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Psychogeography: the art of drifting in the city without feeling lost

If you live and work in the city you can easily forget your surroundings as you rush from home to work and back again 5 days a week. But what if you stopped to consider the built-up environment around you: how does it make you feel? What does it represent? How should we interact with it? If you ask these questions then, whether you realise it or not, you are a psychogeographer.


Split by a river

Take, for example, the River Thames which snakes its way through London. I cross this wide strip of slug-grey water twice daily, to and back from work. In effect, this river splits up two aspects of my life and I find this rather comforting. It’s not that either one is bad, I just like to have both and distinguishably so.

What if cities are also a projection of our own desires?

This reflection on the river and its effect on me is an example of psyschogeography in action, which, at its most reduced, could be defined as simply the effect your environment has on your mind. Or rather, that is one explanation of what is a rather nebulous though deeply fascinating concept, that has its roots in the Flâneurs - 19th century artists and writers such as Baudelaire who strolled around Paris observing and thinking - and carries on into the 21st century with the likes of British writers such as Ian Sinclair and Will Self.

Surreal cities

I spoke to Simon Sadler, Professor of Architectural and Urban History at the University of California, to find out more about this practice and how it’s possible to view the city from different perspectives.


He starts by pointing to the Surrealists in Paris (as you will discover, Paris is central to the evolution of psychogeography).

Sadler says, “In novels and writings about Paris in the 1920s, Surrealists like André Breton and Louis Aragon wrote about the relationship between Paris as a city in which they were living and their internal emotions and mental states.”

They would drift around Paris aimlessly

Geography in the traditional sense is about the objective study of the environment. Psychogeographers, on the other hand, do not believe this is possible. They believe everything is subjective, and that the landscape is in part producing us.


Psychogeography-3 The French poet Charles Baudelaire and possible originator of drifting.


Sadler says, “Following on from Freud, the Surrealists start to wonder if the city is also a projection of our own internal desires. We pretend the city is all-rational and that cities are about traffic circulating and getting your work done, getting things produced and buying and selling etc. but what if cities are also a projection of our own desires, what if, for example, it is all about sex?”

The Situationist International

And while this certainly gives us an amusing new perspective of the Eiffel Tower, a group to follow on from the Surrealists, known as the Situationist International, believed that something more sinister was going on - that a conspiracy by the state and capitalism was afoot through the construction of buildings.

Sadler says, “If you think about urban development in the mid-20th century, it could be argued that cities were becoming more boring. The Situationists thought that by building more sterile, vacuous and boring cities, we were in turn making our lives more sterile, vacuous and boring. They believed that it was a conspiracy led by capitalism and the state, in an attempt to make us more obedient and productive beings by depriving us of the stimulus that make us really human.”


In the 1950s, the Situationists began to use psychogeography as a way of critiquing Paris by wandering around and reflecting on the changing cityscape. They called this form of wandering, dérive or drifts.


What do you see when you look at the Eiffel Tower? What do you see when you look at the Eiffel Tower?


Sadler says, “They would drift around Paris aimlessly, just letting themselves be repelled and attracted by different buildings and areas and they started to calculate which parts of Paris were still good and conducive to being human and whole and which parts were designed to destroy us.”

He continues, “You need to imagine you’ve grown up in Paris and you love the Left Bank and Montmartre and you love alleyways and red light districts and instead you see Paris turning into an American looking city with skyscrapers and white collar workers. This was something they were rebelling against.”

Psychogeography and digital maps

It is interesting to consider what psychogeographers and Situationists would make of digital maps and the Internet more generally.


Psychogeography-4 Architectural historian Simon Sadler.


Sadler sees the exploration of the Web as a form of psychogegraphy in itself. He says, “Wikipedia is amazing for this. If you want, it will make a random page for you and you can follow the links and come up for air an hour later and it could be that you’ve changed your mind about everything! So, in this regard, Wikipedia could be seen as an extraordinary kind of psychogeography because you can come out a changed person and not only that, we don’t quite know who is writing it. Everybody is pitching in and people are arguing - if Wikipedia was a city, it would be a city built by many.”

On a more practical level, it could be that the Situationists would be enthralled by digital maps as a way of providing completely new perspectives of their city. Sadler points out that the Situationists were fascinated by the aerial photographs of Paris form WWII, because they showed a completely new perspective of a city they thought they knew so well. The ability to zoom right in and out on digital maps would probably have blown their minds.

And whatever your views on the beliefs of psychogeographers in all their forms, it is true to say that mapping and navigation is not just about getting from A to B. Why don’t you try it out for yourself? Pick a random spot on the map, somewhere near you but that you’ve never been to before and go and explore it. You never know, you might return home a different person.

Image credits: Psychogeography-1 by keith ellwood; Psychogeography-2 from Wikipedia; Psychogeography-3 from Wikipedia; Psychogeography-4 by University of California; Psychogeography-5 by anshar (Shutterstock); Psychogeography-6 by photobank.ch (Shutterstock)

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