Migration’s Psychogeographies

If, as Alfred Korzybski famously observed, “The map is not the territory,” what are some alternate ways of exploring our relationship to the areas we traverse and the spaces we occupy? There is by now a vast literature on cartography and map-making as it historically evolved to make possible the ubiquity of maps that we know today. Increasingly sophisticated software programs also create maps that chart various kinds of data. The current ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe has generated a fair share of maps showing the direction of movement of people. However, there are aspects of human experience and response that are not ‘mappable’ in the same way. Through a psychogeographic approach, we can stray from typical datasets and move toward a more complicated and personal approach to mapping migration that takes into account the personal and emotional experiences of individuals expressed through various media.

Guy Debord was a French filmmaker, writer, and Marxist theorist. He is known as a founding member of the organization Situationist International, the author of Society of the Spectacle (1967) and as the creator of the definition for psychogeography. In his 1955 essay, “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography,” Debord discussed his view of geography as a discipline that focuses on a range of large spatial analyses, from soil composition to economic structures. He felt that this macro approach lacked an understanding of the effect geographic structures have on the individual. Consequently, he used the recently coined term “psychogeography” to create a “study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”

Similarly today, we can find many datasets unpacking migration movements on a macro scale, yet we hear less from the individual migrants. However, we do find a psychogeographic approach in some popular blogs, podcasts, and other projects that explore the individual impact of people that are part of contemporary migrations.

Humans of New York
Humans of New York is a widely read blog created by Brandon Stanton that tells short, personal stories of random New Yorkers through portrait photographs and text quotes pulled from interviews. These stories cover a range of personal experiences that illustrate individual tales that often depict social workings in New York City. Many featured New Yorkers are migrants who share bits of their story.

In this photo we see a young woman in college graduation attire, standing in front of what appears to be City College in Harlem. The caption reads “I am an illegal immigrant.” From this simple photo and caption, much can be inferred in regard to her experience through a college degree program as a non-citizen of the United States.

Stanton took his project on the road and traveled to Europe to explore the Syrian refugee movement. He said, “Together, these migrants are part of one of the largest population movements in modern history… But their stories are composed of unique and singular tragedies.” One segment follows a Kurdish man named Muhammed and recounts his migration experience. He shares his tragic personal experiences involving Isis and his family, his escape that was enabled through the hiring of a human smuggler that led him to Austria, where he ultimately gained citizenship.

Us & Them: The Refugee Trail with Scott Carrier

Scott Carrier hosts a podcast titled Home of the Brave. He decided to retrace the steps of the current Syrian refugee trail, traveling from Denmark, Copenhagen to the Greek island of Lesbos. In his proposal, Scott said, “I’ll find refugees and ask them ‘why did you leave home? Where are you going? And what’s happened along the way?’” He produced interviews and photographs of refugees on their journey, each of which is a psychogeographic map in itself.

Syrian Refugee Drawings

Recently in Milan Central Station, the organization Save the Children asked Syrian child refugees to draw anything they wanted. You can read about the project and view some of these drawings here. One child titled their piece “Journey of Death”, depicting a sailboat filled from top to bottom with people calling for help in both English and Italian. Another drawing is simply a closeup of tears streaming from a single human eye. These drawings, which are expressions of a 3,000 kilometer journey, should be considered psychogeographic maps. The personal experiences of this treacherous journey through geographic space are embedded in these images, and can be interpreted to document the individual experience within a greater movement.

Instead of simply using typical forms of data interpretation, through psychogeography one is able to map migration in a more complex form that is expressive of human emotion. The source of information is filled with rich data that can be interpreted through many different forms of media.

-by Kieran Gannon

Kieran Gannon is pursuing an MA in Theories of Urban Practice at Parsons, The New School, NY.

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