These past three weeks I’ve been facilitating in the classroom so my practice has been pretty much shelved. Though I try to keep a dialogue going between myself and blog, if and when I get a free moment. This week was that free moment as my teaching program closed for a week.
Last week I watched a very inspiring video on Youtube, ‘Will Self talks at Google’. Basically, Will Self’s talk is on the subject of Psychogeography. A term that was defined by French theorist, Marxist, filmmaker, Guy Debord in the mid-1950s. Debord was also a member of Situationist International. From research, I’ve found that everyone has a different viewpoint on this topic. Though the overall view being that districts and quarters have their own distinctive character. Peter Ackroyd’s Psychobiography of London is a good pointer. One prime example in his book being Gin Lane. Infamous for the consumption of excessive gin drinking and famously depicted by the artist William Hogarth in 1751. Debord’s theory was that modern cities were constructed by commercial imperatives and the way individuals move around the city. For example, we go to the cinema, a football match, go home, go to work etc etc. In that sense the individual becomes lost and therefore it could be argued that we don’t really exist in that city. He stated that the way we could counters this notion in what he called a ‘drift’ (i.e. moving aimlessly through the city). Debord’s early methodology or should I say putting his theory into practice is typical of radical ideology of the 50s/60s. (I’m not being critical of this practice) The original idea being, going out with his Situationist friends, buying wine along the way and roaming from one end of Paris to another. (Sounds like a pub crawl without the pub!) Seriously, I get his objective here; not using the city as a capitalist environment. Sounds fun whatever the objectives maybe. Interestingly, Debord wasn’t much heard of as a leftie radical at that time but fast forward 12/13 years and he was a very influential figure during the student riots in Paris in 1968.
It seems that everyone has their own method of Psychogeography, me included. I suppose the most typical example we see or have experienced is when you’re in an unfamiliar city on holiday and you’re trying to navigate yourself around a city with a Lonely Planet book or a map from the Tourist Information. I give a dated examples, sorry. Now it is Google maps on our i-phones.
Yesterday I embarked on an aimless linear journey through the Tokyo suburbs and into the city. My rusty,fold-up bicycle being my tool of transportation so the practice being cyclogeography. It was a bright and sunny day like most days this time of year. The sky was icy blue. Tokyo is still fairly warm in early November with temperatures ranging between 18-20 degrees. I didn’t have any idea where I would end up. It wasn’t important. I would follow the Keio line as it gave me some perspective as to where I was in West Tokyo. First, I felt this plan was a cop-out but Debord did state in his study of Psychogeography, ‘ the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals’ . Consciously organized or not, I’m safe! but does this definition apply to cyclogeographers too?? I thought. But my favourite definition has to be from Joseph Hart in his article’s article, A New Way of Walking in Utne Reader in 2004. “a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities… just about anything that takes pedestrians off predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape”
Drift Starting Point: Shiraitodai (Fuchu City)
Date: TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 3rd (Culture Day)
1/ A desolate suburban area. 10:15 a.m. approx 2/The train crossing gates designed to prevent pedestrians, motorists and cyclogeographers (me) from potential hazards. I’ll be doing many more of these ‘waiting’ situations during the drift.
3/ A Stone Garden (Trystan would love this! I should have got a stone for him) 4/ A scooter that delivers potted flowers straight to your door! I’m sure those pots at the front aren’t legal! But we’re in the suburbs and laws are relaxed.
5/ Tobitakyu. A sporting environment offering J-League football as entertainment. Walk down that road and it will take you to Ajinomoto Stadium. Home of the mighty F.C. Tokyo. My drift is moving me out of Fuchu shi and into Chofu shi (shi=city) 6/ Me waiting at a crossing in Chofu. It’s not a selfie! It’s proof I’m aimlessly drifting
7/ Near Chofu Station, the environment now becomes busy, noisy, regimented and ordered. Public transportation becomes much more prevalent. 8/ An off license just outside Chofu. I like the owner’s Gothic-style typography.
9/ A flower shop in Fuda. The warped wood, worn wood catches my eye. 10/I get off the busy road and randomly choose a quiet road. My mood becomes instantly relaxed. I notice a ‘Gomi’ collection outside someone’s house . Basically, give-a-ways and usually household objects that are nearing the end of their functional life. Notice how neatly they are arranged.
11/ Look carefully and you’ll notice a tree stump actually ‘in’ the Shibasaki train station just by the ticket gates! I’m all for saving the trees but I can’t get my head round this one. I mean, there will come to a point where a hole will have to be made in the roof of the station. Maybe not in our life time. 12/The centre of Danger: I momentarily drift in a dangerous environment. I hear the warning signal and drift away from danger. Between Shibasaki and Tsutsujigaoka train stations.
13/ I’m somewhere near the unpronounceable Tsutsujigaoka station (Chofu-shi). I get off the rusty fold-up as my legs are aching and just look around. I instantly notice the small tobacconist signage ‘Nice Day Nice Smoking’ I chuckle to myself and think…… I wonder if the shop owners have erased the Smoking Kills information on all the fag packets?
I’m not exactly sure but I surmise that I’m almost out of Chofu-shi. I drift down another inviting road away from the rail line. 14/ I notice this glorious piece of architecture. Probably built in the 30s. The old decaying wood glistens in the sun. Definitely my cup of tea. 15/ I look to my left and see the opposite of beauty. A characterless box, violently upsetting the surrounding beauty (the shack). Apologies if the owner of fig 15 is reading my blog.
16/ A small, cosy tunnel. The height is only 1. 7 metres. I needed to duck while cycling through it!
16 The Small Tunnel
17/ An elegant wooden house with a nice view. Houses with panoramic views are something of a rarity in Tokyo. 18/ Emphasizes my point about views. In Tokyo people generally buy the land, the old structure gets bull-dozed, quick as. The houses are closely-knit. Look how close this plot of land is next to the surrounding houses.
19/ ‘Kind Concrete’ I take the rusty fold-up the steps. The step planners ensure getting from A to B is not too strenuous for cyclogeographers by including a ramp in the centre of the steps. How thoughtful! 20/ I have a little stroll and come across this allotment and what appears to be an improvised shed made from various urban materials. A Post-modern masterpiece!
21/ I’m quite lost at this point and sensibly I didn’t bring any maps or devices with me. Sensibly? Yes, I don’t want my drifting experience spoilt. The view is a peaceful one. I feel calm and solitude in this non-threatening environment.
21 A View
21 /Material contents of the interiors are usually on display during agreeable climates. Here, the futons (bed blankets) are getting a good airing. 22/ A decorative bridge. I’m somewhere in Setagaya ku. It’s a wealthy area of Tokyo favoured by politicians and TV celebs, apparently.
23/ I notice a distinct feature about the Setagaya neighbourhood. The streets seem to be narrower. Surrounding space is much more compact. Manhole covers are a very distinctive feature. 24/ We’re back to airing again. This time cushions in bicycle baskets and bath mats hung over the garden gate. With the surrounding shrubbery it all looks very quaint.
25/ Through another tunnel. No ducking and dodging this time. At this point I change my camera. Out: Point and shoot, Nikon cool pics. In: Pentax Q7 (SLR)
26/ I’ve drifted towards a busy station, Chitose Karasuyama (Setagaya-ku). The concrete outside the station is rather decorative and welcoming. 27/ The cracked pavement, the most prevalent feature in a city. In Tokyo you could make ‘Cracked Pavements’ an interesting project as the width and length of the crack is largely determined by the earthquake tremors.
28/”A dreaded sunny day and I’ll meet you at the cemetery gates..” Echoing Morrissey lyrics as I drift into a quiet environment. Not a soul to be seen. The high rise blocks menacingly dwarf the scene. 29/ A building a little further down the road. The circle shape is so dominant. It is functional? No one seems to be around (again) so I go and have a nose around the building.
Drift Ending Point: Somewhere near Chitose Karasuyama Station (Setagaya-ku)
I’m near Chitose Karasuyama station. The excitement I have experienced begins to wane as fatigue sets in. It’s about 1:00 p.m and I’ve been cycling for just under three hours. The light will begin to fade round 4:30 and as I don’t have any lights on the fold-up, I begin to make a u-turn. But I could jump on a train, I think. No, that would be boring and it would make my cyclogeography drifting experience pointless. Roughly but not completely knowing my route back still excited me. I might get lost again! and what new obstacles lie in wait in the return journey?
30/ Herbal medicine (Aloe vera) heavily guarded by PET bottles. The reflections from the bottles ward off cats, apparently. 31/ Another decorative manhole cover. These would make great charcoal rubbings! Another day, maybe.
32/ ‘Hidden Heaven’ A house sandwiched between houses. 33/ Dead end street so I need to re-route.
34/ Cracked pots: Picturesque detritus mingling with shrubbery. 35/ Netting, especially green and blue netting is another prominent city feature operating in residential areas of Tokyo. It’s function serves to keep the crows away from the rubbish. It works too.
36/ Another ramshackle front yard. A pocket of curiosity. More airing in evidence. Rugs this time. 37/ Another dead end!
I try to follow the train track but end up cycling down continuous winding roads, weaving through countless labyrinths but still managing to head in a Westerly direction. 38/I stop for a quick drink and look up. The underside of a roof catches my eye. 39/Such crude D.I.Y. going on here, excessive use of gaffa tape.
40/ An umbrella collection: Historical Discussion: In the Tokyo Gas Attack in 1995, umbrellas were the objects of disobedience. The perpetrators used the umbrella tips to puncture the bags to release the deadly sarin. After reading Murakami’s ‘Underground’, many years ago, umbrellas still carry an eerie presence for me. 41/ Yet another dead end! The environment is creating obstacle after obstacle for me. However, this dead end has aesthetic qualities.
42&43/ It may be just another dead end but it’s visually stimulating. 10 or 20 years ago I wouldn’t have noticed this scene as it would have been clean and characterless. Now, punished by the elements and peacefully decaying in the sunlight, it deserves to be recorded by camera.
44/ After analysing countless manhole covers on my drift, Setagaya, it seems, has the most decorative ones. These heavy, circular iron pressings enveloped in concrete enable the road to become a gallery. I’m fond of the chysanthemum designs. Now I’ve started to cycle round them and not over them. 45/ Dead end number…..I’ve lost count.
It’s about 3:15 in the afternoon. I manage to navigate through more roads, lanes, avenues , through Setagaya-ku and Chofu-shi. I find a familiar ugly main road, Koshu-kaido Avenue. I reluctantly cycle along it accompanied with familiar urban killer characteristics such as traffic, smog, carbon monoxide etc. 46/ As I’m passing through Chofu, I wait at the traffic lights under the monstrous and engulfing Chuo expressway. It is here I spot a small playground. A space that functions for young children to play happily for hours on colourful and animated objects of amusement such as slides, swings, merry-go-rounds and climbing frames. However, this scene is frightening by contrast. Dark, cold and uninviting. Look closely and you are able to see express way escape stairwells on a pillar. Another Murakami book springs to mind (1Q84) Actually, the stairwell should be lowered so the children are able to escape! No, there is something disturbing and dystopian about this environment. Though amidst the noise, the voices of the children and parents echo; no doubt enjoying the open space and nonchalant about the out of place irregularity.
A Brief Conclusion
During the cyclogeography experience I did start to question which is more engaging (i.e. cyclogeography vs psychogeography). I reflected largely on my own perambulatory landscape and cityscape experiences. For instance, the Somerset Moors, Dartmoor, the Algarve, Brittany, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, Ottolo, Siberia, The Forbidden City, and the Tokyo Metropolis which I’m forever exploring. I then realized that my cyclogeography experiences were practically limited. Reflection over. So, what did I learn and discover? Psychogeography being a continuous narrative which our physical dictates our motion. Depending on the region, in my case this week an urban landscape, the drifter(s) observes and encounters more aspects of human geography as opposed to physical geography. I was amazed by the number of obstacles I had to strategically maneuvre around. Tunnels, dead ends (cul-de-sac), railway crossings, one way streets being just a few examples. Again, thinking of Debord as he decried, the city dictates our movements and we are consumed by it. Debord’s a bit too heavy for me. However, getting away from geographical jargon and Situationist rhetoric, from my observations, the urban landscape does offer a fascinating continuous visual gallery influenced by the human. Forms such as manhole covers, cracked ceramic pots, dusty cushions, decaying artefacts, refuse netting, and ubiquitous surrounding detritus. In short, a 24 hour, alfresco, free, art gallery.
Drift Distance: 5.7 miles/9.3 kilometres