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The Walk: A Working Method

By this time, the promenade of the flaneur, the photographer who liked to flaunt, no longer had a purpose. That promenade had earlier been a self-evident point of orientation. The photographer/flaneur had let himself be led by free association, had been open to a coincidental passer-by or a newly-discovered detail in a shop window. Coincidence seemed to lead the way, but it was not blind coincidence. The photographer had reacted poetically, which is to say that he allowed himself to follow associations, rather than being led by a (centralized) project. The poetry of that ostentatious photographer was susceptible to some of the relationships that were present on any given plane, but not at all to others. He followed the principle of the metaphor. There is similarity – in form or in substance – at one level, dissimilarity at all other levels. The similarity allows an exchange of paradigm: by way of a colour or a turn in the corner of the mouth, the flaneur stepped across from the erotic into the mythical, from the constructed into the narrative, from current events into history, from the practical to the poetic. This poetry is personal and private, for it was no longer supported by the articulations of power and religion. This was no longer the church doors leading the pilgrim, but a lock of hair leading the dreamer.

Understanding the city was listening to it, as a poetic construction, and taking part in its poetic production. That happened as one paraded down the street, expecting to be seen. That undirected trajectory was an invention of the 19th century, but only surrealism and the 35-mm reporting of the interbellum period (Kertész, Brassaï, Cartier-Bresson) would give it visual form and a poetry of its own. In that same period, such promenading would also be radically theorized. Only then, between the wars, did all the cards that had been produced in the 19th century come together in a single overall game, the game of modern urban poetry.

Yet another 20 years later, in the 1950s, with the new photographic journalism by Frank and Klein and the films of the Nouvelle Vague, would another form be given to the poetic productivity of the modern city. By then, in fact, the contrast to the period between the wars had become immense. For Kertész, Brandt, Breton and Benjamin, the city was a choir of voices whose tale could indeed be heard. For Frank, Klein and Godard, the voices had disappeared, overwhelmed by new forms of publicity, by automobiles and objects. In these years, Debord developed his diagnosis of an urbanity that had been turned inside out by spectacle, robbing it of all inner form or substance. The poetic probe no longer descended into layers of history, but into the cacophony of the multiple voices of economic actors.

This investigation is also perceived as a kind of promenade, taking a walk. We meander through archives, images, the writings of local history and urban planning. The idea – the art – is not to achieve a utopian objective, but not to miss any encounters along the way, to respond to all the possible calls for our attention and to hear all the voices we can. We need to stand up to the programming and the methodology that inevitably develops as we walk along, in order to in turn be able to drop them again at any moment. Is it not in the actual shift from the one, formal historic field to the next that real insight in fact becomes possible, where people can move from vague awareness to understanding? Intimately understanding a city only happens in those unforgettable fractions of time when we turn a corner and, quite unexpectedly, are surprised by an entirely new prospect. My experience in this study is no different. These are moments of intellectual freedom and existential richness.

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