Monday, 11 April 2011

Second-Generation Psychogeography, Six Senses, Stuff and Subjectivity

An old friend contacted us and delighted us when he let us know he’d syndicated a feed of the Other Aberdeen blog onto the website of Edinburgh-based band Tramplord, along with this précis of our work:
Other Aberdeen is second generation psychogeography. It is a subjective encounter with the urban environment; but it is also an encounter that acts for solutions.  The experiments aren't those of the old fashioned flaneur who is playing with the rules, but are done with the urgency - not of artistic madness or vanity - but of people working for a better city.  This is not wine glasses and maps, no boy. In fact, wine glasses and maps are childrens' toys; and this is a mature psychogeography.
If you think of psychogeography as the anarchic and playful stuff of the 50s, 60s and beyond, this is OK.  But all the early psychogeographers learned from their drunken experiments was this: Experimenting in a subjective mode enlightens the individual psychogeographer no end yes! but it won't change Jack Shit in Babylon.
Other Aberdeen is also blessed with a brilliant subject.  Aberdeen is an unusual place, sometimes at variance with the UK in terms of all sorts of ideas and trends.  Things are always happening there. Worlds collide.  And all that.  It's a funny old corner of the world.

"Worlds collide ... funny old corner of the world..." So true. We very much appreciated the appreciation, and we revel in the tag: “second generation psychogeography”.

Notwithstanding the fact that if you study something too closely it can lose meaning through lack of context, we’ve been pondering just what this “second generation” is, what is it (what are we) for, and how does it do what it does? That is to say: what are our tools, how do we use them, and what do we hope to achieve?

It should be clear to regular readers that what we hope to achieve at Other Aberdeen is a subjective improvement in the livability of our town. Our aims are no more complex nor less ambitious than that. We aver that by picking certain psychogeographical implements from the toolbox anyone can cross the boundary between merely inhabiting an urban space and actually living in it. By actually making the conscious choice to live in (rather than merely occupy) our urban spaces we can re-root ourselves as human beings and re-boot urbanism within an often alienating urban environment. That process will, in its own turn, reduce the alienating overburden which is the legacy of the decades-long misunderstanding of urbanism which so often characterises urban realm spaces in the UK.

Desire line interchange. Hub?
Foremost amongst the methods we use is walking. Simple as that; and from that we bootstrap a whole range of subsidiary strategies - tools, if you will - which we use to explore and assimilate the urban environment within the context of getting on with all the other content of our lives. For instance, a relative of mine had a hospital stay recently (he’s fine now). Arranging and co-ordinating hospital visits between myself and friends and family members became a bizarre exercise in mostly telling people that I really really didn’t need a lift to travel the 2 kilometers between my home in Pitmuxton and Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. Regrettable though it is to have a relative in hospital, over the two weeks he was there, I took the opportunity to walk the streets, lanes, foot-paths and desire-lines of Queen’s Cross, Rubislaw, Mile-end, Raeden, Mid-stocket, Westholm, Foresterhill, Woodend, Summerhill, Mannofield and Rosemount in large, looping routes which descended into valleys of all-but-forgotten watercourses, traversed redundant farmyards now hemmed-in by Victorian terraces and ascended in the footsteps of historical quarry workers on their privileged rights-of-way to the high granite-bearing ridge along which the Anderson Drive trunk-road now runs. If time was short, and a direct route was necessary, my motor-centric car-dependent fellow hospital visitors were just amazed to find that I could walk the route from my front door to hospital bedside in only 10 minutes more than it had taken them in a car.

And this leads us to the secondary (but no less important) tool: time. To be alive in the 21st century urban environment is to be a privileged denizen of the most amazing labour-saving device yet conceived and realised by civilisation; the city itself. The urban construct is entirely for our convenience - we should use and exploit it as such, rather than allow it to oppress and use and exploit us. For instance, it amazes us that anyone submits themselves to the inhuman ordeal of physically going to the supermarket these days, when a month’s grocery shopping can be achieved in ten minutes and a couple-of-dozen clicks online. Of course, we’d much rather have human-scale independent-trader local shops or market-stalls for our unhurried grocery shopping - such a set-up creates community and a sense of place, encourages interpersonal discourse, provides diversity and bestows opportunities for the spontaneous generation and discovery of delight. We’d like to have all that; but in this town, in this era, we don’t. Maybe one day independent traders will return to the urban environment of Aberdeen. We wish.

Anyhow, the point is, with time on our hands, when we go outside to take part in the life of the town, we can take our time. We try to organise our lives so that we have time to take the time to think. The time to feel. The time to think about how we feel.

And, when we walk the town with time on our hands, something else happens. We find a centre within ourselves. We find that we re-discover our senses. We see the urban environment; we hear both the roar of the traffic and the songs of the birds; we touch walls ancient and modern, and the branches of trees brush our heads; we smell cut grass and Sunday gravy, sometimes Torry fish and Kingswells sharn; and yes we even taste - we taste the car-farted sulphurous particulate, wafted along major city roads and pooling in hollows.

The topography tells tales.
It says: "Take a closer look!"
And then, when we notice that our senses are alive in the urban environment; that we have all-stimulating surroundings - if we only choose and allow ourselves to be stimulated by them - something else again happens. Something very human and delightful and surprising indeed. We’ve seen travelogue and anthropological histobunk programmes on the telly discussing the Austrailian Aborigines or Masai or Bedouin or First Nation Americans maybe, and marveling at their sense of direction, their navigational abilities. Wow - no maps; wow - no satnav. We begin, in our own small way, to feel a little bit of that sense - that ability. The ability to orientate within a topography, the ability to estimate an incline, the recognition of three-dimensional landscape features. Is it too much to call this a sixth sense? Certainly we have in the inner ear an organ of orientation which is an inclinometer and gravimeter, and we have proprioception - the ability to intuitively know the relation of the various parts of our bodies to each other (this is the sense that allows you to touch the tip of your nose in the dark). We believe that when we take these three additional para-senses (orientation, gravity-awareness, body-self-sense) together in toto as we move through the urban landscape it allows us access to a mindscape in which there is an enhanced possibility of just noticing stuff. Stuff that you wouldn’t notice if you were preoccupied with something else, stuff you wouldn’t notice if you were in a rush, stuff you wouldn’t see if you weren’t looking and stuff you mightn’t expect to notice unless your mind was open to the possibility. Delightful stuff. You might discover a town that appears in parallel to the reality that others think they know - the town that is at right angles to, over, under and through the impositions of map-planned thoroughfares which disrespect the human-scale desire lines.

Water is wealth. Or, at least, it used to be.
Probably will be again one day
The stuff you notice might be geographical, topological or architectural. The stuff you notice might be historical; our heritage is all around us in a dynamic and continuous process. Or the stuff you notice might be contemporary or anthropological - modes of behaviour. But, notice stuff you will. You might begin to decipher the events and intentions, the hopes and disappointments, the stories of capital and community which are encoded within the built environment and its relationships. By thinking about this stuff, these things, we define them - and we lay down guidelines for how we (and others) might think about them in the future. There is no such thing as objective truth - all artifacts and concepts are subject to the excise tax extracted from their universal meaning by their entry through our personal gates of subjective perception. The most we can ever really define with personal certainty and the most we can therefore reasonably ask is: how do we feel?

What we do at Other Aberdeen is record how we feel about things in the urban environment - what these things do to us (collectively) by what we (collectively) do to them. This psychogeographical process is reflexive, and it is the very reflexivity of this process which furnishes the opportunity for iterative improvement in the urban environment. We seek a new understanding and practice of urbanism for Aberdeen based upon a desire to improve its livability. That would make us feel much better about remaining in this fascinating town with all its little and big stories; all its little and big artifacts; all the places and all the people - woven together where the past meets the present and gathers its forces to generate the future, however uncertain.

We are all part of that process, part of the story of the town - that participatory process is what Other Aberdeen's for. Today, many people seem to think that a town is merely the sum of all the business activity within it. Other Aberdeen's mission is to demonstrate that this is wrong-headed.

This town is so much more than that.

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