PRINT March 2007


Christian Nold

IN 1862, in a letter to the editor of the Parisian newspaper La Presse describing the series of prose poems that would become the classic Spleen de Paris (1869), Charles Baudelaire asked, “Which of us has not, in his ambitious days, dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and choppy enough to fit the soul’s lyrical movements, the undulations of reveries, the jolts of consciousness?”

What Baudelaire was describing, and what he hoped to accomplish in Le Spleen de Paris, was a new way of understanding and representing the city in an age of modernity. “This obsessive ideal came to life above all by frequenting enormous cities,” he continued, “in the intersection of their countless relationships.” Just as the photographer known as Nadar, Baudelaire’s contemporary and friend, was hovering above Paris in his balloon to photograph the city from a new vantage point (or descending into the sewers to illuminate the secret metropolis in the first photos aided by electric light), Baudelaire was delving into the city’s crowds, wandering into the tangled streets then being transformed by the boulevards of Haussmann.

The activities of Baudelaire as flaneur would later be celebrated by Walter Benjamin in his “prehistory of modernity,” The Arcades Project, a never-completed work that was a monumental piece of flânerie itself as well as an homage to Baudelaire and his efforts to “parry the shocks” of modernity through new forms of aesthetic experience. This age was encapsulated for Benjamin in the arrival of the nineteenth-century arcades, self-enclosed worlds of commerce with their own temperatures and the first gas lighting: glass-covered refuges for the flaneur. By the time Benjamin was writing (he began his study in 1927), the arcades had grown outmoded (in part due to the widespread availability of electric light), and the gentle art of the flaneurs eclipsed, in Benjamin’s eyes, by the rush of progress.

To interrogate the city; to extract knowledge from what is on the surface unknowable; to render visualizations beyond the dictates of official cartography or planning; to discover secret movements and connections: From the pioneering photography of Nadar to the psychogeography of the Situationists, it is by these Baudelairean methods and motives that artists have sought to comprehend the city and their own place in it, often responding to the technological imperatives of the day even as they employ those same devices.

A recent example of this can be seen in the work of Christian Nold, a young London-based artist who—as someone deeply interested in capturing and visually conveying our moments of psychological “arousal” in the city, or Baudelaire’s “jolts of consciousness”—has for the past few years been investigating a practice he calls “emotion mapping” or “biomapping.” The technique involves having subjects perambulate certain urban areas wearing finger cuffs that monitor on-the-fly emissions of galvanic skin response (GSR), the technology upon which the lie detector is founded. GSR is used to measure “electrodermal activity,” which is believed to correspond to the sympathetic nervous system; for example, when we are aroused by something, good or bad, we begin to sweat more (though not necessarily visibly), thus increasing the conductivity of electricity through our bodies. Because his GSR equipment is linked to a GPS, Nold can later discern—and plot—precisely what things in the urban environment triggered physiological responses. By relying on participants’ comments made in notebooks, and on active interrogation of his subjects, he can also determine why.

Nold is, essentially, conducting a narrative, ambulatory version of the polygraph. Indeed, he says it was his desire, in a time of increased electronic monitoring, to turn this technology inside out that inspired emotion mapping. “I want to move away from power situations where one person decides if the other is lying based on their biodata,” says Nold, “and instead create visualizations that allow the subject to interpret their own data for themselves.” In one project, called the Greenwich Emotion Map, 2005–2006, he sent residents through the Greenwich Peninsula section of London, then produced a map—a dead-on imitation of British Ordnance Survey maps—tracking the arousal levels during people’s peregrinations. The map for Greenwich plots participants’ routes as they walked, with notated comments such as “Argument with Mum” or “Nice building.” These are set against overlapping swirls of color, from red splotches of “high arousal” to blue whorls of “low arousal”; the result looks much like an abstract topographic map. And, as is appropriate for an age in which mapping has become an aggregative, open-source, customizable enterprise, Nold overlays his maps onto Google Earth. (We might imagine Nadar’s aerial imagery tracking Baudelaire’s footsteps in the golden age of flânerie.)

Although Nold insists his is not a scientific effort, the map contains a number of findings relevant to attempts to understand how we experience the city. Social interactions (including “being followed”) induced higher levels of arousal than did interactions with physical space (disappointing news, perhaps, for architects). Nold also noticed a number of “anticipation spikes,” in which people might approach an intersection, unsure which way to turn. The journey to a particular destination seemed to trigger more arousal than did returning by the same route. Often the arousal did not seem to correspond to anything in particular in a given location, which Nold initially thought might indicate a problem with the tracking software. It turned out that “people were seeing things when they were fifty or one hundred meters away,” says Nold, “and so the actual initial spike might be walking up to a vista—‘Oh, it’s a beautiful sight’ or, ‘Oh, it’s a horrible traffic crossing.’”

Nold, now pursuing this work with neuroscientists and psychologists at London’s Wellcome Trust, says that he has received a number of inquiries from commercial interests seeking his help to, say, learn what captures people’s attention in a shopping mall (a twist that Benjamin would have surely appreciated). But Nold is more keen to explore the inner visualizations and psychic maps that we ourselves generate of a city. He admits to an obsession with late-nineteenth-century technology and the Victorian dawning of sociology, citing the famous Poverty Maps of reformer Charles Booth, color-coded charts that labeled certain streets as home to the “vicious” and “semicriminal” or “well-to-do” and “comfortable.” Booth augmented his maps with notebooks filled with the comments police officers jotted down as they walked particular routes. “It’s the policeman’s vision of a city,” says Nold. “I want to critically revisit this.”

What makes Nold’s project fascinating on another level is what it says about the interrelation of the body and the city—which are, in effect, two great electrical entities. Galvanic skin response is named after the Italian physician and physicist Luigi Galvani, who in the late eighteenth century first began generating muscle movements in frogs and other animals via electric current (“animal electricity,” he called it, and humans were not far behind in the experiments of his acolytes, such as his nephew Giovanni Aldini). The city, meanwhile, gained a new psychic shape with electrification. Perhaps the most famous representation of London, electrical engineer Harry Beck’s renowned 1933 tube map is itself modeled on an electrical wiring diagram—the shape of which, as Paul Elliman writes in his essay “Signal Failure” in the book Else/Where: Mapping—New Cartographies of Networks and Territories (2006), was prefigured by the London Post Office’s telegraph wires, which themselves would have followed the lines of some earlier network of power. Writes Elliman, “The city today is defined by the continuous movement of goods, people, information and capital; early subway systems and electrical grids were the essential prototypes of this phenomenon.” We travel through the city network like electricity through a grid—we surge, we follow demand, we seek the shortest path. As Baudelaire wrote, the flaneur “enters into the crowd as into an immense reservoir of electricity.”

Of course, power lines and subway routes are just the most obvious manifestations of urban networks today. Much of today’s city pulses to an invisible series of signals. The “drift” of the modern flaneur, tracked by ATM receipts and RFID chips and closed-circuit television, may be set on a certain course because a cell phone has alerted one to the presence of a friend sitting in a nearby café. And yet, despite all the rationalizing power of the various urban grids, Nold’s emotion maps show that the swoons of urban walkers are still random and unpredictable, commanded by involuntary memories, changes in thought, new directions.

I had this experience as I traveled to meet Nold in London. As I exited the tube at the Brixton stop and took a hard left, the first street I found intersecting the Brixton Road was Electric Avenue. As I read the sign, I felt a small charge in the back of my brain—yes, I thought of the 1983 song “Electric Avenue” by Eddy Grant, one of the few reggae artists ever to top the US pop charts. As an American living in the Midwest in ’83, I cannot say that the song, one of a number to address racial tension in Brixton, signified much more to me than a rather infectious pop trifle. But here was Electric Avenue, a street I would have otherwise bypassed without interest, commanding a moment of attention, a small plot of mental real estate. Appropriately enough, it is so named because it was, in 1888, the site of the city’s first electrified shopping market. And so, poetically, we connect a circuit with the city: our own energy responding the energy of the street, bodies electric coursing down electric avenues.

Tom Vanderbilt is a writer based in New York.