The way that people move in cities is changing. There have been initiatives in cities like London and Washington to create pedestrian and cycle orientated spaces.
But these initiatives are designed for either active sociability (meeting people) or passive sociability (people watching) and prescribed by the planners. Eating will be in the food court, cycling will be in the lanes provided, and so on. But there is a growing movement for people to engage with the environment about them in a way of their choosing. There may be no distinct destination in mind, but they are not moving passively. There are a number of forms of this kind of playful travel, a thing that was once the preserve of the underground, but is now finding more mainstream outlets.
Who are the playful travellers?
It is important to stress that the majority of people indulging in playful travel are not particularly going anywhere. They are the modern equivalent of the flaneur, a term used by the 19th century poet Baudelaire to describe “a gentleman stroller of the city streets” (in the 21st century female travellers are sometimes called flaneuse or the non-gendered boulevardier). They see everything and are, in turn, seen. This idea of playful drifting was taken up by the Guy Debord and the Situationist Movement in the 1950s and 1960s under the term psychogeography.
When people drift they shake off their everyday work or leisure activities and allow themselves to be drawn into a sort of game, playing with the urban terrain they encounter. If all that sounds very high concept then that’s because it is. The roots of playful travel lie in a literature and philosophy that can be quite difficult to explain. That said, a successful cottage industry has grown around the writings of the likes of Iain Sinclair, Alan Moore, and Will Self who are in their own genres quite widely read. Self in fact used to have a column called ‘psychogeography’ in the British Airways in-flight magazine. Around them have grown a following who are literally following in their footsteps.
But what does all this mean for the 21st century drifter? Sinclair’s heroic walks around London, dusting off its partially submerged histories has brought about an interest in things that go beyond the guide books.
The idea of a sort of counter tourism has been developed further by the artist/performance group Wrights & Sites, of which the mythogeographer Phil Smith is a member. He sees mythogeography as an approach to places as if they were “sites for performances, crime scenes, or amateur excavations”. Very much a playfulness of the mind; a belief that there is no single meaning or definition of a place. In their series of “Mis-guides” they don’t tell you where to go, they show you ways to see your city that no-one else has found yet. A “forged passport” that puts the “fictional, fanciful, fragile, and personal” on an equal footing with the factual. The relationship between the traveller and their route is changed, a prankishness that is not about the urban walker showing how clever they are, but more about having a respect for a place, to be open to seeing its other faces. Essentially these guides take the traveller to places they did not know that they wanted to go to.
The difference between this approach to travel and the flaneur heritage of Sinclair et al’s psychogeography is that the psychogeographers will tell you “this is how it is”, whereas Wrights & Sites gives the traveller a clue as to how they might negotiate the other possibilities that have been revealed.
It is true that Sinclair and other psychogeographers’ writings have occasionally been dismissed as merely walking around saying important things. Sinclair himself believes it to be a term that has outlived its usefulness, a “nasty brand name” used to describe anything to do with cities and walking. And in any case, the spirit that originated as a form of agency against the top-down regeneration of public spaces has certainly mutated into something very different.
Even beyond the prankish nature of the Mis-guides. People want to really play. They appear in flashmobs. They go zombie walking. They run around the planet hunting for Pokémon. As Phil Smith says “some kinds of playfulness might well be oriented to the commercial. Everything else is, so why not playful travel?”
Most of these activities are largely shorn of the literary and political aspirations of psycho- or mythogeography. The highly organised subversion of the prison yard in The Philippines where inmates perform Michael Jackson’s Thriller dance to large crowds has become a tourist attraction in its own right. The political is still present though in some of these performances. Breakdancing pregnant mothers highlighting the lack of global medical provision for women had a point make as it became a Youtube phenomenon. But what both of these examples have in common with the flaneur philosophy and with each other is that they are playful. Where they differ is that they seek a particular goal, a destination. Even if that destination is merely an audience or a prize, and this is how playful travel is taking steps towards becoming a marketable phenomenon.
So where are we going with this?
London Flashmob advertises itself as “the leading organiser of spontaneous events in the city” without even a hint of a raised eyebrow. It is possible to hire flashmobs to augment your proposal of marriage. The first flashmob is believed to have been organised by Bill Wasik in Manhattan in 2003. Hundreds of people gathered in several locations, including Macy’s and The Hyatt Hotel, some of whom were pretending to be tourists on a bus trip. Wasik intended these groups as a playful social experiment and to encourage spontaneity, to take over commercial and public areas simply to show that it could be done. Some media voices at the time pointed out that the prank may have backfired on him and that he may instead have ended up giving conformity a vehicle that allowed it to appear non-conforming. And hence 15 years later you can hire bespoke flashmobs to make an event of your big moment or to promote the opening of a movie.
The idea that there may be a business aspect to the phenomenon of playful travel was both an inevitable one and an unpopular one with those who subscribe to the more subversive drifter ethic. For Phil Smith, playful travel is about “skirting the buyer/retailer relationship and making a different kind of contact with people”. Smith has written a book about one particular aspect of playful travel; “The footbook of zombie walking” (Triarchy Press 2016). It is essentially a meditation on changed bodies and changed landscapes; to see familiar things through new, dead eyes. It is doubtless true that a certain freedom of thought can allow zombie walkers to feel that way as they act out a fantasy apocalypse in the face of the threat of so many real ones.
Youth worker and social researcher Raymond Smyth, who has been involved in a number of virtual history and zombie events, believes that a truly transformative drifting experience for the playful traveller will only be achievable once wearable tech such as watches, glasses, and even implanted chips become a serious (and affordable) reality. People need to be able to break away from looking at a screen; “for tech to transform a reality, it has to be part of it, rather than alternative to it”. He gives the example of a virtual point and click adventure game he recently played that involved hacking into CCTV and collecting objects around the city. The concept was great but the tech was “clunky” to the extent that the feeling of “immersion” was lost.
Zombies and pocket monsters
The roots of zombie walking are again millennial. In 2000 a flashmob style subversive event took place at GENCON 2000 in Milwaukee. A year later in Sacramento, zombies gathered to promote a midnight film festival. There are now zombie pub crawls and zombie world record attempts. The idea of simply drifting has been replaced by one of communal gameplay.
This is not to say that there is not some form of subversion still present below the surface as the players hit the streets. Where large groups of people gather in the form of what is effectively a rolling festival with or without official permission, there can be fallout among the people who are not part of the game. Cars get covered in goo by zombies. Windows get broken. Commuters and transport police get spooked by silent discos on railway stations. Some people play harder than others. And there has been nothing so potentially damaging as when the playful world rubs up against the masses simply travelling from A to B, as the phenomenon seen in Pokémon Go.
Flashmobs and zombie walk events are only possible by means of fast communication via social media, and are often produced as content for social media. They are a playful means to a shared experience, or a shared performance. Pokémon Go, launched in 2016, takes things much further. It is an augmented reality game where players hunt down virtual Pokémon in real world surroundings using smart devices. It has been wildly successful, with more than 500 million downloads in its launch year alone. Smyth says that at least anecdotally among his contacts, the game remains very popular in an industry where tastes change very quickly. It is, however you choose to look at it, a form of playful travel that is very big business.
It has though not been without its issues. In an early version of the game a Pokémon Gym (a battle location) was placed in the North Korean demilitarised zone. According to a study published in The New Scientist last year Pokémon Go may well have contributed to as many as 150,000 traffic accidents and 256 deaths in the USA as a result of people playing at the wheel of their vehicles. There is still something inherently subversive in not moving with the crowd, even when you are one of millions following a trend.
In Pokémon Go people are seeing the world through the lens of their smartphone’s camera. This is as far removed from the spirit of the flaneur as understood by Phil Smith and Raymond Smyth as it is possible to be. But there remains a thread of playfulness that connects them. The “otherness” involved; the uncovering of things not visible in the guide books. Travelling is seen as a kind of performance. So where are we now?
There is a sense of inevitability in the manner that underground activities become a niche of the mainstream once a trend is established, and a way is discovered to make them profitable. Baudelaire knew that people like to play when they travel. They want to discover things that nobody else has seen and make their own myths. And the thing that has made this possible for a mass market is the advance in tech since the 1990s. The boulevardiers are connected now in real time and operating in virtual space. They are the undead advertising movies. They are the backing dancers to your marriage proposal. They are hunting virtual prey on the M1. They are the next generation of tourists and they will decide exactly where they are going.