A dérive is a strategy for moving through a city or a space, wandering aimlessly without direction or a destination in mind. In French, dérive literally means drifting. Developed in the 1950s in Paris by The Situationist International group, a dérive aims to break down and renew your everyday relations with the spaces around you.
To do a dérive, walk without a destination, following instead what catches your interest. Meanwhile, take in the ‘psychogeography’ – the way different spaces or environments make you feel and behave – as well as the people, buildings and changes in atmospheres. You’ll find yourself interacting with space differently, and if you’re with a friend your conversations might temporarily change too.
BACKGROUND OF DÉRIVE AND PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY:
The ‘Flaneur’, French for ‘roamer’, ‘wondered’, or even ‘vagabond’, was initially a literary concept developed by poet Charles Baudelaire in the 19th century and referred to the experience of meandering or idling walking through the city, somewhat as a man of leisure. The flaneur eventually morphed into a scholarly figure thanks primarily to the work of philosopher, Walter Benjamin. The flaneur, as a figure and as a research tool was quite detached, the goal of which was to walk and observe the city from an objective distance (rather than to experience it).
In response to the detachment central to the flaneur, the concept of ‘Dérive’, French for ‘drift’, was established by the avant-garde movement, Lettrist International. Lettrist international was a collection of academics, political theorists, artists, urbanists, writers, poets and social revolutionaries, rooted in the DaDa and Surrealism movements. Later morphing into the semi-formal organisation known as Situationist International in the 1950’s, who had a critical Marxist and praxis underpinning.
Guy Debord, a seminal thinker and member of the Lettrist/Situationist International developed the concept of Dérive in his book Theory of Dérive (1956). According to Debord, dérive “is a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances” that “involves playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll” (2). To dérive one must “let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones”.
Dérive, as oppose to the concept of flaneur, was strongly based on the idea of getting lost in order to observe the city and experience it in a new, involved way. The emphasis on experimentation was also a key distinction, with the Situationists advocating for the utilisation of playful prompts and challenges in order to get lost and to alter the street and one’s experience of it. For the Situationists, and Debord, your experience of the city through dérive manifested in the merging of reality and seriality.
‘Psychogeography’, also developed by Debord, is as the name suggests a fusion of the psychology and geography disciplines. Psychogeography advocates for understanding and identifying how one feels in an urban context or site. This might sound overly romantic or simplistic, and perhaps it is, but it is important to remember that at the time that was quite a radical, alternative way of conceptualising the urban experience and measuring and critiquing urban planning and the design of our cities and social morphologies.
Psychogeography, as with dérive, is about taking in the extraordinary and overt aspects of the urban experience but, critically, also noting the mundane, liminal and fleeting moments equally. And taking note of your emotional and psychological response to these experiences. The goal of dérive, according to Debord and scholar who followed, is to study the psychogeography of the city, street morphology or a site. And in the same vain, dérive is used as the main methodological tool of psychogeography.
Not all the work of the Situationists was serious though, with a lot of it intended to be quite tongue-in-cheek. In fact, that playful and non-serious nature was quite central to their attempts to subvert the ways we conceive of the city as civilians, academia, urban planners and practitioners.
DÉRIVE AND PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY TODAY:
As a group and a movement, the Situationists dissolved in the mid-to-late 20th century. Since then, there has been somewhat of a resurgence thanks to self-identified psychogeography scholars such as Iain Sinclair and Will Self and other Situationist-inspired action groups that emerged, some of which still remain active today. However, some would argue that psychogeography as a method of inquiry and analysis is not as active in planning and urban practice today as it should be, or at least could be. Likewise, the art and activism of walking are critically underutilised tools.
We walk in the city or in our neighbourhoods almost every day, but we are also almost always walking with an objective and/or a destination in mind. We walk to work, to the train, to our cars, to the park, to meet a friend, to walk our dog, for exercise, and almost always with a live digital map in our pockets. But this is critically different to walking and getting lost, walking to get lost, and to engage in psychogeography.
Arguably, this act of drifting can better and more objectively connect us to the city (as a social and physical form), or at least provide an alternative, unique method of connecting. So for this reason we feel there is value in reflecting on the legacy of the Situationists and the concept of dérive – a fleeting legacy it may be – in thinking about our practice and the ways we conceive of, and measure the urban and street experience on foot.
So consider getting lost! Perhaps a one-off or occasional dérive can help you think about how we can learn to experience the city on foot in a new, objective way, possibly through the art of getting lost.
The Art of Getting Lost
A GUIDE TO GETTING LOST: DÉRIVE PROMPTS
Sometimes getting lost can be tricky, especially if you’re familiar with your city. Here are ideas to help you get lost. These are simply suggestions, however. Adjust these ideas, make your own, or ditch the rules altogether! Dérive for the whole day, for an hour over your lunch break, or even just on your walk home from work by taking a slightly different route. Some of these are the original experiments set out by the Situationists, and others have been made-up, but make of them what you will.
➢ Walk until you get to an intersection. Press the pedestrian crossing buttons going in both directions. Cross the street based on the light which turns green first. Continue this for all intersections you encounter.
➢ Draw on a map, either lines or shapes. Aim to walk that physical line or shape in reality, sticking to it as closely as possible (including going through buildings where appropriate).
➢ For ten minutes, walk without a destination. Wherever you end up, stop and find somewhere to sit. Spend another ten minutes sitting, taking in the space. Try paying attention to things you might otherwise neglect, like architectural contrasts, gutters or rooves, whether you feel comfortable or safe in the space, how much wild life can you see or hear etc.
➢ Guide yourself through a city by using another city’s map.
➢ Go to a station on the city loop. Get on whichever train is leaving next. Get off the train when you reach the first station to have double letters in the name.
➢ Go for a walk. Pick a starting point and begin by walking only in a straight line. Turn left on streets that begin with a vowel.
➢ Only ever take two turns left and the two turns right when you encounter any kind of
➢ Follow the noisiest direction
➢ Use an urban exploration app
click here to download a printable version of this guide