An Impossible Dérive is a film that channels a number of my own current interests. Though predominantly about the changing landscape and topography of the city centre of Liverpool, it is also about using psychogeography and the writing of John Wyndham to assess and comment upon the fallout of such change within the landscape. The title, An Impossible Dérive, refers to two different aspects of the film itself, one being simply thematic and one that is practical. The term dérive, used in the psychogeographical sense by the Situationist and previously the Letterist movements, refers to the literal drifting around (often urban) landscapes, allowing the aesthetics of such a place to guide and lead the walker towards more authentic experiences and ambles.
The impossibility of such a technique within the film is for two reasons. For the film, all of the locations shot in were found through going on many dérives around the city. Many were captured variously using 35mm photography but the actual footage was attained later on, the reason being that capture of any kind would fail to fully convey the point of going on such a form of walk in the first place. The title refers to this paradox though the technique is ironically a small part of what the film is predominantly about. The second reason is that, as is at the heart of the film, with the increase in a very persistent bid to homogenise the city centre with excessive amounts of repetitive, commercial space, that drifting of this form is impossible as it requires will within the walker to resist totally the need and draw of such spaces.
Guy Debord, one of the founding Situationists who used the dérive as a political act to begin to question this early form of city planning suggests in his 1956 Theory of the Dérive that: “Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.” Later in his work, The Society of The Spectacle, he briefly argues that “Urbanism is the mode of appropriation of the natural and human environment by capitalism, which, true to its logical development toward absolute domination, can (and now must) refashion the totality of space into its own peculiar decor.” (1931, p.121).
An Impossible Dérive amalgamates both of these ideas, almost in protest of several of the recent planning developments within the city centre; developments that seem both deeply ironic in contrast to the vast amounts of derelict space only a few minutes’ walk outside of the centre and suspect in their apparent ease of gaining traction and planning permission. This is not to say that the film feels the need to naively instigate some form of change though; it is too late and, as Will Self dryly noted in a Q+A session on Debord at a recent Edinburgh lecture: “Their conception of the dérive as I understand it was mostly buying a few bottles of red wine near the Parc des Buttes Chaumont and tottering down to the Île-de-France where they would fall asleep hoping that magically when they awoke that the whole of capitalist society would have disappeared in a puff of sedition that they had somehow managed to affect.”
This aside though, the film was born out of pessimism specifically spurred on by the closure of the independent cafe and arts space, Mellomello, coupled with the announcement that its neighbour music space, The Kazimier, is also to close at the end of the year due to private developers changing the area. This is alongside dozens of new build projects in an increasingly cramped city centre, all of which in a rather suspect manner are predominantly cloned student flats and expensive commercial spaces. If this pessimism sounds a little over-egged, it is worth noting that several moments on the walks and also since the film has been edited and finished have balanced this view with a more optimistic slant.
For example, behind one of the empty streets in which I filmed and took 35mm stills lie the “Granby 4 streets” project that is up for the Turner Prize this year whilst the empty docks and warehouses in the film played host to this year’s Sound City festival. The docks are also home to some of the new project spaces being made by the artists and people behind Mellomello and The Kazimier. No doubt Stanley Docks in particular will flourish into a varied and exciting space in the coming years if allowed. They are proof positive that spaces can be redeveloped in different ways outside of the student flat model currently being enforced upon almost every spare corner of the main centre.
The last aspect of the film to mention and address is the presence of several quotes from the fantasy and science fiction writer, John Wyndham. Or perhaps more accurately the question should read “Why John Wyndham as opposed to J.G. Ballard?”. In my initial description of the film in the application to the conference, I mentioned the Ballardian nature of the film but then chose to leave it behind. Ballard’s prophetic genius has recently become so startling to me personally that it almost goes without saying that modern society is itself Ballardian. To make a film about this would say very little that is new and show nothing that could not be discerned very simply by a stroll around Liverpool One; that most Ballardian of spaces where sex, commerce, steel, a contradictory sense of isolation and moving pathways comes to one overwhelming head. Ballard himself delivers this concoction’s blueprint in his own introduction to the 1995 reprint of Crash saying that the novel is “a warning against that brutal, erotic and over-lit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape (1995). He could equally be talking about any of the areas within the L1 zone only it has moved away from the margins and is now violently central.
Back to Wyndham, the relevance of his work came about on two separate occasions, the rest of the mentions being researched once this pathway was decided upon. The first was a very simple connection between the visuals of the astonishing amount of cranes in the city centre and the idea of the Kraken itself from The Kraken Wakes. The second was a little more complicated and I shall finish on the occasion that gave rise to this particularly Wyndham-esque detail. On one of my dérives in which I ended up in Liverpool One, I almost witnessed that most Ballardian of incidents, a vehicle accident. A young mother and child had clearly just been shopping, their hands laden with bags. The child and mother were hyper and acting strangely manic.
They stood beside me at the traffic lights but, in their strange sense of disconnect, the mother dragged her daughter out into the road in front of not one but two oncoming buses. Even though she and her daughter were about to be killed, they stood stock still in the road with both vehicles having to apply an emergency brake. The spell of the space they were in, the one that wants the walker to become unthinking and docile, had briefly been broken though it had taken a near-death experience to shatter it and the shock of reality meant that they stood in the road for what seemed an infinitely long time. Later on that day, I began to watch the BBC science fiction anthology series, Out Of The Unknown, the first episode of which, No Place Like Earth, is an adaptation of a John Wyndham short story of the same name.
In the story a character comes out with a phrase that, to me, surmised the mentality of the pair in L1 and gave name to their distracted state of mind. The character suggested the possibility of “a demented mania of owning things”; it was a perfect sound-bite for the mentality of this particular circuit and one that will become more and more widespread as the spaces of the city become confined solely for the purpose of hyper-consumption and “luxury” living. “If we really feared the crash, most of us would be unable to look at a car, let alone drive one.” suggested Ballard in Autopia (a 1971 piece for Drive magazine). An Impossible Dérive fears this crash, this approved dereliction of our city, but can’t help but be taken along with it; its power of realisation sadly vulnerable, just like that of the walker’s, to this particular, encroaching libidinal circuit.
Find below a collection of 35mm photographs taken on several of my walks.