Unit 2: Dérive context

In conducting formative assessments this week within my tutor group, I became aware that I had neglected to fully contextualise my projects thus far in unit 2, and so I am keen to rectify this! Rather than something we complete as a first step and move on, we’ve been encouraged to begin there and return to recontextualise as we progress. I believe I have recontextualised as I went along, reflecting on the direction(s) my work took, but that the broader initial context has gone unseen, so I shall focus on that.

Dérive was one of the strategies created by French Letterist art movement, which was later subsumed by the Situationist International group (and more recently adopted by artists such as Wrights & Sites). A strictly urban endeavour, the notion was to ‘drift’ while walking, subverting the usual way in which humans behave in the urban environment, in order to better reveal the ‘psychogeography’ of the urban landscape. This refers to the precise effects of the built environment on the emotions and behaviour of the people within it, and by studying this the Situationists hoped to better envisage and be prepared for their ideal city.

This notion is interesting to me as I have come across before how building design can have a direct impact on people's wellbeing - e.g. whether you have a window and what you can see out of it can have a measurable effect in length of hospital stays.

These art movements were anti-capitalist and anarchist, building on the teachings of Marxism, and sought to reawaken the consumer to authentic experience (so that they might not continue to merely be passive receivers of mass media/commodity). A direct result of their interventions (so called situations), was the Paris uprisings in 1968.

Something that I found to be relevant to some of my ongoing research for the upcoming Future project (i.e. a future where work may mostly be done by machine/AI and the human worker is obsolete) is that the Situationists thought work in advanced capitalist society would become increasingly absurd. As technology progresses, and work becomes more efficient, the work itself will by nature become more trivial. 
In researching this context, I found myself tunneling through wikipedia through link after link of related pages that sounded of interest to me. This reminded me of a game I had played at university around 2007, where you had to get to a destination wikipedia subject page from another (unrelated) subject faster than someone else, e.g. from polar bear to ice cream truck. Very good for long library essay writing sessions... The parallel here with the dérive strategy is quite marked, and I was intrigued that there should now be a dérive app to help you navigate out in the real world, but not a dérive equivalent for the now hugely extensive online world.

It could be fair to say that the Situationists politicised an act that had first been popular in French society in the 1800s and particularly espoused by Baudelaire – flaneur. Though the flaneur too walked aimlessly in an urban environment, they were perhaps more attentive to the other people they encountered, hoping to be an observer of society.

Strangely, I came across this term – flaneur – in a book I am reading, On Photography by Susan Sontag:

Gazing on other people’s reality with curiosity, with detachment, with professionalism, the ubiquitous photographer operates as if that activity transcends class interests, as if its perspective is universal. In fact, photography first comes into its own as an extension of the eye of the middle class flaneur…The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoiteuring… the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes… The flaneur is not attracted to the city’s official realities but to its dark seamy corners, its neglected populations – an unofficial reality behind the facade of bourgeois life that the photographer ‘apprehends’, as a detective apprehends a criminal.

It’s interesting that this class tourism rooted in the notion of the flaneur would find it’s expression later in the works of the anti-establishment Situationists. But then this aimlessness for them served a purpose (unlike the flaneur for whom it was more like a hobby).

Unit 2: Fine Art – Dérive (pt 1)

For this 3 week project, we were briefed to take a walk to a specified random dot on a map of Oxford, adopting the dérive (drift) strategy. We were to capture our walk and repeat it as often as we liked to gain a broad variety of experimentation.

The red dot on the left is the destination, and the black dot on the right my origin at the FAD studios. I have entered in here the routes taken on my 1st and 2nd walks in black and blue (though the distinction is hard to see here – the 1st walk follows the orange road directly where the 2nd veered off)

I chose not to use my usual means of finding directions – using Google Maps on my phone – and instead used my instincts to direct me to the point on the map I had been given. For good or ill, I was familiar with the route I might take to reach it directly, since it was the main route into town and then the train station, which I had done before though never in one go. So for the 1st undertaking, I did not drift so much in the route taken, as in what directed my attention. I hoped to capture many different things on my walk to potentially explore further.

I spliced together shots taken from the same height while walking at intervals during my 1st and 2nd walks

I was interested to observe the different surfaces I walked upon, the noise levels in these different areas and the kinds of marks and detritus I might encounter in these different spaces. Walking along a tree-lined main road into more urban city centre in my 1st walk, and then in parkland, surburban residential roads and towpaths in my 2nd (when the ground was considerably wetter). It is also interesting how my pace varies according to the gradient and the stage in my walk. I attempted to transition the shots by matching up the point in my gait and the foot with which I am stepping, but the video did not always line up, with my foot exiting or entering at different heights in the frame.

During my 1st walk, I wrote words I encountered as I walked – to enable this I used an A6 notebook in order to most easily note them on the move. This included words I thought to describe the walk (most evidenced at the beginning of the walk), graffiti, signs, notices and advertisements that caught my attention (most prevalent in the city centre), and words I happened to overhear from the conversations of passersby.

I also quickly sketched things that I took a particular interest in – this varied from symbols to ironwork and water pumps to the cracks in the pavement.

Reviewing the notes I made now the words are sometimes humourous in their decontextualised state. For instance, the conversational words of passersby and colloquial language used by shop signage to entice foot traffic in store are easily confused. Can you tell which is which?

"Oh hello pop in don't be shy" 
"Rohan, it's what's inside that counts"
"See you later"
"Ruby says chill!!"
"Yeah it's basic stuff mostly"
"Do you know where you're living next year?"
"How good is your hearing?"
"I'm getting something from Tesco"
"What's going on..."
"I haven't had any blackouts which is nice"
"So hard"
"Over the next few weeks..."
"No it's not even that"

Below are a series of photos that I took with my phone on this walk (I had not been briefed ahead of the day so did not have my camera with me). I am interested here in a number of themes – pavements surfaces, ironwork and filigree, quirky animals, graffiti and signage, the colours yellow, black, blue and stone. The final image, of a yellow building with white pillars, stands where the dot on my map was placed.

In collating the above gallery, I noticed that three images mirrored the same composition, and were also representative of the beginning, middle and end of my walk. This was quite accidental but I find it interesting that I repeated this action with a pedestrian the focus of each, the pavement tailing into the distant with the horizon somewhere to the centre right of the frame, a tall wall to the right of it guiding our eye.