When carried out successfully, a dérive could be called a non-monumental experience.
Simply defined, a dérive is a drift through an urban space. One lets oneself be guided, not by maps, destinations, or clocks, but rather by ambiences, intuition, and curiosity. It is a playful wandering during which one gives up control to the city and lets oneself be guided by the hope of whatever excitement may lay around the next corner.
For the students in the Paris study abroad program, the first class assignment was to embark on a dérive. In groups of two or three, the more than sixty students in the program this year drifted for a day in an attempt to experience areas of Paris that can’t be seen from the bateaux mouches, that aren’t included as top spots in the tour guides.
It is no wonder that the dérive originated in Paris – where the city is one’s living room, one of the birthplaces of street photography, where Baudelaire’s flâneur wandered the city disinterestedly observing the people on the streets. Practiced by artists and revolutionaries of the twentieth century, the dérive became a way to experience and remember the areas of Paris that were in danger of disappearing as the city changed with modernization. The dérive can be seen as a conscious rejection of more modern forms of passive diversion and a valorization of experience.
Beginning the month-long stay in Paris with a dérive frames one’s experience of the city, grounding both its familiarity and its strangeness in a day of walking. It makes the visitor more apt to get off of the beaten path and to seek out the hidden places that are frequented by locals. It makes one aware of one’s surroundings in a way that participating in normal tourist activities may not. One begins to look closely at the city itself.
Like the monuments that draw visitors from all over the world, the dérive reveals Parisian history, but of another sort: the everyday. When drifting through a section of Old Paris, one can see glimpses of life in the quartiers a century ago, before cars, tour busses, and postcard shops were ubiquitous.
Paris is full of other monuments that exist outside of the grands boulevards: monuments to lives and times past. While drifting through the city, it is impossible to think abstractly about Parisian history. Every place in Paris has a story, and they are made real through the evidence left on the buildings, on the streets, in the cemeteries. A dérive makes the city much more than the sum of its monuments – the city becomes real, and the visitor becomes part of it.
This essay was written for the exhibition Dérive, USF Centre Gallery, November 20 through December 1, 2007.