Two psychogeographies: Archigram and the Situationists

November 11 2000

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So there were these guys in France in the late 1960's - before that, actually, and in other places as well, but who's telling this story? - called the Situationists. Predictably, since they were quasi-ultra-leftists, there were as many different Situationisms as there were Situationists, and maybe more.

At any rate, as a group they had a genuinely radical response to the idea of living in cities, which was becoming a common condition in the twentieth century and has since become almost universal. Their idea was something called the derive - the stroll, or more precisely, the drift. What's a drift? Well, Jean reminds me that Michel de Certeau had this really cool idea that a wall is not a wall until someone fails to walk through it, and in much the same sense (to the Situationists, anyway) a city is not a city until someone cities it.

looking for a certain ratio

The Paris that the Situationists citied in their drifts was a charged, crackling grid of class struggle and perceptions of the ineffable, with densely symbolic loci called unitÚs d'ambiance at perpendicular angles to the boulevards and plazas of official reality. By drifting through the city along these stations of intensity, they hoped to create liberatory situations, activated by a radical subjectivity and sense of play, undergirded by a (pseudo-) scientific rationality.

For theorists of urbanism, the implication was clear: a city is not the eternal, Platonic organism we see on the map - Omotesando dead-ending neatly at Harajuku Station, Soho and Tribeca cleaved asunder by Canal Street, the Ku'damm a mere stroll from the Tiergarten, and so on. No: a city is moments, stitched together by the act of experiencing them.

For our purposes, then, say that there are no cities. Say instead that which we call by that name are merely convenient administrative conventions, lines on a map. What remains is your experience of Tokyo, New York, Berlin (or North Olmstead, Ohio.) The place where you held hands and walked along the river; the place where that cabdriver threw your fare back at you and sped away, cursing in Urdu; the place you counted up every penny you had in the world and it amounted to less than the price of a slice of pizza - all sutured together by filaments of emotion and memory, imperceptible to all but their owner.

The Situationists - les situs, to use the French term of endearment (?) - might agree that thus restoring subjectivity to the act of living in the urban environment is a political act, the ultimate bulwark against life-as-consumption. Your city is moment-to-moment, aleatory and contingent, capable of containing sudden invasions of grace and horror both: but mostly it's precisely yours. You own the experience; it can't thereafter be stolen by the massifying, totalizing merchants of consensus culture, only to be sold back to you at premium prices.

new fast happening now

This line of thinking has its merits, but it's not the only way to construct an urban experience that partakes more of the personal and less of the commodified. Across the English Channel at roughly the same moment, reflected in a funhouse mirror, the architectural collective known as Archigram was proposing a very different contract with the city.

Operating from a not-too-dissimilar political base but suffused with the spirit of Swinging London, Archigram had a much greater affinity for and comfort with the American, Pop, consumerist aspect of Sixties culture. In contrast to the Situationist insistence on a certain tone of theoretical rigor, Archigram's prescription was for the ludic - for play.

This play was to be communal and technological, not mediated but mediafied - electric, lysergic, twice as loud as life: a truly revolutionary idea, coming out of the ashy decade-plus-long winter of postwar England. This revolution would definitely be televised.

Their Instant City was, in the argot of the time, a happening: a happening no longer limited to the agreed-upon hip districts but deployed by blimp and by helicopter, riding a circuit of outlying (and presumably culturally-deprived) towns. The city - or all its density, noise, ethnicity, churn, sex, chaos and sense of possibility, which may be the same thing - would come to you, your life would be changed by the encounter, evolve along hitherto undreamt-of trajectories. Or that was the idea, anyway.

And there was more to come from the ever-fructifying minds of Archigram: if the festal Instant City abstracted the essential nature, the soul and oomph of citying from its built environment, the Walking City allowed the environment itself to pull up its roots and go for a wander.

Now there's a happening for you. Go, en masse, to where the action is. There's no way such a wander could be construed as anything but literally radical, despite being a derive different in every essential from one the Situationists might have envisioned.

and everything after

At any rate, there things remain, or almost: the action somewhere else, having receded over an indistinct horizon. Not being an expert on current theories of urbanism(s), I'm not aware of more recent attempts to address the problem of self and city, aside from those inscribed in the work of architects like OMA's Rem Koolhaas. Maybe that particular energy has absconded to the Internet , and that in itself suggests an agenda for further exploration.

Les situs imploded and imploded again, after their provocations helped ignite the popular revolt that reached its apotheosis in the insurrectionary street violence of May 1968. Formally, the Situationist International splintered into mutually hostile factions, each of which despised the others more than the malevolent overculture they all claimed to loathe. Movement veterans remained influential down to the mid-1980's, going on to shape, among other things, the semiotic vocabulary of early punk rock.

As for Archigram, their most (overtly) famous contribution to design culture remains the Walking City, with its iconic image of striding urbons sauntering into New York Harbor. The group itself faded out into the grey dawn of the 1970's, although individual members remain professionally active.

Many commentators can't help pointing out that though the Walking City remains a clever idea and an arresting image, it was never fully worked out by Archigram, in either its social or technical dimensions. This seems to me to be a sterling example of missing the point, Archigram putting me very much in mind of what Brian Eno is supposed to have said about the Velvet Underground, that "only 100 people ever bought their records, but every one of them went out and started a band."

Still. We started with the idea of a stroll fleshing out a city, we've arrived at the idea of a city strolling - either one of which is an attractive alternative to Sony Metreon, Las Vegas' New York New York, and the ilk, with their programmatic insistence on an absolutist, brand- and product-driven "good time."

For now, despite my deep admiration for Archigram and their moment, I find the Situationist take most productive. Thinking of city life as a series of islands in space/time, connected by gradients of desire and overcoded with the memories of past intensities, has definitely changed the way I deal with cities in general. It feels like mine - mine to narrate, to share if I wish, but definitely not for sale. As public space becomes increasingly privatized and subject to the same sort of pseudo-Taylorist manipulation that defines the layout of lines at Disneyland, it's no small thing to have that to hold on to.

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