Source: Patrick Welham
My own quintessential psychogeographic experience came while standing on top of a rusted crane overlooking the post-apocalyptic expanse of mouldering waste strewn across a disused quarry on the western fringes of London.
We were all “trespassing”: me and about 20 fellow Brunel University London students; our second lecturer, Joel Anderson; our guest for the day, urban explorer Bradley Garrett; and Will Self – the novelist, journalist and professor of contemporary thought.
To get here, we had walked for about 30 minutes from campus through rain and mud, scaled a concrete wall and vaulted an iron bar fence. But it was worth it. Strange as this may sound, standing there surveying the mountains of rusty metal, old mattresses, cardboard, glass and a whole range of other potentially tetanus-ridden heirlooms of the modern world was one of the most thought-provoking and uplifting moments of my life. I found myself digging deeper into myself than I had done in any of the other modules in my three years as an English and creative writing student.
Perhaps it is something you have to experience to understand. There is a satisfaction in entering a place that few others will ever see. Place-hacking, the activity that Garrett and his recent legal travails made famous, is essentially about reclaiming space. Summing up psychogeography is not so easy. Straddling a whole host of disciplines, including architecture, history, media, psychology, sociology and literature, it is perhaps best described as the study of the human relationship with the modern world – the psychical, mental and virtual. Self’s 12-week module on psychogeography – available to all third-year students in English, history, politics and theatre at Brunel – begins with an introductory reading list and lecture. It then plunges you into practical psychogeography and the so-called dérive: a journey on foot through a usually urban landscape in which the walker is directed by the inherent quality of the surrounding architecture with the goal of achieving some new and unique experience.
Since the trip to that Uxbridge quarry was part of a university module, we were required to consider the academic quality of what we were doing. Subsequently, we had to write an essay titled “Is the dérive a revolutionary act?” and present an account of one of our dérives (the rubbish tip was just one of several trips).
After the crane experience, my friend and I carefully slid down a mud bank on to a mound of tattered quilts and towels and began to cross a scaffold in an attempt to enter an abandoned office that, in any other situation, would have been utterly uninviting. Halfway across, as I precariously gripped a wobbling fence above the 10ft drop, we heard someone shout: “They got Bertram!”
We turned to see our classmates scurrying like ants across the debris and clambering back over the concrete wall. “Who got Bertram?” we shouted, confused.
We did not need telling twice. We descended the scaffold as quickly as we could and joined the stampede towards the wall.
Covered in dust and dirt, we waited nervously on the other side. But just a few minutes later, Bertram came around the corner towards us. A cheer went up, along with a few laughs. He had indeed been caught, but the security guards had eventually let him go, puzzled as to why anyone would want to go somewhere “just to feel what it was like”.
In an article for Times Higher Education, research ethicist Ron Iphofen suggested that, for Garrett, “adventure takes on more significance than the pursuit of knowledge”. Presumably he would say the same of our dérive. But that would be to miss the point. For us, it was a reinforcement of our theoretical understanding of the discipline of psychogeography. Besides, there is nothing mutually exclusive about adventure and the pursuit of knowledge.
Psychogeography transformed my way of looking at the man-made world. Picking apart the logic and fabric of a high street has become second nature, and querying the necessity for phone boxes has become a constant idle thought. The module has also made thinking an active part of travel; previously, it did not matter to me what I passed on the way as long as I got there.
But what if I had fallen off that crane? Or what if Bertram had been arrested? Was it reasonable for Self to expose a class of twentysomethings to such risks? And should Brunel have let him – especially in the wake of Garrett’s own well-documented and not entirely successful attempts to avoid being prosecuted for his own trespassing?
Well, each of us understood the risks, and we were assured by Self that there would be no negative grade implications if we chose not to take part. I’m sure Garrett is right that universities should be more prepared to protect academics whose research may cross legal boundaries, but I’m equally sure that Brunel would have been as unwilling to defend Bertram as Royal Holloway was to defend Garrett.
Sometimes running such risks is the price that must be paid for knowledge. I thought that as I climbed that crane on a wet January day, and I would still think it if I had ended up in trouble with the authorities. It’s an experience I wouldn’t have missed for the world.