It's late morning on a breezy April Saturday and Joshua Berlow, 54, pulls his light-brown knit cap a bit more snug over his graying hair, adjusts his glasses, and steps back for a better shot of a closed church front. "Wow, look at that!" he says.
He pans his video camera from right to left and up and down, recording the weathered bricks and barred doorway of the converted rowhouse a block north of the B&O Railroad Museum. It's the first time he's used this camera for a dérive.
French for "to drift," dérive is a kind of aimless walk looking to explore a city's landscape and its mental/emotional resonances, and it is central to the practice of psychogeography.
There are precedents for perceptive urban wandering, such as Daniel Defoe's writing on 17th-century London or the figure of the flâneur or "stroller" of Paris' 19th-century arcade. But the origins of psychogeography today are largely associated with the Situationist International-an organization of artists and activists dedicated to critiquing the consumerist establishment of postwar French society-and its leading theorist Guy Debord, whose definition from the 1955 essay "Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography" laid out the basics: "Psychogeography sets for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals."
Berlow has done dérives throughout the region over the years, but today is his first to focus on the Southwest Baltimore area around Pigtown. The stay-at-home dad has walked through several Baltimore neighborhoods, a handful near Waverly, his home for the last 14 years, but he wanted to try something different today, with the railroad tracks playing a particularly important role. "Pigtown is really close to a lot of stuff," he continues. "You've got this biotech thing over here, and the stadium there, and gambling that's coming soon too."
Over the next few hours, Berlow's white sneakers pad their way through Pigtown, past murals of locomotives and schoolchildren playing, rowhouse stoops and the rusted gates of industrial sites. At intervals breaking his camera out from the bag hanging off his shoulder, he gets a sense of confinement while passing endless warning signs. "There's this quote about how basically psychogeography is subversive because it's discouraged in cities," he says. "There's all these barriers. We're kind of channeled into specific behaviors. Basically you're supposed to shop, and that's it. When you're not at work you're supposed to be shopping."
Berlow, a native Bethesdan, first became interested in psychogeography while living in the Washington area in the mid-'90s. After moving to Baltimore in 2000, he formed first the Baltimore-Washington Psychogeography Association, which morphed into the International Psychogeography Institute (IPI) and set up a Facebook page in July of last year in order to change the psychogeographic norm of naming organizations after local cities and regions.
Given his location, of course, Berlow's dérives are still a Baltimore affair. That's just as well, since Berlow finds the city a prime site for psychogeographic exploration. "I think it's a great place for it," he says. "The thing about Baltimore is that you have so many different neighborhoods with different ambiances crowded into a small place. It's not all homogenous; you've got a lot of different neighborhoods with sharp boundaries pressed up against one another."
Despite psychogeography's roots in political radicalism-Debord and the other Situationists would eventually be players in the events of May '68, when students and workers confronted the French establishment-Berlow says he has little interest in the political aspects of psychogeography. He's more drawn to its creative and artistic possibilities, as well as what he feels are the occult threads running through its practice. He's particularly keen about a group of psychogeographers in Manchester who claimed to levitate the Manchester Corn Exchange in 1996, much like when Vietnam War protesters attempted to do to the Pentagon in 1967.
Oddly enough, this mystical aspect comes into play through the use of technology in some of Berlow's photos. "Lately, I'll take the photographs," he says, "and I'll digitally manipulate them to make them more extreme, to increase the color balance or contrast and make them more vibrant. It's like I'm drawing out a magical world that's kind of there just under your mind's eye, and the digital enhancement enables you to draw out what's underneath the surface."
Berlow is looking to grow the IPI; he recently applied for a grant with the Open Society Institute to help him achieve nonprofit status. "If you're not a nonprofit, you can't do shit," he says. "If you get the nonprofit status, you can buy real estate, get a headquarters, not have to pay property taxes, go on dérives, charge money for dérives. You could get the ball rolling."
One model he sees for the IPI's future is the long-running Baltimore Science Fiction Society, which has handled the annual Balticon convention since 1967. Though he is open to company, for now, Berlow undertakes each of his dérives alone or with his daughter. "Sometimes," he says, "she'll point out ways to go that I won't even notice."
The Pigtown dérive ends at the Gwynn Falls Trail, just past the construction site for the new casino. A crew of volunteers clears the park of trash, nearly filling their trucks with black bags. Further in, there's an abandoned homeless encampment and a shelter for feral cats. At the water's edge, Berlow steps through a sparse cluster of reeds and twigs. The bank is strewn with debris-a plastic bucket, discarded shopping bags, and a door painted black floating nearby. Meanwhile, across the water, cars circle in perpetual motion in and out of the city on the loops of the interstate.
Moments like this and others from the day's urban drift show the value psychogeography's practice can have for others, according to Berlow. "When most people are walking in their everyday life, it's to get something specific or mundane done. You're getting groceries, you're dropping your kid off at school, or [have] another specific goal in mind. The idea behind psychogeography is really to get lost, to not have a goal in mind and go where your fancy leads you."