Monthly Archives: February 2012
Even felt like a cog while following the directions down in the tube? Puzzled while trying to find your way to the jobcentre plus through Whitechapel’s backalleys? Feeling gloomy in Leyton’s endless grid of rotting Victorian houses bordering the olympic fence?
Architecture can be seen as a way of shaping the landscape according to the actual view of the ruling class in order to provide an aswer to issues such as overcrowding, security, welfare-state, power-display. The whole past of a city is represented on the same stage hand in hand with statements on possible futures. The 02 dome, the olympic retail park, the Battersea power station, Southbank’s centre, Southwark’s tube station, Barbican are some of the possible utopia/dystopia/nontopia on display. Monuments of intentions, displays of power, secret gardens, enclosed old-fashioned futures: they all are theatre stages that provide certain affordances and limitate others, fostering or inhiting pattern of behaviour, at least in the designer’s intention: no one can predict what will be the use for a places. Security measure must be taken not to allow aberrant decoding.
Psychogeography had various incarnations from 1955 when it was described by Guy Debord as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals”
1. Ante-litteram precursors were then found in William Blake’s London as an apocalyptical Jerusalem, the Parisienne flaneur endlessly strolling the arcades, Thomas De Quincy aimlessly drifting the streets in opium’s unreality. Psychogeography was soon forgotten by the situationistsas as soon as they got more serious about their political agenda, but it found followers in Paris and London alike as an useful critical tool to directly analyse the paths society and control were embarking on.
The first incarnation of the practice was the situationist “derive”: “a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.
One or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones. “
Psychogeography was soon forgotten by the situationists as as soon as they got more serious about their political agenda, but it found followers in Paris and London alike as an useful critical tool to directly analyse the paths society and control were embarking on.
In London the practice bastardized itself in a melting pot of Watkin’s leylines, Michael Moore’s architectural decoding and Ballardian paranoid social analysis. In modern times many has blown out the dust from the old situationist prank of psychogeography, re-adapting it as a subjective tool of analysis of the urban environment: Stewart Home’s psychogeographic society whose incomprehensible manifestos still haunt the web, Will Self who mainstreamed the term with a periodic column on the Independent, Patrick Keiller and the anti-cinema of London and Robinson in Ruins, Iain Sinclair who later on regretted to be labeled. Many had rejected the definition but still are somehow in the same zone: Nick Papadimitriou, James Graham Ballard, Peter Ackroyd to name some. Psychogeography has as many incarnation as the number of people approaching it.
Iain Sinclair narrows down the notion of derive proposing a practice more useful to a documentary approach:” [...] the concept of strolling, aimless uraban wandering, had been superseeded. We have moved into the age of the stalker; journeys made with intent – sharp-eyed and unsponsored. The stalker was our role model: purposed hiking, not dawdling, nor browsing.”
Through personal investigation he offers an alternative point of view on present day London, following traces of a past in danger of extinction (sometimes already lost), mapping cracks in the wall of progress, he incarnate an all-seeing eye that gives voice to broken communities telling alternative narration to the univocal ever-present broadcast message, finds cracks in the wall of progress with his cryptic and poetic style. His latest work, Ghost Milk is one of the few voices daring to raise concerns about the whole olympic project and the New Labour / New Order no-bullshit London 2012, its gated communities, endless shopping malls, paranoid security, a systematic obliteration of history in the name of redevelopment.
Then there is Laura Oldfield Ford: I discovered her through Savage Messiah, a recent collection of Xeroxed punk-zines she began to write in 2005 roaming liminal zones of the city at the limits of control, where deviants lifestyles can find their place barely intersecting with society. It is a punk account of rage and subcultures clashing with gentrification and the upper class conquer of once neglected zones of the city, suddenly profitable and ca-va-sans-dire elected for redevelopment as shopping centres or “yuppidrome”. It is a personal diary of drifts without a cause, sketched and photographed in bleak images of a desperate post-industrial present out of time: London 1977, London 2001, London 2013. The original fanzine was kind of monographic, every number a place: the Isle of Dogs, Heathrow, the lost River Fleet, the Lea Valley, cut-ups, collages, low-fi photography drip rage against a “financial friendly Sim-city” in behalf of spontaneous aggregation and new ways to inhabit the creepy ruins of the present. It can be seen as a survival guide to London, how to avoid the west-end, to find safe shelters and secret passages in industrial zones at night drinkin too much cheap wine, enjoing the view from a brutalist council block, outside: desert.
My examples can appear flawed: both Sinclair and Laura Oldfield Dern expressed discontent for the term psychogeography: in an interview with Ballardian Sinclair said: “[psychogeography] .. was reinvented into London with people like Stewart Home and the London Psychogeographical Association, who mixed those ideas with ideas of ley lines and Earth mysteries and cobbled it together as a provocation, and I took it on from that point. Now it’s just become this brand name for more or less anything that’s vaguely to do with walking or vaguely to do with the city. It’s a new form of tourism.“
For Laura: “I think a lot of what is called psychogeography now is just middle class men acting like colonial explorers, showing us their discoveries and guarding their plot.”
Psychogeographer, psychotic geographers, deep topographers, whatever .. trying to preserve the term to go mainstream keeps it alive in its manifold acceptions, preventing it from becoming the next fashionable slogan without a message. Better if it remains an individual unpredictable practice, an aid to establish personal points of view under the surface of the foregone narratives of the broadcast network.
“If we fail to . . . hammer out a mythology of our own, we are lost,”
1 Debord, A critique of urban geography, 1955
2 Debord, Internationale Situationniste #2
3 Sinclair, Light out the territory
4 Sinclair interviewed on “Ballardian” http://www.ballardian.com/iain-sinclair-when-in-doubt-quote-ballard
5 Laura Oldfield Ford, Savage Messiah introduction
6 Sinclair, Ghost Milk
I’ve never had any doubt about the truthfulness neither of Dante’s law of retaliation nor of the London’s law of retail. A couple of weeks ago I bought a copy of Iain Sinclair’s “Ghost Milk” about the olympic project and the redevelopment of Stratford. I’ve started reading it, fascinated by stories of the old east end, on the thin border between import export and black market, a wild pocket of chaos at the city’s doorstep, lunch-hours spent exploring the Lea valley and its hidden paths.
The day after my company called me to inform me that I was being relocated to work in Stratford. For Jesus and Mary’s sake. No excuses, no way to say no.
So now I’m wandering during the lunch-hours in the retail ziggurat of Westfield, strolling along the olympic fence and around the perimeter of the olympic village, looking at people passing by at the bus station, taking pictures that end-up being boring .. if you’re not into shopping there’s not much else the place can offer.
Let’s start from the Stratford Mall, linked with the Stratford City Shopping Centre by an iron gate. The first is something alike to a covered market: vegetables and fish stalls between fast-foods and retail chains, the free structure of a market place framed in a shopping centre: secure, monitored, organized. Outside the mall you can find the Stratford tube station, its polished mirrors reflecting the stripped plaza, toing and froing of shoppers and commuters, the bus station’s white circus tent, metallic parodies of trees growing from debris.
To reach the bridge you have to climb some stairs, slaloming through blond twins from Essex in matching black outfit and burka wearer with three kids. Then you can finally glimpse the solid shape of Westfield and the olympic melt Tour Eiffel rising from the railway sea, shiny like a a train crash. Huge LCDs and a few security guards belonging to different compaies (Westfield security, police, top dog .. Top Dog? Yes, Top Dog too) welcome the visitors. Just outside the overground station a notice inform me that the quickest way to the olympic park is finding my way through Westfield’s maze: OLYMPIC PARK: ENTER THE SHOPPING CENTRE GO UP TO THE NEXT FLOOR, WALK TO THE END OF THE SHOPPING CENTRE AND FOLLOW THE DIRECTION SIGNS”. Hell, be sure to bring an Ariadne’s bloody thread with you.
“Visit the street!” ” Taste the world” “Free massages!” Every sentence ending with an exclamationD mark.
Well, let’s visit “The Street”: M&S on the left, Westfield on the right, straight ahead a Samsung’s shop filled with LCD screens: will prove themselves helpful to watch the games less than 1/4 mile away from the stadium. Fake trees and flowing water’s sound from geometric black benches make a parody of the marshes they’re built on: ancient pagan rites, windmills and nuclear reactors. Prada, Tony & Guy, Fred Perry shops (FP’s advert feature a teenager in some abandoned tennis court relaxing under the sun: “tranquility is a natural cure”). An Holiday Inn provides shelter for the people who get lost in the mall, the street leaning on the stadium wears the colours of the olympic multiculturality: you can eat mexican, italian, japanese.
And then the stadium’s silhouette, and the Arcelormittar Orbit, the evil twin of the Tour Eiffel, already coloured in rusty red, respectfull with Albert Speer’s Ruinenwert theory: “a building should be designed such that if it eventually collapsed, it would leave behind aesthetically pleasing ruins”. Berlin, Summer 1936. The Arcelormittar is amazing: an aesthetically pleasing ruin straight from the box. It is a present from the ArcelorMittal company of the indian steel-tycoon Lakshmi Mittal: another brand in the olympus of the London topography in good company of O2 and Emirates Airline.
Behind the fence of the Olympic Park there is a land inhabited from men in high visibility jacket, the colour marks the tribe: shoking pink, bright orange, highlighter yellow. The Yellows do the dirty work, bricks and mortar, in the lunch break they roam the shopping centre, standing from the crowd, eating a sandwich on a bench or having a laugh with other Yellows. Than we have the pinks, the ones more involved with the events planning, the social hierarchy goes from managers with notebook and pen behind the ear to the human roadsign with chunky pink gloves “Olympic park this way”. There are some Oranges here and there but I still haven’t identified their function, anyway they give a nice touch of colour. Other tribes includes the “Reflectors” from the private army of Westfield and the Yellow-Pinks, half-bloods at the end of the food chain conceived in some obscure Safe and Security meeting in Canary Wharf and brought at the radiactive shadow of the Arcellormittar Orbit.
In the Westfield’s Darwin race the Yellows will be the first to succumb and I give to the Pinks another 6 months. The Reflectors are here to stay, hiding in sleazy offices filled with screens, sitting in car at the exit of multi-storey parking lots, free to multiply and waiting to outnumber the rest of the population.
One of the Yellow-Pinks tribe, a nice bloke, informs me that to see the park I need a ticket, the tickets are all sold-out but the access will be free after the games. At least the official restaurant of the olympics never closes: I think about drowning my disappointment there before to start my shift.
Soon to be sold to the best bidder the next month.
plans: 1200 new luxury homes, a new stadium for the Chelsea ..
The plans for a redevelopment has been ripped after the company that was working on it went bankrupt.
Anyway even the so-called redevelopment involved construction of new buildings in the area.
We used to call this picture “the Dark Queen”.
So long baby
We can see a city as a box. On the outside of the box images and labels are attached. They try to explain what’s inside the box, the range of possibilities and the possible paths, a loose list of values regulating the set, a cronological account, a list of suggested targets. Often the labels are misleading, closer to the world of advertising than to a real one. The suggested narration is archetypical and often boring. The pretension is to establish an unambiguous point of view, a preferencial path with the ambition to lead your experience in a certain places. The language used is the same as the corporation’s ones: an instrument to bend reality to their own ends, not any more a personal instrument of creation and liberation. The contrasting points of view are disposed as marginal, different readings are discouraged, a theme park and hanging gardens are promised.
The menu is not the dinner.
Once you are inside of the box your choices are limited to the setting you find yourself in. The countless possibilities are restricted to the ones you are permitted to undertake by the environment, the form of the city you’re living in and the social praxises. The environment shapes the man more than how much the man can shape it, what the man can do is find new ways to use the territory. The external landscape become an internal one, with its own set of affordances, possibilities, limitations, hierarchy of power relationships.
Fences and arrows direct the flow, places and situations advertised on the label are highlighted ad encouraged. You can choose between different kind of works and innumerable forms of codified leisure and commodities, productions and consumption. What can’t be sold as image or commodity is worthless and everybody needs to eat and pay the rent.
The labels are often misleading: What you see is not what you get: the expectation you’ve made up seeing the box from the outside are not the situations you encounter once you’re neck-in, the world is not how they say it is. The postcards you saw before are now placed in a different contest: the real life is far more ambiguous.
In London you can’t leave personal traces in streets but with a commercial sign: there are not spray tags, no street art (except from artists’ adibited areas), the tube can be dirty but the carriages from the outside are immaculate, flyers at bus stops and street corners are removed with the speed of light, Banksy is the only one whose works resist on some wall, maybe because they’re now worth thousands pounds. Nobody own this city, everybody’s here to go, this is the message underneath the no-message walls. The communication must use the provided channels.
This is why I feel is important to establish your own narration and your point of view on the same level of the accepted one, your own landmarks and postcards are already an alternative reality from the one warmly proposed. Get rid of stale images, subvert the univocal narration, point out clashing elements, go off-piste, make it yours.
“a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities…just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape.”
Guy Debord’s definition of psychogeography
Manifesto for a film.
Long time ago, in A.D. 1839, someone reassured the category of the painters with a minimal affermation:
Photography has everything but the colour.
It was the time of Daguerre and Talbot. Painters were scared to be downgraded by photographers.
After 70 years, a couple of french brothers called Lumière made the Autochrome process up, let the whole world cringe.
Everything that was considered known in the culture of Images before that day, it would never been the same after.
Now, I’m a bit outdated. I wish I could still use the typewriter, send a postcard, drink gin in a teacup, wear wide-bremmed woven hat, take pictures with films without appearing old fogey, or even worst a hipster. I’m doing all those things, indeed.
I don’t think modernity is all bad. I consider it my duty to decide to not use modernity for everything.
Film is not dead. Did you notice that?
I found my Coronet in a carboot sales in Battersea, in the out-of-the-way south of London.
Round the corner of a ex council building misfits sell what they don’t want anymore.
Everytime I go there I want to buy everything.
The Coronet Twelve – 20 was a pseudo TLR made by the Coronet Company in Birmingham, UK, c. 1950. A box with a metal frame and sides. Nothing special.
Surprise, it makes pictures! And it’s real, it’s not a plastic coloured something (thanks anyway Lomography to bring the films in vogue, in a way).
Don’t you find a similar taste in your hipstamatic pictures? Faded, blurred, dirty and rough.
Don’t you find uncanny using an application to take pictures instead of experiencing the anxious wait of developing a film?
With a hipstamatic it’s easier, I agree. But life is not easy and I reckon we’re loosing the heart of doing things. It really takes some cheek to be still alive, in this world. Everything is accessible. Standard behaviour in this apparently democratic society.
Eventually we are all the same.
Well, sometimes we have the choice to not be the same.
I’m still using films because there are still available, because the quality is unreachable with digital.
Because photography is such an old story about developments and chemistry and scratches, and waiting and feelings and battles, and broken frames, why should I loose the right to have all of them?
You can still use your hipstamatic to take pictures of your dog. But doesn’t make you a photographer.
It makes you a new image culture merciless supporter that is adding up to the photography a different and overshot immediate taste.
Well, I’m not a hipster, I’m not a digital supporter, I’m a not to matter photographer that can use a broken old metal box with a Kodak Portra 400 to take the picture of a sick sweety straycat, and after days discovering that the lovely cat looks like the devil.