Manchester Area Psychogeographic published 9 newsletters between 1996 and 1998, as well as undertaking a number of derives and other activities. This interview was conducted for issue 8 of Turbulent Times, which was unfortunately never published. The interview therefore appears here for the first time. MAP is now defunct, but the interview remains an invigorating investigation into what lies beneath the surface of an urban environment.
What is psychogeography and how did you get involved in it?
Our involvement is the same as our understanding, because we improvise. Manchester is an industrial city, as everyone knows. The city centre is mostly Victorian, with numerous post-1945 additions, including the infamous Arndale Centre. We wanted to investigate the earlier city, find the geomantic heart, if you like, because its largely ignored, having been built over. But we also had a political motive because Manchester is undergoing a rebirth thanks to late-modem consumerism and the heritage industry. We wanted to remind people that Manchester isnt just shopping and clubbing and museums and exhibitions. In 1995 the City Council launched the redevelopment of the so-called Northern Quarter, surrounding the Oldham Street area, where Afflecks Palace (an alternative department store, big on clothes, records, etc.) and bars/cafes like Dry, Night & Day, and Cafe Pop are all situated - Manchesters young entrepreneurs, all hard at it, at last getting official approval. The talk was all about loft apartments, gentrifying nineteenth century warehouses, and so on. We preferred it in its sordid decrepitude. Perversely, because no-one else was saying it, we launched the first MAP newsletter, sending copies anonymously to anyone we thought mattered, setting out our case: no to gentrification, no to museumification. We were saying, let the buildings fall down, if they must. We wanted to walk unregulated, unrepaired, atmospheric streets. Weve moved on from that, but it got MAP started.
What is MAP?
MAP stands for Manchester Area Psychogeographic, the name at the top of our irregular publication, and also the group itself. MAP was realised publicly on February 10,1996, when we performed our first Action, the Levitation of the Corn Exchange, commemorating the 400th anniversary of the arrival in Manchester of Dr John Dee, as Warden of the Collegiate Church, later the Cathedral, which stands next to the Corn Exchange. Dees house is rumoured to have stood on the site of the Corn Exchange. So we circumnavigated the buildings, anticlockwise, and made a public declaration, and watched the building move. Which it did, very slightly, as the staff in the fish and chip restaurant on the ground floor realised. Four months later, the building moved again, less gently, when the IRA bombed the nearby Arndale Centre.
What is your interest in John Dee?
John Dee combined the activities of alchemist, historian, mapmaker, and creator of imperial myth, on behalf of his mentor, Elizabeth I. He tried to be Merlin to her King Arthur. Elizabeth, to his mind, became a kind of sex-change mystic Virgin monarch. He was the probable inspiration for the figure of Prospero, the magus-character in Shakespeare's play The Tempest. His "scrying stone", with which he and his one-time colleague, Sir Edward Kelly, comunicated with angels, is preserved in the British Museum. The scryer looked into the crystal and saw visions and heard voices. Dee, the scribe, wrote down what the scryer described. It's very similar to the way American CIA "remote vision" experiments worked in the 1950s and 60s. Dee happened to spend some of his later life in Manchester and we think he had, and continues to have, some impact on Manchester (the full story appears in MAP 8), in so far as he may have influenced its fate, as a future industrial base. His systems for communicating with angels, his "Enochian" language, and efforts to propel language into a half-glimpsed other realm are tantalising to us.
It seems that in the 90s, psychogeographers have adopted a broader brief - taking in influences like the occult, ley lines and whatnot. Is this a move away from S.I. ideas of studying urban spaces and what they do to us?
We think occult ideas have a great deal to offer in practising the psycho-side of psychogeography. We want to disorientate the city-person, make people approach the city differently, remake it bit by bit. The S.I. were very much of their time, in moving to destroy the art system they sprang from and the version of capitalism that art system underpinned.
There are two reasons why the standard approach taken by the S.I. doesnt seem much use to MAP. First Manchester is harder, tougher, than Paris or even London, it doesnt have that academic culture on the streets, and high-art bohemianism doesnt usually survive here for long (it had its time, most recently during the punk period, giving birth to Factory Records). Second, capitalism changed, from manufacturing (factory) based industrialism to the post-modern, information-based, global corporate version. Enter TV, tourism, pop music, clubs, restaurants, hotels, museums, trading on various cachets of youth and renewal and revitalisation. Which are sexier than situationism in its pure state.
The new northern capitalist culture is very seductive, and locally it has been nurtured by at least one person trading on a Situationist background. It was interesting in early 1996 to go to the Situationist Conference at the Hacienda, with local hip capitalist and telly pundit Anthony Wilson in attendance. Situationist hardliners face to face with punk rock revivalists and anarcho-activists. Not much humour in evidence. Well the situationist contribution to nineties Manchester, which historically boils down to the Hacienda, as a building, and as a monument, is now up for sale. Like the Factory record label, events overtook it. During 1996, the city started reviving itself at twice the former pace, following the IRA bomb.
Just as dance culture got too big for the Hacienda, commerce and shopping have exploded beyond the Arndale. It took a bomb to make it happen, but it caused a chain reaction, culturally. MAP sees the need to foresee the extent this explosion will continue to change the city, and the need to remain highly mobile and adaptable. Occultism allows this. The shape-changer can deal with a melting, moving landscape, a landscape we ourselves first addressed ourselves to when we levitated the Corn Exchange. The psychogeographer whos prepared to open their mindset up to invisible forces can comprehend the mental, imaginary fields where the post-industrial landscape is being mapped, and act upon them. A shopping centre may seem purely scientific, as the majority of Mancunians will tell you in no uncertain words. But its effect is psychological, as the psychogeographer in all of us knows full well. We need new psychic skills, and occultism offers them.
How is what you do different from things like local history groups?
Were not amateur historians or archaeologists. We dont meet to listen to lectures, and we dont publish learned tracts containing detailed research based on court records, or similar official documents. We have had visits from local historians and heritage guides, and very pleasant those people often are. But they are attempting to orientate the public to a scientifically-provable theory about the past. We are trying to disorientate the public and destabilise the scientifically-enforced version of the present, with a view to have some control over our own future.
What sort of responses have you had from local people?
Articles in local newspapers, such as the Manchester Evening News, which generally see us as eccentrics or as a local history group with New Age overtones. Penetration of the local media, getting at least some of our information across, is important. But we havent really gone in for much pranksterism as such; in Manchester, pranks probably wouldnt have worked. People are hard. There arent many horizons, and thats a fact as well as a metaphor, because Manchester is flat. You have to dig downwards or fly upwards, which is why the Third Runway campaign captured the imagination of so many, and is so divisive here. Our response during the general election campaign earlier this year was to advise the protesters to dig underneath Knutsford, the millionaire town at the centre of the Tatton constituency, and destablise the foundations. We need to dig more tunnels into the imagination.
You mention Manchester's odd relationship with gender and transsexuality in your newsletters - what's that all about then, eh?
We have a problem with the "northern hardcase" mentality fostered locally in the upbringing of young males. This is a result of industrial culture, obviously, and something Manchester has in common with lots of other places, including parts of London. We have noticed, though, a reluctance on the part of northern males to ditch older modes of brutalised behaviour and recognise the fact that the manufacturing industries which shaped this behaviour in the past are now no more. The grotesque sexual parodies which the industrial city gave rise to, are no longer necessary to get by. The hardcase should be obsolete, but hangs on. What future has he got?
Females are changing, because of the possibilities of work that are, apparently, open to them, in the postmodern workplace (an idea Sadie Plant has been exploring in her book Zeros and Ones). Men on the other hand are refusing to change, because to change, sexually, is to cave in to some of the basic fears which have created and reinforced the entire sense of male identity.
Bisexual and transsexual identity and activity were, in the local past, ridiculed, and are ridiculed still, possibly because they threaten the traditional industrial male's sense of well-being. Also the act of ridicule creates an important aspect of the male I.D. Ridiculing the "other" is something the male hardcase does, part of the way he proves himself.
Therefore the history of gays and transsexuals in the north is fascinating to us, especially when we see evidence for its practice in nineteenth century, industrial Manchester. MAP isn't a gay-lobby, particularly. All we are pointing out is that the success of phenomena like the Gay Village/Canal Street zone in Manchester is an obvious example of culture developing in a binary opposite to the male-hardcase version of the city around it. Many people who aren't gay flock to this "opposite" version of the city, simply because it feels safer and friendlier, despite the fact that violence does occur there. Last year, notably, a young female graduate was murdered after getting into a car which she mistook for a taxi, in the Gay Village. The driver was a man with a history of violence towards women. This "hardcase" was possibly cruising Canal Street because it is so popular and crowded at the weekends.
What is the purpose of MAP Actions, and generally what happens on them?
In every issue of MAP, weve announced an Action. From the outset, we wanted people to come along and join in. We started with the Corn Exchange levitation (see above), then we went on to do various derives:
2 along the "Nico Ditch" which runs across south Manchester
3 Fairy Hill and Barrow Hill in the north
4 around the walls of Chester (investigating the death of the composer William Lawes)
5 through the subcultural bedsitland of Didsbury
6 Wodens Cave, in Salford
and next, the site of a Charles Peace murder, in Chorlton.
Some actions have been more successful than others in terms of turn-out. The most weve had numerically is probably fifteen, the least was one person, but you can still do an action with one present. Chance encounter and coincidence play a big part. We look out for graffiti, words on shop-signs and posters; we talk to local people; we take plenty of photos, and we eventually write up the outcome for publication in a following issue.
The result is, we get to know a place in a different way from before, and we remember that difference. Sometimes we get to know and internalise a place weve never visited before, and it broadens our knowledge of the city as a whole. Collectively and individually, we interact with a location and our memory of the experience alters our future. This alteration may only be slight. But as one action leads to another, the groups momentum gathers, you find youve mapped a series of new routes though the city, and you know youve changed it.
Interview by John Eden, October 1997.