For those of us in the northern hemisphere, summer is right around the corner, and that means being able to spend more time enjoying the outdoors. With that in mind, I figured it’s an opportune time to introduce one of my favorite outdoor activities: Psychogeography- or, more accurately- Dérives.
The term “Psychogeography” refers to both an academic discipline and a set of techniques for informal research, all focused on understanding urban environments. It’s a little tough to describe the idea of Psychogeography, probably thanks to its avante-garde origins. Psychogeography’s Wikipedia article has the “may be too technical” and “lacks a single coherent topic” disclaimers, and probably not by happenstance. You can’t try to read about the origins of Psychogeography without running into fun and terrifying terms like “Lettrism” and “situationalist”, and the whole concept of Psychogeography has been co-opted, revived, and redefined by various groups, with various motivations, at various points in time.
Here’s my attempt to summarize: In the 1950s, a bunch of French intellectuals realized that we all have a very limited perspective of the places we live. We mostly travel to-and-from the same workplace, on the same roads, visit friends that live in the same or similar neighborhoods to our own, and hang out in places specially designated for public recreation. The ‘psycho-’ in ‘psychogeography’ comes from these intellectuals’ fascination with the cognitive aspects that underpin such everyday city living: environmental cues that subconsciously instruct us where to go, what to do, and how to think. A simplified example: a well-lit, planted boulevard feels like public space, and invites us to walk along it. A dimly-lit alley surrounded by industrial buildings feels like private space, and encourages us stay away. Psychogeographers sought to jolt themselves out of this naïve, banal inhabitancy of the city. They attuned themselves to discover events, things, and processes that would be otherwise invisible in their everyday lives. To this end, Psychogeographers invented the “Dérive” (lit. “drift”) - defined simply as any activity designed to take a person ‘off the beaten path’ and take a critical eye to their surroundings.
The good news is that you don’t have to worry about all those avant-garde underpinnings to participate in Psychogeography. From a practical standpoint, a dérive is nothing more than wandering around a city, using a route that is generated by random chance. It’s a fun (and free) activity to do either alone or as a group; I especially recommend it to get acclimated to a place you’re visiting, or have just moved to. Also, it gets you outside and walking around, which is always a plus. I’d even categorize dérives alongside other “geo-sports” like geocaching and orienteering.
The way you pick your route is the central component of a good dérive. The simplest method is also one of the best: packing some dice, and rolling them at each intersection. For instance: a dead-simple rulebook with a six-sided die:
If you’re more tech-inclined, there’s some great smartphone apps that will not only send you along a randomized route, but also prompt you to better analyze your surroundings and document the experience. I know of three:
“In the near-future… finding your way from point A to point B will not be the problem. Maintaining consciousness of what happens along the way might be more difficult.”
Serendipitor is the simplest of the apps, in a sense. Simply select your starting and end points, along with how much “meandering” you want to do, and Serendipitor will generate a randomized route for you to follow. Curiously, it positions itself as an “alternative navigation” app, suggesting they envision using this app not just when you’ve decided to block out some time for a dérive, but rather while running your everyday errands.
“This task is a suggestion, an invitation to explore your environment in a new way. The task can be completed in any way, literally, figuratively, or even metaphysically.”
Dérive app is a website that pulls up a series of randomized ‘cards’, each with their own instructions e.g. “Search for construction”, “Move East“. In contrast with Serendipitor, it prompts you to think about your surroundings more. Some of the instructions even push you outside the role of a passive observer, like asking someone where the nearest pharmacy is (and then heading in the opposite direction), or finding (and going inside of) the nearest nail salon. Those sorts of prompts are the reason this site isn’t my favorite, but I guess that’s just my personal preference as a more hands-off psychogeographer.
“Each instruction will ask you to move in a specific direction and, using the compass, look for something normally hidden or unnoticed in our everyday experiences.”
Drift is probably my favorite of the app options. It generates dérives comprised of ten different prompts, each one involving taking a photo of some kind. The photos get geotagged and saved, making it easy to revisit and share your past adventures. My only complaint is that some of the prompts are a bit weird and challenging (“find something inquisitive”?), but as long as you’re willing to interpret them liberally then it’s all good.
Those are the basics: hopefully you’re now inspired to go out and start exploring.