Notes on the Dérive and a Jordanian Surrealist in Tunis
November 26, 2011 7 Comments
“One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive, a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.” Explained Guy Debord in his 1958 essay The Theory of the Derive.
Dérive, the French form of the concept expressed, at least superficially, by the English “to drift,” is the situationist theory of itineracy or rather, as Debord explains:
In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. 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.
This notion encourages the loss of oneself, the acceptance of subjectivity in the previously taken for objective walls and lanes of urban bodies; in the way that acupuncture seeks to balance the body’s discordant energy flows by studying qi (气), understanding how energy flows through the body, the urban acupuncturist extends these concepts to approach ‘the urban’ as a creature composed of chakras, in a sense, the nexus of subjectivity and objectivity. The dérive seeks to uncover, to chart, and to analyze these urban chakra patterns, given the name of psychogeographic currents. Or, in a different conceptualization, Robert M. Pirsig writes in Lila:
A metaphysics of substance makes us think that all evolution stops with the highest evolved substances, the physical body of man. It makes us think that the physical body is man. It makes us think that cities and societies and thought structures are all subordinate creations of this physical body of man. But it’s as foolish to think of a city or a society as created by human bodies as it is to think of human bodies as a creation of the cells, or to think of cells as created by protein and DNA molecules, or to think of DNA as created by carbon and other inorganic atoms. If you follow that fallacy long enough you come out with the conclusion that individual electrons contain the intelligence needed to build New York City all by themselves. Absurd.
If it’s possible to imagine two red blood cells sitting side by side asking, “will there ever be a higher form of evolution than us?” and looking around and seeing nothing, deciding there isn’t, then you can imagine the ridiculousness of two people walking down a street of Manhattan asking if there will ever be any form of evolution higher than “man,” meaning biological man.
Biological man doesn’t invent cities or societies any more than pigs and chickens invent the farmer that feeds them. The force of evolutionary creation isn’t contained by substance. Substance is just one kind of static pattern left behind by the creative force (1991: 249-250).
Pirsig may or may not have been eliciting the theory of the dérive in his attempt to define a metaphysics of substance, here in the form of the city, to challenge the materialist conception of the meaning behind the form and concept ‘city’ but the two currents of thought, that of Pirsig and Debord, take us down similar alleyways of contemplation. They force us to rethink the ‘city’ as subjective for there can be no objective chart of chakras that can be superimposed categorically on all cities.
It is a matter of perceptions, memories, past ventures, histories-personal, familial, and collective-memories, warped or relived, damaged or manipulated by desire, crumbling facades with great meaning, ultra-modern corners of commercial banality devoid of deeper significance, bullet holes in plaster that date back to failed rebellions or poorly painted over graffiti incanting more recent revolutions, windows from whence beautiful women once looked, or hamams with long and twisting tales that get passed down from generation to generation, piles of bricks that had great plans of construction, the stained faces and indelible recollections of that street or this particular corner, these essences come together with the organic, with the natural, or, is it true as Georg Lukács was reportedly wont to quote from the 17th century Italian political philosopher Giambatista Vico, “the difference between history and nature is that man has created the one but not the other.”
Debord continues: “Within architecture itself, the taste for dériving tends to promote all sorts of new forms of labyrinths made possible by modern techniques of construction.”Is this not why the labyrinthine coronaries of ancient places are so ideal for the dérive, as anyone who has gotten lost in the alleyways, hutongs, souks, courtyards, and tunnels of myriad timeless cities would agree. Built, refurbished, forgotten, named, renamed, burned, ransacked, salvaged, painted, inhabited, abandoned, drawn, copied, studied, ridiculed, praised, emulated, visited, avoided, the urban systems of place and memory haunt the dériving afternoon with suggestions and directions. Some may be seized to make the trip while others are ignored, postponed, or forgotten. How do you navigate in a strange city when you have no place in particular to go?
Despite best intentions you can never fully retrace your steps through any environment, cognitive or tangible, regardless of whether the attempt to reverse engineer the path of discovery is carried out in the mind, on paper, or by some process of movement or vehicle exterior to the body. Conditions shift, psychic states alter in the unending waltz of synaptic exchange, the gradual decay, onslaught of oxygen breaking down each molecule and memory over time, force us to adapt in thought and form. This means that when we look back we approach the object of observation from a different vantage point; each approach is different, no memory the same complexion. In this sense, observing, interacting with and analyzing an urban object-as is the attempt of the dérive- a work of art or literature, a cultural, social, or political phenomenon, a quotation gathered through formal or informal tactics, recipes or stories must itself remain an evolving process, divorced from grounded, unchanging theory, or so goes my understanding of the insistence of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory.
A few days ago I stepped outside of my house, down the stairs that are marked by the blue, yellow, and white geometric patterned tiles that gently glisten with certain angles of light from the always open window, out the door, brown and bulky with sometimes broken locking mechanism, and made a calculated decision: turn right. I began the somewhat rote trajectory of navigating alleyways, from tight passages to more open expanses. Sometimes doors open into a view of courtyards, past puddles and storefronts that reflect the familiar faces.
I was vaguely conscious of my direction but, attempting to remain open to the impulse of the dérive, pulled more spontaneously toward the same warren of streets in the Medina that sucked me in on my last attempt to emulate Debord. There was an angle of the city that resembled times past but the precision of the memory was irrevocably shifted to match the meteorological and contemplative peculiarity of the day, the time; subtle differences infect each observation rendering it unique, subjective, giving it a meaning granted by changing relationships.
A dark street sign mounted just above my head, mounted on an off-white wall, mounted by unknown hands, mounted to be translated by the reader, it read: Rue Archour. I followed several colorful doors, and random bits of refuse toward the next location which pulsated with expectant glee at the opportunity to be noticed; the static structure of plaster, stone, and time needed legitimization by human inhabitation and observation. Another sign, this one in Arabic, an open door, an inviting air, a familiarity to another days meandering. The shadows of time and similarity of past events were imprinted deep and dark in the psychogeographic contours of this sudden destination but the details were all shifted; like those memories of childhood events that come back to life in our dreams, the dimensions are never the same. I stepped into the Maison des Associations Achouria at 62 Rue Anchour, a collective art space.
Inside the open cells, white walls and arches of the Maison des Associations Achouria, in a back corner, behind columns of simple hanging oil paintings of Arab, Berber, Bedouin scenes, I saw a sign for Club Peinture Animé. Following still deeper into the soul of impulsive wandering I stepped into the small classroom, a few Tunisian pupils with pencil and brush hung on the personalized instruction of their resident Dali, the Jordanian surrealist painter Abdel Qwaider.
Qwiader (alternately spelled Guider) has been living in Tunis for four years, he explained. In that time he has seen a lot of things change in Tunisia. When I told him I was researching art and resistance he broadcast a rapid grin and invited me to sit at his little desk in the back hallow of the stone room. From across the wooden desk he offered me a macarooth, a heavy Tunisian sweet. As we chatted I glanced around the room. The walls bore his works.
He gestured to a painting of a faceless man sitting behind a desk, the juxtaposition of the material perspective of the man, the artist, in front of me, behind a desk, the stranger-essentially faceless, pointing to the pictorial man, the image, the object to my left of an inscribed faceless creature in the same posture, perhaps encouraging his unseen interlocutor to glance outside the confines of the painted image to notice another pair of observers. The man behind the desk in the image was naked. On the desk, near his right and left hands were two masks, each ostensibly a different archetype, ideology, characteristic. “People lie,” Qwaider commented when he noticed my attention focused on this work. While this piece had the feeling of an unrefined Magritte the bulk of Qwaider’s pieces were glaringly redolent of Salvador Dali.
This similar, mockingly reminiscent work, leads one to ponder, can surrealism be practiced in the same form as its origin or, in order to remain surreal, mustn’t the form evolve to keep track of its intended meaning? Let me explain. Susan Sontag, in Against Interpretation, wrote:
The surrealist tradition in all these arts is united by the idea of destroying conventional meanings, and creating new meanings or counter-meanings through radical juxtapositions (the ‘collage principle’). Beauty, in the words of Lautreamont, is ‘the fortuitous encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.’ Art so understood is obviously animated by aggression, aggression toward the presumed conventionality of its audience and above all, aggression toward the medium itself. The Surrealist sensibility aims to shock, through its technique of radical juxtaposition (1966: 270).
In this sense, in order for a work to remain as a surrealist challenge to the established order, social or political, in order to destroy conventional meaning or create a counter-meaning, which means counter-discourse on negotiated reality, must it present an absurd construction? When once the juxtaposition of Lautreamont’s suggested beauty would have been taken as an absurd proposition it is now far easier to accept. Magritte’s challenge, ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe) expressed in La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images), would not resonate the same now as when it was first introduced into the collective experience-this challenge to the accepted order is now taken for granted- just as one cannot adequately retrace one’s steps through an ancient city center, preserving the full emotional affect of the first experience. In this light one is left to wonder whether modern surrealist paintings are devoid of the shocking potential to challenge political or social conventions due to their reliance on a now established structure of forms. It would appear however, that while Qwaider’s pieces are obviously no competitors for those of Magritte’s first insistence that we reexamine our ideologies and psychic constructions of validity they present a symbolic confrontation to the reigning order of subjectifying ‘reality,’ a ‘reality’ which under Ben Ali was taboo to represent or question.
It is easy for the radical to rush to advocate shocking established orders and issuing social and ideological challenges. But, as one Tunisian reminded me:
It is true that the point of some artists is to make some people really face their fears, to face their weak points, just shock the people. The thing is now, and I will talk only about Tunisia because I live in this society, in Tunisia we are not ready to be shocked. For sure we are living in an unstable society. We have this conflict between Islamists and secular. We are already suffering from this conflict.
We don’t have a real government yet. We don’t have mind stability. We don’t know who we are right now. For the artist to start shocking people right now, it’s really so much to take. The Tunisian cannot take that right now.
If you just wait for the country to be stabilized, for the country to take its first step and be walking in the right direction, then you can throw some shocking art on the Tunisian society. Then maybe, maybe, it’s gonna be tolerated. But right now it is not the time at all. For sure. I think that the Tunisian society needs time.
With both positions -shock and time- in mind, we return to our brief examination of Qwaider’s work.
Pointing at the image above Qwaider explained that it was painted after the revolution. Before the revolution this sort of image would have been forbidden; it could have landed the artist in the interrogation cell and the torture chambers of the Ministry of Interior. The signification challenges the regime, the object of oppression, the false wholeness and acceptability of life in a dictatorship. The chair, the throne, the seat of power, and the scepter, recognizable symbols of power. The ground beneath these symbols cracks from the tectonic resonances of “DEGAGE,” the dictator has fled. The skull and shackles remains in the foreground to remind the observer of the tortures that once would have followed the unveiling of this only slightly veiled criticism of oppression. After the revolution, Qwaider explained, “There is so much more freedom. Freedom about everything, not just for artists.”
In this image and the one before Qwaider plays with the symbol of the chair, and stained in the fabric of his painted reference to illegitimately enthroned power, the color purple rises above the other hues. The color purple was Ben Ali as much as the color Orange signifies the Netherlands. The color is the RCD. The color is a reminder of power and oppression. The following vignette on the color purple comes from a Tunisian journalist with whom I sat down for tea one rainy afternoon; it offers some illumination on a possible signification of the color purple:
Well, we have been hating the color purple since whenever. I was born with the Tunisian TV slogan: purple, with the Tunisian bridges color: purple, with the Tunisian party wearing purple scarf, with the Tunisian leader, when they got[sic] for Nov 7 celebration the whole country becomes purple. And it is all related to Ben Ali. It is all to bring it back to Ben Ali.
I mean, the color purple is just a color but Ben Ali used it to so that when you see it you just remember Ben Ali. When you see it even in the street, just like that, a painted door, or whatever, you just remember Ben Ali. If you notice you cannot find any purple door or any purple window in Tunisia. No one paints that stuff with purple, just because it is a reminder of Ben Ali. We used to make fun of that. If you find any stuff with purple, that’s an RCDist. People made fun of it.
Just wearing the color purple, it was ‘oh, you have become an RCDist.’ Just wearing the color would make you like, we would make fun of you for wearing the color purple. You are related to Ben Ali for sure. You don’t have any other idea about purple other than Ben Ali.
In our mind as Tunisian, we don’t have any other idea about the color purple. Whenever we sit it is just Ben Ali. I mean it is not really true. Of course the color purple existed a long time before Ben Ali. The color purple has been there for ever.
With the kind of surrealist prodding encouraged by Sontag above the color purple might be issued a counter-meaning. This is the chromatic interpretation of Roland Barthes or Judith Butler’s re-signification and it stands out among myriad other artistic attempts, surrealist or otherwise, to re-articulate a meaning for Tunisian psychic spaces. Through such works of art arise challenges to the formerly established order and guidance for negotiating a new meaning to the pyschogeography of space. While omnipresent symbols of social control are sometimes escaped with everyday resistance, humor, desecration, parody, or art these are not always the responses of the oppressed.
The symbols of power can also become so entrenched in the social space as to shape ‘reality,’ and mold the collective meaning or experience of the imagined community of the nation as has been documented of the map or museumized images (Anderson 1993). In order to conceive a deeper account of the social space, to more adequately interpret the forms and meaning encountered either on the dérive or the analytic investigation, as Bachelard has noted, “…the phenomenologist has to pursue every image to the very end (1969: 19).” If we accept this proposition then significant meaning for a given social space can be extrapolated from a careful encounter and analysis with images, indeed as is the thesis of Semiotics.
As I arrived at these images via the semi-structured wandering known as the dérive, guided by unspoken, uninscribed impulses, I will let them speak more for themselves. Their meanings may convey a challenge to the social and political order or they may merely entertain. I found the space where these images live and took them into my possession with the aid of digital photography and now disseminate them. I end with these further thoughts by Susan Sontag:
Surrealists, who aspire to be cultural radicals, even revolutionaries, have often been under the well-intentioned illusion that they could be, indeed should be, Marxists. But Surrealist aestheticism is too suffused with irony to be compatible with the twentieth century’s most seductive form of moralism. Marx reproached philosophy for only trying to understand the world rather than trying to change it. Photographers, operating within the terms of Surrealist sensibility, suggest the vanity of even trying to understand the world and instead propose that we collect it (1973: 64).
Anderson, Benedict (1983). Imagined Communities, London and New York: Verso.
Bachelard, Gaston (1969). The Poetics of Space, Boston: Beacon Press.
Pirsig, Robert M. (1991). Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, New York: Bantam Books.
Sontag, Susan (1973). On Photography, New York: RosettaBooks LLC.
Sontag, Susan (1966). Against Interpretation, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.