A phone app created for the 21st century deriver – requiring no imagination or forethought, all you have to do is show up with your phone, calibrate your compass and off you go. I drove to Saddlescombe ten miles or so outside Brighton, abandoned the car on a slipper of gravel opposite the old farm buildings and hopped over a gate.
Instruction 1 – Take note of the sounds immediately around you.
North takes me back to the road, so I head south. Traffic is all I can hear.
Instruction 2 – Walk north until you can no longer hear those sound and take a picture of the nearest tree bark.
This is fun I thought, here I can canter around the countryside, looking lost as Ophelia, but holding my phone like a tray of canopes, I have a purpose. I snap a shot of bark.
Instruction 3 – walk away from the last thing you took a picture of for one block then take a picture looking back.
What is a block, half a mile, a mile? I walked until I come to a fence, gazing back into thickets of sycamore and hawthorn.
Instruction 4 – Walk east and look for a piece of public infrastructure that seems newer than the things around it, take a picture.
I found a telegraph pole, marooned and lovelier in a photograph than looming over fields of cattle and sheep heft hills.
Instruction 5 – Walk west for two blocks and make a sound document.
Wind whistles through the valley, trees rustle, a bird sings, the drone of traffic drowns it out like tinnitus in my ear.
Instruction 5 – Walk north until you find an example of ‘anarchy at work’ and take a picture of it.
Ah, a deviation. I’ve walked this valley for years, but missed the narrow path running parallel to the one I usually take. It meandered through a wooded copse, chalky grassland buzzing with insects, leading after half a mile to a steep bank of wild marjoram; back to the road. I took a snap of a man, dozing inside his Transit van, dozing over the wheel, head resting on his arms.
Instruction 6 – Walk east a couple of blocks and find something that reminds you of home and take a picture of it.
No. I thought, I don’t want to do that, and dropped down to a shady track leading downhill, through young saplings, and damp red earth, secluded and shady. There is nothing like being given instructions to make one rebel. The lane narrowed to muddy puddles. There was a house, builders working on the roof on the outskirts of Fulking village, but what was the point of a picture?
Instruction 7 – Walk north until you see something interrupting something else and take a picture of it.
North would take me back in a circle, to the magnetic pull of the road, so I went south again, feeling increasingly resentful. I thought of something Ivan said about how ‘the derive controls you.’ This is not a liberating or enlightening way to walk.
Instruction 8 – Walk south and look for something out of the ordinary and take a picture.
The banks were high with grasses, brambles, blackberries, ripe little jewels, crickets buzzing, loose chalk stones underfoot. This instruction could be an invitation to unearth the ordinary buried beneath the unconscious half vision of everyday looking, but casting around for something to snap felt increasingly like that child’s game where you have to find a hidden object, directed by shouts of getting hotter or colder, irritated to the point of screaming when told you were so hot, you were practically on fire, and you still couldn’t find the secreted object.
Instruction 9 and 10 – More north, east, south, more pictures….blah blah blah.
I gave up. I was still only ten minutes from the car-park. Perhaps, if I started from deeper within the countryside, discoveries and revelations may have opened up; but even so, the act of obeying arbitrary commands, searching not for what sparked my curiosity, but an impersonal algorithm, became boring and uniform. Whoever followed the instructions, would take the same monocular recordings. I thought of that quote from Baudrillard about a photograph acting out a way of grasping the world, without ever giving it meaning. It seemed an apt summary of the experience. The drift didn’t draw the mind inwards, but skimmed a dull surface, focusing attention externally. There was no discovery, no peeling back of layers, memories or associations, no room for personal narrative. Where was the point in that?