A New Way of Walking

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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.

Psychogeography encourages us to buck the rut, to follow some new logic that lets us experience our landscape anew, that forces us to truly see what we'd otherwise ignore. "Chance and randomness," says Ray, "are what's exciting." (The Web site of Ray's art group, Glowlab -- www.glowlab.blogs.com -- is a great source of information on psychogeographic happenings.)


For Dave Mandl, a photographer and avid psychogeographer who attended the Conflux, this transformative power lies at the heart of what makes psychogeography worthwhile. "When you remake your environment, or find wonderful things in it," he says, "it breaks you out of the machine."

The word psychogeography was coined in the late 1950s by the letterists and the situationists -- French artists and social theorists who adopted the playful-serious agenda of the dadaists and surrealists in an effort to break through the crust of postwar conformity. But modern psychogeographers are equally influenced by earlier strains of urban adventure, including the 19th-century concept of the flaneur, the idle man-about-town who observed and commented on the urban scene. The most flaneur-like style of psychogeography, of course, is algorithmic walking -- that "first right, second left" approach. I first experienced it last year, shortly after I first discovered Ray's projects online.

I'm a fan of urban history and adventure and am happiest poking around in the city's blind alleys, forgotten haunts, and dusty corners -- physical and historical. So "generative psychogeography" made sense in light of what I know to be true about the city: Surprises lurk around every corner. In practice, algorithmic walking proved even more interesting and just plain fun than I had expected when I tried it with a group of writer and artist friends.

We chose Albert Lea, Minnesota, for our walk. It's a small town on a lake not far from the Twin Cities, and I had never spent much time in it. We began in the downtown area with our algorithm: first left, second right, first right, repeat. We also decided that if we ran into a dead end, we would turn around and restart the algorithm. At the end of the first leg of our journey, we found ourselves outside the Masonic temple -- and at a dead end. Left to my own devices, I would have headed down toward the lake and a pleasant swath of green grass that I spied through the buildings. Instead, we dutifully followed the algorithm: made a U-turn, and soon found ourselves creeping down a dusty alley toward a busy four-lane highway.

I'll admit I had some doubts about the wisdom of our walk as we hustled, heads down, through the stream of traffic. But after we had made it across, the algorithm proved itself. On a semi-deserted dead-end street we discovered a massive fiberglass statue of a farmer, complete with seed cap, neckerchief, and overalls. Surprise! A little further on, past some elegant gang graffiti and a crowded swap meet, we stumbled upon another surprise -- a set of square concrete lane dividers painted all over with ornate Nordic runes. Six or seven of them were positioned in an empty warehouse parking lot, each slathered with bright paint depicting primitive masks, warrior figures, and cryptic hieroglyphics.

Later, as we were talking over the experience, we all agreed that the algorithm had operated like some higher force. We felt as if we were moving in a strange new zone exactly halfway between randomness and order. No one could predict where the left-and-right pattern would take us, yet we weren't wandering. The firm logic of the algorithm was constantly taking us away from the directions and destinations our whims might have chosen.

And the pattern had done more than simply lead us to hidden surprises. It had also conferred significance on seemingly insignificant spaces like an empty alley, a fresh tree stump, a set of hidden stairs, a bank sign, an abandoned church. In either goal-oriented walking or ordinary strolling, we might have ignored or discounted these things. If we had been striving to get somewhere, we would have been thinking only about our destination. And if we had been following our own noses, we might have been consciously or unconsciously searching for things and places that were more beautiful, restful, or obviously significant -- like parks, forests, restaurants, shops, or monuments.

Instead, there was something about tracing out this strange, secret, but inevitable itinerary through the landscape of Albert Lea that turned just about everything into a significant marker or a station on our way. We felt as if we were constantly on the verge of discovering something that would give us secret knowledge of the town -- and, of course, we were right. Our consciousness of what was important and unimportant, beautiful and dull, in a small town had been completely altered. Our psyches had a new relationship with geography.

Joseph Hart is an Utne contributing editor. He walks in Viroqua, Wisconsin, where he edits The Drift, a zine about small-town life. For a free copy, send your mailing address to TheDrift@frontiernet.net