The Flâneur, Psychogeography and Drift Photography
Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance — nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city — as one loses oneself in a forest — that calls for a quite different schooling. Then, signboard and street names, passers-by, roofs, kiosks, or bars must speak to the wanderer like a cracking twig under his feet in the forest.
-Walter Benjamin, A Berlin Chronicle1
Lulled by the rhythms of routine life, one easily slips into a comfortable yet perfunctory existence, unaware that the potential imprisonment of consumer culture in addition to the modern city’s enslavement to capitalism may end up threatening cultural diversity and limiting individual freedom. I call for a deliberate slowness, an idleness in which methods for realizing a personal, artistic and spatial reclamation can be found in implementing what I define as “drift photography,” a means of exploration inspired by both psychogeography and historical cases of infamous city wanderers. Urban rambling requires establishing a new structure of practices and experiences by encouraging active participation, an attuned sense of perception and the repossession of public space. Adopting the 35mm camera as an exploration instrument for revolutionary practice, affords new possibilities to the camera as an investigative tool. Though restless, destructive and unstable, the city leaves behind traces, vestiges and clues for observation, collection and contemplation.
A prime site for investigation, the historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood remains between Cincinnati’s downtown business distinct and the uptown university area of Clifton. This region, originally inhabited by German immigrants in the eighteen hundreds and nostalgically named after the Rhine river, boasts a district of streets lined with romantic German American nineteenth century architecture and now houses a variety of people, cultures and economic classes. Here, as a teenager I sought diversity, experience and immersion and several years later have returned to look for photographic subjects, nostalgia and meaning.
The Over-the-Rhine area received hasty criticism from the public and media following high crime reports and anti-police riots in 2001, sparked by the shooting death of an unarmed teenager. A report by consumer finance website, walletpop.com,2 cites that an individual in OTR (Over-the-Rhine) has a one in four chance of being a victim of a violent crime. The same site also labeled OTR number one out of twenty five most dangerous neighborhoods in America, warranting over fifty-five pages of criticism from supporters and locals. Sensationalism perpetuates urban ills handed down by neighbors around the cul-de-sac and conservative news agencies, transforming our relationship and thoughts about urban environments and shaping our ideas of the inner city, crime and poverty.
Reappropriation of public space through direct experience is the first step in restoring Over-the-Rhine to its fading veracity. Methods for realizing an urban reclamation can be found in adopting modes of exploration inspired by psychogeographic practices. Author Merlin Coverley describes one of the principal qualities of psychogeography as walking as an “act of subversion.”3 He explains that by leisurely exploring “marginal and forgotten areas,” one is able to “challenge the official representations”4 of the city.
In an age of acceleration, deliberately slow exploration contains a degree of political radicalism, as an “affront to the time equals money equation”5 and by refusing to conform to society’s capitalist rhythms. Purposeful aimlessness revolts against the banalisation of the city environment that comes with urban redevelopment. Controlled atmospheres strive to provide a place to live and shop for suburbanites seeking the big city experience sans the “undesirable elements,” culminating in little more than the elimination of shared space. By walking for its own sake, instead of from point A to point B (or from car to boutique), one discovers an alternate mode of movement and opens up to new experiences, human interactions and a revolutionary use of public space.6
The concept of wandering the city dates back to early-nineteenth century literature as authors and practitioners attempted to come to terms with the modernity’s new realities. In his 1863 essay The Painter of Modern Life, Charles Baudelaire provides a name for the urban spectator, “Observer, philosopher, flâneur – call him what you will.”7 Similar to Edgar Allan Poe’s Man of the Crowd, Baudelaire describes a man who has fallen passionately victim to an irresistible curiosity with the scenes of the street around him, a man who “is looking for that indefinable something we may be allowed to call modernity.”8 Walter Benjamin further explored the idea of flânerie, or aimless strolling, in his unfinished collection of writings, Arcades Project, which chronicles the promenader and his attempts to reckon with the city’s redevelopment and the constrictions of capitalist modernity. The flâneur, not in favor of urban decay nor completely against the redevelopment of dilapidating buildings, upholds a certain disapproval surrounding the gentrified area, mainly aiming to avoid the chic businesses and upscale lofts. Through commercial disparticipation, the strolling loafer secures his freedom and rightful position on the margins of both bourgeois and urban culture as outside observer, for he may browse the storefront windows but rarely does he buy.
This idea of the urban ambler, more than just a nineteenth century social phenomenon, exists as an exponent of a certain kind of vision, combining the “casual eye of the stroller with the purposeful gaze of the detective.”9 The investigative conduct of the flâneur proved influential to the automatist meanderings of the Surrealists in the first part of the twentieth century. However, ideas of urban exploration were not thoroughly explored until Guy Debord and the Situationist International adopted the figure as a basis for their theory of dérive. The situationists sought to adopt a critical and experimental drift (the dérive) while letting go of all compulsions that normally governed action and movement in order to abandon themselves completely to the terrain.
Through new forms of geographical research and action the situationists hoped to reclaim urban areas in terms of desire, encounter, and play, ultimately aiming “to covert avant-garde interest in everyday space and mass culture into a revolution.”10 As the situationist’s observations and methods of diversion evolved, their formulation of new principles for urban life were supposed to help develop the structure for a utopian “Situationist City.” In reality, the movement’s large-scale critiques resulted in little more than “Debord’s increasingly grandiose plans for world domination,”11 rendering psychogeography as a scientific discipline a disappointment but paving the way for a bright future in psychogeographic research.
In addition to the aforementioned act of subversive walking, Coverly describes another predominant characteristic of psychogeography as exploring “new ways of apprehending our urban environment,”12 which can be found in searching for innovative methods of observation, vision and modes of perception. Some modern day psychogeographic practitioners have turned to the map to record urban experience. French scholar Michel de Certeau calls attention to the inadequacies that may lurk behind cartographic methods of representation, stating that city maps may record streets but “miss what was: the act itself of passing by.”13 Coverly furthers this claim by explaining that it is problematic to reduce the individuality of an experience on the street to a few “flattened out points on a chart.”14
In order to assess, experience and celebrate the neglected aspects of the city and to move beyond mere fragmented cartography, my work attempts to establish a unique relationship between the city and self, while navigating the limitations on which my practice teeters, seeking (and perhaps inventing) new meaning along the way. Adopting a radical form of documentary photography, a disposition familiar to the flâneur and a mode of perception common of the situationist drifter, this work embraces methods of observation that place precedence in street level explorations and direct experiences, unseen and unseizable by any map.
Reality for city spectators exists not within some abstract, mapped out conceptual city but rather within a ground level gaze, not far off from that of the photographic camera. Susan Sontag equates this relation between the eye of the flâneur and the gaze of the camera in her 1977 collection of essays On Photography. She writes, “the photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno.”15 She continues to explain how the flâneur is not so much interested in the city’s official realities but in its neglected and forgotten streets, aiming to expose some kind of unseen reality or to capture a hidden truth, “as a detective apprehends a criminal.”16 While Sontag presumes that this kind of urban exploration begets a voyeuristic, downward gaze, often ending in exoticism or class portraiture, I argue here for a practice that seeks to bypass such social subjectification through the appreciation of details and traces, clues that exist in the present but suggest a degree of loss.17
Other writings, namely Martha Rosler’s 1981 essay In, around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography) proved influential in thinking about documentary practices, as Rosler’s photographic work aims not so much to expose a “reality newly viewed”18 but to provide a body of work that acts as a criticism. Drawing influence from works by Sontag and Rosler, a new practice in documentary photography should seek not to make “generalizations about the condition of man”19 or to reveal truths hidden to others but to try for a radical kind of documentary, one that departs from the usual contradictions of photojournalism. The clues collected by such a practice aim to expose the tension wrought by gentrification through the establishment of work that looks backward towards a disappearing past and forward to an emerging future, a prospect that seems marred by the erosion of public space and an increased lack of diversity.
The methodology for this radical documentary practice, which I shall call, “drift photography” can be found in the purposeful aimlessness of the flâneur, who (when armed with a film camera) is able to experience, record and trace back clues not to some hidden truth but to an actual event. With drift photography, importance is placed more on process and experience than final output, acting as an alternative to mass-produced, photojournalistic “good photography”20 which, as a practice, is merged with productivist values, dominated by aesthetics and largely influenced by capitalism. As an alternate to certain forms of documentary practices that seek to cleanse the senses or reveal to others hidden details of a world around them, the work of drift photographers seeks only to say, “This was here,” and in turn, “I was here,” stubbornly pointing to the trace of what once was but no longer is. Counter to the digitalization of mainstream society, drift photographers posses a natural preference for analog technologies, namely film photography for its privileged status as an indexical medium.
The index, a term coined by philosopher Charles S. Pierce, is distinguished from the icon and the symbol21 as a distinctive sign “not reliant on mental association but a direct dual relationship to its object,” it “asserts nothing, it only says, ‘there!’”22 Like footprints left in the snow, indices suggest some sort of previous physical presence from a real event, exemplifying photography’s special relationship to its subject through the generation of a physical, causal association that is not achievable through vision, cognition or digital reproduction.23 Keeping in mind photography’s indexical nature and seeking out the material correspondence of sign and signifier, the drift photographer’s encounter with and collection of clues, vestiges and traces begin to take on a secondary level of meanings and readings offered by the presence of the object captured through the camera but also in the suggestion of an absence. The nostalgic methodologies of the flâneur embody this loss as a wander who is physically present but temporally removed.
The function and logic of the index is important for ramblers of the street because while it affirms “the registration of sheer physical presence,”24 it also allows for the establishment of a corporeal trace of their own. Whether by taking pictures or through experience, drift photography allows practitioners to explore different imaginings of public space, time and history. Author Loretta Lee explains that the mass production of history leads to the aestheticization of what she calls “gentrification kitsch”25 in which imitation urban streets take precedence over authenticity in order to meet market demands and profit quotas. The radical practices of the drifter act as an alternative to the commodifying tendencies of gentrification by allowing for the reclamation of time, history and space via idleness, veracity and wandering. The politics of the urban property market have sprawled out visually on the terrain, ridding the opposition and leaving its destructive mark in the form of homelessness, vacant lots, scarred walls, blandness and conformity.
In the case of gentrification, drift photography and the index, the associated repercussions of the how are far more important than the why. Reallocating urban property is about power, control and the right to exclude, all of which the drift photographer opposes. Practitioners of drift photography are not only expected to back up their claims and interests with action, their practice and their terrain depend on it. Searching on walls of forgotten buildings and sidewalks of tree lined streets, wandering ancient brick alleys and peering into vacant or redeveloped storefront windows, I find myself increasingly greeted by gentrification’s byproducts; tension, alienation and absence. The process of seeking out traces and excavating clues that embody a past, present and future attempts to affirm the physical and psychological condition of Cincinnati, a city ripe with history, texture and mystery.
Christopher Luessen is an artist and art educator based in Cincinnati, OH. View more articles by Christopher Luessen.
How do different places make us feel and behave? The term psychogeography was invented by the Marxist theorist Guy Debord in 1955 in order to explore this. Inspired by the French nineteenth century poet and writer Charles Baudelaire’s concept of the flâneur – an urban wanderer – Debord suggested playful and inventive ways of navigating the urban environment in order to examine its architecture and spaces.
As a founding member of the avant-garde movement Situationist International, an international movement of artists, writers and poets who aimed to break down the barriers between culture and everyday life, Debord wanted a revolutionary approach to architecture that was less functional and more open to exploration.
The reimagining of the city proposed by psychogeography has its roots in dadaism and surrealism, art movements which explored ways of unleashing the subconscious imagination. Tristam Hillier’s paintings such as La Route des Alpes 1937 could be described as an early example of the concept.
Psychogeography gained popularity in the 1990s when artists, writers and filmmakers such as Iain Sinclair and Patrick Keiller began using the idea to create works based on exploring locations by walking.