Urban Anthropology through the Use of Space and Psychogeography

Has the whole world been ‘’discovered’’? Are our cities becoming mere postcards? Are there new interpretations of what a city consists of? We will see that psychogeography has a lot to say and express in the ways in which we travel and in which we experience our cities.

Cities are places where we live, where we meet our friends and where we go to work. But cities are also places tourism, exploration and discovery, as well as  political action and contestation regarding the use of space.

In a time of pandemic, where travelling has hugely decreased, can we discover new spaces in the cities we live and seem to know so well? Do this explorations have its own social movements in academia, social movements and art? In this article we will see new ways of visiting cities, as suggested by psychogeography and experimental tourism, as well as its artistic counterpart in psychogeography photography.

In this article, I expect to give an answer to these questions and present new ways of visiting places, either those new or those we might know better such as our own cities, as developments in spychogeography and experimental tourism suggest. In this way, I hope to invite new ways of travelling and of discovery in this time of pandemic when travelling far is not as convenient.

The discovered and undiscovered world. Rare places as sites of geographical imagination

When all earth has been codified and mapped, it might seem strange to speak about new discoveries. On the other hand, there are magnificent places, outside of all touristic attraction, that exist and can captivate our geographical imagination. Places like artificial islands, abandoned cities, and the quiet charm of places in our cities that we consider secret or overlooked, but which are, however lieus of wonder and potential.

In a world that prides itself in its interconnectivity, love to a place might be considered archaic and old-fashioned. However having hopes of new discovery feeds our primal need to escape.

In a hugely interconnected society, where we can access almost any place from our devices, the case of an island that was ‘’undiscovered’’ captivated the attention of the public, as a romantic place of freedom and dreamed of political realization. Sandy Island captivated the public and was a hopeful place for the imagination. However this case of undiscovery gives us the feel for that what is possible, and more importantly, it suggests that the world has not yet been completely discovered.

In his book ‘’Off the map’’, Alastair Bonnett speaks of no-places, which are later further explained in this article. An example of this no-places he gives is the parking lot of an American airport in Los Angeles where there is people living in caravans. The normality in which they have accepted this situation is yet another example of how capitalism and its way spread all over to make even living in a parking lot seem ‘normal’.

‘’Hidden, uncommon places  are refugees for geographical imagination’’, writes Bonnett, ‘’refugees of that increasingly omniscient map that has been being constructed for the last two centuries’’.

What happens, if, for example, a city is no longer the same city? Strange cases abound in which cities have been given other names and these two identities coexist or fight each other. It is the case with Leningrad, disappeared city which however is still remembered and missed, as much as it is tried to be forgotten by its inhabitants for its past.

What happens with unplanned spaces, places that arise as a result of making something else, like the space of land that is left after building multiple crossing highways? And abandoned cities, such as Wittenoom, in Australia, or Chernobyl, deserted places after medioambiental disasters? They exist, but they are not to be found in maps.

What about places constructed by the neighbours of an area, who decide to create an urban vegetable garden with a piece of land? Places like this suggest the possibilities (when they are given) of the use of space, of the ranking of importance of priorities in urban planning, and are regarded as sites of inspiration amidst big cities, such as ”Time Landscape”, in New York City, an artist’s reconstuction of the older vegetation that was found in the area.

The vegetation memorial in New York, as an example of sites of geographical imagination and possibility, or rare places that we often can find in cities.
The vegetation memorial in New York, as an example of sites of geographical imagination and possibility, or rare places that we often can find in cities.

Places of transit, no-places

In a similar way,  surrounding the world created by humans exists what has been called by Marc Augé ‘’no-lugares’’, i.e. ‘’no-places’’, lieus of transition, or forgotten, destroyed or abandoned places, which however inspire our imagination and highlight a certain sense of freedom. According to Marc Augé, a no- place is a space with no symbolic expression of identity or history, like airports, highways, hotel rooms and the public transport.

The quiet charm of no-places. Places of transition, abandoned or destroyed places, captivate our senses and imagination.
The quiet charm of no-places. Places of transition, abandoned or destroyed places, captivate our senses and imagination.

‘’These days, surely, it was in these crowded places where thousands of individual itineraries converged for a moment, unaware of one another, that there survived something of the uncertain charm of the waste lands, the yards and building sites, the station platforms and waiting rooms where travellers break step, of all the chance meeting places where fugitive feelings occur of the possibility of continuing adventure, the feeling that all there is to do is to ‘see what happens’’

No-places: airports, highways, gasoline stations. Spaces of transit best described in Augé's intro to the book.
No-places: airports, highways, gasoline stations. Spaces of transit best described in Augé’s intro to the book.

A no-place is, for example, air. The air through which planes fly, and that we consider as having no owner, is highly valued in cities such as Manhattan, where it is sold at prizes of thousands of dollars the square meter. Also, houses where planes fly close to, can charge planes for passing by. Air space has also been a matter of domestic policy, understood as the claims that at the beginning of the XXth century countries did in order to extend their national sovereignty over to air.

As we will see later, no-places like the ones showed in the images have its own artistic movements in artists that find the stillness of those daily or transition places under the light of suggestion of human emotions and reflections on spaces that are, for example, often full of people but appear empty at this time.

The quiet charm of urban decay

A great deal of artists work on capturing those places. Maybe they try to take account of desolation, abandonment, silence or loneliness that this kind of places suggest. They are places of abandonment that sparks our need to document it. Landscapes in which the human presence is rather transitory or circunstantial. This ideas has widely been explored by the movement known as detroitism, or the search for abandoned, ruined places and its particular photography.

Image of ruins of Detroit, where the movement for urban exploration and photography of ruins of abandoned places derives its name from.
Image of ruins of Detroit, where the movement for urban exploration and photography of ruins of abandoned places derives its name from.

Alastair Bonnet, in his book ‘’Off the map’’, speaks of the romantic aura that places discovered (those far away and those that we use daily). In a world that is totally discovered, exploration is not stopped, rather, it is reinvented. On the other hand, psychogrography, as we shall see, encourages the exploration of the city, even of those parts that are not in ruins 😉

New discoveries in known places. Psychogeography and ‘experimental tourism’

One of this ‘’reinventions’’ is found in psychogeography, ‘’an exploration of urban environments that emphasize playfulness’’, or according to Guy Debord, “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” In 1950s Paris, the situationists invented the term ‘’dérive’’, or the exploration of the city aimed at discovering how it had been constructed, and how it makes us feel. Psychogeography has at its core dissatisfaction with urban design and the desire of making the everyday world more interesting.

The derive is directionless walking, with the purpose of seeing how the city makes us feel, letting the city influence how we feel, for example in a crowded crossing as opposed to an ordered one in order to synthetise a personal map of the area.

This movements is inserted in a bigger one of the same period, the situationists, that seeked to create situations that improved citizen participation and urban planning in order to adapt to citizen needs rather than to those of the capitalist system.

All in all urban sociology, psychogeography and situationism defend cities designed for citizens rather than to increase capitalism and its city representation, gentrification.

This is something that is different in every city and can be widely explore. Does the city serve citizen needs or is it centered around consumption or businesses?

Some cities are lacking in fundamental lack of pedestrian, women or cycling passages, or for the cities lack proper planning altogether. Furthermore,  demographic data suggest areas with bigger violence index, lack of water supply,  levels of pollution, little to no green areas or cycling routes.

The art of photography allows us to complement our psychogrographical views and enlarge the geographical and sociological map and our relationship with our city or neighbourhood or even rural or natural area.

In a time of mass travelling where there seems to be no places left unexplored, experimental tourism is a way to turn a well-known destination into unmapped territory. Experimental tourism is a new way of travelling in which visitors do not visit the typical tourist attractions or visit them with a different approach. It consist of choosing places or approaches as a game, and having an experiment in mind.  For example, contretourism consists of visiting a famous landmark, but looking or photographing the landscape in front, or nyctalotourism (only visiting the landmarks between dusk and dawn), touring a hometown as a backpacker, or spending 24 hours in an airport, without intention to travel, or why not? Going from one bureaucratic office to another.

There are other ways to experiment with travel, such as travelling by night (seeing the city only during night time and returning back), or let chance drive your next destination like finding your other half in a city, without communication.  Behind this seemingly absurd practices, there is however the fruit of years of flâneurism and psychogeography, as well as a distaste for massive travelling to the same destinations when that is not all that knowing a place is (there si for example meeting locals or less crowded spaces)

In ‘’The great railway bazaar’’, author and experimental tourist Paul Theroux takes us on a trip made exclusively by train across Europe and Asia. Experimental travelling makes null the habitual choices in which we choose our destinations (land-marks, historical or cultural relevance, sun-seeking…) What began as a joke about the traditional tourist a group of friends were discussing, turned into a new way of travelling.

Wanting to know more about out-of-the-box thinking? Why not know more about these incredible, imaginative buildings: https://www.yoair.com/blog/the-worlds-most-unique-buildings/

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