By Sam Sheppard
I remember a conversation I had with one of my father’s friends about two years ago, in which he explained to me the fascinating holiday he’d just returned from. Expecting the most opulent of responses, I was somewhat shocked when he responded to my question of where he had visited. He had, in his own words, ‘done London’—a phrase entailing the sampling of museums, art galleries, historical sites, as well as more atypical places of interest. Drawn to the city by work, he had lived there for over twenty years without ever truly tasting its essence. It had turned out to be, as he put it, ‘remarkably tricky’ to entrench oneself in the place whilst perpetually distracted by career and familial aspirations.
Listening to Will Self on the radio recently, I was reminded of this brief conversation when the subject turned to psychogeography. Self is a prominent exponent of this contemporarily flourishing academic phenomenon, which entails the exploration of modern cityscapes in a wholly non-linear fashion. Predominantly centered around London, the notion of linearity here refers to the commercial and consumerist imperatives spurning on modern cities, something we may well be consciously aware of, yet find ourselves largely powerless to swim against.
In short, the psychogeographical practice aims to break, or at least loosen, the constraints of the commercial, that with which we are all embraced, then subsequently propelled by from the moment we take up residence in the city. The perennially scrawled adage ‘work, consume, die’ takes on a new-found significance when placed in this context, at least more so than when idly glimpsed on the wall of a Tesco Metro.
The notion finds its inception in the French situationist movement of the 1950s and 60s, led by Guy Debord, which concerned itself with the deliberate construction of ‘situations’, predominantly through capitalist practices and physical geography. A situation in this context refers to a moment of life, within which the passivity of the individual—and therefore their actions—is directed in a specific manner by the implementation of a particular ambiance or event. A myriad of factors come into play here, with subjectivity and objectivity looming so equally large that narrowing the idea down to portable form proved difficult. Instead, Debord stipulated the notion of ‘dérive‘, or ‘drift’ as a method of confronting such obstacles in the modern urban environment.
A dérive, then, describes a scenario in which an individual abandons their normal motives for movement and action, instead relying on the lure of the terrain they inhabit, as well as the chance encounters bound up with this, to direct them. Both work interests and the pursuit of leisure are cast aside, allowing the individual to explore freely that which they view and interact with every day, yet never on their own arbitrary terms. Such an act was practiced by the Situationist International group around Paris in the mid-twentieth century, as a means of resisting what were perceived to be destructive capitalist mechanisms, as well as a force by which a person may come to better understand the actualities of their surroundings.
These ideas have proven subsequently influential within architectural and literary circles, with Self an intriguing example. As a writer, he uses the practice of dérive to earth and distance himself from the trappings of modern urbanity, notably through the insistence that he walk both to and from the airport whenever he is undertaking international travel.
Born and raised in London, it was with horror that he greeted the realisation that, by the age of 25, he had still never visited the mouth of the Thames. Walking in this manner is for him a means of achieving a sense of liberation and unbroken experiential purity, of avoiding the enforced tracks of mechanised transport, which are in turn defined by the aforementioned imperatives. As his literary output attests, this provides artistic inspiration within a landscape designed to inflict a situational homogenisation on all its residents.
I find it to be an especially fascinating concept when faced with day-to-day existence in Korea, a country so rapidly built according to the archetypals of capitalism and consumption. Here, living in a newborn city that positively spews commercialism and functionality, we are faced with linearity in all aspects of our lives. We work, shop, sleep and socialise in the same enclosed spaces, not speaking the language, not really comprehending the hordes of bodies and the buzz of activity occurring all around us. As with any tourists, we can only come to truly understand where we are by diverting from the beaten path. In this case, that entails stepping outside our homes with absolutely no direction or goal in mind.
Last Sunday, I found myself in the unenviable position of being out in the middle of the night with no means of getting home, having fallen foul of the idiosyncrasies of the Korean banking system. Operating on a strange rota-like system, ATMs are consequentially unavailable during specific hours of the day. I’m sure I can’t be the first expat to have found myself caught amidst the financial witching hour when attempting to make my way home.
Normally, although it does seem to vary depending on the ATM in question, my bank will experience a blackout between 11:30 and 1 a.m. This can be quite inconvenient on Fridays and Saturdays, but I scarcely notice it during the rest of theweek. However, being halfway through my four-day weekend—granted by virtue of Buddha’s birthday—I was less than fully aware of my place in the usual routine. I have since learned that Busan Bank block their customers from accessing funds between 11:30 and 4 a.m. on Sundays, a fact greeted with dismay when I learned of it at around 2 a.m. My friends having departed for home, I was left in Seomyeon, some 18km from my home in Haeundae.
The phrase ‘having time to kill’ has always rung a little hollow with me, as I like to think there’s something I should or could be doing with my day at any given point. This was different though. I had a two-hour window in which I could literally do nothing except wander. Thinking back to Guy Debord and his Parisian dérives, as well as Will Self and his Anglicised modern-day efforts, it seemed the perfect opportunity. Trudging vaguely towards Nam-gu was the only logical (and I use that word extremely loosely) path.
I already knew my way to Jeonpo, which is one stop in the right direction, so I hoped to be able to simply follow the main thoroughfare onwards from there. It was extremely dark, which made reading many of the street signs impossible, but I still stole the occasional glance, despite part of me wanting to travel completely by candlelight. Doubtless it would have been far easier to do so prior to the automotive age, and therein lies the problem I think. The city of Busan didn’t exist before vehicular imperatives defined the way we move.
In this sense, as obvious as it may sound, it would be a simpler task to experience a dérive in a grand old city such as London or Paris. Despite the plethora of modern-day signage that appears in both, many streets remain untouched—at least fundamentally—from the times when they were first constructed, with the significantly less complex commercial relationships of those bygone days still in evidence. Busan, by contrast, is a series of mountains dissected by tunnels and duel-carriageways, built to propel an ever-growing range of goods and services along an increasingly convoluted trail of supply and demand.
So it was, then, that I soon reached an enormous commercial tunnel, hewn through the mountain that separates the city’s beaches from its commercial heart. I’ve taken the Hwangryeong tunnel countless times in a taxi before, but I’d never bothered to look to my left and check if it had a pedestrian walkway. It doesn’t and I was left with no choice but to go over. Hardly a pleasing acknowledgment.
Any ill feeling was quickly swept away, however, by the fascinating neighbourhood located immediately above the tunnel entrance. All asymmetrically piled houses and crooked streets, it couldn’t have been further from the sleek modernity and grid square precision of Haeundae. Considering its proximity to the monolithic glass structures that abound in Seomyeon also, it felt like another place entirely. Almost rural, despite the cacophony of horns and gear changes taking place metres below.
It was here that I truly stopped thinking and, once I had climbed high enough, was able to bask in the silent streets and absence of 24-hour stores with neon-lit windows. Walking for almost 90 minutes through the dark, I felt completely at liberty. As if I could have gone any direction I chose, because there were no fences, security guards, or safety barriers. Debord defines a dérive as “a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances”, and I had certainly achieved this. Leaving the humidity and smell of Seomyeon less than 45 minutes previously, I was now surrounded by an intoxicating hilltop of tranquility.
As I began to descend with the contours of the road, the buildings grew gradually taller around me. It was still silent when I reached a sharp turn and spun to face Daeyeon Elementary School. Within a few minutes, I was back on the noisy dual-carriageway that feeds its passengers through Kyungsung, past my own elementary school, on to the front door of the largest department stores in the world, before ending up outside the outlet centre that dominates the skyline around my apartment. It had just gone 4 a.m., so I did the decent thing and hailed a cab.
It was only brief and oh so fleeting, but for a moment the ambiance of the city I live in did undergo a profound change. When forced to look at and listen to nothing, it appeared to me an altogether different animal. One through which I could pass freely, subject to no imperatives or compulsions—save the overwhelming urge to take a photograph of a packet of cigarettes masquerading as a prize inside a children’s claw machine.
Sam Sheppard left London and arrived in Korea just under a year ago. He works in Busan as an elementary school teacher and bores all that will listen with his blog The Illiterati.