It was really powerful. And when we stood under the roof, with the lady smoking and then the sound of the birds, […] that we were so close together and the music was over us or with us.
It is raining in s’Hertogenbosch. Night fell and the streets are deserted. The Dutch have taken shelter in their clean and comfy city homes. Except for a peculiar group of a dozen people in big raincoats. They follow a string of holiday lights, wrapped around the rod of a black umbrella and dancing through wind and weather like an electrified firefly. Their ritualistic appearance as non-speaking crowd, confidently and calmly marching through abandoned streets against the backdrop of the pouring rain, is completed by an engulfing soundtrack of church bells, engine sounds, recorded voices, and ambient pieces of music emerging from the wooden speakers some of them carry.
This contemporary city drift was organized by Sebastian Quack and Thom Kiraly from Drift Club for the latest session of Playful Arts Festival. They invited the participants to walk the city aimlessly, following an appointed leader with the firefly umbrella. Whenever the leader would turn, they would to turn, whenever the leader would stop, they would stop, and when the leader raised their hand, it would be the turn for one of them to step up as the new leader. As leader, the participants would walk the streets, on or off the prepared paths, down narrow alleys, over muddy lawns, along the canal shore, or through bushes on the roadside. Constantly inspired by the soundtrack, playing in different channels from the speakers that the other walkers were orbiting around them in turns, the leader created scenes for their followers. This serendipitous storytelling was only interrupted by sometimes waving to people behind their windows, waiting for the traffic to clear on one of the bigger streets, or entering a buidling. Eventually, after almost 40 minutes of focused drifting in the ambiguous world the city had become, the participants were led back to their starting point by Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs”.
The concept of the city drift or dérive has its roots with the Letterist International, a precursor to the highly influential Situationist International group, founded in July 1957 by a small meeting of intellectuals. Guy Debord, the group’s secretary and nowadays most renowned thinker, defined the dérive as follows:
“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-Ernest Debord, “Theory of Dérive”
For the Situationist International the dérive was a tool for uncovering (or creating?) a city’s psychogeography, “the mapping and describing of what would usually be taken for ‘subjective’ associations and emotions ingrained in the urban structure and texture and their effect upon people in those spaces” (Smith 2010). Psychogeography would provide a special kind of data, needed to understand the city’s fragmentation by the capitalist relationship stereotype to the city as part of the spectacle, “that urges people to have only purposeful, productive relationships with their environment” (Rubin 2012).
In more simple words, the dérive uncovers an affordance of the street widely unbeknownst to the capitalist society’s city dweller: that of walking simply for the joy of walking and what one my find on the way. Under the capitalist paradigm, the street may be used like a newspaper to transport us from one state (e.g. uninformed about the latest news) to a more valuable (in the capitalist sense of “higher exchange value”) state (e.g. informed), or more literally, to get from our home to our work place (where our presence has higher exchange value). The street, however, also affords to be calmly studied in a timely fashion, rather than traversed as quickly and efficient as possible. In that way, just like reading a newspaper between the lines, the act of conscious strolling without a purpose might teach us some secrets about our lives in the city.
In this opening of the city stroller’s perception to the underlying social geography of the city and its documentation, the dérive is essentially an activist tool to spread situationist thinking and afford targeted action towards the group’s desirable state of unitary urbanism, “the re-sculpting of the city for coherent and self-willed trajectories in resistance to the city’s consumption in fragments” (Smith 2010).
The drift during the Playful Arts session was less theory-heavy announced as “a journey through the city by night [in which we would] let our intuition be our guide.” We did, however, follow Debord’s guideline in the sense that we wandered the city without a clear destination, we explored rather than traveled.
As a group, our endeavour was of collaborative nature in the sense that we all supported our momentary leader, not only by following them without question and providing the soundtrack of their journey by positioning the speakers around them, but also by stepping up to take over the burden to guide a group of independent grown-ups through a cold and dark cityscape. The leader in turn would shape the atmosphere of our walk by choosing interesting temporary destinations and unusual paths between them. Also they set the speed of our exploration and therefore influenced the group’s shape as a huddled mass or more of a line running after the leading glow.
I was the religious leader, she was more the art[istic] leader.
– Wanderlust participant
However, the drift’s most pervasive feature, the ambient multi-channel soundtrack, assembled by the two makers, was probably the most disruptive aspect to the possibility of adhering to the classical dérive’s nature as “destinationless, leaderless, themeless” (Smith 2010) and unlimited in duration and extend. It made us feel like part of a performance and gave the city, already mystified through the impaired vision field between flooded streets, pouring rain und the dripping bottom edge of the umbrella, an unreal cinematic quality.
You go through this portal and it feels like: You just entered something.
– Wanderlust participant
At the same time the portable speakers allowed for agency of those who were not momentarily leading and in this way democratized the position of the leader. Hereby the drift allowed for most of its participants to be an active part of the generated walk, rather then merely following an entertaining spectacle.
Also, you could really influence the ambience. [When I held the speaker] I felt I could even influence when we stopped.
You were almost composing in a way. I felt when I was leading that you walked before me, so I had to walk towards you.
– Wanderlust participants
Drift Club’s contemporary interpretation of the concept of dérive as a sonically augmented collaborative short walk through a Dutch city at night, certainly was not aimed at generating academically valuable documentation: No notes were taken, no psychogeographic impressions were visualized. As the founders lay out on their website, they do not necessarily frame the drift as a radical tool to overthrow the structure of our society. Rather they see it as “a playful way to collaboratively explore urban landscapes on foot and take a break from everyday life […] to create a deep, shared experience of exploration and discovery”, as a “a minimalist street game“ (driftclub.cc). Minimal in the sense that the setup is simple, no special skills and not many props are required (the speakers already were a more elaborated and experimental addition to their basic concept).
As an experience the Wanderlust-drift proved to be highly entertaining for the participants, who, amongst moments of utter and almost cult-like sincerity, laughed and smiled and waved at passersby until eventually dancing homewards to the liberating tune of Arcade Fire like children returning from an adventure.
In this sense the session might seem to possibly fall prey to Phil Smith’s analysis of the problem many contemporary iterations of the drift concept bear:
What passes for ‘drifting’ too often turns out to be a one-idea disruption, leaving its participants in solo reverie or subject to the banalities of the spectacularized street.
– Phil Smith in “The Contemporary Dérive”
However, what supersedes a merely event-like spectacular experience in Drift Club’s soundtrack drift is the affordance of the emergence of personal storylines through the drift experience. Leaders and speaker-bearers make conscious decisions of where to go and how to compose, based on the present “key facet of the dérive experience: heightened receptivity to otherwise unremarkable features of the urban landscape” (Rubio 2012). What the participants see and feel during the walk influences their path through the city, which in turn is constructed in the walker’s perception as a mystery to discover and create by exploration. Therefore the drifter is more than a merely voyeuristic observer of what is presented to them by the spectacle: The drifter becomes engaged with the streets as urban interface and is active in creating their personal city story. They create something beyond a productive and purposeful relationship to their urban environment.
Along this line of thinking, a dialogue excerpt between two vagrants (or drifters) from the movie Waking Life about the nature of dreaming, that was part of the drift’s soundtrack, almost sounds like it could serve as Drift Club’s mission statement. After all, are there any more personal stories than our dreams?
– You a dreamer?
– Haven’t seen too many around lately. It’s been tough lately for dreamers. They say dreaming is dead. No one does it anymore.
– It’s not dead. It’s just been forgotten. It’s like a language: No more teachers, so one knows it exists. Dreamers are banished to obscurity. I’m trying to change all that. By dreaming. Every day.
Photos & video by Tomo Kihara
Debord, Guy. “Theory of the Derive.”(1958).” Situationist International Anthology (2012): 50-54.
Rubin, Elihu. “Catch my drift? situationist dérive and urban pedagogy.” Radical History Review 2012, no. 114 (2012): 175-190.
Smith, Phil. “The contemporary derive: a partial review of issues concerning the contemporary practice of psychogeography.” Cultural Geographies 17, no. 1 (2010): 103-122.
Wark, McKenzie. The beach beneath the street: The everyday life and glorious times of the Situationist International. Verso Books, 2015.