DAVID UPTON looks to the future of psychogeography
Artists, academics, eccentrics, the flippant, the deadly serious, those with a plan and those without one, cluster around psychogeography like politicians round a fake news story, anxious to use it for their own objectives, or just to have a good time. It was largely with the last option in mind that I set up a psychogeographical group, the Strand Strollers, in 2017. (I was doing an MA at King’s College in the Strand at the time, hence the name.)
Psychogeography is a term coined in the 1950s, probably by the Situationist International, a group of artists originating in France, or by the Letterists, a similar group. (Several people, such as Guy Debord, were members of both groups at different times.) Much has been written about what the word meant then and means, or should mean, now. In my view, the originality of the first psychogeographers was simple. They walked, and they invented a series of techniques for choosing and directing their own attention. These have been concisely described (1) as:
the dérive (a free urban exploration on foot, in which the practitioner allows herself to be guided by the city’s ambiances), the détournement (a kind of culture jamming avant la lettre, in which cultural products are subverted and weaponized as a means of ideological sabotage), and the construction of situations – temporary site-specific ‘performances’ that aimed to unify art and everyday life
The broad purpose of these techniques has been much discussed, but it seems to be to help yourself to see things with new eyes, to discover unseen patterns and inter-relationships.
Ever since then, small but significant numbers of people have been using these techniques, most often the dérive. They have been used by writers such as Iain Sinclair or Will Self, by occultists such as Julian Vayne, by Marxists and other political groups, by local groups campaigning for a specific purpose, by oral historians, by artists, and by people who just wanted to have an interesting walk with good company.
Close to the path of every psychogeographer as they walk lies the rabbit-hole of Theory, down which many fall. PhDs abound. Debord himself seems to have talked far more than he walked. Neologisms are coined, similarities exposed and rejected, philosophical and political positions staked out. There’s a relative mountain of literature, in the byways of the internet, on social media, and the web sites of individuals. As Tina Richardson, herself one of the leading and most interesting British theorists says, “the objectives for walking are over-determined”. (2)
The idea of the Strand Strollers was to walk, not to theorise. It became necessary after I attended the 4th World Conference of Psychogeography (4WCOP) in 2017 in Huddersfield.  We heard some talks and went on some fascinating walks, and I was hooked. I could find nothing comparable ‘down south’. So, shortly after starting at King’s, I put up a few ‘Strand Strollers’ flyers on college notice boards, spoke to people in the geography department and elsewhere, opened a Facebook group, and sat back to wait. About 40 people joined the Facebook group, quite quickly: they came from all over, with only a few from King’s. I had messages of support from other groups.
Planning our first dérive was a matter of choosing between many options. King’s is in one of the oldest parts of London, rich in associations past and present, busy, a mass of contradictions, and it was just – well, there. People temporarily not at home pay huge prices for theatre tickets, whilst people with no homes sleep in the Embankment Gardens or on the night buses. Nearby is one of the few surviving cabmen’s shelters in London, and an 18th century fake Roman Bath; underneath the Philosophy Faculty is an abandoned Tube station, where George Formby performed during the Blitz to raise morale. Students now come to King’s from countries all over the world, especially from those with a high Gini coefficient. It has a massively decorated Victorian chapel on stilts. It’s fashionable, there are some clever people there, and there are lots of authentically middle-class cafes.
We walked using some old maps of the area – dating from 1578, 1677, and the 19th century. A settled world was torn apart during the 19th century: Waterloo Bridge and its new approach roads were opened in 1817, completely changing traffic patterns on the river bank. By 1860, the second upheaval: the Victoria Embankment was built. The banks of the Thames once sloped down gently to the river, amidst a growing amount of raw sewage. So bad was the ‘Great Stink’ of 1858 that Parliament considered moving to Oxford, but instead built the Embankment, with a sewerage system and an underground railway below it, and a new road and some pleasant public gardens on top. For the first time the Thames had a wall, and became a place to promenade rather than to avoid.
As a result, the maps changed a lot. Some of the street shapes have survived. The road in front of the LSE is still there: but where the LSE stands now, politically unaware sheep once bleated. There are mysterious survivals: a long narrow flight of steps that no longer go down to the water’s edge, a traffic island with a huge church perched uncomfortably on it, its windows looking as though they have not been cleaned for a century or more. Walking, we found the remains of a lonely party; a man dreaming on a bus; people living their lives below pavement levels. Size of group: me plus one other. Not bad for a first attempt.
Our second dérive was very different. Commuting through Waterloo station, it occurred to me that everyone there was either rushing through (to reach a particular place as quickly as possible) or standing still (waiting to find out where to rush.) Could we use psychogeographic techniques to influence time? If we walked very slowly indeed (neither rushing nor standing still), would our perceptions alter?
Preliminary photographic reconnaissance convinced me they would. If you photograph people walking using a time exposure, they look very different. Feet stay briefly in one place, then move quickly to another for another brief stay. The feet show whilst the rest is a blur. Slow the exposure down even more, and faster walkers disappear altogether. It’s as though the speed with which the camera perceives alters what it perceives. Does this happen to humans also? If so, can we control what we experience by controlling our speed of seeing?
We billed this as ‘the world’s shortest dérive’. It was short in distance only, since a typical distance was about 70 yards, walked in 45 minutes. This translates to one short step every 30 seconds. Two other Strollers, both Italian, turned up at Waterloo station at the height of rush hour. We chose our short routes carefully, to avoid crossing major flows of human traffic, and set out on our journey into time.
However stupid you may feel at first, no-one else notices. Your rhythm is too slow for them to see you. They are all rushing to be somewhere by a deadline, or else they are standing still waiting for something to happen. The important thing is to keep walking, however slowly: then you are setting your own time, and not following anyone else’s.
You quickly begin to feel happy at the slow speed. Time ceases to be important. Boredom does not set in. On the contrary, you start to notice how the girders that support the station roof have not been painted for a long time, how a deflated Christmas balloon is still hanging from one of them. Waterloo is full of clocks, so timing your short steps is easy, just demanding enough to keep your mind from rambling.
People who are standing on the path you are trying to follow, move out of your way a long time before you reach them. You stop worrying about collision avoidance. Travellers on the concourse below trace out strange patterns, flowing off the concourse like water down a drain. Each of them is an individual consciousness with their own thoughts and experiences. The station is crackling with brainpower on the move. Someone down there has had the best day of their lives; someone else is depressed and fearful for the future. Most are thinking of where they want to be in an hour’s time. There is a constant flow, almost all in one direction, until the rush hour starts to weaken. You, however, are out of this, in your own time and space. It does not seem like 45 minutes have elapsed when you decide to stop.
My next experience was not with any Strand Strollers, though I did my muggle best to persuade someone else to come with me. Treadwells, a London esoteric bookshop, advertised a workshop on occult psychogeography, to teach “the art of transforming one’s experience of everyday world into something rich and strange”, promising “several occult methods for encountering the spirits of place, and a range of techniques for re-enchanting your own landscape”. I felt it my duty to go, albeit with some trepidation.
There were 15 of us, initially in the basement of Treadwells, some more nervous than others. Three of us were quasi-academics schooled in the Situationist/‘materialist’ strand (me included, I suppose) and at least three people seemed to have had no encounter with either psychogeography or occultism before. Two were training to be London Tour Guides. To my relief I found no wild-eyed sorcerers. I think there were a few sorcerers, but they were not wild-eyed. For the record, I should add that there were only passing references to psychedelic drugs, and none to Crowley, and no goats were sacrificed.
What struck me most of all was the similarities between what the occultist, Julian Vayne, was doing and what the Strand Strollers did. True, before our walk, we all lay on the floor for a short guided meditation. Then we held hands and performed a ritual invocation (if that’s the correct term – but this was just four synchronised breaths and what seemed very like saying grace before a meal.) As we started we were ‘smudged’ with incense. Then off we went for a walk round Russell Square and a few other places. Julian had a repertoire of techniques for distracting your vision: look for simulacra, or reflections, or edges; follow a particular colour. Walk in a physically different way, or carry an object, or make a noise as you walk.
Some of his more interesting techniques were designed to expand our sense of agency, of contributing to the place, rather than just being a passive spectator. For example, say hello to things, find ‘points of intervention’. We made a few slightly self-conscious gestures, like holding hands in a circle in a public park. Julian pointed out that making small changes can have a greater effect than you imagine, and emphasised that we should actively work on ourselves and our own perceptions:
be amazed at the magic of everyday. Pay enough attention that when the miraculous happens, you notice it
My worst mistake was to call a Strand Strollers’ dérive in February. Dutch psychogeographer Witold van Ratingen gave an inspiring talk to 4WCOP about a ‘smell walk’ – where you are led as much by your nose as anything else. Covent Garden, with its colonnades and arcades and its restaurants and shops, seemed to offer as many smells as anywhere else near to the Strand, so I picked a date and wrote it up on the Facebook group. After all, one of the few documented Situationist dérives was in les Halles, and Covent Garden, which also used to be a working wholesale market, is perhaps the London equivalent.
Despite this illustrious precedent, it turned out that I had picked the coldest night of the year, with a particularly heavy snow fall. No-one else was stupid enough to turn out. Secondly, I had not realised that smells do not seem to transmit through very cold air. Even if they did, no-one eats outside and restaurant doors are closed.
I turned the dérive into a solitary photographic expedition – that is, I took a few pictures and went home feeling foolish. Shortly thereafter, I got my MA from King’s and started further studies at Goldsmiths College, in New Cross. Partly because the second course was much more like hard work, and also because the New Cross area has few authentic middle-class cafes, I have not organised any dérives through the Strand Strollers since. However, once the position on COVID is clearer, I intend to start again.
Two issues have arisen over the last five to ten years, with associated technical developments, which may profoundly affect the practice of psychogeography in the future. First, psychogeography is all about going somewhere unexpected: but what do you do when you get there? Do you make ‘interventions’ as you walk? Do you expand your sense of agency?
Guy Debord envisaged creating ‘situations’ in places, but does not seem to have done so very often. As psychogeographers, we are more concerned to avoid polluting the environment, whether with plastic bottles or extraneous influences. We go there, we look, we absorb, and some of us go away and write about our experiences. As already discussed, Julian Vayne uses occult techniques to contribute to places (prayer, gestures, invocations). But trying to leave your mark, on the place or yourself, is a fringe activity in mainstream psychogeographic practice. You could argue that psychogeography is a technique for having a fresh, open encounter with life: whereas creating ‘situations’ involves at least one person imposing their will or preconceptions on others. If you use Google Maps to see what is nearby, for example, you will see local restaurants advertising. Ethically, it is perhaps wrong to alter places. Banksy’s art involves some great détournements, but what if I paint something crude on a beautiful building? People have very different ideas of what constitutes an improvement.
Julian Vayne invited us to form pairs, and then, in turn, for one person to blindfold the other and lead him carefully for a few steps before removing the blindfold. If you could find a different environment within a few paces (e.g. go from a green space to an enclosed court), you could achieve a real sense of surprise in your partner. This seems a more acceptable intervention: you do not alter the environment, and, although you work on your partner’s perceptions, you only do so using what is available.
Perhaps it was in this spirit that oral historian Simon Bradley gave some performances during dérives at the 4WCOP. Bradley is not primarily a psychogeographer: he is interested in the process as an adjunct to oral history. However, his PhD thesis  contains some interesting techniques and links for what he calls “displacement activities”.
Defining ‘deep mapping’ as “anything imaginable that can be associated with a place”, Bradley defines (4) displacement activities as
performances of deep mapping that operate through ‘juxtapositions and inter-weavings of the historical and the contemporary, the political and the poetic, the factual and the fictional, the academic and aesthetic depth’ […] One-dimensional understandings of locality are détourned by combinations of oral history, sound art and theatrical intervention. A prime methodological directive of displacement activities is to unearth every possible level where displacements may be operating, finding and exploiting fissures occurring in monistic, fixed, representationalist, or metahistorical characterisations of place. Displacement activities are a form of opportunistic bricolage designed to extend co-presence and elicit response in an ongoing exchange within and between people, voices and sites
Bradley studied and enacted translocational mappings between two distant sites that refer to each other. The “Giotto tower” built in 1899 as a dust extraction chimney for a mill in Holbeck, Leeds, proved to be based on the original campanile in Florence, built in 1334-1359, partly by Giotto. Bradley conceptualised these related towers as a “wormhole” between the two sites, notionally allowing sounds or directions from the one to interact as part of a dérive in the other. (There’s an interesting piece of software, MAPfrappe, at http://mapfrappe.com/about.html; this allows you to view two maps, and will automatically overlay a route drawn on one map on to the other, in the same scale. So you could walk “around the Palazzo del Duomo” in Holbeck, or “around Globe Road Hunslet” in Florence.)
Locative technology allows you to “embed” sounds or words in the landscape: your smartphone can then play them when you are at a given GPS location. Bradley used this to embed one of his own sound pieces into the landscape. Embedding using GPS does not involve actually leaving anything there: it could be done by using a ‘pointer’ on Google Earth, as many businesses now do, or by writing code to respond to the coordinates. Augmented reality applications can be set to identify and respond to any distinctive shape. A well-publicised use of embedding is Pokémon Go, a game in which players find virtual characters at a real GPS location; these can be viewed on a screen and offer limited interaction as if they were really there. According to Wikipedia, by early 2019, the game had over a billion global downloads and grossed more than $4 billion in revenue.
I tried out Echoes (https://echoes.xyz/echoes-creative-apps), a partly free app which allows anyone to select areas bounded by GPS points, and link each area to a sound file. The ‘walk’ I tried simply played a sound file of ducks when I stood in a certain area. This was a very limited ‘walk’, but it’s clear that some sound artists are building geolocative practices around this app (for example Giovanna Iorio – https://explore.echoes.xyz/profiles/giovanna-iorio). There may be great possibilities here one day, as the technology improves and creators start to use it imaginatively.
Geomap is another piece of software which allows you to create tags on a Google Map, which you can click to take you to commentary, sound files, images or information. See, for example, A Different Lens by psychogeographer Sonia Overall and others. (https://cgeomap.eu/adifferentlens/) This enables you to walk around Margate calling up commentaries and thoughts.
A simpler and more temporary version is simply to use a QR code, say in the form of a sticker which is temporarily placed at a location. Using a barcode reader on your phone calls up a website. (see my own ‘artistic intervention’ on a memorial to the poet Blake, at https://www.codedwalls.com/wblake). The sticker is carefully placed not to cause damage, and will soon wash away.
I have reservations about many uses of geolocative technology: it is used by museums who want to guide me patronisingly through their collections, scripting a ‘high-quality’ standardised tourist experience that still leaves me enough time to visit the gift shop. This is known as “the experience economy” (5). Psychogeography should be about seeing new things for yourself, rather than seeing what an invisible organising voice wants you to see. But this technology is now available, and it’s up to us to use it in creative and improving ways.
A second set of technical developments involves communication between walkers. These technologies have been around for some time, but the COVID 2019 outbreak has brought them to psychogeography. The 2020 4WCOP, looking ahead to a summer of lockdown, looked for methods to conduct multi-person dérives remotely, linking people who were distant from each other.
I was able to try four of these over the conference weekend. In each case the participants walked alone, in different places, but were linked by social media. Most people were in the UK, but some took part from places as far apart as the US or India.
These dérives are a two-way flow of information. The organiser provides basic directions or ‘prompts’. These may be a direction to follow (e.g. ‘right’, ‘down’). They may be something to look for, or a general theme (“visions and dreams and imagining the future that we want”). It may also include other targets (“can you see evidence of extra-terrestrial influence? What can they teach us?”) or general guidance (“look for […] where beckons you in, or keeps you out”) In one case no guidance was offered; the premise of the walks was that you would go with a dog and let the dog lead you, comparing notes over social media (your account, not the dog’s.) The participants then post comments, images, thoughts, or sound recordings, just as they would chat during a physical walk.
Systems used vary. One was conducted on Twitter using a hashtag and the @name of the organiser. One was conducted on Whatsapp, though it also posted instructions to a blog and encouraged participants to share their thoughts on a Facebook group, and/or on Twitter with a tag and an @name for the group, as well as Whatsapp. One was solely on a Facebook group. The fourth involved signing up through EventBrite, which then provided basic instructions, and encouraged users to post photos on Flickr.
Once in and connected, I found it difficult to follow the conversations. Twitter cases, for instance, were conducted partly by replies to existing tweets and partly by new tweets. These are presented separately, and it is not easy to follow the exchanges chronologically or to see a discussion as a unit. The Whatsapp group was better, since everything is in chronological order on the same screen. However, this group, which is well-established and meets regularly, generated over 450 postings in a couple of hours. New to it, I found myself scrolling back and forward to find the prompts amidst the chatter, to see what I had to do next.
A group on Facebook was much smaller: it had 22 members, not all of whom seem to have taken part, and there were 20 postings, plus about a dozen comments made on individual postings.
The group that started on Eventbrite and ended up on Flickr produced about 200 images in an hour (eight of them my own). The images did not seem to be organised in any way, eg chronologically, and there were few comments. It would be possible to transform all of these sets of comments into a coherent narrative after the event, but this does not emerge obviously from the raw data.
I am still not sure to what extent participants who do not already know each other are united by these groups. I knew perhaps 5% of the other participants in these virtual dérives, even if only through speaking to them on the telephone or in virtual conferences. Some coherent conversations emerged, e.g. about the weather. (During one dérive, it was raining heavily in some parts of the UK, but not in others.) One feature I photographed and commented on attracted four comments, others were ‘liked’. However, I was far too busy to like or comment on what other people had done.
It took a while to get used to the etiquette of posting. The exchanges are polite and supportive, although largely solipsistic: this is what I saw, what I felt, what it made me think of. There is also, I think, an element of self-presentation in most of them. I was conscious in my own postings
- of a need to conform with the ‘rules’, or at least to respond to the ‘prompts’ rather than be seen to have missed the point
- to show photographs that presented my environment in certain ways, and make comments that seemed ‘interesting’.
As Bame and Boyd pointed out , in
our social media productions people actively construct identities, over time, influenced by the media, the broader contexts within which they use them, and their personal proclivities. People are strategic … and can be very aware of how they use these media
However, virtual or semi-virtual dérives will become more commonplace and the technology will improve, to offer some intriguing possibilities. This is something else the Strand Strollers may try out. One possibility may be to have a less intense dérive that lasts two or three days.
Thanks to geolocative and communications technologies, we may be facing a Copernican revolution in psychogeography, the biggest changes since that first evening Debord, Bernstein and Vaneigem may have spent in a wine bar near Les Halles, realising they had got something, but not at all clear what it was.
The Strand Strollers will be back on the streets shortly, with some new ideas and maybe new technology, but with a strong emphasis on walking rather than writing theory. We will haunt nice middle-class cafes and interesting London pubs, once they reopen. Feel free to join us on https://www.facebook.com/groups/1918925755026459
- Van Ratingen, Witold, 2017: The New School for Social Research, Department of Liberal Studies, MA Thesis. Accessed on http://particulations.blogspot.com/2020/10/conclusion-of-walking-inside-out.html, November 2020
- Richardson, Tina: October 2020, “Conclusion of Walking Inside Out”, blog post, accessed on http://particulations.blogspot.com/2020/10/conclusion-of-walking-inside-out.html in October 2020
- The 4th World Congress of Psychogeography, known to its friends as 4WCOP: see https://www.4wcop.org. I attended the 4WCOP in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. It is always the 4th Conference: next year’s will never be the 5th
- Bradley, Simon, “Archaeology of the Voice: Exploring Oral History, Locative Media, Audio Walks, and Sound Art as Site-Specific Displacement Activities”, Doctoral Thesis, University of Huddersfield, Music, Humanities and Media. Available on https://www.academia.edu/24778938/Archaeology_of_the_Voice_Exploring_Oral_History_Locative_Media_Audio_Walks_and_Sound_Art_as_Site_Specific_Displacement_Activities, accessed November 2020
- A thorough account of how the word ‘experience’ is used in a marketing context, and elsewhere, is at Caru, A and Cova, B, 2003: “Revisiting consumption experience:A more humble but complete view of the concept”, in Marketing Theory, volume 3(2), available (behind a paywall) from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/14705931030032004 , accessed November 2020
- Nancy K. Baym & Danah boyd (2012) “Socially Mediated Publicness: An Introduction”, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 56:3, 320-329, DOI: 10.1080/08838151.2012.705200: To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/08838151.2012.705200 . Accessed November 2020
DAVID UPTON started his career in the UK Foreign Office, then left to build up, with some friends, a specialised management consultancy company, which organised crisis simulation exercises all over the world, for several of the world’s largest companies. Eventually it occurred to him that he had created far more ‘situations’ than Guy Debord ever did, and from there it was a short step to becoming a computational artist. He now uses small pieces of wire to pick the locks of the doors of perception, and seeks (legal and non-pharmacological) ‘technologies of the self’