by Bryonie Reid

Psychogeography is practised and theorised about almost exclusively in urban contexts. Sukhdev Sandhu points out that ‘since the postwar era of inner-city neglect and mass suburbanisation, cities have become hot commodities for academic theorists as much as financiers and real-estate moguls’(1). Cities are formed of intricate and fluid layers of history and memory, traces of which, psychogeographers believe, may be discerned in their geography and architecture. The dérive central to psychogeography, described by Iain Borden as ‘a kind of alert, constructive and transgressive “drift”’, is meant to enable its practitioners to cut across rationalised and sanitised routes and spaces in order to unearth alternative narratives of the city (2).

Implicit to much theory on the complexity and messiness of urban histories and geographies is the concept of the city’s opposite: a simple, unified and static rural. Nostalgia for a rural utopia which has never existed may be distinguished in metropolitan discourse, redolent of what Doreen Massey describes as ‘an (idealized) notion of an era when places were (supposedly) inhabited by coherent and homogeneous communities’ set against ‘the current fragmentation and disruption’ (3). For twentieth-century nationalism in Ireland, the western rural in particular came to symbolise the island’s timeless essence, a burden which continues to limit rural imaginings and practices. In actuality, all spaces are ramified, contested and interrelated; a rural psychogeography is not only possible but productive and, I suggest, necessary in order to avoid stunting the meaning of the rural.

Walking Silvermines performs just such a process. Fiona Woods began this public art project determined to work with whatever she encountered, a key psychogeographic strategy (4). Existing understandings and negotiations of space in the village and its surrounds were also important, and the culmination of four years of research and project work by Woods and others, including the Silvermines community, engages both body and mind in an enriched understanding of this specific rural. Responding to a local desire for infrastructure which would represent the heritage of the village and support tourism, the artist and her colleagues Clive Moloney and Sally-Anne McFadden and helpers have established a physical and virtual tour consisting of signs and texts, which interweaves Silvermines’ history and geography and shows something of their complexity and density. Far from conforming to the still potent notion of the Irish rural as changeless, the repository of authenticity and tradition, and wholly agricultural, Silvermines is shown to be shaped by commerce and industry and affected by national and international flows of people, capital and politics. Through the signs, stories are told which point to difference within and contestation of local spaces and almost invariably enmesh village and community in far-reaching spatial, social, political, economic and cultural systems.

For me as a cultural geographer, two significant themes arise from the content of the signs, on which Woods has cleverly juxtaposed stories and images in such a way as to provoke dissonance as much as resonance. First, geographical scale is important, with several images and stories alluding to tensions between nation and locality. In one, Ireland’s national anthem is translated into Cant, historically the language of Irish Travellers; this serves both to expose hidden and uncelebrated Irish traditions, and to challenge the right of the Irish state to loyalty from marginalised citizens. The local context of the narrative is set at variance to the national by reference to ‘Carthy the Tinker’, a traveller who, it is emphasised, is remembered affectionately in the village. Second, the signs repeatedly demonstrate interconnectedness. At the entrance to the former Waelz plant, a photograph of Korean children before an American tank points to the role played by the Korean War in the opening of the plant, when demand for metals and minerals made reprocessing old ore economically feasible. Likewise, global demand for oil underpins the Magcobar mine, and the sign at its entrance draws clear connections between national encouragement of foreign investment and the disastrous effects of Magcobar’s activities on the local landscape.

I conclude with words from Massey, which I believe pinpoint one of Woods’s achievements with Walking Silvermines. Rather than viewing the village as ‘[an area] with boundaries round’, through the combination of images, written and spoken texts it is envisaged as: articulated movements in networks of social relations and understandings…where a large proportion of those relations, experiences and understandings are constructed on a far larger scale than what we happen to define for the moment as the place itself (5).

Thus the project sets a precedent for imagining any given Irish rural as an intricately formed node in a vast network of spaces and societies. In the rural as much as the urban, psychogeography has the potential to uncover what is complex and fluid in terms of memory, identity and spatial production.

Bryonie Reid/ 2010

  1. Sukhdev Sandhu, ‘Discovering the Secrets of the City’, pp46-47 in New Statesman, vol.135 no.4804, 7th August 2006, p46.
  2. Iain Borden, ‘The City of Psychogeography’, pp103-104 in Architectural Design, vol.69 no.11, 1999, p104.
  3. Doreen Massey, ‘A Global Sense of Place’, pp315-323 in Trevor Barnes and Derek Gregory (eds.) Reading Human Geography: the Poetics and Politics of Enquiry, London, Arnold, 1997, p315.
  4. Personal communication from Fiona Woods, 6th August 2010.
  5. Massey, A Global Sense of Place, p315.