Psychogeography in London

A day long meeting about ‘Mythic London’ at Treadwells yesterday brought together several psychogeographers.

Iain Sinclair, author of ‘London Orbital’ about the M25 and ‘London Overground’ about the Overground line, is perhaps the best known.

“The heartbeat of the new London might be revealed, I felt, by tracking the acoustic footprints of the railway for a single day: Haggerston to Wapping, Clapham Junction, Imperial Wharf, Willesden Junction, Hampstead Heath and home again. The 33 stations of this perverse pilgrimage, stitched together in ways that had never been possible before, had their own microclimate.”

In each case he walks around the area musing, observing, linking. “I take a walk every morning. It’s opening up your system to the world, charging circuits to be able to write.”

John Constable, aka John Crow, who drew attention to, wrote about and saved from destruction the Cross Bones Mediaeval burial ground, in which paupers and many prostitutes were buried. This is now a carefully tended garden of remembrance, as he put it yesterday, ‘creating a beautiful space in place of horror and abuse’.

The story of this part of Southwark, known as the Liberty of the Clinkin Mediaeval times, is fascinating. Wikipedia sternly says that Constable’s vision, that it was used for burying prostitutes, the socalled ‘Winchester Geese’ who could not be buried in consecrated ground, is “pure supposition and a wilfull reinterpretation of a remark about another cemetery”, but there is no doubt that this was a major cemetery for poor people. Constable believes that, in his ‘shamanic personality’ of John Crow, he was visited on 23 November 1996 by the spirit of one of these Geese, who dictated material which formed the basis of his book Southwark Mysteries.

At the time, he claims, he was not aware of the cemetery (which by then was a fenced off patch of waste land; the Goose ‘told him’ to go there, and only later did he realise what it was, and start the movement to save the land from re-development by Transport For London (TFL). Now it is a large part of his creative life: he has attended a commemoration ceremony there every month (on the 23rd, at 7 pm) for many years. (Attendance was once as low as two, but nowadays can reach 500.)

Stephen Walter produces minutely detailed maps, with huge mounts of written detail, often historical, sometimes personal, sometimes based on rumour or urban legends. These involve him in a great deal of research and walking. They are not intellectualised or theorised: he does it because he likes it. You certainly learn a lot by looking at his maps in detail. They seem to be mostly of London, and vary in quality and density. His map of Richmond, for example, has only the word ‘toffs’ to describe (more or less) the streets where I live.

Psychogeography as a word was first used by Situationists in France in the early 1950s. Guy Debord wrote: “The word psychogeography… a general term for the phenomena a few of us were investigating around the summer of 1953, … does not contradict the materialist perspective of the conditioning of life and thought by objective nature. Geography, for example, deals with the determinant action of general natural forces, such as soil composition or climatic conditions, on the economic structures of a society, and thus on the corresponding conception that such a society can have of the world. Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals. The charmingly vague adjective psychogeographical can be applied to the findings arrived at by this type of investigation, to their influence on human feelings, and more generally to any situation or conduct that seems to reflect the same spirit of discovery.”

An early example was Ivan Chtcheglov whose Formular for a new urbanism says:

“Architecture is the simplest means of articulating time and space, of modulating reality and engendering dreams. It is a matter not only of plastic articulation and modulation expressing an ephemeral beauty, but of a modulation producing influences in accordance with the eternal spectrum of human desires and the progress in fulfilling them…The architecture of tomorrow will be a means of modifying present conceptions of time and space. It will be both a means of knowledge and a means of action…Architectural complexes will be modifiable. Their appearance will change totally or partially in accordance with the will of their inhabitants….This new vision of time and space, which will be the theoretical basis of future constructions, is still imprecise and will remain so until experimentation with patterns of behavior has taken place in cities specifically established for this purpose, cities bringing together — in addition to the facilities necessary for basic comfort and security — buildings charged with evocative power, symbolic edifices representing desires, forces and events, past, present and to come. A rational extension of the old religious systems, of old tales, and above all of psychoanalysis, into architectural expression becomes more and more urgent as all the reasons for becoming impassioned disappear…..The districts of this city could correspond to the whole spectrum of diverse feelings that one encounters by chance in everyday life. ” Chtcheglov talks using architecture to construct moods. Later psychogeographers have studied existing cities to see what moods they actually create, and to look at the mechanisms by which this creation takes place.

The concept of psychogeography has clearly developed or changed since Debord. For the Situationists, it was perhaps more theoretical. Recent British writers tend to get out and walk first, and write later. I should add that not all British psychogeographers are the same. The Leeds group, organised by Tina Richardson, seems to have taken a fairly practical approach. (I have her book on order, but haven’t read it yet.) The Neoists and the London Psychogeographical Association (the 1990’s version) seem to be more concerned with pranks or activism, though perhaps this is unfair. With the late Ralph Rumney, psychogeographical wandering may have been more a lifestyle than anything else.

Situationists also seem to see psychogeography as a tool to change the future, whereas the British artists yesterday saw it first as a means of coming to terms with the past, or perhaps understanding the past in order to understand the future. They are activists, but for specific causes like Crossed Bones, not for big top-down changes to society as a whole. Sinclair told an amusing anecdote of finding some workmen complaining about how the local drains were always flooding, unaware that they were on top of one of the ‘lost rivers‘ of London

Also, the Situationists thought of themselves as objective, materialist, probably Marxists. They saw urban geography as something which could be improved, using the objective ‘laws’ of history, economics, and psychology, in order to have specific impacts on inhabitants of the new society they wanted to create.

Yesterday’s British psychogeographers, on the other hand, were tinged with occultism and mysticism. They look for linkages that many would scoff at – ley lines, mythical ancestors, Goddesses or genii loci. They speculate on the deeper meaning of linkages and histories, on atmospheres and fate. Or they simply record the richness of the city, jumping from one thing to another.

Constable said yesterday, on the subject of his channeling the Winchester Goose: “[you should] behave as if something is true, don’t waste magical energy trying to prove it, then you may find it is true or that it leads to something important… coincidence is how we build patterns, and it’s from those patterns we build reality…by reconnecting in different ways we can create a different model of reality and therefore change the future……” (from my notes.)

He is a disciple of the British occultist Austin Spare.

I like the following from a Guardian article of 2002:
“The situation was not supposed to be an art form that could be integrated into the wider capitalist spectacle, recuperated in museums, or acted out in theatres for the benefit of paying spectators (although contemporary performance art has certainly tried to adapt the form for this purpose). The situation could only be made and experienced by active participants….. In many respects the situation is simply a metaphor for a life lived fully and with eyes open, a prescription for adventure.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *