Psychogeography Now

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Psychogeography Now Talk for Edge Hill University Phil Smith (2016)

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On the day David Bowie died, I woke to hear an obituary on Radio 4. It noted how Bowie recreated himself many times. But kept looping back to Ziggy Stardust. The BBC was OK with the idea of selftransformation, in itself, maybe just the once, but not as a way of being, not as an art of living. When I checked Facebook that evening, there were numerous selfies with an Aladdin Sane flash, and variations on the same story: how one of Bowie’s personae had liberated their own. I was surprised – in the same way as I am when the same radicals post photos of their urban explorations, but clutter them with their own image. Ego, extroversion and exhibitionism are not the problem here. Indeed, it’s more about how magnificently diverse people end up converting their multiplicities into the same consumable image; how singular personal feelings and unique associations get transformed into a common currency of exchange.


And it’s about being unaware – or dismissive of the significance – of that.

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Because that currency is made from and by us and is set to work in a global information economy – Youtube, Instagram, Facebook, etc. – in which we are both the consumers and the unpaid producers. In which our most intimate and heartfelt feelings, loyalties, fears and imaginations are transformed into surplus value by massive digital systems run on behalf of giant corporations that are, in turn, plugged into speculative financial machines and security surveillance operations. The tradition from which ‘psychogeography’ comes, has a lot to say about this.

It’s part of a toolkit of theoretical, tactical and practical ideas produced by the International Lettristes and situationists, more than fifty years ago.


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The crucial and fundamental thing that these radicals grasped is that whereas previous forms of capitalism exploited work, extracting a surplus value, that that has now changed - as a result of the development of mass media and the early information economy, a new kind of capitalism was emerging, in which images rather than things were the prime commodities and which could exploit – not just work – but the whole of life: leisure, imagination, desires, love, dreams, identities, feelings, touch, bodies, beliefs, prayers... everything – everything was now a potential currency in the Society of the Spectacle.

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This is why many of the situationists turned away from art – if the Spectacle can appropriate everything, why add more to its available resources? – and they turned to the streets – because everyday life was now the battleground. Not only the most intense point of retail and visual exploitation, and subtle control, but also a patchy terrain more variegated and fuller of voids than the home, or the cinema, the gallery or the workplace. If the Spectacle really could appropriate everything, then, for revolutionaries like them, it was necessary to win back everything, to win back the whole of life – to transform everyday life into an art of living. And their strategy for this transformation?


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Walking – wandering. Not buying, window shopping or taking part in leisure activities – but just letting the flows and currents and rhythms of the city pull and draw them. The situationists called this ‘dérive’ or ‘drift’: they hyper-sensitized themselves to the city’s shapes, symbols and encounters; letting its atmospheres be their guides. ‘Psychogeography’ is what you get from this ‘drifting’ – it’s a kind of mapping or surveying, in words or visual representations, of two things – the psychic, psychological, poetic, empathic and telepathic effects that the streets have on you; and the manifestations of psyche, association, personality, spirit of place that are physically manifest in the street’s architecture. To the algorithmic machines of the Spectacle, the places discovered by ‘drifting’ are just grotty, unfashionable, sinister even – their qualities are difficult to convert into information currency. It takes a hyper-sensitized walker who has abandoned the usual roles – consumer, commuter, tourist – to detect them, in their own feelings, and in the nuts and bolts materiality of these places.


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These spaces may be recent industrial ruins, utopian housing estates gone wrong, edgelands, traffic roundabouts, rural airports... but it’s not in their category, it’s in their specificities, that their resistance lies. They are places that are hard to rent, or convert into saleable, even exchangeable, images... And because the psychogeography is physical it means that we can detect, map, return to and thrive in these places that the Spectacle struggles to get into.


An example:

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I’m standing in a gutter; grimy, unswept.


Every year, 300 tons of dust from the planet Mars falls onto the Earth. Some of it, is in this gutter. So, there IS life on Mars, because THIS gutter is partly Mars, and I am that life. I don’t need NASA or Hollywood to travel to this Mars. I go for free, any day I want, by stepping in any dirty gutter. Now, I need the mental process to find Mars in the gutter, but the dust also needs to be there – ‘psycho’ (TAP HEAD) and geography – and that’s all you need to animate a space of resistance to the monstrous, ‘all-powerful’ Spectacle. In 1957, two of the situationists made a map of bits of Paris that they thought were resistant to the Spectacle.

The situationists wanted to preserve these areas, and then create new, similarly resistant event-spaces, which they called ‘constructed situations’: collective actions for disrupting the Spectacle and prefiguring a new kind of society. Their tool for making ‘situations was called détournement: taking elements from dead, monetarized culture and twisting and bending and juxtaposing them so that –

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different from most mash-ups – the meanings of the original materials were exposed and trashed forever, and a new kind of unexchangeable, unexploitable spacetime was created from them. For example, the situationists cut up trashy comics and filled the speech bubbles with political theory.

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But détournement can operate on a much bigger scale than that.

So, for example – why don’t we extend the Right to Roam to include nuclear power stations, MI6, MI5 and GCHQ, the Cabinet Records Office, all reserve collections and museum storerooms, all library stacks and company boardrooms, all bank vaults.... and so on? And let’s détourn concerns around energy use, and embrace darkness. Turn off the lights. Imagine speeding through moonlit countryside in unlit railway carriages, or stargazing in the centre of capital cities. Unfortunately, the situationists themselves never completed any significant ‘constructed situations’. And eventually retreated into silence; because they saw no immediate prospect for change. Their hopes for a revolution led by workers’ councils dashed by the defeat of 1968.


Are the prospects any better today?

I’ll answer that in two ways: first, for psychogeography, and then for everything else. The prospects for Psychogeography today, in the UK at least, are wonderful. Prior to the millennium there were two kinds of UK psychogeography: an occult literary version practised by the likes of Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd, who turned the magical ambience of the gutter into the currency of publishable literature; often inspiring and brilliant, but very much part of the spectacular economy. And at the same time there were small groups of situationist-revivalists in Manchester and Nottingham, others mostly in the North-East who published through the journal ‘Transgressions’. Their own accounts of many of their drifts – including Alastair Bonnett’s description of how “most of the time.... [we] drift[ed] in search of what some of my comrades fondly imagined were occult energies, or purposely getting lost” – suggest that these small groups struggled with limited access to both theory and tactical resources; nevertheless, despite inheriting the situationist impasse of 1972 – like the much maligned occult psychogeographers, they kept the imagined transformation of the streets alive, and kept the way open for a new wave of walkers. Either side of the millennium, artists, performers and activists were creating a huge range of variations on the idea of dérive or drift – and today there are literally hundreds of these variations in the UK.... some are inspired by the situationists, but the influences are many and various.

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In 2010 when I wrote my book ‘Mythogeography’, I pretended that it was made up of documents from groups and individual members of a shadowy network of radical walkers. I knew by then that these walkers existed, but mostly in isolation; I just made up the network. Today, real networks exist - the Walking Artists Network, Making Routes, Global Performance Walks – constituting an informal meshwork of hundreds, on a global scale probably now thousands of radical walkers and ambulatory groups; most of whom have heard of psychogeography. And, more importantly, they have also heard of each other; they know, now, they are not alone. Last year I could write a book addressing a real meshwork – what I called ‘Walking’s New Movement’; and one that, rather than being dominated by men, is led by women. At the same Tina Richardson could write about ‘the New Psychogeography’ – in her wonderful conclusion to her collection ‘Walking Inside Out’ – a ‘new Psychogeography’ characterised by its anti-elitism, its plurality, its reflexivity, its binary-busting, its sensitivity to affect and its archaeological excavation of signs in scuzzy places that are contrary to dominant discourse.

We also now have the advantage of a new access to the richness and variety of the situationist project. Wonderful recent books by Simon Ford, Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen and Jakob Jakobsen, McKenzie Wark, Frances Stracey and Nato Thompson have revealed how, before the situationists retreated first into theory and then into silence, they participated in amazing situational failures, abandoned exhibitions, unfinished experiments in living and industrialised art-making – actions that are being echoed today in new events.... like, for example, the subversion of a Chamber of Commerce’s ‘Victorian Parade’ by a procession of costumed nineteenth century trade unionists repeating historic demands for a 40-hour week, weekend breaks, and so on – all presently denied to today’s workers by that same Chamber of Commerce. These are the members of the Chamber in their Victorian costume.

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Or a community-based staging of ‘Waiting For Godot’ in a storm-devastated part of New Orleans; for residents who waited, in vain, for their government. But a heritage re-enactment, a play? How will they not be re-appropriated by the Spectacle? Well, they probably will – but one lesson of the last twenty years, is that occult literature, postdramatic performance and relational aesthetics have all given psychogeography a new impetus, when neo-situationist iconoclasm and repetitions of limited tactics had left it marginalised and stuck in its past. There’s no generic or stylistic solution to avoiding the Spectacle – we know from Dada that anti-art still constitutes an art. Anyone struggling to make actions, situations, yes, even artworks, outside of the Spectacle, deserves our critical respect and support. Thankfully, the ‘New Psychogeography’ and the ‘New Movement in Walking’ are both relatively free of what Nato Thompson calls “the culture of gotcha.... soft witch hunt, outing the secret capitalists” and for the continuation of its good prospects it needs to keep itself that way. And the prospects for everything else? Nightmarish, horrible, to be despaired of.

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We have a multitude of different apocalypses circling like angry raptors, competing for different circles of our hell. Global warming that at any moment could reach the edge of a complex basin of attraction and suddenly accelerate exponentially. We have a bona fide fascist (and I use the word descriptively, not as a term of abuse) with a reasonable chance of leading one of the two major US political parties, in a country with many armed reactionary groups. We have a limping world economy less well prepared than before to bail-out a fiscal meltdown. We have a Middle East increasingly dominated by large swathes of shocked and awed wastelands, fought over by various warlords (Putin, Obama, Assad, Cameron, etcetera); while elsewhere the forces of reaction have re-established themselves on the ashes of the Arab Spring. We have a resurgent misogyny in East and West. We have a new phase of disaster capitalism; a capitalism that welcomes natural and human-made catastrophes and crises and massacres as opportunities to wipe the slate clean and start again from scratch. And we have an ever accelerating Spectacle reaching deeper and deeper into the subjectivities of us, the connected majority; this Spectacle is all the time mining for our preferences, while refining a happiness industry for creating those preferences for us. In response I suggest three, psychogeographically and situationally inflected things: First, until another global revolutionary opportunity arises, rather than follow the situationists and batten down the hatches while we perfect our theory; our time is better spent entangling, in messy, reparative and hypocritical ways, with the world – learning to struggle on many fronts. Democratise the state as best you can, empower and democratise the radical democratic parties, and push indirect action for de-privatisation and democratisation in every sphere. No more wars. And push for statelevel and inter-state level action on egalitarian climate change. If we manage to avoid passing a global hell on to two generations down the line, it will be a heroic defensive achievement. Second, the Spectacle wants our subjectivity, badly. Be wary of your life online. It’s not so much the information it is gathering on you – as the information it is learning how to implant in you. If you don’t know what a government ‘nudge unit’ is, then find out – because if governments have them, you can be certain big corporations, organised crime, charities and public bureaucracies do. If you are fully engaged with life online, you might be surprised by how much online is not just fully engaged with, but, how fully it IS you. For once, modesty, hiddenness and anonymity are radical positions.

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Third, embrace the politics of space. Everywhere, contest private or oppressive control of what you do in shared space, big or small – security guards trying to stop you taking photographs, gangs of men controlling sectors of social space for the sexual assault of young women, cafes that ban breastfeeding, the rights of black bodies to be safe from cops on US sidewalks. My colleague Cathy Turner has recently argued that the dérive is not one, but two things – firstly, a research quest for gathering information for changing the material architecture of the streets, and, secondly, a walk of immersion and fantasy, for reimagining the streets while in the streets. I think this is a crucial insight – the reason to protect your subjectivity from the digital gaze of the Spectacle is so you can fully enjoy it, autonomously, immersively, fantastically, in public space. The reason to intervene materially in the streets – adding new texts to street signs, secretly moving giant concrete dinosaurs around, turning anti-homeless and anti-pedestrian surfaces into pop-up ‘crazy golf’ courses – is to enable everyone to indulge their subjectivities. By putting the two dérives together – planning and fantasising – not only can we dream of change as we walk, but change the streets by what we do in them, in what clothes, in what costumes, by who we hold hands with, by what we carry, by what we destroy, by what we construct or install, by the plans we draw in chalk on the pavement or the meals we cook and give away. If you’re at all attracted by the possibility of defying, escaping or destroying the Spectacle, then there has never been a better time, never been better resources and better ideas, to join with your friends and colleagues and explore and change things, street by street, square by square. My final suggestion is to ignore me. In the 1970s the radical French author and activist Jean Genet gave an interview to the BBC – in the middle he stopped and said – ‘look how many of you there are – seven crew members – why don’t take over, why don’t you make your own programme?’ Their response was sad, but revealing.... the producer turning down the invitation with the words: “we’re involved in our own little world... the great majority of people, because they’re in awe of the system ... just go along with what you’re saying...” ... so ... don’t just go along with what I’m saying – the point of psychogeography is not to remake your life according to psychogeography, but to use psychogeography to make your own art of living.

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