An interview with the team behind Flaneur, a multidisciplinary print magazine every issue of which focusses on a specific street in a foreign city.
Flaneur is an independent, literary print magazine every issue of which tells its readers about a street in a new city. Flaneur’s team constantly travels, living for two months in every place they choose to write about. This month the editors are in Moscow, preparing their next issue about the Boulevard Ring, and their next stop is even farther away from their hometown in Germany – Sao Paulo. Strelka Magazine talked to the publisher, Ricarda Messner, and the two editors-in-chief, Fabian Saul and Grashina Gabelmann, to find out if it’s possible to tell universal stories through local examples.
How was Flaneur founded? Who came up with idea and when?
Ricarda: There are two things that gave me the idea. I’m a native Berliner, but once I graduated from college, I thought there was nothing really there for me, so I moved to New York. It didn’t turn out that well, so I had to come back and was forced to re-engage with my own home town. I realised that I need to start looking at it closer to really understand it and find my place. This is how I came up with the idea of making a magazine about one street – I wanted to learn more about the area that I thought I knew quite well, where I grew up and where I spent most of my youth.
I embraced the fact that you should never define yourself through just one occupation. I wanted to create a platform where you can do everything you come up with and express yourself in different ways. The first contributor I had in mind was actually a musician who composed the score of the street, even though this was a print magazine. This was also when I met Fabian and Grashina.
Grashina: We met by chance. I was out in Berlin and I met a guy on the street. He told me that he’s working on a magazine, and I said I wanted to write something for it. The history of Flaneur doesn’t include anything professional like job applications.
Fabian and I joined the team and came up with the concept of a literary, subjective, very fragmented, multidisciplinary magazine. The graphic designers came on board after. In about four months all of it came together, and in the beginning of 2013 we really started working on the Berlin issue.
Is it usually the same people on the team for every issue?
Grashina: Yeah, the core team is Ricarda, the publisher, us, the editors-in-chief, and Johannes and Michelle, the art directors.
Fabian: And local contributors, between 15 to 20 different people from the city that we work in ‒ and we always live there for two months. There’s also the locals, shopkeepers, people on the street, people we meet that are never our contributors but are just telling their stories, people that connect us, people that invite us.
How do you work on an issue?
Grashina: First of all, we choose a city. Sometimes we get an invitation from a cultural organisation, and sometimes we are motivated by just one person or one event. For example, none of us has ever been to Athens and we didn’t have a network there at all. And we still did the issue, because there was maybe one or two people that we knew.
Do you usually research cities before going there?
Fabian: We collect texts on everything about the city: from architecture to politics, history, mysticism… everything is relevant.
Grashina: That’s a reduction method. Acquire everything you can at first and then make a shortlist. It’s like sculpting. You have a big block of stone, you look closer and some shape appears. We usually have a shared document where we put in different items that we find interesting. We begin with looking for artists whose approach would work for Flaneur and email them, but once we’re there, it’s like a snowball.
Fabian: One or two of us come to the city for two weeks to do the initial research, then we go back, talk about it and plan our next trip, which is for two months. When we arrive in a city, everything is exciting and new. There’s a rush of information and we try to digest it in a much more subjective and open way, rather than coming with an agenda or a prewritten formula.
What are the difficulties you face as an independent magazine?
Grashina: Distribution is always tricky. Some companies don’t tell you where the magazine is being sold, others don’t really understand the magazine, so they bring it to the wrong shops.
Fabian: The whole advertising and distribution market is based on how many copies you print, but it doesn’t mean that you sell these copies. Most of them end up in the trash. The industry has this weird culture where it’s common to throw away resources. We try to work with really good, high quality paper and print, and we don’t want to throw away that stuff.
Who are your readers?
Ricarda: I was always reluctant to think of a very defined audience, because it should be and could be for anybody who can read. But there are definitely three target groups. One is the people living in the city we’re writing about, they have an emotional connection to the magazine. The second is the academia, they are interested in the literary side. And then there are people who appreciate Flaneur for its design.
How do you finance your trips and the publication of the magazine?
Fabian: In a very Flaneurish way. For example, here in Moscow we live in an apartment owned by a friend of a friend, and we take care of their cat. It’s important for us to be a part of the day-to-day life in the city that we work in. I don’t think you can do it while living in a fancy hotel.
Ricarda: The whole concept of Flaneur doesn’t have a formula, and that applies to financing. It varies from issue to issue. From the very first issues we had international advertisers or brands that always want to be associated to us. They don’t care if we’re writing about Sao Paulo or Berlin, the interest stands behind the stuff we do. I also reach out to local brands, so the magazine has local advertising, not just products that you see everywhere you go. We’re also teaming up with cultural institutions. Whenever we go to an extravagant place, there’s usually an invitation behind it. We would’ve never been able to go to Montreal without a partner like the Goethe Institute. Or Sao Paulo, where we’re heading after Moscow.
But yeah, it’s definitely from issue to issue. It’s actually like “Okay, let’s go to Moscow”, which was the case, and then I’m trying to find opportunities on the spot. Our wish lists are long and we always need some sort of support to go that far.
And why did you choose Moscow?
Ricarda: My family comes from Latvia and my grandfather lived in Moscow from 1949 to 1952. I always wanted to go to Moscow, and then Russia’s relations with the West reached its peak again in the last few years. Moscow is just 2.5 hours away and we don’t know almost anything about it. Due to the economy within Russia, a lot of people can’t really travel outside. People from the Western countries have all kind of opinions about Russia and don’t want to go there. This huge, amazing country is being caught in a bubble. We can’t really change anything in terms of politics and economy, but when it comes to culture, we can try. There are definitely some cities where we really want to go to and not make a political statement, but an everyday statement.
Fabian: It feels like there’s a strong bond but also a struggle between Russia and Europe. We are like entangled, whether we want it or not. And we don’t really know what to expect. We hear a lot about Putin, but what is life like in Russia? What is the actual physicality of this place? We don’t know that in Europe. We pretty much only see Red Square in the European media.
Who was your first connection in Moscow?
Fabian: The key person for this issue is the artist Protey Temen and the whole community around him. He gave us an insight into a very different understanding of the city with a cosmological approach. Instead of choosing one street, we chose the Boulevard Ring, an entire orbit.
Did you ever go to research a city and then come back and say “No, we’re not going there again”?
Fabian: No. The decision is always fatal and final. When Grashina and Ricarda came back from the trip to Moscow in February, they were very excited and at the same time…
Kind of scared?
Fabian: Kind of shocked by the amount of information and how different the culture is.
Grashina: My first reaction was that the city doesn’t feel like it’s built for humans. You always feel like you have to apologise for being a human who’s trying to move around.
Fabian: Here we became more interested in the relations of individuals and the orchestrated city. Moscow seems to be a city where movement is always forward. You follow a certain pre-established flow. It’s prewritten how you can move in the metro. It’s impossible to go back and say “Oh, sorry, wrong way” ‒ no, it’s a stream, and you follow the stream. The movement is forward and it’s constant. It flows in a way that cannot be interrupted even to the extent where you, as a walking individual, are forced underground. But this project is not about us feeling pleasant or not, we’re not here on vacation.
Why did you decide to write not just about one street, but about the whole Boulevard Ring?
Ricarda: Moscow has been the first city, which really felt strange to me, I couldn’t understand it. And one day Fabian said “It would be almost wrong to come up with just one street, and it wouldn’t do the city justice.”
Fabian: Moscow has an epicentre and different orbits around it, and lines from this epicentre – prospects. We chose an orbit. It is not a microcosm in the social or economic sense like, say, Fokionos Negri in Athens. It’s very different from all the other issues that we did.
There’s a lot more complexity to places than just one street. How do you work around it?
Ricarda: When you open any issue of Flaneur, you always have a short description of the concept, and the last sentence says: “This could be the Boulevard Ring” or whatever street we chose. The conditional is excusing us from being objective, because there’s no truth in presenting one city anywhere in its entity. We’re just trying to come closer to a certain feeling.
Fabian: I don’t think we can do an issue on Moscow ignoring that there’s suburban experience which in many ways is very crucial to understand. And there may be a way to connect the dots. There are commute relationships between the centre and the suburbs, and some of our contributors do that communte in their everyday lives. It’s not just our perspective, it’s the perspective of at least 20 different people who live in Moscow.
Ricarda: It would be especially wrong to do what a lot of travel guides do: they go to a city and then tell you how it is. I find it very arrogant, we’re not the ones to say “This is Moscow and only such people and such opinions exist here.”
Does the literary, subjective approach exclude politics and social issues?
Fabian: No. In every issue there’s a piece called Traces of Resistance, which is about resistance in any form. So, I would say we include this element, even if it might not be obvious, because politics are implicit, not explicit. We don’t have an opinion about current politics, because it’s not necessary in that context. It is one layer of that experience, never the entire story. When you do journalism, you take one layer and you try to analyse it. Flaneur is a collaborative artistic project, not journalism. We’re not trying to explain anything.
What do you see as the overall mission of the Flaneur magazine?
Ricarda: The overall goal is to stay alive, take one concrete thing and come up with a universal story. We’re definitely starting to be interested in expanding outside of the print universe, but we want to do it in a slow, not commercial-driven way, because with that topic and with that name we could’ve easily commercialised it from the first issue.
Fabian: It’s creating an object that you will go back to and that won’t disappear in a constant stream of information. To create something that’s contemporary, but that also lasts and can be rediscovered later. Also the process, the networks that are being created, the relationships that continue after the magazine is printed. These relationships grow, and the magazine is almost a by-product of that process.
What are the values of the Flaneur magazine that you share amongst yourselves?
Fabian: Empathy. Understanding something from a personal perspective, not from reading a book in the library, connecting it to your own experience, your own history. Sometimes people connect flaneuring with the idea of a dandy, and this is not what it really is about. It’s about empathy, about trying to put yourself into different roles and positions and understanding the connections, understanding why certain struggles are universal. Our struggles are both local and personal, but at the same time there’s a universal element that we can all understand if we go there and experience it.