CREATURES OF THE MAP

by Bob Dickinson

The psychogeographic experiments which have taken place in Europe over the last few years have entered a difficult phase. Coming from the marginal zones of anti-art, art terrorism, and anarchism, psychogeography can be looked upon as a tactic or a phase in a long term oppositional battle.

Recently, London Psychogeographic Association (LPA) have announced their dissolution, and movement towards 'a higher plane'. Manchester Area Psychogeographic intend to continue publishing and engaging in debate. Is there a schism? Was there ever a 'movement'? And what's all this psychogeographic stuff actually about anyway?

When Manchester Area Psychogeographic started drifting around the streets of the North West in 1995, we didn't know where we were heading. Which should hardly be surprising, considering that the whole point of a psychogeographic drift or derive is to become disorientated, to perceive the city differently, to make the city ours again. We did this at a particular time, when parts of Manchester's city centre were entering a new phase of redevelopment, accompanied by a swathe of publicity and propaganda. We were acting very much on instinct and the need to 'retch' into the open a large amount of annoyance and anger, caused by this over-optimistic propaganda. Issue one of MAP was written in the voice of that 'retch', in a spirit of revulsion.

We became aware of the LPA in 1995, but had different reasons to write or drift than the Londoners. We had some things in common with them in terms of political background: they were consciously rejecting what Alistair Bonnett (1) called the "ponderously macho geographies of transgression" carved out by the Poll Tax rioters of 1991. Manchester hadn't seen full-on rioting since the early 1980s, but we had other arguments about gender which went deeper than street protest and into the industrial origins of the Manchester region. However, our view of Situationism (the 1950s art movement which coined the term 'psychogeography') was coloured by the long-term appropriation of Situationist terminology and artwork by Manchester's Factory Records, from the late 1970s until its demise in the early 90s. This all culminated in a Situationist conference that took place at the Hacienda club (another Situationist appropriation) in January 1996, in which politicos, post-situs, academics and rock fans failed to communicate, and a great many leaflets were handed out. It seemed to us that London-based text and practice could only generate an effect on London and those, mostly academic and political circles fully cognisant of what Stewart Home calls 'cultural sabotage'. Despite the fact that MAP articles were reprinted in Home's book Mind Invaders, Manchester itself just wasn't that turned-on to neoism, Luther Blissett, and Decadent Action. (2)

I'll put it more simply. MAP had a bigger response from outside Manchester than from within it. Our mailing list covers these islands from Lands End to John O'Groats, plus Europe and America. We correspond, we are part of a communications network, and most of this communication takes the form of manifestos, newsletters and small circulation magazines. Communication within Manchester mostly takes the form of talk, actions, and a certain amount of academic publishing. Manchester just wasn't and isn't on fire with great, marginal, oppositional publishing or practice. MAP has had to sustain itself on extra-Mancunian communication.

Yet the changes occurring within Manchester needed addressing. Our geography was being reinterpreted from above (for instance in new city zones like the Northern Quarter), and was about to be altered also, more dramatically, by an IRA bomb. We had a practical agenda. In the Situationist spirit we staged actions such as the levitation of the Corn Exchange (January 1996), and generated useful texts, which aimed to fuse Situationist, occultist and cultural historical themes. But in Manchester there's a danger in being too obscure. It will result in you being totally ignored. The place is, after all, the product of two hundred years of rationalist thinking.

Consequently MAP was perceived as "traditional situationist" and "somewhat more conventional" than the LPA, in an academic review (3) in 1996 (although the writer credited us with providing "arresting and exemplary accounts of local geographical political activism"). The writer's comments about the LPA were also illuminating: "The literal brains that dominate 'critical theory' ...want to know whether the LPA 'really believes' in ley-lines and the occult powers of the ruling class... the LPA is not concerned with the 'real existence' of anything (except, perhaps, the class struggle). It is engaged in the excavation of the imagination of the ruling class; in rooting around through its undisclosed myths and traditions. This has nothing to do with 'parody' or 'irony' (those most useless of situationist strategies) but everything to do with the subversion of ruling class power".

The useless irony for MAP, of course, was that the influential appropriator of Situationist technique in the region, Anthony Wilson, now circulates within the ranks of the 'ruling class', as a key player in the campaign to launch Manchester as a European city.

But MAP had other difficulties in how it was perceived, originating locally. MAP actions have been mistaken, occasionally, for Heritage Walks. When, on the other hand, we attempted to attract Manchester Cornerhouse in the idea of a national psychogeographic conference in 1997, we were told the idea was too eccentric. We have furthermore had to deal with an internal tendency to treat the occult as 'literally' as the 'rationalist' world - another probable result of living in Manchester, where all theories must be proved. As derives became more like pub-crawls, it appeared that the original impetus was running out.

But change within Manchester was occurring at such a rate that we had to maintain a commentary. Our post-bomb issue (number 5, September 1996) dropped any attempt to bamboozle, trick, or shock the reader. The redevelopment of Manchester was physical, real, and was in danger of wholly being dominated by powerful interest groups. Real ideas needed to be articulated by real outsiders. We criticised the build-up of competing consumer-zones, separated by 'vacuous hinterlands' and boundaries. We called for attention to be paid to these zonal boundaries, to bring the known and the forgotten areas of Manchester together. Subsequently, the process has accelerated, and Manchester's borderlands are on the increase. But MAP had generated a new text, a new voice. Where before, MAP had joked, provoked, and invoked, the bomb (which exploded yards from the site of our first Action, the levitation of the Corn Exchange) caused us to write in practical terms. This 'practical' voice has continued, is still speaking in 1998 (most recently in our latest piece on the Northern Quarter), and seems right for circumstances. All voices are provisional.

Some possibly see MAP as an element in the 'banalisation' of the psychogeographical project initiated by the LPA (4), because of our changing voices or modes of address. We'd argue these have been honed to address specific local problems. Admittedly, the initial energy that made MAP fun to do in 1995-6 has diminished. This isn't surprising. MAP activists are a diverse lot and have subsequently devoted effort into other projects, where 'new energies' can be generated again. But MAP has continued, because we think the geographical debate about Manchester has hardly started. Manchester is geographically fragmented, with an increasing division between 'high' and 'low', wealthy and poor, and the areas they live, and the uses to which they put those areas. But do people argue about this? No. We hear only the resounding noise of celebration and its consequent retching - Manchester, come what may, sees itself as a good night out, a place to live large, and that, apparently, will be the future, economically and culturally, for those inside it as much as those beyond. MAP has to contest this. As our current voice would put it, the Multi-Real.

(1)The Situationist Legacy, from Variant 9, Glasgow, Autumn 1991, and republished in What is Situationism? A Reader, edited by Stewart Home, Edinburgh, AK Press, 1996, page 199.

(2)Mind Invaders: A Reader in Psychic Warfare, Cultural Sabotage and Semiotic Terrorism, edited by Stewart Home,. London, Serpents Tail, 1997.

(3)Review by "Dusty Bin", published in Transgressions: A Journal of Urban Exploration, edited by Alistair Bonnett, Geography Department, University of Newcastle, August 1996.

(4)LPA Newsletter number 21, Tahbrain 399, mentions (page 2) the need for "competing schemes of historification as part of a rearguard action against the banalisation of the now defunct LPA".

Bob Dickinson


Originally appeared in CRASH MEDIA

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