Psychogeography – the art of the derive
Psychogeography – discover the art of the derive, with psychogeography exercises to help you get started
Ever felt drawn to strange old warehouses or puzzled over why everyone looks like a robot on their way to work? With the aid of a few helpful exercises Mookychick shows you the semi-occult art of psychogeography – finding out how the environment you live in shapes the way you think. Becoming a psychogeographer is as easy as studying graffiti and poking your nose where it doesn’t belong…
Okay. Ever felt drawn to abandoned buildings? Ever had a favourite spot in a park? Ever moved into a new house and wondered who’s lived there before and if they were happy there? Ever felt uncomfortable in the city district with its huge skyscrapers? Ever felt like you’re in a science fiction film when you take the subway?
The chances are you’re already a psychogeographer. Guy Debord described psychogeography as ‘the study of specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals” in the first issue of Situationniste Internationale (1958).
He was talking about the way humans shape their environment, but also how the environment shapes humans.
You know how it is. How you can pick up vibes from a place you’ve never been to before, and feel it’s a good or a bad place. This could be to do with the structure of a building, from a dark history of the area you’ve intuited… all sorts of things.
Psychogeographical techniques – The ‘Derive’ (‘drifting’ in French)
The best way to do a bit of psychogeography is just to mosey around with no pre-planned expectations. This is called going on a derive, or urban drifting. Let yourself be delighted by something new! Get to know a place in a different way than you did before, and remember that difference.
So if you go on a derive – that is, a gentle walk with the aim to discover something new about your area – try to find patterns where there aren’t any. look out for graffiti, words on shop-signs and posters. Talk to local people, and take plenty of photos. You could even try lomography, or the art of taking photos with a little toy camera which may not even have a viewfinder to frame what you see. It’s photography with intuition and spontaneity at its core, perfectly suited to a psychogeographical derive. The lomo motto? “Don’t Think. Just Shoot.”
Why take up an interest in psychogeography? Well, there are lots of reasons. You can do it on your own, you don’t have to join a group. You can’t be wrong – the worst that might happen is you might change your mind. And it’s important – how you behave every day shapes you. If you switch off and become a robot on your way to work or school like everyone else seems to, you’re wasting your day. Why not take a deep look around you instead?
When you apply psychogeographic techniques to explore your environment, you’re looking around you with open eyes. You’re seeing layers of information in otherwise dullsville surroundings. You’re making up stories for yourself, and you’re thinking. And you’ve acquired a new sexy-hot title – Psychogeographer!
Psychogeographic Derive – Exercise 1 – The Graffiti Derive
Set aside an afternoon and go somewhere safe and consumerist, like the hippest part of town wherever you live. But remember, you’re not there to do shopping. You can do exercises like this alone or with an interested friend. But with two of you the desire for shopping will automatically increase – so no shopping until the derive is over!
Your task for this adventure is to set yourself a time limit then spend the next couple of hours wandering around, noting down any graffiti you find, both by writing it in a notepad and taking photographs of it. This means that you’re not looking where consumerist society wants you to look – you know, at shops or billboards, the usual suspects. Screw that. Find yourself exploring bus stops, public toilets and sidestreets. Go to the places that are invisible when you’re purely focused on shopping. Notice all the things you’re not meant to see as a good little citizen – the cctv cameras, the drunks, the strange little hang-outs and alleyways.
When you’ve finished, treat yourself by going and buying something tiny and pointless and pretty, or even the pair of shoes you’ve had your eye on for so long, or buying a drink and sitting down outside in a cafe or little park, and really enjoy your consumerist moment – you’ve poked into the inner workings of the invisible city, so you’ve earned your Coke! Collect all your photographs and stick them in a scrapbook labelled Soho / Times Square / Blah / whatever your hip shopping district is called. You’ll be surprised at how much satisfaction and meaning you getting from collecting such unglamorous photos.
Psychogeography has many different branches and factions, many of whom fight with each other. In-fighting among psychogeographic groups is just playground tactics. It really doesn’t matter because they’re all on the right track and just approaching things from different angles. Yes, the geography of a landscape shapes the way people think – and it does this in a host of different ways that it’s up to you to find.
There are occult ways of looking at your surroundings. For example, you may have heard of ley lines – invisible lines of power that some people say dissect the earth. You can look into dowsing to find ley lines in your area and see if they affect it in any way – does a road lie directly on a ley line? Are there many buildings of importance all in a line where you live? If so, there could be a scientific explanation, or there could be a ley line. Or buildings might be designed with symbolism – squares suggest power and groundedness, circles represent eternity and calmness, triangles represent energy and stimulation… you’d be surprised how often shapes appear in architecture for a symbolic reason. For example, there is a Chinese bank in the financial district of London that has triangular points coming out of it in all directions – and the bank admits these were intended as ‘poison arrows’ to negatively affect the feng shui of rival banks in the area and get them to have worse business. Hey, if even super-straight banks are into psychogeography, then it can’t be that nutsy!
There are also social ways of looking at the world around you. If you live in a city, that’s a huge amount of people in one place – and obviously anyone in power is going to want to control those people rather than have them riot. So a city has a mass of different ways to get everyone to do stuff safely, without hurting each other, at the same time… think of walkways, traffic lights… so many signs to tell you how to behave and what to do that half the time you don’t even notice them. Looking out for these signs is a completely different way of looking at how a city is designed compared to occult studies of symbolism, but both of them are fascinating.
And you can discover this stuff for yourself – and you don’t need a huge amount of research to start doing it.
Psychogeographic Derive – Exercise 2 – The Freedom to Sit Derive
Again, go to the hippest part of town. This exercise is partly to answer the question – does a materialist society actually want you to sit down? After all, if you sit down, you’re not buying anything. But if you have been a bit of a shopaholic, then sitting down will give you the energy to get up again and go buy some more! Again, there’s no right or wrong answer, especially because all towns are different – it’s up to you to find out more.
Set aside an hour to find places in the hippest / busiest part of town where you could sit and enjoy the scene without buying or doing anything, if you wanted to. Look out for walls at a comfortable height, public benches, little public gardens, cafe areas. Whatever you can find.
If you see a perfect spot in a busy place that appears to be empty with no-one taking advantage of it, sit down in it and look around. Why do you think none of the passers-by have taken advantage of your amazing spot? Is it that your so-called ‘amazing’ spot actually smells of wee and you hadn’t noticed it before, or is it something else? How do people seem to treat you now you’ve sat down in this perfect public sitting space? Any different? Do they notice you more than they would if you were just walking around like they are?
If you find some spots where people ARE sitting down – public benches, little gardens, walls, bus stops, parks – take a look at them. What kind of people are they? Poor? Rich? What are their expressions? Are they sitting down for a purpose (exhaustion, waiting for a bus) or for fun? How are they behaving compared with people walking around? Jot down any thoughts you have about the people using these public sitting places in your notebook.
Whenever you go on a derive, always take a notebook. You’ll end up having surprising thoughts, going off on a tangent – and forgetting them immediately. Any notes you get – descriptions of people, ideas about how your city is used, amazing graffiti you found – all these thoughts are your own, not taught you by anyone. So they’re precious. Whether they’re for song lyrics, an art project or just a bit of a self-journey – an internal derive – you’ll be glad you had them one day.
Find out more about psychogeography
Iain Sinclair made a documentary and a book called Orbital, where he and friends walk around a motorway that rings London called the M25. Like Ballard, he is interested in no-man’s land (like you get around motorways) and how humans and nature actually fill that space that isn’t meant to be filled with anything. He has an occult slant on psychogeography…
Wilfried Hou Je Bek is a philosopher and psychogeographer from Amsterdam, Netherlands. Enjoys designing exercises for psychogeographers to practise.
Alan Moore is a comics writer who created a very weird and wonderful (and at times terrifying) comic called ‘From Hell’, that later got made into a film. In this graphic novel he provides an occult answer to the identity of Jack the Ripper and talks a lot about how architects who were into the cult of freemansonry used magical symbolism to affect people’s thoughts when building famous churches and buildings in and around London.
Stewart Home is a British fiction writer, subcultural pamphleteer, underground art historian, and activist. His stuff is very strong and dark but a huge body of his written work explores the idea that you can work the energy of the area around you to your own advantage.
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