Browsing — flaneur-ing — creating a hypothesis.

Nayia Yiakoumaki

Marie de Montreuil, Paris, 1997. The price on the brown carton box reads 150 francs. I look inside the box and quickly browse through old Kodak envelopes, each one containing small sized black and white photographs. The envelopes are labelled with a surname —Perottin— and the price of the film processing in French francs. From the first glance the photographs seem at least three decades old.

Beyond textual material there lies a vast province of further objects for the archive; the remains of past civilisations, arrowheads, tools; and images...and, in particular, photographs. In a sense the photograph offers evidence unimpeachable in contrast to the written word or even the recorded voice. Yet, the frame, too, may generate irresolvable ambiguities. Velody Irving, 'The Archive and the Human Sciences: notes towards a theory of the archive'

I take it home and start to browse through the photographs, I realise that these are someone's snapshots spanning through few decades.

Speculation gives its place to more speculation and assumption to assumption and the story is put together; the photographs alone being the narrator; I am only 'putting together' the story in a self deceptive neutral gesture, I am not making it I am only unveiling it. This is, with no doubt, thestory of Monsieur Perottin; the proprietor of the surname written on the picture envelopes.

The photographs themselves (as individual objects) became indisputable proof for the 'Perottin hypothesis'. In the same manner that a photograph's meaning is completed by a caption or a comment, the Perottin photographs accepted and sustained my construction; ambiguously hovering between being the documents of an 'objective truth' and constitutive elements of a fictional narrative.

Found image 1

How does it (photography) serve as the voice of authority while simultaneously claiming to constitute a token of exchange between equal partners? Sekula Allan, Reading an Archive.

Perottin was interested in photography. According to the evidence he took self-portraits in front of his bathroom mirror, year after year. We also know that he fell in love, he once dived in the Seine wearing a divers copper helmet and helped himself out of the waters by holding on to the base of a low river bridge, he walked with his lover holding hands in the streets and parks of Paris and he lived with her; they travelled a lot. After what seems to be 30 years, he is still photographing, they both grow older, they travel together and they grow apart - in the photographs, they do not sit close anymore; Perottin's self-portraits vanish. And then the archive comes to an end. At some point the photographs finish, the last pack must be from autumn 1967. It must.

According to Walter Benjamin, a collector engages with the objects he/she collects via tactile relation; the flâneur relates to his environment through his vision.

Searching an archive implies direct contact with and handling of the collected material. Browsing is an optico-tactile experience. To browse within a bundle of documents (the photographs) is also the possibility to metaphorically lookthrough facts, stories, misconceptions and preconceptions.

In the World English Dictionary from Encarta online, the definition of browsing, amongst other definitions is the following: 'To read through something quickly or superficially' and 'To look through or over something, especially merchandise in a store, in a leisurely manner with the hope of finding something of interest'.

The Oxford Dictionary at gives the following definition: 'Survey goods or text in a leisurely way'.

The action of browsing in a light-hearted manner without having to follow the line of a specific enquiry bares similarities with the experience of urban, cosmopolitan, flâneurie: hedonistic, non systematic, aesthetical. Both browsing and flâneuring are driven by instinctual acts and circumstantialities.

Eulogised by Charles Baudelaire in Paris Spleen and being one of the main protagonists in Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, the flâneur, has primarily been thought as a social type emerging from modernity, modern time and space. The flâneur saunters through urban spaces, observing the crowds, the shops, and the streets qua the stage of an aesthetic experience. Suspended from social obligation, he remains aloof of the city's and the crowds' practical life.

What is the position of the flâneur in relation to the city? What is the affect of flânerie? Does flânerie enrich the flâneur with a particularly lucid experience and augmented knowledge of the nature of modern urbanity? Or is it, like browsing, light-hearted and somewhat indifferent? According to the Physiologie du Flâneur by Huart Luis, the flâneur must be a 'living guidebook' knowing very well the city and being able to remember where the best shops, services or views that the city has to offer, lay. The flâneur is infiltrating the archive of the city.

The flâneur seeks refuge in the crowd. The crowd is the veil through which the familiar city is transformed for the flâneur to phantasmagoria...The flâneur plays the role of scout in the marketplace. As such, he is also the explorer of the crowd. Within the man who abandons himself to it, the crowd inspires a sort of drunkenness, one accompanied by very specific illusions: the man flatters himself that, on seeing a passerby swept along by the crowd, he has accurately classified him, seen straight through to the innermost recesses of his soul—all on the basis of his external appearance... Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project.

John Berger, in Here is Where we Meet, says that the city is an archive constituted of people and events. The buildings that have been constructed and demolished over the centuries, the changes of its topography and the citizens who have lived and died within its borders, all this, constitutes archival material, elements that can be individuated and materially or spiritually kept.

Found image 2

Flânerie through Perottin's pictures? Certainly the snapshot gives us an illusion of following someone's life, like a good friend. It also gives us the material proof that this box is not just the potentiality for biographical license, but a marker of history. With the snapshot, Perottin, even in his biographical pinnacle — young, happy, healthy and in love — is far from the classic aura of the canonical bourgeois. 'The Perottin hypothesis': these pictures are, perhaps, the metonymical history of post-war Paris, of middle class holidays, of modern love, of mass consumption of cars, of technological sensation through photography, of nostalgia through the fading of the photographic emulsion. Classical flânerie had the bourgeois looking at himself as an aesthetic spectacle. With Perottin's snapshots, one has a glimpse at the irretrievable collapse of the bourgeoisie and the beginning of what seems to fade today: the social democratic middle class. This is archival flânerie: the act of experiencing with a time lag.

'The Perottin hypothesis': A box containing a personal photographic archive, three and a half months in Paris and the need to create a story.

Nayia Yiakoumaki, Archive Curator, Whitechapel Gallery

March 2008