Literature

LIQUID LONDON

IMG_0315 Iain Sinclair is perhaps the most significant literary figure responsible for the modern reincarnation of psychogeography. He has been working since the mid-1970s on a continuous exploratory project of London that incorporates poetry, novels, documentary film and photography. Sinclair uses walking as a way of re-engaging with the city in a world that he feels we have become disconnected from due to the modern-day media. For Sinclair, the docks, motorways, suburbs and industrial sectors that lie on the extremities of London are of equal interest as the popular touristic monuments that London is renown for.

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Sinclair is perhaps most widely known for his book London Orbital (2002), where he circumnavigates London’s M25 on foot. However, it is his collaborations with Marc Atkins that cleverly introduces the photographic image into his work. The book Liquid City (1999), his second collaboration with Atkins, brings together the various walking journeys of the duo, which were undertaken for what Sinclair calls “urban research”. The walks featured in the book take part around the Thames which seems to be used as a visual metaphor to illustrate the city’s transience and the continual flow of people through the urban landscape. The pair takes the reader on a bleak adventure through modern industrial London, on a quest to interrogate and record the changing landscape. We are shown dilapidated graveyards and decapitated statues as a way of demonstrating how history often becomes faded and forgotten if not continually revisited. The darkness of Atkins's black and white photographs bring out the city's dramatic shadows and the hauntedness of the urban space conjured up with Sinclair’s words. The photographs show the way London’s inhabitants are dwarfed by the towering architecture and how the modern construction of the city can create feelings of isolation and alienation.

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Once again, Liquid City reveals how the freedom of everyday walking can be applied as a form of artistic exploration. The book shows us the city from the perspective of two pedestrians who through walking, watching and recording manage to tap into the historical heritage of zones that are usually left ignored. The mixture of writing and photographs offer the reader different devices for viewing the city, this gives the book a unique perspective from those that exploit only one or the other. It demonstrates that by using text and photography together, we can find new ways of understanding the inner-city landscapes that shape our everyday existence.

THE NAKED CITY

spectaclePsychogeography – “The point where psychology and geography collide” (Merlin Coverley - Psychogeography)

As research for my photographic practice I am continually thinking about how others have adopted different approaches to walking. Previously I have mentioned Baudelaire and his highly influential notion of the Flaneur. The Situationists have also made an important contribution to the theoretical development of walking with Psychogeography.

The situationists were a group of avant-garde artists that came together in 1957, led by the Marxist Guy Debord. They desired a life free from the conditioning of the capitalist system, which they used as inspiration for their political and artistic undertakings.

Guy Debord wrote the situationists’ most influential manifesto of ideas under the title Society of the Spectacle (1967). The main concept behind the manifesto is that mass media and advertising create an artificial reality in which true everyday existence is hidden behind. This artificial reality Debord called the Spectacle. As a way of reacting to this dominance over society by the media, the situationists developed methods for everyday experimentation, the most notable being psychogeography. Guy Debord defined the term Psychogeography as “the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.”

It was an inventive method for exploring cities, aimed at helping pedestrians to sway from their predictable trajectory. The ideal outcome was that pedestrians would become more aware of their overlooked urban surroundings and would begin to see new possibilities of experiencing everyday life in the city. Perhaps Debord’s most remarkable concept within psychogeography was his notion of the dérive (the drift). The dérive was an unplanned walk through the urban landscape, which was navigated by the individual’s emotional reaction to the surrounding cityscape. It was a method of wandering, in which the subjects trajectory was determined by the city’s psychogeographical mapping.

THE NAKED CITY

The situationists also used maps, making alterations to them in order to help instigate unpredictable trajectories. Debord himself produced a map in 1957 under the title The Naked City. The plan of Paris is cut up and divided into 19 sections that are randomly placed back together. The users of the map choose their own route through the city by using a series of arrows that link parts of the city together. Other experiments with maps existed including one undertaken by a friend of Debord who wandered through a region of Germany whilst following directions from a map of London. The situationists encompassed other intellectual devices into their walks for example, when they were manoeuvring within the landscape they would try to be aware of how their surroundings could be used to draw them toward the past. Cities were seen as historical landscapes, whose structure and appearances were shaped by temporal events that were buried but never completely erased. The situationists’ notion of psychogeography managed to draw attention to the importance of maintaining a link with the cities’ historical past and enticed many to explore the city with a new perspective.

THE FLANEUR

IMG_0321 In Paris, a French tradition of urban wandering emerged around the 19th-century. For the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) his home city of Paris could only be understood by walking and exploring. He wrote about a solitary walker who ventured out into the city, yet desired to be hidden from view. His figure meandered through the streets of Paris, watching the city’s movements whilst remaining part of the crowd. Baudelaire’s independent walker came to be known as the flâneur.

“His passion and his profession is to merge with the crowd. For the perfect idler, for the passionate observer it becomes an immense source of enjoyment to establish his dwelling in the throng, in the ebb and flow, the bustle, the fleeting and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel at home anywhere; to see the world, to be at the very centre of the world, and yet to be unseen of the world”

(Baudelaire - The Painter of Modern life)

Baudelaire’s anonymous wanderer strolled though his everyday existence as if it was an art form in itself. Walking, for Baudelaire, was an important part of the artist’s creative process. It helped him to understand the city and drew his attention to the artistic potential of the everyday that adorned the city’s surfaces.

The German writer Walter Benjamin was particularly inspired by Baudelaire’s notion of the flâneur, whilst making his own explorations of the city. The elegant shopping arcades, depicted in Benjamin’s writings, were the natural walking environments of Baudelaire’s flâneur. However, these enclosed glass arcades were soon to be demolished and replaced by shopping malls. The flâneur, for Benjamin, became a reminder that the wandering pedestrian was rapidly becoming redundant. The city was transforming into a large shopping centre and the flâneur was in danger of becoming just another window shopper.

As the city changed around the flâneur, the public space of the city was becoming more private, creating a void between Paris and its inhabitants. The streets were busier with traffic and the car was becoming the primary mode of transport. The walker in the city had to fight back and reclaim the city for his own. This was to be the foundational thinking for many of the subversive thinkers, surrealist walkers and psychogeographers that would emerge in the coming years. They would strive to reclaim the home of the flâneur through peripatetic experimentation.

TWO NOVELS

novelsThe surrealists first emerged with the upsurge of the avant-garde in Paris, after the First World War. They felt that the everyday walking journey of the urban dweller could potentially be dictated by the unconscious mind and not just by mundane routine. During this period, two members of the group, André Breton and Louis Aragon, strove to use walking to develop new artistic ideas and write surrealist literature. They explored Paris on foot, using their experiences to produce two of the first novels that helped pre-empt the notion of psychogeography. In the first of the two novels, Paris Peasant (1926) Louis Aragon shows us the secret life of the city by taking us on a tour around two separate areas in Paris, the Passage de l’Opéra and the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Aragon’s book was radical in the way he used the city of Paris as a framework where he portrayed his journey by interlacing text with the city’s ephemera: café menus, inscriptions on monuments and newspaper clippings.

In the second of the two novels, Breton’s Nadja (1928), we see the first use of photography and text to depict a surrealist journey. Nadja is partly autobiographical and partly fictional and reads as a diaristic account of Breton’s coincidental meeting with a woman on the Rue Lafayette.The photographs in Nadja add a unique visual support that assists in making the story more believable. The images of locations were taken in a deliberately banal fashion that creates a sense of the everyday. They make the events that happened in the photographs seem extraordinary, emphasising the point that spectacular occurrences can happen within the most mundane locations. Although the images appear flat and unconsidered, it required skill to depict a place with so little character and style.

Ultimately, Paris Peasant and Nadja offer us accounts of surrealist journeys in Paris that were driven by the desire to wander in an environment rife with serendipitous chance. In both novels, we have the prototype for the situationists walking experimentation that would eventually pave the way for the psychogeographers of today.

AFTER SEBALD

Rings of SaturnPatience Rings of Saturn is one of my all time favourite books. For me it has all of the right ingredients, its beautifully written, deeply moving, its about walking and its even got lots of wonderful photographs in it.

The central narrative follows Sebalds journey on foot through the desolate seaports and forgotten towns in the region of East Anglia. Sebalds vast knowledge of European and local history are intertwined with the surrounding landscape and the characters that seemingly drift in and out of the story. Sebald also brings another layer to the book by including images to accompany the text. The images are untitled and create a curious interplay between what we read, what we see and what we imagine. The book reads like a discourse on loss brought about by the the inevitable passing of time. For anybody interested in the poetics of walking, I cannot recommend this book enough.

If you like Sebald or are interested in knowing more about the book, the excellent documentary PATIENCE (AFTER  SEBALD) by Grant Gee is available on DVD. The film is loosely based around Sebalds walk but we also get a further insight into the man thanks to interviews with various literary and celebrity figures such as Robert Macfarlane and Iain Sinclair. Gee manages to translate the sensibility of the book well into visual form and there is also an excellent soundtrack by Leyland Kirby, otherwise known as The Caretaker.

EXERCISE #1

“Unfold a street map of London, place a glass, rim down, anywhere on the map, and draw round its edge. Pick up the map, go out into 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: film, photography, manuscript, tape... be alert to happenstance of metaphors, watch for visual rhymes, coincidences, family resemblances, the changing moods of the street, complete the circle, and the record ends…” (Robert MacFarlane – Psychogeography: A Beginner’s Guide)

THE PRACTICE OF EVERYDAY LIFE

“To walk is to lack a place. It is the indefinite process of being absent and in search of a proper. The moving about that the city mutliplies and concentrates makes the city itself an immense social experience of lacking a place -- an experience that is, to be sure, broken up into countless tiny deportations (displacements and walks), compensated for by the relationships and intersections of these exoduses that intertwine and create an urban fabric, and placed under the sign of what ought to be, ultimately, the place but is only a name, the City...a universe of rented spaces haunted by a nowhere or by dreamed-of places.” 

Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life

A FIELD GUIDE

The Art of Walking

I recently discovered this excellent book edited by David Evans. The book is a survey of walking in contemporary art practice and aims to draw attention to some of the different walking methods adopted by artists. What I found to be particularly interesting is that a number of the artists were commissioned to make work for the book and that the artists themselves were actively involved in its design. This makes for an interesting, enjoyable and unpredictable read.

The book is well illustrated with lots of photographs and features the work from some of todays leading artists such as Melanie Manchot, Sophy Rickett and Simon Pope. I was particularly excited to find a selection of photographs from Keith Arnatt's wonderful series Walking the Dog.

WANDERLUST

WANDERLUSTI will be posting lots of entries about some of the main writers, photographers, artists and walkers that have influenced me over the years. I begin with this wonderful book by Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust. It's probably the most comprehensive place to begin if you are interested in getting acquainted with some of the main debates surrounding contemporary walking practice. Throughout its 326 pages the reader is taken on a journey through the history of walking, whilst being exposed to many of the reasons why we do it. It's a quirky, beautifully written book. I have read it many times and I am continually getting it off my shelf for referencing ideas. Highly recommended.