Category Archives: flaneur

Metaphors for the flaneur: ‘Botanizing’

Text: Bill Psarras © 2015

Understanding metaphors

Metaphors have been used from an array of intellectual voices to describe the dynamic constellation of flaneur, city, walking and senses. Yet, before entering into such a constellation, I would like to describe what a metaphor really is. Metaphors are not just mere theoretical words. They describe practices and situations from everyday life, yet what is important is that they are actively derived from lived, embodied experience. Following Lakoff (1993: 203) and his analysis, metaphors are expressed through speech, however they are not located in language at all – but ‘in the ways we conceptualize one mental domain in terms of another‘. In their seminal book, Lakoff and Johnson (1980) categorize metaphors as (i) structural ones (something is structured in terms of another), (ii) orientational ones (related to spatiality: up-down, in-out, on-off e.t.c.) among others. Yet, our everyday metaphorical system is central to the understanding of poetic metaphor.

But let’s return to my constellation of interest. Victor Fournel (19th), a French journalist and writer described Baudelaire’s artist-flaneur as a “walking daguerrotype” – using a state of the art technology on the photographic process of the 19th century – introduced by L. Daguerre in 1839 – as a metaphor for flaneur. It was a quite successful metaphor as it still describes the identity and the positionality of flaneur in that type of city. In other words, someone who was observing on the move – ‘a roving soul in search of a body‘ (Baudelaire 1869, in Benjamin, 1973: 55). One more metaphor of great interest was Walter Benjamin’s description on the flaneur as a ‘botanologist of the asphalt‘  (1973) – a metaphor that I further altered and reflected during my PhD thesis by bringing it into the 21st century city context (see also Psarras, 2014). What is more, walking has been metaphorically described as a ‘cultural constellation‘ (Solnit, 2001) and a ‘spatial acting out of place‘ (de Certeau, 1984) among other numerous descriptions.

Brief reflections on the metaphor of ‘botanizing

What does it mean for the flaneur to be a botanologist of the asphalt? First, I will alter Benjamin’s metaphor by referring to it as “botanizing” – a metaphor that I will examine through contemporaneous lenses. Walking through and sensing the urban landscape seems to have a connection with such metaphor as senses are activated while moving through the city. As Clark (2000: 13-17) also argues, both the flaneur and the naturalist enter the city or nature by sensing while moving. They experience and encounter an unfolding condition through senses. Both flaneur and the botanologist enact an observation, a listening, a haptic and smelling experience and even taste. They initiate a bodily experience by exploring what the city and the nature offers to them. Such a metaphor involves a connections to duration and repetition. The early or contemporary flaneur/flaneuse could conduct a “botanizing” for hours, days or even months. It is probably a metaphor with epistemological potential that also shows possible poetics on the move.

Towards new aspects of ‘botanizing

Bringing the metaphor in late 20th or 21st century walking art practices, “botanizing” shifts into further layers of the urban experience. I could argue that Francis Alys in his walks The Collector (1992) and Magnetic Shoes (1994) performs a “botanizing” on the urban materiality – on the mundane relics and the very core of streets: the asphalt. Thus, “botanizing” illustrates a gradual negotiation of the artist’s path into the city. The artist’s metallic toy or magnetic shoes constitute a tool which shapes his ambulatory method – they become a kind of curatorial wearable extensions that attract, record and save the encountered. In the same way, in my walking-based work Walking Portraits: Performing Asphalts (2012), I made a series of walking performances across 5 London Tube station areas – documented through video, sound and GPS. The mundane and unnoticed details of everyday life became the poetic layer where I walked and performed “botanizing” metaphor. While passing from the interior to the exterior of tube/train stations, I followed repetitively different asphalt patterns, signs and coloured lines. It was a tactic that initiated a sensory dialogue with such transient – and other times – constrained areas. The metaphor of “botanizing” shifts into more experimental ways while applying this to other walking-based and technologically mediated artworks – as on the ones of Christian Nold Bio Mapping – Emotion Mapping (2003-) and Gordan Savicic Constraint City (2008). Nold’s participatory walking reveals an artist who goes ‘botanizing on the collective emotion‘ (Psarras, 2015: 93) through wearable technologies of Galvanic Skin Response and GPS attached on co-walkers’ bodies in various cities. On the other hand, Gordan Savicic walks with an interactive metallic corset on his body which becomes sensitive with various Wi-Fi signals of the city – leaving thus scars on the artist’s body. Savicic conducts a botanizing on the invisible technological “smog” of contemporary metropolis (also Psarras, 2015). I could argue that the metaphor of “botanizing” shifts from the material level to the embodied, the tacit and the immaterial. The change of metaphor into more fruitful variations possibly illustrates the change of flaneur from an early distant aesthete to contemporary hybrid one characterized by sociality, sensory attentiveness and sophisticated technological integrations.

Walking Portraits: Performing Asphalts (2012) - Bill Psarras ©

Walking Portraits: Performing Asphalts (2012) – Bill Psarras ©

Magnetic Shoes (1994) - Francis Alys ©

Magnetic Shoes (1994) – Francis Alys ©

Emotion Mapping [Greenwich, London] - Christian Nold (c)

Emotion Mapping [Greenwich, London] – Christian Nold (c)

Constraint City (still from performance, 2008) - Gordan Savicic (c)

Constraint City (still from performance, 2008) – Gordan Savicic (c)


  • Benjamin, W. (1973). Walter Benjamin: Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Zohn H., London; New York: Verso.

  • Clark, N. (2000). ‘ ‘Botanizing on the Asphalt?’ The Complex Life of Cosmopolitan Bodies’ Body and Society, 6(3-4), pp. 12-33.

  • De Certeau, M. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California.

  • Lakoff, G. (1993). The contemporary theory of metaphor. In Ortony, A. (ed.) Metaphor and Thought, Cambridge; New York; Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, pp. 202-251.

  • Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press.

  • Psarras, B. (2015) Emotive Terrains: Exploring the emotional geographies of city through walking as art, senses and embodied technologies. PhD Thesis, 264 pages, Goldsmiths University of London.
  • Psarras, B. (2014). Altering the metaphor of ‘botanizing’ in the 21st century city. Conference talk at The British Sociological Association Annual Conference, Panel: Cities, Place, Mobilities, Space., April 2014, University of Leeds, UK.
  • Solnit, R. (2001). Wanderlust: A History of Walking. New York: Penguin Books.

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Taking a walk with Kandinsky: Street and Canvas

Text: Bill Psarras © 2014

The last couple of days found me going back to Wassily Kandinsky and his influential book ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art‘ (originally publ. in 1910). It was a book that caught my interest during my BA years. It has been nice to go back in such texts and find intellectual links between painting and walking/flaneur. In this post, I intend to take an imaginary walk with Kandinsky. Interestingly he reflects on the character of canvas – just before the hand initiates a drawing trajectory:

Empty canvas. In appearance – really empty, silent, indifferent. Stunned, almost. In effect – full of tensions, with thousand subdued voices, heavy with expectations. A little frightened because it may be violated” (Kandinsky, 1910)

Street and Canvas: Hand and Foot [tactilities]

The connection between the empty canvas and the street / city just before the first step; is fruitful. Empty canvas is white and silent, yet it is full of potential tensions and creative frictions between the hand and the surface. The hand thinks of the next constellation of expression through colours and forms in the same way the feet and mind of the flaneur looks the street as the air runaway just before airplane departure. It is the material terrain that will elevate the expectations of the walker – it will constitute the common milieu that steps, imagination and encounters will meet to create what we know as lived experience. The empty street – just like the empty canvas – has potential and an evolving beauty: that of what will happen next. The colours and lines of the artist-painter are the steps, rhythms and conceptual intentions of the artist-flaneur. The traditional palette has shifted on a spatial level in the case of walker. The street reveals degrees of social coloring by being empty, mid- or heavy crowded. These degrees await to contribute to the spatial painting of flaneur – they remain in a promising level of intensity – ready to be traversed, lived and “orchestrated” by the artist-flaneur/flaneuse. The urban canvas for flaneur is there; awaiting to be filled with the internal truths and thoughts of the artist – something that reminds us that the act of walking is not only an everyday biological process but also a movement with great spiritual intensities. Like breathing, walking is one of the very main actions that interestingly keeps its poetic nature. To echo Solnit (2001), walking is at the same time the most obscure and clear thing in the world.

Bringing the spiritual in the everyday city

Kandinsky describes probably his first encounter with what he developed later as a spiritual abstraction – it was an afternoon when he returned home, lost in his thoughts of what he had painted a few hours earlier. Entering in his dark room, he saw something in the wall that made his mind been electrified – something that was entirely new with its forms full of potential. A few moments later, he understood that it was his painting hanged in the wall upside down. In a similar way I am arguing that the street and the walking are two elements embedded in the everyday subconscious, which has made them mundane and unnoticed. Yet, it is that moment that the street starts to become a shifting terrain of spatio-temporal relations, sensory encounters and fleeting emotions. The different rhythmicity of the walker, the repetition of body gestures, the focus on specific urban “threads”, co-walkers and technologies creates the potential of walking to raise questions within that space. It is the potential to express the artist’s inner landscape – to “weave” patterns of it upon the urban fabric – to merge the aesthetic, the emotional and the political – revealing thus the spiritual in the everyday.

Wassily Kandinsky: Composition

Wassily Kandinsky: Composition


  • Kandinsky, W. (1910) [2001]. Concerning the Spiritual in Art, trans. Sadler, M.T., London: Tate Publishing.
  • Solnit, R. (2001). Wanderlust: A History of Walking. New York: Penguin Books.
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On a hybrid flaneur/flaneuse (pt.I)

Text: Bill Psarras © 2014

Bill Psarras

Bill Psarras

Walking in the city has a long-standing tradition of different conceptual threads. In the words of Rebecca Solnit (2001: 3) it is ‘the most obvious and the most obscure thing in the world’. Urban walking has been the nexus between people and the city by linking them to a series of everyday, socio-cultural and even imaginative terrains. Walking in the streets forms an action that contributes to the choreography of urban rhythms. It is really about a spatial enunciation of place, as De Certeau (1984) has also argued. Maybe the distinction of Wunderlich (2008: 125-139) on walking synopsizes things by referring to it as ‘purposive’ (i.e. everyday from A to B), ‘discursive’ (i.e. flaneur – strolling without specific destination) and ‘conceptual’ (i.e. psychogeographical derive, aesthetic-performative walking actions). Everyone in the city – all of us in our daily lives compose and perform spatial stories and trajectories that differ in meaning and significance. Every performed path becomes a story that adds to our overall lived experience (Psarras, 2014).

Introducing briefly the flaneur

Through 19th and mainly 20th century, walking in the city has been considered as a cultural action. The cultural concept of C. Baudelaire’s and Walter Benjamin’s flaneur was mainly associated with the observation and understanding of the emerging urban modernity. The artist-flaneur became the connoisseur of urban detail – oscillating between socio-cultural constellations of everyday life. For Baudelaire (1869 in Benjamin, 1973: 55), the street became for flaneur the interior to act as ‘a roving soul’ in the midst of the transient and the fleeting of crowd. Others (Fournel, 19th) described him as a ‘walking daguerrotype’ indicating connections with an animated empty surface ready to be filled with the numerous qualities of the everyday urban. The metaphor of Benjamin (1973) is also of interest when he described flaneur as someone who goes ‘botanizing on the asphalt’. Flaneur was mainly considered as the solitary male figure who grasped city mainly through ocularcentric (visual) lenses. Sensorially speaking, a little paradox may exists here. On the one hand walking brought flaneur into a sensory dialogue with the surrounding place – while on the other hand he mainly perceived the city through vision. A potential answer might be that although flaneur sought to find stimulating intensities – his method was limited into a visual consuming. For Benjamin, flaneur synopsized someone who felt the city as both a familiar and alienated place – strolling through the emerging phantasmagorias and dreamy spectacles of consumption. I shall put a full-stop at this point for flaneur.

Walking spectrum: Practices and theories during 20th century and early 21st

It is necessary to acknowledge the continuities of walking throughout the 20th century city. During the 1920’s Surrealists and Dadaists experimented with walking. Going back on that date (April 1921), several Dada artists strolled through some banal Parisian places. Their aim was to move from the mere representation of the urban phenomenon into an experience of the everyday and the mundane. Following also Careri (2002), their walking actions can be considered as an initial aesthetic process. For Surrealists, walking had a different perspective – what they called ‘deambulation’ – in other words a need to be disorientated and ‘enter into contact with the unconscious part of the city’ (Careri, 2002). Situationists International (1957) criticized the dreamy aspect of deambulation and the passivity of flaneur. Situationists made the step more radical by proposing the action of derive and the theoretical concept of psychogeography. Among their explanations, these could be synopsized as a drifting based on ‘a transient passage through varied ambiances’ with further political and playful implications. Passing on the decades of 1960s and 1970s, walking was approached through more experimental lenses, opening new performative and poetic vistas. Artists from Fluxus era or Land artists such as Oppenheim, Acconci, Long and Fulton used walking in urban/rural contexts by revealing its sensory, poetic and performative qualities. While psychogeography was further explored by writers, filmmakers (Sinclair, Ballard, Keiller) and groups (Stalker: a hybrid example of psychogeography-ethnography-performativity) – nowadays, walking has been a method for a number of contemporary artists (i.e. Alys, Pope, Kubisch, Wood, Cardiff, Savicic, Nold among others). Such contemporary artists of 1990’s and 2000’s have made apparent hybrid aspects of it by bringing together elements from flaneur, psychogeography and performance with different technologies (locative media), media forms and socio-geographical attentiveness. It is necessary to mention contemporary voices on the cultural/artistic aspects of walking, such as the example of ‘mythogeography‘ (Phil Smith), ‘schizocartography‘ (Tina Richardson) and other walking practices (i.e. WAN, Walk research group – University of Sunderland e.t.c.).

Delineating the hybrid

However, having presented a brief trajectory of walking in the city as a cultural act – I shall described what I mean by ‘hybrid flaneur/flaneuse‘ – something that constituted the focus of my PhD thesis (Goldsmiths University of London, 2011-2014 – exp. Viva ©).

Hybrid artist-flaneur/flaneuse

is the result of mixing:

(i) the aesthetic romanticised view of flaneur with

(ii) the intervening political qualities of psychogeography and

(iii) the performative/playful elements of Fluxus and Land Art.

Such threads are conceptualized through

1) geographical imagination

2) social methods and

3) embodied technologies.

In other words, hybrid flaneur/flaneuse in the 21st century city seems not to be the alienated male figure anymore. On the contrary, they seem to have been opened to a performative ‘entanglement’ (also Salter, 2010) of people, steps, senses, technologies, places and encounters. This is what I have also described as ‘orchestrators’, (Psarras, PhD thesis 2014) who can initiate new “botanizing”, “weaving” and “tuning” on a social, emotional, material and immaterial level (also Psarras, 2013). There will be more future posts on this.


  • Wunderlich, F. M. (2008). ‘Walking and rhythmicity: Sensing urban space’ Journal of Urban Design, 13(1), pp. 125–139.
  • Solnit, R. (2001). Wanderlust: A History of Walking. New York: Penguin Books.
  • Careri, F. (2002). Walkscapes: Walking as an Aesthetic Practice. Barcelona: Gustavo Gili.
  • De Certeau, M. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California.
  • Benjamin, W. (1973). Walter Benjamin: Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. New York: Verso.
  • Salter, C. (2010). Entangled: Technology and the Transformation of Performance.MA: The MIT Press.
  • Psarras, B. (2014). ‘Performative flaneur: “Orchestrating” senses, situations and data in the city’, Keynote speech, Performing Place #2 Symposium, along with other keynote speakers: Derek McCormack (Oxford) & Jonathan Skinner (Roehampton), University of Chichester, 15 June 2014, UK.
  • Psarras, B. (2013). ‘Towards a 21st century flaneur: “Botanizing”, “weaving” and “tuning” actions and senses through embodied practices, The Art of Walking International ConferenceEcole Normale Superieure de Lyon, France.
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