‘Mythogeography: The art of walking sideways’ is a very curious document. Like an unknown city, at first it seems dense and impenetrable, but slowly patterns begin to emerge. Symbols like street signs help readers find their way, but visitors to this world are also encouraged to make their own routes. Unusually, the author is not named, and instead there is a series of more or less reliable narrators and guides. This is a “provocation” says Phil Smith, to encourage “others to adopt the book as a handbook rather than consume it as an autobiographical travel piece”.
Broadly speaking the book is divided into two halves. The first half describes a walk taken by Smith over a two-week period in 2007, recreating a similar journey undertaken by an engineer named Charles Hurst a hundred years previously. Hurst had walked across the North of England planting acorns, and Smith set out to find the Oak trees that he imagines must have grown from these seeds. Along the way, Smith reflects on landscape, property and people’s attitudes to their surroundings. The voyage became a classic mythogeographical experience, which Smith has subsequently reproduced as a stage play.
The second half of the book is closer in form to a handbook, describing the discipline of mythogeography, offering a manifesto and giving intruiging and often amusing suggestions of activities that you can undertake on foot. But just what is mythogeography?
“Mythogeography emphasises the multiple nature of places and ways of celebrating, expressing and weaving them” explains Smith. It emerged from his work with a group of artists known as Wrights and Sites "as a term to describe their approach and tactics to sites where multiple meaning had been forced into a single and restricted one, for example, heritage, touristic or leisure sites".
The tactic of the mythogeographer is walking and journeying. "By the particular focuses and the angles of trajectory we choose, we make an interpretation of our world, and from our impressions we begin to re-make its meanings" explains Smith. Ideas suggested in the book for achieving this include trying to talk your way into the tops and bottoms of a building, or choosing a book at random in a shop, picking a page and a word, then wandering until you find that word. The reason for doing this is to experience the familiar in multiple manners, and to learn not to look at things in the way that those with the power of exposure want you to.
In many ways it seems like classic Debordian psychogeography, particularly in the section on drifting, but to Smith there are important differences. For Guy Debord, explains Smith, "psychogeography was a study of how places effect the psychological states of those who pass through them. With a reciprocal meaning: that the places might be changed in order to change the experiences and mental states of the residents and visitors". The original idea of the drift was to find ways to transform cities into utopias, with a focus on play rather than work, but Mythogeography does not have the same overtly political focus. The last line of Smith's book is perhaps particularly revealing. "What (mythogeography) longs to be is not a political organisation, but a mental architecture".
The book is a fascinating read, particularly for someone who already tries to write about the invisible, but how could I use it in Paris? Smith proclaims not to know the city very well, but does describe a drift that he undertook here, which began at the Palais des Glaces theatre. When I tell him that it is situated in the street where I live, he is delighted. "That is fabulous" he says. Another reminder perhaps that everything is connected in some small way.
It could certainly be a point to begin from. "Start in the familiar and straightway head off into the unknown" says the manual on Smith's Mythogeography website. "Keep out of shops, museums, art galleries. Go to places you wouldn’t normally visit – courtrooms, waste tips, fairgrounds, industrial estates, morgues, stadia car parks, ornamental gardens, bad zoos. Slip down alleys, chase any intriguing detail, follow instincts not maps".
Anyone care to join me?
- 'Mythogeography: A Guide to Walking Sideways' is published by Triarchy Press in the UK.
- For more information on Phil Smith and Mythogeography, see http://www.mythogeography.com/ and http://www.mis-guide.com/
- See Phil Smith in action here: http://www.rhizomes.net/issue13/smith/index.html