I recently tried to answer a few questions about psychogeography for the wonderful Prehistories website. Here is an extract:
Ask a… psychogeographer
Interview with Murdo Eason, The Fife Psychogeographical Collective.
For any readers who haven’t encountered psychogeography before, could you give a brief explanation of the term?
The word may be unfamiliar to some people but I would guess that most people will have experienced it. To adapt Joseph Beuys: Everyone is a Psychogeographer.
Psychogeography has become a much used and abused label but a broad definition is the influence of the geographical environment on the human mind. Think back to when you were a child. You had little interest in moving through space in a linear fashion from place A to place B. Time was much more fluid. You would encounter playful distractions in the landscape – a tree to climb, or in my case, a concrete hippo or mushroom in the New Town of Glenrothes. You might find sticks to pick up; objects to poke with a stick. You might sit down to observe a line of ants crawling across the pavement. Following the sound of a distant ice-cream van may lead you through new routes in familiar streets. You may have pondered questions such as why does that building have such a large fence around it? Why does that sign say ‘Keep Out’?
Fast forward to walking through an unfamiliar city without a map. It is likely that you will encounter different zones of feeling as you move through the city. You may end up in an area that for whatever reason makes you feel uncomfortable and you want to walk away quickly. Conversely, the particular ambiance of an area make you feel relaxed or even carnivalesque. At other times a particular city environment may make you feel literally ‘out of place’.
Contemporary psychogeography has many different strands which makes it difficult to pin down precisely, but from the above we can pull out certain common characteristics:
It usually requires walking or moving through space;
there is some form of subjective engagement with the environment and
probably some form of implicit questioning as to why the environment is the way it is.
The follow on question, may be, does the environment have to be like this and how could it be changed (or preserved)?
In the history of ideas, most of the literature about psychogeography refers back to the Letterists and the Situationists who defined and developed their psychogeographic activities, such as the dérive – or drift – in an urban environment during the 1950s. However, we would argue that what is now often termed psychogeography is just a label applied to activities and practices that human beings, across all cultures, have undertaken as soon as they started to walk in the landscape.
Guy Debord’s definition of psychogeography is commonly cited:
Psychogeography sets for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.
Guy Debord, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, (1955)
However, our own research has uncovered that the term was used much earlier by the American anthropologist, J.Walter Fewkes in a non-urban context in the early 1900s:
… psychogeography, deals with the influence of geographical environment on the human mind.
J. Walter Fewkes, Bureau of American Ethnology, (1905)
Fewkes was using the term to examine the Native American Hopi people’s strong connection with their landscape. The arid landscape led them to develop a set of beliefs, practices and rituals, such as the rain dance, to appeal to the sky gods to deliver rain.
We have yet to see any mention of Fewkes in the psychogeographic literature but firmly embrace the idea of an expansive psychogeography: the influence of the geographical environment on the human mind in both urban and non-urban contexts. This also recognizes the presence of the non-human world in our landscapes.
To perhaps bring back all of this to a concrete example, here is a photograph, taken in Dunfermline, of a fairly typical designed environment. There are two laid out, planned footpaths and what would have been a green space with two trees:
It is clear to see that the planned footpaths have been ignored and an alternative ‘desire path’ has formed over the green space between the trees. A good localised example of people, whether consciously or unconsciously, being influenced by the landscape to question and change their local environment through footfall democracy!
The full interview can be read here and highly recommend that you check out the Prehistories website and also @DrHComics on Twitter. Here is an example of Hannah’s distinctive take on folklore:
the landscape of pitheads, the sea, rocks, castles, trees, storms and poverty marked his earliest identity with a place and probably remained the most influential to his art.
he once described his paintings as ‘statements of kinship with the natural world’
Amongst a fine display of Scottish Colourists, McTaggarts and Glasgow Boys, a painting hangs in the collection of the newly refurbished Kirkcaldy Galleries titled Intérieur noir (1950). It’s an abstract expressionist collision of angular black lines and post-war greys, leavened by hints of primary green and red. The painting is by Methil born, William Gear (1915 – 1997) and dates from Gear’s ‘Cobra Years’ when he was one of only two British members of the post-war, European, avant-garde movement CoBrA. Two of the leading instigators of CoBrA, Asger Jorn (1914 – 1973) and Constant Anton Nieuwenhuys, aka ‘Constant’ (1920 – 2005) would later become founding members of the Situationist International.
Sitting in the dark in the forgetting chamber. The trailer on the cinema screen is for a film called The Monuments Men. Directed by and starring George Clooney, the film looks to be a light-hearted comedy romp with a cast featuring Bill Murray, Matt Damon, John Goodman and Cate Blanchett amongst others. The trailer suggests a plot revolving around an unlikely band of allied troops tasked with finding and protecting important works of Art that the Nazis have stolen. At the time, I don’t really think a lot about this but it is clear from the preview that this will not be cinéma vérité.
Rows of miners cottages still stand squat and solid in the village of East Wemyss which sits between Kirkcaldy and Methil. The pithead winding gear of the Michael colliery would once have defined the surrounding landscape. At the time, the Michael was Scotland’s largest pit, but with a history of gas build up and spontaneous combustion underground. On 9th September 1967, a disastrous fire broke out in the mine. Although 302 men managed to escape, nine were killed and much of the coal reserves were destroyed. A memorial to the men stands in the village.
On the way to East Wemyss we had stopped at the site of the Frances Colliery, down the road at Dysart. The mine closed in 1989 but the pithead winding gear remains. A towering presence in the landscape evoking something of The Wicker Man. An industrial ghost of angular dark lines and winding wheels etched against the muffled blues and greys of a cold, damp, February afternoon.
On a more detailed view, we cannot help but be reminded of Gear’s Intérieur noir:
This image of the pithead lingers as we imagine tracing the footsteps of William Gear’s formative years around the streets and coastal paths of East Wemyss. It doesn’t take long before we also encounter the sea, the rocks, the ruined castle, the caves, and the trees.
A painting is not a construction of colours and lines, but an animal, a night, a scream, a human being – or all of these.
Prior to their involvement in the early phase of the Situationist International, Constant and Asger Jorn were key figures in the CoBrA avant-garde group. CoBrA was formed in November 1948 after six disaffected delegates walked out of a conference in Paris discussing proposals for an ‘International Centre For The Documentation of Avant-Garde Art’. The dissident group convened at Café Notre-Dame, and brought together: Constant, Karel Appel, and Corneille’s Experimentele Groep in Holland; Christian Dotremont and Joseph Noiret’s Revolutionary Surrealist Group from Belgium and Asger Jorn’s Høst Group from Denmark.
Dotremont came up with the name CoBrA (made up from Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam) and a short founding statement:
the only reason to maintain international activity is experimental and organic collaboration, which avoids sterile theory and dogmatism.
There was no uniform CoBrA style but the artists were united in searching for new paths of creative expression based on spontaneity and experiment and complete freedom of colour and form. They drew their inspiration in particular from children’s drawings, primitive art forms and from the work of Paul Klee. Most of the founding artists had experienced life under German occupation and shared similar aspirations following World War II: a new society and a new art. The artists shared an interest in Marxism and saw themselves as a ‘red Internationale’ that would lead to a new people’s art.
CoBrA had a relatively short existence and was dissolved in November 1951. However in this short space of time it distinguished itself from other post-war artist groups by being a manifestly international movement with a number of Cobra artists also collaborating in smaller, loose, cross-border exhibitions.
Britain had only two artists who became part of the CoBrA group. Both were born in Fife. Stephen Gilbert (1910 – 2007) was born in Wormit (1) and William Gear was born in Methil.
(Gear) speaks about being inspired by Fifeshire harbours, pit heads, naked trees and hedgerows reminding us that he is essentially a landscape artist whose use of solid, black lines refers to Léger, the Forth Railway Bridge, and medieval stained glass windows (a common reference among Cobra artists).
Gear was born in Methil into the hardships of a poor mining family and grew up in the nearby village of East Wemyss. Initially the family lived in a miners row of cottages in Randolph Street and later in Approach Row. His father worked in the local pits, but had creative interests including photography and growing flowers. When young Bill began to show an aptitude for art, he was fully encouraged. Inspiration came from local teachers, the local library and visits to Kirkcaldy Art Gallery to view “Old McTaggart and Peploe.” A visit to an Edvard Munch exhibition in Edinburgh also made a huge impression. On finishing school Bill was encouraged to apply for a place at Edinburgh College of Art. Money was an issue for the family however small grants were available from Fife Education Authority, the ‘Carnegie’ and the Miners Welfare which made this feasible. As Gear recounts:
“this was rather lucky and it was a special Scottish thing or even a Fife thing, because the Fife Education Authority was quite left-wing, even Communist at one time and they very very much encouraged it, the education … and of course, the Carnegie and the Miners and in one way and the other, I was able to function…”(2).
Gear studied painting at Edinburgh College of Art, 1932–36, where he recounts: ” I was already doing my own thing a bit and being hauled over the coals for it, you know being advised to look at Ingres…” A year in Europe, on a travelling scholarship followed, where he ended up in Paris studying with Ferdinand Léger. It is likely that Gear first encountered Asger Jorn at this time as Jorn was working with Léger on his murals for the International Exhibition of 1937.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Gear was called up to serve in the Royal Signal Corps in Europe and the Middle East. However, he still found time to paint – mostly works on paper of damaged landscapes. He managed to stage exhibitions in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Cairo as well as one-man shows in Siena and Florence.
When starting to find out a bit more about William Gear, I had no idea that he had in fact been one of the Monuments Men which George Clooney’s film supposedly turns into a historic caper. There were around 350 men and women from 13 nations signed up to the Allied Forces’ Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section, during and immediately after the war. During 1946–7, Gear worked for the MFAA and was tasked with securing the safety of the Berlin Art Collection in Schloss Celle. He also organised an important series of modern art exhibitions, including work deemed by the Nazis as ‘Degenerate Art’ including Picasso and the German Expressionists. In particular, he promoted the work of Karl Otto Gotz who had been banned from exhibiting by the Nazis. Gear became a good friend of Gotz and later introduced him into the CoBrA circle.
Introduction to Cobra
It was during a period of army leave to Paris, in 1947, that Gear was introduced to Constant and Corneille by fellow Fifer, Stephen Gilbert. Gear had already met Jorn before the war and he also knew Jean-Michel Atlan and Jean Dubuffet. Gear therefore had social connections with the European avant-garde prior to the formation of CoBrA and when he demobbed in 1947, he headed for Paris and soon established a one-room studio at 13 Quai des Grands Augustins. Within a year there were exhibitions at two of the pioneering Paris salons and a first one-man show at the Galerie Arc en Ciel.
Gear was invited by Constant and Jorn to exhibit at CoBrA shows in Amsterdam and Copenhagen in 1949, alongside Corneille and Appel. In the same year, he exhibited alongside Jackson Pollock at Betty Parson’s Gallery in New York.
Whilst Gear’s paintings could be described as a ‘reinvigorated form of abstract expressionism’ many display a suggestion of landscape, not least in the recurring titles:
There was always a link with nature, I never denied nature really. Even in those extreme abstract themes we have been looking at, there is an equivalence to, observable form. I don’t say nature in the naturalistic sense but of observable forms. They may be telegraph poles or stakes or trees or structures or, as I am looking out the window now, I mean, I can see, I can see my painting in two or three different ways. There is the severe architectural modern structure over there and at the same time trees and foliage and blossom and light through the tree. I mean, there is my painting you see. This is where it comes from. I don’t necessarily sit down and paint that, but I am aware of it.
Festival of Britain 1950
Gear returned to the UK in 1950, recently married to Charlotte Chertok, and with a young son – David – in tow. It was an opportune moment for Gear who, out of sixty artists invited to submit, was one of six artists awarded a Festival of Britain Purchase Prize. Gear’s painting was a huge canvas – Autumn Landscape – and the only abstract work selected. Illustrating just how little some things change over time, The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail took great exception to this ‘waste of public money’ and urged readers to complain to their Members of Parliament. The result was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Gaitskill, being asked in the House of Commons whether he was satisfied with the expenditure of public money on a painting that had been described as ‘trash’. Gaitskill deferred to the decision of the distinguished international jury who had awarded the prizes which represented a broad section of British Art.
Gear makes the point that the whole adverse reaction came from a small 3″x 2″ black and white reproduction printed in the Daily Telegraph before the exhibition had opened and anyone had actually seen the picture.
Gear became curator of the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne from 1958 to 1964, where he managed to change the local authority’s collection policy from Victorian and local views to securing the foundation of a major collection of post-war British art. He became head of the Faculty of Fine Art at Birmingham College of Art in 1964, a post from which he retired in 1975.
Gear continued to paint until the end of his life and whilst out of critical favour for most of the 1960s and 1970s, a renewed interest and retrospective appreciation of the CoBrA movement has gone some way to reverse this. The major Cobra 1948-51 exhibition in 1982, at the Musee d’Art Moderne, Paris, included works by Gear and Stephen Gilbert and Cobra enthusiast Karel van Stuijvenberg has also been a prominent supporter. A retrospective of Gear’s The Cobra Years was held at the Redfern Gallery in 1987 and a much larger exhibition Paintings from the 1950s in 2006. The Cobra Museum of Modern Art was opened in Amstelveen, near Amsterdam in 1995 with Gear invited to attend the ceremonial opening.Only a few weeks before his death, he was awarded a Leporello Award, appropriately instigated by fellow artists and presented by the Lower Saxony government. This recognised Gear’s service in the MFAA and the promotion of “democratic art and artistic freedom.” Today, Gears work sits in public collections around the world including collections in the cities and towns of: Kirkcaldy, Aberdeen, Amstelveen, Belfast, Birmingham, Brighton, Buffalo, New York, Canberra, Caracas, Chichester, Cincinnati, Eastbourne, Edinburgh, Fort Lauderdale, Glasgow, Hereford, Kendal, Liege, Lima, London, Manchester, Middlesbrough, Nelson, Newcastle, New York, Ottawa, Oxford, Perth, Rye, Southampton, Stirling, Sydney, Stromness, Tel Aviv, Toledo, Toronto.
We finish our walk around these fundamental landscapes surprised by how much we appear to recognise, see or feel in Gear’s work. One final thought occurs as we pass Methil Docks which in Gear’s childhood would have been a bustling industrial complex exporting Fife coal around the world. The coal hoist structures for loading the ships may have disappeared but new industrial beasts are presently being constructed.
Perhaps a symbol of transition from a carbon economy towards a more hopeful low-carbon future. We wonder whether these structures will function as the pithead did for Gear. Burning themselves in to the (un)conscious mind of those local artists who will take it, remake it and connect it to the wide wide world. If the local support structures are in place…
Now Playing: Stereolab – Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night
Notes and references:
(1) Perhaps a future post on Stephen Gilbert will follow.
It is futile to search in our theories of architecture or dérive for any other motive than the passion for play.
Guy Debord (1)
As we enter Glasgow Green, my daughter takes aim, like an archer pulling a bowstring and points to the horizon. “There it is!” We both follow the trajectory of the imaginary arrow and gaze over the vast expanse of green common land. From all directions, ant-like threads of people are drifting towards the iconic structure of Stonehenge sitting in the landscape. The lines of people are converging and congregating around the monument and we can hear the distant sounds of carnival. Feeling the totemic pull of the stones, we set off to join them. This is why we have come.
Except this Stonehenge is Jeremy Deller’s ultimate bouncy castle version. An interactive art installation named Sacrilege and part of the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art. Such is the popularity of Sacrilege, that, on arrival, we are assigned to one of the two holding ‘pens’ which allow up to one hundred people, at a time, to assemble and wait for a fifteen minute ‘interactive experience’ with the exhibit. As we sit in the sunshine, and soak up the celebration taking place amongst the stones, it really is a joy to watch the utter delight on faces as they attempt to run, jump, roll, lie or simply walk. Toddlers are happy to bounce up and down on the spot whilst the older kids are going off like pressure cookers, doing cartwheels, forward rolls, playing tig and body slamming into the iconic henge. Adults are given licence to do pretty much the same if they can keep up. A tribe of teenage goths stick to the perimeter, appearing to be disoriented by the brilliant sunshine and riot of lurid green plastic. Some pilgrims simply take refuge at the base of a stone and observe.
What also contributes to the Sacrilege experience is how the area is completely cleared between pen changeovers. For a short period of time the empty installation is replete with possibility, creating a sense of playful anticipation in the crowd as shoes are kicked off, jerseys discarded and bags are heaped in piles. The good-humoured security crew attempt to enforce their mock authority as they patrol the ‘control zone’ between crowd and structure, yakking into their walkie talkies. An anarchic youngster unable to contain herself, sneaks under the rope and makes a dash for the centre before being retrieved, kicking and screaming, by a slightly embarrassed parent. The heid bummer security guard with the megaphone barks out instructions (“no shoes, heavy bags, human sacrifice”) and the rope is finally dropped with all the ceremony of an Olympic starting gun. It’s a mad, mad rammy to clamber on to the structure and within seconds all ontological baggage is released by the sheer thrill of being and bouncing in the moment. When our turn comes around we (I!) soon find that fifteen minutes of plastic stone hi-jinks is pretty exhausting but exhilarating. We are part of a communal assemblage, literally jumping for joy. Sacrilege indeed.
I’m not overly familiar with Deller’s work, but afterwards it struck me that there is a lot more going on with this bouncy castle than at first may appear. I’m reminded of Ralph Rumney and Guy Debord’s attraction to the ludic ideas of Huizinga who proposed that spontaneity, play and festival should be a vital part of daily life and a potentially transformative agent to break free from the ‘stultifying nature of boring, non-ludic life’. Hussey suggests that Huizinga’s arguments had a revolutionary significance for Debord who was intrigued by the suggestion that games or spontaneous play could be experimental forms of new social behaviour. Rumney claims to have introduced Huizinga’s Homo Ludens to Debord which was instrumental in providing him with a vocabulary for thinking about and anticipating ‘the construction of situations’. If nothing else, Deller has certainly constructed a situation. I’m also reminded of Bakhtin’s notion of the carnivalesque whereby the participation in carnival can remove individuals from the social hierarchies of everyday non-carnival life and allow the exercise of normally repressed energies to flower. Perhaps Sacrilege can be viewed as a practice of Situationist détournement. By hi-jacking the iconic image of Stonehenge, and all of its associated cultural baggage, Deller has created a new artwork that celebrates free assembly, mass appeal and the carnivalesque. Perhaps more importantly it is playful, fun, cheeky and joyous. Not terms that would leap to mind should you visit the original Wiltshire version these days. I understand that Sacrilege is now heading to ‘the Olympics’ and it will be interesting to observe whether the Glasgow experience will be ‘allowed’ to translate to a very different cultural space. Will anyone be able to pitch up at will, freely assemble and take part? We shall observe with interest.
And as we join the dehydrated but elated crowd drifting over the green common land to the winter gardens of the People’s Palace, we also take the chance to view the people’s history of Glasgow. A history of grim social conditions and top-down imposed planning failures, leavened with histories of resistance. My daughter is particularly taken with two iconic artefacts from popular culture: Billy Connolly’s banana boots and Alex Harvey’s leather jacket. Two performers, who also know/knew something about invoking the carnivalesque.
So here we are, with freedom within our sweaty, greedy, grasps. So remember this, boys and girls, when freedom comes along… DON’T pish in the water supply…
Now playing: The Sensational Alex Harvey Band – Live
(1) Guy Debord, ‘Architecture and Play’ Potlach no. 20 (May 30, 1955).
(2) Andrew Hussey,(2001), The Game of War: The Life and Death of Guy Debord (London, Jonathan Cape).