Psychogeography is a quasi-scientific artistic practice and cultural movement popular in the late 20th century and early 21st century. It focuses on the interaction between perception, memory and the environment. A central feature is to walk through a city or countryside on a route chosen either randomly or by its historical or cultural importance, and then artistically represent or describe what is encountered. A related activity is to reflect on how the history of a place relates to its present uses and the present state of mind of the psychogeographer.
With practitioners including WS Sebald, Ian Sinclair, and Will Self, psychogeography has become one of the main avant-garde movements of recent years. It shares with the academic discipline of geography an interest in the relationship between human beings and spatial landscape, but unlike geography has a limited interest in accuracy, measurement, or statistics.
Psychogeography draws on a long tradition of modernist and avant-garde practice, particularly on the way writers and artists have represented the modern city and used travel as a metaphor for modern life. These influences include:
- French Modernist writers and artists. Especially Baudelaire and the concept of the flaneur, who walks randomly through the city experiencing modern life, as well as later versions such as Walter Benjamin's The Arcades Project, an impressionistic history of French retail.
- Surrealism. With its focus on how perception, memory, and imagination transforms the world around us. One key text is Parisian surrealist Andre Breton's semi-autobiographical novel Nadja, which recounts aimless walks around Paris and includes various photographs of the city.
- Situationism. Another Parisian avant-garde movement, the situationists had a Marxist, New Left politics and promoted derive, random or aimless walking through a city, as a revolutionary practice to challenge the logic of capitalism.
- Road movies. A particularly American art form, road movies are accounts of travel which typically emphasise the road as a personal existential journey, rather than focusing on the destination. As well as American examples like Easy Rider, German filmmaker Wim Wenders has used the form to reflect on the relationship between landscape and popular (American) culture, describing the complex alienated relationship between post-war Germany and its Nazi past and the American culture of its conqueror.
- JG Ballard. Ballard is a key figure for British psychogeography. Although not a psychogeographer and not into random walking, his imaginative transformation of late 20th century architecture and roads into playgrounds for unconscious desires and sexual perversion has been a major influence.
- The film essay. Filmmakers such as Chris Marker, who took a subjective and personal approach to documentary film-making as he travelled the world, are crucial to psychogeographical film.
- Travel writing. Psychogeography often reads like a parody of the writing of figures like Paul Theroux, as psychogeographers present mundane places with the sort of wonder usually applied to undiscovered corners of faraway lands.
- WS Sebald. German author who worked mainly in England, bringing an estranged quality to works such as The Rings of Saturn, which expressed his depression through walks and historical accounts of the East Anglian coastline.
- Christopher Petit. The British author and filmmaker, who owes a great debt to JG Ballard, made one of the most artistically interesting British (stroke German) road movies, Radio On, which combined an interest in contemporary roads and towerblocks with some obscure moments from the history of rock music in England, powerfully expressing loneliness and alienation. Since then he has made a series of film essays as well as writing crime novels.
- Patrick Keiller. The British filmmaker's trilogy of Robinson films (London, Robinson in Space, Robinson in Ruins) reflect firstly on the secret radical and artistic history of London, and then on Britain's economy as expressed through its hidden ports, roads, and distribution warehouses. Keiller is perhaps the closest to a conventional geographer in his study of the relation between economics and land usage. Some of his essays include actual statistics.
- Ian Sinclair. The English writer has produced a number of accounts of quixotic journeys such as London Orbital, in which he walked around London's M25 orbital motorway while reflecting on the history of the area, with topics such as the displacement of mental patients onto the fringes of the city. A Ballard fan, he has collaborated with most of the people on this list. He has also written more conventional history, and is politically committed to left-wing causes.
- Andrew Kotting. The filmmaker explored Britain in Gallivant, in which he, his disabled daughter, and elderly grandmother tour the British coastline. Although in some way it recalled the conventional television travelogue, Kotting has worked closely with figures such as Keiller and Sinclair. His 2015 film By Our Selves re-enacted the journey of 19th century poet John Clare from an Essex asylum to his home in Cambridgeshire, a journey that links madness, artistic creation, and English landscape.
- Will Self. The novelist and former game show contestant is also a tireless promotor of psychogeography.
Patrick Keiller has written that "In London now, psychogeography leads not so much to avant-garde architecture as to gentrification." Often it has a certain touristic quality: uncovering the historical importance of mundane places is a central part of the modern heritage industry. Although psychogeographers try to see the world in different ways, which may open up new methods of living, the movement lacks the explicit commitment to radical action of some of its predecessors. Its close relation to more conventional forms of travelogue can make it appear like a slightly quirkier version of mainstream culture, rather than a significant alternative.
Most psychogeographers appear to be male. A common feminist critique of French modernist art is that while men were allowed out of the home to paint the modern city, women artists working in Paris, such as Berthe Morisot or Mary Cassatt, weren't allowed or able to wander freely due to a mix of social convention and personal safety, and hence were restricted to domestic subjects. Men enjoy a greater ability to pursue psychogeographical journeys through dangerous places where women might be subject to attack or harassment.
Many psychogeographers interested in the relation between past and present are not especially scrupulous in verifying their historical sources. An interesting anecdote or legend is preferred over boring truth. For instance WS Sebald's discussion of the Taiping Rebellion in Rings of Saturn repeats an account of mass suicide by the rebels in Nanjing, which may reflect his own depressive illness but was almost certainly made up by an Imperial historian to cover up mass murder.