Friday, 25 March 2011

Psychogeography for beginners.

I don't think my time spent watching Johnathan Meads documentaries and possessing one book by Iain Sinclair qualifies me to tell you how to 'do' psychogeography, I don't even think that it qualifies me to tell myself!

But on the other hand being as I'm working this out from first principals, and as you are here too perhaps we can make some sense out of it all?

Guy Debord described psychogeography as 'The study of specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals" in the first issue of Situationniste Internationale (1958). Now, fifty years on,  psychogeography is an actual 'science' or at least a disciplin practiced by town planners. There are a lot of very sensible books on the subject of how to entice lots of rich shoppers into town, and create a free-flowing environment empty of untidy, poor, homeless humans.

Unfortunately that isn't the kind of psychogeography I'm interested in, though it is an integral  part of it. I don't see myself buying any of those books though.

Mookeychick writes:

Your task for this adventure is to set yourself a time limit then spend the next couple of hours wandering around, noting down any graffiti you find, both by writing it in a notepad and taking photographs of it. This means that you're not looking where consumerist society wants you to look - you know, at shops or billboards, the usual suspects. Screw that. Find yourself exploring bus stops, public toilets and sidestreets. Go to the places that are invisible when you're purely focused on shopping. Notice all the things you're not meant to see as a good little citizen - the cctv cameras, the drunks, the strange little hang-outs and alleyways.

When you've finished, treat yourself by going and buying something tiny and pointless and pretty, or even the pair of shoes you've had your eye on for so long, or buying a drink and sitting down outside in a cafe or little park, and really enjoy your consumerist moment - you've poked into the inner workings of the invisible city, so you've earned your Coke!

Collect all your photographs and stick them in a scrapbook labelled Soho / Times Square / Blah / whatever your hip shopping district is called. You'll be surprised at how much satisfaction and meaning you getting from collecting such unglamorous photos.
But that wont do for me either. I was born into a household where Radio 4 was always in the background, so I had Economics 101 from an early age. Plus being of the punk generation means that it takes a little more than looking at what I'm not supposed to see, to count as a subversive act.

Is Guy Debord spinning in his grave at the line "you've earned your Coke" I don't know.

Nor do I know if Guy Debord is actually in a grave?

One thing I do know, from witchcraft to Buddhism the message is always the same: take the right hand path or take the left, a true practitioner makes her own path.

Let the workings out begin.
A geographical space has layers: there are the physical *real* layers that we walk over and within is found the archaeological record. Above the archaeological record and around it and around us the virtual layers 'wash' over. The virtual layers are the belief systems we inhabit.

The virtual layers provide narratives.

But the very first thing to do is to describe the actual landscape as it appears to be right now. 

Here and Now.
Define here.
Give it a name, a size, a location.

The description is divided into three categories.
The first description includes all things cyclic and static. Static objects are defined as anything that has been in the space (or will be in the space) for longer than  one year: compass alignments, hedges, concrete markers and bronze plaques. Hills, other monuments -deal with the chronology latter- for now, just record it all.

Cyclic objects are the sun and moon and stars and anything that will happen again. For instance, the location of the sun in the sky relative to a monument at midwinter solstice. The sun has only moved a tiny bit from it's position 5000 years earlier, the moon is difficult, and stars are out of my league, but I'm sure there are computer programs to compensate!

The second category is a description of the visible ephemeral, of crisp packets blowing across the grass, of cars flowing past and parking, of people taking photographs or sitting, talking and walking, candles and flowers made into offerings. Anything here that will not be here latter.

Dowsing fits between these two...

The third category is the invisible ephemeral: the sound, the feel of the place. Atmosphere. The way the light dances, the way the grass smells.

The virtual.
This category consists of ideas and beliefs about a place. It includes your own beliefs. There is no time limit, short term passing comments are as valid as long thought out and complex ideas. Thinking of The Sanctuary now, I'd list geopathic stress lines making the ground feel 'heavy', of Sheldrake's 'Morphic Resonnace' of Chuck Pettit's idea that 'stone age' sites act as 'power centers' storing memories of events that have happened within their 'domain'. Stuckely with his Hackpen, someone elses theory of The Sanctuary as menstrual hut, of Aubrey Burl's mortuary enclosure, of Stuart Piggot's plain old, everyday hut. The virtual layer is full of stories and ideas and they warp what I see.

After or before visiting a site...
There are objects literally dislocated from their original site: the notes made by the archaeologist who dug there, photographs made by anyone at all, and the ideas and dreams, fantasies and arguments about a place plastered on the Internet.

Seeing them before visiting a site is probably better.

So, that's that. I'm not after one empirical, true story. After all the Persephone myth is only one of the many stories that change the way people interact with, and feel about the land...What I want is a discipline to help me collect as much as possible during my time somewhere...

Finally, there is the concept of The Zone.
'What was it? A meteorite? A visit of inhabitants of the cosmic abyss? One way or another, our country has seen the birth of a miracle - the Zone. We immediately sent troops there. They haven't come back. Then we surrounded the Zone with police cordons... Perhaps, that was the right thing to do. Though, I don't know...''

From an interview with Nobel Prize
winner, Professor Wallac
From Roadside Picnic by  Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.
There are all sorts of prosaic explanations about the zone, but the best, the most psychogeographic view in my opinion comes from Tarkovsky and his film: Stalker.

Based upon the book Roadside Picnic, the zone in Stalker is the area surrounding the 'Wishing Room'. The origin of the zone is left unclear, whilst in the book the origin of the zone was an incident: a spacecraft landed, the occupants got out, stretched their legs, left bits of detritus around. got back into their craft, and quit planet if they had had a roadside picnic...maybe?

The filming of Stalker became mythic...the film sequence within the zone -which took a year to film- was destroyed by being processed incorrectly and so had to be re-shot. The area the film was shot in was contaminated with factory waste, and the froth in the air in one scene came from the polluted water, it was said to be carcinogenic. Andrei Tarkovsky died of cancer...he also smoked, but...

Vladimir Sharun recalls:
We were shooting near Tallinn in the area around the small river Jägala with a half-functioning hydroelectric station. Up the river was a chemical plant and it poured out poisonous liquids downstream. There is even this shot in Stalker: snow falling in the summer and white foam floating down the river. In fact it was some horrible poison. Many women in our crew got allergic reactions on their faces. Tarkovsky died from cancer of the right bronchial tube. And Tolya Solonitsyn too. That it was all connected to the location shooting for Stalker became clear to me when Larisa Tarkovskaya died from the same illness in Paris.
And finally, there is a scene in Stalker where the camera glides over the water showing the objects in the river; under the water there is a small calender, one of those calendars where you tear off the paper-page each day. The date on it is December 28. Tarkovsky died on December 29.

December 28 would have been his last full day alive.

The Zone most often refers to areas around catastrophic Chernobyl, and will probably include Fukushima? Perhaps not.

Chernobyl is for now The Zone. Death, invisible destructive radiation. Abandoned buildings -resonate because it is one of our possible futures..So familiar, so alien.
In the former Soviet Union, the area of the Chernobyl disaster has become analogous to the Strugatskys' novel. Humans are not supposed to live within 19 miles of the disaster site, giving rise to a 1,400 square mile region formally referred to as the Zone of alienation, informally known as "The Zone", hence the analogy. The Zone, straddling the Ukraine-Belarus border, contains a ghost city, Prypiat, Ukraine and many ghost villages. It has unwittingly become a major nature reserve. Like in the novel, the Zone attracts some illegal scavenging. Some scientists investigating the area nicknamed themselves "Stalkers".
From Wiki.

"I refer once again to Stalker. There is a place there, the Zone, which is and is not, it is reality and, at the same time, it is a place of the soul, of memory. In the film, when you see it, it is a forest, a river. That's all. But the air that circulates, the light, the rhythms, the perspectives, without distorting anything, make you feel it as an "other" place, with various dimensions, always real and, at the same time, different...."