I never feel more myself than when I am out alone, with only my camera, winding through unfamiliar city streets. I have been searching for the word(s) to explain this unique sensation—not exactly walking meditation, not exactly urban exploration. There is something deeper and more mystical about my feeling.
The idea of the flâneur (ahem, *flâneuse*) comes somewhat close to what I mean:
“There is no English equivalent for the French word flâneur. Cassell’s dictionary defines flâneur as a stroller, saunterer, drifter but none of these terms seems quite accurate. … the deliberately aimless pedestrian, unencumbered by any obligation or sense of urgency, who, being French and therefore frugal, wastes nothing, including his time which he spends with the leisurely discrimination of a gourmet, savoring the multiple flavors of his city.”
– Cornelia Otis Skinner, Elegant Wits and Grand Horizontals, 1962
But “flâneur” has tinges of status, sexism and elitism that chafe me a bit. Recently I’ve been reading some of Guy Debord’s essays and ideas about psychogeography, situationism, unitary urbanism and—most exciting in terms of my search—the dérive:
“[literally: “drifting”], a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.
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. 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.”
– Guy Debord, “Theory of the Dérive,” 1958
I may not share Debord’s revolutionary leaning, but I think that he best articulates the psychic effects of urban “drifting.” I love the idea of reclaiming the city as a plaything, using it for leisure and unprescribed fulfillment.
Still with me? Anyway, these ideas—combined with Brian Ferry’s thoughts on “visual inventory”—inspired me to start a series of more abstract, observational posts. I want to think of my Dérive posts as photographic field notes, rather than as narratives like most of my entries. Hopefully some of you will feel a part of what I feel when I look at these snapshots.
These were taken this afternoon, when I had the pleasure of getting lost on a Seoul Sub→urban outing near Dongmyo Station. I wandered up a large hill (mountain?) entirely covered in maze-like staircases connecting alleys of old homes. It was mostly quiet, except for a few older residents shuffling around. When I got to the other side of the hill, I found empty fields of demolished houses—strewn with bulldozed bricks and wood and other broken artifacts of former residents. I got the sense that this destruction may soon be creeping over to the other side of the hill. After sharing these photos, I don’t need to tell you how sad I think that would be.