Artist-explorers called psychogeographers are changing the way we experience the city
In May, a few dozen conventioneers descended upon New York City for the second annual Psy.Geo.Conflux. But they didn't trade business cards over Salisbury steak at a Holiday Inn -- the city itself served as their conference room. Psy.Geo.Conflux gathered artists, writers, urban adventurers, and others from around the world who are interested in "psychogeography," a slightly stuffy term that's been applied to a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities. Psychogeography includes just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape.
A duo of artists from Copenhagen led participants on a tour of the city -- using a map of Copenhagen instead of New York. D. Jean Hester from Los Angeles hung posters and magic markers in public places soliciting answers to questions like "What smell reminds you of home?" and "Where were you the last time you cried?" Another conferee asked his fellows to perform "reverse shoplifting" by placing subtly redesigned products on the shelves of area grocery stores.
Still others practiced "generative psychogeography," or algorithmic walking, pioneered (as far as I can tell) by a Dutch artists' collective called social fiction. Participants walk an algorithm or fixed pattern, such as "first right, second left, first left, repeat." In other words, you head in any direction, take the first right, then go two blocks to the second left, then at one block take a left, and then repeat the pattern as often as you wish. The result is a remarkable style of travel -- neither goal-oriented nor random, structured but always surprising.
I asked Christina Ray, one of the conference organizers, what common thread holds these urban adventures together: Just what is psychogeography, in a nutshell? "Break it down into its two parts," she says. "It's the psychological and the geographical. It's about how we're affected by being in certain places -- architecture, weather, who you're with -- it's just a general sense of excitement about a place."
Most of us, she explains, just follow a small set of preprogrammed instructions as we wander through the city: office, day care, grocery store, home. And she's right. If you track your own path through a typical day, you'll soon discover that your journey is habitual, that you're slowly wearing a canyon through the same streets, the same sidewalks, day after day.
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