Your faith was strong but you needed proof

One can almost feel holy in Gdańsk amongst towering brick churches, some of the largest in Europe, with their plain crosses in white lights capping their towering spires.  As I lie in my twin bed with the church Klasztor Ojców Dominikanów at my head and Bazylika Mariacka at my feet and the pigeons clawing and cooing in the rafters above, I think about Leonard Cohen. About his almost secular references to religion, to the Bible, to God, to holiness; and how the imagery of his religious references blend so beautifully and harmoniously with those of loss and love and sex.

The cross of Bazylika Mariacka and her towers reflect blurrily in a parking lot puddle, Gdańsk (2016)

 

Lanterns of Długi Targ and the tower of Bazylika Mariacka, Gdańsk (2016)

Gdańsk is not just the city which unravelled communism but it is also where the Second World War began, the first shots fired in 1939 at Westerplatte. The vibrant Hanseatic architecture of the city falsely suggests the 17th century but the buildings of that time were decimated during the war and I wonder if their beautiful restorations recall the vivacity of trade or the horrors of war. Amongst these perfected examples of Dutch and Flemish architecture, Bazylika Mariacka dominates. She follows you throughout the city. Dating to the late 14th century, it is currently one of the largest brick churches in Europe and took some 150 years to construct; her tower and stoic cross rise above the city centre like a beacon, like some inland lighthouse for those who seek refuge and comfort and worship. Also damaged badly during the the war, some of its frescos lost forever, it was a place where Solidarity members sought safety in the early 1980s.

At the site of the Muzeum Narodowe w Gdańsku (National Gallery of Gdańsk), housed in a Franciscan monestary, I stand in awe below its steeples. From within a courtyard a simple black wooden cross reveals itself from behind a brick wall while smoke lifts gently from an adjacent chimney. I wonder what weather precipitates the need for so many weather vanes, perching and reaching into the sky like so many delicate birds. My question is answered not long after when with Polish donut and coffee in hand, the heavens unleash a cacophony of weather: thrusts of wind, sudden onslaught of rain gentle only for a moment before transforming violently into hail, which cuts sharply into the back of my calves before melting with my warmth and cascading gently down my legs and pooling at my heels. Hours later I warm my feet among black and white photographs in the Kawiarnia Filmowa (Film Café) where Russians play a game with dice, a film is screened in the back room, Polish conversation mingles with the scent of cinnamon and cloves stuffed into slices of oranges suspended in mugs of hot wine, and music from the 1950s plays over the radio.  All in the shadow of Bazylika Mariacka.

A piece in Rolling Stone explores some of the finer points of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and its biblical references, its lyrics tinged with allusions “on the unknowable nature of artistic creation, or of romantic love”. In Gdańsk, the light from street lamps and lanterns blurs and the edges of the light bleed against the sky and reflect off wet cobblestones along Długi Targ, the long market street. I think of the the blend of sexuality and religion as a powerful one in the song whose cover by Jeff Buckley haunts me even when it is not playing. The lines “remember when I moved in you, and the Holy Ghost was moving too, and every breath we drew was Hallelujah” circle my thoughts and it is this intermingling of life and love and faith and sex which are so present in Leonard Cohen’s words, which resonate so profoundly.

Leonard Cohen’s death hit hard, leaving me with an unbearable longing for home, to be walking through the streets of Montréal past Parc du Portugal; where I walked years ago with my best friend and her husband who has long translated Leonard Cohen’s poetry into Croatian. We exchanged texts of grief and nostalgia for home (both of us exiled Montréalers) and I imagined us continuing past the park, up St-Laurent towards Mile End and a brown paper bag full of warm bagels straight from the wood ovens, chewy and sweet and saturated with sesame seeds which stick to your fingers and fall to the pavement. We tear them apart with our hands and continue on, stopping in some nearby café like Santropol or some other place suitable for nostalgia. I think about some Kundera novel I read forever ago which I cannot quite remember but which I am certain contains a description of this feeling of love and memory kept alive through friendship and conversation.

The beckoning of Bazylika Mariacka, Gdańsk (2016)

Bazylika Mariacka from winding alleys of cobblestone below, Gdańsk (2016)

The beautiful church of St-Mary’s is beckoning. I cross paths with a young priest whose long black cloak sweeps the cobblestones. I conjure the sound of Cohen as I look upwards. In the lyrics and music of Cohen, I hear and feel Montréal. I am with my family on a road trip listening to Jennifer Warnes’ voice cut in. Or in a small shop buying prayer beads in a small town in the Greek island of Milos where Cohen is playing softly. I conjure images of Montreal in the 1960s and of the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. And while I am not religious, there is a certain holiness felt in Cohen and here in Gdańsk. I am compelled toward to the beautiful Bazylika Mariacka. A surprising moment of piousness even has me wondering if it is disrespectful for an agnostic to wear a modest silver cross, suspended lightly against one’s chest ahistorically as a reminder of the beauty of the unknown.

Thinking of you at the Lenin Shipyards

My lips are stained deep red with blueberries and beets as I wander the streets of Gdańsk, in search of the revolutionary spirit of Lech Wałęsa and a plate of warm pierogis. It must have been my recent readings on Solidarność (Solidarity) – the Polish labour movement that established trade unions and which is cited as one of the first threads pulled, beginning the slow unravelling of communist rule – that brings me impulsively to this northern Polish port city.

Between industrial waste and new build condominiums, Gdańsk (2016)

Shadows and birds are cutting constantly into the frame of my photographs. From my fifth floor attic apartment on Szeroka street, I look out over the city. The colour of the sky vacillates between dramatic slate grey tinged with golden gleams to bright white cloud cover, punctuated by fits of snow and rain and hail and bursts of frigid wind, animated by diving sea birds swooping and calling at each other. On bridges I remember the Polish postage stamps I collected as a child, along with other bevelled squares of paper emblazoned with CCCP and Magyar Posta and Československo. And while I had a peculiar obsession with Russian ship stamps, it is the soft muted colours and the coarse matte finish of the Polish and Hungarian stamps I remember most.

Chasing a mural in a dissonant landscape, Gdańsk (2016)
Slate coloured sky and birds cutting in, Gdańsk (2016)

I chase a mural that I see from a distance, finding myself lost in some dissonant landscape of industrial waste and new build condominiums.  I read Rilke off a random website in small letters off my mobile phone between sips of coffee and flurries of handwriting at Café Libertas. I think a lot about birds. I also think a lot about whether it is its imprecision which I like best about philosophy: for, like poetry there is space for interpretation and application and a certain comfort in its ambiguity. Impossibly strong Polish men are everywhere: lifting heavy bits of machinery and orchestrating, I imagine, the echoing clangs that resonate loudly as you approach the water, the distant shipyards reaching sonically back from the sea carried by bitter Baltic wind that numbs fingertips, reddens cheeks, and steals your breath.

Today I visited Stocznia Gdańska  (Gdańsk Shipyards), known formerly as the Lenin Shipyards. And while the sounds and smells of the shipyards are still present, the Europejskie Centrum Solidarnośći (European Solidarity Centre) stands here now, imposing even in the late afternoon darkness in which the edges of the bold architecture disappears against the sky.  I think of  Anna Walentynowicz, whose yellow crane is on display inside the centre’s permanent exhibition, and whose activism led to her dismissal, initiating the momentous strikes of 1980. There are crosses everywhere throughout the city, in lights atop of churches, and here at the monuments commemorating the deaths of the workers killed in the events of 1970. On the streets, the faint scent of Catholicism lingers; incense wafting delicately, diffused and distilled into late November air. It occasionally lifts all the way up to the window by my bed from one of the many adjacent churches.

I think about a lot at the Lenin Shipyards.

At Stocznia Gdańska, formerly the Lenin Shipyards, Gdańsk (2016)

A singular heartfelt message I left behind in a Solidarność mosaic composed of thousands of other messages at the European Solidarity Centre, Gdańsk (2016)

Below are links to the revolutionary song ‘Piosenka dla córki’ ‘(Song for my Daughter’) from 1980 with lyrics by Krzysztof Kasprzyk and music by Maciej Pietrz and a clip from the 1981 film ‘Człowiek z żelaza’ (‘Man of Iron’) by director Andrzej Wajda.

Mysteries of the ancient empires

How strange that a bit of writing on the wall, spotted between shadows and the dim yellow glow of lamplight in the Polish port city of  Gdańsk would lead me to a mystery replete with Victorian poetry, Egyptian pharaohs, and Doctor Who fan fiction. After an hour or so of translating Polish websites, I am no closer to the meaning of this text stumbled upon during my evening walk back to my rented apartment in the Old City. The black spray painted block letters read “Mieli my kości Mykerinosa”. This translates to something approximating “We had the bones of Menkaure. Many thanks to Marta Dziok for correcting my original translation. Though the reference to ancient Egyptian pharaoh Menkaure is clear, the grammar is apparently dubious in Polish and therefore the translation into English is equally so. How cryptic. Pun intended.

Cryptic graffiti and cobblestones, Gdańsk (2016)

My quest to decipher this little mystery has instead lead me down a bit of rabbit hole of Polish blogging, bringing me close to the puzzlement of others but no closer to a deciphering. Perhaps life is best with a mix of mystery and the unknown. And a little nostalgia. For, I now find myself completely astray, longingly watching videos of my favourite computer game growing up: Challenge of the Ancient Empires, which taught me about prisms and angles, logic and the Rosetta stone, and ancient civilisations in CMYK glory. This is how I discovered ancient Egypt and I remember this game so vividly that the music alone has sent me into a wonderful fit of nostalgia and longing for DOS prompts, floppy disks, and a time before mouses. Next up: Adventures in Math and Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?

Winter of thought

There is a gendered force to the format of academic writing which is too frequently overlooked; one which favours and reifies a certain rather masculine logic. It is a logic which is rational, in favour of lists, a lover of things which are numbered and particularly structured, something which reads like an instruction manual; a form with little room for manoeuvre and one that you should not deviate from aesthetically, stylistically, or linguistically. If you break in substance, do not also do so in form. Probably best not to deviate too much methodologically either. We already know which methods are best for studying the world. They have been tested and proven by generations of social scientists so let us not be so brash as to take risk and innovate too much. What are those natural scientists thinking of? With theory you may have more room for leeway; it is a bit easier to sneak in strange bits of thought that probably get skimmed over anyhow. Language is to be concise and objectively scientific, with scant place for the intuitive and feminine. Make sure there are as many sources as possible, more is better and you must be able to convey that you have read more than you certainly have; and that you have read the right things.

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I think there is a certain problem still to be overcome regarding gender equality. Women are still forced into a very masculine way of viewing and communicating the world. We fail to see sometimes why gender equality is important. Focus is placed so often upon the idea that equality is important because it is just something which is morally right. We attempt to avoid all male panels or committees because that is right. But perhaps what is lacking in the mind is why this balance is important. Women have something to contribute: difference. This balance is crucial because women have something different to offer: a different way of seeing and being in the world.  Of course, the very same could be said of any dimension of difference which is not white and male. But the system does not allow for difference, does not want difference; but rather assimilation into a very prescribed, very specific way of being in the world. Women are allowed to join the club, but please follow the rules, put on your pant suits and talk as loud as you can if you want to compete for the air and the space in the room. This has ramifications for us all.

Academic rigour is questioned when writing styles do not mesh with dominant ways of understanding and writing the world. Let us make some lists, number things, measure stuff: the bigger, the better, etcetera. So it begs to ask, when just as many women as men submit papers to academic journals, why is it that men persistently dominate publications and citations? Is it truly our academic rigour that is the issue? Or perhaps is it something else? That we are working within a system so clearly conceived with male logic: metrics, harsh criticisms, impersonal language, a suppression of the emotional, and a very clear favouring of the sharp and seemingly objective rational mind over the intuitive. Science is all about intuition. Yet, writing about science is all about hiding that intuition, finding a way to communicate that no, it was not an actual person that did this work, that filtered knowledge through their lifetime of experience and living, but rather some distanced object of rational thought. I spent an entire secondary, upper secondary, undergraduate, and graduate education in the sciences loathing the “I”, learning that the first person should not matter. And I have spent my time since then learning that, actually, yes I do matter.

I think perhaps this may be a moment where we need to reconsider the subjective. Not to view it as narcissist and indulgent to situate one’s self within the narrative of our research, and to occasionally reveal that self to the reader. I want to produce beautiful science, develop new theory, advance methodology; and I want to do this in new ways. To show a generation of students and young scholars that we do not have to be stuck and staid within this system which perpetuates inequality, within this worldview that is so alienating and individualist yet so frightened of the individual. We can be like philosophers and theorists and the scientists of the past, who could write both on religion or love and the realities of the world without fearing rejection of peer review because love has no place in science. And we can do these with new freedoms and new technologies that those past generations never had.

All the above images are from my first winter in Norway when I lived near Sognsvann when the first snow and frost blanketed the lake. These were some of the first photographs I took with my dSLR, Oslo (2013).

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.

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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.’
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”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.