A botanist for the web

(originally published in Magazine Électronique du CIAC #27 - 2007)

Modernity: that forever-present shift in the way the world was seen and thought of, and through which major changes in Western societies came about. In the second half of the twentieth century, the urban space in European cities was restructured; Paris is one of the most important examples. Streets became wide and sidewalks allowed for walking to become a social activity. People strolled around to see and be seen; Proust describes it perfectly in his À la recherche du temps perdu. But before such a monument to time as that book had begun, a new dialectic with urban space was defined. Charles Baudelaire, the first and foremost "gentleman stroller of city streets", started using and theoretically elaborating the figure of the flâneur, a figure who can roughly be thought of as the person who walks the city in order to experience it. Not only Baudelaire, whose interest was from an artistic point of view, but several thinkers applied the concept to the economic, historic, and cultural fields, turning the flâneur into a significant referent for understanding modernity and urban life.

Besides elegantly walking around cities, Baudelaire thought of the flâneur as having an important part to play in understanding, participating in, and portraying the city as it was changing. A flâneur thus both played a role in city life and, in theory, remained an outside observer. A flâneur had to be simultaneously part of and apart from the metropolis' daily existence, and who else but the artist would be better to take on this role? Baudelaire began asserting that traditional art was inadequate for the new dynamic changes of modern life, and that social and economic changes brought by industrialization demanded that the artist immerse himself in the metropolis and become, as Walter Benjamin described him, "a botanist of the sidewalk": an analytical connoisseur of the urban fabric.

Later on, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Walter Benjamin looked carefully at the changes Paris had undergone in the past decades. As Baudelaire had foreseen, Benjamin noticed people strolling down the streets, in the iron and glass galleries and pavilions (arcades), seeing everywhere their reflections in the omnipresent glass. Tradition was forgotten and a new aesthetic experience developed. Having worked on the theoretical consequences of the mechanical reproduction of the work of art, and the role of cinema as a new medium, Benjamin saw the flâneur not only as a stroller of the streets, but as a stroller of images - of the new architectural forms reflecting and changing in unexpected ways the reality of those who were passing by.

The figure of the flâneur - forever lost in a nineteenth century metropolis of iron and glass, detached from old traditions, diving into the new, thinking of and experiencing life in new ways not previously possible - marked modernity. Only late in the twentieth century, with Lyotard and the concept of postmodernism, was the flâneur put aside, forever lost (along with other nineteenth century ideals, like the belief in progress, science's infallibility, and the dream of absolute freedom).

The world has changed dramatically, and if, in the nineteenth century, modernity caused a revolution in the ways the world was perceived, the twenty-first century is producing a new shift, one centered in the production and access to information. Web 2.0, as it was named, shifted the balance between producer and user of online materials; now we all are producers, we all are users of information. Information is social, and meta-layers of social meaning are as important as information itself. If the nineteenth century had a revolution in urban space, our century is witnessing a revolution in information space.

Mario Klingemann noticed these similarities; if the figure of the flâneur stands as a mythical symbol of the aforementioned shift, Klingemann now proposes his Flickeur as the legitimate heir to the flâneur's strolling activities, both inside and beyond the user-produced space of the internet. Flickeur, a non-interactive online project dating from 2006, and presented at Art Tech Media 06, in Spain, thus departs from the concept of the flâneur, but adapts it to the new reality of the twenty-first century.

Acording to the artist, Flickeur randomly retrieves images from the web repository of photos at Flickr and creates an infinite film with a style that can vary between stream-of-consciousness, documentary or video clip. All the blends, motions, zooms or timelapses are completely random. Flickeur works like a looped magnetic tape in which incoming images will merge with older materials and be influenced by the older recordings' magnetic memory. The virtual tape will also play and record both forward and backward to create another layer of randomness. There is no input for the user to add; he or she is nothing but a spectator, or voyeur. A comparison to the figure of the voyeur isn't arbitrary: there is a direct reference to the voyeur in the text describing Flickeur, but it is noted only as a phonetic guideline for the correct pronunciation of the piece. What we are looking at, the results of Flickeur's stroll, aren't the intimate aspects of private lives. They are pieces of visual information socially determined and classified, available for the use of everyone.

We are thus confronted with the random paths this new automated stroller leads. Following the stroller, we follow the paths of those shaping the socially determined content available online. Flickeur elegantly, randomly strolls through this new space where traditions hold little or no value. The references to a traditional world, far from modernity, but also far from postmodernity, seem forever lost, and it is Flickeur's role, as it was for the flâneur, not only to experience, but to understand, participate in, and portray the shifts taking place. Not anymore "the botanist of the sidewalk," but rather the botanist of the web.