The Barnes Foundation proudly presented a new project, “Person of the Crowd: The Contemporary Art of Flânerie.” “Flânerie” is a nineteenth century term referring to the act of wondering. Edgar Allen Poe originated the phrase in the short story “The Man of the Crows,” in which the main character aimlessly travels the streets of London, observing its citizens and public activities. Two decades later, Charles Baudelaire, a French poet, revived the term during the French Impressionist movement. The movement slowed when the allure of abstract expressionism, which emphasized the artist’s inner world instead of the outer society, began to spread.
“Person of the Crowd” invited everyone to wander into different Philadelphia locations and let new experiences and sights capture their attention. The point of the project was to document and expand on modern art by involving the audience members in exhibits and performances. One of the most popular exhibits, “WE SEE/WE HEAR/WE ARE,” was a mixture of both physical and virtual wandering. It explored the definition of what it means to be a flâneur in the twenty-first century, and what it means to live in such a diverse society. The exhibit was open from February 25 to May 22.
The Barnes Foundation’s project featured work by more than fifty international artists, who created out-of-the-box experiences by, for example, scavenging in unique shops and playing detective, launching guerilla campaigns, and designing art and live performances. They addressed issues of social justice like gentrification, gender politics, globalization, racism, and poverty.
The exhibit invited guests to be “modern flâneurs” and participate in walking tours, photography, and several other activities. Thom Collins, the Barnes Foundation’s executive director and curator of the show, told philly.com, “It [was] the Barnes [Foundation]’s most ambitious project to date.” Installations offered a fresh perspective on the modern relevance of the Barnes collection, since younger artists such as Marina Abramovic, Jenny Holzer, and Zhang Huan contributed to the project. For example, two groups of high schoolers from Philadelphia went to 30th Street Station to act as flâneurs of sound, spending eleven minutes listening to the sounds of the city and then writing down what they heard. They then recited and recorded descriptions of their surroundings. The results were edited into a seven-minute video, shown in the “WE SEE” exhibit at the Barnes. In addition, artists have recreated classic works in contemporary ways, like interpreting Sylvette, a Picasso portrait, in 3D form. According to Esther Yoon, a staff writer at philly.com, “if looking at bowls of fruit and naked bodies painted on canvases isn’t really your thing, the Barnes Foundation’s latest project goes beyond the walls of the gallery and into the street.”
“Person of the Crowd” also featured Ayana Evans, an artist who traveled to iconic Philadelphia locations (such as Pat’s and Geno’s cheesesteak restaurants and the Rocky steps) in a signature skintight, neon yellow, zebra-printed catsuit. Evans performs challenging aerobic tasks at these spots, like jumping rope in four-inch heels for over ten hours a day, and invited audience members to join in. Another participant was the artist Wilmer Wilson IV, who created a performance and sculpture artwork called “Channel,” based on the 1968 death of a young television repairman. Wilson walked through the streets of Philadelphia collecting discarded televisions, and then displayed X-rays of human ribs on them. Wilson then took the sculpture to the streets, with the X-rays showing against his own body.
All activities under the umbrella of Person of the Crowd were documented online as part of “cyberflânerie.” Man Bartlett, a New York-based artist, added to the online aspect of the project by recording street performances and inviting guests to become flâneurs themselves. Bartlett encouraged audience members to post their own photos on Instagram, using the hashtag #personofthecrowd.