I’ve been following The Fife Psychogeographical Collective for some time now on WordPress and Twitter, and with the publication of the book “From Hill to Sea” I felt it was a good time to get in touch and ask some questions about landscape, walking and psychogeography…
Ask a… psychogeographer
Interview with Murdo Eason, The Fife Psychogeographical Collective.
For any readers who haven’t encountered psychogeography before, could you give a brief explanation of the term?
The word may be unfamiliar to some people but I would guess that most people will have experienced it. To adapt Joseph Beuys: Everyone is a Psychogeographer.
Psychogeography has become a much used and abused label but a broad definition is the influence of the geographical environment on the human mind. Think back to when you were a child. You had little interest in moving through space in a linear fashion from place A to place B. Time was much more fluid. You would encounter playful distractions in the landscape – a tree to climb, or in my case, a concrete hippo or mushroom in the New Town of Glenrothes. You might find sticks to pick up; objects to poke with a stick. You might sit down to observe a line of ants crawling across the pavement. Following the sound of a distant ice-cream van may lead you through new routes in familiar streets. You may have pondered questions such as why does that building have such a large fence around it? Why does that sign say ‘Keep Out’?
Fast forward to walking through an unfamiliar city without a map. It is likely that you will encounter different zones of feeling as you move through the city. You may end up in an area that for whatever reason makes you feel uncomfortable and you want to walk away quickly. Conversely, the particular ambiance of an area make you feel relaxed or even carnivalesque. At other times a particular city environment may make you feel literally ‘out of place’.
Contemporary psychogeography has many different strands which makes it difficult to pin down precisely, but from the above we can pull out certain common characteristics:
- It usually requires walking or moving through space;
- there is some form of subjective engagement with the environment and
- probably some form of implicit questioning as to why the environment is the way it is.
The follow on question, may be, does the environment have to be like this and how could it be changed (or preserved)?
In the history of ideas, most of the literature about psychogeography refers back to the Letterists and the Situationists who defined and developed their psychogeographic activities, such as the dérive – or drift – in an urban environment during the 1950s. However, we would argue that what is now often termed psychogeography is just a label applied to activities and practices that human beings, across all cultures, have undertaken as soon as they started to walk in the landscape.
Guy Debord’s definition of psychogeography is commonly cited:
Psychogeography sets for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.
Guy Debord, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, (1955)
However, our own research has uncovered that the term was used much earlier by the American anthropologist, J.Walter Fewkes in a non-urban context in the early 1900s:
… psychogeography, deals with the influence of geographical environment on the human mind.
- Walter Fewkes, Bureau of American Ethnology, (1905)
Fewkes was using the term to examine the Native American Hopi people’s strong connection with their landscape. The arid landscape led them to develop a set of beliefs, practices and rituals, such as the rain dance, to appeal to the sky gods to deliver rain.
We have yet to see any mention of Fewkes in the psychogeographic literature but firmly embrace the idea of an expansive psychogeography: the influence of the geographical environment on the human mind in both urban and non-urban contexts. This also recognizes the presence of the non-human world in our landscapes.
To perhaps bring back all of this to a concrete example, here is a photograph, taken in Dunfermline, of a fairly typical designed environment. There are two laid out, planned footpaths and what would have been a green space with two trees:
It is clear to see that the planned footpaths have been ignored and an alternative ‘desire path’ has formed over the green space between the trees. A good localised example of people, whether consciously or unconsciously, being influenced by the landscape to question and change their local environment through footfall democracy!
There is a growing number of books and blogs exploring psychogeography. Could you recommend some key texts/authors/blogs which would act as a starting point for anyone interested in reading more on the subject?
One place where I would start is not a book or a blog but a fantastic series of podcasts called Ventures and Adventures in Topography by John Rogers and Nick Papadimitriou. I won’t attempt to describe them, as you will soon get the drift, (sorry, poor psychogeographical pun!) but the podcasts are great practical examples of engaging in what Papadimitriou terms Deep Topography. Well worth a listen.
In terms of other key texts, Psychogeography by Merlin Coverley is a useful primer and Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography, edited by Tina Richardson, (@concretepost) has recently been published. Phil Smith (aka Crab Man) has written a number of excellent psychogeography related books which can be found on his Mythogeography website.
In terms of The Situationist International, McKenzie Wark’s two recent books The Beach Beneath the Street and The Spectacle of Disintegration are good places to start and there are various anthologies of (pre) + Situationist International writings. In these, it is worth tracking down Ivan Chtcheglov’s Formulary for a New Urbanism and Debord’s Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography.
Of course, the looseness of what psychogeography is, means that there are many other texts that whilst not specifically about psychogeography, and may not even mention it, stray into associated areas and come highly recommended. Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust is essential reading (as is pretty much everything she writes); Findings and Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie and Julian Hoffman’s The Small Heart of Things are all fantastically alive to place and the non-human world. Some other favourites would be Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces; Frederic Gros’ A Philosophy of Walking and the works of artist Sophie Calle.
There is also the influential essay by Marion Shoard, Edgelands and the book of the same name by poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts.
I should also mention the films of Patrick Keiller, Chris Petit and Andrew Kötting and of course the works of Iain Sinclair. Personal favourites are Edge of the Orison, London Orbital, Lights Out for the Territory and American Smoke.
There are also a huge number of interesting psychogeography related blogs most of which are listed on Eddie Proctor’s comprehensive Exploring Landscape: An evolving gazetteer of landscape related content on the web. We tend to use Twitter as a way of keeping up to date with writers, poets and artists who are engaging with responses to landscape and place, amongst other things. Some favourites, using their twitter handles, include:
@alexdcochrane @Archieislander @emmaZbolland
@urbanprehisto @BorthwickDave @DrDavidCooper @Jeanmcewan
@JoDacombe @dobraszczyk @smellofwater @RichlyEvocative @LongbarrowPress
@betweenstation1 @HaltThe @Lines_Landscape @DianaJHale @JulianHoffman
@BritUnofficial @owenbooth @hackneymarshman @cultauthor @gary_budden
@JaneSamuels @SalMcW @DoireannNiG @JAFMacDonald @brianlavelle
@wingsoftoast @Mythogeography @seeyouelsewhere @gmacg_1
@_SusanOliver @mulhollandrew @abonnieday
and of course @DrHComics
(Sorry if I’ve missed anyone out!)
How did the Fife Psychogeographical Collective come into being?
At one level, it was a bit of a tongue in cheek response to a perception that a vast amount of ‘psychogeographical’ writing was very London centric. Perhaps there was also a nod, or even a detournement on the name of The London Psychogeographical Association of which Ralph Rumney was the sole member. (As an aside, we would also strongly recommend a book of interviews with Rumney – The Consul). Secondly, we were looking to engage in a more expansive psychogeography which encompassed both rural and urban environments. In this respect, we are probably more influenced by, the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, Scottish polymath, Patrick Geddes than anything else. Thirdly, we firmly believe that everyone can be a psychogeographer and it can be practiced absolutely anywhere, so why not Fife.
Can you tell us about your book “From Hill to Sea”?
The book is a collection of prose, poetry and photography (Dispatches) covering the period from the formation of the FPC in 2010 through to the end of 2014. There is a section of walks undertaken in Fife; some from further afield such as: Berlin, Newcastle and Glasgow and there are some essays on figures such as Werner Herzog, Kenneth White and Guy Debord.
Here is the description of the book:
Fife: almost an island. From Hill to Sea, wandering beyond the paths and roads through forest, edgeland, town and city. Thin places, worlds within worlds, voids, wild woods and coffin tracks. At the coast, shifting thresholds of sea and sky; land and tidal flows.
A Brutalist new town, post-industrial landscapes and city encounters with the uncanny. Walking with the ghosts of Little Moscow, avant-garde painters and a psychedelic tiger. The presence and wonder of non-human worlds. Finding that ‘The Wilderness’ most definitely does exist. Soundtracks both real and imagined.
An expansive psychogeography: the influence of the geographical environment on the human mind in both urban and non-urban contexts. Walking as being-in-the-world, in the flux and flow of the present moment. Old Heraclitus was right, you never step in the same burn or river twice. Mapping the interstices of past, present and possible. Assorted rag-pickings collected and (re)presented along the way. Connecting the local to the global and the global to the local: burn, stream, river, estuary, ocean. It’s all just a matter of scale. No landscape is ever neutral.
From Hill to Sea. From the Kingdom of Fife and beyond.
The title of the book is a also a nod to the aforementioned Patrick Geddes and his concept of the Valley Section (“it takes a whole region to make the city”) which was adapted from the ideas of the anarchist geographer Élisée Reclus.
There is also a ten-minute video about the book that can be viewed here.
If you could go for a walk right now, instead of sitting at the computer answering all these questions, where would you go?
The easy answer would be to go out of the front door and just start walking. One of the delights about undertaking the FPC project is just finding out and seeing what is almost literally on your doorstep or within a few mile radius. It constantly surprises us what can be experienced often in the most unexpected places. The key is that you would be very unlikely to experience these places unless you do so on foot.
Are there any paths, places or plans beckoning to you in 2016?
The beauty of psychogeography is that it can be undertaken anywhere and doesn’t need any initial preparation, planning or specialist equipment whatsoever. As long as you have a pair of shoes and can place one foot in front of the other it can happen. In fact, there is no reason why you couldn’t do it in a wheelchair if the ground was accessible.
In terms of places and plans, again the beauty of what we do is that it can be done wherever we end up so there will be hopefully lots of new writing to come. There is also a huge backlog of material that is collected in notebooks that is still to be written up. These things tend to evolve and emerge at their own natural pace.
I will also be doing some readings from the book, throughout 2016, with the next one at DCA (Dundee Contemporary Arts) on Thursday 14th April.
Finally, we tend to think of the FPC as more of ‘a space for projects’ and one of the major delights since starting the blog has been making a lot of new connections with interesting people and potential collaborators for future projects. Several discussions are on-going with other fellow writers, artists and musicians so watch this space.
Thanks very much for the questions.
12th March 2016.
Book Details: https://fifepsychogeography.com/from-hill-to-sea-book/
Email: fifepsy (at) gmail.com