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||| a drifters guide to physical and virtual urban space [part 2] |||
the city centre: commodified space as Situationist playground
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Our first experimental city would live largely off tolerated and controlled tourism. Future avant-garde activities and productions would naturally tend to gravitate there.Bourdieu states a truism, but one that is necessarily an extreme and indeed fatalist. Pointing to the absorbent qualities of spectacular society is like looking down a one-way street. Ivan Shcheglov sees traffic coming the other way. Like the child who plays with Christmas present packaging in preference to the presents themselves, the city's attempts to predefine play within its boundaries are prone to failure. A popular café becomes the venue for transgressive poetry readings, art happenings or political meetings. New musical expressions burst forth joyously from unexpected quarters, sometimes ignoring commercial spaces altogether, like the New York loft scene of the 1960's 8 and the neighbourhood interventions of electronic music activists Ultra-red 9. Street theatre, buskers, jugglers and magicians enliven the plazas. The intended narrative of the constructed environment is rewritten by its own bastard offspring who, like disaffected teenagers, deconstruct its meaning just for the sake of it. Such deconstructions are often fleeting, reflecting the essentially transitory interaction between people and the centre. Habitation is temporary, generally restless, on the move. Constructed situations, often characterised by momentary stems to the flow, create their own dynamic environment. These interventions, created both within and despite their surroundings, instantiate temporary autonomous zones 10 , joyously asserting their own internal logic upon the space they occupy. The prescribed behaviour of shopping must navigate irruptions of skateboard politics, audience interaction with performance, groups of friends sharing sandwiches in the plaza. These social zones are not necessarily written in economic language. Extending Bourdieu's use of linguistic metaphor, such behaviour adopts the position of slang, often reviled yet necessarily opening up exciting new possibilities, enriching the vocabulary. It seems more appropriate to say that the social world is policed by economic language. The authoritarian voice attempts to control the lexicon, banning promenade drinking or erecting 'No Ball Games' signs, but finds its dictionary constantly in need of update. Foucault identifies this situation thus:
Government… has to deal with a complex and independent reality that has its own laws and mechanisms of reaction, its regulations as well as its possibilities of disturbance. This new reality is society. From the moment that one is to manipulate a society, one cannot consider it completely penetrable by police.The functional description of city centre as commercial space becomes only one amongst many narratives. This postmodern breakdown of its attempted grand narrative only serves to enrich its social potential. Contrary to spectacular intent, it can be played with in so many ways, the nature of play being a product of ongoing discourse between urban space and its public. An example of this discourse manifests itself in the way routes are created through the city. Michel de Certeau 11 points out the difficulty in predicting popular routes and presents the city as a fabric whose reality is weaved by the footprints of those passing through it. Constructed space no longer dictates usage, it becomes the loom on which it is created, the 'shape' of the city being the result of dialogue between the weavers and their product. The city as physical presence is reduced to existential voyeur. What de Certeau makes clear is that the city has no substance without inhabitants, the spectacle needs its spectators. Like William Whyte, he points out that the spaces constructed for them are not always adequate and may be treated in unexpected ways.
The economic obstacles are only apparent. We know that the more a place is set apart for free play, the more it influences people's behaviour and the greater is its force of attraction.The city is fluid, its liquid form defined by the routes that people take. The individual, walking around the city in constant dialogue with its spaces, is engaged in a creative act. The exercise of choice over paths to take, whether to remain in a space or to gather with others, is forever remaking the social fabric. For the duration of their contact with the centre, every inhabitant is a player and the game has no beginning or end. Neither is the game really singular, as there are many ways for the walker to play, engaging with what Shcheglov calls 'economic obstacles' being only the most mundane. The Situationists realised that the walker is in a position of power, can choose the themes of play and attempt to construct a narrative. Like the skateboarder, this narrative may intersect spectacular space in ways that do not readily lend themselves to expected commercial behaviour. However, unlike the skateboarder or street actor, the walker at play does not require a locus for their constructed situation. Engaging with the environment, while enjoyably drifting, the Situationist walker is participating in a derive, an 'informed and aware wandering, with continuous observation, through varied environments.' 12 This can be as simple as walking around appreciating architecture, or it can apply further Situationist critique through application of psychogeography. Though this is a purposefully fuzzy term, it essentially relates to the action of constructing a dialogue between walker and environment in order to manifest 'the direct effect of geographical setting on mood' 13. The derive, viewed as portable situation, necessarily impacts upon its shifting environment by implying meanings, overlaying narrative as does street theatre upon its chosen venue. It creates stories, deconstructed and reassembled from the contextual signifiers of arbitrarily linked spaces. However, the psychogeographical storyteller doesn't attempt to reproduce the grammar of commercial space. It is hotly contested with the playful spirit of Derrida bating the philosophical establishment, or William Burroughs' cut-up and fold-in methods of writing 14. Unlike the bland fictions described by occupants and overseers of commercial space, for whom time is always now, the drifter's story travels across time for its cast and is necessarily fantastical. The poetic terrorism of the derive invites critical enjoyment of urban space tangential to economic imperative and in its place suggests magical fictions. The lens of commercialism is replaced with one of spatial dimensions, suggesting drifter as geomancer, a theme extended by the London Psychogeographical Association 15. As the graffiti artist searches for a surface to tag, or the skateboarder looks for good trick terrain, so the drifter employs a different way of seeing to the spaces they inhabit.
One thus has the relationship between spatial practices and the constructed order. The surface of this order is everywhere punched and torn open by ellipses, drifts, and leaks of meaning.The city centre as concrete expression of spectacle presents a dull commercial exterior, but it is polished in places by public interventions that render it a much more attractive option. While undoubtedly governed by economic concerns and policed by economic language, the spectacle tolerates alternative attitudes and comes to rely upon them to keep the audience happy. Vibrant cultures and exciting spatial perspectives continue to be drawn to, and from, the urban centre. They have varying levels of respect for the culture that nurtures them, and varying levels of interaction with it. They don't all pay to play, but they are vital to the social life of the centre. They ensure that it has the potential to be enjoyed in many ways, that its transitory population can play within its outwardly stern façade. Drawing parallels between physical urban space and virtual commercial space, it is possible to discern whether similarly healthy outsider influences enliven the digital town centre. Its development is much more recent and whereas physical space existed before the economic philosophy of capitalism instantiated spectacle 16, spaces of virtual consumption are products of spectacle itself. Through understanding of the relationship between spectacle and commercial digital spaces, rules of engagement with such spaces can be determined and the potential for play discerned.
Digital mainstream space is discussed in the next instalment of The Drifters Guide, The digital mainstream: drifting through the virtual shopping mall.
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8. Val Wilmer (2000), As Serious As Your Life, Serpent's Tail
9. Ultra-red website
10. Hakim Bey (1991), T.A.Z. the Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism, Autonomedia
11. Michel de Certeau (1984), The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press
12. anon, 'Psychogeography (a working definition)'
13. Situationist International (1958), 'Definitions'
14. William S. Burroughs & Brion Gysin (1969), The Third Mind, John Calder
15. London Psychogeographical Society Newsletter website
16. Critical Art Ensemble (1997), 'Tactical Media - Next Five Minutes 1997'