Theory Of The Bench
Rewritting Guy Debord's Theory of Dérive. With Thomas Jeppe
"One of our basic community practices is Benching, a ritual of critical disengagement in a fixed civic ambiance. Benching involves playful-deconstructive behaviour and awareness of psychosociological situations, and is thus quite different from the classic notions of relaxation and recuperation." (Scroll down for entire text)
- Theory of the Bench - text co-written by Thomas Jeppe and Manuel Bürger, reconfiguring Guy Debord's dérive theory to reflect on the psychogeography of sitting in one place for a long time
- Reference Images - actual images of people sitting on the bench
- Benchmasters in Dialogue - roundtable discussion between 6 (six) bench regulars, concerning spectacle, chance, boredom, repetition, guilt, drugs, comfort and the building of community, presented anonymously
Available at Naives & Visionaries
THEORY OF THE BENCH
(Authors: Thomas Jeppe / Manuel Buerger)
One of our basic community practices is Benching, a ritual of critical disengagement in a fixed civic ambiance. Benching involves playful-deconstructive behaviour and awareness of psychosociological situations, and is thus quite different from the classic notions of relaxation and recuperation.
On the Bench one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives of resting and stasis, and let themselves be fixed by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they have through it. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a Benching point of view cities have psychosociological contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly encourage stopping at certain zones.
But Benching includes both this letting-go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychosociological variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities. In this latter regard, social theatre, despite the narrow public space to which it limits itself, provides abundant evocative data.
The ecological analysis of the absolute or relative character of fissures in the urban network, of the role of microclimates, of distinct neighbourhoods with no relation to administrative boundaries, and above all of the dominating action of centres of attraction, must be utilised and completed by this psychosociological method. The objective passional terrain of the Bench must be defined in accordance both with its own logic and with its relations with social morphology.
In our study we note that “an urban neighbourhood is determined not only by fixed geographical factors, but also by a dynamic image that its inhabitants and those of other neighbourhoods have of it.” In order to understand “the real flow of the real neighbourhood in which we live ... we developed impressions from the bench, a focussed perspective on a small radius of activity, through which inhabitants of a larger radius would consistently pass.” The impressions show a repetitive form of street flow (similar to a human’s heart beat) with points of exception and synchronicity over a longer period. We will speak about this homogenous street dynamic later in this essay.
Such data — examples of a modern poetry capable of provoking placid emotional reactions (in this particular case, intrigue at the fact that the repetitive mundane activities of anyone’s life can be so complex) – will undoubtedly prove useful in developing Bench Theory.
If chance plays an important role in Benching this is because the methodology of psychosociological observation is still in its infancy. The action of chance is naturally conservative and in a new setting tends to reduce everything to habit or to an alternation between a limited number of variants. Progress means direct involvement in fields where chance holds sway by recognising new perspectives more favourable to our need for a constant flow experience with regular highlights. We can say, then, that the random events that constitute the Bench Session are fundamentally different from those of the voyeuristic flaneur with his searches for spectacle, but also that the first psychosociological attractions discovered through Benching fixate around habitual action, to which its adherents will constantly be drawn back.
Here the return is critical – physical commitment to a singular geography over time, as a rhythmic structure defined by movement around, to and from, a point of stillness.
Benching in suburban ambiances is naturally depressing, where the interventions of chance and the energy of a constant stream are poorer there than anywhere else. The primarily urban character of the Bench, in its element in the great industrially transformed cities that are such rich centres of possibilities and meanings, could be expressed in Marx’s phrase: “Men can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves. Their very landscape is alive.”
One can Bench alone, but all indications are that the most fruitful numerical arrangement consists of three or four people who have reached the same level of awareness, since cross-checking impressions makes it possible to arrive at similar mental states. It is preferable for the composition of the group to change here and there from one Bench Session to another. With more than six or seven participants, the specific Bench experience rapidly diminishes, and in any case it is impossible for there to be more than ten or twelve people without the Bench fragmenting into several simultaneous groups. The practice of such subdivision is in fact of great interest, but the difficulties it entails have so far prevented it from being organised on a sufficient scale.
The average duration of a Bench Session is 4-8 hours, considered as good range of quality time for proper contemplation and distraction. The start and end have no necessary relation to the solar day, but it should be noted that the very last hours of the night are generally unsuitable for Benching. But this duration is merely a statistical average. For one thing, a Bench Session rarely occurs in its pure form: it is difficult for the participants to avoid setting aside some minutes for taking care of banal tasks like phone calls. But more importantly, a Bench Session often takes place within a deliberately limited period of a few hours, or even fortuitously during fairly brief moments; conversely it may last for a day without interruption. It is true that in the case of a series of Bench Sessions over a rather long period it is almost impossible to determine precisely when the state of mind particular to one Session gives way to that of another.
The influence of weather on the Bench, although real, is a significant factor only in the case of prolonged rains, which make Sessions virtually impossible. But storms or other types of precipitation are relatively manageable for Benching.
The content of a Bench Session may be precisely delimited or vague, allowing the necessary conditions to either contemplate an ambiance or to distract oneself. It should not be forgotten that these two aspects of Benching overlap in so many ways that it is impossible to isolate one of them in a pure state. But the use of music1, for example, can provide a clear enough dividing line: if in the course of a Session one makes a public act of playing music, either to create a social dynamic or simply to feel good, one is concerned primarily with distraction. If, on the other hand, one sticks to the street atmosphere, direct focus on a particular terrain, one is concentrating primarily on contemplation through psychosociological urbanism.
In every case the spatial field of the Bench is structured first of all on the city’s flow and overlapping social fields. The rhythm of the interlocutor must range between slow wandering and vivid influx - though not too fast; passing subjects must enter at a pace between pedestrian and 50kph. The maximum visible area of this spatial field does not extend beyond 100m though the skyline can be within view. At its minimum it can be limited to a smaller ambiance with high traffic: the extreme case being a Bench Session of an entire day within a Comme des Garçons shop interior, conducted by experienced Bench regulars in April 2014.
The capturing of a fixed spatial field entails establishing a more or less comfortable bench-like form2 and calculating directions of flow. It should go without saying that we are not at all interested in any mere exoticism that may arise from the fact that one is capturing an ambiance for the first time. To properly understand its qualities and context, a Bench must be visited on several occasions at different times.
Our rather explorative so called lifestyle and even certain amusements considered dubious that have always been enjoyed among our entourage — slipping by night into spaces of intense self realisation and destruction, dancing without pause or ulterior purpose, in search of the most nourishing contexts of contemplation and distraction, etc. — are expressions of a more general sensibility which is no different from that of the Bench. Written descriptions can be no more than passwords to this great game.
The lessons drawn from Benching enable us to picture some psychogeographical articulations of a modern city. Beyond the discovery of unities of ambiance, of their main components and their spatial localisation, one comes to perceive their principal axes of passage, their exits and their defences. One arrives at the central hypothesis of the existence of psychogeographical pivotal points. One measures the pulse that courses through the city, a rhythm that may have little relation with deterministic structure. With the aid of emotional, physical and social experience, one can draw up hitherto lacking maps of influences, maps whose inevitable imprecision at this early stage is no worse than that of the earliest navigational charts. The only difference is that it is no longer a matter of precisely delineating stable continents, but of determining the shape of a community and our role within it.
(To be continued.)
1. The introduction of music formalises a connection between the club and the bench – a tacit recognition of the parallel conditions of contemplation and distraction. This formalisation is also not just about entertaining oneself – it is about a minor re-shaping of an environment, a psychogeographical clash that implicates unwitting people on the street in a phenomenological transcendent experience, a forged semantic alliance between spaces of community galvanisation.
2. Here, repurposing of urban architecture can be applied, often in response to inadequate municipal infrastructure - low walls or fences can often prove preferable to official street furniture, an apparatus of the didactic “top-down” constructed community space.
“Théorie de la Dérive” by Guy Debord was published in Internationale Situationniste #2 (Paris, December 1958).
Theory of the Dérive
One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive,(1) 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...
-- Guy Debord, Link
Benching as Inverted-Derivé
In psychogeography, a dérive (French: [/de.ʁiv/], "drift") is an unplanned journey through a landscape, usually urban, on which the subtle aesthetic contours of the surrounding architecture and geography subconsciously direct the travellers, with the ultimate goal of encountering an entirely new and authentic experience. Situationist theorist Guy Debord defines the dérive as "a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances." He also notes that "the term also designates a specific uninterrupted period of dériving."