Essay

Dériving: Can it be Experienced in Retrospect?

Originally published 7th May 2019

Last updated: 9th July 2019

Seville

To dérive is to drift with purpose and critical awareness through an urban landscape. It is being observant within a situation you have constructed in order to explore, to feel present in and attuned to your surroundings. According to Debord, “dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll” 1. As opposed to setting out with little expectation or plan, when dériving we should be purposeful and have clear intention, perhaps using our time to consider questions such as the following:

  • How do we define one place in relation to another? What demarcates the ‘limits’ of each place if not a physical boundary?
  • How do we feel moving through place to place? Does our behaviour change at all?
  • What are the aspects of this place that influence these particular feelings or encourage a specific mode of behaviour?
  • What are the qualities of this place that inform its image, and how do we imagine its image might differ between individuals, if at all?

In considering such questions we become active participants within public place, drifting purposefully. But I wonder, what exactly this purpose is, and what should our intentions be for this personal data that we collect from our experience? Are we looking to make improvements to the quality of our urban landscapes, or simply attempting to better understand them (and ourselves within them) as they are? The Situationists believed that a dérive presents a means of getting beyond the predictable banality of daily life. It offers the chance to engage with spaces in a way that goes beyond the usual and the routines to which we have become accustomed, allowing us the opportunity to see them afresh, and to recognise ourselves as truly being a part of our surroundings; affecting them as much as they affect us perhaps.

The presence and meaning of geographical borders is a pertinent consideration of dérivers, as discussed by Debord:

“Today the different unities of atmosphere and of dwellings are not precisely marked off, but are surrounded by more or less extended and indistinct bordering regions. The most general change that dérive experience leads to proposing is the constant diminution of these border regions, up to the point of their complete suppression.”2

We might be motivated to dérive as it presents the opportunity to traverse borders and regions within the urban landscape, moving freely through a myriad of spaces and communities. In doing so we engage in a rejection of these borders — refusing to be limited in these constructed situations in the ways that we are in usual, everyday life.

In writing this I have started to wonder if we can say we have dériven in retrospect? Can the term be applied after the fact, before we knew what we were doing, or in the absence of clear intention? In beginning to learn about this theory and subsequently the beliefs and values of the Situationist International, I have been thinking back to walks through urban spaces where I have been aware of the landscape changing as I move forward — not in a clearly defined way, but more so in the feelings that were evoked in me as a result.

Shortly after arriving in Valencia back in January, we took a walk through the city to visit the beach. The journey was about 40 minutes on foot, so struck us as a perfect opportunity to better familiarise ourselves with layout of the city, exploring beyond the areas we had started to become accustomed with already. Thinking back to the walk now I could break it up into maybe 3 distinct parts before we reached the beach, even though the route existed almost entirely along a straight line.

The first part of our walk was set in the old town we were living: residential streets lined with mid–rise buildings, more tourists due to the close proximity of areas of cultural interest (the cathedral, beautiful public squares, an old 14th century gate), very few cars, and lots of café’s and bars dotted around. This familiarity didn’t really last for long given that we had not yet explored much beyond our immediate context — aside from the route we took to the park almost daily — it didn’t take much time to feel like we were in a very different space, keenly observing our new surroundings. The majority of the journey was made up of this middle section, taking place on a very long, straight road through the city. The buildings here were considerably bigger, more high–rise apartment blocks — presumably housing local people as opposed to the city’s tourists — with foyers opening straight onto the wide, tree–lined pavements that straddled the busy roads. Beautiful university buildings and libraries were fronted with generously wide steps providing space for people to gather, large groups sitting and catching up with each other between lessons. We commented that this would be an amazing city to be a student in — so many amazing public spaces to be with your friends, and a general slow, relaxed pace to the city. Despite this perceived slowness, the people walking on these streets felt like they were on more purposeful journeys, likely on their commute to work or university as opposed to wandering the streets for pleasure in the way tourists do. There were still café’s and shops along the way, but they appeared less inclined to draw people in in large numbers, instead having just a few seats outside their shop fronts. I had the impression that the people using them went there all the time. While continuing on this long road we spoke more about what it would be like to live in Valencia, imagining a scenario where one of us would take up further study here should the right opportunity appear. Maybe we spoke about this most during this part of the journey because this area appeared to give the most ‘realistic’ impression of everyday life in Valencia.

This part of the journey did not really come to a clear end so much as the next suddenly began. As I’m writing this I have been wondering if maybe the ‘end’ of a place can only be defined in relation to the start of a new one, and without this means of comparison, each place could just go on indefinitely. Does the end of a place ever apparent without the start of another?

This final part of the walk was defined by a palpable shift in atmosphere, giving rise to feelings of uncertainty and apprehension for both of us. Sitting by the beach and speaking after, we agreed that we felt less safe and more uncomfortable, picking up our pace to get beyond these streets. Instead of walking side by side and chatting as we had been previously, we walked separately, more single file as if to take up less space. It was odd because the buildings here were more typically domestic than elsewhere on our route, painted in a beautiful array of bright colours. However, they had clearly been abandoned, existing now as run–down versions of any former glory. There was a lot of work being done on these streets, perhaps to regenerate them, but for who it wasn’t clear — the former inhabitants appearing to have left a while ago, whether at their own will or not I don’t know. There was an eerie feeling about the place thanks to its curious emptiness, and it generally just felt like a ghost town. It’s strange that this feeling persisted because in reality there was so much activity with the people working to re–pave the sections of road that had been cut away and whatever else they were doing. But actually, I think it was their presence that heightened this feeling we had of being out of place, walking somewhere we shouldn’t. The noise and chaos they were making sort of implied that they didn’t expect anyone to be there, that it didn’t matter what they did because they weren’t disturbing anyone. It felt quite bizarre to go from this eerie commotion to turning then the corner and suddenly being able to see the sea and the horizon, feeling the sense of calm this nearly always brings with it.

Looking back to this walk a few months later, I would consider it to be a dérive. While it clearly lacks the initial intention to construct an opportunity to explore the city in this particular way, I would argue there is (or should be) space for this activity to be recognised and engaged with in hindsight. I realise that I prefer to take the time to think back over my walks and time spent in urban places retrospectively, noticing what sticks in my mind and presents itself as being important or worthy of more analysis. In the moments when I am walking, I feel more present and able to be affected by the place when I let my observations and thoughts drift in and out of my mind with little effort to hold them there, not feeling that they have to be questioned in that moment. This way of traversing urban space is undoubtedly different from the nature of a dérive, but it results in what appears to be a similar consideration of the landscape, and a belief in the importance of analysing the world around you from the point of view of every day life.

Originally published 7th May 2019.

Last updated: 9th July 2019.