‘What both the interwar topographers and the situationists recognised was the transformative potential of large numbers of people regularly stepping outside the matrix, taking to the streets and walking, becoming active participants rather than passive spectators.’
Last week I was invited to Housmans for the inaugural Christopher Gray Memorial Lecture given by Gray’s long-term friend and collaborator Charles Radcliffe.
It was fascinating to hear Radcliffe talk about heading off to Paris with Chris Gray to meet Guy Debord and join the Situationist International. He was disparaging about Debord, saying how square he was and didn’t understand the acid culture that was a significant force in 60’s London (Gray later authored The Acid Diaries). Debord’s intellectual achievements weren’t contested but more the manner of how he dealt with his allies and fellow travelers.
He then gave a pithy account of all the expulsions and exclusions from the SI instigated by Debord and how the Situationists never really seemed to do anything else. Radcliffe was in that select group of people who resigned.
It was a great evening and felt I learnt more about Debord and the SI than in the previous years of reading hagiographies of Debord and his cohorts.
On the way home I read Chris Gray’s introduction to his key book on the SI – Leaving the 20th Century. It seemed from the talk and from Gray’s text that the principle thinker on psychogeography wasn’t Debord by Ivan Chtcheglov. I imagine Debord couldn’t be bothered to walk around Paris all day from the sounds of it.
A passage from the book about the foundation of the SI also struck me:
‘On 28th July 1957, delegates from l’Internationale Lettriste, from the largely Scandinavian and German Movement pour un Bauhaus Imaginiste and from a dubious London Psychogeographical Committee, met at a formal congress at Coscio d’Arroscia in Italy and decided to amalgamate. L’Internationale Situationiste was born.’
Does this mean that this ‘dubious’ London Psychogeographical Committee was the first explicitly psychogeographical group?
If so makes it fitting that the practice and ideas of psychogeography were revived in London in the late 1980s/early 90’s by two men who were in the audience that night at Housmans – Fabian Tompsett and Stewart Home.
There is a video of the part of the event on the Housmans Youtube Channel
On a recent trip to Paris, Mathieu O’Neil talked me through his impressive collection of Situationist texts.
Some of the works in this video can be found on the Notbored Situationist International archive
This is a video that I made with Cathy Rogers back in 2004 capturing the experience of the Lunchtime Derive. This was one of the first interventions in the Remapping High Wycombe project and engages in a kind of playful-constructive activity
aimed at tinkering with the psychogeographical articulations of the town and its primary economic motors – work and consumption. Our grand plan was to roll this out en-masse and get large town centre employers involved and then study the changing relationship that people have with the town once they have been jolted out of their regular routines. The idea is still very much alive.
The maps and notes recording the derivistes pre and post derive movements and the text reproduced below were published in ‘Remapping High Wycombe: journeys beyond the western sector’
The aim of the LunchTime Dérive was to study how, by following a simple instruction, a group of workers could re-experience the town during their Lunch Break. The daily hunt for a prawn sandwich or Chicken Tikka Marsala Ready Meal will be replaced with a drift motivated by following a basic algorithm provided Dutch psychogeographers Social Fiction.
In an email to Cathy I sketch out the theoretical background to the exercise and how we might go about organizing it:
According to geographer David Pinder (1996) part of the purpose of the dérive was to allow “participants to drift from their usual activities and to become more aware of their surroundings while simultaneously seeking out ways of changing them.”
Our intervention is in part in reference to Chombart de Lauwe’s study of the movement’s made in a year by a Paris student. Guy Debord referred to the data produced by this study as ‘a modern poetry capable of provoking sharp emotional reactions.’ By asking the office workers to map their usual lunchtime routines we may find that this precious hour of free time is also similarly limited.
Debord describes the dérive as a period when one or more persons “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.” We will be asking people to drop their usual lunch-time routine of the trip to M&S for a sarnie or surfing the net a their desk and to follow an algorithm wherever it may take them and experience the town as they find it.
We will employ an algorithm to jolt people from their routines and drive the drift most likely taking them into areas they wouldn’t normally consider going to at lunch-time. Debord suggests that the dérivers may discover new ‘psychogeographical attractions’ to which they may be drawn back, in this way our intervention may have deeply subversive consequences in changing the lunch-time habits of a group of office workers, the hunt for grub between 12 and 2 being one of the town’s primary motors. By mapping this dynamic then by interfering with it we can start to truly understand and interact with the ‘psychogeographical articulations’ of the town.
1. Organize an initial meeting with the workers 1 week or so before the derive. Ask them to map their usual lunchtime movements.
2. On the day of the derive meet the volunteers outside their workplace. Issue them with: notepad, disposable camera, piece of paper containing the algorithm.
3. Make sure that everybody understands the instructions and send the groups of 2-3 people off in different directions.
4. We will accompany the groups to record the event but not intervene. The groups record their route, observations etc. on the notepads.
5. The derive finishes after 30 minutes and we reassemble for lunch and debrief.
6. We collect in notepads and cameras and process the results creating maps of the routes followed.
(we could give them a small amount of money to collect food along the way for the lunch at the end)
Rules for a Dérive
1. One or more persons may dérive
2. The most fruitful numerical arrangement consists of several groups of two or three people.
3. It is preferable for the composition of these groups to change from one dérive to another.
4. Drop your usual motives for movement and action, relations, work and leisure activities.
5. The average duration of a dérive is a day, considered as the time between two periods of sleep.
6. The times of beginning and ending have no necessary relation to the solar day.
7. The last hours of the night are generally unsuitable for dérives.
8. A dérive seldom occurs in its pure form.
9. The spatial field of the dérive may be precisely delimited or vague.
10. The spatial field depends first of all on the point of departure.
11. The maximum area of this spatial field does not extend beyond the entirety of a large city and its suburbs.
12. The minimum area can be limited to a small self-contained ambiance (the extreme case being the static-dérive of an entire day within the Saint-Lazare train station).
Extrapolated from Guy Debord’s 1958 Theory of the Dérive
On Wednesday I arrived in Paris with my family after setting out for Los Angeles alone that morning. I realise that this sentence comes across as both pretentious and preposterous but I hope to redeem myself by steering this in the direction of the heartland of French psychogeography.
We were in Paris to visit some my wife’s friends who live in Canberra (true and yet another dimension to what could also be a missive on ‘time-space compression – but isn’t). Los Angeles – well that’s better left unsaid.
After some of the usual family-friendly fun at the Natural History Museum perusing their collection of dusty old bones laid out like a Damien Hirst installation (that sentence would work in reverse if I were writing about Hirst – of course the museum was there long before BritArt) we allowed ourselves to drift through the frozen streets. Children are natural psychogeographers and flaneurs. They live for the moment, are completely guided by their senses and desires, and are inherently iconoclastic and anarchic prepared to challenge conventional norms with virtually every step. And we had four of them of various ages between us.
So I reckon it was the kids rather than the Paris-born Mathew who led us to Rue Mouffetard. It rang a bell, I think from the Will Self vs Iain Sinclair event at St. Lukes in 2004. As Mathew sat us down in the traditional café of Le Mouffetard, I asked him whether there was any link to Debord. He confirmed that it was in fact an area with Situationist associations, as later confirmed by this passage from The Situationist City by Simon Sadler:
“Situationsists regarded the best urban activity as human, unmechanised, and nonalienating, and their texts, films, and maps indicated some possibilities, variously idealising the marketplaces, like Les Halles or the Rue Mouffetard, the traditional cafes, notably those around Saint-Germain-des-Pres, and the places of student congregation, such as those around the Pantheon” (p.92).
He led me up the street to Place De La Contrescarpe where Debord frequented the cafes – possibly whilst plotting dérives that he got too soaked to carry out. I would have a cheesy photo to mark the occasion had I not by now have been carrying my youngest child.
Indeed Debord mentions the location in the Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography: “Is it illogical or devoid of interest to observe that the district in Paris between Place de la Contrescarpe and Rue de l’Arbalète conduces rather to atheism, to oblivion and to the disorientation of habitual reflexes?”
I was going to note how strange it was that a family outing should find its way to this exact location with such psychogeographical resonance, but this would be to ignore the articulations at work in the urban realm – particularly when guided by children.
The photo at the top is of the Memorial de le Deportation