72. David Pinder, “Arts of Urban Exploration”

by breavman99

I don’t recall where I learned about David Pinder’s essay “Arts of Urban Exploration”—perhaps in Tina Richardson’s anthology on contemporary British psychogeography, or maybe in Phil Smith’s book Walking’s New Movements. Sometimes a long time elapses between reading about (and printing) an article and actually getting down to reading it. Without knowing the context that explains why I thought the article might be worthwhile, it’s hard to know what my expectations might have been or why I thought it might be interesting. I need to find a better way of keeping track of these things, perhaps by improving my note-taking, because I can foresee this happening a lot. If anyone out there has any ideas, let me know.

Anyway, Pinder’s essay is an introduction to a special journal issue on “the arts of urban exploration” (387). He begins with a 2003 event on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a musical march of sorts, described by the organizers as “a tour, a sound riot, a parade, a junk band, a detritus band” (qtd. 383). The police were disturbed, and passersby bemused; when the group wheels noise- and fire-making “contraptions” into the site of their parade, the police move in; the parade crosses over into Brooklyn, “taking its noisy party spirit with it” (385). That event was created by a Brooklyn artist collective, Toyshop, which is centred on a street artist named Swoon; “the group . . . is concerned with public space and its democratization through what it calls ‘creative forms of productive mischief,’” Pinder writes (385). “The activities of Swoon and Toyshop signal some of the themes at the heart of this essay,” he writes:

My concern is with how artists and cultural practitioners have recently been using forms of urban exploration as a means of engaging with, and intervening in, cities. The papers sets this within the wider context of critical approaches to urban space which take it seriously as a sensuous realm that is imagined, lived, performed and contested. It argues that experimental arts and modes of exploration can play a vital role in the development of critical approaches to the geographies of cities, where they may challenge norms about how urban space is framed and represented, and where they may help to open up other possibilities. (385)

Toyshop’s intervention was part of a 2003 event in New York called Psy-geo-conflux, which “brought together artists, cultural workers, activists and urban adventurers from North America and Europe under the banner of ‘psychogeography’” (385-86). That event, he continues, 

can be seen as part of a developing concern within academic, artistic and activist circles with exploring critically the cultural geographies of cities. This includes practices of studying, representing and telling stories about cities; it also involves ways of sensing, feeling and experiencing their spaces differently, and with contesting ‘proper’ orderings of space to allow something ‘other’ to emerge. Characterizing this experimentation within academia is not only interdisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity, in recognition that understanding cities necessarily requires diverse perspectives and cannot be the province of one discipline alone. Also important is a growing dialogue and interconnection between academia, artists, cultural workers and activists, and between critical and creative practices. The search for tactics, spatial practices and modes of expression with which to explore urban culture is leading to an increasing turn to work traditionally associated with the creative and performing arts and with the inventiveness of activist groups, and now permeating all sorts of critical endeavour. (386-87)

This exchange between academic theory and creative practice owes a debt to the writing of Walter Benjamin, Michel de Certeau, Henri Lefebvre, the Surrealists and the Situationists, and “the long histories of attempts to transgress boundaries between art and everyday space, to explore the street and public realm through artistic practice” (387). However, Pinder is particularly interested in “the current revival of interest in urban psychogeography in relation to its political dimensions,” and intends “to focus on two main themes”: “assertions of ‘rights to the city’ and forms of ‘writing the city’” (387).

The term “urban exploration” has politically charged connotations, Pinder acknowledges:

it is associated with voyages of discovery and the construction of geographical knowledge, but it also has a disturbing history in terms of the power relations through which it has been conducted. Of particular concern are the colonial discourses and power structures that have framed much venturing into cities in both past and present. This is in terms not only of colonizers discovering and “taming” distant lands and peoples, but also of intrepid social explorers and reformers seeking to shed light on the “dark” and “undiscovered” urban geographies in the heart of exploration. (388)

At first, I thought Pinder’s use of the term “colonial” was metaphorical, but he means it seriously, even though some of his examples such as the 19th century “the language of imperial exploration” that was used in relation to places like London’s East End, which ended up being described “as part of ‘darkest England’ and its inhabitants as an ‘exotic race apart,’ in ways that had powerful material effects for mappings and constructions of the city and for projects of colonization and civilization,” are also rhetorical (388). But those linguistic constructions have power and generate nondiscursive effects. “The power of such scripting in the production of imaginative urban geographies remains evident in the colonial present,” Pinder notes, and it continues elsewhere, such as “in presentations of urban ‘pioneers’ exploring prospects in the ‘Wild West’ and on the ‘frontiers’ of the inner city” (388). This irruption of the colonial into walking practices is a problem for my own walking in Saskatchewan, where “colonial” is definitely not a metaphor, and I need to find ways to address it.

Nevertheless, the term “exploration” can be appropriated for other ends; example of the radical geographer Bill Bunge, who set out to turn around “the capitalist and colonialist language of exploration during the late 1960s and early 1970s” in “expeditions” in Detroit and Toronto, in which “he showed how progressive forms of exploring urban areas could be developed in collaboration with urban residents” (388). “These expeditionary practices brought into focus the daily problems, inequalities and structural conditions affecting the lives of residents,” Pinder states (388). Bunge’s techniques included “community mapping that addressed spaces of violence and safety, of poverty and wealth, and of starvation and abundance. This was a practice of exploration based on an ‘intimate sensing’ in contradistinction to abstract ways of knowing then promoted by advocates of spatial science” (388). Another radical tradition of urban exploration is found within the Situationist International and psychogeography, “which was from the beginning a highly politicized endeavour, one that was committed not only to studying urbanism and socio-spatial relations but also to changing them” (388). The Situationists, of course, used dérives or drifts as a way of exploring cities on foot, drawing on earlier avant-garde practices, especially those of the Dadaists and Surrealists (388). Psychogeography 

combined playful-constructive behaviour with a conscious and politically driven analysis of urban ambiences and the relationships between cities and behaviour. But they also sought out a better city, one that was more intense, more open and more liberating. This led to reimaginings and remappings of urban space, where cities were mapped according to paths, movements, desires and senses of ambience. (389)

The Situationists’ activities have been important in the recent interest in critical urban exploration (389):

As a mode of exploration, psychogeography has typically had a marginal and underground air, not least through its focus on the hidden, forgotten and obscure. Its basis lies in the settings and practices of the streets, in their fragments, everyday materials and detritus. Yet if psychogeographical explorations retain associations of the marginal and even illicit, their significance for developing critical understandings of cities has been increasingly recognized. (389)

Pinder contends that there has been an surge of interest in other artistic practices engaging with urban space related to psychogeography as well (389)—and I think he might be including the work of Toyshop in that category: 

Psychogeographical practices of exploration are additionally feeding into, and resonating with, wider current concerns with rethinking cities and urban space. The attention to mood, ambience and the possibilities of the urban are proving conducive for those seeking to develop critical understandings of urban experience and life. (390)

Theoretical influences on these practices include Doreen Massey and the importance she gives in For Space to “the potential surprise of space and to the encounter with the unforeseen, arguing for an understanding of the spatial that resists closure and stasis. It is an approach that emphasizes dynamic simultaneity, where space is in process and incomplete, where it eludes final determination and representation” (390). I was happy to read that capsule summary of Massey’s book, and I realize, once again, that I will need to read For Space a second time.

A broad range of activities took place during the Psy-geo-confluxes event: activities that “sought to divert or subvert routinized spatial practices” and encouraged interactions with strangers (390-91). Other activities tried to investigate “the urban everyday, and to sense urban moods and ambiences,” by listening to the city and its multiple stories and memories, “and finding means of responding to or recounting the tales” (392). These practices didn’t only consider “meanings as currently understood” but also questioned those meanings through games, walks, events that encouraged participants to adopt different routes “or sought to defamiliarize routine paths and practices” (395). Most of the activities “involved immersion in the city specifically through walking,” in keeping with other forms of urban exploring and psychogeogrpahy (396). However, those activities set out “to displace everyday routines and habit in navigating the city” by opening walks “to chance events and encounters,” often “through instituting frameworks or rule systems for walking” (396). “Such practices to encourage dérives might recall aspects of situationist practice, and in particular Debord’s criticism of the limitations of surrealist strolls that relied on chance alone,” Pinder notes (397). 

The Situationists and their “conscious assertion of revolutionary desire in the effort to overturn dominant sociospatial relations” also “led to the assertion of what their sometime associate Henri Lefebvre later termed in 1968 ‘the right to the city,’ by which he meant the right to dwell in and to inhabit the city, the right to urban life and encounter, to the use of moments and places, to participation and socialization” (397). Much of the value of psychogeographical activities, Pinder argues, “comes from what they say about ‘rights to the city’ and practices of ‘writing the city’” (397). “To intervene through creative practice in public space today,” he continues, “is to enter into a crucial struggle over the meanings, values and potentialities of that space at a time when its democracy is highly contested. Encouragement of vitality and openness in that space is not an innocent demand” (398). Instead, it confronts “the commercialized and commodified blandness of urban space” (398). It is also “located within a tightening of surveillance measures and a hardening of the city’s surface,” in terms of increased security after 9/11 “and in relation to a landscape pitted against the already marginalized and poor” (398). “Familiar components include the proliferation of surveillance cameras and the construction of walls, embattlements and other signs to warn off and issue orders to users of space,” and “zero-tolerance” policies, moving homeless people out of public spaces (398). Related to these is the redevelopment of urban centres, which has resulted in evictions and exclusions (398). “Toyshop’s infectuously joyous Serenade and other psychogeographical explorations of cities” therefore “occupy an awkward position”: 

The games and gift economy underlying them cut against the prevailing emphasis on commercialized and controlled activity with associated demands of passivity, where the commodity is the measure of worth. From a hard-nosed political perspective, though, such activities may be easy to dismiss as irrelevant to the “real” business of political struggle, even trivial. Real estate interests can also sleep easy, with the cachet of more artistic gatherings even rubbing off on their marketing schemes. How can artists criticize and resist the remaking of public spaces by powerful interests? How can they question the complicity of the arts in socially divisive urban development programmes, where they are often used merely to add gloss to urban “renewal projects through aestheticization in the form of sculptures or individual art projects? (398)

Such questions “have been at the heart of much important critical public art over the last two decades,” and they have “led activist strands of creative practice to engage with communities and existing social struggles, to develop collaboration and dialogue with residents, and to employ different modes of address” (398). Those “activist strands” have also questioned the role of the arts in urban change and gentrification (398).

The political strategies of the psychogeographical activities Pinder has discussed are typically not overt, and they rarely involve collaborations with communities beyond “their own relatively narrow constituencies” (399). For that reason, “they are relatively detached from the kinds of day-to-day struggles of poorer local residents” (399). At the same time, however, “exploring ‘the meaning of living in a city’ at this time is crucial politically. It is not a trivial matter to find different ways of attending to the ‘quality of life’ in the city, especially when that phrase has become hijacked by authoritarian modes of policing public space . . . and used invidiously to construct public space in exclusionary ways” (399). “Nor is it insignificant to explore critically the qualities of streets, squares, parks and other aspects of the public realm in terms of how they are used, imagined and lived,” Pinder continues. “Indeed, doing so is vital given the significance of these spaces for sustaining a vibrant and democratic urban culture, and for defending rights to the city. So too is provoking debate about how they might be different, better” (399). In addition, many explorative activities have become politicized through the resistance they have received—such as police harassment (399). The importance of psychogeography is the way that it “directs attention in particular to spatial practices, undercutting assumptions that public space can be understood in static terms as a ‘thing’ whose status is fixed in advance. It can open to interrogation the means through which public space is socially produced and contested” (399). What characterizes psychogeographical strategies is their “emphasis on an active engagement with urban space where importance is attached to the act itself: to creating games in the city, to experimenting with behaviour, to experiencing urban spaces directly as an actor rather than as a passive spectator” (400). Psychogeographical activities can also include “forms of play in the streets, whose presence is testament to how space remains open to the potential for surprise and encounter, and whose actions” may loosen the rules of social conduct (400). These strategies may also “raise significant questions about how hopes, dreams and desires for a different city might be drawn out from everyday moments and events” (400).

However, the difficult question “of how resulting momentary incursions and shifts in perspective can lead to longer lasting social and spatial change” is important: “Demands for right sto the city, as Lefebvre made clear, require the production of an appropriate space; this signals a limitation of psychogeographical incursions and remains an issue in need of further address” (400). “Part of the significance of psychogeography and walking practices is nevertheless the way in which they allow encounters with apparently ‘ordinary’ and ‘unimportant’ activities in the city, against the grain of powerful discourses of the urban,” Pinder writes (400). Such discourses that constitute grand narratives about the state of city life (401). “Wandering through the city and attending to such everyday practices” means operating below the threshold (to paraphrase de Certeau) of “urbanistic, planning and geographical discourses” (401). “It is from this street-level perspective that such practices open up detours and rework understandings of cities along different lines from those scripted according to the dominant terms of the ‘Concept City,’” Pinder contends (401). He asserts the importance of de Certeau’s essay “Walking in the City” as an expression of “the endless creativity of ordinary users and walkers in cities, their tactical operations and errant movements on foot,” which resemble (de Certeau argues) speech acts in which pedestrians “enunciate” spaces rather than conform to them (401). However, there are many critiques of that essay, including the suggestion that de Certeau was talking about walking in the abstract, without rooting his essay in specific examples, which led to, among other things, a neglect of “the specific identities through which people negotiate their passage in the city” (402). 

One “important outcome” of the discussion of urban exploration, Pinder writes, has been an emphasis on the ways that 

spatial practices are constrained as well as enabled by the particular identities of the explorers involved and the context with which they are engaged. The relative ease with which some explorers move through terrains is bound up with axes of power that involve complex articulations of class, gender, ‘race,’ sexuality, disability and so on. It is therefore necessary to consider how ostensibly ‘radical’ explorations may themselves depend on privileges of power. (402)

That reality “tempers some of the enthusiasm with which walking has been embraced by many critics and cultural practitioners in recent years for enabling critical analysis, discovery and thought” (402). Indeed, part of walking’s appeal “has been the way it apparently renounces the centred, the panoptic and the hierarchical” and “provides a means of engaging with urban spaces and experiences in ways that move beyond specialized arenas, whether those of art or academic institutions”—with “apparently” being the key word in that sentence (402). 

It is important to recognize that while the city “can never be known in its entirety, and that representing space is in some cases an inevitably doomed task due to its very openness,” experimenting with ways of “writing the city” is still 

vital for developing critical studies of the urban as well as this sense of its openness. “Writing” here is understood in a wide sense as involving all kinds of media, registers and modes of performance, and may include adopting different textual strategies and voices as well as modes of (counter)mapping in an effort to find forms conducive to addressing the complexities of the urban. Such experimentation is not for its own sake but in recognition of the politics as well as poetics of representation. (403)

There is much to be learned regarding the politics of the representation of the city, Pinder argues, 

from a range of current exploratory and psychogeographical practices that includes the work of contemporary artists, urban adventurers and explorers. It is not simply an issue of asking what artists can do in a narrow instrumental sense to bring about progressive urban change, but rather of opening up through such practices the potential for collaborations, interventions, reimaginings that disrupt and expand senses of both the city and the self. This necessitates working within particular contexts, and negotiating and constructing paths through what exists. It also requires inventing different ways to address “the meaning of living in a city” and associated rights, with a continual emphasis on what is possible. (404)

Those words essentially constitute Pinder’s conclusion; what follows is a discussion of the other articles in the issue of the journal, which sound promising and helpful and certainly worth reading.

In a way, Pinder’s essay is a rather general introduction that repeats things I’ve already read. What is useful about it, though, is that it is a discussion of psychogeography that doesn’t get hung up (as I tend to do) on some of its (to me) less useful aspects—its emphasis on occult or esoteric knowledge or belief, for instance. And, while Pinder is clearly focused on urban explorations, I wonder if it would be possible to read his essay against rural explorations as well. Perhaps not: there are significant differences between the way space is constituted in the country and the way it is constituted in the city. Nevertheless, it still might be worth a try. I was also surprised at the link Pinder makes between events like Toyshop’s parade and psychogeography—perhaps the range of activities that fall beneath that rubric is wider than I had thought. And, of course, Pinder’s bibliography is a rich source of further reading, as any good research essay typically is. Each thing I read is one more piece of a larger puzzle, even if I can’t immediately see where that piece fits, and so none of it—well, almost none of it—is wasted.

Work Cited

Pinder, David. “Arts of Urban Exploration,” Cultural Geographies, vol. 12, no. 4, pp. 383-411.