It seems amazing to me that given the way I perceive the world around me – and the way I have since I was a child – and looking the work I’ve made over the course of the last few years, that I haven’t before delved into the world of Psychogeography, for having started to read Merlin Coverley’s book Psychogeography I seem to be a natural psychogeographer. I recall that when I studied for my degree back in the early 90s, I was fascinated by the writings of Andre Breton and Louis Aragon (‘Nadja’ and ‘Paris Peasant’) which today sit on my bookshelves along with the works of J.-K. Husymans, Blake and Peter Ackroyd, writers who are all discussed in Coverley’s book.Why they intrigued me so much I never really understood, until now.
This morning, in Coverley’s book, I read the following quote form a 19 year old member of Lettrist International who went by the name of Chtcheglov (his real name was Gilles Ivain, and he was later incarcerated in an asylum…). Within that quote, a few lines in particular interested me. The full quote however is as follows:
All cities are geological; you cannot take three steps without encountering ghosts bearing all the prestige of their legends. We move within a closed landscape whose landmarks constantly draw us to the past. Certain shifting angles, certain receding perspectives, allow us to glimpse original conceptions of space, but this vision remains fragmentary. It must be sought in the magical locales of fairy tales and surreralist writings: castles, endless walls, little forgotten bars, mammoth caves, casino mirrors.
The following line in particular brought me up short: ‘…Certain shifting angles, certain receding perspectives, allow us to glimpse original conceptions of space, but this vision remains fragmentary…’ for this exactly describes how I think when I walk through a city, or in fact any particular place. The remains comprising our present-day landscapes are overlaid with a weave of unremembered lives, narratives and events, which, Coverely explains, can, in a moment be revealed through even the most mundane objects and surroundings. It’s as if, whilst walking down the street, one can see something which opens up a ‘receding perspective’ just as Chtcheglov writes, allowing us for a second to glimpse those ‘original conceptions of space.’ The vision is fragmentary and lasts just a moment, but everywhere these possibilities exist.
I’ve often used the idea of mundane (or everyday) objects and surroundings in my work as a means of accessing the past – as revealing the past through the lens of the present, and before beginning my MA in 2006, I wrote about what I called ‘memory spaces’; spaces which opened up when looking at old buildings or objects. For me, these spaces, were – or rather are – memories of a particular object or building held by people who lived generations before us. I was trying to find a way of describing how when I look at an old building, it’s as if I gain access, in some fragmentary way, to the memories of those who beheld it years before – as if I could then walk from one of their memories to another.
In another piece of writing (What is History?), I tried to find another way of describing how we access these spaces. Instead of perceiving history as a series of horizontal layers, built up one on top of the other, I suggested that it was more accurate to see the past as comprising a vast number of durations, where every object, every building, every part of a building etc., was a duration, extending vertically down the page. (This idea was inspired by the writings of Bill Viola, who wrote how ‘we have been living this same moment ever since we were conceived. It is memory, he says, ‘and to some extent sleep, that gives the impression of a life of discrete parts, periods or sections, of certain times or highlights’. Similarly we can say that every object, building or landscape feature has existed in one continuous moment and that it is to some extent the passing generations which gives the impression of the past as being a series of ‘discrete parts, periods or sections.)
As I wrote:
Access to the past therefore comes not via a kind of mental gymnastics where we straddle the horizontal strata of different moments in time, accessing a part [an object] via the whole (the entire epoch of that particular layer e.g. 1900), but through the careful observation of a part in which the whole can be observed. As Henri Bortoft writes in The Wholeness of Nature – Goethe’s Way of Seeing; ‘…thus the whole emerges simultaneously with the accumulation of the parts, not because it is the sum of the parts, but because it is immanent within them’. In other words, from an object [for example, one made in 1900] we can extrapolate its wider context (the ‘epoch of 1900’). Instead of drilling down through many periods [of horizontal] time in order to get from one time to another some distance below (or behind), we simply have to observe an object we know that links the two. In this… model , there are no horizontal barriers, just vertical, navigable channels.
Therefore, when looking at an object in a museum, or glimpsing something whilst walking in the street, angles are shifted as Chtcheglov explains, and receding perspectives revealed, precisely because of the way the present comprises these continuous durations. Of course it doesn’t happen all the time, but depends on any number of things, not least the way we perceive that object at the moment of our encounter. History in this sense is kinaesthetic.