Local: The Zig and Zag of Flaneur Magazine

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Current issue of Flaneur on Rue Bernard, Montreal

As we conclude our exploration of the theme of the local in imagery, we look at the most extravagantly ambitious exploration of this idea – Flaneur magazine. Focussing on one street per issue, its truly innovative mix of editorial, design and photography has drawn attention across the media

I was out with John Walters of Eye magazine at the launch of Accent magazine a couple of months back and showed him my copy of Flaneur issue 02. He mused that modern indie magazines are the new pop records. A great analogy, an idea whose seductive snap was interrupted by the business of drinking alcohol. My deferred take on his insight is that the simple joy and obsession you could once develop for pop, is now delivered by lovingly made magazines. It’s about the shared strangeness and eccentricity of great pop and great magazines. It’s about the frequency, the deferred gratification in the age where everything is accessible now, streamed, in hi-def. And perhaps most of all, indie magazines have for fans that priceless quality that doesn’t exist in the age of coolhunting where culture is social currency – a sense of being part of a unique community of like-minded lovers. Because the fact is few people buy these magazines, created by people who love making them. Let’s call them Philoziners, lovers of the magazine, makers and readers. And, as John Walters suggested later, by readers in love with being makers.

Though you might not have heard of Flaneur magazine, it was nominated for a D&AD Award and has had plenty of media play such as this recent feature on the barometer of designer zeitgeist and social shareability, It’s Nice That.

My journey to acquire issue 03 of Flaneur began in Soho London, zagged into Hoxton where I narrowly missed being introduced by John to issue 02’s co-designer James Lunn who was at the Kemistry Gallery round the corner. I already felt a little like a flaneur, alive to the possibilities of chance and accident.

Issue 02. The cover lines for this issue acts as vision of how we might read the magazine itself.

Issue 02. The cover lines for this issue acts as vision of how we might read the magazine itself.

I could have bought the magazine online, but that transactional relationship didn’t feel very Flaneur. The journey of buying, the map I made of London in seeking out the issue, the wandering round magazine shops felt like a necessary entrypoint to the magazine. Like the conversations with the helpful sellers in the new Foyle’s bookshop on Charing Cross Road, about whether in its new building, the famously labyrinthine bookshop still had opportunities for the book browser to get wonderfully lost. “And what does the cover of Flaneur look like?” he asked. “I think it’s purple, with a photo of a 1970s barber and customer at the centre of a collage.” Followed by his conversation stopper. “Which section would it be in? Is it Literature, Culture, Art, Design?” I was there for the design, for how the idea was expressed though design and imagery, for how the magazine left those divisions behind, left behind older ideas of what a magazine might be like. “Not sure,” I said.

The magazine’s name comes partly from the idea of the ‘flaneur’ in the writings of 19th Century French poet Baudelaire for whom the word meant a new type of person in the modern age, a stroller though the new urban spaces and crowds, absorbing the experience for the pleasure of it (though interestingly the word also appears in Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life in reference to an image-maker – Constantin Guys an illustrator from the Illustrated London News who had reported on the Crimean War). And from 20th Century philosopher Walter Benjamin for whom the Flaneur was the new human being of the modern age, the individual who browsed and absorbed the sights, sounds and smells of the modern city (read also the late great designer Alan Fletcher in our feature on Joris Vandecatseye).

The flaneur is a social type, or mindset, created at the edge of the new age of consumer goods, just as selling and commerce became a spectacle in shop window displays and shopping arcades, the flaneur is someone who experiences the world in fragments and thinks and moves in a non-linear way, without a defined purpose or a goal. An analogue version of a web surfer.

Flaneur Founder Ricarda Messner told me I could buy the issue at Ditto Press in Hackney, which was a bit of a stretch from Soho, and there was the added risk that as a middle-aged man I would be arrested by the East London fashion police. But a couple of weeks later I was visiting Proud Studio up in Hackney (they had finished making a movie). I loaded up the map on my smartphone, hopped on what Londoner’s call a ‘Boris Bike’ and headed up to Ditto Press. Got lost on the way, an added bonus for a flaneur, and got to engage in conversation when asking some local folk for directions, before finally happening on the excellent Ditto Press space (more of Ditto next week), and finally got hold of issue 03.

The magazine rack in Ditto Press

The magazine rack in Ditto Press

Flaneur is about mapping a space, a single street, in words, pictures and design. Issue 01 explores Kantstrasse, Berlin; issue 02 Georg-Schwarz-Strasse, Leipzig. Issue 03 Rue Bernard, Montreal. Each issue is an extraordinary adventure in magazine construction and storytelling, documentary and fiction, sociology and science-fiction, illustration and street photography. Indeed it’s been said that the Street Photographer is the modern flaneur. And imagery is central to the magazine, photography and typography, abstract and figurative, the way the designers play with it and make the relationship of word and image central to the experience of Flaneur.

The opening spread for a feature exploring Pop music and Pop culture in the former GDR

The opening spread for a feature exploring Pop music and Pop culture in the former GDR

Flaneur is about delivering the experience of the street rather than documenting it, resurrecting its history and previous inhabitants letting them walk through the present. The strapline of the magazine is “Fragments of a Street”. The idea of the fragment runs from the sense of something incomplete, to something in ruins. The old idea that we can understand the whole, is a ruin, best left to big data. Flaneur is partly about making visible the zigzag of living in 2014, the experience of living in a digital culture where we can access huge swathes of the past, where the non-linear has become so habitual – in how we surf, how we constantly dip in and out of our smartphones, how we flit from talking to the person beside us, to talking to a person on the other side of the globe via social media. Though Flaneur magazine is about a single street, a fragment, it materializes the experience of the new digital environment we are living in. Sometimes exciting, sometimes overwhelming, but always with the sense that not to turn the page is to miss a connection to something vital.

"The Rolling Supernovas" a kind of Graphic novella inserted into the magazine.

“The Rolling Supernovas” a kind of Graphic novella inserted into the magazine.

Flaneur gave us an exclusive, the first time all the members of its team participated together. Founder Ricarda Messner, Editors In Chief, Grashina Gabelmann and Fabian Saul, and Art Directors and Designers Johannes Conrad and Michelle Phillips from Studio Y-U-K-I-K-O.

Why choose the title Flaneur, and I guess why Walter Benjamin/Baudelaire, as the driver of the project? How did the idea emerge?

Founder Ricarda Messner

Walter Benjamin or Baudelaire were not the driver of the project, this wasn’t the premise of creating the magazine. When we started to work on our first issue, Winter 2013, I sat down with Fabian and Grashina, the editors, who formulated an editorial concept around the main idea – one street, one issue. We actually realized our approach was related to the term Flaneur as used in a literary context. Thus Benjamin and Baudelaire and their Flaneur literature have played a role but our magazine takes a contemporary approach.

I think I saw in an interview Ricarda you are a “Communications” graduate. Which communications thinkers have influenced you most? And what inspired you to create a magazine that sits at the edge of communication and art?

Founder Ricarda Messner

My study program at the University of the Arts was called ‘Communication in Social and Economic Contexts’ and focused  on a creative and strategic conception for communication campaigns, planning and management. Again, it was more of a natural, self-developing process when it came to the core idea for the magazine. I was not influenced by theory but rather by my own observations. These days, people can use many different kinds of media to express themselves artistically. Communication can happen on so many different levels, it was interesting for me to play around with this, using the medium of print and its boundaries. To push this – one of our signatures is the collaboration with a variety of artists.  A musician, a dancer, an architect, a filmmaker, a writer, a photographer (…) dive into the microcosm of a street responding very individually to it. In the end it’s the print format binding the whole fragmented works together. We like to work with those limitations in order to find ways how to dive into a never-ending variety and depth that a street and the medium of print will eventually offer.

Photoshoot with Dance teams Grouped'ArtGravelArtGroup. Photography Stephane Najman

Photoshoot with Dance teams Grouped’ArtGravelArtGroup. Photography Stéphane Najman

Does the idea of the Flaneur play out in the thinking of the design?

Art Directors/Designers Johannes Conrad and Michelle Phillips

We don’t intend that the reader starts at page one and reads in a linear direction. We invite our readers to dip in at any point, we use visual cross references and occasionally fragment works throughout the course of the magazine or rotate them to suggest other ways of exploring. Just like a flaneur might gather impressions from walking up and down a street, perhaps.

The Pull Quote goes for a walk along the vertical of the page

The Pull Quote goes for a walk along the vertical of the page

What do you think is Flaneur’s relationship to conventional Ethnography? Flaneur may have an unconventional methodology and expression, but it’s clearly capturing something of the spaces you explore?

Founder Ricarda Messner

There is definitely a parallel to conventional Ethnography when it comes to finding strategies to enter the microcosm and revealing it, but then again the flaneur method is a much more introspective method. As Benjamin put it, the street leads down, when not to the mothers, then into a past that can be even more fascinating and enchanting than his own. So there’s a very subjective literary approach here and in that sense all perspectives are fruitful for us. The first glance, the curiosity of a child or the melancholy of someone that returns to a place are as relevant as the rather ethnographic perspective of a participant of the microcosm. It says ‘This could be Rue Bernard’ e.g. in our concept, so we’re aiming for breaking up the linear, logical idea of a street in favour of fragments. There’s a truth in avoiding finding a truth.

Spread from the Meredith Effect. Intro extract, “It took the taste of a Madeleine cookie dunked in tea to awaken Proust’s involuntarty childhood memory that led to his novel In Search of Lost Time. Photographs of food native to Rue bernard are sent to food journalist Meredith Erickson who for six years called the street her home.” Photography Y-U-K-I-K-O

Flaneur is one of the most lavishly designed magazines around in the sense that the design is as expressive of an idea as the text. How did you come to the decision that design would be an essential component of mapping the space/street?

Art Directors/Designers Johannes Conrad and Michelle Phillips

Flaneur is unique in that all the contributions are created especially for the specific issue. The work we commission and receive is hugely diverse and we try not to manipulate it into a Flaneur ‘brand’ or formula. Similarly, it doesn’t make sense to fit the feeling of the street into a rigid design, but instead let the contributors’ works and our own experiences guide the overarching visual outcome. It’s a very intuitive and organic process. If we feel a contributor’s concept could benefit from manipulating the format of the pages, we suggest it and are open to exploring things from all angles. We try to use the physically bound format of a printed magazine to its fullest potential. It’s nice to embrace the tactility of an object that has qualities the screen doesn’t.

Could you talk us through the design and layouts in issue 2 of “13 Amounts to a Promise”?

Art Directors/Designers Johannes Conrad and Michelle Phillips

“13 Amounts to a Promise” is a very unique piece, and sort of the centre piece of Issue 02. The piece is written by young writer Roman Barton who has written a semi fictional / semi historical account of Leipzig, the city the issue takes place in. It’s about the urban town planning in the early part of the 20th century when Leipzig was becoming a metropole. The written piece has three layers. A main body of text, footnotes and hand scribbled notes. Because of these layers we felt it was necessary to lay it out as a faux document, something perhaps found in the city, on the street, something that has for some reason got itself into the magazine.

Issue 02

Issue 02. Spread from “13 Amounts to a Promise”

We took the mystery of this document to a fourth dimension and decided to french-fold the entire pages of the document as if it were photocopied and folded backwards – sort of jammed into the magazine. Inside the French folds were images from the flower shop series (another story that appears later in the magazine). “13 Amounts to a Promise” was a nice example of the sort of storytelling we can achieve by collaborating closely with our contributors.

The design of this story, from photography to typography to the folds of time within the pages is extravagantly ambitious.

The design of this story, from photography to typography to the folds of time within the pages is extravagantly ambitious.

As each feature is specifically constructed, it must be challenging to manage both creatively and in terms of production?

Founder Ricarda Messner

Yes, it is a challenge but at the same time reflects our interests from the design, editorial, publishing point of view. Finding the red thread to create a certain narratively accessible publication but simultaneously still respecting each piece on its own. From our feedback we’ve been told people have to take their time and are even slightly confused sometimes with the work they are confronted with. It is not our intention to be too abstract but we’re happy to challenge us and our readers.

How does the editorial process work? Do you come up with a concept for a piece and commission the writer and photographer? Does the design respond to the work as it comes in?

Editor in Chief, Grashina Gabelman

There’s no classical commissioning with Flaneur. We meet with artists that appeal to us, discuss, check out the street and then we let them explore on their own before meeting again. It’s more of a dialogue in the first place which eventually becomes a more introspective and subjective work. It’s a very organic process.

Art Directors/Designers Johannes Conrad and Michelle Phillips

We always try and get a good working relationship with the artists involved and start discussing the presentation of the work in the magazine as soon as possible. How far we can push the design and visual is always about how much trust the artists decide to give us and how much the piece allows room to be pushed, or whether or not it is necessary.

Visual stepping stones across the

Visual stepping stones across the pages, created from stills from movies, youtube and photos taken on the Rue Bernard

What kinds of design references have you look to when thinking around the magazine and what’s been the most challenging piece of design?

Art Directors/Designers Johannes Conrad and Michelle Phillips

We are inspired by the sort of ephemeral scraps you encounter everyday – forms, receipts, tickets, bureaucratic stuff, that public design that sort of looks a bit defaulty and functional. Also the way you find it, on other bits of designed ephemera – it has a sort of clashy effect. It’s nice to subtly bring these observations into the design of the magazine.

A story, "Untitled", in which the writer's  vision breaks down into fragments. It's give in scraps, some of which are 3D inserts, some of which 2D images of scraps, giving the whole piece a 'trompe l'oeil' effect.

A story, “Untitled”, in which the writer’s vision breaks down into fragments. It’s given in scraps, some of which are 3D inserts, some of which are 2D images of scraps, giving the whole piece a ‘trompe l’oeil’ effect.

What are the criteria for your choice of street? Why Rue Bernard in issue 3?

Founder Ricarda Messner

The overall criteria is an intuitive approach. In the end each street has the possibility of telling interesting stories because life happens there. But the streets portrayed by us so far did something with us. Disharmonies, contrasts, subconscious feelings let you have a closer look and create a certain relationship whether positive or negative.

Issue 03 was our first international move, supported by an initiative from the local Goethe Insitut in Montreal. I was invited to get a first general impression for the town in October 2013. I had never been to Canada before, I had some clichés in my mind but there wasn’t any ‘real’ picture I could hold on to. I was aware of Quebec’s special role within its country and Montréal’s anglo and francophone identity, which guided me unconsciously while driving around on a bike. On Rue Bernard there was an invisible wall in the form of Parc Avenue dividing Rue Bernard into two different worlds. I was curious and wanted to know more why its look and feel changed radically and I was then told one part belongs to the French district Outremont and the other half to the anglophone Mile-End area. Plus on the street we had a strong presence of different cultures, mainly the Hasidic Jewish Community. There was no other street giving us the same feeling – representing Montreal in a hyperlocal microcosmic sense.

Each issue feels on the edge of chaos, it’s populated with so much textual, photographic, illustrative, typographic and material information – material in the sense of paper stocks/folds/sizes and in the new issue a comic inserted within the magazine. How do you decide when creatively/communication-wise it is too much? Do you pullback at any point?

Editor in Chief, Fabian Saul

The process of diving into the fragmentation of the place which is the first stage is a very energetic and impulse-driven phase. Sorting these fragments and giving them a rhythm, creating pillars inside the fragmentation is our main job as the editors in a later phase. We somehow have to gain an overview of things and we also produce the content for some series that act as pillars in the magazine ourselves. We do sometimes pullback, although this usually happens in the earlier stage. In the later stage it’s more about finding links between the pieces and thus binding them into the issue. These cross-references are a key element because the pieces grow together. At this later stage there’s no pulling-back, but getting the best out of each contribution that’s on the way.

The endnote for a feature on hairdresser's, YVES.

The endnote for a feature on Yves the barber who has worked in this shop for 27 years. A collection of things that signal something about him.

Maybe it’s too difficult to stand back from your process, but to what extent does ‘Berlin’ (whatever Berlin means!) inform Flaneur?

Editor in Chief, Grashina Gabelman

Ricarda is the only native Berliner amongst us and the initial idea to take a closer look came from her return to Berlin after a stint in New York. But here it’s rather the process of returning to one’s roots that was important and that could have applied to any given city. But of course Berlin’s reputation of being very free, easy and affordable somehow plays a role – a more hectic, expensive and business orientated city would be more difficult grounds for a group of young, independent magazine makers.

Can you tell us which street you are looking at next?

Editor in Chief, Grashina Gabelman

We’re currently in Rome producing Issue 04. We felt like we had two options in Rome: to ignore the tourist and head to the ‘outskirts’ of the center or embrace the tourist as a literary figure and we chose to go with the latter.

Buy Flaneur here

Catch Studio Y-U-K-I-K-O speaking in Leipzig, Copenhagen and Oslo and next year at OFFF in Barcelona

 

 

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