Antennas for a Flâneuse
In the mid to late aughts, a friend had obtained a vintage Peugeot bicycle for me under somewhat suspicious circumstances. It had sew-ups, metal toe-clips, and dropped handlebars—quite risky for a recent Midwest transplant in largely pre-bike lane New York. But despite the dangers of riding in the city—from cars, bicycle thieves, or even garden-variety street harassers—it provided me a type of freedom that the bus, subway, and even walking didn’t allow.
At some point, I’d purchased a matte white helmet with a few other features that, from a distance, could have been mistaken for a radome or, less charitably, the Great Gazoo. Wearing this, I was gliding down an avenue in the East Village when a stop light turned red. I pulled up to the curb and waited. A silver-haired woman with her Pomeranian on a leash turned to me, paused, and deliberately asked, “Where is your antenna?”
This wasn’t the first time a stranger in New York had spoken to me, but it was the first that conjured thoughts of the flâneur (or, really, flâneuse). Identified by Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, the flâneur is someone who has the time and money to carelessly wander the city and observe its goings-on—to present a perspective and story from their particular point of view. I was always captivated by this symbol of the dilettantish flâneur walking a turtle on a leash through the arcades of pre-Haussmann Paris.
Observation and disassociation through movement has long figured into my own work, and my intent here is to explore, not what a modern flâneuse might see, but what she might actually do. Rather than passively observing and consuming the sanitized urban design and architecture presented to us, I find myself wanting to actively instantiate a physical reaction to space. What if, instead of leashing a turtle to slow down one’s observational time, we instead think through how to materialize our emotional response? (Also, please think of the poor turtles). How do we connect with these spaces that we know in our bodies through feeling, and then re-present those feelings in alternative lights and outside of time?
To be clear, I am not suggesting a prescriptive way of seeing and sensing. Instead, this is about trusting instinct and peering further into our known spatial reference frames. We might consider it an analog to David Lynch’s “checking stick,”1 a somewhat absurdist tool for verifying our primal connections to the world.
For example, instead of considering the palimpsest of the built environment and documenting it, I’ll scrutinize specific information that may live outside of the space and time of the perceived moment. How was this built? What was the intent? Who were the workers? Re-mixing the answers to these questions provides a way for me to slow down, invert, and find an alternate awareness. The end product is a way to bring forth a sense of an underlying truth or feeling that, prior to this exercise, I did not have the lexicon to yet describe.
One way I try to pick up on this is through experimental technik—an iterative process that relies on serendipity, intuition, and improv for extracting and remapping quantitative and qualitative information from spatial phenomena. This freeing of the data from its intended use creates an elasticity within the rendered space, which is often unrecognizable. This preserves a feeling of the original moment. In a final step, I try to distill them into a physical or material process—a small sculpture or print—but those are just archive vehicles for communication. All of this processing is documented and released to the viewer for their deliberate and careful review, a form of communication with the world rather than a tool to build a world. There is so much to extract from the experiences that surround us, more than enough to construct your own approach to tuning your reference frame. Where is your antenna?
Dana Karwas is the director of the Center for Collaborative Arts and Media (CCAM) at Yale and is a critic at the Yale School of Architecture teaching courses related to mechanized perception.