Next time you are outside
Look up, look down, look around
What do you see? Smell? Feel?
This is part of the practice of a dérive. Experience the world in a different way, spend some time doing so to become aware of this.
When you engage in a dérive, you are engaging with the potential for resistance. Whether that be something as simple as walking through a patch of grass in a park instead of the designated footpath or playing with parkour in an urban environment.
Why do any of this? My answer: why not? We’re currently in a time where we can choose to slow down and be in the moment. Feel where we are and what that means.
The theory of the dérive, comes from Guy Debord, a French philosopher, became popularized in the 1960s. This was coming out at a time when urban industrialism was rising and many people were flocking to live in cities. Counter- and sub-cultures were also becoming recognized as resistance and playful exploration.
I enjoy the professional work I’ve been doing these last two years in Germany – working as a college instructor. One of the current courses I’m teaching is English for Architects. This year I decided to do a bit of an experiment with the students for their final presentations (to be given in English, as they’re all German). What I’ve found with a year of teaching young architect students is that a lot of them like to be creative. I wanted to challenge them with a subjective assignment: complete a dérive/psychogeographic experience. I won’t go into too many details, I want to highlight a few students’ projects.
“In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.” Guy Debord, 1958.
Right away, one of the first students giving their presentation was excellent! This student asked the question “what if we can only see in black and white?” From this, the student also questioned “how important are colours for our emotions? And for architecture?” They rigged up their smartphone with a head piece (that looked similar to VR Goggles) to literally only see in black and white through the lens.
The result: a lightbulb moment! The awareness of shadows and how shading can impact the environment one is in. The shapes of objects also became very strong in the sensory experience. For example, when walking through a path, they stopped to watch leaves on a tree blow in the wind. Since they were not watching in colour, they paid more attention to how the leaves moved. The looks of the leaves changed as the sun’s reflection changed.
Another student titled their exploration “Seeing the world with poor eyesight.” They described how they need glasses on a daily basis and that things are fuzzy if they take off their glasses. The student took this approach because they noted how people who have glasses, sometimes lose them. They decided to go to their favourite place and remove their glasses to walk around. The favourite destination was a park. Observing that the height of objects below eye-line were unknown, and even tripped because of this.
“The details make a space complete. Without them a tree is just another plant, and a house is just another building. The detail makes it art.” Architecture student, 2020.
Reflecting on some of the beauty seen in the park, even though it was fuzzy. Seeing baby ducklings because of the size of the blurry, small objects. Or, paying close attention to the ground because of people who don’t clean up after their dogs, and making sure to look out for raised objects on the path. These were all some observations made by this particular student.
As these students chose to look at spaces that were familiar to them, because they did so in a different way, they were able to have new and constructive experiences. Let me take a moment and say, I feel grateful to have paid employment, especially that I can continue to learn from others because of their dreams and interests! As this is a first semester course for college students, we weren’t diving into deep theory and resistant practices. Rather, I *hope* that I helped students to reflect on their environments and consider why they are the way that they are. As well, to consider other uses or explanations for spaces.
Another student went kayaking for a couple of hours to explore a neighbourhood they are used to viewing from their bicycle or on their feet. I empathize with this student, after my first kayak experience in Leipzig, I wrote about the different perspectives I felt (too).
What’s so special about walking, anyway?
It’s no secret, I love to walk. I would much rather spend one hour on my feet going somewhere than getting on a bike or a tram. Unless I’m running behind, or it’s rainy/snowy weather. Although some students participated in their psychogeographic experience in other methods than on their feet, I felt this was acceptable. It’s a subjective activity to participate in.
Another theorist I have turned to time and again is Michel de Certeau. Specifically his work in the book “The Practices of Everyday Life”. In the chapter Walking in the City, de Certeau notes how people “walk—an elementary form of this experience of the city; they are walkers, Wandersmänner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban “text” they write without being able to read it. These practitioners make use of spaces that cannot be seen; their knowledge of them is as blind as that of lovers in each other’s arms. The paths that correspond in this intertwining, unrecognized poems in which each body is an element signed by many others, elude legibility” (p.93). Basically, we are all Wandersmänner. De Certeau is concerned about the urban experience and writes about the ebbs and flows of the human body.
Walking is like language because of the fluidity involved. When speaking, people may not know where they are going with a statement, but continue on with it, just as walking through the city does (for de Certeau, and me). Walking through a space can be seen as a rhythmic poem, as if footsteps signify words to create meaning.
Imagine our imaginative possibilities. Consider it for a moment.