The Situationist International and the Theory of the Derive

The art movement in France in the 1950s and 1960s known as the Situationist International believed strongly in the potential of 'drifting' through a city as a means of identifying oneself more closely with a sense of personal and political liberty. Motion through urban space was considered a
revolutionary act one which one undertook personally, making notes as one drifted, unfolding secret hidden meanings in the traversed city. Immersive video games also enable this type of drifting, games often build randomness into the rules of play and the abstraction of the board or screen can
paralell the structures and activities of everyday city life.


An experimental mode of behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society: a
technique for hastily passing through varied environments. Also used, more particularly, to designate the duration of a prolonged exercise of such an experiment.

unitary urbanism

The theory of the combined use of art and technology leading to the integrated
construction of an environment dynamically linked to behavioural experiments.

Wearable computers make dynamic digital data available to a person at any time or place. This data can relate directly to the physical environment itself in an ongoing, conversant and highly complex way. Real world phenomena which are dynamic and which can be represented digitally can in turn be processed as they occur, and this data can be seen and heard in-situ by the user.

The user can filter and customise the ways in which data is presented and used. Just as a computer desktop can be personalised, so can 3D or 2D data projected in front of the user's field of view by means of head up display.

These developments are likely to impact greatly on the role and function of contemporary urban planning and architecture. Semiotic structures like signs, billboards, monitors and markings will become more interactive as they become more electronic. The imagery on the signs and the size and
shape and animation of those which might appear 3 dimensional and floating in mid air require a new type of awareness about how digital information can be made to distill and represent the world around us.

EMU WEBGRID seeks to examine migration over time between places on avirtual map representing an online city. People claim for themselves a dot within a grid. They can move to any other position on the grid. Research seeks to identify what role adjacency and migration play in the growth and
mutability of the city.

Using certain types of technology such as wearable computers with head up display it is becoming increasingly possible to develop multimedia which interacts with the physical environment as aspects of it change and as a person moves through it.

Data shown in this way is by necessity dynamic, changing as the view of the traversed landscape changes. Information needs now to update with the ever changing route of the wearer.Little to no research has been done to address the specific design requirements of this type of dynamic location sensitive audio visual media.

The aim of designing new types of augmented signage is to enable city dwellers to take an active part by using digital media in shaping their surroundings. Urban centres will benefit from technology and media forms which embrace and encourage the deliberate overlapping of both digital information and physical space. These hybrid media forms combine the disciplines of architecture, urban planning,
semiotics, film and animation and choreography - even dance.

It is hoped that new ways of life will stem from the ability to augment the appearance and sounds of the world we inhabit, especially where these augmentations can be shared and swapped and integrated into the everyday lives of people. We can live with intelligent ghosts all around us, each of them talking and all of us talking with each other and with them. In this way we might become more in tune, literally with our environment and with each other. We could become more of a community where the basic principles of civic life can be embraced and a stronger sense of genuinely shared, open and public space can find expression.

The Situationist theory of the derive is aimed at eliciting from the experience of traversing urban space a sense of one's own liberty.


The Derive: Collective or Individual Libertarianism?

The concept of the derive was promoted as a strategy aimed at enabling people on an individual level to work with others to identify and chronicle those areas of cities which provided evidence of phenomena resistant to mainstream commercial society.

The collective long term revolutionary aims of the S.I. were not considered outside of the individualistic aspects of some of their strategies. The S.I. saw no contradiction in acts of individual liberty such as the derive and the broader, long term goals of revolution.

To the Situationist International, and to Guy Debord who wrote the original “Theory of the Derive” the fact that drifts were performed by individuals or by groups had little to do with their overall role to play in the broader social and political aims of the S.I. Debord even offers advice as to the numbers of people who at a time should undertake drifts. It is worth considering that these were not trivial tasks, and could go on for weeks and months at a time:

One can dérive alone, but all indications are that the most fruitful numerical arrangement consists of
several small groups of two or three people who have reached the same level of awareness, since
cross-checking these different groups' impressions makes it possible to arrive at more objective conclusions. It is preferable for the composition of these groups to change from one dérive to
another. With more than four or five participants, the specifically dérive character rapidly diminishes, and in any case it is impossible for there to be more than ten or twelve people without
the dérive fragmenting into several simultaneous dérives. The practice of such subdivision is in
fact of great interest, but the difficulties it entails have so far prevented it from being
organized on a sufficient scale.

Guy Debord, Theory of the Derive, 1958

The issue of ‘how many people’ should perform a derive is thus less important than the overall strategy of the activity itself and what it discovers about the city it is examining.

Similarities between Situationist representations of 'drift' through parts of Paris and the EMU WEBGRID. Both share a sense of 'clustering' - where regions indicate areas of interest (e.g. around the centre of the grid). Like drifters through a European city, an EMU WEBGRID user can migrate to any other position on the grid.


The promises of the derive, the experience of traversing urban space to sense one’s own liberty are deeply inherent in the web grid proposal. The principle of ‘getting up and moving’ was very much a central idea in the EMU WEB GRID. Users were to feel they could go and relocate to a different place if they felt there was more ‘happening’ there, and at the same time could hang on to their original ‘dot’ position. The idea that you have to look around, explore, drift on the grid to see what others are doing transposes the idea of the derive into the process of browsing the actual city. Just as a person drifts around a real city, users, and visitors alike can ‘browse’ around the grid of EMU, looking for others of like mind, or somewhere to locate themselves relative to some feature, or lack of features, whatever the case may be. The idea of being free to wander within the space is key to its structure and organization. The idea of the grid itself being scalable, able to grow or diminish with the desires of the population is also a central Situationist idea.


Situationist Terminology

The Theory of the Derive

Casio Watch Camera Pictures.

The below black and white pictures were taken using a casio watch camera. The camera takes 120 x 120 black and white pixel images and uses the watch battery to power the camera and to store the pictures (up to 100) in the camera's memory. The camera can be worn on the body at all times, enabling the photography of urban space to occur anywhere and anytime, light levels allowing.

Visual Memory Augmentation

The process of recording one's passage through urban space and uploading these images regularly to a desktop computer enables the memory of the user to be augmented. Interesting visual aspects of the urban landscape need never be totally fleeting, one's chance encounters with events, places and people can be simply recorded for later consideration.

Theory of the Derive

Situationist International Archives