About a year ago, I read Michel de Certeau’s well-known essay, “Walking in the City”, in which he introduced the idea that all urban spaces, though developed for practicality by planners and city administrators, possess a fluid and unplanned rhetoric that is “written” by the ordinary practitioners of the city – walkers. De Certeau juxtaposes the panoptic viewpoint of the planners (voyeurs) with the consumption of city spaces by pedestrians or flâneurs. The flâneur is a type of pedestrian; though they operate on the same level as the pedestrian, they are elevated by a self-awareness that allows them to understand the city text.
De Certeau’s voyeurs are not peeping toms, but refer to individuals whose viewpoints are elevated far above the loud and grimy grasp of the city and the anonymous masses. The distance achieved by the voyeur transforms the city’s tangled streets into a legible order, providing a view that Medieval and Renaissance painters imagined in their works long before it was possible. De Certeau places the voyeur at either a physical distance, like himself on the 110th floor of the original World Trade Centre; or at a metaphorical distance, as a person might interact with a city by looking at a map. This god-like eye is the privileged view that city planners, architects and cartographers produce their plans for the city from.
The city itself is an analogue of what’s been mapped out on paper, but it stays illegible and abstract until there are walkers in the streets. Embodied in each pedestrian is an interpreter that reappropriates space and casts new meanings on urban spaces through the act of moving through them. According to Dr. Natalie Collie’s article in the Gender Forum journal, Walking In The City: Urban Space, Stories and Gender, De Certeau’s analogy asserts that “the physical act of walking realises the possibilities of space organised by the spatial order (the network of streets for example), in the same way that the act of speaking realises a language, its subject, and writes a text….Walking is framed as an elementary and embodied form of experiencing urban space – a productive, yet relatively unconscious, speaking/writing of the city.” Though the pedestrian is instrumental in bringing meaning to the city structure, de Certeau also asserts that not only are they unaware of the meaning of their movement, but they are unable to read the urban text they’ve written. As with literacy in any topic, the lack of it creates a disconnect between these “writers” and others like them, and makes the space they are moving through obscure and void of meaning.
De Certeau’s essay suggests a happy medium between the god-like eye of the voyeur and the passive and unconscious pedestrian – the flâneur. The flâneur is a semi-detached observer. They are able to document, witness, and respond to the city, but are never as far removed as the voyeur. Like the pedestrian, the flâneur operates on the level of the street and is always an urban body. They may be enabled by urban culture, and yet they are not blind to it and can turn a critical eye on the power structures they benefit from. In short, the flâneur is able to read the text they write.
This seminal text was later the inspiration for a performative installation piece a few classmates and myself created at the end of term, homegrown. Our concept for homegrown was to collect discarded items from businesses from Kitchener and from Waterloo to bricolage two pieces in the shapes of trees, in order to reflect the lived experience in both communities by defamiliarizing those used and discarded items, and then to build the trees in public spaces so as to interact with the people located in or passing through those respective spaces.
When I was a student, even though I’d been going to school in Waterloo for five years, I only held a cursory knowledge of the city, and could barely identify street names. Each time I left home, I would be so destination-oriented that I never truly stopped to observe or participate in Kitchener or Waterloo. I found that every part of this process-based piece challenged me to step outside of being a constant pedestrian and to be a flâneur. Beginning with gathering the materials for our piece, we needed to collaborate with local business owners, which opened up the opportunity for us to talk about what we were planning to do with the items and why we looked upon them as a celebration of each city. When we were assessing possible build sites, we wanted to choose shared public spaces to be able to maximize interaction with the performative aspect of our piece. In our final exhibition, we invited viewers to join us as flâneurs by projecting footage we collected by walking around and through the spaces we collected our items from. The process of framing these items and spaces in a new way defamiliarized them, and provided me with the chance to experience being a detached observer but an engaged “writer” simultaneously.
After recent reflection on that piece, I realized I need to be more cognisant of how I interact with my city and my surroundings on a daily basis. For a long time, I’ve felt like I was just passing through – it always seemed like my time in Waterloo would be temporary, and I made no effort to go outside of my circle of people to experience the space around me. Recently, I’ve begun to rekindle my flâneurial tendencies, due in no small part to the people I’ve surrounded myself with. I’ve gone for a walk with no destination. I’ve gone into places I’d only ever passed on the bus, and listened to music I’ve never taken aesthetic pleasure in before. I’ve found new volunteer opportunities and ways to meet new people with diverse and compelling stories. Though it’s only a small step outside of a five-year routine, the spaces I knew have been defamiliarized and I find myself in a place to contribute to their shifting meanings. I’m opening my eyes to the urban structures I am part of – and I’m going to start by going for a stroll.
How are you redefining the space in your community? Are you looking for ways to become a flâneur where you live? Take a look at the Flaneur Society’s “Guide to Getting Lost.”
Photographer: Emilee Cook