Experimental walking (and writing): Surrealists and Situationists

Brief notes kicked off by the chapter on experimental walking in The art of wandering: the writer as walker.

Francesco Careri (Walkscapes) has identified three moments in art history when an experience linked to walking represented a turning point:

  • the period of transition from Dada to Surrrealism (1921-24)
  • the emergence of the Situationist Movement from the Letterist International (1956-57)
  • the movement from Minimal Art to Land Art (1966-67) – Fluxus, non-object-based art as exemplified by Richard Wentworth, Janet Cardiff and Francis Alÿs; with the rise of performance art the act of walking itself has become art

Dadaist and surrealist walks

On 14 April 1921 in Paris, at three in the afternoon, in the rain, eleven Dadaists conducted a ‘lay pilgrimage’ to the church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, the first in a proposed series of urban excursions to the ‘banal places’ of the city (p183-4) – it was not a success, and remained the sole example. However they had an influence on getting people to look and look again, to notice and how to notice what you notice, daring to leap into the abyss and explore things in a different way.

In May 1924 the three founders of surrealism set off haphazardly on foot on a ten day stroll from Blois, a town picked at random from a map. Largely they “resolutely followed their lack of itinerary”, composing automatic texts during rest stops.

This and further déambulations, practised on the outskirts of Paris, found expression in three novels:

  • Louis Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris (1926) – describes two places in Paris in great detail, providing a realistic backdrop for surrealist spectacles such as the transformation of a shop into a seascape
  • André Breton’s Nadja (1928) – “one of the iconic works of the French surrealist movement”
  • Philippe Soupault‘s Les Dernières Nuits de Paris (1928)
  • see also Readux’s A little guide to the 15th Arrondissement, “a playful piece of surrealist flâneurie and psychogeography” by Roger Caillois, translated by Ryan Ruby; see article

For the surrealists walking was about chance encounters and irrational meetings, an inspiration for their experimental writing (source).

The Lettrists and the Situationists

A generation later, after WW2, the act of walking shifted from aimless strolling to revolutionary subversion.

The Lettrist International (1952-7), the product of the earlier Lettrist Group (1948) and a forerunner of The Situationist International, identified the act of walking as a means of challenging the status quo, but like later movements such as CoBrA and the Imaginist Bauhaus was hampered both by a lack of direction (irony alert) and, more crucially, members.

Step forward the Situationist International (1957-72; SI Online | archives | Internationale Situationniste in English) under the firm/tyrannical grip of Guy Debord.

Debord coined the term psychogeography in his Introduction to a critique of urban geography (1955):

the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals

This replaced R/romantic notions of walking as an artistic practice with the concept of a scientific experiment, the results of which would be rigorously analysed and form the basis of a new cartography characterised by a disregard for traditional and habitual practices.

This experiment was, of course, the dérive, as outlined in The theory of the dérive (1956).

The dérive “has the potential to transform the everyday, to illuminate and challenge narratives of privatisation, commodification and securitisation of space, and navigate increasingly blurred boundaries between public/private”. The ideal outcome was that “pedestrians would become more aware of their overlooked urban surroundings and begin to see new possibilities of experiencing everyday life in the city” (source).

The purpose of a dérive is as much to derive or document the psychogeographical contours of an urban space as to uncover alternatives. This can be in the form of artistic maps, drawn not in Cartesian gridlines but according to a subjective navigation scheme, or through subversions of pre‐existing maps. Both kind of map exemplifies the détournement, a ‘diverting’ or ‘rerouting’ of pre‐existing elements, with an ultimate outcome such as the utopian city (source).

Debord’s Psychogeographic guide of Paris (1955)/The naked city (1957; same??) replaced the ‘official’ map of Paris with 19 cut-out sections rearranged and connected by red arrows indicating the flow of energy around certain ‘pivot points’ (source). Map users choose their own route by using a series of arrows that link parts of the city together.

Further tactics:

  • one city to the map of another – wander through one city following directions from a map of another city (I’ve never quite got how this would work in practice)
  • cities as historical landscapes – being aware of how your surroundings can draw you towards the past
  • here’s a reverse dérive – The naked city mapped onto a Google map of Paris

Hence strolling becomes drifting and detached observation becomes a critique of post-war urbanism (Elkin p18) – there was nothing aimless in Situationist drifts; they wanted to transform everyday life.

Debord became increasingly dogmatic in his insistence upon a rigorous examination of the Society of the Spectacle (1967; more), a society whose seductive surface belied the repressive realities of capitalist consumption. The essential emptiness of modern life is obscured behind an elaborate and spectacular array of commodities, leading to a world of rampant consumerism and regimented monotony. Shucks.

See The Situationists and the city | Andrew Hussey for more.

Debord and Jorn

Denmark klaxon! In 1954 Debord met Asger Jorn (1914-73), a Danish polymath who had worked with Le Corbusier on the Pavillon des Temps Nouveaux for the 1937 Paris World Exposition. Jorn was a co-founder of CoBrA (1948-51) and involved in one of its offshoots, the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, which in 1957 fused with the Letterist International and the London Psychogeographical Association to form the Situationist International (SI). Enough already.

It’s not quite clear to what extent Jorn had a hand in The naked city, but their collaboration resulted in the production of two art books critiquing the Society of the Spectacle.

Created in 24 hours at the printing house Permild & Rosengreen after a single visit to a local news stall, Fin de Copenhague (1957) was composed using the technique of détournement. The book consists of fragments snatched from other books and magazines in a collage linked by colourful splashes. Intended as a critical engagement with urbanism along with advertising and consumerism, it “satirises gemütlich Europe in general, the author’s native Copenhagen in particular, and Le Corbusier in passing”:

Copenhagen is satirised not only as a seat of ancestral boredoms, and in other standard terms, but also for being a ‘well-planned city’, in the sense of making a pretty pattern of black and green in the planner’s report – only in this case the pretty pattern is produced by applying place-names to patches of mechanical tint superimposed on (apparently) and action-painting that has run.

a spread from Fin de Copenhague (1957)

More: Wikipedia | Situationist map of Denmark

Debord and Jorn’s second collaboration, Mémoires (1959; in English), also employed the latter’s situlogical technique, but is now perhaps best known for its sandpaper cover.

Mémoires (1959)

A founder member of the SI, Jorn resigned in April 1961 believing it had become ineffective, but remained in friendly contact.

In 1960 Jorn’s brother, Jørgen Nash, set up the Situationist Bauhaus, later the Second Situationist International, on Jorn’s farm in southern Sweden. Most famous among their actions was the decapitation of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid in 1964.

Other Scandi SI members included Peter Laugesen (article), friend of Dan Turèll; in his time attracted to the dérive, but expelled in 1963 for refusing to give up poetic practice.

For more on Scandinavian Situationists see the Situ-Research & Archive | Scandinavian Situationism | Cosmonauts of the Future.

Experimental walking today

In 2005 Lonely Planet published a Guide to experimental travel, conceived by Joël Henry (of Latourexsome examples):

Experimental tourism is a novel approach to tourism in which visitors do not visit the ordinary tourist attractions (or, at least not with the ordinary approach), but allow whim to guide them. It is an alternative form of tourism in which destinations are chosen not on their standard touristic merit but on the basis of an idea or experiment. It often involves elements of humor, serendipity, and chance. (Wikipedia)

Here the “imposition of arbitrary restrictions serves to heighten the tourist experience”. It can also heighten the local experience – see Counter-Tourism, A mis-guide to anywhere, Pattern walking, the Temporary Travel Office and Ways to wander, “54 intriguing ideas for different ways to take a walk” collected by Claire Hind and Clare Qualmann.

I have the Lonely Planet guide and stake my claim in that we have often travelled to the end of a metro line for the hell of it. A particularly memorable example was in Istanbul, a world away from the Blue Mosque. It took hours to get back. Sadly I can’t find the website of the group who travel to the end of metro lines in Moscow on the last Sunday in the month, otherwise I’d be there.

On the everyday level my walks more often than not make use of suggestion 15 from the LP guide: Dog’s Leg Travel:

If you don’t normally walk a dog, take one for a walk and be led by what interests the dog.

Ludic performances and tours which “subvert space in creative and exciting ways” abound in the experience economy, with the game often the key element. See Play the City Now or Never |

Meanwhile, is walking (or marching) as political dissent about to make a comeback? On 17 February Senate House Library and the Passage project held a one day conference on Radical walking (more), presenting the historical perspective.

Opening keynoter Katrina Navickas (interview) shook things up a bit on ‘the problem of the flâneur’ and critiquing literary studies’ ongoing obsession with walking:

walking – using the eyes of history to examine the traces and parallels in the past – is an activist practice, and one connected directly with politically activist histories

the flâneur seems to privilege the elite perspective of the landscape viewed from a distance

For me it’s the anonymity of the flâneur (of/in the crowd), the observations and perspectives of the outsider, which appeal (exclusive can also mean excluded) – it’s an explorative tool I use. See also under What gives? in my post on #walkingwomen. BTW Wikipedia on the flâneur is worth a look, not least for “how the same language can differ depending on the location” (source). It’s an intriguing combination of immersion and openness.

But I’m with her on the obsession with nature writing at least.

Next stop: more cultural geography, Doreen Massey.

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