I have now officially been a New Yorker for three days. After a week spent getting over a surprisingly tough round of post-Denmark jet lag and the overwhelming joys of seeing everyone I love on the Carleton Campus, I have again moved on, this time to THE BIG APPLE, where I am interning at Anthology Film Archives and hopefully helping (and documenting) fellow Carls Gabe and Henry as they make a feature film.
In many ways, being here is like beginning yet another study abroad program — although I have visited the city as a tourist about five times previously, actually living and working in New York is as foreign to my experience thus far as being in Japan or Denmark was. And living in Bushwick, which is heavily populated with Puerto Rican families, the predominant language is even Spanish, so I may have to brush up on my language skills here as well. So if you count New York, by the end of this summer, I will have spent 9 of the past 12 months ‘studying abroad’ — which is strange to think about, and perhaps underlies the sense of constant movement and exhilaration coupled with a lack of permanence that I have been feeling. I am very transient, on the cusp between student and tourist, between theorist and traveler. And this, in large part, is what is drawing me so strongly to psychogeography — an awareness of the necessary motional state of being that is my life for now, and my youthful and energetic and perhaps over-eager desire to discover and create and postulate and explore. Because the essence of psychogeographic exploration is really to explore with curiosity — with an open mind and open eyes.
Admittedly, my approach to New York still feels very star-struck, in many respects, from my realization that the “Goings on About Town” section of The New Yorker is now actually applicable to my daily life to my giddy disbelief at simple things like jogging in Central Park or buying tofu and milk and Gushers with Theo at The Food Emporium (cue RENT reference…). Incorporating “Bleecker St” and “The Bowery” into my vocabulary is kind of thrilling. And while I was first struck by the so-called ‘sketch factor’ of my living arrangements (and have been struggling not soundtrack all aspects of my life with further RENT references), a little bit of unorganized psychogeography this afternoon revealed the charm and character of my Bushwick neighborhood (and at the risk of generalizing, gave me the feeling that I had been plunged into a Spike Lee film). I went out in search of a library card and a set of sheets, and ended up walking Bushwick Avenue at least 15 blocks or so, and meandering back until I reached Knickerbocker Avenue, which the Bushwick BK had informed me would be the panacea for all my shopping needs (which it was, since I only need sheets, and I found those, but was disappointed to learn that the Spiderman pattern only comes in twin size…).
On my walk, I learned a few things about the visual culture of the area — or rather, what one can learn about the area itself from visual presentations therein. There are quite a lot of flags flying in the area, and while a few of these are standard stars and stripes, the vast majority are Puetro Rican flags, which is an obvious but interesting feature of my walk today, given the shocking lack of racial diversity among which I have grown up living. Next: I have a habit of pretty much always wearing a bandana or keffiyeh around my neck, and I tend to choose the color or pattern based on a combination of what is clean and what will go well with whatever shirt or other articles of clothing I have on. Today I opted for green, and while strolling through the further reaches of Bushwick, I was engaged in conversation regarding the color of my bandana — “You like green?” “Green in good, right?” “We like green, but green don’t like yellow.” etc. Luckily I was wearing the ‘right’ color for my brothers in the hood this afternoon, but I could just as easily have pulled out my yellow bandana, which is a sobering thought.
I was reminded quite suddenly of the different meanings of something as simple as a single color (or less simple, perhaps, when it carries the gang-related baggage that has become attached to the bandana as an article of clothing within areas of major cities) — and, once out of sight of the kids commenting on my neckwear, promptly removed it in case I ran into any ‘yellows’. The inner-city semiotics of self-presentation are a perfect case-study for the specificity of culture in the meaning of any visual that becomes proscribed as a ‘symbol’. This is also a fascinating case of reader-response criticism (and the integral nature of cultural context): as the ‘author’ of my outfit, my intended meaning of “I am a hipster look at my thift store ironic fashion and film-related t-shirt with this cool green bandana” was not read that way. I’ll probably reserve my neckwear for Manhattan, where I know my audience will be a much higher hipster-to-normal-person ratio, so as not to prove Roland Barthes right once and for all. But really, Bushwick is quite safe — just an excellent spot to meditate on medium specificity and knowing one’s viewer.