Psycho-Aesthetic Geography in Art Education

A version of this article was first published in the Journal of Cultural Research in
Art Education
, 2003.

The noted Jungian psychoanalyst James Hillman observed that the real taboos in a society are not what we think of as forbidden, but rather those things that we never even consider mentioning. He suggested that the major taboo in our society is not sexuality, but the way in which we habitually overlook the ugliness of the environments in which we live and work (1985). Can you imagine going to your boss or principal to complain that the surface-mounted conduit that was run across the ceiling and down the middle of a wall (in order to improve electrical capacity in a computer room) had destroyed the architectural integrity of the space and is a daily violation of your aesthetic sensibilities?

Think of the sort of psychogeographical experiences that confront many of today’s students. Imagine a third-grader entering a foreboding dingy brick building whose entranceway is daubed with many shades of dull beige and gray paint to obscure graffiti written several years earlier. Envision elementary school students eating lunch in a bland room haphazardly decorated with uninteresting posters. Or consider a teenager walking the hallways of a clean, but utterly boring and non-descript suburban school, a building that shows no signs of the creativity and vitality of an architect who designed it or of the hundreds of students who currently use it.

Consider how these situations might be viewed differently if the principal and members of the school board had studied psycho-aesthetic geography as a part of their arts education. The standards for such a class would specify something such as:

*  The students will understand the ways in which the spaces they inhabit shape the intellect and spirit of human beings.

*  The students will recognize that places in the 21st century are created (preserved or manufactured) by human choice and effort.

*  The students will participate in altering and re-creating the human psyche by individually and collaboratively altering and re-creating spaces within their everyday lives.

In a psycho-aesthetic geography class, people ask themselves, “How am I affected by the places in which I live, work, and play?” and “How does the physical environment affect the lives of students, faculty, and staff?” as well as “How does this social space affect the learning that takes place here?” 

I believe that sometimes even sensitive teachers are unaware of how vividly students experience the cultural constraints of educational spaces. I recall a talented high school art student who responded vehemently to my off-hand suggestion that we add a border to a banner we were designing with the comment, “Borders, borders. Why are teachers always putting borders on everything? They’re always trying to contain things. What are they so afraid will escape?”

Over the last decade, curriculum researchers in the field of art education have begun to develop paradigms for the study of the built-environment (Blandy & Hoffman, 1993; Guilfoil, 2000; Guilfoil & Sandler, 1999; Lai & Ball, 2002; Marschalek, 1989; Neperud, 1995). Drawing on such disciplines as urban planning, sociology, oral history, and architectural criticism, built-environment curriculum urges that K-12 art students consider the aesthetic and design decisions that affect our experience of places. This is an important addition to the concept of art education, grounding the study of aesthetics in students’ everyday physical and emotional experience. Psycho-aesthetic geography incorporates, but goes beyond studying the built-environment, compiling histories of places, or analyzing the visual culture of a place.

Students at Pullman Elementary School create banners for the entranceway of the school.

In psycho-aesthetic geography class, students learn to investigate the social conditions and choices that led to the current state of a space and to consider what organizing strategies would be effective in garnering support and resources to develop or change the space. Students also learn practical skills with which to transform their environments through direct action. Students engage in collaborative design processes and learn the skills necessary to make such things as murals, mosaics, banners, paving stones, playsculptures, or assemblage installations.

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Situationist International: Activist Practice in the Built-Environment

The term “psychogeography” defined as the “study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals” (French Situationist International Journal #1, 1958, p.45.) was invented by artists of the Situationist International. The S.I. was a European avant-garde artistic and political group that operated between 1957 and 1972. The Situationists produced few permanent artworks. However, they are still renowned for their theoretical writings and constructed situations—radical gestures that aimed to draw attention to the ways in which post-war culture was transforming people from active citizens to passive consumers of constructed environments and media spectacle (Deutsche, 1999).

Two vital tools of Situationism are the practice of the “dérive” and the “detournement, the reuse of preexisting aesthetic elements.” (French Situationist International Journal #3, 1959, p.55.) Through detournement, the Situationists attempted to awaken people from the cultural numbness induced by seamless immersion in the mediated landscape—surrounded by images, sounds, products, and places designed to encourage mindless acceptance and conformity. (A condition that many teachers have been saddened to observe in a number of their students.)

Detournement makes use of artistic strategies of appropriation and juxtaposition, recombining found elements to create a new work that, in a surprising and often humorous way, unveils the ludicrous underlying cultural assumptions of the original components. I find that students take to the practice of detourning advertisements with ease. Aware that they are frequently being sold a bill of goods, the students strike back by creating witty compositions that satirize the earnest attempts of the dominant media to “educate” them to the virtues of various products and behaviors. The student works can be visual or text-based or a combination of the two. One of my favorite student projects is an elegant wordless collage of high-fashion women in cuddly fur coats, interspersed with pictures of cute, downy-soft baby ducks. Another favorite is an Army recruitment folder changed by only one word to read, “Army. Be All You Can Be…Dead.”

The practice of the dérive was integral to the S.I. practice of detourning the built-environment—awakening one’s sensitivity as to how social beings are shaped by the spaces one inhabits. Defined by the Situationists as “a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of transient passage through varied ambiances,” (French Situationist International Journal #1, 1958, p.45.) dérive in French literally means “drifting.” Leading Situationist Guy Debord explained that, “In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.” (Debord, 1958, p.50.) A dérive is a form of research in which the participants put aside their habitual perceptual apparatus to fully experience the ambience of places from another perspective.

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Psychogeographical Exploration

In my own work as public artist, I have adapted the concept of the dérive to shape “psychogeographical explorations” in which people begin designing collaborative public art projects by freshly experiencing a place that they encounter in their everyday lives. Psychogeographical explorations of familiar places could contribute to any built-environment curriculum because students need to learn to consciously experience the multiple environments they inhabit. Rather than move through life anesthetized to the pain and pleasures of their surroundings, students can become sensitized to the aesthetics and social possibilities of space.

Each exploration I have conducted generated surprising aesthetic observations, unexpected insights into the emotional ambience of places, and intense discussions about the social meaning and political implications of our observations. Sometimes a psycho-aesthetic exploration focuses on a particular site. At other times, we use the exploration to get a sense of an entire school or area of a city and then later focus in on the designated site for an art project. Alternatively, the psychogeographic exploration can be used to survey a neighborhood or school in order to gather impressions of where an art project would be most aesthetically effective or is most urgently needed from a social point of view.

The goal of collaborative spatial investigations is to objectively observe and record the subjective experience of space. For example, in 1999, I conducted a psychogeographical exploration with an intergenerational group of volunteers in the town of DeKalb, Illinois. We investigated a wall and the plot of land in front of it that had been suggested as the site for the creation of a large-scale community mural.

I asked participants to mill around and observe the space and to then gather to share impressions of the place. We went around the circle several times, each time asking each participant to state a new observation of the place. It became a game to see how long the group could continue making new, substantive discoveries. Comments ranged from minute to more overall spatial observations—“At first the limestone foundation appeared to be one color, but then I noticed that there were different shades of yellow and green.” “From the corner across the street, the town clock looks as tall as the entire wall even though it’s only half as high.”

In the next phase of the exploration, I asked participants to experience the place through using their bodies in unfamiliar ways. I encouraged people to measure the space using various body parts as units of measurement. I suggested that people press their bodies against the ground or walls or that they try to fit themselves within crevices or window frames. Soon individuals and groups of people shaped their bodies into amazing positions, creating a contemporary dance that transformed and infused the space with human energy. At this stage participants also get in touch with experiences involving other senses—ambient sound, vibrations, temperature, textures, or smells.

In the third phase of exploration, I asked participants to be very still and to focus inward. The goal was to become aware of how conscious and unconscious observations of space generate feelings within us. Words such as irritation, boredom, and blankness were frequently mentioned. Because our ultimate goal was to make a community mural in the space, at this point I also began a discussion about how people would like to feel in the space. I encouraged the conversation flow back and forth between aesthetically and emotionally descriptive phrases. When conducting psychogeographic explorations at schools, participants often comment that a formal school façade that generates a sense of visual weight, oppression, and anxiety ought to somehow be transformed to create feelings of visual excitement, joy, and anticipation. 

It’s also important to analyze the social use of spaces. A psychogeographical investigation can be extended to observing the space over a period of several days at various times of day. It is useful to ask questions that generate observation and further inquiry such as “What age groups use the space? What kinds of activities occur in the space? Are the uses compatible or contradictory? Are there activities that the community would like to encourage or discourage?’

For pictures and a detailed description of the imagery in Its Merits Recommend It, the DeKalb Community Mural visit the Northern Illinois University website:

In DeKalb, we ended our psychogeographical exploration by recalling personal memories and recorded local history. It was a powerful experience to hear people share memories that spanned over 60 years. It shifts perceptions of space to recognize the complex layers of emotional meanings associated with places through time. Many of the DeKalb participants shared their anger and dismay that the parking lot of the chain pharmacy across the street had until recent years been the site of an elegant, old post office building. The sense of loss and emptiness associated with the destruction of this town monument became an important generator of the thematic content of the mural.

When conducting psycho-aesthetic investigations in schools, I often ask students to write about their impressions of spaces. Students also make drawings documenting the condition of spaces—a beautiful line drawing of peeling paint can be compelling visual evidence of the need to take better care of spaces and thus of the students who inhabit them. Sharing the students’ observations and questions with others in the school community raises important questions about the emotional effect of deteriorating (or overly bland) spaces on students’ psyches, learning abilities, and sense of community. Often our investigation and documentation generate respectful conversations among students, parents, administrators, and custodial staff about the collective responsibility to maintain and create positive work environments.

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Community-based Public Art

The community street mural movement began in the late 60s in Chicago and California when artists from Chicano and African-American communities painted murals representing racial pride, community issues, and people’s visions of positive futures. (Barnett, A., 1984; Cockcroft, Weber, Cockcroft, 1977; Dunitz, 1998) The concept of community murals has literally been heard around the world. In 1999, a call for participants for a College Art Association panel on community murals drew responses from South Africa, Northern Ireland, France, and England as well as from throughout the U.S. People in large urban areas and in small towns understand and value the concept of collaboratively created public art that represents the life and concerns of local people. (Drescher, 1998)  

As the community public art movement has grown and matured, artists have become more conscious of the ways in which the creation of public art influences and creates social spaces. (Gude, Santiago, Akinlana, 1999; Gude and Santiago, 1994) Community-based artists have continued to experiment with new ways to stimulate the visual and verbal aspects of collaborative design processes. They have also expanded their repertoire of materials to include mosaics, ceramics, cement, fabric, and other materials (Gude and Huebner, 2000).

Creating collaborative public art is a movement that has been stirring in U.S. schools for decades (Lippard, 1997). I see emerging a grassroots movement of art teachers inspired by (and often aided by) grassroots community artists and arts organizations. Many art teachers with whom I speak have recognized their affinity with community-based artists—artists whose work originates in observing, understanding, and interpreting themes that are of interest and concern to the local community. Sometimes these themes are of global import as well as of local interest.

The work of an inspired art teacher has many similarities to the best practices of designing community-based public art projects. Both the artist/teacher and the teacher/artist create unique investigations for each situation; their projects are structures in which aesthetic practices are used to investigate culture and represent self.

Vanguard teachers see themselves as community-based artists whose role is to convene authentic, relevant cultural discourses. Such teachers understand that art classes need not be limited to getting students to develop art-lite skills through empty formalist exercises, but rather can be places in which students creatively express, explore, and shape important personal and collective meaning through a range of media, including public art.

Many art teachers have occasionally incorporated making collaborative public art into their art curriculum. Much experimentation needs to be done to create methods and procedures by which making permanent public artworks such as clay reliefs, benches, cement castings, mosaics, or murals and temporary public works such as banners, light projections, and found-object installations can become an expected component of the regular school curriculum.See “Memory Museum” and “Wall Collections” projects on the Spiral Art Education Website  ( for examples of K-12 art curriculum that results in temporary and permanent collaborative public art.

Teachers who instruct students in psycho-aesthetic geography through collaborative public art projects understand that, while it is true that people are shaped by their environments, it is also true that people have the capacity to alter and change environments, and thus to be reshaped themselves. It is a powerful lesson in participatory democracy to gain the skills to be aware of subjective reactions to public space, to analyze
the formal and social factors that created this space, to imagine how the space might be different, to design collaborative plans, and to utilize available materials to actually transform the space.

Creating Situations

The emphasis of my approach to community public art is on developing a sense of agency concerning material and social possibilities. The goal is not the superficial decoration of space—sometimes ironically referred to as gilding the ghetto when pretty, irrelevant public art is plopped into sites rife with poverty and social dysfunction. In meaningful public art, the importance of the work lies in a unique fit between the situation, the process of making, and the final artwork.

Members of the Situationist International eschewed making traditional art objects because they believed that such works just contributed more (up-scale) products to a spectacle that separated people from their personal experiences of creativity and agency. Instead, the S.I. advocated making situation construite—constructing situations that would “provide a décor and ambiance of such power that it would stimulate new sorts of behavior, a glimpse into an improved human future based upon human encounter and play” (Sadler, 1998, p.106). The S.I. did not provide practical descriptions of what these consciousness-awakening situations would be like—they merely postulated their necessity in order to change social reality.

I have found it useful to think of the concept of constructed situations when organizing public art projects or developing space design curriculum for schools as a prelude to a collaborative public art project. I ask myself how the design of each project can destabilize ordinary expectations of place and instead create opportunities for surprise, reflection, and renewed social interaction.

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The Marvelous Surrealist Cafe

In 2002, I was asked to work with students to create a mural for the Evers Elementary School cafeteria in Chicago. Because Evers is designated as a Fine Arts Magnet School, the dilemma between providing students with opportunities for creative expression and the pressure for rote learning as a response to the closely monitored results of standardized testing is particularly acute. The principal’s initial suggestion was to create a mural on the theme of the school’s literature program. However, after discussion and reflection we agreed instead that the mural project could most benefit the school by foregrounding the importance of creative play as integral to the artistic (and academic) process.

We determined that all teachers, staff, and students would participate in Surrealist gaming so that everyone’s creative consciousness would contribute to the final work. We began teacher workshops early in the year to develop a receptive environment when the students began their own Surrealist experiments. It was fascinating to observe the change in these hardworking, no-nonsense teachers over the course of several workshops as they became comfortable with temporarily shedding their many responsibilities, surrendering rational-linear modes of thinking, and quickly immersing themselves in fanciful image and word play.

The project’s goal was to create schoolwide recognition of the need for safe, non-judgmental psychological and social space as the initial phase of any truly creative process. Teacher discussions analyzed the relationships between academic and creative achievement as well as frankly identified downsides of the creative personality within the (sometimes necessary) firm organizational structures of urban schools. One interesting moment was the consensus recognition that high academic achieving students and highly artistic students shared the trait of being inner-directed in the their sense of purpose and in their criteria of quality.

In the spring, children in all grades participated in Surrealist workshops—making collaborative drawings and poems and practicing Dali’s “paranoiac critical method”—developing drawings from images seen in blots and stains (Brotchie, 1995, p.70). Unlike many standardized art textbooks that tend to present Surrealism as individual artists making “weird” images of “things that don’t typically go together,” our curriculum emphasized the Surrealists’ collective project of imagining new modes of human awareness and more just, joyful cultural possibilities through deliberately eschewing ingrained habits of thinking (Breton, 1993; Nadius, 1989).

Students spent time analyzing the images of a diverse group of Surrealists, including such artists as Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Matta, and Wifredo Lam. Even primary-grade students learned to discuss the symbolism and deeper psychological implications of Surrealist characters and to use Surrealist art as an avenue to the exploration of their own unconscious thoughts.

It was important to us to paint the entire cafeteria in order to immerse ourselves in a new environment, rather than to place a few images in a familiar, mundane environment.  It was a shock to the school community to arrive at school after spring break to find the insipid pastel-colored cafeteria transformed by blue-black paint into a mysterious and unfamiliar space.

Core groups of students from the fourth through eighth grades did the final design and painting of the mural. They sifted through the material generated by the school’s Surrealist gaming and developed characters to eat, socialize, and dance on the cafeteria walls, now transformed into the Marvelous Surrealist Café. Using overhead projectors, many fragments of student-generated Surrealist educational exhortations were lettered onto the walls—“Slurp sweet wonderful words.” “Nibble small, sweet concepts.” “Devour collapsible large problems.”

The cafeteria site became a daily happening; lunchers were greeted with the sight of newly drawn characters and evolving older ones. It was gratifying to hear students animatedly discussing the meaning of such things as a globe-headed headed figure perusing an invisible menu or a pair of ambiguous plant-like figures conversing with the transparent image of an actual Evers third-grader.

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Artist Educator as Director and Provocateur

In the process of developing psycho-aesthetic geographical intelligence, art educators can best create surprising artistic and educational situations if they free themselves from the anxiety that they should be transparent conduits for student creativity. Limiting ourselves in this way guarantees that the underlying conventional assumptions of the typical school art project remain invisible and that nothing truly new emerges. (For example, the stultifying convention that true creativity is an individual act and not a collaborative endeavor.)

The teacher facilitator of collaborative public art must be an artist, a designer, a director, a shaper of events, and a positive provocateur. The artist educator’s creative role is to generate aesthetic, formal, technical, and conceptual structures within which students can investigate, experiment, and make individual creative contributions. How to get new answers? Formulate novel questions. Devise new projects. Construct a fresh situation. Provoke notice, comment, interest, dialogue.  Students learn to be creative by associating with creative adults.

Imagine a third-grader approaching the mosaic-framed entranceway of Pulaski School in Chicago through a folk-art-like garden of cement-and-ceramic sculptures. Imagine her working side by side with community artist Phil Schuster, helping to dig the bed for a sculpted-cement river walkway and shaping a ceramic leaf to “float” on its surface.

Imagine a girl dressed in Gothic black and a Latino boy who has just recently immigrated to the U.S., animatedly discussing with art teacher Rob Moriarty their contributions to the postmodern image-and-text murals that enliven the once pristine walls of suburban Morton West High School.

How have these students transformed their schools? How have their educational experiences and their senses of social possibility been transformed?

Join the movement.

Start big or start small, but this year experience the power and pleasure of reshaping a public space in which you work or play.

Create situations that alter social space.

Make psycho-aesthetic geography considerations trickle up into our collective social expectations and into future standards for quality art education.

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