by Zack Kopp
In Denver, every few plates of sidewalk is stamped with the name of its manufacturer: N.J. Clawood, Inc., RF Bex-Thel And Co., Super Granite Claw Paving, Ambassador Concrete (not their real names), on and on like that. Whole neighborhoods are often the domain of a sole paver, while others are crazy-quilts of seven or eight. This is probably the case in any major modern American city. As teenagers, we invented a game during long walks through Denver, namely, interpreting these stamps on the pavement with regard to their perceived implication, be it sinister or benevolent (which calculation was made based on how the names sounded), and talking about that as we went, like so:
“Yeah, Clawood’s a good guy, good ole N.J.”
“Yeah, Clawood. He was alright until Ambassador came on the scene, tried to establish totalitarianism.”
“Right, right. And Super Granite Claw were the shock-troops. We’ve gotta look out for Bex-Thel. We’re comin’ into his territory now.”
There it was on the sidewalk. R.F. Bex-Thel and Co. The name seemed sinister. “Bex-Thel is the devil.”
“We’ve gotta be careful.”
We made up whole stories about Bex-Thel. His evil-sounding name inspired us. What did the R.F. stand for? Was he some ancient Nazi scientist maybe, just playing it cool, laying low, just posing as a paver, and ready to strike as soon as he saw his chance at world domination—or some kind of alien? And why the weird hyphen? Was Bex-Thel really one person, or two somehow supernaturally transmogrified and combined into some unstoppable Business Bulldozer? And didn’t Bex-Thel make septic tanks too? Yeah, yeah! Maybe the monster, Bex-Thel, took his magick from the sewers, maybe that’s where it came from. We tried to minimize our presence in Bex-Thel’s territory. It was rare, but sometimes there was no other sensible way except straight through these areas. On these occasions, we marched through as quick as we could, never stopping to smoke, and made sure to look out for the cops, and kept a weather eye for signs of Clawood’s name on the sidewalk or anyone else’s, and followed these options as they appeared.
My friend Miranda says the longer a plant’s in the same soil, it takes on the shape of the pot. These days anywhere I go in Denver, it reminds me of something else from the past. In all my years of walking around in this city, I’ve only recently noticed peace signs blooming in the cracks that come after a snowfall and melt. The first one looked man-made, but as I kept going, I started seeing more and more, less and less perfectly stylized, all over the sunny sidewalks between my house and the bank, undeniably organic. Now I can’t tell if the first one was man-made or not. Of course, anyone else might have seen pitchforks, or the skeletons of fish. There’s war all over the world.
Since the late 1970s, psychogeographic analysis, defined as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals,” or “a symbolic order of the unconscious” has been one of the cornerstones of postmodern geography, and one of the hallmarks of postmodern writing on the city.
The aimless derive or “drift” from structure to structure, each with its attendant mood, is analogous to the reader’s drift through cyberspace using hypertext. Right where you are sitting now. The internet is an ideal medium for both the documenting of a psychogeographical project and an instrument opening fresh, multivalent, navigable spaces for its users.
Psychogeographic maps have been constructed of major cities; Founding member of the groups Lettrist International and Situationist International (SI) Guy Debord made one of Paris. New media artist Sarah McClelland made one of the wilderness landscape near White Mountain Research Center, noting the spookiness of particular trees. Says Debord, “The production of psychogeographic maps… can contribute to clarifying wanderings that express not subordination to randomness but complete insubordination to habitual influences.” (Les Lèvres Nues No. 6, 1955).
It would be impossible, to devise a psychogeographic map that works for everyone. Such a chart would be extremely limited, including only such symbols as would have a common meaning for all viewers, but . . . there aren’t any symbols like that! Psychogeography can be sought and lead anywhere. The old haunted house down the street might give off “bad vibes.” The materials lab might make you feel funny. That old Greek woman with a dog named Zeus who lives in a house with Greco-Roman columns either side of the door might remind you of Hera. How can it not be an individualized pursuit? Perhaps an approximation might be discerned via market research, but if there is a way to boil it down and make it universal, I haven’t discovered it yet.