Each issue explores a specific street in a specific city using an innovative mix of art, text, and design.
If you really sat down and tried, you could turn a lot of pages in the space of 30 days. While we've spent over a decade providing you with about 120 of those pages every month, it turns out there are many more magazines in the world other than VICE. This series, Ink Spots, is a helpful guide on which of those zines, pamphlets, and publications you should be reading when you're not staring at ours.
All images courtesy of Flaneur Magazine.
Flaneur is part literary magazine, part culture journal, part serialized, interdisciplinary art object. The Berlin-based creators describe the publication as a "vessel." Each issue focuses on a specific street in a specific city across the globe, then explores each locale through idiosyncratic interviews, photo essays (with off-kilter layouts), poetry, illustrations, and even more abstract stylistic devices. "I don't think that Flaneur actually really is a magazine," Grashina Gabelmann, the co-editor-in-chief, told me. "I think it's just that we chose to present these streets in the magazine format."
Created in 2013 by Ricarda Messner (now the publisher), Flaneur is about to release its fourth edition, focused on Rome. While past issues have featured streets in vibrant, artist-hubs like Berlin, Leipzig, and Montreal, the Italian capital was a change of pace for Messner, Gabelmann, and Fabian Saul (the other editor-in-chief). Rome is full of history, but the city's present state felt stagnant and dry to the team, as well as the locals they spoke with while putting together this issue. As a result, they picked the most tourist-y and obnoxious street in the ancient city to be its nucleus: Corso Vittorio Emanuele II.
"How cool would it be to take the most annoying street where everyone thinks there's nothing left to discover, and then find something new in it?" explained Gabelmann.
The Rome issue features a photo essay where two photographers walked down Corso Vittorio separately and documented it with disposable cameras. It also includes an account of an experimental performance piece the editors organized in Italy in which they asked locals to "donate" water to a Roman ruin—the idea being to make the city less dry. But even when heavily conceptual, Flaneur never feels patronizing, nor does it fetishize the cities it focuses on.
I recently talked to Messner and Gabelmann about the newest edition, and how the publication has grown over time. Baudelaire would be proud.
VICE: What inspired you to create a magazine?
Ricarda Messner: It was always pretty clear to me when I graduated that I always wanted to do something on my own. I never really knew what I would end up doing, but I always just had this feeling that I didn't see myself in this nine to five job. And then I came back from New York and the plan, the love, didn't work out. I was inspired by movies.
I always loved mixing also disciplines with each other, you know? And this is also what the magazine reflects. It has photography, it has architecture, it plays around with different layers. It made sense to me to try the concept with one-street-per-issue in a print format.
What inspired the one-street-per-issue theme?
Messner: It had to do with returning to Berlin and rediscovering a town that I never really liked before. New York was my thing, and I always envisioned myself there. Then I was back again in Berlin, and I knew I had to have a closer look at it.
I remember that I was looking out the windows at my parents' place a lot because it was so quiet compared to New York. I kept thinking about how my neighbor must have a completely different relationship to the street I spent 12 years of my life living on, and was now staring at out the window once again. And there was something interesting about taking something concrete—literally and figuratively, in this case—but then exploring it through a variety of forms with a sense of freedom. In the end, the street is being used as a storyteller with Flaneur. And that's the thing: When you walk down a street, you can't sum it up.
How has the magazine evolved since it began?
Messner: Maybe two weeks ago, G and I sat down to discuss what we're learning from issue to issue—what we're really doing here, or what this thing is. We're realizing more and more that we're not a classic or traditional magazine, and we're also not going to communicate this. It should be clear from opening the front page.
Grashina Gabelmann: We didn't want to go with a travel guide approach where you end every article with a shop listing, address, map, etc. As I got more involved, I realized this was not the direction I wanted to be going in. It's not very interesting, and I think Ricarda felt that way as well. And then when our other editor Fabian came in, Flaneur got its literary twist. Fabian is integral to the conceptual and abstract aspects. He studied philosophy. So he brings in this literary, artistic feel.
Images from issue four of 'Flaneur.'
Can you tell me about this upcoming issue, number four in Rome?
Gabelmann: Rome was really a strange, unique experience. Berlin and Montreal are cities that have a strong cultural network. There's money and support for artists there, and both attract young people who make art. Leipzig has a weird underdog thing, which I think you can feel by reading our issue on it. But Rome is this ancient city that has such a history of art and culture, and it's really struggling to be modern. It was the first city where we felt that people actually needed our presence—even if that sounds patronizing or dickish.
Messner: Well, we offered some Romans a platform to talk about their home to people outside Rome.
Grashina: Yes, not to belittle anyone, but we did offer this. We organized a performance piece in Rome, and this one man described to us how the city is so fucking boring, so dry, and you can't even touch the ruins. There's no way of interacting with the city. It's like a live, sprawling museum, and Romans feel really trapped, in a way. He said something like, "I really want to turn the city into lakes so we can actually do something with the ruins." And so we said OK, yeah, let's do it.
Within two weeks, we had this performance planned. We printed out all these posters and signs that said something like "Rome is a boring and dry; Romans want water," and put them around the ruins. Then we made a little model—like a mini ruin—and put water in it with fish and had that in front of the ruin. We asked every passerby, "Hey, don't you want this to be a lake? How much water do you want to donate to turn this into a lake?" There was a fountain right next to the lake, so every time someone signed the petition, they had to take water from it and pour it into the ruins to symbolically start the lake. So we got people to pour in water, and then people were wearing bathing suits and towels and it became this public celebration and performance. The reactions from the Italian people who helped us were so overwhelmingly positive. They said, "Hey, we haven't done anything like this in months, or even years. We really haven't had the motivation or drive."
Messner: This project is documented in issue four. We videoed everything, so, we'll have a little documentary online, and an article in print. We'll include the posters and the scribbles and the behind-the-scenes details of creating this performance piece.
On the back of the book, the abstract or manifesto makes it clear that you guys aren't trying to capture the essence of a street or say, "This is it. This is Rome all summed up." Can you expand on that idea?
Messner: You have to have this kind of mentality, because we're not from Rome. We only spent two months in Montreal—and even less time in Leipzig. What can we tell them about their city, after all? It's more about the discussion and the constant exchanged ideas related to an experience in a certain place. The artists who contribute work for Flaneur come from many disciplines and countries, and they are really free to create whatever they want.
How have people from each city responded to the Flaneur issues focused on their homes?
Messner: In Leipzig, I felt like the initial response was, "Oh, these hipsters are coming and they're fucking ruining our town." They'd flick through the magazine and say, "Oh, I would have done this differently."
Gabelmann: Well, like, yeah, then you make a magazine. But anyway, their attitude to the final thing really matched our experience in the city. Our actual contributors were super happy with the result, but I think we sold 20 magazines at the launch party—not a big success. I don't know about Rome, but I think they will be proud.
You've had four issues now on four distinctly different streets in four cities. Why did you choose those specific streets in each city?
Gabelmann: We had never been to Rome before, so we behaved like newborn children there. It was a very different approach, compared to the Berlin issue, which was very personal. Close to the Coliseum is the old political center of Rome. Basically from there to the river is a main traffic spot and it's busy. It's a street filled with both Romans and tourists all the time. So Fabian and I were in Rome for a week in the summer to find our street, and we had a really difficult time picking one at first.
At the end of the week, we met an architect and he said to us, "Oh, Corso Vittorio has something from every epoch of architecture and it's interesting." And we had no idea which street he was talking about. He replied, "That's impossible, you have to pass that street to go anywhere." We googled it and realized we were on that street three times a day, every day. But since it's so hectic and all the points of interests are on little side streets, we never looked it up and actually took in the street.
So that was the initial interest: How can a street that's so busy and so important be that easy to ignore? At first, most Romans were irritated and asked us, why would you choose to represent Rome with that ugly street? And then on second thought, they were like, "Oh, OK, actually that's pretty interesting." Think of it this way: I'd love to do Broadway in New York. How cool would it be to take the most annoying street where everyone thinks there's nothing left to discover, and then focus on that place and find something new in it?
What do you think has succeeded most about Flaneur so far?
Messner: Well, it's independent and I can also give the contributors and designers freedom to come up with crazy things. This is kind of my prime goal as a publisher: to offer this independent platform for these creative people to go wild with, for as long as possible.
Even our designers Michelle Phillips and Johannes Conrad [both of Studio Y-U-K-I-K-O] come to these towns with us, and this is why every issue of Flaneur looks different. They each have their own design voice, plus you can see that we play with the medium as well—there are fold-outs, different sorts of paper, and various art styles and mediums in each issue that make sense just for that issue.
Gabelmann: I think another big thing is that we don't go to Rome and interview an artist about his work, and then publish some photos of his work that's been in galleries, alongside the interview. But rather, we meet that artist and then come up with a concept with him on the street—like that performance piece—which is specifically conceived for Flaneur.
I always think about one of my first lectures at university where the professor explained that a magazine is just something that holds something. Like, a gun has a magazine case. A magazine is a vessel. I don't think that Flaneur actually really is a magazine. I think it's just that we chose to present these streets in the magazine format.
Flaneur is sold at MoMA PS1 and McNally Jackson's in New York and at the Tate Modern in London. For more distributors and to purchase online, visit Flaneur's website.
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