Friday, October 8, 2010

Psychogeographer, Qu'est-ce Que C'est

someone who wanders the city with the sole purpose of paying attention to it.
(Shawn Micallef)

Back in university I took a couple of photography classes. Our final project of the second class was self-directed, meaning we had to come up with a concept, write an artist's statement and execute the project. It was my first attempt at art photography, i.e. something more than a simple portrait, narrative series, or technical exercise.

Choosing my subject matter was easy: I wanted to wander Toronto in the dead of night and take pictures of the city asleep. Empty streets, alleys, pedestrian tunnels. I wanted to do this, at the time, mainly because I thought it made for the most interesting pictures. The city is a chaos of striking visuals. Varied spaces and shapes. Textures: stone and glass, polished metal, crumbling brick, scrawls of graffiti, smooth pavement. Beautiful and strange buildings, interesting nooks and crannies where alleys meet tunnels, and branch off into hidden courtyards between glass-paneled skyscrapers. And it all only gets better at night, lit in all kinds of dramatic/ominous ways by streetlights and shop windows. I'll also admit I've always felt nervous taking pictures of people, especially strangers on the street, never sure if my camera will be an unwelcome intrusion. In this regard as well the city seemed like an ideal subject: it never minds having it's picture taken. It will stand and wait while you dial in that shutter and f-stop.

This idea also appealed to me because the opportunity to maraud around in the dead of night seemed exciting and a little illicit. Boundries get blurry in the city, at night. Everything is kind of closed, or actually closed; some of the places you could normally go during the day are off limits, and some of the places that are off limits are fair game, if only by virtue of the fact that there's no one around to stop you. There's no traffic to keep you off the road, and no other pedestrians to keep you from going in the exit and out the entrance, or strolling casually down walkways designed to usher crowds along at maximum speed. Defying these unwritten and unspoken "rules" of navigating the city can feel liberating. Of course, I'm articulating it now much better than I could then. At the time, these sentiments weren't much more than a vague feeling of adventurousness.

In any case, the project demanded a more artistic justification than "cool pics" any my exploratory inclinations though. I struggled with the "meaning" of my project, something that is still not my strong point. I'm more inclined to make something that looks cool because I like it, than to create something with a message, or purpose. In the end I cobbled together an awkward handful of paragraphs - something about the city bereft of people becoming a kind of landscape. Seeing it in a different way when it's divorced from the obvious functional purposes of it's spaces.

See, I find the city beautiful, and not just the parts that are conventionally attractive. To me, the cracked brick and uneven pavement and broken glass is just as interesting as the sweeping spires of skyscrapers, or carefully groomed parks. Wandering the city at night amplifies this beauty, because there are no pedestrians or traffic to get in the way. The city, separated from the things it is built to functionally accommodate, takes on a life of it's own.

In thinking about what it might mean to develop a much more personal relationship with the city around me, I was straining toward something I couldn't quite articulate because I didn't yet have the vocabulary. However, in the past few months I've learned the word for what I was trying to be: flaneur. The school of thought that informs what I was trying to do: psychogeography.

I learned this from a book I stumbled across totally by accident - Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto, by Shawn Micallef. This is the book I have been looking for and never knew it, and it's the basis for a project I have in mind, likely to start once the weather gets bearable outside again. Because it will involve a lot of walking. Luckily, that is what these boots were made for.

More later.