On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon I took a walk while boulesing through Utrecht. Together with a group of friends I used a number of streets and squares as a playing field. The water-level walkways along the Old Canal, the fountain behind the city hall, and the usually quiet Seven Alleys. Passersby responded with amusement and sometimes even joined in. The winner of each round decided where the next one would begin. For the rest, the route was determined by where the balls rolled. The result was wandering around for hours through the city center, a route no one could have planned in advance. We played Bocce Drift, a game described by its creators as a mix between boules and the Situationist’s Dérive. Who?
A constant state of revolution
The Situationists were an internationally operating group who resisted the status quo in the 1950s and ‘60s. Their most famous member was Guy Débord. If his name rings a bell, great, if not, no problem. They tried to unleash a constant state of revolution with all kinds of happenings that were disguised as entertaining, easy to consume activities. The dérive was one of these. They walked through town without a plan, which, in this time of reconstruction and domesticity was in itself subversive. This was their way of mapping city life, by experiencing it themselves, not by reading maps or the public register. ‘Dérive’ can be translated as ‘drift’.
Creators of urban games such as Bocce Drift love the Situationists. Just like Débord and his buddies there are quite a few activist-types in that scene. Especially in the United States, where public life and public space are subjugated to social pressures. But also in The Netherlands and the rest of Western Europe there are rules and norms about what can and cannot be done in public spaces. Think about it, our idea about what a city is good for is often limited to a handful of activities: going out, living, shopping, perhaps working or studying. That’s it. Urban game-makers, at least some of them, see it as their job to put question marks around that image, that version of a city. They believe that city-dwellers don’t need to be told by the powers that be what a street or building is, or isn’t, for. If they want to use a public square as a garden, playground, or open air cafe, they should be able to.
But on that playful, sunny, Sunday afternoon, none of us were talking about protest. I don’t even think the majority of my fellow players knew of the political-artistic roots of Bocce Drift. It didn’t matter. The game can be played as a game and nothing else. You could even say it was a successful situationist intervention. The players, and spectators, were playfully tempted to adjust their view of the city. But I think that’s going too far.
Afterwards, relaxing on the terrace of Café de Zaak with a German wheat bear and a basket of tortilla chips, we mostly just had a feeling of fun at having experienced the city in a way we weren’t used to. And if I’m honest, that’s more than enough for me. But Débord, he took playing seriously. He would have seen us as a bunch of pitiful bourgeois.