Friday, 21 December 2012


"In 1894 Joris-Karl Huysman wrote Against Nature (the novel that inspired Oscar Wilde to write A Picture of Dorian Grey) at one point, the Parisian hero of Huysman's tale, fascinated by the novels of Charles Dickens, orders a taxi and visits an English pub in Paris, before embarking on his trip to London.

Except...he finds himself unable to complete the journey and returns home.

Whereupon he realises that the imaginary experience is more than a preferable substitute for the real thing."

A robinsonner is a traveller who does not travel. A cousin of the flâneur, the robinsonner takes their name from the character of Robinson Crusoe. Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe without ever having visited a desert island himself, or indeed having ever left Europe. Defoe has a special place in the history of psychogeography, with Merlin Coverley claiming that his 1722 novel  A Journal of the Plague Year represents the beginning of the psychogeographic tradition. Patrick Keiller, of course, references this in his character of Robinson, who's (adopted) name is also a reference to his being 'marooned' in Britain. 

'Robinsonnage' is a franglais coining of my own, that indicates the genre to which the robinsonner (either as character or creator) belongs. This is distinct from the literary genre of the 'Robinsonade', and does not have to feature desert islands. The journey can be to either a real or a fictitious place. JRR Tolkien's 'The Lord of the Rings' is robinsonnage (as is much fantasy literature) as much as Herge's 'Tintin in the Land of the Soviets'.

It is interesting, when we think of travelling without moving, to consider the enormous implications of modern technology to this practice. The computer allows us to traverse not only fully realised virtual worlds, but also startlingly realistic representations of the real world, using software such as Google Earth, Microsoft Flight Simulator etc. With Google Earth, particularly, the guesswork of cartography, the abstraction and reliance on systems of representation, seems to disappear. If we take it on trust that the images are not being manipulated by Google or some other agency (a paranoia which will become more and more sinister as technology develops and the line between reality, simulacra and simulation blurs further) then we are seeing a startlingly real approximation of the world as it really is, albeit frozen in time and often strangely distorted.  The 'streetview' function takes us down from the aerial perspective into the very simulation of the world.

Artists who have employed this software have often concentrated on the glitches and distortions of the system (ie Clement Valla's 'Postcards from Google Earth' project) or its potential for the surreal. As far as I know, no one has used the potential for virtual tourism (or virtual flânerie) as the basis for an art project; the closest is the work of Jon Rafman, who scours the software for appealling or unusual images. Apart from the fact that his practice does not take place in the real world, he is essentially a photojournalist. When a simulation becomes this exact, how do we escape the 'Ludic fallacy', the confusion of the map for the territory? Borges only dimly foresaw a world where it would potentially be actually impossible to tell the difference between a product of the reality (a digital photograph of the real world) and the product of a simulation (a screenshot from Google Earth). If Rafman did not identify the source of his photographs, could we infer it? We are in strange new territory here, still finding our way.

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