Monday, 3 September 2012

The Origins of the Project

Vectis is a multimedia art project, designed to be finally realised in the form of a book containing images and words. This book will be produced in the tradition of the artist's book, that is to say, the physical structure of the book (pages etc.) and it's overall design will be conceptually important features of the final product. What this means is that, if all goes to plan, Vectis will not properly be able to be understood in any format but the book as I have designed and realised it. Any other presentation format will be a record of the work rather than the work itself, much as a photograph of a painting or a recording of a concert. 

The purpose of the book, as previously stated, is to explore the psychogeography of the Isle of Wight. Psychogeography is a fairly nebulous term, which I have deliberately avoided attempting a precise definition of. Literally it just means "mental geography", but the word carries all sorts of interesting associations. It sounds like 'psychology', but also a bit like 'psychopathy'; it would seem to be a word that describes a science, yet psychogeography is not really a scientific practice in the least. It is, as much as it is anything, a crystallisation of an intellectual tradition that Merlin Coverley, in his only slightly breathless introduction to the subject fittingly entitled 'Psychogeography', identifies as stretching back to British literary luminaries including Defoe and Blake, going on down the years to include such diverse figures as Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Baudelaire, Guy Debord, Alan Moore and Iain Sinclair. Coverley explicitly identifies psychogeography, through these and other writiers, with the experience of two particular cities; London and Paris. This is, to my mind, problematic. Leaving out the fact that Coverley notably fails to identify any writers that are not white men*, he also explicitly aligns his view of psychogeography with a strain of urbanist thinking that is, in it's essence, utopian.

I should clarify here that when I say that a train of thought is utopian, what I mean specifically is it comes from a tradition of western thought that recognises the possibility of utopia in a hazily (or, worryingly precisely) defined future, rather than that it assumes that the present day city is a utopian place. A continuous theme that pervades all the way through from the mysticism of Blake to the post-Marxism of the Situationist International  (via Chartism, Das Kapital, the Paris Commune etc. etc.) is the essentially Christian idea that history is a process that will lead first to tribulation and decay, and then to a better and more glorious world. In London/Paris centric psychogeography this finds itself expressed in the idea that the city (these two cities in particular) are great cultural engines that have either failed to start or are winding down because of the machinations of often nebulous systematic oppressors, expressed through modifications to and restrictions on the architecure and physical geography of the cities themselves. If the workers could be liberated, if the 'mind-forged manacles' could be shattered, if the zoning laws could be abolished, ah, what then? What better and more glorious world might we build?

My problem with this intellectual tradition is, I will admit, largely a political one. I believe, essentially, that the majority of the London/Paris writers have, whilst in many cases particularly in the 20th century espousing radical left wing views, failed to confront an essential parochialism at the core of their being. In one short, vulgar phrase, what is it that makes their homes so fucking important? It can hardly be a coincidence that London and Paris are cities that have sat at the centre of two of the vastest and, frankly, most unpleasant empires in the history of the world. Focusing particularly on the London tradition, which is more relevant to my studies, it seems obvious to me that much of the writing identified as psychogeography forms part of a tradition of small-minded intellectual imperialism that exists even within (indeed, especially within) the UK itself, where London becomes the centre of all things and a yardstick by which to measure all other places by. Part of my intention with Vectis, then, is to redress the balance a little by using the methodology of psychogeography (particularly as developed by Iain Sinclair and the admittedly broader-thinking Patrick Keiller) to deal with a much more marginal place.

The name Vectis comes from 'Insula Vectis', the Latin name for the Isle of Wight; this is the subject of the project. The island is an interesting place both because of what it is and what it is not; and this is a subject I shall expand upon in future posts. It is difficult to summarise, but I shall mention one, perhaps rather esoteric sounding point. The surface of the earth is a (rough) sphere. In euclidean geometry, this can be represented as a plane in which all straight lines become circular paths leading back to their point of origin. The centre of this plane, and thus the centre of the world, can be anywhere. We should also note, again perhaps somewhat occultly, that an island, unlike a city, has a discrete physical existence within defined geographical boundaries (its coastline) rather than defined political boundaries; that it is a product of nature rather than a product of man but is still invested with the same significance of being a distinct place we give to cities. 

Yes, I know I'm waffling.

That will probably be all for today; I have some errands to run. I am loath to set a schedule for updates to occur on certain days, as I tend to work unevenly (some days I can achieve nothing, other days I end up staying up all night hammering away). I will say, however, that I hope the updates can at least be frequent; hopefully, they will also be interesting.

*And pretty much all white heterosexual men to boot. I can do something about that at least.

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