Monday, January 17, 2011

a straight line is not always the shortest distance between two points

As previously noted, Guy Debord's psychogeography is very much an urban phenomenon, which shouldn't be too surprising as his spiritual forebears were urban flaneurs like Blake, De Quincey, Baudelaire and Benjamin, whose mix of literary gravitas, visionary pretensions, and vague transgressiveness, have their echoes in contemporary psychogeographic aspirants like Ian Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd. Debord's own definition of psychogeography was helpfully vague: "...the study of the specific effects of the geographic environment, consciously or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals", but one suspects that with most of the flaneurs who like to bandy about the word, the individuals upon whose emotions and behaviours the geographic environment is having an effect is particularly themselves.  

Patrick Keiller, who is also often characterized as a contemporary psychogeographer, would on the face of it, after his film London, appear to have left the urban behind to take psychogeographic practices out into the broader field and fields of suburban and regional England, a process continued by the recent Robinson in Ruins. It would be misleading, however to think that this meant that psychogeography had become in any way ruralized. In fact it's probably more accurate to say that, what passes for the countryside of England has become urbanized. While it may not be located within an urban conurbation, the English rural is almost entirely industrialized in one way or another, to greater or lesser degree, from industrial scale farming through to the production of power be it nuclear, wind or water, or the production of consumers in shopping centres, at least in the world that Robinson inhabits.

Alfred Watkins
Alfred Watkins, the discoverer of ley lines, who wrote at length about his discovery providing countless examples and speculation as to their significance in his 1925 book The Old Straight Track, is too often erroneously cited as an early example of a psychogeographer.  Watkins’s discovery could be easily summed up, although not dismissed, by saying that he found that ancient man-made features in the landscape (buildings, burial mounds, churches, fords across streams and rivers, etc) are frequently found to be aligned along straight lines that could be described across the countryside. Watkins's ley lines are not exclusively rural and are also found in urban places, but due to rural architecture being more spaced out they are more easily traced visually at ground level. It was Watkins's practice as a landscape photographer that first alerted him to the phenomenon, crucially though he never ascribed any psychological properties to geography as a result of his discovery. He speculated about the material history of the landscape and the activities of its inhabitants, but didn’t made the leap into the kind of imaginary and metaphysical realm that psychogeographers inhabit.  

Objects that exist in the physical environment that humans inhabit, whether human-made or 'natural', are entities unto themselves. The imaginary inscribing and/or ascribing of psychological or metaphysical properties to them is a purely cultural invention, and in the modern period can be seen as an extension of humanism's project to describe the world in correlation to the human, whether rural or urban, psychogeography rests on a similar conception of 'the real' as existing to be exploited by the human imaginary.

In his book Electric Eden Rob Young suggests that the British Isles hasn't produced 'driving' music in the same way that say the US or Germany has. Due to the lack of space for long roads on the land mass, Britain " not large enough to have generated a culture of the open road... travel is more commonly linked to the sense of a quest, a journey undertaken for purposes of knowledge or self-restoration... the British road is a road to the interior, of the imagination rather than a physical coverage of distance...". Young cites this in explanation for the 1960s counter cultural back-to-nature flight from the city to imaginary mystical Edenic rural idyll. This seems a fair observation, however he then seems to conflate this with Alfred Watkins and the Land Art of the likes of Richard Long. While an English exotic mysticism of ley lines, their link to water divination, dowsing, the occult and new age Earth Mysteries culture, might have been given legitimacy by the re-publication of The Old Straight Track in 1970, it was never speculated upon by its author, spiritual and supernatural significance was attributed after the fact, first in the 1930s and then in the ‘60s.   

left: Alfred Watkins Arthur’s Stone, Dorston, Green Way Sighted to and Beyond the Mound
Black and white photograph, published as fig.14 of Alfred Watkins, The Old Straight Track
right: Richard Long A Line Made by Walking 1967
There is however a remarkable similarity between the images produced by Richard Long and Alfred Watkins.  I would venture that there is a distinction that needs to be drawn between the photography and writing of Watkins and both the psychological meanderings of psychogeography and occult ley line mysticism.  By unhitching metaphysics from psychogeography, we might get closer to Watkins's original project, which has much more to do with measuring distance into the past.

Like Watkins, Richard Long's Land Art is concerned with the land itself, with the fact of being in the landscape the activity of measuring it, the conceptual project of seeing it not as an extension of the human imaginary, but as an entity in itself, upon and within which the human is but one agent, almost as the imaginary extension of the land, not vice versa. Long's work  displays little or nothing of the back-to-nature romantic essentialism of the hippies who fled as far as the remote isles of Scotland. They tend to be concerned with the material physicality of being in the landscape, resulting often in formal and structural investigations framing, measuring, tracing, traversing the land and its environmental phenomena. This is equally if not more true of much of the landscape film of the 1970s: the work of Chris Welsby with their sophisticated interaction with phenomena of the landscape, Michael Snow's La RĂ©gion Centrale, or some of the films of Guy Sherwin, David Parsons, Nicky Hamlyn and others, which engage with formally precise filming of rural landscapes, born from the relationship between the camera and features in the field, very much in the same mold as the equally grounded level explorations of Watkins. 

left: frames from Riding Ring, Guy Sherwin, 16mm, 1976
right: the device used to make Stream Line, Chris Welsby, 1976

frames from Vertical David Hall, 1969
David Hall's 1969 film Vertical is perhaps even closer to the spirit of Watkins with its perceptual framings and frames in the landscape, the relationship with how things line up with distance and perspective, and its illusory games. For Hall, like Watkins, standing stones are objects of spatial reference, not sacred or mystical sites.

An excellent research paper on Alfred Watkins can be found at the Tate Research site.

None of the Apostrophe S trilogy uses the formal Watkinsesque approach to photographing the landscape; perhaps when we made those films we were too close to a time when there had been something of a reaction to structural film.  I do however remember someone referring to Green on the Horizon as having echoes of a ‘film coop formalism’, or some such thing.  Equally the project does trade on the supernatural associations with ley lines, dowsing, ghost sightings, and so on, that I am somewhat scornful of above.  Indeed Hangway Turning became something of a catalogue of such phenomena.  Having said this I think this was always presented as something of a consciously constructed and appended fiction, somewhat self-aware of its vague absurdity and by extension the absurdity of the myths and urban legends that were attached to specific places while simultaneously helping to define their identity as places, and associating these to the broader cultural frame of myths that might relate to them.

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