Sunday, March 28, 2010

Concepts on Mythogeography: Interview with Phil Smith

Phil Smith is an academic, writer and performer, who lives in South Devon, UK. For twenty years he worked predominantly as a playwright in experimental, physical, community and music theatres, during which time over one hundred of his plays received professional productions.
Phil Smith was one of the organizers of the first symposium on Mythogeography in October 2008 at the University of Plymouth, where he was, until recently, a Senior Research Associate and where he is now beginning three years' funded research making and studying interventions in touristic and heritage space.

He says of himself:
'The Crab Man', Phil Smith, is a middle-aged, gadfly academic and artist currently based in and around Exeter. He admits to having struggled with the vagaries of making politics as a form of performance and to having experimented at length with performances in unusual sites.
He also says that he intends to develop walking as a generator for extreme pleasure and a means of activism and resistance.
His book Mythogeography was published by Triarchy Press on 26th January 2010, here is the link for further information:

The following text is my interview with Phil Smith, on March 27, 2010; the pictures belong to Phil Smith and drifters and can be used only in the context of Mythogeography theory, with permission:

M M: Could you please explain the difference between Mythogeography and the Psychogeography´s theory and practices developed by Surrealists, Dadaists, Lettrists and Situationists from the 30´s to the 60´s?

P S: Psychogeography is the study of how places affect the psychological states of those who pass through them. With a reciprocal meaning: that the places might be changed in order to alter the experiences and mental states of their residents and visitors. This was part of a theory of radical activism for the transformation of cities through the creation of exemplary ways of living (“situations”). In the United Kingdom the concept of Psychogeography has become somewhat detached from its original activist and unitary-urbanist meanings and reconfigured as a literary practice in the work of writers like Iain Sinclair. It has also gathered some occult trappings during this time from Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd, the graphic novelist Alan Moore and others.
Mythogeography describes a way of thinking about, passing through and using those places where multiple meanings have been squeezed into a single or restricted meaning (for example, heritage, tourist or leisure sites that are often presented in a singular and privileged way, when they may also be (or have been) homes, jam factories, battlegrounds, lovers' lanes, farms, cemeteries or madhouses). Mythogeography emphasizes the multiple nature of such places and suggests multiple ways of celebrating, expressing and weaving those places and their many meanings.
Mythogeography is influenced by, and draws on, Psychogeography – seeking to reconnect with some of its original political edge as well as with its more recent occult and literary additions. While engaging seriously with academic discourses in areas like Geography, tourism studies and spatial theory, Mythogeography also draws upon what Charles Fort might have described as ‘the procession of damned data’ and unrespectable discourses that it may use for metaphorical or literal explanation. So, occulted and anomalous narratives are among those available to Mythogeography, rarely as ends in themselves, mostly as means and metaphors to explain, engage and disrupt.
The term “Mythogeography” arose from the work of Wrights & Sites (a group of site-specific performance makers based in Exeter, UK).

M M: It is really interesting that you mention the clouds spiral pattern in your text Apocalypsis Cum Spiralis. Do you think that this fractal growing pattern is a means to a ¨walk¨ through the sky while we are still standing on earth?

P S: It is a phenomenon with many associations, which is perhaps why it is particularly attractive to a mythogeographer: natural, military, supernatural, geometrical and popular-cultural.
It is an accidental invitation to a kind of thinking that might well be described as a ‘walking in the sky while standing on the ground’. Such a behaviour resonates with one of the associations of the spiral, which is that of the detached eye; the idea here (taken from the comics and film of the Uzumaki narrative) is that the mythogeographer can learn how to re-site their point of view away from their subjective position (corporeal or otherwise).
The cloud phenomenon in Scandinavia (I rather lightheartedly suggest) is a portent for a more widespread, even apocalyptic, displacement of viewpoint. That it is a natural or covert-military phenomenon with the metaphorical potential to become a social one.

M M: In your book, you are searching for oaks, you had a purpose for your walk. Does a ¨drifter¨ need to have an objective?

P S: No. Indeed it is the very lack of an objective that imbues most drifts with their particular qualities. My search for oak trees was a genuine quest, I had no idea if I would find any not if any of the oak trees I sought were still alive, I was genuinely searching for them, but at the same time the real objective of my walk was not the oak trees, but rather the experiences and encounters of my walk. The oak trees served as a repeated ‘catapult’ for my journey, launching me each day, but most of the time I allowed myself to be repeatedly distracted by whatever atmospheres, spectacles or personalities attracted me along my way, the quest eventually pulling me back to my search. Such an ‘objective’ as the oak trees operates like a MacGuffin in a Hitchcock movie – it appears at first to be a defining reason but in fact it is simply an excuse to become involved in an intense engagement with the world. (I was also fortunate in that my quest revealed its own ironies and multiplicities, adding to the drift-like qualities of my journey.)

M M: How do your plays affect the experience of walking?

P S: At first my walking seemed to be a walking away from, a turning my back on, theatre, a rejection of histrionics for the less extravagant poetry of the everyday. However, I have become increasingly aware of how my walking-journeying comes from the journeying of theatre – my work in theatre has been predominantly with touring rather than building-based theatres. Equally, I now draw upon a thinned-out and subtle theatricality to enact intense encounters on my ‘drifts’ and quests. I recently wrote of the double nature of this movement away from and back to theatre:
“a journey from TNT’s touring theatre (its roots in para-theatre and popular performance) – within which, as company dramaturg, I had a brief ‘to enhance theatricality’, resting on a semi-fictional notion of nineteenth century German dramaturgs adapting the conceptual plays of poets for the practical stage - to a dispersed performance of journey, site and ‘walking as art’ with Wrights & Sites. But there has always been a complementary motion, a plane of activity sliding in relation to dispersal that began in the theatricality of a ‘rough’ dramaturgy. Through a spacing and thinning out of that theatricality, this dramaturgy has returned, in certain kinds of performative intervention, as remnant, revenant and trace: assemblage and weaving, vernacular intervention, character in myth, separatedness (the ‘ands’), sitedness (acting machine and theatre building as media not containers), the simultaneous dissimilarities of the grotesque, folding back, and framing.”   (Burning the Box Office: locating the relics of theatricality in a dramaturgy of the everyday”  Performance Research  Vol 14 (3). )
The terms are rather dense here (though explained in the paper), but they each refer to some theatre-like tactic that I draw upon when walking or exploring. They may help me to gain entry to a restricted space or be the means to generate semi-theatrical encounters, they may help me to use senses or body to explore the texture or shaping and massing of a built environment or they may be the means to create one’s own limitedly-mythic persona. Theatre has become a playfulness, but that is not a naïve, childish form of play, but a subtle and crafty play; sometimes subversive, sometimes malevolent.

M M: Is there a prevalence of any of our senses while walking or do we have to experience Mythogeography through all of them?

P S: There is no “have to”. It is more a case of playing the senses like a collection of instruments, sometimes solo, sometimes together; mixing and blending them. But most important is to understand the senses as active, not passive. Our senses seek out the world as if they were tentacles or lophophores. Mythogeography has been much affected, in this respect, by James J. Gibson’s theories of active perception.

M M: Would you recommend to make the same journey many times, for example, after a storm, in winter, in summer, under the rain or is it preferable to change the locations?

P S: I believe that the English psychogeographer Iain Sinclair takes the same walk in the Hackney area of London every day when he is not travelling away from the city. This is probably a tactic best deployed by those with considerable experience of disrupted walking, with the mental tricks and self-provocations to make the repeated walks exploratory ones. Undoubtedly the experience will reveal changes, but it will also reveal longstanding features that the walker has, for reasons it will be hard to discover, never ‘seen’ or noticed despite passing them many times.
We are remarkably selective in what we ‘see’. This seems to be a hardwired skill we have, cutting out the details to see the world as a kinetic environment – what angles suit us, what inclines threaten us. We need to find ways to trip up or disrupt the usual, efficient functionality of our senses. If repeated walking of the same route does that for you (without it making your walking a bore), then embrace it as a useful tactic.
I have walked a great deal in my home city (which is a small city) and recently wondered if I could easily find new routes. The other day I jumped onto a traffic island at the end of the city main street and discovered that its inner grassed area was remarkably sheltered, unvisited and quiet. Leaving this island and walking along a central reservation in between two lanes of traffic, feeling slightly vulnerable, I spotted a small side-street I did not recognize and proceeded to walk for almost an hour along unfamiliar streets, paths and parks, aware that always just a few yards to either side, were roads and tracks I knew well.

M M: It seems that current practitioners drifting in groups, usually to comply with an exercise for College, do not agree to follow the same paths, and some discussions aroused. What would you recommend for a group?

P S: To follow atmospheres, not intellectual opinions. To allow the periphery of the group to lead. To go backwards or stop. To seek tangents. To allow feelings to guide. not to be anxious if the walk takes a while to reveal its gems and treasures. If necessary, to use some instrument of chance for deciding what way to go at junctions. To have some conceptual task to perform – something frivolous, something playful (seek ‘wormholes’ or ‘voids’ or hidden things). But pursue this frivolity seriously; and when serious materials present themselves, allow them to shape a new behaviour, engaging your anger, your active sympathy. Change everything if a new kind of opportunity presents itself.
Groups of more than 5 or 6 members will probably split ‘naturally’ to allow everyone the chance to experience the walk with the intensity they deserve.
Concentrate on experiencing and enjoying the walk and not organizing it. No one needs to take any more responsibility for the walk other than simply looking out for each other’s safety.  Not every walk will (or can) have the intense pleasure of the model drift, but when they do – then there is probably a sign there that that group should keep drifting together; that there is some ambiguous potency in that group,  that it has other identities, quests and exemplary behaviours still to discover.

M M: Let us imagine walks through a battle field, even if there are no monuments, no buildings, just the landscape, as the beautiful poppy fields in England. Can imaginary memories, feelings, help in the journey?

P. S: Do the walkers know that this was a battlefield?
There is a certain sense in which whenever I walk through any fields in England not far from the towns, I sense that I might be walking across a Civil War (1640-1660 CE) battlefield. Because for those twenty years England was a battlefield, the whole of it. With the actual set piece battles simply foci for what was happening everywhere in the country. That plane of history still lies somehow lodged in the landscape, in places dislodged and faulted into institutions, elsewhere tilted into principles that are resolutely defended by small groups. Sometimes the vaguer planes are acknowledged and made a ‘heritage’ and sometimes unacknowledged and yet subtly manifesting its marks and strains and striations.
There are certain cliff-like landscapes that have for me a strange foreboding and I can directly trace this perception to a film I saw as a child – this is my own personal root/route into the general-ideological experience of ‘the Sublime’. Such matrices (or webs) of historical and subjective associations are part of the multiplicities beloved by Mythogeography.

M M: So, based on your research about heritage space, at last it is not important for the drifter to know about the history of the place or the buildings he sees, is then Mythology a discipline of applied phenomenology (in the sense of urban/rural perception)?

P S: There is always a danger that Mythogeography (and the same is true of Psychogeography) can be mistaken for an exotic branch of local history. To learn how to drift without any local knowledge is a useful weapon in the face of this danger. There is undoubtedly a phenomenological aspect to this practice, though Mythogeography prefers the more inconsistent and tendentious branch of phenomenology exemplified by Hans Jonas (rather than the more generally favoured tradition of Heidegger).
The key principle of Mythogeography is the setting in motion of various discourses and the learning from the nature of their orbits about each other. The provocative and willful absence of a discourse such as history will create significant and illuminating instabilities in the understanding of a place. This is a temporary tactic, rather than a celebration of ignorance. It is a gesture of disruption for the revealing of a taken-for-granted familiar.
One further contrast between Psychogeography and Mythogeography is relevant here: whereas Psychogeography was about the collection of emotional and atmospheric data in preparation for the re-sculpting of the city according to the principles of unitary urbanism, Mythogeography’s architectural ambitions are different in tactics if similar in strategy. While Mythogeography may embrace – as an evocative set of aspirations – the exotic quartering of cities (Bizarre, Dark, etc.) - it favours the re-making of the city through transitory interventions rather than New Babylonian planning: informal re-namings, the covert amendment of signs, soft architecture, the protection of rot and decay, the framing of abject vistas, re-assemblage through re-mapping, mental demolitions, absurdly hopeful planning applications, miniature utopias, new nations established on pavement slabs, ceremonies for establishing the centre of cities in side streets, the hijacking of guided tours, tiny parks and sports fields suspended above the commuter crowds, chapels for the saying of prayers for economic well-being, the opening of factories (plus forges and government ministries) as rights of way, radio updates on the status of voids (silence about road traffic), the preservation of libraries as subversive anachronisms…

M M: When I was a child, I used to be unconsciously involved in Mythogeography while walking through the cemetery. Better than this, we had a family and friends walk in the famous cemetery of Recoleta, in Buenos Aires, full of statues and ghost stories, have you ever tried with an environment different from the typical urban-rural?

P S: I am not sure what a typical urban or rural environment might be. In fact, part of the mission of Mythogeography is the disassembling of the idea that there might be such a thing. Very often it is inside what might appear to be (or is designated as) “typical” that the most profound anomalies begin to appear.
For example, I live about 20 miles from an area of “bleak moorland” – there are rocky tors and valleys full of boulders, streams and twisted trees. Nowhere could appear more wild and ‘natural’. Yet if one looks carefully (most people do not) in the ground one may see the remnants of chiseled lines in granite that emerges from the grass cropped by the many wild ponies. These lines are the grooves of an extensive railway track (made from granite rather than the usual steel) and the last remains (but for an occasional fallen wall) of a massive mining and quarrying industry (that ended about 150 years ago). What is taken for “natural” and “wild” on this moor is very often a remnant of industry: piles of boulders that appear to be (and are often taken for) the result of some landslip or avalanche of stones, are broken slabs discarded by the long-disappeared quarrymen.
Equally I could take you to my local shopping centre and in the shadowy corner of an entrance to one of the modern stores (Marks & Spencer), ignored by all who pass by, is a small bricked area within which is a fragment of reconstructed Roman road (so badly done that it appears to be an abstract design).
Such atypicalities are ‘typical’ (!)
Having said all that, cemeteries can be fabulous places to drift. Recently, while walking simultaneously with Kinga Araya (who was walking the line of the Berlin Wall) I entered a cemetery (not far from the moor mentioned above) and studied its map on a noticeboard: this map showed where people of different religious (Christian) denominations were buried (this is NOT a common mapping in a UK graveyard, where such divisions would usually be implicit rather than explicit). A woman passed by and we spoke – and she showed me some of the less explicit (unmapped) but readily observed delineations of this cemetery: the plot of local gypsy families with highly ornamented stones and florid texts and the plot of a local community of WW2 Polish refugees.

M M: What happens if suddenly the drifter feels lost, this feeling could improve the walk or spoil it, if his thoughts are blocked by the concern of being lost?

P S: There is little pleasure in becoming scared. If to be lost is to put oneself at unreasonable risk then there is little virtue in it. However, if all it means is an extra hour’s walking to get back to known territory, then for a while it may be liberating to have no recognizable markers or signposts. Having said that, aggressively seeking to get oneself lost can be a distraction from the mysteries that are present in territories one knows well. 

M M: I presume this discipline could be a psychological therapy, specially for those who are confined to a wheel chair. Is there any medical experience in these respects?

P S: I think there are therapeutic benefits to good drifting. Certainly many people have told me of feelings of wellbeing and relaxation the day after a previous day’s drift. But as far as I know there is no clinical evidence. I have drifted in a motorized wheelchair along with a regular user and this was a revealing experience. My eyeline was lower than usual and I saw many new things – signage and texts that I had not noticed before - while the sometimes forbidding texture of the ground and the bumps and drops became vividly evident to me; a policing of space that I had only understood previously in the crudest of terms.

M M:  Which is the strongest relationship between Arts and Mythogeography?

P S: In common with the situationists, Mythogeography has a somewhat pessimistic view of the arts, and takes it upon itself to enjoy the cultural ineptness of much contemporary public art and to seize and re-use examples of such moribund art in acts of ‘détournment’ (adapting banal art to transcendent functional uses). One of these acts might be the re-use of music as a personal soundtrack for the city, as a catapult to a solo drift, allowing arbitrary juxtapositions of music (using a shuffle setting on a player) to change the walker’s perception of space and their choices of direction.

M M: Dear Phil, thank you so much for sharing your concepts  with us, it has been a pleasure to learn about Mythogeography in your words.

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