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Mythogeography

Mythogeography Re-visioned
Part 1

  • June 5, 2018

Part 1: Disrupting the status-quo of place

Part 2: Mythogeography & Photography

THE ARCHITECT-WALKER: A Mis-Guide, Wrights & Sites, Triarchy Press, Axminster, England, June 2018. ISBN: 978-1-911193-10-4; Paperbound, 119p, including references, $25/£20

RETHINKING MYTHOGEOGRAPHY in Northfield, Minnesota,John Schott & Phil Smith, Triarchy Press, Axminster, England, March, 2018. Introduction/Photography: John Schott. ISBN: 978-1-911193-38-8; Paperbound, 51p, $20/£15

Synopsis: THE ARCHITECT-WALKER: A Mis-Guide

Wrights & Sites, formed in UK in1997, is composed of four artist-researchers, Stephen Hodge, Simon Persighetti, Phil Smith, and Cathy Turner. The work of each is focused on our relationships to places, cities, landscapes, and walking. Individually, and as a group, they “employ disrupted walking strategies as tools for playful debate, collaboration, intervention and spatial meaning-making.” Their work, like walking, is meant to be porous. They hope others will read into it, draw from it their own connections, and find ways to fracture, erode, and distress specificities and temporalities of sites. As in their previous books, The Architect-Walker: A Mis-Guide seeks to pass on their dramaturgical1 strategies to the reader. [Wonders of Weston (2010) A video interview with Wrights & Sites]

Synopsis: RETHINKING MYTHOGEOGRAPHY in Northfield, Minnesota

While on a two-week stint as Artist-in-Residence at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, Phil Smith undertook a re-examination of mythogeography as he explored the town. In his ambulation Phil conjured up a new understanding of mythogeography, one that is both urgent and connective. One that “tries less and engages more.” In Rethinking Mythogeography, Phil and photographer John Schott, through his documentation of Phil’s “The Blazing Worlds Walk,” demonstrate how we also can arrive at a new understanding of our surroundings, one that like in Northfield, is both urgent and connective. [Video of Phil talking about “The Blazing Worlds Walk”]


I’ve been a mythographic walker, or architect-walker if you prefer, for many years now. Well, actually I’ve always been one, although it has only been since the late, late, mid-90s that I’ve known how to describe it Up til then I was just simple flâneur on a dérive (experiential walk). It has been an integral part of my work as an urban consultant, as a university professor, a writer, and as a photographer. While I’ve realized for some time now how mythogeography influenced my view of the everyday, I hadn’t really thought about it in terms of my philosophy of photography until just recently.

That thinking began with a message from Phil Smith letting me know that he had a new work on mythogeography about to be released. In the past I have reviewed several of Phil’s works, and have used a couple as textbooks or recommended reading in my Urban Paradoxes course. I jumped at the chance to grab a review copy. I also discovered about the same time, that Wrights & Sites (whom I’ve also reviewed in the past), of which Phil is a part, have a new work coming out in June.

When I thought about writing the review I decided to write it in two parts, the first part as a review of the two books and the second part as an exploration of what these two works offer to me as a photographer.

Part One: Disrupting the Status-Quo of Place

Wrights & Sites and Phil Smith are closely connected. Each book, the astute reader will notice, overlaps the other. As noted above, Phil is a member of the four-member Wrights & Sites group that was formed in the UK in 1997.

In Rethinking Mythogeography, Phil seeks to find the magic of the everyday, of everyday places, in Northfield, Minnesota, while Wrights & Sites in The Architect-Walker explores ways to both rewrite and “re-right” the landscape through artistic walking disruption. In Rethinking Mythogeography Phil engages the incomplete myth of what happened in a way that allows a space (place) to fill the void with its own picture. In The Architect-Walker: A Mis-Guide Wrights & Sites explores ways that allows the architect-walker (the mythogeographer) to simultaneously be both the architect and the architecture, tools that open “playful debate, collaboration, intervention, and spatial meaning-making.”

Phil, in the introduction to Rethinking Mythogeography, defines mythogeography as “fidelity to the indecipherable.” Although a reading of the book will make what Phil means clear, the definition is perhaps a bit obtuse for the person new to the concept of mythogeography.

So, before the review, an explanation of mythogeography. . .

The term mythogeography rose from the work of Wrights & Sites’ site-specific performances. The concept of mythogeography draws from and is influenced by psycho-geography. Psycho-geography is the study of how place affect the psychological state of a person passing through the space. The environment of place, according to psycho-geography affects both the emotion and behavior of person. The term, coined by Debord2 in 1955, was conceptually developed by the Lettristes International4 and influenced theories of radical activism in the transformation of urban space. The Lettristes re-conceived the dérive, the act of ambulation, as a means of challenging the status quo.

Mythogeography is a way of thinking in new ways about the multiple meanings of place. The meaning of a “place,” more often than not, has have been forced into a single meaning that excludes other potential meanings (for example: heritage tourism, narrow cultural emphasis, stories of the place purposely left out of the narrative). When squeezed into a narrow view the place itself becomes restrictive and unobservable. Mythogeography seeks to challenge the status quo and to open up the space to all of its stories. To celebrate the multiple stories of place in ways that both weave and unweave – to engage and disrupt &211; the multiple meanings of a place.Mythogeography is a way of thinking in new ways about the multiple meanings of place. The meaning of a “place,” more often than not, has have been forced into a single meaning that excludes other potential meanings (for example: heritage tourism, narrow cultural emphasis, stories of the place purposely left out of the narrative). When squeezed into a narrow view the place itself becomes restrictive and unobservable. Mythogeography seeks to challenge the status quo and to open up the space to all of its stories. To celebrate the multiple stories of place in ways that both weave and unweave – to engage and disrupt – the multiple meanings of a place.

In Rethinking Mythogeography, Phil Smith seeks to open up the full story of Northfield, Minnesota, the story beyond the accepted myth. In The Architect-Walker: A Mis-Guide, Wrights & Sites explore tools that enable us to do so.

Now for the books. In Rethinking Mythogeography Phil works with the concepts advanced in The Architect-Walker: A Mis-Guide. So, let’s begin with The Architect-Walker: A Mis-Guide.

Intentional or not, I love the play on words that is found in the name, Wrights & Sites. A wright is a maker or builder, the architect who creates something to be sited in a space, a site. When we see that which is on the site, it becomes a sight.

Then there is "wright" and the homophones, "right," "write" and "rite." There is a certain right implied in being an architect-walker. We have the inherent right to occupy space as we walk. As we walk we write a new pattern on the history of that space where we walk, as well as write a new pattern in our mindbodies. And in a real sense, this walking-writing becomes the rite of reimagining/re-imaging, or re-wrighting, the space. Although not a architect in the strict sense, being an architect-walker is about architecting (building) a reimagined vision of a space.

“Bricklaying with daydreams, creative demolition, first aid for sick buildings, dissolving signs, speaking truth to architecture and mapping hallucinatory post-truth urban landscapes” (From the back cover of THE ARCHITECT-WALKER: A Mis-Guide)

Architect-Walker: A Mis-Guide4 explores what it means to walk with the “architecture” of a space in mind without allowing the built architecture (physical, mental, stated history) of the space to interfere with our observations. The goal of being an architect-walker is to reimagine the fullness of a place, a fullness that is not limited by the observed myth (environment & accepted story), but one that is open to what is unobserved and unspoken, to all the unrealized potentialities of the place—past, present, and future. The goal of Architect-Walker: A Mis-Guide is to see everything present – past, present, and future -- as porous layers that allow each layer to flow into the other in a way that causes up to speculate, to imagine, and to reimagine/re-image.

The introduction states, “We are all architect-walkers.” It ends with, by being architect-walkers we use our “mind-bodies to soak up and undo spectacular spaces and social media. Where (we) can, (we) sabotage the meeting places of globalism and loneliness …. (We) free the cosmopolitan canopy from its moorings (p.111).” The architect-walker provokes and occupies. The architect-walker, Wrights and Sites believe can bring down the established power with a new power simply by being present in a space.

Wrights & Sites began with large site-specific performances. Over the years they have evolved away that to become more of a drifting troupe , ambulant architects, exploring the gaps between things. The Mis-Guide portion of the title is an invitation to join Wrights & Sites in ascribing significance to place.

The “mis-guide” is not merely a guide to disruptive performance. It is rather more a tool manual that suggests tools that provocatively question the status quo, the power of establishment, the accepted story, or perhaps an injustice. It is “misguided” in that the tools offered as examples run counter to the tools offered by the Establishment.

A protest march, for example, is a disruptive performance, but rather than questioning the issue, it becomes confrontation between two versions of the status quo. Being an architect-walker is not about confronting, it is about the “performance” of questioning in a way that disrupts how we view a space. It makes no difference whether that space is mental or physical.

The “Mis-Guide” offers up such tools (performances) as rendering first aid to a sick building, hold up dissolving signs, the literal flogging of boundaries, creating imaginary graveyards, or the mapping of hallucinatory landscapes over the existing landscape.

Merely listing them does a disservice to both the book and the tools. Interspersed throughout the pages are lists of performance suggestions. In between are actual performances that have taken place. Each performance is described and explored. Each exploration further expands what being an architect-walker is all about. Sometimes this expansion of meaning is a few words given as part of the chapter on the performance. Other-times it is a deeper exploration of what it means to be an architect-walker. In these topics such as “leaving the building,” privilege, vulnerability and power are explored. Whether it is from the description and exploration of the performances or from the examination of what it means to be an architect-walk, one thing becomes very clear: Being an architect-walker is not a passive experience. It is an active experience that both feels the place and allows that feeling to change our perception of the place. The place becomes significant in entirely new ways.

Like The Architect-Walker: A Mis-Guide, Rethinking Mythogeography is sort of an evolution. For Wrights & Sites the evolution took place over the years, for Phil Smith, it was his two-week Artist-in-Residency at Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota (2016), that caused him to reexamine his version of mythogeography. Actually, not so much an evolution, as it was a “blurting out of things” with an urgency. A realization of the seriousness of the “magic of the ordinary” and the “network of connections crying out (p.6),” needing to be made.

Rethinking Mythogeography is about Phil Smith learning in Northfield, Minnesota to “try less and engage more (p.7)” and of “urgency” of the mythogeographical pilgrimage, and the need to share it.

“Searching for the magic in the everyday? For the moment when we find a heightened understanding of ordinary things? For a way to welcome enchantment? (From the back cover of RETHINKING MYTHOGEOGRAPHY)

Again, like The Architect-Walker: A Mis-Guide, Rethinking Mythogeography is two books in one. As photographer John Schott explains in his introduction to the book, this little book of 51 pages is really two “documentations.” The first, on the left pages, a documentation of “The Blazing Worlds Walk,” with descriptions by Phil and photographs taken by John. On the right is the second documentation, Phil’s essays reflecting on mythogeography and what he learned in Northfield. Phil began writing these essays during his last days in Northfield. Both “documentations” need to be read simultaneously.

“The Blazing Worlds Walk,” I like that name. It conjures up both a bright, shiny world and the blazing of a new trail, a new story. The walk was part of Carleton College’s ten-week liberal arts celebration of walking, which John Schott describes as an “artistic practice and remarkably protean theme.”

The Walk was certainly not one that the Chamber of Commerce or the Historical Society would have conducted--abandoned buildings, plaques, a telephone pole, and a pizza joint, were all on the tour. It explored places that didn’t fit the accepted town myth, or when it did, it exploded those myths. Not by destroying them, but by enlarging with new stories. At each stop Phil Smith took on an “archeology of the devalued and ‘invisible’ that blended post-modern theory and … local history.” The walk became away for each participant to re-image their town.

Phil in his essays equates that walk with a pilgrimage. It, however, is not the usual kind of pilgrimage. There is nothing religious about. It is not some sort of special trip to arrive at a significant or holy destination. The pilgrimage that Phil ponders is one that we slip in and out of. It is a here and there journey in which we seek two things (p.11): First, to appreciate the sacredness of the journey itself. To understand that everything – even the journey – has a “need and right to be venerated.” Secondly, we seek to find ourselves on the “edge of the hidden and unrepresentable part and to learn how to protect its borders.”

It is a journey like that of the Grail Quest that learns to ask questions rather than seek answers. Ultimately, like the Grail Quest, it is about spiritual discovery and transformation. Not in any religious sense, rather in a way that recognizes the transforming power in our lives of the multiple meanings of place -- any place – and the veneration of each meaning.

According to Phil, any such pilgrimage is a disruptive walk that messes with our own pretensions and expectations. It critiques, enthuses, embraces, wrecks. It is walking, being still, reflecting, meditating. It is seeking dark places. It is being able to shut down and become, according to Smith, a blank sheet. It is about trying less and engaging more, of becoming entangled with the experiences. Letting things become through their own agency (2/Pilgrimage).

The problem, Phil believes, is that what we see as the big picture is too small, too parochial. It is in reality a deflated “bigger picture,” a picture deflated by a myth (story) of place that is not the full story. It is an incomplete story created by culture and need, yet one that is presented as the story. There is a silence, a void, that hangs around the peripheral.

In Rethinking Mythogeography, Phil explores this idea from the perspective of Northfield and lack of narrative. For Northfield the “town myth” is built upon a raid by the Jessie James Gang on Northfield’s First National Bank and the heroic actions of the tellers that stopped the raid. It has become a “socialized media hallucination (p.10)” comprised of contemporary retellings melded with grizzly photographs, books and clippings written after the fact, a movie, and Northfield’s annual reenactment of the event. The glorified myth overwhelms, according to Phil, other ways of understanding the town and thus creates both a void and an unrecognized inability to move the town forward. Northfield is in lock-stepped with its myth, forever locked in the past.

The concept of town myth as an inhibiting myth is explored in Rethinking Mythogeography through the questioning of observations and rite of wandering. As Phil explores, the accompanying “Blazing Walk” documentation adds insight to his musings and thoughts on how to elucidate the larger narrative.

There’s an urgency in this, in that the connection to a narrow myth of place brings about an ideological entropy that hangs about and permeates the culture. This is what is happening to Northfield, but it is also happening where we live. The urgency to break the confines is not just found in Northfield. It is found everywhere.

The goal of mythogeography, we are told, is to rupture the entropy and reverse false connections. The goal of mythogeography is to “connect texture and detail to the big picture and how, as a common practice it can change situations and not just comment on them (p. 51).”

As I said at the beginning, both Phil Smith and Wrights & Sites have influenced my thinking about photography. In the next part, I will explore the ideas in both works, Rethinking Mythogeography, The Architect-Walker: A Mis-Guide as I see them applying to photography and the philosophy of photography.


About the Authors

Phil Smith is an Associate Professor (Reader) in the School of Humanities and Performing Arts at the University of Plymouth. He has written several books on mythogeography and published papers in “Studies In Theatre” and “Performance Research,” along with other journals. He is a member of Wrights & Sites

In addition to Phil Smith, the others involved in the writing of The Architect-Walker: A Mis-Guide are:

Stephen Hodges, an artist-academic-curator whose work lands within the territories of live art and interdisciplinary spatial practices. Stephen is Associate Professor in Live Art + Spatial Practices, Head of Drama, and Director of Arts + Culture at the University of Exeter, where he is an active member of the Centre for Contemporary Performance Practices. Website

Simon Persighetti, a Doctor of Ambulant Investigations. As an artist, performance-maker and writer, his practice lives in the re-imagining of cities, towns and landscapes through an active and playful engagement with people and place.

Cathy Turner, an Associate Professor in Theatre and Performance at the University of Exeter. She has published widely on Dramaturgy and Site, including Dramaturgy and Performance (2008, co-author Synne Behrndt). Personal Blog

Notes:

  1. Dramaturgy arises from the research of Erving Goffman (1922 – 1982) on symbolic interaction between people. With the publication of his The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956) this research became known as “dramaturgical analysis.” Goffman, influenced by the theatre, where the “drama of everyday life” was acted out, dramaturgy became at its simplest is about “front stage” and “back stage.” The “front stage” is the mask we present to society. The “back stage” is the real us. In terms of mythogeography, the “front stage” is the “established story,” such as the Jessie James town myth of Northfield, MN. The “back stage is the expanded story that incorporates the “other” into the myth, while admitting that even this is incomplete.
  2. Guy Debord (1931 – 1994) coined the term psychogeography in his Introduction to a critique of urban geography (1955). He defined it 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.”
  3. The Lettristes International (1952 - 1957), gave rise to the Situationists, of which Guy Debord was a founding member, and influenced theories of radical activism in the transformation of cities. They viewed the dérive, the act of ambulation (literally, “drifting”) as a means of challenging the status quo. The Lettristes Movement (mid-1940s) had its roots in both DaDa and Surrealism.
  4. The Architect-Walker: Manifesto and Manifestations (pdf)
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