An Introduction to Psychogeography
Establishing emotional bonds with cities by wandering through their streets.
Mrs. Dalloway walked through the streets of London guided by an “internal tide” that made her halt in one place, enter a store, turn at the corner and continue her journey adrift. La derive was defined by Situationists as the “technique of locomotion without a goal”, in which “one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there”. In other words, la dérive is an unplanned journey where the aesthetic contours of architecture and geography unconsciously direct travelers to find an entirely new and authentic experience. Mrs. Dalloway knew what she was doing.
In The Most Radical Gesture, Sadie Plant wrote: “To derive was to notice the way in which certain areas, streets, or buildings resonate with states of mind, inclinations, and desires, and to seek out reasons for movement other than those for which an environment was designed.”
Before it was given that name in the 1950s, wandering was already an essential part of psychogeography. Therefore, when the term was invented, it had already gathered an entire torrent of physical, bodily tides, as had been described a thousand times in literature and in intimate diaries. But if psychogeography is one thing, it is practice. It is not a field of studies that can be researched from afar and through the coldness of print. Psychogeographic, that charmingly vague adjective, can be applied to the influence cities have on humans, and, widely speaking, to any situation or behavior that seems to reflect a spirit of discovery within the outlines of the familiar. But it is necessary to experience it, for there resides its spirit.
“Unfold a street map… place a glass, rim down, anywhere on the map, and draw round its edge. Pick up the map, go out in the city, and walk the circle, keeping as close as you can to the curve. Record the experience as you go, in whatever medium you favor,” suggests Robert MacFarlane in A Road of One’s Own.
During a legendary conference, hosted by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Iain Sinclair, forefather of modern psychogeography, spoke of the methods employed by this phenomenon’s modern practitioners. As if summoning ghosts, he mentioned De Quincey, Baudelaire, Mallarmé and J. G. Ballard, and recognized them as the fathers of his endless walks through cities like New York and London, where he embarked on the explorations that would be later registered in his books.
People like him, Will Self or Rebecca Solnit, have proven that the eternally elegant practice of walking through cities and suburbs is a subversive act where specters are called forth, while they establish connections that leave behind the bustling crowds.
Practicing psychogeography is to ambush the convention of walking through a city guided by the picturesque, by those streets and monuments that were specifically designed for “strolls”; it is to destroy the way in which we should live a city, the way in which we should perceive it and the meaning it should have for us. It is an emotional search through an urban map that traces the specific effects of certain corners, joints, passages and lights, and transforms the body into a sensitive collector of data.
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