by Matt Clench
Phychogeography as a concept was first introduced to me during the first year of my degree, wherein I embarked on a project to document, re-imagine and then visualize my parents experience of living in London. Having been born in London, despite only living there for the first year of my life I feel a large part of my upbringing and thus subsequent life has been in the shadow and influence of a city I never really knew personally but instead knew in an indirect means through a kind of inherited congenital experience from my parents.
Psychogeography as a term was coined by the Situationists international; who where a group of revolutionary thinkers made up of avant-garde artists, political theorists and intellectuals that operated in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Their political basis was strongly aligned with the left and this is something that tends to bleed through into practise of modern day Psychogeographers. The Si also used to undertake various tasks to ‘reclaim’ the city which included cutting maps up and ‘aimless wondering’ around the city – to be a ‘flâneur’ to use the correct term.
Despite the Si queuing the term itself, many of psychogeography’s ideas derive from this idea of the flâneur which was derived much earlier and discussed by writers and thinkers such as Charles Baudelair and Walter Benjamin.
It is arguable that Edgar Allen Poe’s “Man of the Crowd” (1840) was perhaps the first instance of any sort written account of urban wondering, if we are to define the urban wanderer or Flâneur as one who travels aimlessly with a heightened sense of awareness so as to take in the landscape and architecture better, and so rediscover the familiar.
The story follows a narrator who watched passers-by from a coffee house, one gentleman in particular catches his eye and he decides to follow him however he gives up after about a day as he realises that he will never discover what the gentleman is about as he is never not in a crowd.
Many psychogeographic films provide an experience of a ‘disembodied consciousness’ and indeed this is germane to re-imagining things, or to reclaim things as one’s own. This principal of the disembodied consciousness is pertinent and lends itself well to the thoughts and findings of the early ‘urban wanderers’.
As a case study:
Iain Sinclair in his project ‘London Orbital’ (2002) employed many phychogeographic practises. A film accompanies his book of the same title, (although the film is not a direct interpretation of the text, the two mediums exist independently of each other) wherein he walked around the entire circumference of the M25 motorway, in much the manor of the early ‘urban wonders’ to perhaps rediscover the familiar in a new light.
The project was also established with the notion that the middle of London was to some degree dead and overwritten. In an interview in the DVD extras Sinclair discloses that “the only way to get an interesting story was to get out to the fringe” (London Orbital, 2002) What sets Sinclair apart from many phychogeographic filmmakers and writers is that quite often, (and not unreasonably so considering that Sinclair himself is a renowned author of fictitious works) we find him straddling the tenuous line between fact and fiction. Within London Orbital (2002) many references to the author J.G. Ballard are made, amongst other writers.
It would appear that there is clear reference from gothic literature throughout the history of phychogeography. Indeed, Poe himself sighted to be the first instance as discussed and Iain Sinclair himself references Bram stoker’s Dracula in his piece London Orbital, claiming to have found the fictional Carfax abbey: a church situated between a soap factory and a large warehouse.
Notes from the author:
It’s quite hard to pin down what exactly psychogeography is in one flat definition, and this is logical considering its phenomenological basis. It is however much easier to discuss what it means as an idea, concept and practise and this is something I’d suggest the reader find themselves, in light of this please see the further reading and viewing below:
The view from the train, cities and other landscapes Keiller, P [Published by Verso (2013)]
Psychogeography Coverley, M [Published by Harpenden, Herts: Pocket Essentialsin (2006)]
The Situationists and the city: A reader. McDonough, T [Published by W W Norton & Co. (2009)]
London (1994) [Film] Directed by Patrick Keiller UK: BFI
London Orbital (2002) [Film] Directed by Iain Sinclair & Chris petit UK: Illuminations
Thames Film (1986) [Film] Directed by William Raban
A13 (1994) [Film] Directed by William Raban
To read more from Matt Clench, go to his website.