Sunday, January 30, 2022

What is Psychogeography? A Journal of the Plague Year

According to Merlin Coverley, the first psychogeographic survey of London was Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year. The book, in his telling, is "an imaginative reworking of the city in which the familiar layout of the city is shown to be transformed" (Coverley, p. 37). I dove into the novel without much knowledge about it. It is a completely fascinating book that, in my opinion, is in no way a psychogeography. 

Basically, the book is a fictional story of a saddle maker, who decides to remain in London during the plague of 1665. Defoe published the book in 1722, basing it on his childhood memories, statistical data, and many works that had already been published. In a very journalistic style, the saddle maker talks about what life is like being isolated and about the city when he often goes out around town, which is very life threatening. All those who can have left for the countryside. He has to stay because of his business, and he doesn't have adequate funds to leave town. He reports on conversations and stories, and on people screaming in pain, people wailing in grief from the discovery that their family members were ill or had passed away, people trying to continue to work, people escaping London to live in the forest, and so on. During his relatively short complete isolation, the saddle maker's friend, a doctor, came over, and, like everyone today, the saddle maker was so glad to talk with his friend. Importantly, I started reading a version of the book, which had been rewritten in language of today, which was very easy to read. I also read another version with language of the time, which took some getting used to reading. The whole book is just so interesting about what life was like at that time. I highly recommend it. 

Now, I don't think that the book is psychogeography. He talks about London, but it seems like a newspaper reporter going out and talking about all the crazy things he sees. Here is my earlier discussion of psychogeography, which, in my opinion, doesn't include this (great) book.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

What is Psychogeography? Rorschach Theater

I have had a very enjoyable time doing the first two boxes of "Chemical Exile," the psychogeographical theater piece by the Rorschach Theater. Each of the seven boxes directs you to a specific location and provide you photos, letters, objects, etc. as a chapter in the "Chemical Exile" storyline. The theater's definition of psychogeography is:

It’s the intersection of psychology and geography and while the idea existed long before him, the term was coined by philosopher Guy Debord in the 1950s as an instruction for urban exploration.

A GREAT PSYCHOGEOGRAPHIC EXPLORATION includes these key elements:

  • WANDERING as you explore your physical world in a leisurely way
  • SUBVERTING your everyday relationship with the city through a fresh perspective
  • DISCOVERING the present through the prism of the past
  • ...and maybe a dash of the occult

As a sociologist, I tend more towards the understanding psychogeography as a method of urban exploration, but the theater is working within the literary tradition of psychogeography, which Merlin Coverley's Psychogeography fascinatingly and convincingly argues is even more important. 

Regarding the theater's definition, the wandering is different from drifting because we "audience members" are directed to a location and are exploring the psychological and geographical experiences of the main character. Of course, our own experiences of the spaces are interwoven and are encouraged in the call to be leisurely. 

People swimming in Marie Reed pool
Regarding subverting my everyday relationship with the city, I greatly appreciated going to a new part of Adams Morgan. Seeing the pool (see left image), the mural (see image below), and the wonderful picnic tables at Marie Reed Rec Center, as well as other very cool destinations, made the city even more marvelous! These destination also made me re-discover the present through the past. As Coverley writes, "the topography of the city is refashioned through the imaginative force of the writer [or the theater]...a kind of historical consciousness that exposes the psychic connectivity of landscapes" (p. 16). This was definitely the case. 

The occult also appeared! This play is in some sense about the city changing in confusing ways. In the midst of Box 2, which is very much about this, I ended up walking behind three men. I met one of them, Jerome, who was just explaining to his friends how different the area was from when he was growing up and pointing out the new buildings all around. I feel as if these kinds of woo-woo synchronicities are an important element of psychogeography. They highlight or emphasize a point or a significance in the space.

The theater piece sent me walking in new directions, which I am very grateful about. Among other things, I saw a strange portico on the side of a row house near 16th and Florida St, NW, (see below, any ideas about that??), and a kind of informal gallery or political statement near Ontario and Kalorama (see below). On the side of a garage planned to be razed was a series of photos of houses on the 1700-block of Seaton Place/Street, NW. In Shirikiana Aina's movie "Brick by Brick," the fight by the residents of this block to stop eviction as a result of gentrification is documented (here is more information, saying they were one of the first groups to use the new TOPA rules).

"Chemical Exile" is a great psychogeographical experience so far!


Portico





Saturday, January 8, 2022

What is Psychogeography? Drifting

As discussed in my previous post, one psychogeographical method is aimless strolling and drifting through the city. First, French situationalist Guy Debord understood this drifting as a way investigate the emotional terrain of the city. Everyone senses the mood or ambiance of different parts of town. Here Debord suggests that we systematically explore the "zones of distinct psychic atmospheres," their currents, and their edges, as a way to understand the city in a deeper way (Coverley's Psychogeography, pp. 81-103). 

Second, these strolls might move in a more sociological direction, as a way to detect multiple social worlds crossing through the city. Sociologist Ruth Glass understood London as an often invisible constellation of many unfamiliar worlds:

We can see them in the mean streets, in luxury flats, along the roads of suburban ribbon development; in places like Eel Pie Island, where various cliques of teenagers congregate; in jazz clubs, coffee bars, Soho joints, and expense account restaurants; in the withdrawing rooms of earnest religious or political sects; at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park or the Earls Court Road; at meetings in Trafalgar Square; in public libraries, senior common rooms, and at soirĂ©es of the Royal Society. We get an inkling of the existence of other remote and yet nearby worlds through migration statistics; through fascist news-sheets and...scrawls on the walls of back alleys; through unsavoury court cases or complaints before rent tribunals; in reading Press items about witch rites, ghost hunts, visits from Martians, and take-over bids. And then again, we may hear of the ‘hidden’ societies through reports of hospital almoners [officials who determine if someone qualifies for assistance], N.S.P.C.C. [National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children] inspectors, or social workers who bring ‘meals on wheels’ to lonely old people. It is an amazing, still largely obscured, panorama that thus begins to be visible— a conglomeration of groups who move, so to speak, on separate tracks, even if they do meet occasionally at a station. (Glass, introduction to London: Aspects of Change, 1964)

Aimless strolling (and other methods) builds on our already existing human abilities to pick up on this panorama of social worlds and expand our understanding of cities beyond mass media and real estate's simultaneous "cliches of urban doom" (Glass 1989) and celebration of, what she termed, "gentrification" (Glass 1964). 

Third, drifting also accesses our unconscious/subconscious and its amorphous knowledge of the city, which might also be considered a psychogeographical method. Back in September, I did a drift through Georgetown. I was born in Columbia Hospital for Women, and my family during my first year of life lived in a basement apartment in a Georgetown rowhouse around 27th and P Street, NW. So, I started on that block and drifted with the idea that my unconscious/subconscious might have retained knowledge of that time or might be open to knowledge embedded in the geography. Animals defined the drift. After being accompanied by crows flying overhead, I found myself in Mount Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Society Cemetery, where I spent some time. Walking around Dumbarton House (the national headquarters of The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America) and along Oak Hill Cemetery, I didn't feel like going into this cemetery, but I did and followed a cardinal to two headstones with family names -- Boswell and Merrick -- related to my Capitol Hill research. I believe that I walked down 29th St. On tiny Cambridge St, which made me think of Cambridge, MD, and Harriet Tubman (though maybe not the intention of the street name), I encountered a small rabbit on someone's side lawn. I returned to 29th on Dent St, possibly named after the large-scale enslavers from Charles County, MD. Paying attention to people and further animals, I mysteriously found myself again at Mount Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Society Cemetery with at least one hawk flying overhead. And I walked down the hill to the Rock Creek path below. I found the aimless strolling very interesting. Obviously, my drift picked up on certain historical connections in the geography, while others would likely have a very different drift. To try to make sense of the drift, I took notes immediately, described the entire drift on paper soon afterwards, and drew a map.

I'm soon going to experience the Rorschach Theater psychogeography, which, of course, begins in Mount Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery...

Saturday, January 1, 2022

What is Psychogeography?

For some time, I've been intrigued by psychogeography. A couple of weeks ago, I received a letter from the Rorschach Theater on H St, NE, saying that they had been doing some psychogeography theater. I signed up (and paid) to figure out what they are up to and just received in the mail this box as part of a series of boxes: 

I haven't yet experienced this project, but I wanted to explain why I find psychogeography interesting (and certain practices problematic), which is based completely on a very useful book, Merlin Coverley's Psychogeography:

1) Psychogeography generally involves walking in a city.

2) Psychogeography is a method of exploring cities in new ways. For example, one might take a drinking glass and draw a circle around its base on a city map and then follow, as best one can, the circle through the city. One could also throw dice to make walking decisions. Alternatively, one can take "a drift," in which one follows one's subconscious to figure out new connections, places, "zones of distinct psychic atmospheres," etc.

3) Psychogeography is a perspective that views the city as a mystery, which requires secret knowledge to understand. On the one hand, one might follow Peter Ackroyd and see the city as having an ancient, eternal nature understood through hidden signs, codes, etc. On the other hand, one might observe the movements of working class groups through the city as they map their own labyrinthine, secret city (like in Edward P. Jones' Lost in the City). 
 
4)  Psychogeography is a perspective in opposition to the homogeneous city, the city of gentrification and standardization that makes all cities the same, as well as different also in the same ways. This view allows us to sense the marvelous city and how opaque areas of or certain past activities in the city remain around us in a kind of layering, a palimpsest. 
 
5) Psychogeography might be a way to take the city from developers, real estate agents, and others who seek to erase the city, displace the working classes, and create a "Great Blight of Dullness." One might follow Stewart Home and usurp the claims of these real estate actors, leave secret codes for others, and take and transform the city. 
 
6) Psychogeography can be imperialistic. For example, some psychogeography groups call themselves astronauts. If one walks through DC viewing oneself as an astronaut, then one might see other people as foreign beings, potentially dangerous aliens, and definitely not as neighbors or as people with a "right to the city." One can follow other traditions of psychogeography to hopefully avoid this; these traditions are discussed in Merlin Coverley's great book Psychogeography

Friday, October 1, 2021

The Dangers of Settler Colonial Art

This past summer, the Hill Rag informed readers that they could "Volunteer to Restore Mondrian-Style Murals Saturday." The murals are located in the underpass below the Southeast Freeway at 6th Street, SE, and originally joined a 30-foot high mural across the street, on the side of a public housing building in the Ellen Wilson Dwellings (see image). The chair of the ANC 6B had decided to organize the re-painting and restoration of the murals. I am mentioned in the article as providing some basic information about the murals, that they were painted between 1988 and 1992. When I learned about this restoration project, I knew that I had to say something about the history of the murals.

I had done years of research about the person who commissioned the murals, his connection with Piet Mondrian, and the philosophical ideas of Mondrian himself. My research article "The Aesthetics of Gentrification: Modern Art, Settler Colonialism, and Anti-Colonialism in Washington, DC" came out in August, just as the group was finishing the restoration, and you can read my article here or access it on my faculty webpage. The international urban journal that published my article tweeted this about it: 

argues that The Mondrian Gate—series of murals on/near a public housing project in Washington DC just before its demolition— enabled Black erasure, dispersal, dispossession, and displacement bit.ly/3Czrh3b

Yes, the murals enabled the permanent displacement of hundreds of African American residents of the Ellen Wilson Dwellings. My article is a scholarly article and difficult to read, but this is because I am forging new historical knowledge based on a wide range of archival sources. The article is worth reading, especially because it has some amazing pictures and it explores DC and Capitol Hill history in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I also seek to understand what Mondrian sought to do in his art and what it meant for the city:

Mondrian’s artworks were cartographical fantasies of a vast, segregated, white European city pushing colonial subjects to marginalized areas, and the destruction this would necessitate. [See the many white boxes at the center of the image above crowding out the colored boxes at the edges of the painting.] The late 1980s and 1990s opened up possibilities for new forms of displacement and revanchism on a global scale. [The commissioner of the murals] Robbins brought Mondrian’s maps of a future segregated, imperial world to 1980s Washington, DC. Within this revanchist context, Robbins used the Mondrian images as a fortress gate, a racial map of the future, and as a gallery for public education...The Mondrian Gate signaled both the defense of Capitol Hill and its purification as a space of pure white, pure black lines and distant pure colors, and also motivated a white empowerment to take new land––a settler colonial globalization.

There are many criticisms of the corporate uses of counter-cultural murals. These murals were in no way counter-cultural. The commissioner of these murals planted a settler colonial flag at what was considered the southern edge of Capitol Hill as a statement about the future of this part of DC. 

Is the desire to repaint the murals some kind of expression of the settler colonial subconscious? Complicity with colonialism? Maybe the murals should have been left alone or even painted over? Or maybe another kind of mural should have been put in its place? Maybe the one in front of the Ellen Wilson Community Center (see it in the article)? What kind of murals would you want to have there?

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

The Spiritual Destruction of Gentrification

Yesterday I was reading the oral history of John Harrod, who directed the Market 5 Gallery, a community art space in the North Hall of Eastern Market, from 1973 to 2009-2010 or so. Market 5 has a fascinating history. In 2007, there was a huge fire in Eastern Market, but Market 5 amazingly avoided the fire, in part due to an effective firewall between the North and South Halls. But other forces may have also provided assistance...

Market 5 organized the weekend markets and vendors at Eastern Market. Among the vendors are psychics. The oral history has two very interesting segments regarding the psychics:

LEWIS: So, the psychics claim they stopped the fire?
HARROD: Because of their power, the fire didn’t come into the North Hall! [laughs] (p. 30)

HARROD: Have you ever been there and looked up in the ceiling, the trusses in the ceiling?
LEWIS: Uh huh.
HARROD: The psychics tell me that there’s a pyramid shape that’s up there.
LEWIS: Oh really?
HARROD: Yeah. Which means that the Gallery is protected by, according to them, the strength of the pyramid—a sign that is found so many places in nature. Did you know that?
LEWIS: Exactly. (p. 36)
According to this view, the psychics and symbols protected the space. As is clear from many documents, Market 5 had a spiritual presence and energy. As I will discuss in future posts, the Capitol Hill/Southeast area has had a vast landscape of spiritualities protecting spaces and people. 

However, gentrifying forces use disasters and shock to displace obstacles in their way, even those with protection. Often, such obstacles are completely destroyed and the space left vacant in an attempt, it seems, to destroy and erase the spirits. Also gentrifying forces may take advantage of chaos without plans for the space. Even though it escaped the fire's physical destruction, Market 5 Gallery was evicted and never allowed to return. Gentrifying forces took advantage of the fire to evict Market 5 and replace it with a homogeneous, predictable, almost empty space, a space without spirit. Here is Market 5 Gallery from a video in 2008 as they are being moved out:

Market 5 Gallery in 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PPwmVLm2CGg

Here is the same space today (my photos taken this morning):


Still a pretty space, but Market 5 was erased and replaced with a spiritually empty space. A space ready for whom or for what?

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Public Housing Reunions

Today I came across an article by several amazing sociologists -- Marcus Anthony Hunter, Mary Pattillo, and Zandria F. Robinson (Georgetown!)-- and the brilliant Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, which really captured what is going on in Ward 6 in DC. In this article "Black Placemaking: Celebration, Play, and Poetry," they explore the ways that African Americans in Chicago have made meaningful, creative, celebratory, playful, pleasurable, and poetic experiences in hostile places. The authors focus on four case studies: black public housing reunions, black lesbian and gay nightlife, black Little League baseball, and the black digital commons. 

Ward 6 is filled with similar cases. Arthur Capper Recreation Center hosted a wide range of sports, including the Washington Stonewall football team, as well as a wide-range of other teams that competed throughout the city. Towards the end of 8th Street, SE, Bachelor's Mill, Back Door Pub, Phase 1, and many other locales continued a vibrant black lesbian and gay nightlife in the area. What especially resonated with me was their discussion of public housing reunions (pp. 39-43)!

Even though the buildings were destroyed by the DC government with federal support, the former residents of Arthur Capper public housing remain a community and have regular reunions. As in Chicago, the Arthur Capper community has a Facebook group with 1,400 members. Other public housing projects also do this, both those projects that are now gone like the Eastgate Gardens (their Facebook group has 2,100 members) and those current public housing projects like Potomac Gardens and James Creek. In Chicago, as discussed in the article, former public housing residents celebrate annually at the site of the former projects or at parks nearby or elsewhere in the city. The Arthur Capper community has held annual reunions in nearby Garfield Park and other parks in the DMV. The wonderful Sherman Mills invited me to the annual reunions. I wrote about one several years ago (here), and Sherman Mills and I put together a special website about the Arthur Capper community. The "In Loving Memory" section is particularly insightful with its photos and names of those who have passed. 

The authors of the article about Chicago explore the living communities of current and former public housing residents. The authors write:

At the height of their occupancy in the 1970s, Chicago’s family public housing was officially home to over 137,000 people, most of them African American (Hunt, 2009: Table 1). The actual number might have been up to 40 percent higher than that (Venkatesh and Çelimli, 2004: 28). In 2012,the population in family public housing in Chicago was just over 23,000 (Chicago Housing Authority, 2012: Appendix 2). Despite this drastic population loss, the disappearing of black public housing residents was unsuccessful. Even the children of former residents proclaim their public housing lineage: ‘Me & my pops at the Robert Taylor Homes reunion/ he grew up in building #4101/had to capture that’, writes one young woman about a photo of her and her father in front of a mural of her father’s building and the title ‘Robert Taylor Family Reunion.’
The authors further reflect, "As long as these memories are rehearsed, shared, spoken, and envisioned then the projects and the black families and communities that they housed will not die." Do members of the Arthur Capper community agree ? How do these and other displaced communities continue to live in DC and what does this mean for DC?