Care to mentally map your city?

Imagine if you were walking in an unfamiliar area of town and suddenly you realized that it was very dark and the shadows looked distinctly unfriendly. But what if you had a map— a map that clearly marked out entire sections of the city as safe, or peaceful or even scary.

Such a map would be dramatically different from normal maps, in that the data being presented is no longer merely objective, but also subjective. Welcome to the new world of psychogeography.

Psychogeography is an umbrella term used to refer to a number of different ways to explore cities and towns. This new field is still emerging and like any new genre there is still a sense of uncertainty. Most definitions hover around the issues of maps and people’s responses to urban spaces and surroundings. The most accessible one is as follows: Psychogeography is the hidden landscape of atmospheres, histories, actions and characters which charge environments.

 

But there is a basic thread running through all the various versions of psychogeography, and that is the generation of maps. These are maps that challenge all preconceived notions about maps. Psychogeographic maps presenting maps that may or may not be objective.

A case in point is ‘mental mapping’. These are maps generated by individuals walking along areas in the city and recording emotions. The resulting map is more than a physical record of distances travelled, it is also a record of the internal state of mind of the map maker. Other kinds of mental maps include maps made from memory alone. Some maps even overlay several such mental maps and the final result is a unique perspective of hitherto familiar areas.

The newness of this field also leads to widely differing methods of map making. By far the most commonly used method is something known as “Generative algorithms”. This involves the establishing of a predetermined method of walking, and the psychogeographers follow such algorithms in order to explore the city in new ways. Typically, the rules for walking would involve just a series of instructions such as turn right, and then the second left, etc etc, and soon the participants would end up in places they would never have consciously chosen to go to.

Another example of this new way of walking is using a map of, say, City A, and follow it in City B. Or by randomly following a person on the street and observing the route he/ she takes.

While these projects seem to push the boundaries of maps further, one is tempted to ask what use is it all? For this we have to wait and see. But for sure, the city will no longer be something that lies in-between their houses and offices, instead there is likely to be a renewed interest in the concept of being an urban dweller.

Dinesh Rao

Another example of this new way of walking is using a map of, say, City A, and follow it in City B. Or by randomly following a person on the street and observing the route he/ she takes. A similar project, called ‘The Man in the Crowd’, was initiated by the group Glowlab (http://www.glowlab.com/lab/), and involved a 24-hour walk in which two participants, linked by text messaging via cellphones, drifted separately through the city in an alternating pattern according to the movements of strangers.

(Published in the Deccan Herald)

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