All cities are geological; you cannot take three steps without encountering ghosts bearing all the prestige of their legends. [1] […]. These dated images retain a small catalyzing power, but it is almost impossible to use them in a symbolic urbanism without rejuvenating them. [2] This new vision of time and space […] will remain [imprecise] until experimentation with patterns of behavior has taken place in cities specifically established for this purpose. […] The principal activity of [their] inhabitants will be the CONTINUOUS DÉRIVE. The changing of landscapes from one hour to the next will result in complete disorientation… [3]

Ivan Chtcheglov, Formulary for a New Urbanism , 1953

[1] Take, for an example, Narvskaya Zastava and its Czarist arche de triumphe, its run-down early 20th century worker’s housing, its constructivist projects. The total installation of real socialism’s architectural legacy, an ice-floe, stratified in layer after layer of historical problematique and ambivalent utopian projection. In other words, Narvskaya Zastava is excellent psychogeographical terrain. Its (spectral) utopias are only waiting to be brought back to life.

[2] One way of rejuvenating and uncovering these images is to move across their intersections. This movement is only worth documenting because it presents a constant choice. Of course, it is easiest to “drift” playfully like a tourist, carried along by seductive waves of enchanted nostalgia for Stalinist metro stations or Constructivist model settlements, casting romantic-conceptualist ripples across the melancholy surface of the privatized quotidian. But this ease seems irresponsible: there must be some detour, some more challenging route to be taken…

[3] In search of this challenge – permanent revolution? – the drifter must provoke encounters that “change the landscape from one hour to the next”. Narvskaya Zastava, as a neighborhood of great architectural and demographic diversity, offers perfect terrain for such sudden transitions. Yet can these changes take place through an excess of prolonged will, a dérive tour de force, held to make the city expose its secrets? In the “case” of Ivan Chtcheglov, that mysterious Soviet émigré Lettrist, the “continual dérive” and its “bad constitution of steel”, led straight to insulin-treatments and shock therapy. His “case” (capitulation) motivates Debord to formulate a responsible methodology of the dérive (see Theory of the Dérive, p. 4), a means of constructing the situation’s sociality. To put it bluntly: the future does not occur at random: chance is less important than you think.
Life, for which we are responsible, encounters, at the same time as great motives for discouragement [4] , innumerable more or less vulgar diversions and compensations [5] . A year doesn’t go by when people we loved haven’t succumbed, for lack of having clearly grasped the present possibilities, to some glaring capitulation. But the enemy camp objectively condemns people to imbecility and already numbers millions of imbeciles; the addition of a few more makes no difference. [6]

Guy-Ernest Debord, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography

[4] In reality, our dérive through Narvskaya Zastava took place against the animated backdrop of a genocide-in-miniature. Its first day ran parallel to the bloody end of the school-hostage-drama in Beslan, the second day was interrupted by a Bonapartist declaration of war on terrorism. We were sitting in a bar with green walls (Soviet minimalism?), taking notes on our impressions and drinking a little, when Vladimir Vladimirovitch held his speech.

[5] We talked politics all the way from the bar next to the military-store on the canal to the Ekaterinhof park, where we parodied an American group-hug and debated on whether or not to eat a shashlik. It might have been the last day of summer. Technopop blared across the empty band-stand. Eventually, we reached a rusty amusement park of bumper cars and swings on fenced-off territory. There was even a booth with air-rifles for target practice. Most of the others left their stuff in my care on a bench in order to kiss on the swings more freely.

[6] In contemporary Russia , as the Putinist consolidation seeps through to all areas of (tragically depoliticized) life, the precarious politics of friendship take on a completely new value. Maybe this is why it made me happy to film the spectacle of my friends, swinging back and forth between excess and passivity on the rusty swings of their childhood. Were they dreaming of spaces “where it would be impossible not to fall (in love)”? I know I was…
For us, social space is the concrete space of meetings, of the contacts between beings. Spatiality is social. […] Space as a psychic dimension (abstract space) cannot be separated from the space of action (concrete space). Their divorce is only justified in a utilitarian society with arrested social relations, where concrete space necessarily has an anti-social character. […]With no timetable to respect, with no fixed abode, the human being will of necessity become acquainted with a nomadic way of life in an artificial, wholly ‘constructed’ environment. Let us call this environment New Babylon […]

Constant, New Babylon , 1974

The group-dérive differs drastically from flaneurism on one obvious count. While the flaneaur pits the personal, solitary pleasure of ascetic aestheticism against alienation, the group-dérive offers the possibility for exploring meeting places such as parks, playgrounds, benches, bleachers and squares together . Narvsakaya Zastava is full of such Commons , ranging from secret meeting places in abandoned factories or collapsed buildings to representative squares, Constructivist backyards, and amusement parks. Thus, the most obvious goal of the dérive was to flow into these social spaces together , to upturn and reanimate their hidden potential.

However, drifting in groups does not only bring innumerable benefits – including direct access to the precarious utopia of friendship – but also entails a fundamental danger. The interactions of the group do not only reflect and revive social space; they also supply the individual subject with a false sense of security: nothing can happen to me; after all, I am a member of the pack. But what happens when the (certain) future of the Common is lost to the privatized poetry of the everyday and all of its uncertainty? Isn’t this where the detour begins? [7]

One way to see the disintegration of utopia – and the return to its ruins – as a catastrophe of expropriation, an irreconcilable loss. The playgrounds of our revolutionary childhood take on a utilitarian character, becoming hostile prison zones, permeated with horrifying banality, turning us into reactionaries. However, one might also argue that true ethical dialogue is only possible after subtraction, negation, and loss: by relinquishing our (privatized) umbrellas, we can finally begin to move, instead of simply drifting.

[7] Throughout our two-day exploration, Artem Magun carried an elegant black umbrella. To me, this umbrella looked like a privatized anthropological prop, symbolic of our radical chic. In order to swing more freely, Magun left his umbrella on a bench in my care. As we were crossing the bridge that separates park from city, Magun stopped: “I’ve forgotten my umbrella.” This made me feel very guilty. Leaving the others, Magun and I turned back. We almost missed the swings and the other joy-rides: the gates of the little amusement park had already been padlocked. A guard-dog on a long leash was barking violently in order to protect her puppy. A heavy-set young man was standing next to the guardhouse. We called to him through the fence. “Umbrella? Yeah. I saw an umbrella.” Growing nervous – the umbrella might have been a bomb – Magun and I walked back to the bumper cars. It was here that we ran into the other group, which was drifting in parallel. They embraced us euphorically, all chattering at once: “How was it? What did you see? Where are you going?” We couldn’t answer them. We were looking for Magun’s umbrella. Eventually, the militia-man who was guarding the playground unlocked the padlocks and let us out. The umbrella had definitively been lost.