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3 February 2016

How do you teach psychogeography?

The idea is that the students undertake their own version of a dérive – the aimless drift through the city that is the raison d’être of seriously flippant flâneurs – and document it in any way they please.

By Will Self

The academic requirement for the psychogeography module that I teach at Brunel University London is in two parts. First, there’s a fairly straightforward essay question that gives students an opportunity to display their erudition when it comes to the antics of the surrealists and situationists, or the high-flown ramblings of the English Romantics. Then there’s a special project. The idea for this is that the students undertake their own version of a dérive – the aimless drift through the city that is the raison d’être of seriously flippant flâneurs – and document it in any way they please.

They can film themselves, take still images and put them together with words in PowerPoint, or give us words alone. I’ve had students who have conveyed their dérive using immersive installations, others who have painted pictures or drawn cartoons. I tell them: there’s no bar on any mode of expression but the important thing to remember is that I want you to take me by the hand and lead me into this milieu.

That’s exactly what they have done. I enjoy every aspect of teaching the module – which is mostly done on foot, in the manner of the Stoics – but the special project presentations are the highlight. This year, I had a student who filmed himself rapping about his alienated and deracinated childhood while walking down the interminable stairwell of the high-rise that he grew up in.

The child of refugees from Afghanistan, this young man ended up neglected and running wild in London. He intercut his rapping selfie with recordings of interviews that he had done with his teachers at primary school in which they spoke frankly about both his delinquency and what they had done to help him. The presentation was emotionally moving – but it was also literally moving, impelling you to think about the impact of these jagged transitions on a child’s psyche.

Then there was a young woman who grew up in Staines, on the wrong side of the M4, who had decided to cross over it and walk through Eton to Windsor. She had been to Windsor many times before; however, the act of uniting these disparate but proximate places physically, with her own body, brought home to her the depth of the contrast. She experienced Windsor not as quaint, but as contrived, and laughed out loud when her eyes alighted on the last thing that any plenipotentiary might see before his limousine was whisked through the bombastic castle’s main gateway: a branch of McDonald’s in full regalia.

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Our student body is majority ethnic minority (if such a thing is possible), so, unsurprisingly, we had quite a lot of project work that tried to articulate the forms of alienation that are experienced by first-, second- and third-generation immigrants. Another young woman, from a British Muslim background, decided for her dérive first to traverse the notorious Jungle encampment outside Calais and then to replicate the walk she took over there in central London – where, instead of peering into shattered lives, she stared through plate glass.

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She filmed both journeys using a GoPro camera fixed to her head and edited the footage to juxtapose speeded-up sequences of listless refugees with images of frenzied consumers.

Many of the students simply used the cameras in their phones to record their dérives. The resulting films have a distinctive, hand-held jitteriness that, to my way of thinking, perfectly conveys the oxymoronic cocktail of the contemporary British built environment: one part excitement to several parts ennui. Last year, two of my students were working on a project together when they fell out. One of them then filmed herself walking along a desolate arterial road by night, weeping and inveighing against the other – a shockingly intimate portrayal of wild distress in a context of ineffable dullness.

Her ex-partner, by contrast, took us on a journey through “her” Stratford, the poor district of London where she and her family had been housed when they arrived from Africa as refugees, before heading to the other Stratford – the brave new world of the Westfield shopping mall and the Olympic Park.

Some of the students undertook virtual rather than actual dérives. A young man who is studying games design took us for a wander around the world of Fallout 4. He had created his own rules for this exercise: his avatar had to keep moving, couldn’t re-up any supplies, had to avoid being  killed and was forbidden to attack any other avatars. In essence, he had created an anti-gaming game.

Another games designer took us though Google Maps. The whole group became a random-decision generator as to which way we would wander. Within seconds, we ended up somewhere none of us had ever been, nor even considered going.

Over the past four years, I’ve sat through scores of these presentations and each was a revelation – revelatory not just of how students engage with place and space individually but of a collective refusal to do just this. Despite selecting the module, many of the students tell me that they had never before taken a walk like this, let alone spent ten minutes telling someone else about it.

This article appears in the 27 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?