If you’ve never heard of psychogeography before, I’m not surprised. It’s a personal practice for most people, and they do it out of curiosity.
The practice of psychogeography has been around since 1955, when Guy Debord and the Situationist Philosophy movement began to experiment with walking through the streets of Paris. As they wandered aimlessly along the streets, they made notes about how they felt with each new encounter. Architecture, streets, corners, they allowed every aspect of the city of Paris to seep into their thoughts, so they could examine them.
The main interest in psychogeography is to walk through a city without an aim. To experience the city, or village, without intentions of going anywhere in particular. For the situationists, this served as a protest against the ever growing pressure of modern city life.
You can begin to practice psychogeography immediately. All you need to do is to go out, and begin walking through your city without wanting to go anywhere in particular. It’s not hard, or complicated. It is effective and leads to interesting walks and discoveries.
The lack of a goal or aim will ensure that you don’t beak a sweat and fall into bad habits of making up ideas about going to look at something. It’s much more about what you feel when you encounter new objects in the street.
What we feel about where we live is of importance to our health. If we can determine how we react to our environment, we can learn to choose better places to live in.
Feelings can be fleeting, but when they are repeated daily by encountering the same structures, the same streets, and seeing the same behaviour in our environment, feelings soon develop into deeper emotions that affect our psyche deeply.
Psychogeography helps us to actively seek out better places to dwell, and to enjoy the environments that make us feel good about life, ourselves and the place we call home.
When we become aware of our environment by walking aimlessly through city streets, we will naturally look for the good things. That way, we discover things that we normally pass by too quickly.
Neighbourhoods that experience the problem of noise, the late night life causing people to drink too much, and hang out on the street talking loudly, can become a permanent stress factor in the lives of residents. It can make people feel trapped. But if you take a positive step outwards and gently traverse the streets, you give your mind the opportunity to see that there is more to the neighbourhood than late night drunks and noise.
These days. Many cities are being redeveloped. Unfortunately, a lot of that development and its planning is falling into the hands of private corporations, who develop shopping zones as places for people to live in. Hardly a solution to finding the places of the heart that make living in a neighbourhood enjoyable.
Places of the heart are those special places in a city that make you feel better. A place to sit and think, or a park to walk through and feel safe from traffic and unfriendly people. City planners know how to build these places. There have been enough studies done which include real humans to determine what makes a pleasant place to live, and what causes fear and anxiety in a person.
The problem for city planners is, they don’t want to build cities where people just work and live in peace, they want cities where people work, spend money, then go home and spend more money on the internet. They aren’t sure how to do this and make it a pleasant, worry free experience for dwellers, so they just keep building shopping centres, malls, filling streets out with oversized supermarkets and hope that people will get used to it.
Psychogeography helps you to bypass this visual noise, and rediscover the nooks and crannies of a city. The human mind has powerful ways to protect itself from visual noise, from unpleasant sights and sounds by deleting, generalising, and distorting what it sees.
When we are rushed because of the pressures of the day, we tend to rely on this ability to generalise what we encounter in order to keep things simple, and to deal with daily life the best we can.
In other words, we miss out on a lot of good stuff because of it. Psychogeography, which can mean that we purposefully slow down and allow the mind to engage with aspects that we would normally hastily push away, gives us enough mental space to experience more positive feelings that the process of mental curiosity allows.
Walking is a powerful way to combat stress. Neither walking with intentions of finding anything, nor looking for anything purposefully, is also a wonderful way to truly allow curiosity to take over our thoughts and show us a new aspect to our thinking.
Curiosity will lead the way.
There are many ways to practise psychogeography, you have to find out for yourself, mostly. Just go out and walk along the streets, take note of how you feel about things that you see. If you allow curiosity to arise and lead the way, you will discover that your mind becomes more focused on objects that you may not have noticed before. You shouldn’t force anything about your walks. Just walk.
The dérive is a word that describes the act of drifting. Guy Debord found it essential that the psychogeographer abandon all thoughts of intent, and drift their way through the city in order to fully experience it.
Normally, when a person goes for a walk, or a stroll, they can easily end up walking in one direction, but allow their mind to meander in the other direction. Naturally, they will experience the most pressing thoughts of the day. Worry follows the unwary wanderer.
I like to think that to drift, and to keep your thoughts outwards, and focused on the environment helps to ensure that you forget about what you left at home, and really do begin to discover what is directly in front of you. The next corner to turn.
Heading along a street, examining buildings, feeling the flow of the people, the architecture, noticing how doorways seem to be constructed with elaborate ideals so that they fit the building, and the people who walk through them. A doorway is similar to a street corner. It holds a little mystery about what’s on the other side. This can create a feeling of wanting to enter and pass through. The ancient symbology of a doorway, is the portal to another dimension. A spiritual threshold that will cause a change in any person who walks through it.
Think about when a person enters a church. How do they feel? Or when you are man-handled into a police station in handcuffs, a massive change happens. Doorways have serious consequences for your health and peace of mind. It’s no wonder that architects take the design of a doorway seriously, carpenters love building them. People enjoy living behind well constructed doorways that ensure only those with the authority, password, or correct invitation enter. It makes them feel safe.
A street corner has similar qualities. You can’t say what might be around the corner. Curiosity will drive the drifter along to investigate. You don’t need permission to turn a corner, only curiosity.
Studies concerning how people live, and what makes a good place to live, show that main streets that are too long, and therefore have few side streets, are problematic for the resident’s sense of security. Three or four blocks of rowed houses is enough to cause a feeling that there’s no proper exit from the main street, so people became anxious about being locked into a complex of buildings. Side streets and corners create security, and a sense of exploration that piques curiosity.
A neighbourhood must be a curious place. This is what creates atmosphere, and the desire to walk around and explore.
Think of streets close to your home. Which ones haven’t you explored? How do you feel when you pass a street corner, and look into the side street and wonder what’s at the end of it? The feelings that arise are what drives the drifting pyschogeographer.
The flaneur would immediately follow instinct and wander off into the side street to find out what’s there. A psychogeographer, or flaneur, are basically the same animal. The benefits of both practices are the same outcome.
Iain Sinclair, a writer and psychogeographer wrote in his book, “London Orbital”:
I had to walk around London’s orbital motorway; not on it, but within what the Highways Agency calls the ‘acoustic footprints’. The soundstream. Road has replaced river. The M25 does the job of the weary Thames, shifting contraband, legal and illegal cargoes, offering a picturesque backdrop to piracy of every stamp.
Walking without an aim can often be a way to clear the mind of oppressive thoughts of how the city development puts commercialism at the forefront of everybody’s mind. Constant media reports on the achievements of business and city planners building yet another shopping centre, or redeveloping an IT complex, can make you feel as if you live in a commercial bubble.
To walk and to know what you are looking at can help you escape this bubble. A myth about your city created by media reports. The histories and the mythologies of a city offer rich thinking for the mind.
I can walk through my city and discover places that hold memories of “human acts”. These acts were reported many years before in newspapers. A small street behind the Neue National Gallerie, in Berlin, Stauffenberg Strasse, is simply a small road, hardly used and leads to no place particular. But when you know that the execution of five German officers who attempted to assassinate Hitler, was carried out in a courtyard in that street, it helps you to reflect on real people of the past. Not the gruesome act of execution by firing squad, but the integrity of five men who never doubted their motives, and stood by their beliefs till the very end. They took the bullet for humanity’s sake.
Cities are nothing without people. People bring life to its structures, and the ever changing streets. Traders and vendors, artist street acts, buskers, and locals, come and go. But they do leave their mark, and with it the ghost of their presence can linger for years afterwards.
It’s the lingering memories that create urban myths. The history books create conflict that a myth needs in order to perpetuate it as a living history.
A favourite place of mine, in Berlin, is Potsdamer Platz. When I walk through this comparatively new area of Berlin, I see the past.
The people involved in building the various buildings. On one side a centre for cafes and restaurants was approved, the city planners refused any plans for a shopping mall. But as the project developed, the financiers and private developers managed to dupe the city into believing a bowling alley would be built. It soon became clear that a shopping mall was being built without permission. Imagine the human conflict, the arguments, and the risks that people took to realise their dream project. A drama occurred right there on the biggest building site in Europe.
Otto Beisheim paid for his part of the project with cash. Three very interesting buildings that, for me, appear as if they belong to the 1940s city style. Superman could fly past these buildings, and it would be fitting. The thought that a single person can finance a project so big, and still have plenty of cash to live life like a king, makes the mind boggle.
In 1990, Roger Waters, from Pink Floyd, held the concert, “The Wall”, where the Berlin Wall once stood. The land was surveyed in preparation, and a series of secret tunnels was discovered close to the remains of Hitler’s bunker.
Psychogeography is for drifters, people who love to make sense of their environment by gathering the rays of thoughts, and the vibrations that emanate from the streets and buildings. It is as much about the ghosts of the past, as it is about the potential of the present moment. It is always an experience that is led by curiosity, and combines well with what is said about a place, what is known about a place.
Psychogeography is always an experiment. It is not an act of the will, it is for the curious soul that must release the mind from the boxed in life of city dwelling.