Psychocartography is a interpretation and representation of landscape, architecture and the urban environment in graphics, sound, film and text. I am a landscape architect with an interest in the role space, place, city and landscape have to play in defining the human condition- and vice versa. Find posts and updates on maps.
This is a derive in writing. Sights/sites we will be taking in along the way include psychogeography, the zone in the Tarkovsky's movie Stalker/ the Strugatskys' novel Roadside Picnic, and the OSR (old-school renaissance) in tabletop rpgs (role-playing games).
After this brief introductory tour, readers are invited to consider four site investigation strategies inspired by the old-school style of tabletop role-playing.
Strap in... and don't forget your flask of weak lemon drink.
RIGHT, ARE YOU READY FOR THE ZONE?
FROM HERE ON IN IT’S PURE TARKOVSKY
Iain Sinclair returns to the 1970s Russian science fiction movie Stalker throughout his writing. Indeed, references to "the zone" infect his social interactions, as the above warning was issued by him to Robert Macfarlane, as they boldly circumnavigated the perimeter of London's (at that time) prospective Olympic Park. There are multiple reasons for Sinclair doing this, but perhaps the most obvious reason is the parallels Sinclair sees between his own praxis and the movie's eponymous protagonist.
The 1979 movie was an adaptation of an earlier sci-fi novel, Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers, and follows the expedition of the mysterious stalker and his two clients - a writer and a scientist - into an area known as "the zone". The zone is "an area in which the normal laws of reality do not apply and remnants of seemingly extraterrestrial activity lie undisturbed amongst its ruins" (according to wikipedia). Only the stalker as able to perceive the true dangers of the zone, most of which are invisible. He alone is able to navigate a path safely through the landscape. His clients have hired him for this precise purpose: to lead them "the room", wherein their innermost desires will be rendered true.
HORRIFIED ANIMALS AFTER THE PICNIC
In Roadside Picnic, the novel upon which Stalker was based, six of the aforementioned zones are described, though the events of the novel all take place within the environs of one zone in particular, in the fictional Canadian town of Harmont. The six zones were each the site of an earlier extraterrestrial event known as The Visitation, having been "visited" by unseen extraterrestrials over a two day period, and are now subject to dangerous, reality-bending phenomena. Furthermore, mysterious artifacts of extra-terrestrial origin have also been left behind, artifacts that appear to have supernatural properties. In an effort to contain the threat to global stability posed by the zones and their artifacts, governments have restricted access to these sites.
The novel follows eight years in the life of Redrick Schuhart, who at the beginning of the novel is a stalker illegally entering the zone to retrieve alien artifacts and sell them for profit.
The title of the novel is taken from a passage in the novel's introduction, an interview with the fictional Dr. Pilman. Pilman compares the The Visitation to a brief stop-off as part of a much larger journey; humanity are as baffled and insignificant as the wildlife observing but not comprehending said picnic:
A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. Cars drive off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around... Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind... And of course, the usual mess—apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow.
THE OLD SCHOOL RENAISSANCE
...and now for something completely different... or maybe not as different as people might at first expect.
Since Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson introduced the world to Dungeons & Dragons back in the 1970s, tabletop role-playing games have grown from the obscure pursuit of hobbyists into an international industry. In addition to more than five editions of the original game, rival rulesets and campaign worlds have been created, covering multiple genres of fiction beyond the sword & sorcery that inspired the original game. It is possible to purchase games enabling you and your friends to take in the a huge range of roles - from investigators into Lovecraftian horror in 1920s New Salem to a group of magical ponies in the land of Equestria... if that's your thing, of course, and no judgement is being passed.
While a potted history of RPGs is beyond the remit of this post, it is worth noting that the expanse of the hobby and its evolution into a form of collaborative storytelling led to a backlash against modern iterations (particularly the 3rd and 4th editions of D&D). Around a decade or so ago groups of rpg enthusiasts began to take advantage of the open game licence and began issuing their own content inspired by earlier versions of Dungeons and Dragons. The goal was to return to the roots of the game: namely, increasing player agency. This movement became known as OSR (itself an homage to the company which originally marketed D&D, TSR), or the Old School revival/Renaissance.
Copyright Stuart Robertson, used under creative commons.
If you are unfamiliar with the traditional model of D&D it goes something like this: a group of players take on the role of adventurers exploring an underground complex. One player assumes the role of Dungeon Master (DM) and describes what the player's characters are experiencing, as they in turn explain what they want their characters to do. The DM will keep a collection of secret notes and maps detailing the obstacles they are likely to encounter. However, they may also have to improvise as the players have their characters perform actions for which the DM is not prepared. Dice are used to generate random numbers and to decide the outcome of actions, the results being modified by a pre-agreed set of values relating to the character's abilities and talents.
In an old school rpg a party of four adventurers will venture into a dungeon, overcome various traps and obstacles (including rival adventurers, wandering monsters, supernatural forces and well-placed puzzles and traps), and emerge (probably having suffered at least some minor wounds) laden with treasure and a little tougher and wiser than before. Just as the players become more experienced at problem solving with each "adventure", so too do their characters improve in toughness and talent as they become more "experienced".
THE ZONE AS A DUNGEON
If the parallels between the actions of a D&D adventure party and those of a stalker of the zone are not immediately obvious, perhaps the following quote from reddit user u/vilecultofshapes will prove illuminating:
This book [Roadside Picnic] is definitely and purely OSR style gaming at its finest. Deadbeat outcasts hunting for fantastic treasures in a lethal and physics-defying hellhole full of traps.
Like the D&D adventurer, the Stalker is crossing the boundary between the ordinary world and the other, in the hope of retrieving treasure. Sometimes that treasure is physical, other times it is more abstract. Both these characters have to rely on their wits and trust their intuition as they negotiate labyrinths of mysterious danger.
Both the stalker and the dungeoneer are urban explorers, and all three have much to teach the psychogeographer.
Sinclair once said something about psychogeography being walking without knowing the destination, but still possessing intent. Without getting too mired in debate about what psychogeography is or isn't (and no-one wants to read that Debord quote again, I'm sure), it can be agreed that it any derive requires a strategy. Classic psychogeographic strategies involve superimposition: a walker attempts to navigate Berlin with a map of London; another attempts to negotiate the streets of Hanoi by following the dark ring of coffee staining their street map. Likewise, one can superimpose the strategies of another practice to achieve psychogeographical "effects".
Four strategies have been proposed, and since the classic D&D party consisted of four adventurers, I've matched each strategy to a corresponding classic character "class" (class and race are referred to constantly in D&D, and have radically different meanings to those used in social theory).
Of the four strategies, the first two are the most performative and yet conversely the least inspired by the OSR.
STRATEGY #1: THE PARODIST (Cleric)
Keywords: believe, commit, have faith, FISHER KING.
If you employ this strategy you will need to visit the chosen site in full performance mode. You, as practitioner, must assume the role of an archetypal fantasy character embarking on a quest, with a defined set of criteria that will determine how and when the quest will be concluded. The goal might be to slay a dragon, save a prince/ princess, or recover a lost artifact. The meta-goal is to stay in character for as long as possible while being confronted by the disdain, incredulity an/or indifference of the general populace one encounters. The practitioner attempts to parody fantasy tropes by juxtaposing them against mundane reality.
The performance may or may not be recorded audio-visually. You may or may not garner the attention of a fascinated audience.
STRATEGY #2: THE LARPER (Fighter)
Keywords: It's only a game, it's good to be laughed at, fight to WIN
LARP stands for live action role play. Unlike tabletop rpgs, LARPs involve players physically performing their characters actions in real time. As a strategy, this approach is superficially similar to the above parody, but differs in multiple ways.
You must first assemble a group of at least three collaborators. For an agreed period of time, the group undertakes to represent members of rival factions, playing out some conflict of interest across the site. In addition to an underlying plot, practitioners must agree upon rules concerning conflict resolution. PLEASE NOTE: do not attempt to resolve imaginary conflicts with real violence whilst employing this strategy. In fact, try to avoid using real violence wherever possible.
To reap the best rewards from this strategy, practitioners truly have to look upon the urban landscape with a fresh set of eyes: multistorey car parks might be castles, or wizard's towers... or even multistorey car parks. Beware of monsters.
STRATEGY #3: THE UR[an]BEX[plorer] (Thief)
Keywords: cartography, exploration, BE PREPARED and BE CAREFUL
So you've packed your ten-foot pole and you fifty feet of hempen rope. Did you bring the flasks of oil? Okay, it doesn't matter: just don't forget your thieves' tools, you'll need them to pick the lock. Sneak past the guards, hiding in shadows when necessary, jump the chain link fence and scale the cranes. Only then will you be able to retrieve the Macguffin.
This strategy seeks to employ the approach of the typical OD&D adventuring party: caution, preparation, and the ability to solve most problems with a ten-foot pole. You should map everywhere you go on graph paper (use 5mm but scale it to 10 feet per square), travelling no faster than 120' every ten minutes (unless you are in an encounter, in which case 40' per round is permitted).
When you reach your goal, don't post a picture of the stunning view to Instagram, take a picture of your crappy map instead. Ask yourself if it really happened if there was no photographic evidence of it ever happening...
STRATEGY #4: THE AUTHOR OF MODULES (Magic User)
Keywords: You will Eat Yourself, Artistic Licence, Wandering Monster Tables
With the skills of am ancient wizard, your mission is to bend reality back on its self not once but twice. First, you will need to follow the URBEX strategy outlined above, but you will need to do a little bit more than the cartography. You will be reverse engineering your adventure back into a module, similar to the one pictured at the beginning of this post.
A module is a document containing all (or most of) the information required by a DM to run an adventure. A module will contain one or more plot hooks to incite the interest of your players, several maps of important locations, and details of anticipated encounters and/or NPCs. Sometimes this will also include tools to randomise such encounters.
Based upon your previous adventure, catalogue and rationalise your experience into a coherent narrative. Consider also the paths that you did not follow, and where they may have led had you done so. Think about the encounters you had. How many were random? Populate some wandering monster charts. Scan your maps and tidy them up using image editing software, but don't lose that handmade effect. Type up all your notes in Korinna bold, staple them together, and bind them in glossy paper of at least 180g per square metre in weight.
For added ouroboros, get a group of friends together and play your adventure as a game of D&D and see what happens. For added added ouroboros, replay that adventure as a LARP, using the strategies outlined above...
A final note: like every fucking corner of the internet, the OSR is a battleground in this ongoing "culture war" that the idiots are determined to force us all into, regardless of its futility. Boorish blowhards antagonise left-leaning liberals, who in turn overreact to the obvious trolling, prompting another round of bear-baiting provocation. Phrases like "nazi", "social justice warrior", "alt-right apologist", "stalinist", "feminazi" etc. are chucked around with gay abandon.
The OSR appealed to many on the left because of its rejection of corporate homogeneity, its embrace of the punk/DIY aesthetic, and the general gonzo weirdness of a lot of the material being produced. Likewise, this also appealed to many people whose sympathies leaned more to the libertarian right. For the most part, however, people just wanted to play games, and while nothing is apolitical, following the letters OSR does not automatically place anyone in a particular camp.
More than one year ago, this was posted, promising the end of another great silence. It was, of course, a lie, as the ensuing year of nothing has testified. While it would be easy to say that life got in the way of this ongoing project (a project whose ambitions have always exceeded its capacity to deliver), in truth its authors (or, more honestly, its author) has been paralysed by equivocation. So: while major life changes such as the birth of a child, shifting geographies, and career tangents have all played their part, in the main the site author simply hasn't known what to do.
The previous post closed with a call to action: "readers, what is psychocartography to you?"
No one replied and so the question remains unanswered.