Roma 7 | Derive & Psychogeography

Derive a Roma, Writing August 10, 2012
Drifts allow us to allow ourselves to stop and stare at these kinds of details without even knowing what purpose they serve. Just the knowledge that they make you feel happy, spark your interest, enrich your journey.

Drifts allow us to allow ourselves to stop and stare at these kinds of details without even knowing what purpose they serve. Just the knowledge that they make you feel happy, spark your interest, enrich your journey.

Route: Metro line A to Spagna station, lounging and sketching on the Spanish Steps. Walked down Via dei Condotti to revisit and sketch Ara Pacis Augustae. Wandered down to Piazza Navona for tartufo, dinner, drinks, and a soccer game near the Piazza, journey home.

Thesis.

To Drift: not the avoidance of commerce and spectacle in the Situationist sense, but more of the “organized spontaneity” and play amongst the romantic ruins and organic development of Rome’s historic urban core between and within monumental spaces. i.e. getting lost on purpose. Detournement through the deconstruction of classical axes and critical confrontation with the monumental sources of Western spectacle. Serendipity. A singular reading of movement in a city by memory.

Today was a Sunday, the holy day of rest. Consequently we slept in, caught up on some sketching, and enjoyed dinner and drinks in the evening. Because we did not take a purposeful trip through the city, today’s entry will be more of an explanation of the derive and the psychogeography of Rome. For those of you unfamiliar, the term derive is French/Italian for drift. It comes from a group of theorists called the Situationists, whose work I have been interested in since learning about it in a first year art course.

Drifts involve taking walks through a city (or any place, really), uninfluenced by where you have to be, or where, or in complete defiance of road signs, topographic contours, and touristic monuments… Basically everything that Rome is made of. It’s purpose is to have no purpose but to follow the pulse and the signs of the city, and turning where you please. They require a certain degree of letting go. In doing so, the original derives carried out in Paris by Guy Debord and his associates were designed to purposefully subvert the urban planning precedents imposed upon the city of the artists by Baron Haussman and his boulevards, as well as the mind-numbing commercialism and mass gentrification overtaking Paris. They are based on the principle that a city has it’s own in-between spaces formed by informal collections of turns and physical realities that subconsciously influence the way we experience an urban space. They are also at once extremely personal:

“The primarily urban character of the drift, in its element in the great industrially transformed cities — those centres of possibilities and meanings — could be expressed in Marx’s phrase: ‘Men can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves. Their very landscape is alive.’ 
— Guy Debord, as quoted in The Situationist City by Simon Sadler

I think I am interested in certain aspects of drifts because they, like life, are uncertain and unplanned. For someone who always has to have such a big grasp on concepts, on my life trajectory, on the future, the appeal of the drift comes from it’s voidness of productivity: exactly the opposite of everything I aim for in life. I yearn for them; the new lived experience untainted by expectation, direction, and desire for growth. They are a reminder that some things simply are, and to be there, to simply be, can be one of the most difficult challenges. And I love challenges.

The term “Situationists” derives (haha) from their desire “to create ‘situations’ as opposed to what they saw as Lefebvre’s more passive stance of experiencing ‘moments’ when they happened to arise.” (David Harvey, from The Situationist City).

“Sartre argued that life is a series of given situations which affect the individual’s consciousness and will, and which must be in turn negotiated by that individual. Situationism now presupposed that it was possible for people to synthesize or manage these situations as an act of self-empowerment.”
— Simon Sadler, the Situationist City

Debord also used the words “collective ambiance” to describe them. And thus we arrive at the heart of all my projects, this blog, 100 Days of Summer, and finally, Derive a Roma. To actively seek out moments of self-empowerment in the heart of a planned city and planned life

Drifts allow us to allow ourselves to stop and stare at these kinds of details without even knowing what purpose they serve. Just the knowledge that they make you feel happy, spark your interest, enrich your journey.

In Rome, the main factors that influence the urban morphology are:

  • The 165 curving roads put into place by Pope Sixtus V with gradual bends to lessen the steepness of Rome’s seven hills.
  • The intent of axis-node planning methodology that makes you anticipate a journey or a monument around the corner.
  • A complete lack of grid.
  • How the people look standing in the doorways, sitting on the steps, staring you straight in the eye.
  • The ratio of cobblestone to sidewalk.
  • The physical and phenomenal layers of history.

Which can yield the following result in a derive, as we did many times in the city:

  • The joy of finding a famous monument when you meant to go somewhere else.
  • The disappointment of walking 6km when you meant to go somewhere else.
  • Everything you learn in between.
  • The leisure to travel down an alleyway into private property, glimpsing into a walled garden life.
  • Pleasure at the material transitions between pavement, cobblestone, and sidewalk. Brick and concrete. Ruin and complete.
  • Smaller piazzas and piazzettas that are as lively as the main ones.
  • The discovery that the best Italian food is made in the Jewish quarter.
  • The ability to find your way home on ancient streets late at night, drunk, reading every single sign in Italian out loud like a Global Positioning Shelley system.
  • The construction of a myth in your memory, of an experienced urban movement, reminiscient of others in Europe, a wall, a road, a road sign, an empty symbol engraved. A desire to re-read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities on the way to Venice. Reading the Da Vinci code instead.
  • Avoidance of tourists and hecklers.
  • Renouncement of hardened cynicism to Western history.
  • Time spent sitting on the steps of a fountain, happy to be here, grateful for this moment.
  • Living in the moment.
  • Wide eyes and a closed camera. When I see people bewildered by an experience, I stare. I like to think that others feel this way when they see me. Far, far from home, but we’re so happy: