Psychogeography techniques – exploring the art of the derive

psychogeography derive

Psychogeography – discover the art of the derive, with psychogeography exercises to help you get started

Have you ever felt drawn to abandoned warehouses or considered how everyone seems to flock like birds on their way to work, so close they’re practically embracing, yet never quite touching? Psychogeography is an art, not a science. It’s the art of using your preferred tools – like creative flights of imagination, or local research – to find out how the environment you live in shapes the way you think. Becoming a psychogeographer is as easy as studying graffiti or taking a road you’ve always passed on your routine travels but have never yet walked down.

Some more questions for you.

  • Have you ever had a favourite spot in a park?
  • When moving into a new house, have you wondered from room to room, touching the walls and thinking about who lived there before you, and if their life was a happy one?
  • Have you ever felt uncomfortable in a way that’s hard to define when walking through the city district with its huge skyscrapers?
  • When you take the subway, are you suddenly transported to a futuristic world, where you’re thinking more about anthropology from the perspective of an outsider than you are about your destination?

The chances are you’re already a psychogeographer.

psychogeography tip look up

Always look up.

This is how Guy Debord described psychogeography in the first issue of Situationniste Internationale (1958):

‘the study of specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals” .

Debord was talking about the way humans shape their environment, but also how the environment shapes humans.

You can pick up low or high vibes from a place you’ve never been to before, and feel it’s essentially a bad or good place. This could be to do with the structure of a building, or from a dark history of the area you’ve intuited.

It pays to pay attention to our feelings and our flights of fancy as we walk.

psychogeography graffiti

Graffiti can mark a place in unexpected ways – sometimes beyond the intentions of its creator.

Taking part in a psychogeographical ‘Derive’ (‘drifting’ in French)

The best way to do a bit of psychogeography is simply to take an unplanned amble through your local area, soaking it in with no expectations. This is called going on a derive, or urban drifting. Let yourself be delighted by something new! Get to know a place in a different way than you did before. Allow yourself to take a ‘wrong’ turn or two.

If you go on a derive – that is, a gentle walk with the aim to discover something new about your area – try to find patterns where there aren’t any. look out for graffiti, words on shop-signs and posters. Talk to local people, and take plenty of photos. You could even try lomography, or the art of taking photos with a little toy camera which may not even have a viewfinder to frame what you see. It’s photography with intuition and spontaneity at its core, perfectly suited to a psychogeographical derive. The lomo motto? “Don’t Think. Just Shoot.”

psychogeography look for signs

As you walk, look for signs to decipher. Allow yourself creative freedom.

Why take up an interest in psychogeography? Well, there are lots of reasons. You can do it on your own, you don’t have to join a group. You can’t be wrong – the worst that might happen is you might change your mind. And it’s important – how you behave every day shapes you. If you switch off and become a robot on your way to work or school like everyone else seems to, you’re wasting your day. Why not take a deep look around you instead?

When you apply psychogeographic techniques to explore your environment, you’re looking around you with open eyes. You’re seeing layers of information in otherwise dullsville surroundings. You’re making up stories for yourself, and you’re thinking. And you’ve acquired a new sexy-hot title – Psychogeographer!

The Graffiti Derive

Set aside an afternoon and go somewhere relatively safe and hyper-consumerist. You’re not there to shop.

Spend an hour or two wandering around, documenting any graffiti you find with a pen or camera. With this activity, you are no longer looking where consumerist society wants you to look. Instead of store fronts and billboards, examine bus stops, public toilets and sidestreets. Go to the places that are invisible when you’re purely focused on shopping. Notice all the things you’re not meant to see as a good little citizen – the cctv cameras, the strange little hang-outs and alleyways.

When you’ve finished, treat yourself by going and buying something like a drink – something that’s a luxury rather than a necessity – and sitting down outside in a cafe or little park. Savour your consumerist moment. You’ve poked into the inner workings of the invisible city, but if you are still a person who drinks Coke, so be it. Enjoy the small things.

I personally find great delight in making collections of the unglamorous photos I’ve taken on derives. The close-ups of detritus in the gutter. The plethora of signs telling us where we must and mustn’t be. Initials conjoined in an arrowstruck heart, etched into brick walls with a sharp blade.

Occult Derives

There are numerous occult ways of looking at your surroundings.

If colours and numbers hold occult meanings for you, you can seek them out on a derive quest and document what you find.

You can also choose to work with ley lines – the invisible lines of power that some people say dissect the earth. You can dowse your local area for ley lines to see if they affect it in any way – does a road lie directly on a ley line? Are there many buildings of importance all in a line where you live? If so, there could be a scientific explanation, or there could be a ley line.

You could consider the symbolism of buildings, going beyond practicality. Typically, squares suggest power and groundedness, circles represent eternity and calmness, triangles represent energy and stimulation… and when these shapes appear in architecture, the symbolism is sometimes intended by the building’s creator. For example, there is a Chinese bank in the financial district of London that has triangular points coming out of it in all directions – and the bank admits these were intended as ‘poison arrows’ to negatively affect the feng shui of rival banks in the area and adversely affect their business. Psychogeography and architectural magic is everywhere – even somewhere as mainstream as a bank.

There are, naturally, also social ways of looking at the world around you. If you live in a city, that’s a huge amount of people in one place – and obviously anyone in power is going to want to control those people rather than have them riot. So a city has a mass of different ways to get everyone to go about their routines safely, without hurting each other. Think of walkways, traffic lights… so many signs to tell you how to behave and what to do that half the time you don’t even notice them, or accept their guidance and imperatives without a second thought. Looking out for these signs is a completely different way of looking at how a city is designed compared to occult studies of symbolism, but both of them are fascinating.

psychogeography dead end

Take the road less travelled. Explore dead ends. No judgement. No such thing as a wrong turn.

The Freedom to Sit Derive

Again, go to the hippest or most commercial part of town. This exercise is partly to answer the question – does a materialist society actually want you to sit down? After all, if you sit down, you’re not buying anything.

Set aside an hour to find places in the hippest / busiest part of town where you could sit and enjoy the scene without buying or doing anything, if you wanted to. Look out for walls at a comfortable height, public benches, little public gardens, cafe areas where you won’t be turned away if you don’t buy anything. Whatever you can find.

If you see a perfect spot in a busy place that appears to be empty with no-one taking advantage of it, sit down in it and look around. Why do you think none of the passers-by have taken advantage of your amazing spot? How do people seem to treat you now you’ve sat down in this perfect public sitting space? Do they notice you more than they would if you were just walking around like they are? Or have you become otherised, invisible?

If you find some spots where people ARE sitting down – public benches, little gardens, walls, bus stops, parks – take a look at them. What kind of people are they? Poor? Rich? What are their expressions? Are they sitting down for a purpose (exhaustion, waiting for a bus) or for fun? How are they behaving compared with people walking around? Can you see patterns in your personal insights?

Whenever you go on a derive, always take a notebook. You’ll end up having surprising thoughts, going off on a tangent – and forgetting them immediately. Any notes you get – descriptions of people, ideas about how your city is used, amazing graffiti you found – all these thoughts are your own, not taught you by anyone. So they’re precious. Whether they’re for song lyrics, an art project or just a bit of a self-journey – an internal derive – you’ll be glad you had them one day.

This is all exploration you can try out for yourself, without paying any money, and you can use your will and intent and insight and soul to go far beyond any of the suggestions outlined here. They are merely suggestions.

Find out more about psychogeography

Iain Sinclair made a documentary and a book called Orbital, where he and friends walk around a motorway that rings London called the M25. Like Ballard, he is interested in no-man’s land (like you get around motorways) and how humans and nature actually fill that space that isn’t meant to be filled with anything. He has an occult slant on psychogeography…

Wilfried Hou Je Bek is a philosopher and psychogeographer from Amsterdam, Netherlands. Enjoys designing exercises for psychogeographers to practise.

Alan Moore is a comics writer who created a very weird and wonderful (and at times terrifying) comic called ‘From Hell’, that later got made into a film. In this graphic novel he provides an occult answer to the identity of Jack the Ripper and talks a lot about how architects who were into the occult aspects of freemansonry used magical symbolism to affect people’s thoughts when building famous churches and buildings in and around London.

Stewart Home is a British fiction writer, subcultural pamphleteer, underground art historian, and activist. His output is very strong and dark but a huge body of his written work explores the idea that you can work the energy of the area around you to your own advantage.