The Reimagined Flâneur

I wrote the below a few months ago to enter into the Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism. Needless to say, it didn’t get shortlisted, but I thought I might as well post it here.


Framing his iconic portrait of the flâneur, that emblematic figure of urban life, Charles Baudelaire described him as a “passionate spectator” – an individual of feeling, but one who remains detached from the crowd even as he moves within it. For Baudelaire, it is the fate of the flâneur “to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world”. Today, fighting one’s way through swarming city streets where every last move is inscribed on CCTV footage, it is a struggle to conjure up Baudelaire’s leisured man of the crowd, or even Walter Benjamin’s alienated urban onlooker. For 21st-century would-be flâneurs, walking is less an activity than an obstacle course.

In the midst of this relentless urban clamour, Rosana Cade’s Walking:Holding extends a fresh invitation to stroll and observe. In joining Cade’s journey, however, we are denied the cool, detached voyeurism of the flâneur. In common with the demands of Baudelaire, this is a piece that asks us to pause, to walk without purpose, to consider our surroundings. But at the heart of Walking:Holding, on the opposite side of its central pairing, is a provocation to engage.

Cade’s premise is simple: her one-to-one, site-responsive performance pairs each individual audience member with a series of strangers, with whom they are asked to hold hands as they walk through the streets. The piece has been mounted in various different towns and cities – most recently London – with different local performers, reconfigured each time to slot into its new urban context. In this sense, more so than much other work that masquerades under the same label, it truly is responding to its surroundings, moulding itself around the new city it finds itself in.

Simple though Walking:Holding may be, however, it is also a knot of contradictions. It offers up intimacy, but within safe boundaries; it demands engagement, yet in the same movement disengages its hand-holding couples from the city around them; it suggests common experience, while simultaneously acknowledging difference. It is as complex and paradoxical as the city itself, with its ever-growing crowds and ever-increasing atomisation. The bright lights of the urban playground promise countless possible encounters, but frequently offer nothing but loneliness.

In contrast with this idea of loneliness, it is the act of hand-holding itself that becomes the first object of attention in my own lingering stroll around sun-drenched East London. The conversations that unfold with each of my partners are gently, almost imperceptibly guided, steering me towards my own attitudes to intimacy. “When did you last hold hands?” one performer asks, his fingers reassuringly entwined with mine. As I offer my answer, another contradiction occurs, between the physical act of holding hands and the emotional closeness it represents. For such a basic form of contact, it can be taken to mean a hell of a lot.

Despite all this personal reflection, the performance casts its gaze outward as well as inward. Cade asks us to look and be looked at; to open our eyes to the visual richness of the city and imagine how we are painted within it. The first hand-holder of the performance is Cade herself, who shares her experience of coming out in her small hometown and the discomfort she felt when holding hands publicly with her first girlfriend. From this anecdote onwards, considerations of sexuality and its perception are implicit within the walk, which places participants in a variety of different gender pairings. Holding hands variously with a woman, a man, a transvestite, I am silently invited to consider how my image is altered by being physically linked to these individuals, and how this in turn might shift my own perspective on familiar city scenes.

To this end, the route that Cade has meticulously crafted incorporates a number of reflective surfaces, from shimmering office block windows to smudged pub mirrors. Our manufactured couples blink back at us, challenging the way we see both ourselves and those around us by making our own reflection somehow other. It feels contrived, sometimes nigglingly so, but to powerful effect. With a slightly transformed view of oneself, the wider view also mutates, like turning the dial on a kaleidoscope. The streets and its inhabitants come under new, more imaginative scrutiny, extended with empathy rather than suspicion.

Remapping cityscapes is hardly a new concern for artists; urban audio tours and promenade performances have been doing it for years, often hand in hand with the fashion for psychogeography. Here, however, this strategy of urban re-landscaping functions with fresh effect because it works at the level of the personal, rippling outwards from the two clasped hands at its centre. With each new partner and turning onto each new street, we encounter a different version of ourselves and – as a consequence – of the world we construct around us.

Theatre that demands its audience members to take a more active role, from the immersive landscapes of Punchdrunk or Shunt to the startling intimacy of one-to-one performance, has become somewhat ubiquitous. Often the objective of these shows is to activate theatregoers, to make them a vital part of the performance in a way that recruits more than just their imaginations. Walking:Holding, however, is less an invitation to perform than it is an invitation to recognise that we are always already performing, always presenting edited versions of ourselves to the world. The only person Cade asks us to perform is ourselves, at which we are all practiced masters.

And here, perhaps, is where we return to the flâneur. Baudelaire’s detached artist-poet, his invisible man of the crowd, paints the heaving metropolis while erasing himself from the picture. His own performance is one of obscurity – though, admittedly, the stereotypical image of the aloof flâneur leading his tortoise on a leash through the arcades of Paris is about as theatrical as they come.

Cade, however, does not allow participants this self-erasure. The flâneur – who is, after all, a figure of the 19th and early 20th century rather than a contemporary reference point – is never an explicit influence for the performance, but the enduring intellectual fascination with this figure sits somewhere beneath its quiet contemplation of intimacy, sexuality and public space. By revealing us as a performer in the city, our new variation on the flâneur is allowed to be at once an observer and an actor, carrying with it the possibility of action as well as engagement.

This recalls another performance artist, Jenna Watt, whose Edinburgh Fringe show last year made deliberate use of Baudelaire via Benjamin. Flâneurs reflected on modern street violence and the bystander effect, appropriating the image of the flâneur as a route into an examination of what stops us from intervening. We are all guilty of crossing the road to avoid trouble, of failing to step in when perhaps we should have done, but why?

As Watt recognised, the danger of Baudelaire’s or Benjamin’s flâneur is that his required distance removes his ability to engage with, intervene in and therefore change the world he observes. He is painted over, allowing his brush only to reflect the outlines he sees. Walking:Holding, by placing human contact and self-performance at its heart, returns us to the picture.

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