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Fourth World Congress of Psychogeography

14 Sep

The Fourth World Congress of Psychogeography reconvened at the University of Huddersfield for a third time last week.  Having previously only attended the Friday talks, this year I was able to attend both days and enjoyed some great walks.

 

 

On behalf of the self-titled politburo of 4WCOP organisers, Phil Wood introduced the event, referring to a derogatory tweet from an anonymous but high profile psychogeographer, who would not be attending.  Whilst the “politburo” is entirely comprised of white males, the event itself played host to fresh perspectives from a diverse range of participants, some of whom came from Istanbul, Slovenia, Italy, United States and Germany.  Difficult to say if there was equal representation of men and women, but it seemed to be fairly well balanced.

The event format, and many of its principal protagonists and attendees, have become familiar to me, and there is a danger this could just become a cosy get-together.  So I tried to take a more critical view of the proceedings with a few questions in mind:

  • Is psychogeography practice evolving and including new perspectives?
  • To what extent is detournement used?
  • How was the terrain vague addressed? (This being the theme suggested to those proposing talks/walks for this year’s congress)

There was a packed programme of talks and walks which had been oversubscribed (and indeed the joint proposal that Gareth Jones and I had submitted didn’t quite make the cut, much to our frustration!)  This meant that there was a choice of two events to attend throughout the 2 day programme.  Inevitably then I missed some events that I would have liked to have taken part in, such as the talk on retail environments by Andrew Taylor/Katrina Whitehead/Kasia Breska, or the walks/events by Sonia Overall and Elspeth Penfold, Sohal Khan, John RooneyVictoria Karlsson and Ewan Davidson/Michelle Woodall, and Irena Pivka.  The discussion led by Tim Waters  on What is Psychogeography in 2018? would have been good to be part of. I heard very good reports about “The Zone” walk led by Sohal Khan around the Paddock derelict mill area in which he used Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” film to frame the walk.

The first session of talks focused on Identities.

It was refreshing to hear about her work on feminist theory and social justice in the landscape being carried out by Anna Davidson.  Davidson admitted to be in the midst of  research and the short film she presented which combined the rivers/water/steam, mills/women’s role, and sugar/colonialism felt insubstantial.  It will be interesting to see how this work develops as it certainly prompted a more critical view of the landscape.

Lesley Wood is an artist who walked from Leeds to Newcastle retracing maternal connections over three generations.  The art work she produced incorporated these personal experiences and interaction with the environment (such as kinetic traces made by pastels carried in paper tubes whilst walking).  This is an area of my own practice that interests me, and which I find challenging because it is difficult to express the depth and complexity of walking experience in these relatively simple combinations of materials.

Alex Bridger discussed a series of walks in Huddersfield, Holmfirth, Manchester and Batley with participants from the LGBT community to draw in fresh insight into the landscape.  Again, this was interesting but the output seemed only part formed and may develop further as research continues.  Perhaps it should be unsurprising that the landscape is not viewed so differently by other communities, yet there are nuanced differences which merit acknowledgement and sharing.

At lunchtime we drifted into and around Huddersfield’s fabulous Queensgate Market. and learnt about its pioneering hyperbolic paraboloid roof structure.  Over lunch in a cafe, a group of us observed several empty stall spaces, which were like stages awaiting a performance.  Most people skirted reverentially around one them, until someone started a “desire line” straight across, soon to be followed by others.

 

 

 

 

Tony Wade was a highly engaging speaker, and I can see how he could generate a lot of interaction in his community-based projects.  His talk described the 60 mile walk he did around the Wakefield Metropolitan Boundary and the undertaking to paint 20 (triptych) acrylic paintings of views outwards from the boundary from suitable points within each of 20 x 3 mile sections.

Other talks considered the post-industrial landscape.  Martin Eccles described projects in former lead mining sites at Small Clough and walking the river underground to create soundscapes.  Perhaps, harder to see where the detournement is in this, but his work creates fascinating immersive experiences of environments that are otherwise difficult to access.

It was disappointing that David Sable and Kerry Hadley-Pryce were not able to attend due to sickness and as this was notified at short notice, 4WCOP were not able to bring in any reserve talks.  They were able to present David’s film about a mining community near Doncaster.  This powerful film was based on Sables’ own experience of the mine closures of the 1980s and those of communities involved.  As this is an area I had researched in regard to making a film for the Cinderloo project, I felt the film could have gone further, and at times it veered towards sentimentality.  There followed a good discussion about how we can acknowledge mining heritage without taking a rose-tinted nostalgic approach.  Ursula Troche had visited closed mines in Germany and Belgium where as much of the original infrastructure was left intact and or put to new use, unlike the UK where, very often industrial land is swept clean, taking all sense of history away from the communities that identified with the place.  In his notes, David referred to how the now rural land had reverted to agriculture and private ownership, inaccessible to local community, and how all that children could learn in schools about former employment was to visit the nearby (restored) stately home and learn about working in service.

I enjoyed the talk by Roger Boyle about taking various slices through his home town of Aberystwyth mapping, amongst other things, coal holes and Royal Mail postboxes.

The last talk of the day featured Nasli Tumerdem and Sevgi Turkkan, both recently completing or completed PhD degrees in Istanbul.  Their work involved walking in northern Istanbul with over 250 students.  This was an impressive logistical exercise in itself.  The talk was interesting in presenting how Istanbul is one of the most rapid developing cities in the world with the result that large areas of land are being subsumed into huge infrastructure projects (a third airport, highway and river channel parallel to the Bosphorus).  This top down development was disrupting communities – they referred to the type of development taking place as ad hoc urbanism.

In their architectural practice Tumerdem and Turkkan referred to an inherent vagueness in architecture that fits with using psychogeography to explore terrain:

  • absence of dominant discourse
  • discursive and contingent
  • process of “unlearning” to be encouraged
  • provoked vagueness
  • learning by doing

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So onto the walking, which, through the day, followed a progression out of Huddersfield up the Colne Valley to Marsden.

I started with Ursula Troche and Simon Bradley’s “Platform Seven” which began at the amazing brick tunnel ventilation shafts in Huddersfield, and ended underneath the railway viaduct where we found ourselves joining the pair singing and dancing to Underneath the Arches, an anti-austerity song.  The walk was a playful reinterpreting, subverting, deconstruction of what can be observed.  For example detourning “Trespassers will be prosecuted” to “Passers be cute”.  Some of the little scenarios performed by Ursula and Simon were madcap and obtuse, but always referring back to serious messages about peace, love and anti-war.

 

 

 

 

Phil Wood then lead a hauntology walk in Paddock Brow which was both informative, thought-provoking and highly atmospheric.  In the drizzle we explored 50 year old ivy-tangled woodlands where hundreds of mill workers used to live and learnt about a Jamaican club known for attracting famous reggae artists, world renowned Huddersfield-made sound systems and domino championships.  We reflected on the lost utopian dreams of a young Harold Wilson who went to school along the road we walked on many years ago.  And saw where some of the Luddites went on trial.

 

 

 

We reached the Milnsbridge Red and Green Socialist Club for lunch, for an excellent pint and sandwich, and we were treated to a talk by David Smith about the Huddersfield MP Victor Grayson who mysteriously disappeared in the 1930s.  We were invited to look for evidence of his living in the area in the 40s/50s.  I didn’t find any.

 

 

By the time we reached Slaithwaite Civic Hall by bus it was proper siling it down.  Vicky Ola and Anzir Boodoo invited everyone to make shadow installations using what we did/didn’t like about urban landscape.  I joined a walk led by photographer Kevin Linnane which included all kinds of activities to disrupt or enhance the normal experience of walking e.g frottage, water graffiti, blowing bubbles as way of sending words out into the air, divining, drawing etc.  I had a good discussion with Kevin afterwards, and he told me how is work is influenced by ritual and cycles.  He has a belief that”ritualistic, performative roles lie within spaces and materials, as an ethereal heartbeat sustaining the status quo”.

 

 

I loved the Colne Valley Sculpture Trail, which had entertainment value whilst seriously questioning the value of art objects/found objects. It was originally set up about 5 years ago and made national news.  It immediately caused all participants to look critically at encounters and their potential as artistic creations and possible meanings.  The walk was brilliantly led by Graeme Murrell who kept up a convincing commentary to go along with the labels for each work, and accompanying trail leaflet and AS Level exam questions.

 

 

 

The scenery was beautiful as we headed up into the hills and then back down to the canal for the approach into Marsden, where we finished in the Rivershead Brewery Tap.  I couldn’t stay long as I returned to Holmfirth, where I was staying with friends, and so I also missed the final walk of the day.

 

 

 

Psychogeography evolving? – certainly there was evidence of practices treading old ground, but there were also some new advances that are to be welcomed, such as the inclusion of feminist and queer perspectives.  There were several artists using sound, performance or film/theatre to augment or respond to walking practices.  Hopefully,  the international input will continue to grow.

Detournement?  All of these speakers discussed responses to psychogeographical walks which mostly resulted in art works that aimed to provoke, challenge established viewpoints or provide new insight into the landscape.  Their intentions were not necessarily to tackle the Spectacle head on, rather they offered alternative views and encouraged a multiplicity of response in our everyday experience.

There were a few references to terrain vague and by its nature, it is a term open to interpretation and application to many different contexts.  It was fascinating to hear the architects from Istanbul talk about how they encourage an indistinct vague approach in their architectural practice.  Otherwise I didn’t leave with the impression that the terrain vague had been addressed particularly.  Maybe it was in the talks I didn’t attend.

Apparently, there was no quorum to formally close the congress, so I expect it will reconvene for a fourth time… probably around September 2019 I’d guess.  Predictable?… maybe; entertaining?… definitely.

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Your Perfect High Street

15 Sep

As part of last weekend’s Heritage Open Day events, I was delighted to be invited to run a workshop at the Unitarian Church on Shrewsbury’s High Street.  According to the inscription on its frontage,  the Unitarian Church was built in 1662 and was where Charles Darwin came to worship.  And I had a beautiful old room with stained glass windows above the street to work in.

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The suggested theme was designing a perfect High Street.  Arguably, Shrewsbury already has one, and so in preparation for the event I began to explore by taking a series of photos of details along the street.  Details that may go unnoticed unless you really slow down and look.

Participants helped create a collage of my photos as a grid during the workshop, and then people added their own thoughts, ideas and memories on sticky notes within the grid:

 

 

 

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My preparations also included a pen drawing of the elevations of both sides of the street, which became quite addictive.  I completed it in about three days, although certainly can’t vouch for its accuracy of detail.  It was interesting to see the differences in scale of the buildings and see them without the dominating colours and branding of the retailers. The Unitarian Church, which can seem quite an impressively large facade from street level, actually appears to be one of the smallest buildings along the whole street.

 

The workshop was aimed primarily at families with children aged 8 and over, but many adults dropped in and got involved too.  There were around 35 participants over the course of 3 hours.  Besides the photo collage, the activities began with thinking about the kind of activities that might take place in the High Street and which are more important.

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I made a few initial suggestions, and quickly realised just how many different activities already go on in our High Street.  Participants then added their own ideas, moved activities between “important” and “not important” and voted with red dots for the ideas they agreed with.  I deliberately missed out quite a few activities like shopping and gambling to see if there was any reaction, and surprisingly only one person added “ice cream shop”… and this was in the “not important” zone.  Someone else added “independent businesses” as important.  Hear hear!

The activities ranked in the highest zone of importance/votes were (approximately):

  • Homes for living,
  • green space,
  • learning,
  • seating,
  • street art,
  • a litter free environment,
  • having a strong community,
  • independent businesses,
  • walking/strolling/wandering,
  • healthcare,
  • theatre/street performance,
  • exercising democratic rights local political issues and public debates.

I think we can guess at the kind of social-demographic I was dealing with.  Other suggestions I really liked included:

  • Temporary closure of streets to create play/community areas,
  • interacting and co-operating,
  • installations and performance platform for local artists (obviously).

Most of the workshop activity revolved around building a scale model of a High Street using card boxes and hand drawn frontages.  Participants could use my pen drawings and a montage of architectural design considerations as inspiration.  There were some really lovely buildings.

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Finally, as an activity to take away, I produced a sheet of some of the architectural details to go and find somewhere in the High Street.  You can download a copy and have a go yourself by clicking this link:  Look Closely

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