I first came across Phil Smith in Walking, Writing and Performance, in which he appears as ‘The Crab Man’, an alter ego also credited as one of the contributors to 2010’s Mythogeography: A Guide to Walking Sideways: a collection of fragmentary narratives that construct and deconstruct an approach to walking as an artistic practice, a philosophy, and a type of self. This approach, like Smith’s writing itself, is a twisting, wandering, floating suspension of ideas that never quite settles where you’d expect. Its documents are dense with potential: arrows shooting in several directions at once, sentences that curl back on themselves and then slip beneath their earlier meanings, slide around on the underbelly of what you thought you understood, only to emerge with a reference to an esoteric point you barely comprehended five pages before.
At least, that is my experience. And let’s say that mythogeography is as much about experience as it is not. Which is to say, it is not exactly pyschogeography: the discipline of the confident subject striding through the world and making sense of all he purveys. And it is not exactly theory: the abstract mind building links between things that can’t be seen. It hovers somewhere between the two. Nevertheless, Smith refers to mythogeography over and again as a self-contained discipline, with specific conventions. Here is a description of how it works, from Mythogeography:
A facilitator (often under the guise of an auteur) constructs an orrery of narratives and images, a fluid map of certain, limited thematic trajectories. An anti-team of collaborators then responds to this provocation, restricting themselves to working within the terms of the orrery, but not in a connected collaboration. Instead, they allow their own making to spiral around (but within the limits) in as subjective, instinctive and intuitive manner as the limits allow. (The impulses and associations that fuel these makings will remain private to the individual makers, whose integrity is assured.)
Clear? I thought not. Mythogeography, of course, evades definition. In fact, the whole of the 2010 book is a performance against authorship, knowledge and the way the machine of the art world churns, spraying its favourite artists, its sound bite theorists and its ‘star pyschogeographers’ into the landmarks of cultural significance. The book is made of up of notes, diaries and performance paraphernalia from an organisation called the ‘Pedestrian Resistance’, which interweaves definitions of mythogeography with reflections on how it could be developed (‘We need to learn an ethics of the stranger. How to receive a stranger, but also how to be and present ourselves as stranger.’), and tasks for the reader to perform. Designed like a text book, the publication has a critical relationship with pedagogy: both mocking, gently, the manifestos of groups like The Situationists, and assuming the reader has an encyclopaedic knowledge of their ideas, their buzzwords and their MO – if only to understand how mythogeography treads a subtly different path.
In many ways the mythogeographical approach seems easier to write than it is to perform.
Eight years after Mythogeography comes Rethinking Mythogeography – a very different kind of book. For a start, it is authored by two identifiable people: John Schott and Phil Smith. It is part document of, part reflection on, Smith’s two-week residency in Northfield, Minnesota (USA) at WALK! A Festival of Walking, Art & Ideas, curated by Schott. And it begins with a definition. ‘Mythogeography,’ writes Smith in his introduction, ‘is fidelity to the indecipherable.’ Smith remains far from actually defining anything here, but this does appear to be an artist’s statement: a declaration of intent that legitimises and aestheticises whatever comes next.
Legitimising is always part of the process of mythogeography: Smiths’ publications are framed as how-to guides, for example, for would be mythogeographers. ‘Searching for the magic in the every day?’ says the blurb on the back of Rethinking Mythogeography,
For that moment when we find a heightened understanding of ordinary things? For a way to welcome in enchantment? Here is one set of keys to that magic…
But this playful authority falls in sharp contrast to the sombre status of the artist-author who emerges as both creator and subject of Rethinking Mythogeography. And unlike previous books, the most striking feature of this one is that that it’s full of photographs of Phil Smith himself.
The images, taken by John Schott, show Smith leading his ‘Blazing Worlds’ performance walk on the streets of Northfield. Here he appears, in a dark suit and flat tweed cap, walking, pointing and making shapes that echo his surroundings. Even Smith was surprised at how the photos turned out:
I had imagined that these [pictures by Schott] would be mostly (maybe, only) images of buildings and vistas, perhaps some signs and a little detritus in the gutter. Something deadpan that allowed the texts and imaginaries of my time in Northfield to float diaphanously across the town. Images of space that would let the mythogeography speak for itself; and allow me to take a step backwards.
Smith says the images made him rethink his own relationship to his body. He had been ill before he flew to Minnesota – so ill, in fact, that he feared he might not be able to go. Despite his interest in alter egos and the periodic absences enforced by domestic life (in Mythogeography, psychogeography’s macho credentials are criticised, indirectly, as being insufficiently domestic), Smith’s walking practice requires him to be physically there. He is the literal and metaphorical body of this work: its practice, its memory and its teachings. And this in turn means that mythogeography, like all walking practices, risks being absorbed into art-world narratives that lionise the individual.
Mythogeography is a soulful, reflective insight into an active mind: a starting point.
The photographs of Smith are interspersed with some historical documents about the town – in particular its most famous historical moment: an 1876 bank raid by the notorious criminal, Jesse James – and screen grabs taken from the distorted perspective of Google Maps. The maps and the history illustrate how Smith prepared for ‘The Blazing Worlds Walk’, and the photographs illustrate what he did on it. Here, then, Smith is central to the book as its great mind, its meaningful body: its art ‘star’. And yet, even while this is played out in the design of the object, Smith casts off its associations in his own essay, contained within:
Being in Northfield – because things went so well – made me realise that what I want most is something different from the role of walking artist. I want people to walk mythogeographically, but under their own steam; not led, not guided by anyone, least of all by me.
Rethinking Mythogeography is, in other words, a twist of contradictions – a suspension of ideas, that is, of course, entirely in keeping with Smith’s approach. Careful to continue his construction of mythogeography as a philosophy open to all, this book is also anchored in the body of its artist-author. Overwhelmingly positive about the Northfield residency, it is also a humble and self-critical reflection on the problematic role of an artist on the international festival circuit. And, detailing the preparations for a walk that was attended by fifteen people, it is attached to a real event but creates an imaginary and extravagant double life for it: the book will have a much larger audience than the performance, and it brims with ideas that Smith didn’t have time or didn’t remember to include.
Indeed, in many ways the mythogeographical approach seems easier to write than it is to perform. On the page, ideas can spin in high frequency, creating a shadow walk that is more vivid than the real one. Smith foreshadows this in his description of neo-romantic pilgrimage, in which the journey takes precedence over the destination. Ironically, the logical conclusion of this is that the journey can be erased. ‘Pilgrimage becomes, then, a smooth and mobile space. The soul is not saved, but relocated to the ego.’
If Mythogoegraphy has a critical relation to the text book, Rethinking Mythogeography has a critical relationship to the exhibition catalogue. With its artist’s statement, artist’s portraits and high production values, it masquerades as an authority on an artistic oeuvre. But it is nothing of the sort. Instead, it is a soulful, reflective insight into an active mind: a starting point. It ends with a mythic retelling of the infamous Jesse James heist, absorbing Northfield’s best known moment into the experience of a near-stranger; and an invitation to the reader to be ‘mad enough to do this stuff in their own and better ways’.
Phil Smith and John Schott, Rethinking Mythogeography is published by Triarchy Press.