All around us is a mysterious landscape which occupies the same spatial dimensions as the one we are intimately familiar with. The unknown is everywhere intertwined with the known; to see it, we only need break our own habits. Take a wrong turning one day. Navigate by mismatched maps. Get on a train without knowing where you’ll end up.
Psychogeography is the art of moving through space according to feelings and effects rather than ordinary purposes. Like all the experimental arts, it seeks to break routine ways of being, hoping for the freshness of new experience. Psychogeography has a history that begins in Paris with the poet Baudelaire’s favorite figure, the “flaneur” or drifter—one who spends the day walking through the city with no other purpose than to experience its ambiances. Later, Guy Debord and his companions in the Lettrist and Situationist movements briefly held the dream that “the new type of beauty can only be a beauty of situations.” Only an art of creating “situations,” they thought, had the potential to change how people lived and felt. The situations they loved involved cities, going from one place to another, chance encounters.
Here’s Debord: “Of all the affairs we participate in, with or without interest, the groping quest for a new way of life is the only thing that remains really exciting. Aesthetic and other disciplines have proved glaringly inadequate in this regard and merit the greatest indifference. We should therefore delineate some provisional terrains of observation, including the observation of certain processes of chance and predictability in the streets…. Psychogeography sets for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals. The charmingly vague adjective psychogeographical can be applied to the findings arrived at by this type of investigation, to their influence on human feelings, and more generally to any situation or conduct that seems to reflect the same spirit of discovery.”
Drawing from a variety of artistic sources beyond the Situationists (surrealist games, conceptual and land art, John Cage’s love of chance, Alan Kaprow’s happenings, Fluxus, recent developments in uncreative writing) as well as a long interest in travel as a psychic form (Australian songlines, pilgrimages, arctic explorations, tales of walking the Hindu Kush and riding the Trans-Siberian express), The Bureau of Unknown Destinations has set out to develop a practice of unknowing. Tickets were given away because unexpected gifts prompt action. Trains were chosen because of their peculiarly contemplative atmosphere, at once melancholy and hopeful. by prompting train journeys to unknown destinations, the Bureau hopes to physicalize the situation of being carried along towards a destiny. travel as oracle. The goal is to interrupt ordinary instrumentalities, to intervene in the drive to get somewhere and get on with it. To step aside, even, from our own preferences.
John Cage was a master at this: “….the answer must take the form of paradox: a purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life—not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.”
The Bureau of Unknown Destinations favors interruption, disruption and detour. It favors abstaining from purpose for a time. It favors simply embarking.
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This essay originally appeared as part of the Bureau of Unknown Destination’s Psychogeographic Destination Kit.
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