28.03.07 'Whistle Stop', Sebastian Mary catches the bus to Kymaerica

I turned up at Man&Eve to find a Routemaster bus parked outside with the engine running. In the gallery, the walls were covered in maps, posters, photographs and artefacts showing what looked like parts of the world I know. But a quick look at the inscriptions was enough to confirm that this was not a tourist information centre, at least not for the world as I know it. Rather, Kymaerica is a parallel universe to the ‘linear’ one I inhabit. It intersects with the linear world in many places. And we were there that afternoon for a tour of Kymaerican sites that intersect with linear London, with the engaging and multi-talented Eames Demetrios , Kymaerica’s ‘geographer-at-large’, as our guide.

I stepped off the bus three hours later happily disoriented. I thought I knew London so well; but this was not a city I knew at all.

When I first moved to London, I spent the first two years falling in and out of jobs, and all the while ever more deeply in love with the city. Like every newcomer, I learned its streets, bars, dens, backroads, shortcuts, areas, postcodes and peculiarities through the things that happened to me in those places. So learning London was as much a process of the city mapping me, as my mapping it; of turning the physical form of London into a vast, eccentric diagram, on which most of the high and low points of my adult life can be constellated in relation to one another.

In thinking about this experience, I found my way inevitably to
psychogeography an anarchic grab-bag of practices that explore the felt relationship between a specific place, the cultures it holds, and the feelings it evokes or encodes. Though often eccentric and sometimes deeply strange, psychogeography offered some ways of making sense of London’s effects on me without either spiralling into fantasy or drowning the nuances in empiricism. The Routemaster bus, though, caught me by surprise. Who was this man with the microphone, telling us imaginary stories about a real and familiar place?

It felt both psychogeographic and yet not. Psychogeography as I know it works with history, mythology, archaeology, biography and a lot of walking to gain some sense of a place ‘as it is’. Kymaerica, on the other hand, is an imaginary universe created by one man and mapped to the ‘real’ or – in his words – the ‘linear’ world. Where psychogeography seeks out the hidden, suppressed or invisible stories of a place, Kymaerica invites you to play with with fictional histories. To play – at some levels – with the very fabric of reality.

We visited a plaque on Angel Alley the site of a Ripper murder (and these days the Whitechapel Art Gallery. The plaque commemorated an entirely unfamiliar set of Kymaerican historical events. In Kennington, we asked ourselves: what if that pale patch was not a bricked-up door but a ‘spirit door’ left there by a Kymaerican sect? Or in Soho: what if that spot on Old Compton Street was not a second-floor window but the high water mark of the Great Dangaroo Flood?

It made me giddy. Is this not, I wondered, a titillating flirtation with psychosis, an exercise in imposing your own daydreams on your immediate environment? So I was delighted when Eames agreed to let me quiz him a few days later. We met at Man&Eve, where his show currently hangs. While fending off kamikaze assaults by Hero, the gallery kitten, we spent two hours discussing how Kymaerica relates to the linear universe.

In a city like London the weight of history meets individual experience, and the whole is embodied by the place. The bricks and stone become shorthand: a single diagram encoding millions of overlapping lives. Across the 2000-odd years of the city’s existence, this becomes an inconceivable number of lives, all mapped by the same place. London’s psychogeographic tradition is as much about tracing this monstrous weight of accumulated meanings as it is about the physical place. In comparison, America’s history of non-nomadic inhabitation is a mere few centuries old. So I wanted to know: was Kymaerica psychogeography done the American way? Might the overlaying of imaginary histories on the world be easier for an American unaccustomed to being so encumbered by traces of the past? Or, to put it more cheekily, might the invention of a parallel universe be a response to the relative slightness, in America, of human traces that might otherwise spur the imagination?

Quite possibly, Eames told me. Certainly it was very important to him to find out whether Kymaerica could work outside the US. But when he tried, he discovered that the weight of history in London by no means made it impossible to find Kymaerican places here. In fact, the density of human presence in the UK in some ways made it easier to find evidence of Kymaerica here – there are so many traces, some of them are surely Kymaerican.

Nor did that accretion of history make mapping the UK’s Kymaerican story an overwhelmingly large task, for it is not his objective simply to give everything in the linear world a Kymaerican gloss. “That would just be a roman a clef,” he explained, “which would be boring”.

Indeed, sometimes he chooses the locations of Kymaerican historical sites before even visting them, and then explores the Kymaerican story only afterwards. This was the case with one plaque in Oxfordshire, whose location was chosen without knowing anything about the area. “And that’s exactly where it gets interesting,” Eames tells me. “When we explained the Kymaerican story to the farmer whose land the plaque is on, he asked us if we’d been researching the battlefields in that area. But we hadn’t at all.”

So the relation between Kymaerica and the linear universe is not a 1:1 mapping. Nor is it one-way. The places speak back, and Kymaerican stories increasingly take on a life of their own. Visitors to Paris, Illinois will find Embassy Row, the heart of the Parisian Diaspora of Kymaerica, two floors up above Teri’s Threads on Main Street. After initial scepticism, the local population warmed to the idea, with some commenting that it had inspired them to look at their town in an entirely new way. In fact, Embassy Row has so entered the local imagination that the population organised a “Kymaerican Spelling Bee last year during the town’s annual Honeybee Festival. “There were 12 contestants. People learned words; there were rounds, people were cheering. It was awesome,” Eames says.

The plaques, visitors’ centres and other oblique storytelling tools hint at, but quite deliberately never deliver, a fully-developed parallel universe. “When you go to a ‘real’ museum, you always know the inscriptions and so on can’t tell you the whole story,” he explained. “I always want to hint at something that’s just out of reach.” This alternate reality, just out of reach, is accessible through exactly the mechanisms the ‘linear’ world uses to tell supposedly ‘real’ stories about our ‘real’ past and environments.

This, then, is the quality of Kymaerica. Though the physical element is essential to Eames’ ‘three-dimensional storytelling’, the main event takes place in the minds of the people who explore it. And this is to ask a profoundly existential question. “When I look at that wall, I only see it as red and a wall and so on because I’m used to thinking of it that way.” Eames is pointing at the wall of the room above Man&Eve as he speaks. While of course it’s useful to know where you are and what you’re looking at, he explains, these habits of perception can obscure as much as they enlighten. In a sense, Kymaerica is not so much another story that Eames has imposed on ‘reality’, as an invitation to play with the edges of what we expect of the world.

On the bus tour, I stood before Kymaerican exhibits physically present in the city I thought I knew. Standing there, I was invited to imagine (however briefly) the possibility that the spaces I thought I knew were not their familiar selves, but evidence of a totally different narrative. It begs the question: which parts of the way I see Whitechapel are stories, memories, habits of perception? What is actually there?

The experience left me wondering about the map of London in the mind of the stranger passing me on the street. Do we really share anything at all, other than the space? If so what, and where, and what is that made of? It reminded me of that strange feeling when, on a dark flight of stairs, you try to put your foot on an imaginary last step only to find that there isn’t a last step. A split-second revelation of the gap between your mental map and the world as it is. No sooner experienced than reincorporated into the world in your mind, but a brief reminder nonetheless that maps, whether in the mind or on paper, are not to be confused with the elusive nature of the world outside our habits of perceiving it.

“I’ve had people tell me that after seeing something Kymaerican the whole world looks a bit different,” Eames says. “So perhaps it is possible, however paradoxical this might sound, that by telling completely imaginary stories about the world, I can invite people to try and see it as it really is.”

Sebastian Mary