People Watching


Exactly 29 minutes at the end of every working day to do nothing. No under-qualified boss giving me grief and my children waiting patiently for me to get home and make tea. I know it was 29 minutes because Blackpool Transport said so. I always considered this time between work and home as the most productive period of my day; a time to make sense of what had happened since morning and an opportunity to prioritise my to-do list. More importantly though it was a time for thinking. What am I going to do when I get home? Where am I going artistically? Do I really want to spend my whole life working in this job? What the hell is she wearing?

Some sit silently and stare at a mobile phone screen but the rest of us are people-watching; a captive, returning audience that share this common time and place twice daily, five days a week. A frozen in time portion of the day best captured by Michael Wolf’s Tokyo Compression series (2013). A period of time that will go unmentioned when our loved ones ask, “What have you done today?” This time is mine, to relax and be in my own head until my 29 minutes are up and I press the stop button.

I consider all creative practice to be a self-portrait of sorts. An experience or emotion passed through our own unique filter and offered back to the world. I believe any art says more about the artist than the subject. But where do we find these influences? Sometimes we find it in the art of others but often it is in our own personal experience of the human condition. Is this best observed in the forgotten stages of between-ness that often affords us the opportunity to play no role - not as a father, nor as a professional? I wonder if there is a truth found in liminality.

I am interested in the role of a contemporary flâneur, the form he or she would take in a modern setting and what they would glean from the human activity in liminal spaces.

The concept of the flâneur was established in the influential discussion of modernity, “The Painter of Modern Life” (Baudelaire and Mayne, 2012). Somebody who simply observes: a ‘passionate spectator’ who watches the interactions between a city and the people who inhabit it, the flâneur is somebody who looks up and witnesses life going by and considers the stage on which it is performed (Baudelaire and Mayne, 2012).

By removing ourselves from the cast and sitting in the audience we can watch the isolation of an individual and the passing of a crowd. We can sit and consider possible narratives. Who are the people we see and what are their stories? By removing ourselves from the spectacle we are better able to see our own lives for what they are. Andrew Alexander Price suggests that ‘non-places are not designed for people, and are not destinations. They do not bring value or a reason for people to visit or live in a city.’ (Price, 2017). As a creative I seek the hidden value of all spaces. Whether in the history of the architecture or the social activities of the people, I am interested in the story of a place.

We are all looking for an idea, something that will light a fire and demand an artistic response. In all honesty I don’t see myself having an epiphany in a gallery or when viewing a centre of town pop-up installation although these examples form an integral part of any town’s creative network and have a very real value. I am much more likely to be moved by the obvious lack of social mobility that is best demonstrated on the fringes of the residential areas of Blackpool. The large council funded pedestrianized developments and newly cobbled streets lead away from the town centre and the usual Starbucks and Disney clichés, all the way through to the forgotten residential areas that are deemed fit for the local population – despite the obvious deprivation inflicted by successive governments. The space between these two areas is a kind of no-man’s land and an area I find myself walking through most days. The scene of very small children filing down Cookson Street on their way to school is a depressing yet strangely optimistic one set against a backdrop less than one-hundred metres long featuring several empty shops, a tattoo studio and six very suspicious massage parlours - many of which are permanently advertising employment vacancies. The obvious poverty and serious lack of opportunities that seem destined to await these children bring on strong feelings of injustice. It feels like a place to spark the creative process and galvanise artistic practice in an effort to force a conversation.

I find it interesting that these non-places are often not quite as ‘non’ as they first appear. The unscripted drama offers an opportunity to hold a mirror up to the world and see it for what it is – perhaps whilst sipping a latte. In the short story, ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (Poe, 1840) , our narrator sits in a coffee shop window watching the passing foot traffic, speculates on where they are headed and wonders what their stories are. He is especially intrigued by one man in particular. I believe this is due to his inability to get a handle on the stranger. Who is he and what is he hiding? The whole story has a ‘gothic tale’ quality making it feel strange and uneasy. I find it interesting that when the idea of the flâneur is presented as a ‘Parisian Dandy’ these activities are those of a worldly renaissance man, yet it seems voyeuristic when interpreted by Edgar Allan Poe. The only notable difference between the two ‘passionate spectators’ (Baudelaire and Mayne, 2012) is the targets of their gaze. While Poe’s narrator is interested only in the people he watches, Baudelaire’s flâneur takes everything in.

Once we switch from participants to observers the world around us can be viewed and experienced as performance art. I say this because of the unique quality of all the stories and happenings we witness or ignore. Like performance art you must be there to see it; a one off and very real event. Marina Abramovic argues, ‘This is not a theatre. A theatre will repeat. In a theatre you can cut with a knife and there is blood. The knife is not real. The blood is not real. In performance the blood and the knife and the body of the performer is real. Without the audience the world doesn’t exist. It doesn’t make any meaning. In times of economic crisis in the world the performers become kind of evident.’ (Khan Academy, 2017). As artists it is our responsibility to make sense of the narratives we witness. To reflect, inform and comment. Today the role of a contemporary flâneur seems as important as ever. In a time when food banks hand out alms for the poor and doctors are reporting cases of rickets, the concept of a contemporary heir to the nineteenth century flâneur ‘having a key role in understanding, participating in, and portraying a city’ (Baudelaire and Mayne, 2012) seems entirely appropriate. The world needs social commentators who put pen to paper or paint to canvas.

So where is the happy hunting ground for a present-day ‘painter of modern life’ (Baudelaire and Mayne, 2012)? ‘The question is not what you look at, but what you see. It is only necessary to behold the least fact or phenomenon, however familiar, from a point a hair's breadth aside from our habitual path or routine, to be overcome, enchanted by its beauty and significance.’ (Thoreau, Shanley and Oates, 1989). With this thought in mind I would suggest that the peripheral areas of society where the undesirables gather are where the human condition is best shown in its true form. Away from the extremes of social order and planted in the betwixt, these spaces between places are where real people play out their lives. From streets to alleys; from bus stations to shopping centres these liminal spaces are an anthropologist’s playground.

The liminal spaces I find interesting are the forgotten and discarded parts of town that are hard to categorise. Some regions are clearly commercial or are valued areas that have benefitted from regeneration investment, while others are residential or are home to hotels and guest houses. I’m interested in what’s left.

Andrew Alexander Price argues that streets and roads should be looked at differently. ‘Hitting the road’ suggests travel while ‘hitting the streets’ invokes ideas of socialising and somehow being part of a community (Price, 2017). While I am interested in the discussion regarding the definition of what we would consider to be a site and what is a liminal space, I would suggest that it is all relative to the intrinsic value placed on the area by the individual. I believe it is often subjective and depends on which of the varying definitions we choose to adopt.

Of course liminality is not necessarily a physical location. Sometimes it is simply a transient point in our passage through life; primarily I would suggest it is an interval that we would consider neither here nor there. This is of equal significance when seeking artistic inspiration and I consider both aspects to be within the scope of the flâneur.

In a world of social media, cheap air travel and 24-hour news I believe the role of this ‘passionate spectator’ (Baudelaire and Mayne, 2012) can be extended to an international purview. A contemporary flâneur should be aware of current affairs, attitudes and the plights of others. Too often the masses are distracted by Premiership football, reality television and royal weddings. I believe the defining quality of a modern day flâneur would be the ability to avoid these orchestrated evasive techniques employed by newspapers owned by non-dom billionaires and instead keep social issues and Grenfell Tower style disasters in the forefront of their minds even after the general population has moved on to the next mainstream news agenda. A 21st century ‘passionate spectator’ would visit multiple news sources and question everything without being swayed by political allegiance or misguided patriotism. Put simply they would call it how they see it and see past the imposed narratives with which we are bombarded, both as subjects and consumers.

Modern life is incompatible with a watcher; a walker whose only purpose is to slow down, meander, observe and take notes. In a capitalist, commercial environment there is no place for flânerie. A life of urban exploration would be widely considered an indulgence, with or without the production of informed commentary through art. With the value of Instagram ‘likes’ at an all-time high and our digital friends following our every move on Facebook, the notion of stepping back and quitting the rat race to simply reflect on the world around us may appear counterproductive. I would argue however, that the current climate of arts cuts and social tension make the role of the creative more important than ever. With art lessons being stripped from our working class children we are at risk of surrendering our artistic freedoms to the pursuits of the rich. It appears to me that our young artists need a rallying cry. They must find inspiration; record and communicate the injustices and beauty all around us. The contemporary flâneur will probably have an iPhone and a Twitter account but more importantly they will need a social conscience and a fire in their belly.

So what would be the role of a contemporary ‘passionate watcher’ and how would this impact on their fine art practice? Maurizio Cattelan’s installation, ‘America’ which is a plumbed in, fully functioning golden toilet, may seem a strange place to start. This piece is a contradiction in terms. The artist manages to comment on the obscene monetary value of high end contemporary art whilst spending an obscene amount of money creating exactly that which the artist seems to detest. I find it oxymoronic to think that whilst the political ideologies of those in the creative industries are generally left-leaning and anti-capitalist, we are happy to visit gallery exhibitions valued in the millions. I find the contemporary art world filled with these inconsistencies. Cattelan’s installation is a comment on the offensive amount of money thrown at the social interests of the wealthy but his work also has implications for the wider community too (Cattelan, 2011). The extreme gulf in opportunities and income in our society is the target of the artist’s wrath. Are the huge costs involved in this level of artwork appropriate in the current climate and would I be prepared to take the route of a champagne socialist to exhibit and sell my work? We need to wrestle our art away from those that see it as a status symbol; those who cut funding by day but attend art gallery soirées by night.

There are major concerns regarding the increasing diminished role the arts play in modern life. With everything becoming sanitised and measured, the opportunities to simply make a mess and experiment in an effort to express ourselves are becoming increasingly rare. Huge funding cuts and removal of arts from the school curriculum seem to be pushing fine art towards the edge of an abyss. Soon people will begin pushing back. A flâneur should see art wherever they can find it and comment on what they know best. Rage against the injustices they see and not be afraid to be labelled as an aloof time waster who should get a proper job.

I believe the role of a contemporary flâneur will be to work in the liminality and create art for the right reasons. A compulsion to say what they are compelled to say and simply produce with no thought for money or status; to stroll around on the fringes of the human condition and act as witness and commentator; a passionate observer to whom art really matters; a socially aware Van Gogh. I feel we need to resurrect this Parisian Dandy to watch from the wings but we must make sure we don’t let a mobile phone ruin our experience of the performance.

So does the contemporary flâneur have a place in modern society and contemporary art? Most definitely. I want to see art I understand. Whether traditional or conceptual, performance or installation, I believe art should be at its core a compulsion to say something; to highlight social issues and shine a light on injustice. We simply cannot do that unless we open our eyes to what is going on around us, fact check everything we hear through the media and disregard the distractions of the celebrity and fake news. I believe that the place to start is simply to stop what we are doing and next time we have an all-you-can-eat world cuisine buffet at Mr Basrai’s just look out of the window and take in the performance art that’s unfolding on Cookson Street. It’s on 24/7 but every recital is different.


Baudelaire, C. and Mayne, J. (2012). Painter of modern life and other essays. London: Phaidon. Calvino, I. and Weaver, W. (n.d.). Invisible Cities. (2017). Places and Non-Places in Cities [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Dec. 2017].
Poe, E.(2015) The Man in the Crowd. Crow Press. Khan Academy. (2017). Marina Abramović: What is performance art?. [online]
Available at: [Accessed 21 Dec. 2017].
Thoreau, H., Shanley, J. and Oates, J. (1989). Walden. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.