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Crafting a city through observation and memory

Meet the artists giving new meaning to the way memory, identity and history play into our perception of space

Bengalureans born and brought up in the city often had sense of detachment to the immediate environment (Unsplash)

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For the longest time, I was unaware of what the term “psychogeography” entailed beyond the obvious literary meaning of the word: the intersection of psychology and geography. But I too felt the displacement with my hometown, often connecting with and feeling “at home” in places I was absolutely new to, and questioned how we react to geographical locations. And the more I studied psychogeography, a term coined by the French theorist Guy Debord in 1955, the more I was reminded of Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, which deals with the role of memory, identity, imagination and history in our perception of a city or a place as its characters try to ground themselves in an ever-shifting geography that displaces them.

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This is also how Bengaluru’s place maker, history storyteller and expression therapy facilitator Aliyeh Rizvi discovered psychogeography. Rizvi, who used to work on stories related to displaced communities such as Tibetans, Lebanese, Palestinians and Kashmiri Pandits, realised that Bengalureans born and brought up in the city, like her, had similar feelings of displacement. “There was a sense of detachment to the immediate environment; and a feeling of frustration and helplessness that the city was changing too rapidly for us to process,” she says.

This inspired her to start The Memory Maps Project in 2016, conducting storytelling walks and workshops to help people connect not only with Bengaluru but also contextualise their existence within it by mapping it based on experiences and memory. “The project was started to better understand what constitutes the idea of home, what it means to be and feel at home, and how that supports the creation of identity and belonging,” says Rizvi.

She describes psychogeography as one’s emotional relationship with a place and the immediate environment. The practice doesn’t concern itself as much with geographic or cartographic accuracy as it does with the psychological and physical response to a place. It enables you to create, in your mind and on actual maps, through embroidery or painting, a map of the city based on the way you emotionally connect with it, make it your own and come to terms with development that had seemed to distance you from it.

Rizvi notes that “a city is mapped psychogeographically through our experience of it, based on my responses to the city. If I want to locate my place in it, I need to increase my radius of the city in order to experience it and to be able to see who I am in it. With that as my data point, making maps (based on experience and memory) helps me see deeper meaning to my existence in a certain neighbourhood/locality/city.” For her, walking and meandering play a central role in this practice.

London-based painter Himani Gupta, who rediscovered the practice of walking when she moved from Delhi to London to study art as a young adult, says she discovered “how walking is helping me find my orientation and navigate through this very new terrain and city. My experiences as a child, as a young adult, during my education, travel, packing, unpacking, the idea of home, love, losses and gains, and family have all made sense to me through this simple act of walking, which I use as a material. And because there’s no agenda, it becomes a way of archiving all this information in my head and finding ways for it to be expressed through art and writing.”

Gupta, who studied urban planning, follows the practice of mapping her walks in an emotive and abstract manner; these, she says, form the building blocks of her paintings. Her series of paintings, titled Preservation And Mapping Landscapes (2019), is informed by her avid practice of mapping and are based on experience, memory, observation and imagination.

Still Standing Strong, 2021, staple pins by Pooja Iranna
Still Standing Strong, 2021, staple pins by Pooja Iranna

The umbrella of psychogeography allows for many ways of experiencing a place and the process of finding oneself in it; the means and end can be different for everyone, even for the same city.

Ekta Kaul, a textile designer and maker who also calls London home, says that when she moved to the city in 2005, she too had to figure out what “home” meant to her—Delhi, the city she was born in and kept going back to, or London, the city she chose to live in. As a response, she mapped the two cities on a piece of cloth with the humble stitch, something she picked up from her mother and grandmother and then studied as a design student at the National Institute of Design.

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“Mapping Delhi made me remember a lot of memories, incidents and experiences that would otherwise have been lost. It came easy to me. But I was unsure of London because even though I loved the city, I was very new here. So, through the lens of an outsider, I just went about sketching and stitching the streets I am familiar with. But, soon enough, I embroidered little corners of London that I called my own—my studio, my commute, the university I was teaching in…. With that experience of mapping, I could make that city my own and, perhaps, even lay claim to it as my home and not feel so torn between two places.”

But does the theory and practice of psychogeography apply as efficiently and potently to a place that is completely unfamiliar? For Kaul, her practice of viewing and mapping both mnemonically and emotively has allowed her to look beyond the physicality of a city. So when she went to her maternal grandmother’s home, Kolkata, for the first time in May, she explored the city with “a sense of imagined familiarity”, viewing it through the lens of her memories. “I had no sense of the orientation of Kolkata but I imagined she must have walked certain streets or taken boat rides in the Hooghly. So, I began the map of the city by stitching the river first because it is a constant. And even though my first instinct was to fill it up with stitches, in the end I left it blank, because for me the story still remains incomplete. I wanted to leave room for new details of the many possibilities in my subsequent visits.”

While Kaul and Gupta’s work is a medium for inward and outward navigation of place through history and memory, Spain-based multidisciplinary artist Liz Kueneke uses stitching and mapping to investigate the meanings local people attach to their neighbourhoods. So she came up with The Urban Fabric in Barcelona in 2008, combining embroidery with large-scale participatory maps that provide her “with both an excuse to talk to strangers, and a reason for them to tell me their stories”. She adds, “I really enjoyed the interactions that resulted from neighbours and passers-by meeting and participating in the map, so I decided to take the project around the world.”

When Kueneke came to Bengaluru with The Urban Fabric, trying to replicate the process in a new city, she found it to be one that, “while being very urban, also has such beautiful large parks, creating wonderful lungs for the city. I found the people to be very open, and I experienced a lot of joy in seeing how people of different religions and social classes mixed and chatted at the embroidery table.” She even pointed out a few common expressions and issues that were embroidered on the map repeatedly during the participatory map stitching activity: “There was a focus on cleaner air, the importance of green spaces in people’s lives, and that of safety, especially for women.”

In a country like India, which is striving for the depersonalised, highly urbanised, identical spaces inspired by the West, psychogeography, and even walking, is seen as a form of insurgency against the contemporary world and urbanised spaces. For while this is not only inevitable but also good, it’s important for the people of the place to be carried along with that change, or at least have a say in it, for change to not feel like an imposition, or suppression.

Delhi-based multidisciplinary artist Pooja Iranna’s central theme has been urbanisation and the thoughtlessness of the mind-blowing expansion that was, and is, continuing stealthily. In her latest exhibit, silently: a proposed plan for rethinking the urban fabric, Iranna used drawing, videos, installations and staple-pin structures to show her audience how the definitive markers of a city change, excluding its people, slowly and unnoticed.

And while the practice of psychogeography is a reliable tool to counter the demolition of the essence of a city, Rizvi recommends a shift in the approach to urban and civic planning—by making the body the data point. “We very rarely pay attention to the body as we experience a city; we often create judgements about a city, rather than having feelings about it. But we instinctively tend to gravitate to places where we feel good. So the focus of city planning should be on creating spaces in a city where bodies, hence people, feel safe.”

Shubhanjana Das is a freelance journalist

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