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.

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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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SPILL National Showcase

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Stepping into the thick, warm embrace of darkness, soft earth shifts underfoot. Ahead, an anaemic shaft of light slices through the blackness, casting murky shadows across the faces of fellow audience members as we instinctively gather into a ragged circle. Sounds of water and birdsong spill into the space, unsettlingly enhanced – a hyperreal evocation of nature in a contained corner of Toynbee Studios, an elsewhere that drifts between dream and forest.

In Madeleine Botet de Lacaze’s piece The Shell, contact – the central theme of this year’s SPILL Festival – is promised then denied. Pacing the earth around the huddled audience, her bare body visible in dim snatches, de Lacaze steps close to each of us in turn, her face directed towards ours yet shrouded in the gloom. We share the same tight circle of space for suspended moments, before de Lacaze’s audible intake of break punctures the encounter, snagging on the brief possibility of intimacy and immediately snatching it away. These encounters come one after the other in full sight of other audience members, heightening anticipation with every pause, each offering up a connection that is quickly severed.

The other form of contact within the piece is that between de Lacaze’s body and the projected image of her body, a visualised division of self that is played out on the artist’s skin. The two bodies – real and projected – turn, bend, wash and scrub, at times together and at times apart. It is in the tension between these two images of the self, in the moments of simultaneity and slippage, that the piece finds its oddly captivating power. Through precise and beautifully judged use of the projection technology, these two bodies enter a jostling dialogue with one another, only fleetingly settling, butterfly-like, on moments of togetherness.

A similar tension pervades Jo Hellier’s 97 Years, though here the tension is between age and memory, the things we can briefly capture and the things that are irrevocably lost. It’s a tension that is mirrored in the arrangement of the space, as audience members are gradually recruited to hold the installation together, required to hold strings taut to keep pouches of apples suspended in the air before the large screen onto which Hellier projects video of her grandfather and his beloved garden. The apples themselves, more of which are arranged neatly in a row on the floor, are at various stages of decay, sweet yet rotting, hinting at the joys and sorrows of the ageing process that Hellier observes her grandfather experiencing.

The atmosphere cultivated by Hellier is one of delicate tenderness, an aura of gentleness that is ruptured by the violence of the piece’s audio manipulation, as the recorded words of her grandfather are spliced and distorted, looped on repeat or drowned out with white noise. The snatches of conversation that Hellier has gathered, together with the video footage, are markedly ordinary and everyday, but through her interventions they become distanced and alien, disrupted and repeated. It is we as audience members who are offered partial control of the audio distortion, our raising and lowering of the apples at the end of our string signalling the shifts in sound. Although the communality can feel contrived, Hellier’s gentle presence irresistibly invites engagement, while our physical connection to the piece through the strings – an almost umbilical link to the artwork – creates an immediate investment in it. We are the ones holding the piece, in the sense of both cradling and suspending it.

Holding, as might be expected, is also at the heart of Rosana Cade’s Walking: Holding. A tour through the busy, sun-drenched streets of East London with our hands slipped inside those of a series of strangers, Cade’s gorgeous embrace of a piece forms a meditation on intimacy and difference, offering the attractive promise of a pause within the constant noise of the urban space. I begin holding hands with Cade herself, a warm, quiet presence, who then passes me on to the first of a number of strangers, each of whom lead me through the city hand in hand. It’s a simple but startling premise. The activity of hand-holding, somehow so much more intimate than many other forms of physical contact, is made alien yet safe; participants are invited to examine their own relationship with intimacy while engaging in a kind of intimacy that is controlled, set out within clear rules and limits.

I’m surprised at how quickly I become accustomed to the feel of another’s hand in my own, just as a still, extended silence at one point in the walk shifts from initial awkwardness into tranquil comfort. Despite such moments of quiet reflection, however, the piece is far from an escape. As well as interrogating intimacy from a personal, internalised perspective – what does hand-holding mean to you? how do you understand love? – Walking: Holdingalso takes an external view, inviting participants to look at themselves and their series of partners, often from a position of difference. With this purpose, the walk deliberately incorporates several reflective surfaces, literal instances of the way the city is used as a mirror. How does this mirror reflect me when holding hands with another woman, or with a man dressed in drag? What eventually emerges from the experience, on a personal level, is a spirit of quiet defiance, of refusal to be deterred by others’ looks or opinions. One of my companions on the walk describes holding hands as existing in a bubble populated by just two; it is a small tragedy when that bubble is punctured by enforced self-consciousness.

After Walking: Holding, my hand empty and exposed to the cool April air, Paul Easterbrook’s durational performance HardBoiled? is a curiously distant spectacle. Pushing his body to its physical limits, Easterbrook pounds sledgehammer against metal, crushes objects between the teeth of a vice, hurls heavy containers of liquid against brick walls, their brightly coloured contents spilling across the stone floor. The critical dialogue with conventional images of masculinity is at once apparent, with the effort of Easterbrook’s strained body simultaneously revealing both strength and vulnerability, the futility of his arbitrary demonstrations of physical might hinting at the arbitrariness of masculine signifiers. Yet it never quite hits with the force it promises, its critique – at least in the section I saw – stopping slightly short. In the brief snapshot I experience of this year’s National Showcase work, the contact that achieves greatest impact is not the violent, but the disarmingly gentle.

Photo: Rosie Healey.