In both undergraduate and graduate school I was pretty fascinated by the Situationists International. Unfortunately, I never found a practical way to incorporate them into a large project or assignment. Even still, I find them aspects of both the Situationists International and the Letterists International interesting, and as a result, their ideologies have snuck into several smaller projects – i.e., these blog posts.
The reason that I became so enthralled with the SI is because of this one particular image that I saw in my Contemporary Art class with Professor Mario Ontiveros at UMass Amherst in the Spring of 2007. The image was Guy Debord’s The Naked City, and it looked like this:
I’m not entirely sure why I was so sucked into this image, but it was probably because of the system or organized chaos. The network of arrows and buildings that do not make sense at first but slowly appear to be suggesting the free movement of an object or a person through space. Simply put, I appreciate the effort of trying to illustrate how a person interacts with the space around him or her, which is exactly what this image does.
My fascination with The Naked City and the SI led me to explore more about the politics, beliefs, and practices of the SI. I was first led to Guy Debord’s most famous publication, The Society of the Spectacle:
I have to admit that I am pretty much in love with the cover of this publication. The Society of the Spectacle could be considered the manifesto of the Situationists International, who were a group of artists, philosophers, poets, and intellectuals. This publication contains the ideologies of the SI as number bullet points, each one expanding off the last. From here I was led to another of Debord’s publications regarding Psychogeograpy: Theory of the Dérive, which explains the Situationists concept of “public drifting.”
“One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive, a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.
In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.
But the dérive includes both this letting-go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities. In this latter regard, ecological science, despite the narrow social space to which it limits itself, provides psychogeography with abundant data.” – Guy DeBord, 1958
The dérive and psychogeography are, as made apparent by the above passage, closely linked, though not mutually exclusive. I found myself interested in the dérive and psychogeography because I often times find myself gravitating towards certain landmarks or walking on an unmarked path. For example, when walking around a college campus, it is bizarre to see just how much power the sidewalks and marked walkways have over the campus’s inhabitants. I’d say that well over half, probably closer to 75% of the campus community does not veer off the designated path. I find myself to be part of the minority who all of a sudden realizes that they are walking through the middle of a field because, well, “I felt like it.” Going with your instinct and reacting to your surroundings, whether you are conscious of it or not, is an incredibly intriguing concept to me.
Because of my interest in these concepts, I find myself sometimes hyper-aware of the space that I am occupying and how I am interacting with it. One space which, to me, felt like a consciously constructed, sort of forced psychogeographically is the interior of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, aka MoMa. Specifically, MoMa’s 2002 – 2004 renovations by Yoshio Taniguchi. It is four stories high, with a pair of escalators on each floor, one going up and the other going down. Each escalator, however, only goes to one floor above or below, i.e. – you couldn’t go directly from the fourth floor to the second floor without stopping and walking through lobby of the third floor, unless you took the elevator. This forces visitors of the museum to sort of be herded along from floor to floor, and also makes it impossible to miss a floor. The artificially constructed psychogeographic landscape made me feel uncomfortable, as I was limited in the ways I was able to interact with the space.
So, the next time that you are walking through a park, around a university campus, to the bus stop, or around a large building, make a conscious effort to think about the way that you are interacting with the space you are occupying. Is the space constructed for you to interact in a certain way? How does the space make you feel as an inhabitant? These are all questions that will make even the most boring trip to the supermarket a thought provoking and possibly enlightening experience.