Times Literary Suppliment

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September 29, 2006

Michael Greenberg

Drawn by the invitation to wander about with a group of
deriveurs in a neighbourhood I once knew intimately, I join the third
annual Psychogeography Festival in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. According to
the festival's manifesto, "The city becomes a playground, a nomadic
laboratory, a space for the development of creative communities".

I attach myself to the Smelling Committee, whose leaders
encourage "reflection upon the ephemeral, odoriferous fabric of Brooklyn
neighborhoods", and am immediately handed a blindfold which I put
over my eyes like a man awaiting execution. "Smell is unfairly maligned
in this optically-obsessed society", we are told. Our group of about
twenty is instructed "to stay open, free-associate, take in the unique
scents of your fellow smellers". We bump into one another, groping
and sniffing like a pack of newly acquainted dogs.

Removing our blindfolds, we march up Roebling Street, rain
falling thickly on the cement sidewalk -a smell like wet cardboard. Our
tour guides are dressed as carnival barkers from the 1890s, with bowler
hats and megaphones. "Very strong scent this way!", cries one,
and we huddle, half soaked, in front of a Laundromat. He puts the narrow
end of a plastic funnel to his nose, and inhales deeply. "This smell
reminds me of my dog", remarks a member of the group. "Warm
and fluffy."

I feel as if I have slipped into a Godard film when a Parisian
in the group rattles off for me her favourite smells: "Coffee, melted
chocolate, ammonia which wakes me up from my fainting spells, manure,
warm tar . . .". And the smells she most abhors? "Tunisian olive
oil, and lamb stew." Excitedly, she recites a few lines from Baudelaire's
"Correspondences", in English: "There are perfumes fresh
as children's flesh, / Soft as oboes, green as meadows, / And others,
corrupted, rich, triumphant".

On Berry Street, I peel away from the Smelling Committee;
my father's former warehouse is only three blocks away. Curious, the Parisian
joins me. By the time we get there, the rain is streaming off our sagging
umbrellas and on to our shoulders. Berry Street is deserted, the warehouse
a ruin, unimpressive and dwarfed, awaiting "redevelopment",
its shattered windows covered with steel gates to keep out squatters.
My father sold it in the 1970s for a pittance, and moved to the Bronx,
after a spate of race riots laid waste to Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg's
commercial drag. Now it's worth millions and means nothing to me. I'm
irritated with myself for going out of my way to come here. For what purpose?
To manufacture a false jolt of nostalgia? I remember the bustle of this
street thirty-odd years ago: trucks blocking the sidewalk, and narrow
gauge freight wagons that rolled merchandise 150 yards down to the ships
on the East River. You had to zigzag constantly to walk from one end of
the block to the other. It occurs to me that my detour runs contrary to
the spirit of psychogeography, which prizes coincidence and the confection
of random metaphors - "ambulant sign-making" in the words of
Iain Sinclair -over personal remembrance.

My Parisian friend, on the other hand, appears to be in
the throes of aesthetic transport. The loading dock is sprinkled with
debris, and reeks of stale urine, evoking the ammonia smell of which she
is so fond. She points out a peeling rusted gate on the back wall, and
compares it to the early paintings of Frank Stella.

At festival headquarters on Roebling Street, I am introduced
to a gaunt Londoner of about forty who goes by the single name Leon. He
is one of the founders of the "self-funded, terrorist art cell"
called c6. "We proffer unprofitable concepts. There's no product.
Nothing we do can be sold or owned." The concept he has brought to
Williamsburg is a "Google hacking program designed to investigate
the difference between luxury and necessity". As Leon explains it,
you stand in front of his screen and text-message what you want from your
cell phone. Leon's computer taps into Google's image bank and within ten
seconds gives you back your desire in the form of a picture that is shaped
by the outline of your own words. "In Stockholm, people wrote things
such as,
'I want to stand out from the crowd'. In London, they wanted sex and drugs.
We'll see what New Yorkers desire."

In 1998, in a London gallery, Leon locked himself in a seven-by-seven-foot
plywood box for seven days. No food, 14 litres of water, artificial light
and constant video surveillance. "You know my skin colour",
he says accusingly, pointing to his freckled arm. "You know my age
and where I come from, more or less." His idea was to be liberated
from such definitions, to be anonymous, the way a prisoner in solitary
confinement is both anonymous and his maximum self at the same time. "Everything
stripped away." When he emerged from his box, he was greeted by reporters.
"I was reeling. It was soul-destroying. It was messianic."

At 5pm I join a dozen deriveurs on "a tour of Baghdad
in Brooklyn", called "You Are Not Here". Mushon, an eager
and mischievous Israeli, hands us each a map of central Baghdad superimposed
on a map of New York. Several locations are marked off, and by holding
the map to the light one can make out the points in Williamsburg to which
they correspond. Following the map, we stroll through Baghdad like members
of a triumphant army. "You see how pleasant it is here", says
Mushon sarcastically.

Walking beside me is a voluble man who claims to teach "media
arts". He tells me that psychogeographers are "loose cabals
of people slithering about in new media .. . sprawling networks that create
an instantaneous communications froth". He calls it "Wiggilism
-the space between what is virtual and what is real".

We reach our destination, a tilting street lamp on Kent
Street which, we are invited to imagine, is the statue of Saddam Hussein
in Fridos Square before it was toppled on April 9, 2003. "There's
some question about how authentic that event was", says Mushon. "And
how authentic was the toppling of the World Trade Center", says the
teacher of media arts, wiggling into a virtual space with no exit. "It
doesn't matter if it really happened. What's important is what we think
it means."