The Urban Adventurers

  |   Art, Infiltrations   |   2 Comments

Tourists vs. Artists vs. Infiltrators, San Francisco

A friend recently sent me an email with a link to this single-serving site for something called “The Flâneur Society” – based in San Francisco – where I was greeted by messages like these:


The Society provides a PDF book title, Guide to Getting Lost. Fun stuff.

That’s all it took: a short while later, I fell into a rabbit hole of mental confusion and frantic Googling. It quickly became clear how the 19th Century concept of a flâneur went beyond the simple definition offered by the site above – “one who wanders without destination” – and in fact intersected with tourism, street photography, infiltration, and graffiti art – which in turn became points along a spectrum from passive awareness to deviant appropriation and expression. More after the jump…

Here’s one take on flâneur:

Generally a male, always in a nineteenth-century urban setting, often most comfortable in crowds, usually quite perceptive and perhaps even obsessive, generally not concerned with publicizing his activity.

I think it’s clear how the concept flâneur has obvious limitations for us, today. Soon, I found another term of that era, “badaud,” which was used to draw a distinction:

The word can be translated as gawker; it carried the connotation of idle curiosity, gullibility, simpleminded foolishness and gaping ignorance. The Grand dictionnaire universel (1867) defined him in this way: “The badaud is curious; he is astonished by everything he sees; he believes everything he hears, and he shows his contentment or his surprise by his open, gaping mouth.” If the Flâneur was the model for the Baudelairean poet, the badaud offers a model for the crowd he passed through…

The badaud was the pedestrian who wedged him or herself into the crowd. The Flâneur was the gourmet of the street; the badaud was the gourmand. The Flâneur observed the city with intelligence and distinction; he turned his overdeveloped sensibilities to dwell on mysteries and telling details. The badaud gawked; she sought out a story that would touch her. He was dominated by his curiosity…

But all this starts to become too abstract, perhaps too historical. There is definitely a connection to the modern joy of urban adventurism, but it also seems obvious that things have evolved since these words were written.

Increased travel

It’s become much more common over even the last few decades for folks to explore cities other than the one they call home. But here, the spectrum exists as well.

The term “tourist” has come to indicate a passive form of travel, lacking the poetic connotation of flâneur (even attempts to add “adventure” in front of “tourism” fail to satisfy). Sometimes we accept the label for ourselves, but we rarely do so in any proud or creative way.

“Traveler” tends to be a more common term among those, such as backpackers, who consider themselves active visitors of foreign lands, suggesting a willingness to embrace what one sees, even participate in it – to seek out something beyond pre-packaged sight-seeing and become open to random adventures (or at least the less-organized adventures outlined in Lonely Planet). But, again, this doesn’t exactly fit the definition of badaud – and I’m not sure if anything modern really does:

The individuality of the badaud disappears, absorbed by the outside world, which ravishes him, which moves him to drunkenness and ecstasy. Under the influence of the spectacle that presents itself to him, the badaud becomes an impersonal creature; he is no longer a man, he is the public, he is the crowd.

Maybe these definitions never really applied to anyone beyond the guys who wrote them. But I don’t want to dismiss the spirit of what they are expressing.

Street photography

In her 1977 essay, On Photography, Susan Sontag notes the development of the hand-held camera in the early 20th century:

The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world ‘picturesque.’

For something more recent, check out this passage from Street Photography for the Purist [PDF], by

A street photographer, making his way from A to B, is not a pedestrian. He/she is a recorder of the world around them. This is not something you start or stop doing. Street photography is a practice that goes on 24/7, 365 days a year. Unlike a photojournalist who searches for an iconic moment of action and emotion, a street photographer relies on the common, everyday exchanges between people to reflect the mood from a bustling metropolis, to a calm midwestern suburb.

Also from the same document:

Street photography is a game that is never played twice in the same manner, a game that that is you against the world, a game that you control – you decide when to start, when to finish or when to have a tea break.

These sentiments can be contrasted, however, with those of the camera-wielding tourist. The taker of snapshots has no such grandiose statements of intention and importance. They are just “recording memories,” or doing something equally as banal. Again, the spectrum.

Beyond recording

“has anyone ever publicly stated how nice it is to write on fresh new metal. the paint easily gliding over the surface. the thrill of being caught. the pleasure of communicating to another lonely soul.” – Graffiti on a Canadian mailbox

Street photographers can be self-conscious and brazen, but in the end their medium is a passive one, one of capturing light. But the graffiti artist takes it further and uses the urban environment as a canvas. That takes an extra-large set of balls. Pitting themselves against society’s notions of propriety, not to mention the law, they challenge themselves and each other to a number of skills that are at once creation, demonstration, exhibition, and destruction.

Then again, there is a huge, worldwide industry that does the exact same thing, but is seen as legitimate – advertising. Of course, graffiti in its modern form has been explained as a reaction to the advertising industry, one that forces its messages, images, propaganda, and blight upon the inhabitants of a space, without their consent.

If the flâneur of the 19th Century were sent forward through time to the present, and they had even a hint of rebellious sensibility, would they pick up a marker or a can of spray paint? I think they might.

Pure trespassing

I’m not sure where the odd art of infiltration would go on our spectrum.

On the one hand, it resembles graffiti in that it embraces deviancy from social norms and the law; on the other hand, there is no transformation like there is with graffiti. Whereas the spaces graffiti uses for its canvas are usually public, the spaces infiltrators are concerned with are ones that are no longer (or never were) considered appropriate for people to casually visit.

The enjoyment comes from simply gaining access to forbidden places: underground tunnels (sewers, drains, transit), abandoned buildings, maintenance areas, boats, catacombs, etc. Further complicating things: this community is made up heavily of photographers who otherwise wish to leave no trace of their presence.

They have an amusing dictionary of terms.

Because it is a form of exploration, it’s easy to imagine our time-traveling flâneur taking up this past-time. No pressure to create any art – all he has to do is get there. And yet, by breaking very clearly-posted rules, there is expression involved, so in that way it goes beyond exploration.

While I very much appreciate The Flâneur Society’s take on city living, I’m not crazy about that word – flâneur. It’s a little too…French, or something. Also, it’s hard in some ways to apply its definition to pursuits such as street photography and graffiti, even if those pursuits are derivatives of it. The same criticisms apply to badaud.

They are , however, single words, which is tidy, and it’s hard to conjure English equivalents. I’d be interested to learn if people have alternative words or phrases, real or invented.

Leave those, and other thoughts, in the comments…

  • troy | Apr 17, 2010 at 8:58 am

    wow. this is one of the best reads ive stumbled upon in quite sometime.

    thanks for putting this out there for others to think about and digest!

  • Dammed If We Didn’t Do That. « EXCUSES AND HALF TRUTHS | Apr 22, 2010 at 4:37 am

    […] on both architecture and street art. The layout of the city is particularly good for this kind of flaneury. It’s built like a web, or half a dart board. It’s highly conducive to unfocussed […]