Changing perspectives, blurring lines

There is always something new to learn with photography, always something to experiment with. While in Budapest recently on a writing retreat, I walked a lot and took many photographs and in doing so, experimented a lot with composition, technique, perspective, reflections, and focus. Two things came repeatedly to mind in my experimentations: 1. Changing lenses means changing perspectives: and 2. A blurry photograph is still a photograph. I like simple, mundane observations like this: obvious and almost philosophical. Sort of.

Experimenting in these ways helps me gain insight not just into my research and my art, but also into my thoughts both professional and personal. The simple act of changing the lens on my camera challenges me to see my surroundings in different ways, in new ways, and to think about the city, light, materials, and the world in new ways as well. And sometimes this new perspective is a bit blurry, or blurred. And why not? A blurry photograph is still a photograph. Sometimes a damn good photograph.

The following experimental photographs were taken with a vintage fixed focal length portrait lens given generously to me by a former colleague and wildlife biologist. Thanks to a $5 adapter, I can mount  old lenses onto my digital SLR. The quality is of the image is different, often richer. The depth of focus is enhanced, and the blurriness that comes with the manual focus gives a dreamy, ethereal feel to the photographs; especially in low evening light.

Movements by the Danube

All you ever do is walk away
Import Meterarv
Broken window theories
Dohány utcai Zsinagóga, in reflection

Dohány utcai Zsinagóga, behind the lines

Flea market
Csókolom from the Number 78 tram
Beautiful, it says


Did you know? Life is beautiful.

The Two-Tailed Dog Party (Kétfarkú Kutya Párt) is a satirical political party, one which uses humour and street art as tools of intervention, expression, and protest to ‘parody the political elite’ in Hungary. The party has been active since 2000 and frequently makes use of public space for its political messages which stand strongly in opposition to the current right-wing government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the conservative party Fidesz.

The current government launched a campaign of xenophoic and anti-immigrant billboards and posters preceding a recent referendum. The referendum had hoped to contest the European Union’s imposition of mandatory quotas on accepting migrants. A great many refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War have crossed the border from Serbia into Hungary (many of whom hope to settle in countries like Germany and Sweden which have been more accepting of refugees). The migrant crisis has permitted an unfortunate platform for cultivating ignorance and right-wing politics throughout Central Europe. The referendum in Hungary posed the question: “Do you want the European Union to be entitled to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the consent of parliament?”‘ The referendum of October 2nd was deemed invalid due to inadequate voter turnout. Those with sense apparently stayed away from the polls, perhaps taking heed of the Two-Tailed Dog Party’s plea to invalidate the vote. The Two-Tailed Dog Party had in fact launched their own parallel campaign: a series of stickers, posters, and billboards countering the Hungarian government’s xenophobia with wit and poignancy.


dsc01204‘Did you know that there is a war in Syria?’

I came repeatedly across their playful and striking stickers and posters in Budapest, all marked with their signature character: a dog with big red eyes, two tails, and a striped tie. Their intense and satirical campaign mocks the government’s recent billboard campaigns, pairing a speech bubble with the text ‘Tudta?’ (‘Did you know?’) with humorous, sometimes absurd other times politically pointed, claims. The small print at the bottom reads ‘Hülye kérdésre hülye választ!’ (‘Stupid anwers to your questions!’) and urges voters to ‘Szavazz érvénytelenül!’ (Vote invalid!). There are twenty-seven versions, many of which I encountered and photographed during my recent visit to Budapest.

I reflected a lot upon migration and the refugee crisis while visiting the Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum (Hungarian National Musuem) where a special exhibit commemorated the 60th anniversary of the 1956 revolution in Hungary. I thought of the 100, 000 Hungarian refugees who settled in Canada after fleeing the violence of the 1956 revolution; dissent quashed by Soviet bullets, tanks, arrests, and executions. The revolution lasted a brief twelve days, but much like the Prague Spring of 1968 and later the Velvet Revolution, it was writers and artists who played fundamental roles in mobilising dissent. The exhibit touched particularly on the art of the revolution, with many examples of sketches, watercolours, and prints of various types. The exhibit demonstrated so well how art and politics meet in defiant forms of resistance, not just documenting a moment in history but also offering alternative visions of the future; of what life could and perhaps should be.  I was touched most by the black and white photography, many of which were accompanied by bits of text explaining how the negatives were developed and hidden swiftly away only to re-emerge and printed long-after the regime change. Over thirty years of hidden imagery is hard to imagine now.

Below are some of the photographs I have taken of the work of the Two-Tailed Dog Party, with some rather dubious Hungarian-to-English translations. Some translations absent due to the difficulty of the beautifully complex Hungarian language (and my and Google’s inability to make sense of it).

‘Did you know that in the 16th Century in Somogy county, 42 people were attacked by bears?’
‘Did you know? A 32 megawatt laser beam fired from Sirius can ruin a crop at any time.’
”Did you know? Moscow wants to install a nuclear power station in Hungary.’
‘Did you know? Brussels is a city.’
‘Did you know? Life is beautiful.’

I wish Norwegian men were more like Hungarian waiters

I wish Norwegian men were more like Hungarian waiters. And not just for the way they glide effortlessly through the rooms of nineteenth century coffee houses with cake. But for their kind eyes and eye contact, their soft smiles, and their politeness. This is something I write in my journal as I take a pause from wandering the streets of Budapest; a slice of Eszterházy torta and a hosszú kavé no doubt not far away.

I leave my phone and laptop in my rented apartment on Hunyadi tér. I disconnect, leaving behind that clinging technology and the persistent cloying of work emails and social media, something I find myself increasingly alienated from. I have long quit Facebook, you will never find me on Tinder, and the only platform that I am truly attached to is Instagram because of my love of photography. And so, technologically, it is only my cameras that join me on my daily travels. I am in Budapest for my birthday, to find some inspiration, regain some passion in the city that I lived in nearly ten years ago; a city indelibly marked on my soul, a place I wander endlessly without maps and without feeling lost. My heart may belong to Montréal but my soul belongs to Budapest. Don’t worry Oslo, all my newly acquired social anxieties belong fully to you.

I walk through the city and think about Hungarian waiters. I feel visible in Budapest, something which I rarely feel in Norway. I remember the waiter Attila with green eyes and light brown hair who worked at Fresco Café on Liszt Ferenc tér. He spoke little English. He wore yellow and smiled at me, always greeting me as I unlocked the door to my apartment building at number 10; a heavy brown door which opened up into a beautiful courtyard of ivy and disrepair. Jó napot kivánok. Jó estét. Köszönöm szepen. Szia. Viszlat. Viszontlátásra. A sort of latent Hungarian now rolls off my tongue, severely limited but almost effortlessly. It surprises me one evening at some small kiosk while exchanging pleasantries. Hungarian has this beautiful sound and lilt to it, lots of pleasing “ok” endings, impossibly long words excessively consonant-ed, uttered in soft rolling tones.

On my birthday, I receive a message from my good friend in South Korea. He writes how much he thought of me the day before as he visited Central European University where we studied together and as he walked through the streets of Budapest, along the UNESCO protected Andrássy út, through the utcas of District VI where he used to live, and outside Liszt Ferenc tér 10 where I used to live. Neither of us knew that we were serendipitously in Budapest at the same time, joined also by another former classmate from Japan and another still from the Philippines visiting via Italy. Unexpected reunions, just a few of us from our class of forty from thirty-something countries, meeting and reliving our shared moments once again in this spectacular city. A couple of rib-crushing embraces and kisses on the cheek from a wonderful South Korean Greenpeace campaigner and activist and my heart feels full again. We walk on Nádor utca and then toward the Bazilika, still beautiful against a deep blue silhouette of sky. We used to sit and drink on the steps here, like minds and Hungarian wine.

In my favourite Hungarian bookshop, I buy a stack of Hungarian culture. Seven novels, three books of poetry that I want to fill my postcards with, a book on the revolutions of 1989, and three classic Hungarian films. I soak in geothermal baths; now overrun with selfie-sticks and waterproofed GoPros and tourists who seemingly fail to fully immerse in the marvels of architecture and geology here. I write in cafés, by hand in notebooks, so much so that my fingers ache. I write some academic work, sketches for my next paper. I write about anything that comes to me, surprised at what flows onto paper; bits of poetry and the subconscious. I think about how good my friend is at impersonating the announcements on the Hungarian metro. I take him to the airport and over coffee he records it on his phone: ‘Tessék vigyázni az ajtók záródnak’. Be careful of the closing doors. I think my heart might metaphorically beat with those Hungarian words. Emotionally I’m forever opening but I also close abruptly.

I miss the kindness of Budapest, the oblique and overt kindness I sometimes struggle to find in the everyday in Oslo. Sometimes I wonder if life is elsewhere. I write about this a lot in Budapest. I write about how it was in Budapest where I developed this strange methodology of walking and being lost in the city with the camera.  It was a practice I found cathartic after the sudden death of my father in October 2006, an unexpected event which inadvertently brought me to Hungary. I suddenly remember the Slovakian boy named Tomáš. We took our cameras and descended at a metro stop at random. I think it was on the blue line somewhere to the north of the city. We disembarked and wandered through a strange derelict landscape like a scene from Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker': stillness and tall grass, corrugated aluminum sheets caked with rust and ruin, concrete and rebars, graffiti and the Danube. Without knowing, I had found psychogeography at sunset and could not yet know that this type of exploratory urban photographic walk would become habitual, a way to get back in touch with the magic and wonder of everyday life. I write a postcard to my best friend. I write it is not just Budapest that is full of magic. I feel full of magic here too. I feel the magic of myself and the magic of the everyday, where poetry lives in moments. Moments lived, breathed, shared, cherished.

La beauté est dans la rue

The poetics of Situationism are alive and everywhere at Nuart Festival, both literally in the form of banners and texts but also figuratively in the philosophies and energies of this annual urban arts festival, now in its 16th year. The Situationists, an avant-garde art movement of the 1950s and 1960s, were influential in the May 68 uprisings in France. They believed that intervening in sites of the city was instrumental in effecting major social change. ‘Beneath the paving stones the beach’ became an important slogan, one which alludes to this idea that beneath the physical structures of the city — where capitalism is made and remade — a better world could be created. Marxist through and through perhaps but an idea which resonates today in the actions of artists in the city, whether intentionally or not. Other ideas and art movements meet with Situationism at Nuart, which is why it is not all that surprising that this year’s festival, which ran from 8th September to the 11th in Stavanger, also celebrated anniversaries for Thomas More’s Utopia as well as the birth of Dada. These themes are so perfectly fitting for an event which celebrates street art in its many incarnations, an art which necessarily involves actions of creation and destruction.

Some minor controversy ensued this year when a local art critic and a local artist proclaimed that street art and Nuart Festival had become boring, linking public acceptance with lacking critical edge. Yet, what makes Nuart Festival unique is both its reflexivity and its forward-thinking. This is why the festival is so internationally renowned, why festival organisers, artists, press and bloggers, critics and scholars meet here each year, and why it has sustained itself so successfully. How appropriate that such criticisms should arise at the same time as Nuart introduces for the first time the concept of “post-street art”: a term which in its very existence acknowledges some of the inherent problematics of the institutionalising and commodification of street art.

Such criticism also falls flat because you only have to walk through the streets of Stavanger or on the site of Tou Scene to see the continued relevance of street art, to see that street art is anything but boring. And this year’s visit to Stavanger has me wondering if perhaps the ultimate subversion is the institutionalising of this art. And while artists who began their careers in the streets enter galleries and studio artists move their works into the street, one can’t help but wonder if this is what post-street art might be all about: this blurring of boundaries between elite and the everyday.

‘Beneath the paving stones, the beach’, graffiti from May 68 with the iconic photograph of the piece of French graffiti reading ‘Sous les pavés la plage’. Banner hanging above the stage for the series of Nuart Plus talks.

‘Life is elsewhere’ banner, one of the many found throughout Tou Scene and the streets  of Stavanger. 

At the end of the day, public acceptance or not, street art is no more institutionalised than other forms of art. And just like any other art form or art movement, artists continue to be critical, to push boundaries and push forward whether it is in the confines of the gallery, the pages of a book, or the spaces of the city. Where street art maintains its power is that the streets remain a site which is open to anyone should they choose to claim the space. The gallery becomes less relevant and perhaps that really betrays the source of these critcisms. Beauty is in the streets, in the small actions of publics taking back the city, whether in performative actions or paint on walls, poetry hung by staples on black fabric on houses, in the creation of situations and moments which can for a moment disrupt and provoke, inspire and evoke.

‘Beauty is in the streets’ banner hanging above the corridor leading to the indoor exhibition space at Tou Scene for Nuart Festival. 

Creating utopias

Standing in front of the text leading into this year’s Nuart Festival exhibition at Tou Scene, I had a pang of recognition. The words of one paragraph in particular were shockingly familiar. I had written them into a document only days before, in the programme for this year’s Nuart Plus symposium: some words on the creation of utopias and of making and remaking the spaces of the city.

As a scholar, this is a difficult moment and one that I have been encountering more and more as I collaborate and work with artists and arts institutions. Our words and our ideas are our currency as academics. We write, we talk, we share, and we do so within a rather rigid and often restrictive system; one in which ownership of our words and ideas is key. We instantly recognise our words and ideas because of this, and especially so when permission or credit is lacking. There is a paradox here, certainly, for the open sharing of knowledge and ideas is absolutely fundamental to what many of us (idealist) academics wish to do: change the world in some small or some significant way. Yet, the neoliberalising of academia means that we are rewarded or punished based on our numbers of publications which are tallied indiscriminately when we are measured against each other for jobs, for promotions, for funding. When your words end up in someone else’s applications for funding, when they end up on a website, or when they end up on a wall, it can be very uncomfortable. There is an etiquette among scholars that does not often translate into other milieus.

While troubling as a scholar, this is also the beauty of collaboration. When working together with a huge number of people – regardless of your role – you can see bits of yourself everywhere along with the bits of the people you are working with. Though I uncomfortably recognised my words in the entranceway to this year’s exhibition for Nuart Festival, it was also a testament to the collaborative machinations of this event and institution. This is a self-organising system of administrators and volunteers, production crew and press, photographers and bloggers, festival organisers and curators from other cities, artists and scholars, politicians and publics. So many people come together in this organised chaos to make something truly beautiful, sometimes just a few words at a time.

An art of politics and an art of kissing wildly

Robert Montgomery’s light installation at Tou Scene.

I am absolutely smitten with the conceptual art of Robert Montgomery. His light poetry and urban interventions are infused with politics and passion, a questioning of capitalism and affirmations of love. At this year’s Nuart Fight Club debate on the proposed new term “post-street art”, Robert called for more radical and politically charged critical art: in an impassioned and humourous moment even urging the people to rip toilets from the walls and smash them en masse through the windows of the city in some perverse hommage to Marcel Duchamp. Somewhat fitting given one of the themes to this year’s festival was Dada.

While the light poem in the beer tunnels at Tou Scene — part of the indoor exhibitions for the Nuart Festival — was stunning and perfectly suited to its space, it was Robert’s interventions in the city that I found particularly moving and powerful. At once romantic and political, the white text on black background stands so starkly in contrast to surrounding space and the hacking of advertising street-furniture is particularly inspiring given my own interests in the excessive presence of outdoor advertising in cities.

An art of politics and and art of kissing wildly. 

Fuck Dada. 

A manifesto against Marcel Duchamp.

Messages from paradise scrawled on the walls of the university.

Chasing the sunset from Europe to America.

Stavanger par nuit

Je suis arrivée à Stavanger. Jeg har ankommet i Stavanger. I have arrived in Stavanger. A long day in Oslo with lecturing, catching up with visiting graffiti scholar Jacob Kimvall and having an inspiring chat on Scandinavian zero tolerance against graffiti, a quick little visit to the legal graffiti wall in Gamlebyen, and then off to the the airport. And all on four hours sleep. Still, managed to get in a short 3 km night walk here in Stavanger, to stretch my legs and see if any of my art still lingers in the streets here. It does.

Here are a few black and white shots, mostly from around Storhaug, incidentally one of my favourite places in Norway because its silos and elevated highways very strangely remind me of the neighbourhood I grew up in: the post-industrial landscape of sud-ouest Montréal.

”I came, I saw, I was won over.’, banner by Nuart. 

Streets of your town, wandering in Storhaug.

Like a motorway, with Jamie Reed’s rabbit.

Woman in the city. 

I see a ship in the harbour, I can and shall obey. 


Women of the night.


Cloudy day on Earth today

It’s a cloudy day on Earth today, people.

The following map was made by one of this year’s bachelor’s students in the Geographic Information Systems course. I ask every group of students I encounter to draw a map of Oslo.  


I love this map for the very simple way it illustrates how scale does indeed matter. I will share the rest of the maps when I have a few extra moments to spare so consider this one a sneak preview of more to come. 

Students are awesome.

Life and sex and love and art and death

Full breasts and soft, round stomachs, thick red Pre-Raphaelite hair, strong thighs, ideal and erotic woman full of power and life, couples and infants, scenes of love and sex, of birth and death. Emanuel Vigeland in ashes above the small doorway that opens into a vast domed open space: the Norwegian artist’s final resting place. And above Vigeland, skeletons locked in an eternal embrace. From their bodies, in a column of ethereal smoke, babies rise toward heaven or the cosmos or some infinite place.

These eight hundred square metres of frescoes took Emanuel Vigeland, brother to Gustav and contemporary to Munch, some twenty years to complete. Entitled ‘Vita’, his mausoleum is ultimately a celebration of life and sex and love and art and even death: a powerful testament to the rhythms of life and humanity, a reminder of what is important. In dim light, the eyes adjust slowly to reveal more and more details, more and more bodies, interconnected and interwoven. The breadth of the space makes for incredible acoustics, even the smallest sounds resonating and then clinging in stillness.

Thank you to Yvonne Thomsen for her time and kindness and knowledge and for arranging a private viewing of this truly special place, certainly one of Oslo’s best kept secrets. Sadly, the memory card for my camera became mysteriously corrupted and I lost all of my photographs from my visit this weekend. First photograph is of a postcard from the museum, the second of the skeletal embrace courtesy of Patrick da Silva Sæther, found online at The Fabulist.