In 1969 George Spencer-Brown wrote his seminal book ‘Laws of Form’1 in which he states: “…a universe comes into being when a space is severed or taken apart”. From here on Spencer-Brown develops a calculus not based on numbers but on distinctions. The actual operations of Spencer-Browns mathematical system does not need to concern us here. What matters is that when he turns the frame or the boundary into the central unit of his system it opens up a shelter of logic in which the paradox that
– one can move from one place to another in one frame
– while simultaneously remaining in one space when viewed from another frame
is incorporated in his calculus.
This double-edged sword of Spencer-Brown’s system is also at work in the psychogeographical study of urban space. By studying the perception of space one is invariable making distinctions within it. Identifying one space to have distinctions, means splicing it up into several places. The identification of place within space will (over time) reinforce the distinction. But the psychogeographer is not interested in miniaturized place but in space: that is the greater picture.
All exercises in mental mapping2 prove that the mental image of a city is a mixture of distinctions on the large scale, while spatial familiarity will provide some localised detail. Landmarks take on an exceptional role in the mental landscape as they operate as anchors of distinctiveness in the reconstruction from memory of the composition of the city. Mental mapping is an art of memory, the psychogeographic experiment on the other hand surveys these landmarks & it’s surroundings at face value by marking distinctions as they show themselves while walking through the urban system, questioning the real merit of pre-fabricated boundaries of political & cartographic administrations, usually taken for granted.
Psychogeography is by definition a subjective activity, but by mapping the area collaboratively & afterwards aggregating the results it is possible to attain an accurate bolagram (boundary language) of the area. Because the urban territory can be defined by it’s distinctions, mapping the boundaries of these distinctions simultaneously implies that by studying the boundaries one is studying the city as a whole.
What is needed in order to be able to combine individual psychogeographical accounts into a psychogeogram is a protocol. This protocol can take different forms: a graphic notation system, a psychogeographical mark-up language or a system of metadata connected to a signifier of a space like street names, position in an arbitrary grid or GPS-coordinates3; something more like XML than HTML. The latter option seems most worthwhile as it means compiling a dataset; enabling the root-psychogeographer to pump the resulting data into different soft & walkware applications & thus making it fairly easy to analyse it from many angles & compare cities with one another.
As said: to understand the city it is enough to study it’s distinctions. The reason for distinction & that what it is distinctive with, might differ for every psychogeographers but what matters is that they all identify the same place as being distinct. In certain occasions however the psychogeogram might well beget more depth by taking in account the nature of the distinction. This is tricky business as it means making sense out of subjective experiences of which the method of questioning is already part of the final result. When done properly the emogram, the map of emotive impressions, might validate the bolagram by showing the underlying friction that produced the rift. In small groups the psychogeographical brute force inquiry most likely will do best: every participant names a number of first impressions for every loci selected from the database while passing by them during the drift. The diversity & amount of impressions per item is in itself already an indication of it’s emotive qualities.
The map is not the territory, but a map without regard for the actual spatial composition of the territory it is supposed to represent remains difficult to imagine for even the most perverted cartographic sadist. However, maps that disobey territory are exactly what ‘network cartography’4 produces.
In a database geographical items are stored as bits of isolated data (like an endless list of street names) that require a pattern to become meaningful. These patterns, created by grouping data according to the specifications of a query, are not maps in the classical sense. When sorted according to a connectivity matrix they are flow charts or streetgrams that visualize the connections between the loci in the database: streets, squares, parks, specific buildings, etc. This is a definite break with the efforts of traditional cartography that draws from life by measuring distance, defining absolute positions & displaying properties, variables that in network cartography are technically optional but conceptually redundant.
Mapping the patchwork of the street grid as a pattern of connections enables the cartographer to organize them in relativistic space: in the zero-G environment of information space. Maps of public transportation systems often employ this kind of abstraction to enable smoother navigation5, but in network cartography this freedom from the territory becomes absolute: orthoimagery is being replaced by aquabrowsing.
The psychogeogram comes into existence after merging all datasets (the bolagram, the streetgram, the emogram, but also external data-feeds: annotations, sensor-data, sound, etc) into one. Taking the psychogeogram of an area means cracking the urban equivalent of the Konami cheat code6. With the cheat code in operation it is possible to ‘play’ the city with a self-assurance that otherwise would have taken years to master. But that doesn’t mean that the psychogeographical challenge ends here: what the psychogeogram does, is generating a new path that when followed shows the city in all it’s nakedness.
Perhaps the psychogeogram is nothing else than a current-day version of the mappea mundi; the medieval world map that mapped the physical realities of oceans & continents in one breath alongside all sorts of obscure information. These wonderful maps not only educated the viewer about the size of the earth but also about the seamlessly endless variety of shapes within it. A typical map could include ghosts, an imaginary bestiary & symbols of both Christian & pagan origin, that when viewed together took the form of a FAQ, answering every question any explorer could possibly have. As strange as this cartographical fantasia may seem today, it can’t be denied that these maps conveyed a grasp of inclusive knowledge (not to mention a sense of adventure) that was lost as soon as the middle ages turned into something else. The unbounded exploration of the world that marked the renaissance, turned the cartographer from a teller of stories into the provider of the tools needed to keep up with overseas conquests. In a sense their maps were bolagrams too; meant to portray the new overseas boundaries of the western empires: but here borders depicted distinctions based on property & thus exclusion7. By importing our bola- & emograms into the network cartography dataset, boundaries are not lines of exclusion, but vectorised ghosts that suggest movement & exploration. Ghosts that are as much an integral part of the map as once the griffon was of the mappea mundi.
Now we can return to Spencer-Brown in order to introduce more context which would embed the psychogeogram in the even bigger frame of a map of several dimensions at once. The most important element in Spencer-Browns calculus is the “cross” (going from one space to another) or the “call” (identifying a space), both mean the same. In Boolian math one space can be one place only, so you are either inside or outside. In Spencer-Browns system, 2 places are parts of one space: crossing the boundary between places make ‘going outside’ & ‘remaining inside’ simultaneously possible. That’s why the following is a valuable statement
if a=b=c then a=c
In other words: divided we stand, united we are8. Severed space is still one space, you just have to refocus the frame. For instance: viewed on national (another instance of an arbitrary but self-reinforcing distinction) level, fields like (“street name” + “city”) might show up differently for the same streetname(place) in the streetgram while it’s still one streetgrid(space).9 This changing perspective while zooming in & out of the picture is not that novel in itself, but what makes Spencer-Browns system so novel is that for the first time all multiple views, all contradictions are put in one sound logical system: the microscopic, the mesoscopic & the macroscopic are all caught in the same act.
Undivided space exists only in mathematical systems & metaphysical pondering10. Our space is saturated with place in all scales & dimensions. Psychogeography (among other things) is one way to discover & to make sense of them. Our research into the construction of a peripatetic computer11 might be applied in this department too. Specially designed .walk applets can be used to adjust, analyse, validate & manipulate urban place, the meta-walk of the psychogeogram can be .walked.
5 Cracking the Dordrecht Cheat Code
When the ‘Atelier Rijksbouwmeester’ approached socialfiction.org to cooperate on an assignment they were working on for the city of Dordrecht, they were interested in what way psychogeography could help them to better understand a certain area called the Hofkwartier. This invitation resulted in a psychogeographical experiment on the 3rd of September 2003. This experiment had two goals: bringing together people who are at this moment playing a role in the process of the future refurnishing of the Hofkwartier & to show them like new this small bit of Dordrecht that they know by heart. Also it was used as an occasion for data-retrieval in order to be able to take the psychogeogram of the Hofkwartier & it’s surrounding.
The experiment consisted of 2 parts. The first was designed to take the emogram of the Hofkwartier: all participants were asked to walk every street in the Hofkwartier & give a minimum of 1 & a maximum of 3 first impressions. This took 15/20 minutes.
The second experiment was designed to take the bolagram of central Dordrecht as it enfolded from the Hofkwartier. From wherever they were participants started their walking algorithm12 & continued this for one hour. Every time a distinction was perceived the place was marked on a map.
The statistics are as following: 13 psychogeographers together collected some 120 impressions for the emogram & over 100 points on the map. The resulting -grams tend to be very large in size but reasonable in download time. They were made using Graphviz, designed by AT&T research labs. Pictures were made by T. Verheyen.
(Frequency [number of times mentioned as distinct] on the left; streets in grey are part of Hofkwartier, streets in Red are next to Hofkwartier, all other streets are blue)
Psychogeogram (Streetgram — Bolagram — Emogram )(500kb)
Dordrecht can now be probed by following the streets with the highest frequency of marked distinctions. You can do it quick & only walk the few streets with more than 6 marks, or you can take some more time & walk the streets with more than 3 distinctions. In any case this information took 13 hours of collaborative mapping to retrieve & resulted in a walk (the cheat code) that nobody walked but will show you all that’s is needed to see in order to understand Dordrecht in less than one hour.
datasets can be obtained by contacting through e-mail
all feedback welcome: info at socialfiction dot org
Version 1.0 | September 2003 | Utrecht
1 His work never received much serious attention, but is the stuff cults are made of. Brown’s system has gained a small but committed group of followers who have developed his original work, much of which has appeared on the internet. (see https://www.lawsofform.org)
2 Mental mapping is usually attributed to Kevin Lynch who in the 1950ties published his seminal book: ‘Image of the City’. Psychogeographers & conceptual artists (Stanley Brouwn) have been asking people to draw their mental map as early as the sixties.
3 The Remodelling Space project by Jo Walsh is a project like this based on RDF/XML (see https://space.frot.org)
4 database cartography in an earlier incarnation.
5 See for instance https://www.ltmuseum.co.uk/realunderground which skews the map of the London Underground system to the territory.
6 Every Konami game had the same cheat code: by pressing: ‘up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start’ on the title screen resulted in extra lives, extra levels, enhanced graphics or other features.
7 For more current day critical cartography see: https://twenteenthcentury.com/uo/index.php/CartographicCongress
8 In all honesty our understanding of Spencer-Browns system is not that profound, so this interpretation is most just as much our own invention. In Spencer-Brown’s credit no doubt.
9 Buckminster Fuller’s One World Map comes to mind here.
10 The monad anybody?
11 .walk; the Swiss army knife of psychogeography creates an interacting network of psychogeographers performing calculation by walking. The goal is to create a system that can do everything a ‘normal’ computer does: beating chess-champions & AI included (see https://socialfiction.org/dotwalk)
12 aka generative psychogeography. see https://www.socialfiction.org/psychogeography