My first City Hack: 20 years on
It was late 1997. I was a twenty something, suburban youth worker who was all out of breath; wearied by the seemingly thankless task of both protecting and entertaining the young people in my charge. So one Friday night we bundled on a train to the centre of Melbourne with a goal of de-cloistering our commuter-class consciousness with some exposure to social issues. Our destination was an inner city organisation which worked with homeless people out of the dingy basement of the old Baptist church in Collins Street.
We went for what we thought was a walk. What we got was a welcome… and a way of wandering and wondering that would underpin my work over the next twenty years.
Our host was Gregg Morris, a live in-intern with the curiously hopeful pathos of a young man itching to make a difference.
A crack at a big-league soccer career in the UK had led to partying around Europe and eventually to Melbourne with stints in retail management at Country Road and Nike just as its iconic tick went ubiquitous, rewriting global marketing rules.
He shared a memorable story about an experience with another mogul of marketing. As a work hand on the flamboyant Freddy Heineken’s yacht, he recalled how he had observed the elite of a Mediterranean city dining alfresco beside the city’s beggars and how he was struck by the powerful dissonance.
It was a kind of ‘Adbusters meets Saul on the Damascus Road’ type awakening which had eventually led to him ditching his career in order to live in the city church and work alongside the homeless. The walks were a way of hacking away at the meaning of it all and finding a new way forward.
An important mentor in this conversion process was Peter Chapman, an old and enigmatic youth worker type who lived a simple monastic life based in a small apartment next to the church. When he wasn’t sharing a simple loaf of bread for lunch on his table each day with buskers and students he would encourage street walking as a kind of spiritual discipline. He would invite people to embrace the centripetal lure of the city (beyond that of work, shop or party), to consider the deeper spirituality of the culture. He would send people out on the streets in silence with simple questions. What do you sense and feel? What draws or excites you? What troubles, repels or bores you? What do you experience as good or bad and why? Upon return he would host a debrief, which integrated both the personal & political.
Such a method was similar to the way that the avant-garde Situationists of Paris adopted the dérive (French for drift) as a mode of experimental behaviour via an unplanned journey through a landscape. The aim was that participants drop their everyday relation and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they found. The dérive was a critical tool for understanding a theory of ‘psycho-geography’, developed and described by Guy Debord as the “specific effects of the geographical environment (whether consciously organised or not) on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.”
For the Situationists, the dérive was a revolutionary technique to combat what they described as the ‘society of the spectacle;’ the malaise, boredom and political passivity of late-capitalist culture. From the Paris uprisings in 1968, to art and literature, such ideas have served as a resilient source of alternative social imagination and activism ever since.
And so my own initial experience of urban hacking that evening began with a call to move in silence, as a group, into the contrasting clatter of the city. The intentionality of this silent walking evoked within us an eerie hyper-awareness and a surreal sense of presence and power.
Like Beelzebul leading the Christ through his hallucinatory testing tour, our host led us through the city; in and out; high and low. From desert laneway dumpsters to the pinnacles of temples, old and new; interrupting silent discernment with organically developed rants.
- Pointing out the corporate kingdoms of the world and their splendour.
- Alerting us to the ‘publicly secret’ symbolics of an architectural sky-scape.
- Price matching high end handbags with hits of heroin.
- Haunting us with open-ended questions in dead-end streets.
In summarising the pyschogeography tradition Merlin Coverley describes its common characteristics as “urban wandering, the imaginative networking of the city, the otherworldly sense of spirit of place, the unexpected insights and juxtapositions created by aimless drifting” and, “the new ways of experiencing familiar surrounds.” Alongside these commonalities he maps the divergent emphasis of different practitioners; contrasting the Marxist, modernist objectivity of Debord with the literary and esoteric concerns of Iain Sinclair; or the mystical, neo-antiquarian, behavioural determinism of a Peter Ackroyd with the Thatcher-resisting, ‘avant-bard’, pamphleting gibberish of Stewart Home of the London Psychogeographical Association.
He quotes Sinclair as saying “I’ve allowed myself to become this London brand, I’ve become a hack on my own mythology which fascinates me. From there on in you can either go with it or subvert it.”
Whilst I came with my own ideological agenda, the lively freedom of this approach opened and broadened my world, empowering me to listen and learn from others and to mix and make my own stories.
My studies in community health and biblical hermeneutics meant I had tools to develop my own narrative maps of Mark’s Gospel and John’s Apocalypse and then superimpose them upon Melbourne’s topography. These mixed with my own autobiographical and symbolic interests to re-frame ancient literary themes and create a highly personal and idiosyncratic vision of the city which inspired my own contextual writing projects like the ‘Gospel of Vic’.
Eventually I joined with my host that evening and the organisation Urban Seed, and over years we reaped and sowed meaning by developing playful public performances which used the streets to:
- debate stereotypes with secondary school students;
- hack brand identity politics and globalisation with corporates;
- physically feel the dynamics of social exclusion with policy makers;
- take ‘Another View’ of Melbourne’s indigenous history;
- share cigarettes and dance in fountains with beggars and buskers alike.
My more recent experiments, with the development of labyrinth.city, has seen my hacking go digital and global as the culture morphs and changes with new social toys and tools to further enable getting lost… and found!
My first tour that evening ended with a final juxtaposition; a sudden spatial transition from the Friday night kerbside buzz of the Collins Street theatre district into the hushed vacuous darkness of the formal 19th century church sanctuary. The only illumination was the white fuzz static of a dwarfed television screen that had been placed upon the altar as a kind of last supper, culture-jamming sacrament. With a whir of the tape, the grainy static of a too-oft played video cassette flickered out the city sequence from the movie Baraka; a timely capture of the anthropocene at the (perhaps apocalyptic?) historic moment of our cultural shift from rural to city based animal.
In the final scene the camera pans back and the New York scape literally breathes.
Through twenty years of hacking, this breath of the city has become my own, sustaining a life of activism, creative community work and meaningful connection.
Sometimes this breath feels like a :
- sigh of relief; the romantic nostalgia and reassurance of realising one’s own movements exist within familiar patterns across time.
- pranayama; the mindful re-enchanting of forgotten spaces or the emotional work of healing ‘trauma-scapes’.
- a hacking cough; that seeks to name or expel previously undiscerned demonic ‘ob-scenery’
- a desperate gasp; for fresh air which arouses the need for change and inspires bold action to shape the future anew.
If my first city hack de-cloistered my consciousness, twenty years of hacking has re-cloistered my mind and body to a process of urban pedi-tation; the polis as prayerful path; a labyrinth with an open colonnade to the city’s many maps of meaning; to its respirations and my responses, both with and against its flow.
Director / Curator, Labyrinth Melbourne
References & Links:
Seale, K. (2007). Iain Sinclair’s textual Obscenery. In R. Bond & J. Bavidge (Eds.), City Visions: the Work of Iain Sinclair (pp. 99-107)