“The beach beneath the street” (or, in my preferred translation, “Beneath the pavement, the beach”), was a slogan sprayed on Paris walls amidst the barricades of 1968. As well as a terrific title for heavyweight seaside reading, it embodies a deliciously dual meaning. Literally, it was taken as a reference to sand found beneath the cobblestones lifted by students to hurl at the police. Its real roots lie in the ideas of an obscure, fluid, hugely influential movement called the situationists and their conviction that the city streets, the expression of capital and consumption, could be rediscovered and subverted through a new praxis of aimlessness, of drifting through them discovering new connections and revealing unexpected histories. This was the continuation of a wobbly line, a drunkard’s walk, derived from the tradition of the flâneur, from Baudelaire through to Walter Benjamin’s Parisian musings (though, surprisingly, a French tradition heavily indebted to English literature, notably Thomas De Quincey’s stoned ramblings). The situationists gave the name dérive to this urban trail or “drift” that would subvert the authoritarian and capitalist intentions of the city by ignoring superficial structure and function.
Edwin Heathcote, review of The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International, by McKenzie Wark, Financial Times, 12 August 2011