Fabian Saul is doing a lot right now. Fresh off Flaneur Magazine’s win for Magazine of the Year at the Stack Awards in London, the publication’s co-Editor in Chief has moved on to Paris, where he is preparing for Flaneur’s next issue – its ninth – on the Boulevard Périphérique, all while continuing to work on his own longform writing projects. Well, to say “moved on” is to mischaracterize it: almost constantly traveling, from Taipei to Leipzig and everywhere in between, the writer and composer is now in Paris more often than he otherwise would be. Yet, much as one might expect from the editor of a nomadic magazine that explores the history and surrounding narratives of very specific locales, Saul has stayed keyed into the world around him amidst this chaos.
Nothing makes this clearer than the festival Flaneur put on over the summer, taking over Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt to celebrate its most recent issue, focused on Kangding/Wanda Road in Taipei, Taiwan. Wanting to expand the publication’s platform beyond print, Saul and the entire Flaneur team hand-styled the sprawling space for 20.5 hours of panels, performances, and various workshops, engaging their readership in activities ranging from tea workshops to roundtables on spatial justice. To try and wrap my head around all of this, I travelled to sit down with him over coffee in Paris’ 10th Arrondissement.
JB: Where does your work at Flaneur fit into the rest of your life? You do so many things to such a high level – editor, writer, composer – a magazine doesn’t neatly map on to the others.
FS: You’re right to say that my role in the magazine is not a traditional one; the roles [at Flaneur] are very different to what we usually would imagine for this kind of work. I came into it from an artistic perspective – an anomaly in magazines, taking that we’re editors, but we’re also contributors. My background is in philosophy, writing, composing, and cultural studies; at Flaneur it’s my job to then connect these things – to constantly be working dialogically within my own disciplines and with those of researchers, visual artists, et cetera. I consider myself a voice in a collection of voices, so the magazine is just an extension of those other practices. We created a crossroads where different disciplines could meet and demonstrate the benefit of not restricting the story to a literary or visual take, but be a combination of things. I think then by doing that I understand my own work much better, and how I actually want to articulate myself. It all works together.
That makes a lot of sense. But you also mentioned in an interview you did with Jeremy Leslie at MagCulture that you can split your day into writing and composing? I’m very envious of your ability to do that.
It’s a balance. We all know writers that have very strict routines. Lots of people have particular, boring routines that they like to advertise – “I write 12 hours a day” or something. That would make me go crazy. But more fundamentally, I don’t think any concept is restricted to a certain medium: I’d like to think that the concept is most important. How you execute it, whether it’s the camera or the pen or something else, comes second. You have to start with the concept. I have ideas that are probably great in writing, but then lots of ideas which would be terrible in writing, so I find other ways to communicate them.
And then you integrate it all.
Exactly! I always find it strange when people are limited to one form of expression, but maybe that’s a reflection on the urgency of an idea. They don’t have the time to consider it, so they do it in the first way that comes to mind.
But all of that multimedial thinking takes a lot of practice, too. I’m not familiar with your career before Flaneur – did you pick it up right out of school? I don’t know how old you are, and it’s been around for a while.
Yeah, it’s been around seven years. I had been working on music before, and on different writing projects. I actually did journalism, but under different names. So don’t go looking – you can’t find it! It was a way to pay my bills, and I always knew I didn’t want to do that for too long. So right at the beginning, I knew that, and wrote under a different name so that later it couldn’t be traced to me.
That’s kind of ingenious
I don’t know. In the years before Flaneur, I was just experimenting a lot. In the beginning there were a lot of visual projects. Actually, photography and stuff like that. But I was never going to make a career that way. Then travelling became an important part of my life: to learn and listen and meet. It’s probably six to seven months of the year that I’m actually travelling. Now when I meet people through the magazine, I can go off on tangents and continue having a relationship with the people and place. A great example is Moscow – I made friends from that issue, I wrote a book there, and now I’m doing stuff with Russian artists and their performance work. What was your question? I don’t think I answered it [laughs].
You did, you did! I get the desire to break out of office life. But we’re talking about Flaneur as if it just sprung up – there’s also Ricarda [Messner], the publisher, and Grashina [Gabelmann], who’s the other Editor-in-Chief. How did you get involved, and how did the magazine come to be?
Actually, it was Ricarda who first had the idea to publish a magazine.
I think she’s listed as the founder in the magazine’s colophon.
But we’re all kind of founders. What happened was we got this idea to do a magazine out of Ricarda wanting to revisit the neighborhood of her childhood [Charlottenburg, Berlin] after living in New York, because we knew that when you come back to a place, you all of a sudden see everything you never saw while you were there. Grashina and I then made this editorial framework; there needed to be a strict structure, while remaining very open. And that’s always the way it’s been; we have the exact same concept we wrote seven years ago when we were figuring out how to do that first issue. Trying to keep it open enough for people to get involved, to make it a platform rather than something that we singularly create. We’re still the same team too, which I think is unusual for independent magazines.
Especially when you all move around so much! Are you all Berlin-based, though?
Yeah, we’re all Berlin-based.
The name Flaneur itself is very interesting. The word itself connotes this very strong engagement with the locale, but it’s also this meshing of high and low culture – a very intellectual, yet simple, kind of engagement. Is that how you understand it?
When we did the first issue, we went to people’s places and then instead of taking pictures, we decided to write down our memories of the place later. What happens is you overemphasize certain elements and forget certain details – it’s like a dream, right? You dream of something and it doesn’t have the correct proportions as in real life. I think that tells you something about how we create narrative, make a place, and form collective memories. I’ve also found that places can be very eager to tell one story, which is a very good reason to become highly skeptical. There’s an element of breaking those prescribed narratives down in Flaneur and flaneurism.
That’s a good way of putting it – I think as a publication that explores place, if you’re not trying to break down these more broadly imposed narratives and hierarchies, you’re not really doing your job.
Also, the flaneur figure is generally a very specific perspective – a privileged male one, so you have to be very careful about how you perpetuate that character. But it’s been reconstructed so many times in literary history that we’re afforded a bit of freedom. It’s also difficult to describe otherwise, because as a word it’s effectively untranslatable. Still, it’s important that we’re not oblivious to the privilege necessary to navigate spaces, and create a platform for people to experiment with boundaries and what is possible in space, in light of prescribed narratives.
The experience of navigating space features very heavily in your own writing, particularly on Boulevard Ring in Moscow, both in book form and, more obviously, in the Boulevard Ring issue of Flaneur.
I got stuck there in Moscow a little bit [laughs].
Was that a bad thing or…?
No, it’s a good thing – there were many reasons why I stayed in Moscow, why I went back to Moscow. But in the end I was fascinated by walking the ring again, again and again…because it’s not a ring, and by walking it, I was trying to perform what is the false promise of an easily digestible concept. It’s like, here’s a ring, but it’s not a ring, but people believe it’s a ring because the conception of the city is based on a cosmology that reinstates Moscow as the center of the world. Then on the textual level, I was interested in what it means to write a text that starts with a promise – which I think all texts do, even just by having a title – and have that text fall apart. I think literature is in a sense always documenting that, a falling apart. And now I’m working on another text that is more connecting different places that I research, those I travel to and live in, which is a bigger project that I don’t want to say too much about…
You’re writing that in Paris?
Yeah, all over the place. But Paris also plays a role in there, so I’ll be here. And also, because the next issue [of Flaneur] is here.
Which street are you focusing on?
The next issue is going to be on the Boulevard Périphérique, the former city wall, current city border, and huge highway. We’ve talked about not wanting to perpetuate stories – there’re a lot of ways that you would fall into the trap of perpetrating a story that the city wants you to tell, especially in Paris. But going to the actual border of the city is a way to question that narrative. Because the story of Paris is one that is about the centralization of narrative. I think about when Notre Dame was on fire, it all of a sudden called into question that centralized narrative. I believe people neither cared so much about medieval architecture, nor did they actually know the implications of the fire. A lot of what was actually on fire was from the 19th century renovations of Notre Dame, so that little tower wasn’t that old. This is interesting because there was a time when Notre Dame was not as culturally visible, and it was filled with informal housing and the socially marginalized, but was made symbolic as part of the nation building process. It was inculcated into a story that people would relate to, and in that story, Paris is the center of everything.
Oh, totally. That’s a great way to put it, centralization.
Paris is also interesting because it acted as a model for the rest of the world. The idea of Hausmannization is that you can have city planning that looks on the outside like it’s catering to citizens, but that on the inside is military geometry. It’s a military geometry of a highly controlled space that is always more easily navigated from the master plan, rather than from the local knowledge. And that’s what they did; they eradicated the advantage that you would have in pre-modern city planning as body in space, knowing your way around. The state of emergency here over the last year brought back a visible side through that military geometry by actually having soldiers walking in the streets. All over the world, they were so fascinated with Parisian city planning because it’s a very effective way to control people, but sell it to them at the same time. This is the capitalist twist in it, you know?
Yeah, “City of Love” it is not.
But then with the upcoming Olympic games and gentrification, which are largely happening outside of these former city walls, there is a real urgency to discuss Paris, and to give people a chance to get involved in the conversation. Then, of course, when you have a conversation about Paris’ set up of space, you can always talk about other, influenced space as well, which is a new opportunity with this issue.
I also think it’s interesting to think about focusing on the periphery because on the one hand there is this centrifugal force inwards, while on the other, you’re necessarily constantly at risk of transgression. Always between an inwards and outwards. But I think that sounds wonderfully exciting. And having done the festival recently for your last issue [Kangding Road, Taipei] is that something you’re looking to do again?
The interesting thing about how we plan in Flaneur is that we don’t have this long term plan. We do make decisions quite a lot to collectively move forward, but still it’s quite intuitive. I think it was the same with the festival last year; we felt we’d reached a point where we got too comfortable with what we were doing, so we thought we needed to open up and create a new space where we can be something new…because we always felt we are a magazine but also not just a magazine, you know?
I think that broadness of concept is easier to think than it is to express in words.
Yeah. And to have the festival and actually have people engaged—not just have a launch party where people go because it’s an open bar, and then everyone gets a cool magazine and puts it on the table at home, you know? I have no interest in producing another coffee table magazine. I think the festival was a crucial moment for us and I think we’ll continue that, but I also think that we won’t repeat ourselves; we won’t do the exact same concept. I think the Parisian version might be very different.
I felt like I lost out! I helped set up for it and then was in Copenhagen for the Copenhagen Art Fair, so I never got to see it. But it was a lot of fun to be there. I think I got to feel the urgency of the particular issue in a much different way.
It also opens up a new audience, other than simply the niche market that buys magazines. The festival was open to everyone, it was for free, and we were trying to take advantage of our platform, even if it’s a small one. I think it’s important if you’re a magazine that you don’t just end up on a bookshelf.