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Imagine going for a stroll, unencumbered by a phone, preoccupied by the glories of the world around you: the perfume of blossoming flowers, the heat radiating from sidewalks, the sound of wind as it moves through and bounces off towering buildings. You might notice a historical landmark you usually miss in the hustle of getting from A to B. Or spot the construction of luxury apartments where working-class housing formerly stood. Perhaps you realize there are fewer bird calls than there used to be. Consciously or not, you are participating in the practice of psychogeography, a radical method of moving through the world more intentionally, in a way that benefits not only the individual but society as a whole.

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Many of the issues we face from climate change to the crisis of loneliness to racial and class injustice are deeply connected to the physical world and our interactions with our immediate surroundings. This can be seen in the redlining of communities of color through decades of discrimination or the planning and placement of working-class communities in the direct path of industrial pollution. As we emerge into post-pandemic public spheres, we have the opportunity to imagine new versions of the public sphere, evident in concepts such as the 15-minute city, in which all needs can be met within a quarter-hour walk; the creation of third spaces to interact outside of home and work; and more broadly in the efforts to make both urban and rural areas greener and more flourishing.

Psychogeography, which combines psychology and geography, was developed during the mid-20th century by the Letterist International and its successor Situationist International, two Europe-based organizations that drew on anarchist and Marxist writings, among others. Guy Debord, a founding member of both bodies, defined psychogeography as an environment’s impact, whether mindful or not, on an individual’s behaviors or emotions. Psychogeography became tangible in the dérive (“drift”), defined by Phil Smith in Cultural Geographies as “an exploratory, destinationless wander through city streets, detecting and mapping ambiences.”

Debord was inspired by Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur, the 19th-century stroller who embodied the image of the leisurely—and inherently—upper-class male wanderer. Influential German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin further fleshed out this concept, with the flâneur serving as “an interesting social type because it points to the centrality of locomotion in social life,” writes Mike Featherstone in Urban Studies. “The stroller is constantly invaded by new streams of experience and develops new perceptions as he moves through the urban landscape and crowds.”

Decades later, the Situationists found themselves grappling with a very different post-war Europe in mid-20th century. In the face of an increasingly capitalistic society, they developed their more political movement with the tenets of Dadaism and Surrealism as anchor. Another of their central concepts was the détournment (“turnabout”): “a deliberate reusing of different elements—like images or text—to form something new,” as A.E. Souzis writes in Cultural Geographies. (A prime example are subversive pranks like defacing an ad in an anti-consumerist stunt.)

The Situationists were already concerned, Souzis says, about “the rise of privatization, big business and shrinking pedestrian-friendly public space,” issues that have continued to shape the development of urban areas, prioritizing commerce over the needs of residents. Amy J. Elias writes in New Literary History that these radicals “sought a utopian, revitalized urban life that could both elude the aesthetic tyranny of spectacularized global capitalism and provide a vital, liberatory model of urban Being.”

While the Situationists might have fizzled following the brief moment of revolutionary fever that overtook France during the May 1968 protest movement, psychogeography has arguably become more relevant in the intervening decades. It has been linked to other movements such as Afro-futurism, eco-feminism, and Indigenous environmentalism, which address the injustices these marginalized communities face. Collective urban gardening, seed bombing to bring back native plants, and guerilla grafting fruit-bearing limbs onto trees all address issues around food insecurity, sustainability, and the restoration of nature in industrialized landscapes. Many psychogeographic endeavors also focus on feminist reclamation of male-controlled public spaces, as seen in Take Back the Night rallies or Lauren Elkin’s 2016 memoir Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London, which explores what it means to be a woman navigating the world.

In the realm of academia, psychogeography has become a ripe tool for analyzing environments, both real and imagined. This ranges from amusement parks (“an image of transition from the spectacle in reality to the spectacle of reality,” as Franco La Polla writes in Revue française d’études américaines) to Berlin’s pre-cellular data telécafes (places largely frequented by immigrant communities where “different politics of borders and border crossings can be investigated,” argues Maria Stehle in Women in German Yearbook) to imagining post-Katrina New Orleans (Aoife Naughton hoped to preserve “this kind of freedom and joy in the open street, even in a booming real estate market”).

Somewhat surprisingly, the online world has also become a space for psychogeographical exploration, particularly in the exciting days of Web 1.0. “Hacker and libertarian manifestoes have often couched utopian ideals within cyberspace rhetoric,” Elias writes. “The spatial field of the web surfer may be either delimited according to search parameters or openly processual according to linked pathways.” As Web 3.0 emerges in a landscape of flailing, and sometimes failing first-wave social media platforms, the opportunity is ripe to forge new ways of building digital spheres that serve and engage communities that might otherwise be unable to connect.

This malleability of psychogeography, from the literal concrete to the stretches of the virtual imagination, has inspired artists across mediums. Blur frontman Damon Albarn, who co-founded Gorillaz, has created both deeply personal music (“His debut solo album, Everyday Robots, is so rich in personal psychogeography that it must be the first record to extract poignancy from Thurrock Lakeside shopping centre,” observed Dorian Lynskey in The Guardian) and built alternative realities. As he told The Fader: “Gorillaz is all about geography, in a sense, because we have this metaverse for a long time. It’s accumulated lots of space, and the psychogeography is quite huge. You can travel around to different eras in different parts of the universe or the world or the island indeed.”

Comic book legend Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and Batman) has also frequently discussed the role of psychogeography in his work, notably how it can help find purpose in a world that seems to lack meaning. “You can look at the ordinary world around you with the eye of a poet,” he told Wired in 2010. “Finding events which rhyme with other events, what little coincidences or connections can be drawn to these places and people. You can put them into an arrangement that says something new about them.”

More recently, Greek American painter Gerasimos Floratos created a series of collages, drawings, and oil paintings during the pandemic. Titled “Psychogeography,” this oeuvre captures the hectic life around New York City’s Time Square, drawing connections to the equally busy systems within the human body. “For me, psychogeography is about map-making,” Floratos said in the press release for the exhibit, “Mapping the inside of your mind simultaneously with your environment. Not the kind of linear maps we usually use, maps that simultaneously chart sensory data, emotions, memory, the physical body, culture, society etc.”

Andy Howlett, an artist and filmmaker based in Birmingham, United Kingdom, believes that psychogeography is an “inherently creative response to space,” one that’s “playful, subversive, mischievous and rarely takes itself too seriously.” Right before COVID-19 hit, he co-founded Walkspace: Walking in the West Midlands, a collective to promote psychogeography in the landlocked region. While some have framed psychogeography as a solo endeavor, Howlett was passionate about bringing people together and re-discovering a forgotten “richness” in his community. They even made a virtual map where people could add points of interest discovered through their own psychogeographic explorations.

Indeed, the United Kingdom has become a particular hotbed for psychogeography, largely promoted by writers such as Iain Sinclair (notably exploring the impact of the 2012 London Summer Olympics) and Peter Ackroyd (focusing particularly on what one can learn about a city’s history through psychogeography). While much of the attention has focused on London, like the London Circle Walk following the city’s periphery, other less popular places like Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester are also getting into the spotlight. Like many major urban areas, Birmingham was designed for car travel in the 20th century and, as Howlett concedes, doesn’t have a unique identity. The city’s motto is Forward and Howlett finds that its history, particularly as an industrial stronghold, is often forgotten in the name of building the biggest, newest thing.

“I think that sense of frustration, balanced with a sense of excitement, is a big part of the psychogeography of the city,” he said. “There’s a sense that you have to really go looking for all the history, for the heritage.”

As a collective, Walkspace has grown to nearly thirty members and organizes Walkspace Erratics, psychogeography-inspired walks. A recent early morning trek, led by a former paramedic, highlighted the unique and often trauma-informed way medical workers experience the city. Walkspace has also collaborated with a walking group in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta on a Parallel Walking project, exploring the similarities and differences between the two urban areas. This past June, Walkspace held its first group exhibition, featuring paintings, collages, poetry, and a film night by members of the collective.

Howlett’s ideas of psychogeography have inspired projects including a collaborative video in which GoPro photos, snapped every five seconds, were put into a slideshow that visitors watched on a treadmill. The speed of the images would change depending on walking speed. Howlett explains, “I had all the material I could ever need just on my doorstep. I could just leave the house and interact with the city; I can uncover histories and stories and go on adventures.”

While Howlett is excited to see his group grow as well as similar initiatives pop up in other areas, he does not view his work as serving an agenda for political change, at least not for now. In many ways, it’s hard to imagine the impetus it would take for the observations made on a psychogeographical journey to have a tangible impact. How can living communities be completely reimagined as wildfires burn, coastal areas erode, and the pressures of housing insecurity threaten more and more people?

The imaginative potential of psychogeography can play an important role as a catalyst for this seemingly impossible undertaking. Systemic shock forces change; COVID-19 led people to reclaim outdoor spaces to eat together, bike in groups, and take part in other collective activities. This led to concrete measures that have permanently reshaped urban landscapes. Clearly, this desire to thrive rather than merely survive has been brought to the fore, accelerated by the constraints of the pandemic.

Back in 2005, David Pinder wrote about how artistic collectives were using psychogeography to reclaim the city of New York, given “a tightening of surveillance measures and a hardening of the city’s surface, both in terms of security procedures heightened in the wake of 11 September 2001 and in relation to a landscape pitted against the already marginalized and poor.” Pinder focused on a parade by the artistic collective Toyshop, which aimed to use “every means at our disposal to make a city that instigates our creative impulses and fosters the feral spirit.” This event featured bands meant to create a “sound riot” and drew crowds of people to the street, encouraging, as Toyshop put it, “a participatory model for citizens to take part in the physical and social structure of the environment we live in.”

While this event was more creative than political, it’s easy to see the roots of future reclamation movements coming for urban hubs of global capital where economic and social injustice often thrive. These sorts of actions, even on the smallest scale, carry significant meaning when practitioners assert how they wish to inhabit a space, and when they are able to convince others to likewise undertake this reflective process of questioning the status quo.

“To intervene through creative practice in public space today in New York and other cities is to enter into a crucial struggle over the meanings, values and potentialities of that space at a time when its democracy is highly contested,” Pinder says. “Encouragement of vitality and openness in that space is not an innocent demand.”

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