A short walk with Flaneur

by Kitty Drake in July 2019
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Art & design Travel

Most independent magazines require a level of commitment from their makers that, from the outside, looks slightly unhinged; Flaneur takes this to another level. Exceptional for so many reasons — the beauty of the writing; and the art; the way it’s structured without linearity, so that pieces seem to blossom out of one another — probably the most unusual thing about Flaneur is the fact that it’s nomadic. Every issue is themed around a different street, in a different part of the world. And in order to make the magazine, the team travels to that street, to live, for around three to six months at a time. Previous issues have taken Flaneur to Athens, and Sao Paulo, and most recently, TaiPei.

Intrinsic to their process is that while living on location, the team don’t actually write or edit or put the magazine together. They do a lot of walking around the city, form connections, and lay the groundwork for the issue, which is then created back ‘home’ in Berlin. It’s an organic way of making something, and brilliantly antithetical to our virtue-signalling impulse toward manic productivity. The upcoming issue of Flaneur, themed around the intersection between Wanda Road & Kangding Road in Taipei, has taken a year and a half to come together. Speaking to editors Fabian Saul and Grashina Gabelmann, you get the feeling that Flaneur offers not just a different way of thinking about a street, but about time, and how you spend it.

Last month we travelled to Berlin to take a peek inside the workings of the upcoming issue (out August 31), and talk to Grashina and Fabian about their unconventional approach to magazine-making. We even had a (very) short walk to the square together to take that photograph.

One street per issue: that’s an extremely narrow focus. Do you ever feel it’s a constraint?

Grashina: The more narrow your focus, the more creative you can get.

Fabian: Yes, it’s such a limited realm: one street, such a microcosm. But the real limitation would be to talk about Taipei, or Sao Paulo, or Brazil. We don’t want to talk about the grand narratives, because they are traps: we’re in the 21st century and we should think beyond those nationalist stories. They don’t reflect the different layers of a place. If you try to write about Brazil, that is a construct that you would then need to relate to — either in the affirmative: ‘we believe there is a nation of Brazil blah blah’; or in the negative. But if you start on street level, the question of whether the nation of Brazil exists is irrelevant. That is a liberation.

So when you arrive in a place, how do you begin to research? For example, how did you begin in Taipei?

F: The minute you arrive in a city, you just start walking. What I did for the first few weeks in Taipei was just follow the river. It’s an easy way to go beyond the geometry that is presented to you on the streets. Most of our modern cities have underground rivers we don’t see, Athens for instance has 400 rivers that we don’t see under the city. Walking without really knowing where you are is how you meet people. And it’s a domino effect: you meet one person and then you meet three. Then you meet ten.

G: In Athens, we had an old man next to us in a café ask us why we were visiting. We told him about Flaneur, and he told us he knew a great street. So we walked with this sweet old man for a few hours, and actually the street he showed us was the one we ended up taking, although we didn’t decide that immediately. The first time you visit the street, you are often underwhelmed. Sometimes they’re loud or creepy.

What makes a street creepy? Is the street you’ve decided on in Taipei creepy?

F: Wanda Road & Kangding Road is on the periphery of Taipei. One of the first things I saw on that street was a huge wholesale market. Taipei is the north of an island that is extremely rich in terms of goods. That has led to the island being exploited: by the Japanese, by their neighbours. And it’s a neighbourhood where not just inner Taiwanese migrants arrive, but also migrants from across South Asia, because it’s relatively cheap. Most people would describe this as the edge of the city, but I perceived it to be the gate. So, a neglected place being the gate of the city: what does that mean for collective memory and collective trauma?

Trauma is definitely present here, in Berlin. Is trauma something that you look for in a city?

G: It’s just how you would approach a person. There is superficial conversation, but if you actually go deep with someone, there will always be trauma.

Do you treat places like people in the magazine, and in life?

G: I don’t know. I haven’t thought about that. With the editorial voice that we use, often we’ll say ‘you’ when we’re writing, and it’s not always clear who the ‘you’ is. Sometimes it’s like we are speaking to the street or we have personified the street. But I don’t know if we do it intentionally. Maybe it happens if you find spend so much time in a place.

F: And very quickly the place starts speaking back in the voice of all the people who you meet.

Can you tell me about your editorial process in Taipei?

F: We like wasting time. Most projects emerge organically out of conversations. It’s very rare that we actually seek out someone for a commission. With one visual artist in Taipei, Yu Cheng-Ta, we started out as friends who spent time walking together. After a while, it emerged he was interested in lost poetry from the area. Then I met some other people who had discovered a poet, a Taiwanese Geisha, not well known. Yu Cheng-Ta and I started sharing the research. After a while he came up with a vision of creating a character, trying to learn these body practices and maybe shed a light on her forgotten poetry in a performative way. So that idea was shaped over six months. But at the end of the day you can also spend three months with someone and nothing emerges.

On a practical level, how do you make it financially possible for yourselves to be a nomadic magazine: to uproot your lives and go and live somewhere else?

F: We have support from the Goethe-Institut, the German cultural institute. And there are sales and ads and sponsors, but then of course we all collectively put a lot of effort and our own money into the project.

So have you made sacrifices to your lifestyles in order to make the magazine?

F: I would say I have the lifestyle that I want. Flaneur for us collectively, at least for Grashina and me, it’s a question of how do we want to live. Where is our focus in life? This magazine is partially an answer to that question: it’s a collective effort, it’s something that is really outside of the bourgeois structures for making a living. It’s not always easy, but if you want to do something outside of the box then you have to live outside of the box. You can’t kid yourself into a nine to five job and say, well in the evenings I’ll do an out of the box thing.

On the one hand that’s a huge privilege: we come from a country that is supporting these kinds of projects and we have certain freedoms that come with our passports; and at the same time it’s not always a comfortable road just because of that privilege. You question what do you do with that: Flaneur is a project that speaks back to you: what is it? What has it become? Ideally we want it to be a privilege that we can extend — to create a multi-voiced issue, rather than it just being us talking.


Lead image by Tyro Heath

Flaneur will launch the Taipei issue on August 31 with a 20.5 hour festival in Berlin.

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