Guardian, April 2009, pp. 4-6.

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