With Pedestrian Experiments‘ regular contributor wandering through Bolivia, we’ve asked a fellow ambulatory enthusiast, Peter Lastwin, to fill in.
In the spirit of Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859) I decided to embark on a drug-fueled urban stroll. Drugs, it was understood, enabled new ways of seeing and experiencing the city. Like de Quincey, surrealists of the 1920’s employed a similar method to break free from the prescribed city experience, spending full days strolling Paris on a triumvirate of wine, hashish and opium.
While some groups within the urban exploratory tradition such as some psychogeographers frowned upon the use of mind-altering substances used to enhance one’s exploration of the urban, others found it very useful, and some argued its essentiality. Regardless, psychogeography owes a large debt to de Quincey’s opium-induced wanderings, establishing the first derive some 150 years ago.
The surrealists and psychogeographers expanded upon de Quincey’s nocturnal walks, viewing the city as a field for experimentation, a place with unlimited potential for random encounters and discoveries, where it was possible to find ‘the wind of possibility’. Less interested in the history of monuments, they sought to find the magic in the mundane and everyday realities of the street.
With this in mind, I decided to test out the merit behind exploring the subtle, conscious, and unconscious relationship we have with the city with the use of psycho-active drugs.
Originally planning to take this stroll with my partner, unfortunately she found herself unable to coherently move her legs. I set off alone into the early night and before long lost myself within the city. I approached it like a strange gigantic dog, allowing it to smell my hand before I began to stroke its back and scratch its belly.
Walking became mechanical; I sped, slowed, stopped, without much thought. I didn’t think of directions or wayfinding, I ventured ever further into the unknown spaces of the city and my own unconscious.
My hands drifted across the exteriors of buildings, feeling the textures and differences in temperatures, like stroking living beasts lined up to attention. I watched the windows, unique in symmetry and housed in curved or squared lines, dressed like eyes, many of which were shuttered asleep.
Grey utility boxes stood like totem poles on the sidewalk, plastered with faces of the past, ghoulish grey, faded and ripped faces of politicians that have been pasted one on another for years. Images of hopes and failures surrounded by cheap advertisements and sloppy graffiti tags. An informal political gravestone marked in spray-paint hieroglyphics.
I wondered what de Quincey observed in London, during his late night strolls. What would he have observed here? Jorge Luis Borges greatly admired de Quincey, did he ever seek to emulate him in Buenos Aires?
At one point I came across Plazoleta Ararat where there is a monument to Armenia that is a miniature version of the country’s genocide monument, shaped like a number of triangles rooted in the earth but coming together at the top to form a loosely connected ring—an abstract portrayal of Mount Ararat. I looked closely and could see someone camped out on the inside. I am sure this is a prized place to sleep, metaphorically horrific, but visually spectacular.
I forced myself to move forward, never stopping long but never rushing. Unaware of my location I walked, fascinated by bright lights and new territory.
As I walked I felt like what I passed ceased to exist, as if I was being drawn forward into the night and throughout the city. Curiosity took over, further enabling me to discover, and making me aware of the many details that are rendered invisible by the numbing process of repetition—daily life.
Numbers everywhere, addresses, phone numbers on advertisements, prices on shop windows. The constant barrage of numbers offended my senses, fonts that didn’t work, lazy design. The standard number address font in Argentina is ubiquitously written on a white metal oval. I was fascinated to see two forgeries, however; one, an attempt to fashion a white piece of steal and hand paint on the numbers and another, where someone just used a jiffy marker to nicely pen the address numbers in the same traditional font on a marble exterior. This black markered address is either the act of a public-duty-bound ‘tagger’ or a very lazy porter.
Another font that I spotted for the first time during this walk, albeit with difficulty, was the mostly classical Helvetica used by architects/ engineers/ construction managers to display their name, discretely etched or mounted on buildings. Largely, this was visible on structures built around 1940-1970s, including a church- although it seems a bit arrogant to have ones name etched on the same surface with a saint or saviour.
My focus swung from interest to interest. I caught myself marveling at the city’s sidewalks–humble mosaics of time and style. Few stretches of sidewalk are consistently paved in Buenos Aires, most are a bric-a-brac of styles that range from the last 100 years. I saw one patch of sidewalk about 4 metres in length that included 9 different types of design, ranging from textured to painted tiles, with missing tile-spots hastily poured in with concrete.
I found buildings that struck me, spoke to me, and which I would later dream of. I spent time outside of them, watching their contours, waiting for their molecular structure to muster up a sound or motion acknowledging me.
Allowing this altered logic to drive me forward, I discovered many new streets. Each allowed me to uncover their personalities, ineffably odd.
As the high slowly receded I felt myself in a comfortable state negotiating my surroundings. I was not fatigued by the hours of walking. My interest did not wane.
The next day, when lucid, I took out a map and tried to mark the locations of specific memories from the night. I walked in no apparent order but covered a distance of around 15km.
For de Quincey, drug-fuelled nocturnal walks enmeshed the bizarre and the fantastic, then rooted them within the spaces of his city. Likewise, I felt that in my stroll the mundane was made exotic.