Kaja imagines a city where cis women, trans people and non-binary people can move around freely and be safe. For her project “Flaneuserie – reoccupying cities and spaces”, the Berlin-based artist interviewed activists, designers and friends about their movement through the city in relation to clothes and designed a fashion collection with and for them. In this interview, she speaks about the figure of the flâneuse, in what ways clothes can be empowering, and her vision of a feminist city.
How did the project come about?
I had been thinking about the overlap between fashion and movement through the city a lot and started talking to people about that. Then that turned into an interview series and a design project where I worked on a collection with the people I interviewed, who are mostly artists, designers, activists and friends. We were doing roundtables over Zoom where we talked about how we move through the city as women and non-binary people and how clothes can empower us in our movement(s). It was great because we formed a community where we could talk about our problems and fears, but also moments of empowerment.
Who are the people you interviewed?
I wanted to interview people who identify as FLINTA* (a German term referring to women; lesbians; intersex, non-binary, trans and agender people) to show how diverse our experiences are. What unites the people I talked to is that all of them are sometimes read as women when moving through the city, and that was what I wanted to explore, how people who are read or seen as women move and are perceived. But the fact that we’re all seen as women even though not all of us identify as women is already very problematic. The interviews were eye-opening to me in terms of intersectionality and realising how identifying as a (cis) woman and being white puts you in a privileged position within a marginalised group.
Your project is called Flaneuserie. So how would you define the concept of the flâneuse?
To me, it’s something very open. It is obviously coming from the word flâneur, so we could see it as a form of taking over the word or subverting the male noun. Flâneuse is a term that I think a lot of people can make connections to, and that’s why I used it in my project. But I don’t think that there should be just one specific definition of a flâneuse. It’s not just about strolling through the city as a form of leisure. It also means taking up space, having the possibility and the time to move freely through the city, not having to think about what you’ll wear to avoid dangerous situations. A person moving through the city as a feminist is how I define the flâneuse for myself.
Where is the figure of the flâneuse or the feminist moving through the city located for you in terms of time? In the present? Or is it a vision?
It’s both, I think. We can see them in the streets, those flâneuses exist. But they’re not as common, so in that way, it’s also a vision.
The flâneur is described as someone having a curious gaze. The flâneuse, as a FLINTA*, exists in the area of tension between being looked at (and often objectified) and looking at others. How would you characterise the gaze of the flâneuse?
Coming from fashion, my impression is that we are reading people all the time. I think everyone is looking at everyone in a way where we put labels on them, especially based on their appearance. I think that FLINTA* do that too. But in terms of the gaze of the flâneur or the male gaze, I don’t think it’s just about finding a “female” counterpart. It’s about changing and reimagining the whole concept of the gaze and how we look at other people. Changing it into something new including everyone, from a social, cultural and gender-based viewpoint. It should be something that non-binary people, for example, can also identify with and see themselves in. We can’t erase the knowledge we have about our appearance and our gender(ed) perceptions. But we can change how we conclude on what we see.
How does your version of a flâneuse move through the city?
She or they are willingly putting themselves up against the restrictions they face. And even though they might be frightened, which is perfectly normal, they decide to move more freely and take up more space. It’s a very powerful movement. But while the flâneur is exercising power over someone else through the male gaze, the flâneuse is empowering themselves.
I like that focus on freedom. But would you say that there is also a responsibility for a flâneuse moving through the city and taking up space?
Yes, definitely. As a white person who identifies as a woman, I can move through the city more freely than people of colour or non-binary people or people who don’t fit into certain expectations. So I can even out a pathway and be someone who is enabling other people’s movements. I have this picture in my mind where everyone is moving forward on the same path right next to each other. If you know someone is going home who might not be as safe as you are, you can walk home with them. Enabling others through my freedom is something I want to include in my daily practice more.
As you already alluded to, there is also a danger to being a flâneuse. FLINTA* often get catcalled, raped, sometimes even killed. How do you navigate that risk that comes with taking up space in the city?
I know that I’ve shared an optimistic vision of the flâneuse, and that is my focus. But it is true that there is a risk to being and existing in certain spaces, especially as a person of colour, for example. The stories people told me were really haunting, and I’ve faced some horrible situations as well. That’s why I’m inspired by activists and movements around the world. I admire this political movement in India where women are going on night walks on their own. And they’re doing it despite the consequences it could have, especially in that area where there are a lot of rapes and femicides, which I think is very impressive. I also think that protests like Take Back the Night where women walk together to reclaim a certain area of the city are so important.
What exactly is the cultural or political significance of flâneuserie for you?
I think it’s important that we make it a practice to go out into the streets and take back the space that has never been ours and is slowly getting to be ours. If young girls see FLINTA* walking through the city at night, being able to take the path through the park, they might do it too. And that doesn’t make it safer, but maybe the networks around safety will grow and become stronger. There is a big history of network-building around safety for women in cities, like the “text me when you get home” thing, that is also a network. If everyone does it and moves through the city a bit more freely, we will maybe get to a point where this network is more stable and widespread so more people can take part in it. It’s really important to think about how that can make us stronger on our own. But that is something FLINTA* do anyways, helping each other. What’s also important is educating people and changing the behaviour of people who make us feel unsafe, which is mostly men.
Do you think that a flâneuse is something that you either are or aren’t?
It takes a lot of energy to move through the city and exist in the city anyway, and especially if you position yourself as a flâneuse. Maybe it will change, but at the moment, I think being a flâneuse and moving through the city in that way means having to be alert and you can’t be alert all the time, so it depends on the situation.
How do you move and how do you want to move through the city?
I move through the city quite confidently and I have a lot of freedom. But I don’t want to feel obligated to check who is standing next to me at a bus station at night to feel safe again. I never want to run home again because someone is following me. I never want to be catcalled again. When I look at my youth, the amount of people who touched me and spoke to me in such violent language is very upsetting to me, and I would like that to change.
How would you move through the city without the male gaze or if you knew that your gender expression wouldn’t be perceived in a negative way?
Most of the times, I’m dressing in a female expression, and my body language also fits into that picture. The thing is, it’s so hard to imagine what that world without the male gaze would look like, that’s something we all agreed on in our discussions for the project. I can’t imagine how exactly I would move without the dangers that are there at the moment, but I know that it would feel freer.
Would you call yourself a flâneuse?
Yes, in my definition of moving through the city as a feminist, I definitely would. I am really conscious of how people move through the city. FLINTA* are always checking on other FLINTA*, checking if they’re alright and if they’re safe, and I’m doing that too, even more so since doing the project and learning more about other people’s experiences.
Is there something that represents your movement through the city as a flâneuse?
Music is really empowering to me, songs like PBNJ by Sneaks, or Starz by Stelahr. Clothing-wise, I would say my Docs and my favourite jeans, because they make me feel sexy and safe at the same time.
Staying with the topic of fashion, how would you describe the connection between clothing and the movement of flâneuses and FLINTA* through the city?
Clothing is so important for our movement. If you say you want to move through the city freely, if you want to be a flâneuse, clothes can be empowering. You can make a conscious political statement through wearing certain symbols, for example, and others can read that. But it can also be your favourite blouse or sweater that’s helping you take up space in the city. If we’re moving in something we’re comfortable in, we’re moving more like ourselves, and the goal is that everyone can move like themselves and feel safe. But that means that we have to work towards a world where clothing doesn’t lead to shaming people, or catcalling, or objectifying people based on the way they dress. Being comfortable can mean wearing a miniskirt, or joggers, and that should all be normalised.
Was there something new you learned about clothing and empowerment through the project?
I’d mainly been working on female bodies and designing clothes for female bodies before the project, and the project was very eye-opening to me in relation to gender expression. I associated empowering clothing with sexy, loud, feminine clothes and bright colours. But to some people, it’s not about that. They feel way more comfortable in clothes that aren’t sexy or loud in terms of colour, and that aren’t gendered. Feeling empowered can come from so many different things. I actually started working with black and dark blue the first time I’ve been studying fashion and realised that people feel comfortable in those clothes. Maybe I don’t, but others do. And that’s what the project and the collection were about: making clothes and garments for the FLINTA* I interviewed.
So clothes can empower us in different ways, and the types of clothes that empower people also vary a lot.
Exactly. There were two main underlying themes though, which were being able to be yourself (and feeling safe while doing it) and being comfortable. What we also realised was that we can support each other if we all dress in a way that makes us feel comfortable and empowers us because that motivates others to do the same. There’s a power in clothing that goes beyond the individual.
Apart from the flâneuse, are there other figures that inspire you in their movement through the city?
Moving as a flâneuse is already something activist, I think, but I think it could be interesting to look at the movement of political activists in general. How have activists moved through the city in the past and how can we incorporate that into our daily movements? I think about cyclists a lot, which are also a great figure that isn’t restricted to a specific gender. And the way children move through cities. Young children often move without fear and more freely, carelessly, and maybe we can look to them for inspiration. Maybe we should all run to the bus stop like children do, and that could change something about how we move. That’s something I’d like to see.
What are your dreams for cites that accommodate the movement of flâneuses and FLINTA*? What does a feminist city or space look like?
Something that comes to mind is light. Making the city less dark, bringing in light and openness and colour. There’s also the presence of institutions, spaces or people that make you feel safe. It’s an inclusive space. I’d like to see more sleeping spaces for people who are homeless, for example. It’s also a space that makes political activism possible. A space that’s loaded with culture because that’s something I connect to so deeply. Music, arts, visual culture in general. A community that creates all the time, and that everyone is included in. It’s a living vision, in the sense that it’s a living space. I want to live in the space that I move around in.