French poet Charles Baudelaire established the term ‘flaneur’ to describe a man of the crowd that immersed himself in a big city and who was opened to receive all impressions. And this is exactly what Flaneur’s team does: they wander around a city intuitively in search of interesting stories to tell. And we’re truly grateful to them because in such a fast paced world with an overload of information it is not common to find projects that don’t care to take their time to go beyond the surface. As they say, the key ingredients are the local people who help digging into the many layers of knowledge that are to be discovered during the exploration. And the outcome: the plurality of truths of the urban fabric perfectly integrated in an elaborated printed magazine. We had the chance to speak with them.
How do you see the need to recover the 19th century figure of the flaneur and make a whole project from it? It is a very romantic way of seeing reality.
Fabian: We are more concerned with the techniques of ‘flaneuring’ than with the literary figure of the flaneur. Of course some of the aspects of the figure of the flaneur can be found in our work too, but I wouldn't call them romantic. The flaneur is concerned with things that may soon vanish and thus he walks the line between being a melancholic nostalgic but also being able to project into the future and beyond the realm of the visible, an avant-garde figure. ‘Flaneuring’ is about seeing the plurality of truths in the urban fabric that surrounds us.
As the name of the magazine indicates, Flaneur, the exploration of the city must be aimless, without purpose, open to all impressions that are offered. But do you really wander around? How is the process to approach a city?
Grashina: We do wander around and spend a lot of time on the chosen street. Of course there is an ironic element in the way we work as we aren't, like the classic portrayal of a flaneur, without purpose or aim. We arrive in a city knowing very well what our aim is but we don't know what the outcome will be. Instead of emulating what a flaneur used to be, we rather use the cultural techniques of this literary figure and mix them with our own approach, which has been established over the last few years. We also invite our contributors to work in such a way, giving them the opportunity to zoom into a street that they might not do otherwise.
We arrive in the city – often never having been there before – and we just begin to walk. Eventually this moment arrives, and it can be after two days or two weeks, where we feel we found something that irritates us, excites us, makes us ask questions. We never do any prior research so our street choice is always based on intuition. So far there's never been much discussion about the street choice and we've never regretted our choice. Then we begin the research of the street, and it's interesting because so far this research has always given us some sort of affirmation of why we intuitively chose the street in the first place. We do read a lot for our research but while we are on location most of our research comes from people that we meet be it urban designers, philosophers, architects or anthropologists, who each have a very unique view on the city.
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Flaneur is totally multidisciplinary. It integrates aspects as diverse as art, text and design, which make it something visually very interesting. How is the team behind the project that makes all this possible? Does everyone take on a specific role?
Fabian: We all have our roles but we exchange and work beyond these. Grashina and I, for instance, are the editors but we also appear as authors and collaborators. The same goes for our art directors, who also spend some time on location with us. Most of the processes at Flaneur are very organic and fluid and we always focus on the concepts of each piece and the meaning of each encounter, trying to give it the space, the format and the time it needs.
You do not like to label it as a magazine, although it’s inevitable because it’s the outcome. How would you describe it then?
Fabian: The magazine is a way to make the collaborative process on location visible, but it is only one outcome. We believe that our work extends further and that we create a network beyond the product and initiate encounters that not always have an intention or a visible outcome.
What role do local people play in the cities in which you settle down? Are they an essential part of the story?
Fabian: All we do is in collaboration with locals. Besides the core team of five, we work with twenty to thirty artists, writers, researchers and people from the city for each issue. And there are many more that share their knowledge and stories with us that don't necessarily appear in the magazine. So in the first phase of the magazine, we are rather in a listening position, observing, learning and walking together with them. It is only after a while that from these diverse meetings the concept of the magazine emerges. So yes, the local people are the key to the city. Our work as editors is focussed on how to connect this plurality of perspectives and voices and how to make visible the different layers of the street.
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You started in Berlin, which was a city you already knew, followed by cities like Montreal, Rome or Moscow. The cultural differences between them are abysmal. What should have a city to be the chosen one? Maybe Barcelona could be the next one, or Paris, where the term flaneur was born.
Grashina: We are open to any city in the world! There is no formula for choosing a city. We went to Montreal and Sao Paulo because the Goethe Institut (the German cultural institute) invited us to go, and as an indie project we are of course grateful for these sort of collaborations. I guess we chose Moscow because the city seemed very unreachable and, to be honest, daunting. We wanted to challenge this as we were aware that we were just seeing Moscow from a Western perspective that really hasn't changed much since the fall of the wall.
I think as we grow and get more experienced in the execution of the project we are increasingly more interested in heading to cities that seem a bit less penetrable and perhaps are ridden with negative clichés, as you simply cannot let these things keep you from experiencing a city first hand. In 2015 the German media and even some people we met were portraying Athens as a dangerous, depressed, lazy city infected by the financial crisis. We found a completely different Athens – sure the crisis was and is a very real issue but there are real human beings living there who will find a plethora of ways to deal with it, who continue to love and create and dream. You cannot characterize an entire city by one of its characteristics, though of course this is much more convenient.
Tell us how the project is evolving as you move forward and if you have any fixed goals for the future.
Grashina: The goal is to expand the projects beyond the printed magazine. We want to find ways to continue and expand the dialogue we began with our contributors and the street, which will take the form of film nights, workshops, or collaborations with bigger partners like the Sao Paulo Architecture Biannual. In Sao Paulo we had an editorial assistant on site for the first time, which was immensely helpful as she knew the city, was well connected and of course spoke Portuguese. We want to continue to slowly expand the team so that we can take on more projects and become even more multidisciplinary.
It must be such a pleasure to travel worldwide in order to keep working on the project. We envy you…
Grashina: (laughs) Yes, it's incredible! We are deeply grateful about how it's all worked out as this really wasn't the plan when we started. It just sort of happened and it makes us really happy!
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