Walking Inside Out - Contemporary British Psychogeography

On Thursday 15th October I went along to a book launch and symposium at the department of Urban Studies and Planning at Sheffield University. The event - Walking Inside Out – was convened to support a book of the same name, subtitled Contemporary British Psychogeography. The book’s edited by Tina Richardson (@concretepost).

I’ve long been a fan of writers like Iain Sinclair and Nick Papadimitriou (as well as novelists as diverse as Peter Ackroyd, China Mieville, and Penelope Lively) whose writings might be likened to the psychogeographic. Also there’s my own online effort Benches of Louth, which has a flavour of the psychogeographic (as I understand the term) to it as well.

I took some notes as the afternoon went along, and most of what follows is based on those notes. Bear in mind that these are my jottings only, and aren’t intended as a verbatim record (or even a wholly accurate summary) of the event or of what folk might have actually said.

There were two panels and an open Q and A session afterwards. The panel speakers each gave a ten-minute precis of their work, particularly as it linked to their contribution to Walking Inside Out.

Panel 1    

Tina Richardson spoke on her own reformulation of psychogeography. She terms this schizocartography. Drawing on Deleuze and Felix Guattari, as well as on situationist principles, schizocartography is “the process and output of a psychogeography of particular spaces that have been co-opted by various capitalist-oriented operations, routines or procedures”. It involves walking, observing and critiquing urban spaces.

Luke Bennett spoke on legal psychogeography. This was an approach I hadn’t considered before; the ways in which the urban environment is shaped and controlled by the legal over time. Medieval planning, Victorian hygiene regulations, contemporary rights-of-way and parking by-laws, housing codes all impact in different, overlapping and at times contrary ways of our allowed interactions with the city.

There was the first of a few Venn diagrams this afternoons: the point of interest being at the overlap of activist, literary and analytical modes of psychogeography. Lawyers, surveyors, and inhabitants all read the city. They all read concrete and ghosts. Bennett followed Papadimitriou’s term “deep topography”. There’s a mix of play and purpose in our interactions in the urban (and in planners’ interactions too). Laws and rights impose on and shape the territory. Bennett spoke to strike a balance between valorisation (specific, often niche, uses) and enchantment (uncritical and perhaps even Romantic reverie of the mundane). A guard against the reverential was advocated (this was a theme that developed through the afternoon).

Alex Bridger spoke on “Psychogeography, Anti-Psychologies and the Question of Social Change”. I didn’t make any notes on this bit. Oops.

Gareth Rees, author of Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares as well as the website unofficialbritain.com spoke of his experiences as an active/practicing psychogeographer, from Hackney marshes to Hastings. He also gave a reading of some recent work, focusing on memorial benches in his new home town of Hastings. I like a bench, me.      

Roy Bayfield, author of Longshore Adrift: Approaching Liverpool from Another Place came “shambling in from the creative circle” as he put it. He spoke about a walking project of his own, from his home to his birthplace across Britain resulting in a blog with psychogeographical aspects.  He also talked about Argleton, a fake town that appeared (presumably as a cartography in-joke or copyright trap) on Google Maps; as other online map systems took their data from Google, the “town” was replicated. Roy was involved in developing the conceit of Argleton as a fictitious place; this led to a great deal of media attention. There’s quite a bit of this about, though often with more straightforwardly invented beginnings; see Hookland and Scarfolk, for other, though more deliberately weird examples.

Roy then spoke about his heart surgery and the ways in which he was forced to reconceive walking in the light of his recovery. This was the focus of his piece in the anthology being launched. He spoke also of his influences (pulp SF paperbacks – also mentioned by Gareth, who took his Marshman Chronicles in part as a play on Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, beat writers such as Jack Kerouac, and of secular spiritualism; walking and thinking about place as a way of being more awake in the world). Roy signed off with a piece of graffiti that struck a chord and which featured in Longshore Adrift: “Live with purpose; walk without one”.

After a break and a machine coffee (and a quick chat with Roy, who was good enough to space me a few minutes), it was on to Panel 2.

Panel 2

Andrea Capstick spoke on Places In The Heart. Her work focuses on social models of disability and particularly on dementia. Her chapter is based on walks conducted in and around Dalston in London, a walk following the previously-published account of “Sid” someone with dementia.

Phil Wood describes himself as an urban therapist, which was a new one on me. His chapter (and talk) was based around two walks in Ukrainian cities – Odessa and Lviv - in 2013. He focused on the concept of angst as opposed to fear (i.e. unease, but that which is not related to something specific). As influences he cited WG Sebald, Walter Benjamin and Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie Stalker, as well as the UK Sinclair/Papadimitriou approach, as well as mentioning urban exploration and (a neologism for me) ruinology.

Chris Collier chatted around his chapter In Defence of Non-Existence.  He argued that there was no such thing as a positivist psychogeography. Using the example of the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa, he spoke about psychogeography being a fiction made real (my notes show a range of other possible examples such as Alfred Jarry’s conceit of pataphysics, plus the plot of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum where an invented conspiracy theory becomes enacted). I also noted a handful of pop culture texts that riff off the Mona Lisa theft, such as the recent thriller The Art of the Steal and the Doctor Who serial City of Death.  

The final speaker was Morag Rose who spoke about psychogeography being the (Venn diagram time again!) of art / social history / serendipity / de- and regeneration / mapmaking / situationism. Her talk / chapter revolved around her association with the Loiterers’ Resistance Movement, a Manchester-based collective of tea-drinking urban amblers and shamblers. For Rose, the  psychogeographic is open, fluid and walking-based. It intersects with critical gepgraphies of the city, with the concept of the city as disabling and enabling, with questions of equality of access and social justice and of subjective experiences of the city.

The event then opened up to floor questions to both panels.

Questions included:

Where’s the diversity in psychogeography (and in this event itself): there were concessions that more could be done, that walks were more diverse than the current assembly might indicate, and that there were issues also of class / gender / sexuality also (as well as others) that the event hadn’t focused particularly upon. There was an acknowledgement also that for some, walking isn’t a playful activity but a necessity due to for example, poverty / social exclusion / lack of access to a vehicle.

Issues of racial and able-ist privilege were invoked.

A binary opposition was suggested between ludic psychogeography (the primary activity of walking, observing and communicating about it) and the academic responses to that which are reactive.

What if the walk is disappointing? Do derives have to be deliberate. What about the pop to the shops? It was acknowledged that sometimes, a walk is just a walk.

What about the edgelands? Is this necessarily an urban experience? Well, much psychogeographic writing is concerned with peripheries, such as Nick Papadimitriou’s Scarp, and Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital (as well as, I thought, going all fictional, much of Alan Garner’s fiction, and books like John Christopher’s The Guardians).

Is there much feedback into education; into HE planning syllabuses, for example? Not much!

Are there links between psychogeography and Street Wisdom? (I Googled this term when I got home). Yep; some, in that both involve taking a question and applying it to the environment.

And the afternoon ended.

I haven’t read Walking Inside Out yet, apart from Tina Richardson’s lucid introduction, so this is something I’ll come back to in the fullness of time. What the event underlined, though, was the range of approaches that might be collected together under the umbrella term of psychogeography. Some made more sense to me than others, but some I were intrigued by, not least the notion of applying the legal over the geographic in terms of the ways in which the environment is shaped not merely by bricks and asphalt but by the laws, rights and restrictions that are involved and the assumptions and assertions that in turn impact on them.  

Tensions were evident between practitioners and academics (and academics who are also practitioners) most usually along the lines of a focus on one side to keep psychogeography aligned with critical theory and on the other to be less concerned with that and more with the subjective experience of place, both in the present and in the echoed historical.   

Doubtless I’ll come back to this once I’ve read the book.

Big thanks to the departmental organisers at Sheffield, to Tina Richardson for co-ordinating and editing the volume, and to Roy for the half-time chat!