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September 29, 2006

Michael Greenberg

Drawn by the invitation to wander about with a group of deriveurs in a neighbourhood I once knew intimately, I join the third annual Psychogeography Festival in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. According to the festival's manifesto, "The city becomes a playground, a nomadic laboratory, a space for the development of creative communities".

I attach myself to the Smelling Committee, whose leaders encourage "reflection upon the ephemeral, odoriferous fabric of Brooklyn neighborhoods", and am immediately handed a blindfold which I put over my eyes like a man awaiting execution. "Smell is unfairly maligned in this optically-obsessed society", we are told. Our group of about twenty is instructed "to stay open, free-associate, take in the unique scents of your fellow smellers". We bump into one another, groping and sniffing like a pack of newly acquainted dogs.

Removing our blindfolds, we march up Roebling Street, rain falling thickly on the cement sidewalk -a smell like wet cardboard. Our tour guides are dressed as carnival barkers from the 1890s, with bowler hats and megaphones. "Very strong scent this way!", cries one, and we huddle, half soaked, in front of a Laundromat. He puts the narrow end of a plastic funnel to his nose, and inhales deeply. "This smell reminds me of my dog", remarks a member of the group. "Warm and fluffy."

I feel as if I have slipped into a Godard film when a Parisian in the group rattles off for me her favourite smells: "Coffee, melted chocolate, ammonia which wakes me up from my fainting spells, manure, warm tar . . .". And the smells she most abhors? "Tunisian olive oil, and lamb stew." Excitedly, she recites a few lines from Baudelaire's "Correspondences", in English: "There are perfumes fresh as children's flesh, / Soft as oboes, green as meadows, / And others, corrupted, rich, triumphant".

On Berry Street, I peel away from the Smelling Committee; my father's former warehouse is only three blocks away. Curious, the Parisian joins me. By the time we get there, the rain is streaming off our sagging umbrellas and on to our shoulders. Berry Street is deserted, the warehouse a ruin, unimpressive and dwarfed, awaiting "redevelopment", its shattered windows covered with steel gates to keep out squatters. My father sold it in the 1970s for a pittance, and moved to the Bronx, after a spate of race riots laid waste to Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg's commercial drag. Now it's worth millions and means nothing to me. I'm irritated with myself for going out of my way to come here. For what purpose? To manufacture a false jolt of nostalgia? I remember the bustle of this street thirty-odd years ago: trucks blocking the sidewalk, and narrow gauge freight wagons that rolled merchandise 150 yards down to the ships on the East River. You had to zigzag constantly to walk from one end of the block to the other. It occurs to me that my detour runs contrary to the spirit of psychogeography, which prizes coincidence and the confection of random metaphors - "ambulant sign-making" in the words of Iain Sinclair -over personal remembrance.

My Parisian friend, on the other hand, appears to be in the throes of aesthetic transport. The loading dock is sprinkled with debris, and reeks of stale urine, evoking the ammonia smell of which she is so fond. She points out a peeling rusted gate on the back wall, and compares it to the early paintings of Frank Stella.

At festival headquarters on Roebling Street, I am introduced to a gaunt Londoner of about forty who goes by the single name Leon. He is one of the founders of the "self-funded, terrorist art cell" called c6. "We proffer unprofitable concepts. There's no product. Nothing we do can be sold or owned." The concept he has brought to Williamsburg is a "Google hacking program designed to investigate the difference between luxury and necessity". As Leon explains it, you stand in front of his screen and text-message what you want from your cell phone. Leon's computer taps into Google's image bank and within ten seconds gives you back your desire in the form of a picture that is shaped by the outline of your own words. "In Stockholm, people wrote things such as,
'I want to stand out from the crowd'. In London, they wanted sex and drugs.
We'll see what New Yorkers desire."

In 1998, in a London gallery, Leon locked himself in a seven-by-seven-foot plywood box for seven days. No food, 14 litres of water, artificial light and constant video surveillance. "You know my skin colour", he says accusingly, pointing to his freckled arm. "You know my age and where I come from, more or less." His idea was to be liberated from such definitions, to be anonymous, the way a prisoner in solitary confinement is both anonymous and his maximum self at the same time. "Everything stripped away." When he emerged from his box, he was greeted by reporters. "I was reeling. It was soul-destroying. It was messianic."

At 5pm I join a dozen deriveurs on "a tour of Baghdad in Brooklyn", called "You Are Not Here". Mushon, an eager and mischievous Israeli, hands us each a map of central Baghdad superimposed on a map of New York. Several locations are marked off, and by holding the map to the light one can make out the points in Williamsburg to which they correspond. Following the map, we stroll through Baghdad like members of a triumphant army. "You see how pleasant it is here", says Mushon sarcastically.

Walking beside me is a voluble man who claims to teach "media arts". He tells me that psychogeographers are "loose cabals of people slithering about in new media .. . sprawling networks that create an instantaneous communications froth". He calls it "Wiggilism -the space between what is virtual and what is real".

We reach our destination, a tilting street lamp on Kent Street which, we are invited to imagine, is the statue of Saddam Hussein in Fridos Square before it was toppled on April 9, 2003. "There's some question about how authentic that event was", says Mushon. "And how authentic was the toppling of the World Trade Center", says the teacher of media arts, wiggling into a virtual space with no exit. "It doesn't matter if it really happened. What's important is what we think it means."


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