The art of exploring: flâneurie in an age of mass tourism

Copious notes from Outbounding’s week long discussion (@outbounding) in May – mainly for distant reading, although qus 8 (identity) and 9 (exploration) are worth a closer revisit.

Particpants: Tina Richardson (@concretepost; see her on what people don’t like about psychogeography), John Rogers (@fugueur), Eddie Procter (@landscapism) and Bobby Seal (@bobbyseal1), facilitated by Amy Gigi Alexander (@amyggalexander), plus Linda Lappin (@LindaLappin1; forthcoming book on The soul of place (Amazon US); see Mapping the soul of placeworkshops), and SartreAndSartre (@SartreAndSartre; probably not pretentious at all in RL).

Q1: basic background, definitions

  • the connection between walking urban spaces and navigating the creative imagination – the Romantics used walking as an aid to composition; Coleridge found the pace and meter of steps an effective way of bringing back images sparked by sights on walks
  • the literary character of the Parisian flaneur, the casual wanderer of the streets, was created by Baudelaire in the 19th century, but the idea goes back further to Defoe, Blake, De Quincey and beyond
  • the Situationists, a mostly French political group of writers and artists from the 1950s to 1970s, are quoted as being the inventors of the term: a la ‘‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals”
  • they were very practical and walked European cities, mostly Paris, creating maps based on their walks, or dérives, which had some loose rules attached; they could last for hours, even days, were meant to be playful, and based on chance routes taken that made the walkers look at space in a different way
  • the Situationist International had a number of strategies that helped them generate these routes, such as drawing the outline of one European city over another, and walking that route as much as one was able; the newly created superimpositions were then seen as a virtual city, a third city resulting from the overlap of the other two
  • the aim was to question the way the city appeared, however these often cut out swathes of the city that they did not approve of, eg representing areas they thought capital was encroaching on in a disturbing way
  • the Dadaists were an influence on getting people to look and look again, to notice and how to notice what you notice, which might have sparked the process common in Paris of daring to leap into the abyss and explore things in a different way
  • unique and profound images come from discovering an unusual angle or perspective on familiar places, eg going on a long trip then returning home, a repeated journey, revisiting at different times of the year, using a route that is usually used for something else, eg waterways or sewers, to trick the perception

Tina: On a fundamental level we are all psychogeographers, whether we realise it or not, as we all respond, in an aesthetic and psychological way, to urban space – even if we do not consciously acknowledge or recognise that. However, in practical terms a psychogeographical walk would have to have some qualities that are beyond a ‘Sunday stroll’ or a walk ‘down the High Street’ to be called ‘psychogeography’.

  • psychogeographical practice inhabits the territory of metaphysical exploration of the intersection between place, human activity (historical and modern), psychological reaction and the natural world; more specifically liminal spaces, often in an urban or edgeland context away from the familiar and the well-trodden; practitioners root out the places that are overlooked, neglected or invisible to the casual eye
  • psychogeography has generally been seen as urban in focus; in some ways almost anti-rural, certainly uninterested in the conventionally sublime or aesthetically pleasing aspects of the countryside
  • such an approach can be prey to easy caricature as the haunt of earnest devotees seeking out and eulogising the most desolate and God-forsaken urban spaces, however it provides a fresh way to read and interpret geographical space and bring together normally disparate subject matter
  • any spatial entity is equally ripe for psychogeographical enquiry – you can get lost or absorbed in a place or landscape anywhere, seemingly everyday places and spaces almost always have intriguing layers and depth to them, whether urban or rural
  • these place-connections can help us find the wonder in our own surroundings – whether historical, political, ecological or something more spiritual or spectral
  • cf ‘deep topography’, an inclusive and expansive way of describing the sorts of approaches to place we are discussing here, our human response to the places we encounter, often with a lot of personal disclosure (also seen in ‘new nature writing’); it could be argued that this element has become somewhat over-egged…
  • Debord noted the term had a ‘pleasing vagueness’, relating well to how a walk or derive can open up, a sense of looseness and following of unexpected turnings, rather than progressing along a planned route, following signs and the like, with a pleasing tension between a natural urge to know where you are, where you are going – to follow the map – and losing yourself in exploring the moment; a sense of wonder, engaging with the unexplained when least expected
  • writers let a place imprint itself on them rather than the other way around; certain elements can resurface in the mind after you have left a place; by not trying too hard you sometimes discover more, it is a different way of looking at a place; almost actively passive

Greil Marcus: To encounter the unknown facets of the known, astonishment on the terrain of boredom, and innocence in the face of experience.

what is psychogeography?

the short version, via the LRM

Q2: the art/practice of noticing

  • how is ‘noticing’ different from seeing? what are the skills one uses to notice? are there special terms or language used for this kind of experience?
  • looking and looking again – a process of walking through the street which you might know well but using the active process of noticing; transcending the everyday walk into something with an active structure, a deliberate exploration of the space and how it affects the creative mind; the key is adding a structure, so not just looking but looking at the process of how you look
  • various levels of ‘noticing’ – zooming in…on a detail others would drift by, zooming out…a sense of a bird’s eye view looking down on the space (your own internal GPS) to locate yourself in the larger view; then later at home you might realise or discover something else about the space – that is three levels of noticing to start with
  • the repeated journey – how the person connects with the place through which they are moving which brings ’emotional content’, sense data causing mini explosions on our inner map; walking meditation

I strongly dislike it when I have my compass withdrawn by being in a new place and do not having an immediate mapping inside. I am much happier when I know which way is ‘up’. Generally, orientation, for me, starts with an overlay of compass points, and then I need water and or hills and or stations and or monuments (tall buildings, trees, distinct geographical markers, which might be something I, personally, find salient, or might be a wider thing. Usually both, but I have no problem remembering, for example, when in Munich, I am near Max Weber Platz because I think it is AMAZING that an underground station should be named after a sociologist.

  • certain names give you an impression of a walk, for example when places are named after writers; estates and shops designed by the post-war modernists often had sculptures, giving access to art to those who might never visit a gallery, or buildings which could be viewed as sculptural shapes, looking at the everyday in a sculptural way
  • walks which follow the same route during different seasons of the year; collect artifacts and record impressions; the key is to ‘notice’ using numerous senses; the visual stimulants in a given season may not be as pronounced as smells or sounds, or weather
  • looking with a photographer’s eye (artist’s eye, the mindful eye), seeing things in a different light, at different times, means that the relationship with the space evolves,
  • noticing as multi-sense oriented, ie sense-walking, Victoria Henshaw‘s smell-walking
  • we don’t just see the things we’ve been conditioned to see, but make the effort to look and notice for ourselves in a creative way; to experience the city, to construct our own mental map of it, we have to walk its streets looking and exploring; wandering at random, letting the city impress itself upon you – it’s a two way street (pardon the pun) actively practising ‘noticing’ whilst being open to ‘letting’ the fresh imprint land on the mind to shape the mental map
  • memory palaces, dioramas and panoramas also spring to mind
  • the act of noticing is absent in most experiences of place as one is always trying ‘to get somewhere’ and so one’s mind is busy, eg ” I had driven by it every day, and never ‘seen’ it.” Later you mind find out more about what you have seen (the layers again – curation?)
  • but there’s a danger of consciously going out to ‘notice’ stuff rather than submit to the experience and find whatever passes over you – sometimes you might not realise what that experience has been till much later
  • a way to take the pressure off is to take photos and just snap away at anything that catches your eye – trying to make it as spontaneous as possible
  • if you are looking to ‘notice’ something specific for research then that is a different thing – more of a survey, eliminating the random and searching for a trace of a something in particular; targeted looking/noticing

The beauty of a practice that is basically walking and looking and using your imagination is that you can bring whatever it is that you *do* know about to it, and then when talking about it you use your terms of reference, and then in the conversation whoever you are talking to uses theirs, and in that way the conversation is a journey of its own, creating, perhaps, a new glossary as it goes along.

Q3: the flâneur

  • Baudelaire adapted the term flâneur, the male stroller of the city who took the position of a passive and detached observer of urban phenomena; the flâneur of 19th century Paris was usually considered to be bourgeois, or at least independently wealthy, and most likely a writer of sorts, often a dandy
  • the first flâneur appeared in Baudelaire’s 1863 text The painter of modern life, providing Walter Benjamin with material for The Arcades Project
  • today’s flâneur is as flexible and undefinableas today’s psychogeographer, eg the LRM’s Morag Rose calls herself an anarcho-flaneuse, carrying out a feminist flanerie in urban space, oriented in queer theory and challenging structures of power

John Rogers:  I think the flaneur is a bit of a detour. I see them as modernist poets flouncing around in the countryside slurping down absinthe. Aimless drifters. Whereas the Situationists were revolutionaries – there was nothing aimless in their drifts – they wanted to transform everyday life (so they said anyway). However having a wander around in the city gazing at the rooftops is a lovely pursuit in its own right.

Q4: recording psychogeographic journeys – travel writing and more

  • travel writing and psychogeography are not clearly delineated fields, although individuals tend to prefer one term over another; works can be filed in various places in bookshops; sort-of-travel books are usually shelved with actual travel books
  • the methods of recording walks are as broad as the term psychogeography; with social networking and blogging a whole new raft of psychogeographers have been brought to the fore who did not have a voice before; opensource software and GIS have enabled creative walkers to trace their walks and present them in new and exciting cartographic ways
  • is there really a need for a different class of writing? although the idea of a psychogeographic version of a Fodor’s guide is an intriguing one
  • there are certain principles in psychogeography which are absent in traditional travel writing narratives, which often have the goal of going from point a to b with planning and intention; the point here is to offer tools which deepen the travel writing narrative or allow it to come into fruition in new ways
  • a lot of travel writing does involve going from point a to b with planning and intention, but there is a lot of fine travel writing / writing about places which mainly has to do with ‘going with the flow’ or ‘hanging out’ in an interesting place
  • Perec talks about his bedroom and so on – our explorations, after all, are housed in our bodies and work their way out from our inhabited spaces before we ever set foot on a pavement

The best writers seem to be able to both allow themselves to experience a space with fresh eyes whilst also having a process where they can approach a place with a frame of mind which might enable them to capture something different, something others may not have picked up, almost like they are feeling the different layers of time in a place, some parts of which might only reveal themselves much later when writing about it.

  • Lawrence Durrell practised the art of ‘silent identification’ while sitting with his eyes closed and his senses open in the ruins of Delphi, which he describes in his essay The spirit of place; passage from Wordsworth’s Preface to the lyrical ballads, discussing the elaboration of common things and situations through a certain coloring of the imagination to freshen our experience of them, plus his idea about ‘spots of time’, those luminous moments of being which writers snatch out of the dark
  • when we sit down to write about a place, or about anything, we are often surprised to discover how much we do remember, how much we did pick up, and how many sensations and impressions of the atmosphere we have retained without our conscious knowledge; Italo Calvino’s unconscious and remembrance of place

In most modern psychogeographic writing two key features differ quite dramatically from the work produced by the average travel writer; a strong contrarian streak, an attitude that draws writers to ignore the obvious places that people write about and focus instead on the parts of our cities and other landscapes that are unloved and ignored, the margins, very often the places they walk to from their own front door; it’s as if they’re trying to find the extraordinary in the ordinary; the second is a mixing of forms, a blurring of boundaries, merging autobiography, topography, history, myth, fiction, natural history and travelogue.

  • travel writing has many forms, too, but since it is attached to consumption and commercial narratives and other such things, it (can) lack these qualities; the best so-called travel writing has also always adoped this polymath appproach, for instance the work of Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin
  • quote from Benjamin’s essay: flaneurs prefer  “the scent of a single weathered threshold or the touch of a single tile – that which any old dog carries away” to princely palaces
  • the political angle underpinning writing and practice that might fall under the psychogeographical umbrella, eg issues of land ownership, the tensions between public and private space, trespass, gentrification, displacement of local populations and amenities by corporate or statist development, the list goes on…at a time when walking in certain places and photographing certain buildings can get one into trouble with the authorities, people who like to wander often get an up-close insight into state and corporate power
  • walking in Africa you switch gears and must think like an animal, be attuned to wildlife behavior; in very tangible ways you must resort to a primitive self, and you relate to this landscape as the place where humans began to walk upright
  • walking in Italy or New York I ponder the pentimento effect; this street was something else (a canal) hundreds of years ago, or the lawn was a pasture for sheep; in NYC I walk along streets where I used to live or dine and remember the shops or restaurants long gone, stroll around Grand Central and celebrate that it is no longer filthy; I also explored New York from the waterfront, sailing up and down the Hudson, cruising around Manhattan; it’s like flying; you get a completely different perspective
  • Tina: An Englishwoman in LA: “I was surprised at how different it was to the UK. I had to learn all the rules of being a pedestrian, which were very different to the UK. I think its unsympathetic pedestrian policies made it more exciting.”
  • psychogeography as the study of the many layered connections between  our environment and our psyche, as the deep inner maps we make of the places where we live and transit, in which real experiences mingle with ones imagined, desired, or dreamed
  • do we sometimes connect to a space in a different way once we know the reasoning behind a design? the initial pleasure Walter Benjamin experienced on wandering down a Paris boulevard took on a different perspective once he discovered that Baron Haussmann had designed them with the purpose of moving troops at speed and making it harder for dissenting residents to raise barricades; maybe that it why it is sometimes good to explore a place once without knowing the thinking behind the design and then revisit it with that in mind (layers; the issue with guided walks)
  • generally we inhabit our space without noticing its multiple effects on us; part of the pleasure of exploring places is bound up in learning to see, sense, and read them from many different perspectives
  • the old idea of the genius loci, or governing spirit of location – sites themselves have an indestructible, indwelling spirit or energy that produces certain patterns in life processes taking place there at all levels from the behavior of a single cell to a society; this energy works on most of us at the subliminal level, but it can be also be directed and manipulated for certain ends
  • cognitive or vernacular maps, desire maps, eg Mapping Manhattan
  • gardens as mini representations of the conquered world, displays of power; the ‘world as exhibition’, eg the Paris Exhibition and the World’s Fairs

Q5: mapping

  • maps drawn by hand after or during a walk can yield interesting results, particularly when annotated: what did they smell, feel, hear? people drawing maps can be further enriched by reflecting on their experience
  • Christian Nold’s bio mapping and emotional cartography are also interesting: what is your body saying during your experience? senses are key, see Wendy MacNaughton’s map of Dolores Park and video on drawing on psychogeography
  • maps represent ownership and power: those who control the maps we use exercise a great deal of power over the way we see the world; when we create our own maps we take back some of that power, important at a time when so much of our urban public space is being privatised
  • practical utility in an emotional map, eg for property sales, walkability, sense of a place etc
  • a visual picture of a journey can have more weight than just opening a commercial map or guidebook, see eg Katie Kowalski’s World mapped as pop art and Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will
  • combine approaches into a multi-layer map so you could see the cityscape, the bio readings, and the personal annotations, a different form of writing that slices through the various levels of experience in an accessible way
  • maps are the artifacts of a psychogeographic exploration as much as a guidebook for travel, a form of curation (ha!)

The Yerba Buena map – by using an old 1847 map and annotations, I can stand by the Transamerica Pyramid and realize that waves from the bay would be lapping at my feet, that there are only a dozen or so buildings on the hillside behind me. Then realize that within 7 years, the shoreline would have moved much closer to what it is today. Now I have a new perception of that place. I can never see it the same way again. That’s what mapping and other reporting can do, invite others to re-envision a place.

  • can the maps created by the Situationists as a consequence of doing dérives be used by a third party to trace the original experience? most are more of a philosophical statement than a means to relive their experience; a number of more recent efforts attempt it, and Rebecca Solnit’s INFINITE CITY falls somewhere in the middle
  • Tina: I would use the umbrella term ‘vernacular maps’ for the maps produced by psychogeographers, although the form they take is multiple; they can be emotional maps (Christian Nold), based on a Situationist model (cut-outs) or highly stylised and made in Photoshop; with the use of new technologies they can also involve GIS
  • does psychogeography apply to non-urban landscapes? the focus seems almost exclusively to be on cities, towns and other human developed spaces (ie nature writing not psychogeog); be guided purely by your senses and your internal GPS/emotions – there are ways to begin a psychogeographic journey which would apply to anywhere; there are plenty of opportunities to wander, as Robert MacFarlane does for example, across the countryside
  • Wikipedia: Psychogeography is an approach to geography that emphasizes playfulness and “drifting” around urban environments. This makes sense, as the Situationist movement is very much anti-consumerist, which is not very relevant outside of an urban landscape.
  • in terms of the flaneur being drawn in a direction or directed by the senses, that’s certainly possible anywhere, however it should be a concentrated effort of rediscovery, which also is possible in more remote places but more necessary and profound in a dense urban area
  • that said, we should always try to discover the new in the familiar, whether it’s a city street, a river valley, or a friend; many photographers photograph an area repeatedly, from a slightly different angle, different lighting, etc – finding the thing(s) hidden in plain sight is the payoff

Wild places are political, radical and storied, urban neighbourhoods drip with rich ecosystems, flora and fauna; we really need to get over any outdated binary divide between urban and rural; drift and get lost wherever your feet take you.

Q6: tools and apps:

  • if psychogeography is wandering, why would an app be useful? is wandering directed, if not, can it be both?
  • a false dichotomy – cf using a map of one city to navigate another city – that map is a tool. An app is a tool. Because of using a tool, it’s possible to meander with even less of a preconceived, or unknowingly hidden, agenda. Think of a metronome. A metronome is a tool for musicians to keep the rhythm. Now consider a metronome that purposely and continuously is out of step. Now consider a mobile app that does exactly that in relation to exploring an urban environment.
  • an app or a map is a way to keep time, keep track, or somehow set out a pattern; do apps give a way to plot points or craft a grid of some kind?
  • typically, m/apps streamline; Google Maps easily tells you the easiest route from A to B, but what if an app obstructs taking the obvious route and has you discover your surroundings as a consequence?
  • it’s not about the tool/app, it’s about how you use it – you could use an app/map to keep track of the routes you’ve already traveled and make sure you’re going somewhere new every time
  • what if, instead of the most direct route from A to B, you want to go the most fragrant route? or the quietest? alternate ways to navigate and experience a place, a navigational guide tailored to a variety of needs, desires, etc
  • a number of apps have popped up over the past few years that provide contextual information for given places as you walk, pulling you into certain areas because you’ve been alerted that there’s info about a particular spot; the danger is that you become so focused on the spots that you miss everything else
  • geocaching apps and challenges – having a guiding tool and a purpose doesn’t hurt the experience one bit, since they are still getting lost on directions that come from someone else; it’s a bit like the suggestion above of using the map of a different city, you’re allowing yourself to see the route through another’s eyes
  • techniques such as walking x blocks before turning then walking another x blocks, alternating when I turn left or right, starting on a street starting with “A” and going in alphabetical order as much as possible, using a bingo style card of things you need to spot: something yellow, a sculpture, a brick house, etc. then letting that guide when and where you vary the route (fortunately I seem to have an uncanny ability to get lost without any help)

Q7: photography and video

  • photography – the use of reflections, giving the viewer a conflated view of two or more places and altering the perspective, forcing the viewer to look at a given place in new ways
  • explore a place with all your senses and place no expectations on it – just let the place be without insisting that it deliver any certain type of experience – that’s when the place reveals its nuances and you can capture its essence in a way that a commercial effort usually can’t

Honor your desire to wander. The level of focus and appreciation you develop while genuinely exploring benefits the people in your life – you become more interested and maybe even a little bit more interesting. That level of focus also contributes to improving the quality of the work you do whatever your profession might be.  A flaneur may sometimes appear to be “wasting time” but in fact important inner work is taking place – savoring life.

  • Tina used a Microsfoft sensecam and a Lomography camera on a collaborative project on the British seaside, Reading the Arcades/Reading the Promenades, eg on a  cheeky little psychogeographic walk down the High Street of the coastal town of Hunstanton: Hello! From Hunstanton
  • psychogeography suggests the ‘found object’ of art making – I used to post a lot of pictures of stuff on the ground, or things that seemed to me to make a gallery of the street, whether intentional or ideally unintentional; see mixed in with documentations of actual street art my ‘finds’: citynoise.org/author/elaine

Q8: psychogeography and identity

  • psychogeography as an expression of identity – attached to political ideas; social or anti-social; identifying with certain movements such as feminism, expressing some kind of personal quest or liberation
  • did the practice change or expand the way you see yourself, or the way you relate to a group or idea; how did these connections come into being?
  • Debord saw psychogeography as an anti-consumerist movement – see The Society of the Spectacle
  • by avoiding the beaten path, you’re putting your focus not on the obvious subjects around you, such as typically consumerist symbols (big billboards, store fronts, etc; Danish things…); by doing a dérive you are anti-consumerist by design
  • Debord suggested that, through the derive and other practices, we can develop a way of experiencing the city that is not defined by consumerism or the commodification of our relationships, taking us to the point he called detournment, the turning round of our consciousness
  • writing the body person – I have become chronically ill and can’t ignore it; I’ve been blogging and taking photos in the city since I got ill, it made sense since I’ve always written diaries, and walked; see The Pleasure Bath

Q9: psychogeography and exploration

  • are psychogeographers acting as an explorer in some way? are the environments you find truly the last undiscovered territories? could psychogeography change the genre of travel writing by changing the object of exploration?
  • I am using the word “explorer” for lack of a better word, but it could also be “adventurer” although this doesn’t necessarily have the same connotations of “discovery”. I note “explorer” can be an antiquated term,  attached to certain misconceptions, but for others, it is positive term. 
  • Will Self called psychogeography “the great means we have to actually explore“; anyone could go to a remote indigenous community, but few people can really see the mouth of the Thames river
  • the idea that the world has been seen, discovered, explored almost to the maximum is particularly poignant to the travel writer, who is actively searching for that ‘exploration’ experience, as well as ways to stretch the limits of the genre
  • Tina: I have a slight problem with the term ‘explorer’ due to its colonial connotations – the same goes for some of UrbExing, a lot of which could be described as the domination of space ‘via the phallus’; aside from that, Sinclair talks about this idea of discovery in an article he wrote in the Guardian called ‘Secret Britain’: “These sites, come upon by accident, prick our imagination, provoke reverie” (2009)
  • remember ‘urban orienteering’? implies mapping but doesn’t have an imperialist slant
  • Gertrude Stein wrote after revisiting Oakland and discovering her childhood home was gone: “I find no there there in my hometown; there is no school, no grocery store, no gas station, main street is a ghost town, but for my memoirs I hope to reconstruct it. Researching the landscape has been a wonderful meander into features I did not appreciate when I was young.”
  • Debord’s famous Class War Games
  • geocaching can lead into the experiences to which psychogeography aspires; also Phil Cousineau’s approach of a pilgrimage to drive exploration or experience – you start out looking for one thing and find something else entirely; a true denouement

Finally…

I believe at its heart psychogeography (however you define it) is about
O sharing the hidden stories of our streets and the people who have lived and struggled here
O understanding the hidden power struggles that shape our lives
thinking about who controls space, who uses it and who doesn’t and why
O (re)mapping and (re)imaging where we wander
O respecting the many diverse communities who make our homes what they are
O starting conversations, having a good time and reclaiming the streets for more than shopping