Where people lie and there are statues

There is a little used bookshop in Rīga, nearly hidden down an alley off Dzirnavu iela. There are lights and bunting outside, a covered terrasse with a bookshelf stuffed with books. A man sits alone under fairy lights and reads. I enter the shop and begin to browse the titles, almost all in English arranged thematically and fastidiously. I catch the eye of a handsome Latvian man who works there. Blonde, kind and blue eyed, sweet smile, angular features, tall. I find a Penguin Modern Classic, ‘Moon Tiger’ by Penelope Lively; attracted by its promise of history intertwined with the personal.

Outside Robert’s Books in Rīga (2017)

Vanilla dust seems to float on the air in Rīga. Sweet smells of unknown origin permeate and waft through the streets. All I want to do is walk. Walk, walk, walk these honeyed streets. I love the way my legs feel. Stronger, thicker. I can feel my thighs and my muscles. They push me forward with power and purpose. I am not an idle walker, certainly not a flâneur. I want my strong legs to bring me swiftly to fresh cups of coffee and foreign cakes. I want to taste the vanilla sugar of Rīga. There are konditoreja scattered across the city filled with warm air and pastries and older women in floral prints who sit and have afternoon cakes. There are also the new wave of cafés bringing the coffee of Africa and South America to Europe packaged in the aesthetics and interior design of the American east and west coasts; of the Mission District in San Francisco or Williamsburg in Brooklyn. They are all grey painted walls and tones of natural wood and coffee kettles and pour-over apparatuses arranged in minimal displays for sale behind counters; where men with man-buns and beards rest their skateboards against counters and sip thoughtfully at cups noting aromas and undertones.

Over Latvian honey cake and black coffee, I sit and write in a little café in Miera, a street in a post-industrial landscape marked by small signs of gentrification, signs like this very café. A loud capitalist entrepreneur at the table next to me proclaims to the couple he is sitting with that this place is improving the quality of life in the city. I wonder if other geographers curse how good the coffee is in these places, guiltily enjoying their ambiances and the changing atmospheres beyond their doors. I am picked up from the airport and driven around on a brief tour by my Airbnb host. He points out the café that I am now sitting in. He describes the neighbourhood as hip with nice places for coffee and drinks, a place where his brother hangs out. He suggests it is a good neighbourhood for a geographer to explore. He gestures behind us and says there is a nice place to walk. He cannot remember the English word for it but describes it in ominous tones as a place where people lie and there are sculptures. My imagination runs wild and I conjure images of disturbing, degraded remains of Soviet occupation, KGB experiments, a sanatorium. The following day, I wander up the street towards the place, detouring to explore the graffiti and street art of abandoned industrial spaces.

Exploring Rīga’s post-industrial spaces (2017)

I think about the intersections of sex and the urban a lot in Rīga. It relates to a paper that I am currently revising. I read the preface to Phil Hubbard’s book ‘Cities and Sexualities’. He describes a short film by Florian Sela called ‘L’amour dure trois minutes’. It is a take on Beigbeider’s book ‘L’amour dure trois ans’ which I remember reading in French many years ago. He describes the film which shows an encounter between a man in a woman in the Paris Metro, exchanged only in looks but interspersed with images of an imagined physical encounter, an arousing description: “No words are exchanged, no bodies touch, yet in the movement of an eye, a slight smile, a shift in posture, we can sense there was the possibility that this encounter could have been more than it was, just one of the thousands of random encounters that animates everyday urban life.”

My first few days in Oslo, I was wandering the city in the evening. Disoriented, unsure, I waited hesitantly at a tram stop and a young man approached me. I do not remember much of him except that he was drunk and was wearing flip-flops and he wanted me to come home with him. That was four years ago now and I still find the exchange puzzling though I understand the context better now, know that this is not all that unusual in Norway. It happens other times too, on the bus and other places where alcohol is involved. Invitations are unprecedented, all without any prior conversation or contact, not even an exchange of looks. It happens at last call, desperate and fumbling grapples for intimacy with anyone in proximity. It is not romantic or sensual, it is not even flattering, and despite the subtext of the invitations, it hardly even seems sexual. It seems foreign and unappealing; sex based only upon happenstance and location, on geography.

Henri Lefebvre wrote with concern about the abundance of sexual imagery that surrounds us in the everyday, in the city. It is not erotic or sensual but instead worrying, mechanical. I think of this when I think not just of the imagery that surrounds us through advertising and in popular culture but also of the ease and availability of sex: of the abundance of options. What might Lefebvre think of sex made so available through the flat glowing screens of smart phones, amorous decisions made in quick successive swipes? I feel anachronistic at times, comparatively chaste in the context of this pervasive and dominant hook-up culture mediated by technology and alcohol, of meaningless readily available fucking. I wonder about romance and encounter, I wonder about the moments filled with possibility that Lefebvre writes of in his theory of moments.

It is a cemetery. Where people lie and there are sculptures. I wander the lush and green space with curiosity and respect, with silence. I am more careful with my camera, taking pictures more thoughtfully. I stand in the centre and think about how cemeteries are. I think back to Kerepesi Cemetery in Budapest where I was in March and how this cemetery feels similar though aesthetically looks very different. Cemeteries feel like a round space, like a sphere. Especially if you stand in the centre. You can see the cars circle past the distant boundaries, hear the sounds of wheels and grit, sirens making a soft swishing din at its edge. There is stillness and calm here. The sounds of birds rise higher than the sirens and the three pronged orthodox crosses. It feels like an empty space. Yet, it is filled with bodies, with presence, with lives and history, culture. And life and movement continue, encircle the space and invade its boundaries. In the school just across the way, little boys without their shirts on are hopping on one leg in unison like delighted little choreographed leap frogs in the sun. It is some sort of physical education drill, they hop forward and then race back and start again, one little boy cartwheels back against the concrete surface and I wonder if his little hands bear the imprints of loose bits of rock and debris.

Faces of art nouveau in Rīga (2017)

I love to photograph beautiful women in the city, to appropriate the male gaze. It is not necessarily sexual but there is something so evocative in the way that women move through the city, how their softness and curves contrast with the hard edges of buildings and dark shadows of architecture, how their skirts and dresses catch the breeze and lift with their stride. Women are so feminine here, elegant. I pass a woman clutching a bouquet of Lily of the Valley. I catch the intoxicating scent again as I pass flower sellers on the way to the train station. It a scent of childhood, shady forest flowers with their angular stiff stalks holding up clusters of little bell-shaped white blooms, framed by the broad curve of a sweeping single leaf – so much like the very forms and motifs of art nouveau that this city is known for. In the evening I wander the streets of the art nouveau district. Art nouveau – or Jugendstil – seems everywhere in Rīga. It is breathtaking. I am mesmerised by a blue and white building, I imagine it must be one of the most exquisite in Rīga. At the top of the building, amidst many other details, two prominent faces in profile look outward, away from each other, a man and a woman, they are the corners looking. I think about the male gaze, the real one and the theoretical one. I think about how I do not wish to vilify male gaze in practice. Men look into your eyes here, with desire. I think there are few things more exciting than that male gaze in the city, a glance held a moment too long, a fleeting connection made in the city.

Women moving through the city in Rīga (2017)

The bookshop is quiet. It is the end of the evening. We talk. I order a glass of wine. He sits with me, lays a map of the city out on the table. He shows me how to get to the Baltic Sea, to Jūrmala where he’s from. In Rīga, he tells me where to find graffiti and interesting architecture, shows me where he lives. He tells me which days he will be working. He is half introvert, half extrovert he says. Musician, dj, creative, he tells me about his family and asks about mine. I look at the map upside down and cannot make much sense of it but as a geographer sitting in a bookshop with a handsome man, a glass of wine, and a map is just sublime.

Latvian signs and sticker art in Rīga (2017)

I like the space that opens up around European railway stations; it is as if buildings simply fall away as you approach. I take the Pasažieru Vilciens train to Jūrmala. I like the straight lines over Latvian letters, making vowels longer. I am curious about ancient Latvian signs too, graphic linear symbols adorning viscose scarves and stainless steel jewellery in souvenir shops. I see them also in the design of ornate street art stickers. The train feels vaguely Soviet and I hoist myself up with far less elegance than other passengers. Sparse stands of spindly red pine line the edges of the railway tracks from Babīte to Majori. Red pines in sandy red soil. The Soviet Union had plans to build a metro system in Rīga, as it did in any city which exceeded a certain population. It is these sandy soils that prevented them from doing so. This is what I overhear at the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. The sand on the beach is  hard, so much so that bicycles are able to pedal in parallel lines to the shore. The sea is soft and the breeze gentle, the sun is warm on my eyelids. The rippling water in the distance catches the sun and playfully bounces it back like white gold.

At Baltic water’s edge in Jūrmala (2017)

If I wait 15 minutes while he closes up shop, he will walk me home. I wait and am amused by the offer so much so that for some reason I want to laugh. It is a kindness, it is romantic, it is a moment. It has never happened to me in Norway.  He smiles sweetly as I sit patiently as he arranges the shop, counts out the till, turns out the lights.

I catch young women taking selfies and it makes me smile. I welcome the idea of women photographing themselves and each other and thinking that they are beautiful. I watch two girls at the Baltic Sea, at water’s edge. Head shake and hair flings, letting the sweet Baltic air sweep up tendrils and brush them backward. Hip forward, head tilt, smiles. Then convergence over the small screen in bright sunlight, assuring that beauty and moment were captured satisfactorily. In the Latvian National Museum of Art, I stumble upon two other girls taking selfies.  In a room for conceptual art where there is nothing but a small CRT television in the centre spitting out white noise to blank white walls and corners and two girls taking selfies. In flagrante delicto, they are making themselves beautiful for Instagram or Facebook, to empower, spark yearning.  I retreat and divert my gaze to modernist paintings and recognise one which I saw earlier in Miera across from the café, as part of the Outings Projects which liberates images of paintings from museums and pastes them up as street art. It is ‘Three women in the streets of Baghdad’ by Jāzeps Grosvold. I also see photo montage of the Russian avant-garde, social realism, and large contemporary paintings that remind me of Basquiat.

‘Three women in the streets of Baghdad’ by Jāzeps Grosvold in Miera (2017)
Catching moments in broken mirror on concrete in Rīga (2017)

We walk through the evening city streets. He pushes his yellow bike, pulls his hood up over his head, tells me about his jobs, his athletic aspirations, marathon running and long-distance bicycling, his music. We stop outside the former KGB building, a stunning example of Latvian architecture. It reminds me of another evening walk I took once. I love how the conversation of evening walks in particular pick up cues from the landscape; buildings and places conjuring memories, evoke the sharing of stories and histories, and the close proximity of someone, shoulder to shoulder, looking ahead calms nerves and quells awkwardness. I am hopelessly romantic. Reading Plato, I search for Aristophanes’ play about soulmates. Reading quantum physics, I look for evidence of predestination. He compliments my smile and my harmonious company and it is the first time that I have felt visible in such a very long time. He walks me home and I revel in the moment, in the romance. We stand awkwardly outside the gates of the apartment building I am staying at on Brīvība iela. Freedom street. We hug goodbye and he reaches out and touches my shoulder gently, twice; touch filled with such warmth and soft energy and the evening ends so sweetly and innocently. Just like vanilla sugar floating on air. In a moment so full of possibility.

Blue Chionodoxa

My hair smells of chlorine and coconut on the west side of Oslo, where smatterings of French are heard frequently amidst soft-spoken Norwegian. When you are broke in Oslo but long for Paris, this is where you come.  To Frogner. At least this is what a young woman at a party told me recently. Neil Young is playing softly over the stereo in Baker Hansen, a café where I have somehow become a regular. The sticky sweet pistachio taste from a Karlsbader pastry lingers on my tongue while steam rises slowly from my coffee. The crooning sounds of home – come a little bit closer, here what I have to say – mix with the voices of a table of Norwegian women. Outside is the sun, and daffodils, and a feeling of spring. Blue Chionodoxa gather in crowds, covering sparse lawns just like gossiping ladies catching up after a long Norwegian winter, hanging their soft blue heads in slumber at dusk. The sounds of ‘Harvest Moon’ fade into mundane pop and the ethereality of the moment is lost.

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Blue Chionodoxa gathering in crowds, Oslo (2017)

In a vegan restaurant in District VI of Budapest just off of Hunyadi tér, four colleagues working on a film together chat. Two Brits and two Americans, their voices fill the small arched cellar space together with the smells of seitan and paprika. They compete over film references, directors and editors, discuss who has worked with who. A selection of British music from the 90s plays over the stereo here. I am surprised to hear ‘Common People’ by Pulp. I know every word of the song and the dance moves from the video too, memorised from my teenage years when I would dance with friends and emulate the lithe lead singer Jarvis Cocker. I listen bemused to the ensuing discussion: two Brits trying to explain Jarvis Cocker to Americans. They leave it at “eccentric British character” and the conversation shifts again. Tunes fade in and out and I find it difficult to concentrate on the book I am reading so instead I write what I am experiencing, a new kind of voyeuristic mindfulness. Jesus and Mary Chain plays and the sounds of unexpected shoegaze makes me feel dreamy.

In Frogner, I buy a single red chili and a piece of ginger from the little independent grocery shop, the ones with the best ingredients that keep their produce in tiers outside under canopies; the ones which Norwegians often refer to as “immigrant shops”. I do not care much for the term but I like the kind men who work here, Norwegians of middle-eastern descent with pleasant west-coast accents: my favourite Norwegian dialect. Their slightly British accented English is equally pleasant. Outside, are loose vegetables and ingredients difficult to find in chains like Rema 1000 or Kiwi or COOP. I contemplate bits of turmeric root that I am not sure how to use. Inside are fresh herbs and a counter that protects loose olives and antipasti, and there is Macedonian ajvar, British tandoori, American tortilla chips, smoked sea salt from Greece, and date syrup from I do not know where. I am reminded of home, in this heterotopia which is a welcomed momentary escape from the cultural monotony of the nation-state, away from knekkebrød and pålegg. The young man working the cash sneaks a package of apple chips into my bag when I am not looking. I always feel good here, where I stopped with a friend last summer to buy olives for an evening picnic and a late summer swim at Tjuvholmen.

There used to be a DJ at Szimpla Kert – the most famed of ruin pubs in Budapest – who had a little table set up in one of the front rooms. His name was Attila. I was bolder ten years ago and had a tendency to strike up conversations with DJs. On Wendesday evenings, he would play British music and I would pull up a chair and chat, make song requests and dance to Suede and Joy Divison in a small space which was really more of a broad corridor passing into the strange spaces one finds in a ruin pub: spaces filled with bathtubs as chairs, bits of rubble, crumbling walls and narrow stairwells, low lights and cheap beer, and no ceilings, no roof. That was ten years ago though. Since then, it is as if its very presence catapulted gentrification into the surrounding District VII – the Jewish quarter –  like some hipster contagion. Now, blackboards with coffee specials written in varying fonts in English and white chalk are found amidst cake shops and taco stands. There is even a DIY eatery where you make your own food and on weekends there is a farmer’s market at Szimpla Kert, which now looks like a sort of theme park with a gift shop and all.

After this most recent trip to Budapest, I am suddenly more aware of the beauty of architectural detail on the west-side of Oslo where the heritage of the nineteenth century is immaculately cared for. I soak in the way that light falls on cornices and spills down pastel-painted facades with heavy doors opening into courtyards filled with bicycles and ivy. It is the effect of photography, I suspect, that brings this hyper-awareness. It is a way of looking, not just seeing: every shadow or perfectly posed leaf, swift movement of bodies and trams, all photographs waiting to be, so many moments that without a camera pass and and though observed, are not preserved.

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Spring views from Buda, Budapest (2017)

I write close to two hundred hand-written pages in Budapest, between coffees and photographs. Nothing at all to do with my dissertation or my work at hand. I become so inspired that I stop on bridges and rest my notebook against columns, at the base of statues, on the steps of the Bazilika. It is the kind of inspiration that philosophers write about. Sometimes it is just the mundane. I sit and write my surroundings. Like a photograph, my words attempting to capture and preserve a moment; this particular arrangement of people and light, sounds and smells, that will never again exist. I eavesdrop unintentionally and intentionally. I watch people, their actions and interactions, their appearance and manner. In an eco-café, I have a near panic attack when I suddenly realise that I am surrounded by Norway, despite my hopes of respite from the North: a table of four Norwegian girls immediately to my right, a table of five to my left. I am horrified when one begins opening something wrapped in aluminum foil. It is a matpakke, the unwrapping revealing a piece of knekkebrød and sweaty Norwegian cheese. Despite any affinity I might have for crisp breads and cheese, this typical Nordic lunch disturbs me, especially here where one can avert these canapés of sadness in favour of the cakes of empire. I shake the panic and instead focus on the colour blue. The blue of sublime that I keep thinking of. The blue Danube. The blue hills of Buda stuck to the horizon like photo-montage above the river. The hills appear between buildings too, like they do not quite belong there. Like blue spring flowers.

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New growth on Dogwood and blurred Chionodoxa, Oslo (2017)

I walk to work today in a short skirt and pale grey stockings, the very same that I wore on a date once. I have my camera and I take photographs. The sun is absent now, and the skies a mix of grey and effervescent white; gentle warnings of the rain that later comes. My knees are cold and I see little blue flowers again. Blue Chionodoxa are sprinkled behind fences along Sognsveien on my ascent to work. I think about pilgrimages as I walk, about the Camino de Santiago specifically and wonder if I can manage a week of 30 kilometres a day in the Spanish sun of August, among chaparral and succulents. I wonder what is blue in Spain.

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Stone angels in Kerepesi Cemetery, Budapest (2017)

There are blue Chionodoxa too at Kerepesi Cemetery in Budapest, gathering at the bare feet of stone lovers locked in embrace; the tiny blue vernal blooms bursting through thick carpets of waxy ivy. I wander the grounds, gazing at stone angels and signs of spring. Sixty years ago, guns were fired here and Soviet tanks rolled through nearby streets during the revolution of 1956. Tibor Fischer describes these altercations in his bittersweet novel ‘Under the Frog’, filled with humour and sorrow: the book I read in the vegan restaurant. The bright yellow petals of Forsythia are framed by wrought iron fences and the late March trees throughout Budapest are covered in fascinating forms, green softness untouched yet by dust, unfurling to the breath of the city, opening in slow motion in the warm air. Tourists look past the buds and the branches and all these small miracles of new growth, look past to the staid stones of history: the neo-Gothic parliament buildings as seen from across the Danube from Buda or the Chain Bridge flanked by lions, or the countless other larger miracles of architecture and monument in the city. I look at these too and each new visit brings me greater appreciation for the grandeur and the history that steeps these streets along the flowing Danube. I think of Budapest, like Pessoa thinks of Lisbon. Everything that surrounds us becomes part of us, he writes. I carry Budapest heavy in my soul. I know that when I walk those úts and utcas again and again, that I write them, inscribe them, etch them more indelibly in my being. So much so that the city is now in my genes and any future progeny might bear inexplicable memories and feelings of  longing for weary facades and tales of revolution. There is something of the sublime in Budapest. It is more than just beauty, it is contrasts and history, architecture and cakes. Architecture like cakes, and cakes like architecture. It is revolution and dissidence, resilience and struggle. I think of blue Chionodoxa and the blue depths of the Széchenyi baths under the open sky at night that I dive deep into at the base of marble beauties, in the witness of stars. I think of the blue sky and the blue Danube, and everything sublime.

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Yellow Forsythia framed by wrough-iron fences, Budapest (2017)

I wonder what is being etched on my soul in Oslo. I watch as twenty-something  year-old Norwegian boys buy strawberries and snus at the Rema 1000 grocery store on a Friday night. They pile onto their City Bikes and take off noisily into the evening. I buy sparkling water, my hair still smelling of chlorine and coconut, still wet from the pool. The evening air is warm and all I want is a little peace, to listen to Neil Young on my headphones in a moment of nostalgia and homesickness, to enjoy the warm spring air and look up at the aurora spinning around the nearly full moon, and maybe do the dishes.

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Blue Chionodoxa behind fences, Oslo (2017)

Library green

The number 170 is hand-painted in gold against the varnished wood of the desk, centred and in slight italics, faded slightly.  This is where I sit, at an old wooden table at the far end of the main reading room of the Nasjonalbiblioteket in Oslo. This is my anonymous corner at the National Library, old tomes at my back and a view onto the expansive room. The lamp at my table is wonky and though I have not attempted to adjust its height, I suspect that it would refuse to extend further upward like the other lamps. I delight in its lazy resignation to hang a little too low over the table, spilling its modest light onto the table  accomplishing little else except casting fittingly lazy shadows across the desk’s dark surface. Still, I turn its switch on instinctively each time I sit down. I have a weakness for green library lamps of a certain kind, those with the oblong emerald green shades in glass over brass base with a metallic chain-pull that clicks the light on and off.   Though this one is different in its Nordic design and matte pale green metallic dome, it still evokes a similar feeling, a lamp of intellectual formality, a lamp whose mere presence suggests important work is to be done.  I imagine if I tap my pen against its edge, it might ring out a beautiful dissonant sound, a sound whose low waves might resonate slowly and cascade with trepidation out into the stillness of the room.

This is my favourite place, safely distanced from the Brutalist architecture of the University of Oslo and instead ensconced in the comforting symmetry and elegance of Art Deco. I seek tranquility and peace endlessly and the quiet of the library is one of the most quenching and beguiling places in all of Oslo. The only sounds belong to me: my pen against paper or fingers against keyboard, my rustling of papers. Even the muted sounds of other patrons working, adjusting and fidgeting, the occasional mobile phone ringing out and the ensuing fumbling panic of extinguishing the electronic din so foreign in this place, even these sounds seem to belong to me. When I first arrive here in the late afternoon, I sometimes take my boots off and walk the length of the room in my wool socks so as not to burden the space with the squeaking of my still-wet winter boots.

What is now the Nasjonalbiblioteket was previously the University of Oslo library. The stone lettering of the building’s entrance – designed by Norwegian artist Emmanuel Vigeland – still reads Universitetsbiblioteket. This main building was opened in 1922 and the architecture , art, and décor all bear the beauty and aesthetics of the era. From Vigeland’s sculptural entranceway to the modernist mural ‘The Modern Ragnarok’ by artists Per Krohg and Axel Revold whose colours and forms evoke the style of the 1930s lead the way up the stone stairwell to the second floor. A young woman with a folded tourist  map and camera in hand, a woman with whom the security guard flirted with and encouraged to mount the stairs for a better vantage, leaped up the stairs eagerly past me and stopped abruptly at the top of the stairs to enjoy the scene today. She seemed in such a hurry and took photographs so furtively, I wondered if she really had a moment to take in its beauty.

It is all wood and hues of green contrasting against the white of walls and ceiling in the main reading room. The wood of the desks and the bookshelves which wrap along the perimeter, and the wood of panels halfway up the wall and columns, and the wood of the scant few card catalogue drawers across from the main desk, my most favourite relics which I remember so vividly from the libraries of my childhood and into my first years of university before the onslaught of digitising. Being here, I remember the wood desks of the library at Dawson College where I spent two years after highschool studying pure and applied science. The library was the former chapel of a convent, the Maison-mère des soeurs de la congregation de Notre-Dame. The former mother-house was converted into a CEGEP – Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel – and my time there before I embarked on my undergraduate degree is host to some of my most cherished memories.  My backpack was so impossibly heavy then with textbooks, a heaviness which matched my schedule and workload. Yet, my time at Dawson was levity and light, my first taste of freedom. It was a time of simple pleasures, when canneberge-citron muffins and Van-Houtte coffee in styrofoam cups were sheer decadence.  It was a time when my best friend and I would leave notes and mix tapes in each other’s lockers. Songs taped off the radio and notes which were pages and pages of words and drawings, the best kind of exchanges: thoughts about boys and class and the minutiae of our everyday. I made questionable fashion choices, wore a lot of polyester, listened to a lot of music. We had a radio show Friday afternoons and when most students had long left the building, we spoke in Scottish accents, sang along with songs, and blared Morrissey across the empty cafeteria and into the club rooms and whatever other spaces the radio was broadcast into. I don’t think we knew even then who was listening to CIXS. It somehow got us on guestlists and backstage at shows and gave us excuses to talk to bands. At seventeen, that was bliss. We mixed effortlessly in the soundbooth and on the mix tapes we made for each other and we snuck in recordings from our favourite films and from our favourite sketches on Saturday Night Live. And we took naps in the library. The most splendid of naps. I still remember those lapses into reverie, hunched over that heavy backpack. That library had the highest ceilings I have ever seen or at least that is how they seem in my memory. They reached skyward to the heavens and there were pigeons somehow in that vast space of light. I can still conjure the sound of their heavy wings flapping and recall the shadows of their movement in that space between the crosses.

The Nasjonalbiblioteket is full of that same quality of light. It is the light that spills in through high windows. There is something special about that sort of light and it fills the upper reaches of the room and filters slowly down towards the sombre tones of library wood and library green. Green linoleum on the floor, green domed lamps, palest green glass dividing up the more modern desks. Green around the window frames and in a small sliver of wall above the bookshelves. Shades of soft green in squares of stained glass above the analogue clock with no numbers. Shades of weathered green on the volumes of cloth-bound periodicals: subtly faded from the sun, shades whose subtleties are perceptible perhaps to only the most discerning of tetrachromats. Green lines and painted green geometric shapes on the ceiling in repeated square forms with gold compass shapes at their centres. Sixteen squares interspersed between six large hanging lamps. I sketch the configuration in my notebook for some unknown reason. Each square looks like a maze of dead ends.

I slip into a most meditative and wondrous solitude and my days are recently filled with ample leisure time and only an intense period of no more than three to five hours of work per day. I take my work inspiration from the Wobblies or the Industrial Workers of the World, an American trade union which spearheaded the hopeful movement of the 1930s and 1940s for the four-hour work day. My leisure time is luxuriously solitary, and while it is not perhaps sustainable long-term, I revel in this time of isolation and the explosive creative outpourings it incurs. I am slow but consistently productive and I proudly take my role as Aesop’s languorous but optimistically determined tortoise. I am just as stubborn. My leisure time is filled with new energy, of reading novels and poetry and walks around lakes, healthy cooking with revived passion and creativity, weekends painting in the studio, and long evening swims perfecting my freestyle and strengthening my lungs. Solitude is a privilege and I cherish the quiet moments which I crave consistently and fervently, a necessary luxury to heal and sort out ideas and make sense of my thoughts and experiences, and to finish tasks at hand and make plans for the uncertain future.

I find most-welcomed comfort and inspiration in a wonderful and slim book by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. In ‘Letters to a Young Poet’, Rilke writes advice to a young artist and stresses above all the importance of solitude. Rilke counsels to “love your solitude and bear the pain it causes you with melody wrought with lament.” Create a wide space around you. “And if what is close is far, then the space around you is wide indeed and already among the stars; take pleasure in your growth, in which no one can accompany you, and be kind hearted towards those you leave behind, and be assured and gentle with them and do not plague them with your doubts or frighten them with your confidence or joyfulness, which they cannot understand”. Show understanding for those who fear your solitude, ask no advice but believe in “a love which is stored up for you like an inheritance, and trust that in this love there is a strength and a benediction out of whose sphere you do not need to issue even if your journey is a long one”.

It is still winter in Oslo though it is early March and the light is slowly returning to these northern latitudes. Outside the high windows of the library reading room, thick vines weave twisted upwards while thin bare tendrils hang downwards, some few leaves from last year still lingering on their nodes. I wonder whether the green of fresh foliage might clash with the interior greens of the library. Or perhaps the fresh leaves will appear only as black silhouettes against the bright outside light like an elegant Art Deco line drawing whose organic forms might complement the architecture surprisingly with no hint of anachronism.

All photographs above taken last Sunday on a misty late-afternoon walk around Sognsvann, Oslo (2017)

 

 

Tagging glaciers, metaphorically

‘I’ll melt with you’, Acrylic painting on birch panel, by American artist Josh Keyes (2016)

I came across the above image quite recently. It depicts an iceberg covered in spray-painted tags in various colours contrasting against the white-blue of compressed glacial ice and reflected upon the gentle rippling water at its edge. It is a surprising image, particularly as it is easily mistaken for a photograph upon first glance, especially when viewed in a much smaller format. This easy mistake is observable in reactions of outrage in the comments on Instagram on a reposted version of the image. Several comments betrayed a sense of moral outrage at the very idea of graffiti on this little bit of frozen ice lost at sea. It is, in fact, a painting by American artist Josh Keyes and not a photograph at all.  In small orange letters, it bears the written message: “I’ll melt with you”.  This is not only a reference to the hit song by 1980s New Wave band Modern English,  but this text and its context suggest an important environmental message, a rather direct allusion to climate change and the melting of sea ice. But what interested me most was the following: where was the moral outrage at the idea of melting ice? Why was it easier to organise debate over the presence of graffiti on what some might consider a natural landscape than the idea that this very landscape is disappearing?

Graffiti is alright on subway trains but “pointless graffiti on boulders” is another thing, or so said renowned land artist Robert Smithson on the unacceptability of graffiti on rocks1. Smithson is himself known for his largescale rearranging of rocks, evidenced in his most famed work Spiral Jetty. With the aid of heavy machinery along the shore of Great Salt Lake in Utah, Smithson moved basalt boulders – several thousand tonnes of volcanic rock – and repositioned them into a spiral form emerging from the shore to make Spiral Jetty. If you are familiar with landform morphology, it is much like a spit turned into itself, coiled in a way that natural currents would have been unlikely to have done themselves.

Walking through the Montréal neighbourhood of Point St-Charles recently, trudging through slush and snow in the south western quartier of Montréal on the way to visit family, I stumbled upon Smithson’s work. Well, a photographic representation of it. Startled to see this large print, I thought this might be heterotopia at its very best (with a little bit of heterochrony and serendipity thrown in as well): a piece of land art from Utah made in 1970, in a large scale print faded from the bright Montréal sun, in the Sud-Ouest of the city, on the outside of a Mosque, with a few tags which recall the lasting and far flung impacts of the graffiti movement of American cities of the 1970s and 1980s. This scene comprised of so many of my favourite things conjure some of the most fundamental philosophical questions underpinning my work, all converging at this street corner as I walk with my Mum. These philosophical questions have a lot to do with the role of art, particularly art which is found in public space or art which is site-specific, and the roles of art with regards to understandings of space and the environment. My work has revolved around these issues for over ten years and though my work has become more nuanced and sophisticated, many of these crucial questions remain constant. The wonderful thing about philosophy is that the questions may remain constant, but the answers keep changing and evolving.

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‘Spiral Jetty, twice removed’, Point St-Charles, Montréal (2016)

Robert Smithson was part of the Land Art movement. It coincided with the height of the American environmental movement, when the scale of human impact on the environment began to be understood and articulated. This is, recall, not long after the publication of Rachel Carson’s pivotal book ‘Silent Spring’ which made the connections between the extensive use of pesticides – specifically dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane or DDT – and its bioaccumulation and biomagnification through the food chain. The problems of this bioaccumulation was most famously described by Carson who argued that the concentrations of these chemicals in the eggshells of many bird species – notably eagles and falcons – weakened the shells so much so that they crumbled under the weight of nesting birds. The currents of the environmental movement began to be reflected in diverse art practices. Land art is one such example though despite its use of natural materials and its site-specificity in natural environments, it was of course highly criticised for its largescale and often damaging manipulations of the physical environment. Spiral Jetty necessitated moving thousands of tonnes of basalt rock, repositioned in the spiral form. The sculpture evolved over time, as site-specific pieces tend to do, with salt crystallising gradually over the volcanic forms. According to the DIA Art Foundation, to whom Spiral Jetty was donated, Smithson’s work revolved around ideas of entropy and transformation. Indeed, entropy is transformation; originating from the Greek words for “in transformation”. Entropy is fundamental to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which in simplified terms refers to the fact that natural systems have a tendency toward disorder.

‘Spiral Jetty’ (1970) by American land artist Robert Smithson, photograph courtesy of the Dia Art Foundation

 

Transformation is something very much on my mind after having spent several days away on a retreat for the kick-off of the project AdaptationCONNECTS , a special project hosted at the Department of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo. The project, led by Karen O’Brien, strives to “develop new understanding of whether and how different types of transformations can contribute to successful adaptation to climate change”. The project aims to bring together the seemingly disparate, to make likely and unlikely connections, to foster new ways of thinking about a problem so very serious yet still so difficult to mobilise around politically. It is contraindicatory to the nature of such a project to suggest that there is one way that successful and transformative adaptation might look. Not only are there multiplicities of how adaptation might look – multiplicities that are highly contextual, dynamic and subject to change – but the ways in which we may arrive at them are also multiple. To suggest that there might be some single pathway leading to successful adaptation is also problematic for it implies something which is linear, unamenable and unchangeable, fixed and rigid, predetermined. It reflects the very type of reasoning that such a project should be attempting to challenge. Rather than a pathway then, perhaps transformative adaptation might look like something more organic, more like the very things we are endeavoring to protect, maybe something more like a spider’s web: interconnected certainly, complex undoubtedly, but also flexible and itself adaptable. Perhaps it is like a tree, not for its potential role as a carbon sink, but as an inspiration for being rooted but strong, vulnerable but resilient, making its own diurnal and seasonal transformations: breathing in carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen, turning sunlight and water into sweet saccharides, knowing when to grow and when to rest, and allowing for hundreds of processes of symbiosis and unlikely partnership. Rebecca Solnit writes on the transformation of the pupae into winged creatures2; describing moements of decay and destruction precipitating the emergence of the butterfly in one of nature’s most remarkable examples of transformation. The beauty perhaps lies in the very processes of transformation itself, rather than the end result.

The way we think about climate change has already transformed rather dramatically, though perhaps not at the rates which are truly necessary. What was once described as a scientific and technical problem is now recognised also as a social and political one. Dominant discourse has accepted that climate change is indeed anthropocentric, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) having put it in writing in 2007. It is also significant that the social sciences are not only now considered important but also necessary to grappling with this most wicked of problems. Now, I believe we are on the threshold of something even greater, standing upon a precipice and gazing out across the deepening divide between the sciences where we still stand firmly rooted and the arts: close but still somewhat beyond our reach. It is not only the social sciences which are needed, for, like the natural sciences, they remain still so very rooted in the rigidity of the scientific method and anchored in a rather prescriptive way of viewing and interpreting the world. Now is the time for the humanities. Climate change is not only a scientific problem, not just a social and political problem, but it is also a moral problem. Indeed, it is perhaps the full gamut of the humanities that we need now more than ever, including philosophy, history, and art. For it is not just the environment that we are compromising, but our very humanity. Philosophy and history may offer us both old and new ways of looking at the problem of climate change. Art may also do the same, of course, but may offer something further: an alternative to the scientific method, a very long list of potential contributions which entail everything from communication to provocation, offer new ways of thinking, and act as a much needed catalyst to action.

Rather that attempting a definition, transformative adaptation might be best described by its qualities. Successful adaptation is likely highly contextual, flexible, empathetic, complex, and reflexive. When it comes to transformation, we are talking about things more abstract, less tangible, and I think it would be dangerous to suppose that the role of art lies exclusively in communication, visualisation,  or in the production of something aesthetic. It is thought and process which is also as interesting as the work or performance at which it arrives. It is the non-representational which is where perhaps the enacting of impassioned politics and empathetic critique lie. The work of art is immensely important as well, but we must not focus on that alone. Science – both natural and social –  is frequently presumed to be objective for its rational following of the scientific method, for its abilities of generalisation,  for its studies designed so that results may be replicable, and for results respected in large part because of that trusted method. What then of artistic method? This is where the magic of art comes in, for what is strength in science may just be a weakness in art. Replicability is false in art. Mimesis is one thing but to replicate a piece of art is considered forgery. It is because the process is different. Even though method may be the same, the creative impulse is not. To replicate process simply to arrive at the same result is counterintuitive to the artistic process. This is perhaps one of the greatest strengths of art. It is not about integrating art and the artistic process into current approaches to adaptation. We run into problems, I believe, when we use words like “integrate” and “incorporate” for in those concepts, issues of power remain entangled. It suggests an ever-present dominance; that something should become part of something else, in a sense losing its integrity in integration.  These issues have been well addressed in literatures on indigenous knowledge and traditional ecological knowledge, for example, an article by Paul Nadasdy called the Politics of TEK (1999)  was an incredibly powerful read for me and was inspiring in my own endeavors to think differently about knowledge. Integration is a type of assimilation, one in which something is certainly lost for that which is being integrated and even that which is being integrated into. A loss of difference, perhaps. This is why we may wish to look to the natural sciences for inspiration, for thought on how systems work together both in states of strength and in states of decay. And this is also where issues of political theory are also immensely valuable. The idea of agonism that Chantal Mouffe writes about is particularly poignant.

What is at the heart of that moral outrage about graffiti on glaciers (and graffiti on walls, for that matter)?  Likely, there are many issues at the heart of this outrage, including ideas of a pristine nature that exists separate from us, one which deserves protection. There is also an idea of the value of the aesthetic beauty of nature, on which is exemplified by a pristine aesthetic quality which maintains this nature/culture divide. And finally, there is the whole web of ideas around graffiti as destructive, damaging, offensive, and criminal. Can we shift some of that moral outrage over vandalism to climate change? Can we get as angry over the invisible conglomerate of carbon and oxygen atoms that we are releasing so fervently and carelessly into the atmosphere?  What can get us to this point? Well, what got us to the point of a very widely shared opinion of tagging and graffiti as negative? A very careful crafting by politicians and private interests, a bit of exaggerated social science research suggesting a now quite contentious hypothesis called the ‘broken windows theory’, and the force of media and education campaigns. It is this blend of politics and media which led to an indoctrination so deeply steeped in neoliberalism and capitalist interests. Sot the force behind that politics and media has been capitalism. Climate change needs that similar force. But, in many ways, it is capitalism that we are working against; it is the elephant in the climate change room that no one seems to know how to talk about. Understandably so. Yet,  behind capitalism lie beliefs and values, and worldviews. Though likely they are intertwined, feeding off of each other. And so we need to figure out how to get at that seemingly insurmountable change, and at a rate which may be as unprecedented as the climate changes we are currently experiencing.

In actual fact, that little bit of glacier is far from pristine. In its compressed molecules, it contains thousands of years of human history and influence. As it melts, it releases back this history rather poetically; particles and molecules washing out to sea and escaping into the nebulous atmosphere. The compressed molecules of frozen water contain isotopes and bubbles of air through which the history of climate change itself and Earths changing atmosphere can be read through the extraction of ice cores. That calved piece of glacial ice pressed so compactly and under so much pressure that it radiates a blue so chilling and pure, is under far more threat by the invisible, molecules of carbon dioxide far more detrimental than the visible tags of a few graffiti writers.  We don’t need new knowledge or new science really. Though science and technology has evolved no doubt, the simple message remains very much the same since the birth of the modern environmental movement in the 1960s when Rachel Carson was talking about birds and Robert Smithson was moving rocks. Something has to change. We need revolution and action, in mind and body. I think now of Norwegian urban artist Pøbel who in 2009 very provocatively tagged the body of a dead whale along the coast of Norway. How can we think of this act? How might it challenge our conceptions? How can it contribute to (re)volution of thought?

Tagged whale by Norwegian artist Pøbel, photography courtesy of Nuart Festival (2009)

And how could I not? Here is Modern English with the tune ‘I melt with you’ (1982), with some surprisingly fitting lyrics. The future’s open wide.

We are like trees

The preface to the second edition of  ‘A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America’ begins: “Without the magnificent blanket of trees which cover the land, man would find it extremely difficult to exist. Trees supply the tall shade for the soil, they aid in conserving the soil moisture and giving it off slowly to the atmosphere, they keep the soil of the hills from running down to the sea.” It “is trees that bring beauty to the land”, in addition to their other gifts of material and fuel, food and medicine. Published in 1948, the natural history book by Donald Culross Peattie, with a preface by Donald Wyman,  belonged to my grandfather and is full of starkly beautiful wood engravings reproduced in rich black ink. The illustrations by California artist Paul Landacre accompany the detailed descriptions of tree species. From the white pines whose timber was so coveted and exploited for its tall straight trunk excellent for shipbuilding to the sugar maple whose clear sap diverted and extracted from its xylem is boiled down to the beautiful amber coloured syrup which tastes so sweet poured warm over snow and rolled into sticky soft globs or poured in pools over pancakes. The sweetness of its sap is what makes its foliage so beautiful in autumn; that bright red leaf so emphatically Canadian.

Wood engraving of a hemlock sprig by artist Paul Landacre from ‘A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America’ (1948)

Real estate and graffiti in the shadows of trees, Lachine Canal, Montréal (2017)

A glassy-eyed girl stood before me suddenly on the metro platform at Vendôme station the other day. She materialised like an apparition. Stoic and rehearsed with little emotion or conviction, she asked for a dollar. I replied that I had no cash though in fact I had only moments ago remarked on a few twonies in my wallet. She proceeded down the platform. A male voice some distance away said to another person “Don’t give her any money. She’s just going to buy drugs.” But she was already out of view, out of earshot. Moments earlier, obscured in contemplation, I missed my metro stop. I was lost, reflecting on the past year, the past two months, utterly  bewildered by the denouements of the past weeks in particular and the disappointing unpredictability and unreliability of human behaviour. I watched the glossy orange and yellow bricks of Saint-Henri station slowly accelerate out of view.

Post-industrial architectures, Montréal (2017)

There is a blue glow at dusk this time of year in Montréal, in the city of my birth and upbringing, where I am currently undertaking some fieldwork. I am beginning to wrap up the loose ends of my PhD with the knowledge that the upcoming months will be a flurry of reading and writing, with an incredible amount of work ahead.  It is somewhat poetic that as I begin to embark upon this final stage, I am in the place where it all started, where I developed and tested the methods that would become the basis of my doctoral project. In the cold but light streets here, I see things a little differently than I did than during my pilot study. For, now I have the added knowledge of over three years of wandering in Norway and elsewhere, of perfecting the craft of my own personal version of photographic psychogeography, steeped a little more in experience and perspective than I was in 2011.

Works by Turtlecaps, Waxhead, and Kashink in Griffintown, Montréal (2017)

Speaking with a childhood friend – now an artist and curator – I felt an affinity and an intellectual understanding that I do not frequently feel. Speaking on the role of art and the power of art, on the need for a critical and political art, and speaking about the works of various Canadian artists left me inspired, refreshed, and with a new found sense of urgency and importance of my work.I turn to art so frequently because, for me, this is where hope lies. I want to find ways to connect outside my research, beyond the university, to find a way to inspire and to help people. Though I am not one for resolutions, perhaps this might be my own personal challenge for the time ahead. Doing a PhD feels often like a very selfish pursuit, a prisoner of your own thoughts among an increasingly neoliberal university system which discourages or at least inhibits collaboration and instead nurtures individualism and selfishness, a system in which you are encouraged to put yourself first, over your colleagues, over collaboration, over the students you strive to teach and inspire.

I think about zero tolerance and wonder about whether there are any redeeming qualities to the much maligned policy approach. I think about the woman on the subway platform and the distance in her eyes. I think about my personal life as well. Though flawed as a policy approach, perhaps its logics work interpersonally. Zero tolerance against hatred and prejudice. Zero tolerance against the unkind and dispassionate. Zero tolerance against disrespect. Tolerance for difference, communication, agonism. Now at the beginning of a new year, these are the thoughts I am confronted with. How to move forward, how to remain positive, how to have hope in a world where there is so much to lose hope over, so many that need our help.

Urban quilts of linoleum at 1230 Rue Smith, Lachine Canal, Montréal (2017)

“When he passed away I could not weep so I wrote” writes Patti Smith in her work ‘The Coral Sea’, her tribute to Robert Mapplethorpe after his death. This year has been one of the most difficult that I have experienced, full of many challenges both personal and professional. October 17th  2016 marked the ten-year anniversary of my father’s death and a very long period of grief. Grieving never really ends, it becomes a part of who you are and touches every part of your being; something the past ten years has taught me. Grief shuts off parts of yourself which are sometimes difficult to reopen and new pains trigger these old wounds, calling on and extending those neural pathways that are forged under durress, concretised in our psyches. It becomes difficult to trust and be vulnerable, but writing and art has replaced the urge to weep. Over a ramen lunch with a colleague, that day marked a personal turning point; a realisation that I long to connect more, to be more open and more vulnerable with my heart and my work. This is what the past year has taught me. Perhaps this marks a mental shift that coincides with the impending end of my PhD and a phase in my life which has not always been particularly pleasurable, for the ways in which it necessitates mental and physical isolation and a protective distancing from others to simply accomplish the magnitude of work in such a finitude of time.

We are like trees. Strong but vulnerable, bending in the breeze, full of sticky sweetness. Like trees, we too may be exploited for our strength. We have ways to protect ourselves from being cut down, from being used for our value according to others. Yet, there is strength in our vulnerability; in opening ourselves in such a way that we are exposed, potentially exploited, perhaps inevitably wounded. We are rooted but not immovable. Like trees, perhaps we are unaware of the depths of our strength and fragilities, of our applications and potentials, of our value. As the new year begins, I think that at the end of the day, all that really matters is kindness and love. Here’s to a 2017 full of poetry, full of more light and love, and here’s hoping that the kindness you extend to the world is reflected back and refracted onward.

Look up, luv is the reason, Lachine Canal, Montréal (2017)

Unravelling integration

It is grey and overcast today. The weather fits my mood: rain freezing in thin sheets against my clothes as I walk along sidewalks iced and encaustic; wandering from Mont-Royal down St-Hubert, along Rachel and then up St-Denis, to Laurier and then down St-Laurent and back downtown. I am once again in Montréal. Being home, I feel like I am unravelling my integration, remembering that there are indeed different ways to live and love and exist; ways which sometimes seem infinitely easier and familiar than in Norway. Though some of the ways of Norway have infiltrated my life, there is something alluring in this notion of unravelling integration, particularly because it means that for a few moments or days or weeks, I feel a little more free. I do not have to measure every word and every action in my elusive search for belonging. Canada, however,  becomes equally foreign after having now lived six of the past ten years abroad. I lose the politics and references, making Montréal seem as similarly unfamiliar as Oslo. I am not sure if I would refer to this existence as cosmopolitan; as the shared values which constitute a cosmopolitan life between places seem decidedly absent in my everyday. Instead, I feel that I constantly navigate treacherous cultural differences, never quite settling completely, a feeling familiar perhaps to many transnationals. It is better described as a state of being caught perpetually between cultures, for me it is: between the two solitudes of English and French which permeate Montréal and Québec; between the culture of Québec and the rest of Canada; between Canada and the strong British culture of my childhood home; and more recently the otherness of being an expat already rife with the dualities of Canada in Norway.

I suspect that there is a fairly constant feeling of otherness that many Canadians feel though it is also accompanied by an integration and multiculturalism far more effective than Norway. I sometimes wonder whether to be an ‘other’ is simply part of what it means to be Canadian, many of us not quite from here or there, others still displaced by the injustices of colonialism. This feeling of other is amplified living in a nation-state, except now I interact among those who have never known and may never know the extent of this feeling. I suspect that it is this feeling that has spurred me to travel. In ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’ Rebecca Solnit describes this phenomenon of second-generation immigrants in America returning to the old world  as being the result of a transplant that did not quite take. I love this idea so very much because it quells my insecurities, suggesting that longing for other places, of never being completely settled is possibly a natural fallout of migration. And perhaps these feelings reside in some of us more strongly than others. Maybe this explains the wanderlust that has welled inside since youth, in part some expression of genetic memory of some far off place. I like the idea of a being a beautiful plant, looking for better, more familiar soil for its tender, thirsty roots.

‘Ghosts of graffiti’ on the Plateau Mont-Royal, Montréal (2016)
‘Ruelles of the Plateau’, Montréal (2016)

Somewhere over the North Sea, on the beginning of my recent journey home, I thought of letters. Those folded sheets of paper covered in handwriting and stuffed into envelopes, sent around the world or maybe just to the other side of the city. I wrote them passionately as a teenager and into my twenties, before email was so accessible, long before social media. At 40, 000 feet, somewhere above Labrador, I started writing one, recalling  how much I still long to receive them myself, thoughtfully scrawled, potentially illegible. I sometimes unlock my mailbox in Oslo irrationally hoping to find a letter from someone I never actually gave my address to. I think the desire has something to do with touch; to know that someone handled these papers, that they held the paper down with their palm, long fingers flat against the table of a café or a library; that a pen was held and dragged across the page, wrist gliding back and forth with each line; that someone’s fingertips might have paused and lingered against lined paper as they looked up and out of the window in reverie or in search of the next words to write. Or perhaps it is a pause of momentary distraction by the conversation of neighbours or by the rustling or papers or a loud noise; maybe just the ping of their phone notification. I think it is also something to do with time; letters reflecting a state when people still took time and care with people and their communication, when relationships were cherished and nourished, not infinitely disposable and replaceable. When words were not so quickly ignored. It is in the darkened cabin of one of these new airplanes where you can charge all the devices which preclude writing by hand, where I jot down the first notes for a letter written with haste; notes which have compelled me to write now on integration and belonging.

‘Strawberries and ice’ on Rue Rachel, Montréal (2016)
‘Librairie Guerin and assorted graffiti’ on Rue St-Denis, Montréal (2016)

My mother’s family sailed in the late 1950s from post-war England as part of some poorly executed agricultural scheme to bring skilled workers to the farms of Canada; a small family with limited luggage and only $50 per person given the currency controls in place at the time. My grandfather contracted the mumps while my grandmother suffered with seasickness and my uncle and mother rampantly explored the ship; I imagine my mother running on deck with her suitcase of dolls in tow. The first house my mother’s family arrived at had no windows, no front door, no running water, and a tree growing through the floorboards. The second house, they had to step over the body of dead sheep to get to the outhouse, again no running water. With young children at her side, my Grandmother went directly to the Minister of Agriculture in Ottawa, In 1957, this was a time when storming the minister’s office was still something one could do. They waited until suitable arrangements were made and so began the beginning of part of my history in Canada. I tried tracing the genealogy of the family of my father’s father in America, and I watched through barely legible census records the Dust Bowl chasing my ancestors across the Great Plains before they settled in Kansas; the blood of German, British, and Cherokee running through their veins. So even my father was a second-generation immigrant, his father having moved northward during the war to fly planes for the Royal Canadian Air Force. My parents of the post-war baby-boomer generation themselves spent their respective youths bouncing around Québec and Ontario and even out briefly to British Columbia, spending time in places like Ste-Adèle, Ste-Agathe, Montréal, Ottawa, Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Beaconsfield, L’Île-Perrot, Lindsay, Boundary Bay, and Ste-Catherines.

‘Graffiti post-buff by KESM, et al’ in Montréal (2016)
‘Looking for a little respect’, Rue Laurier, Montréal (2016)

I come home to Montréal to unravel my integration, even if only momentarily. To shake off my attempts of belonging in Norway, to regain my sense of place (which though nomadic, is still strongest in Montréal) which I still long for in Oslo, a sense which is still so much in the making. Perhaps I procrastinate on this taking root because integration comes with as many losses as gains. You give away parts of yourself to become accepted, deny parts of your being, and are never quite your whole self except for with the occasional kindred spirits you may rarely encounter; those who like you are similarly spinning their webs of movement in long silky threads of coming and going; frequently other expats to whom many of which I have said goodbye as they left Oslo. While you struggle to learn all the references and ways of being in your new country, it is surprising how few people really ask about your own culture, of what it truly means to be where you are from. Maybe that’s the caveat of cosmopolitanism, for in supposing a shared culture across distance, it erases our heritage and cultural multiplicities as well. I wonder how many could say anything about the city or country I am from, of the life that I left behind, of the neighbourhood of my childhood, the names of the friends and family that I left behind in search of a better life for myself. Do they know that Montréal is an island, embraced by the torpid rapids of the St. Lawrence River? Do they know of the colonial settlers, of the portage, of the locks of the Lachine Canal and the St-Lawrence Seaway built to bypass those treacherous waters? Do they know the colours of the Hudson Bay blanket? Do they know the names of the Indigenous groups whose land this belonged to and whose social and political struggles persist today? Do they know of Mont-Royal and the cross of white lights that crown the modest mountain park sculpted by Olmstead, responsible also for the design of Central Park in New York City? Do they know that the lights turn purple at the death of a pope, a lasting legacy of the strong Roman Catholic presence in the province; a presence diminished greatly during the Quiet Revolution of 1970? Though I strive to inscribe the names of my new home in Norway, to write the geographies and politics to my memory, to learn a third language, I frequently feel subtly derided and excluded in the most insensitive of ways for not having learned enough or learned fast enough despite the very fact that it takes some a lifetime to master a language with comfort, that in fact, learning a language while trying to adapt to a new culture, a new work environment, to establish a social life and make connections in a country not so very hospitable for quick and warm friendships, to learn a new discipline, learn to teach, do research and write a doctoral dissertation, and to do this all very much alone, an ocean and a continent away from family and the familiar is not always easy.

‘Cinema L’Amour’, Rue St-Laurent, Montréal (2016)

In Norway, I chastise and censor myself. Though shy and reserved, I still feel that I say too much, am too forthcoming, too direct with my feelings. It is an insecurity which Norway has truly nurtured and I never know quite what to do with my emotions anymore. I’m left with frequent feelings of guilt and confusion. For being too angry or sad, too loving or affectionate, too happy or excited. These are feelings which only exacerbate the already prescient feelings of exclusion which come with being an immigrant; one of my biggest fears that my emotions will be perceived as disingenuous.

“The nightingale is approaching …” writes the poet Rilke in a letter to Princess Marie  von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe. It is 1912 and he writes from Castle Duino, from the cliffs above the Adriatic, not far from Trieste. Recalling the conception of his most famous of works, she writes: “He took out his notebook, which he always carried with him, and wrote down these words, together with a few lines that formed themselves without his intervention. Who had come? And he knew the answer: the god …”. And with that mysterious impulse of inspiration and creative impulse, Rilke wrote the first lines of the Duino Elegies:

“Who if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic
orders? And even if one of them pressed me
suddenly to his heart: I’d be consumed
in his stronger existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which can just barely endure,
and we stand in awe of it as it coolly disdains
to destroy us. Every angel is terrifying.”

My heart beats suddenly faster and harder as I read Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies’ now for the first time; reading lines between writing, yes, a letter that I will never send. Rilke’s words recall Solnit’s and my own thoughts on genetic memory; the spirits of our ancestors alive in the configurations and expressions of our organic matter. The ending of the Third Elegy incites a warm and nervous feeling in my stomach. And I am grateful for every excessive emotion that I feel ashamed of in Norway if it means that a piece of poetry can illicit this depth of feeling and course through my body like a current, thankful that I am still able to feel the beauty of words in my blood, reflecting on the ancestors residing within us in this moment of unravelled integration.

“You see,  we don’t love like flowers, the effort
of just one year; sap from time immemorial
flows through our arms when we love. O girl,
this: that we’ve loved, within  us, not that one person yet to come,
but all the weltering brood; not some single child,
but the fathers who lie like mountain-ruins
within us; and the dried-up riverbed
of former mothers –; and the whole
soundless landscape beneath our cloudy
or cloudless fate: all that, O, girl, claimed him first.”

Excerpt from the Third Elegy of the Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke, written between 1912 and 1922, Translated by Edward Snow in 2000.

dsc01716‘Why not?, near the McGill Ghetto, Montréal (2016)

 

Down and out in Venice and London

Transiting through London Heathrow on the way home from Oslo to Montréal conjures so many memories; of my comings and goings, of my travels to Europe in my early twenties, to the past ten years of what is best described as a transnational life, suspended between worlds.

It is only recently that I have taken up the habit of writing while I travel, writing most diligently and prolifically when I am travelling alone. The habit of writing fieldnotes and the general need to write near constantly while pursuing doctoral studies has improved my diligence. Yet, I wish I had written more consistently while travelling; not only because memory is unreliable and not just because writing in the moment can later evoke all the feelings and places so much more vividly and in finer detail but also because I think we are often unkind to our younger selves. In our imaginations, our younger selves are less experienced, less knowledgeable, less worldly, more naïve, more prone to folly; and many of us have a tendency to amplify these perceived shortcomings in hindsight. We imagine our younger selves as different people. Yet, as I sit here perusing one of the only travel journals I was truly dedicated to — a small spiral yellow notebook decorated with black ink drawings from my first trip to Europe alone over sixteen years ago – I cannot help but smile at the continued relevance and familiarity of my words. Our younger selves may be less experienced, still unknown to all the tragedies and sorrows and joys of the future, those which indelibly change us, but they are nevertheless still a part of us, shaped by the very same experiences of the common past we do share. It is these similarities between myself now and myself of the past that surprises me most; that the ways I travelled as an inexperienced and innocent twenty year old are not all that different from the ways I continue to experience travel and the urban today.

Snacking on fresh fruit and pausing with graffiti, Rome (2000)

I began working part-time at seventeen years old. I spent four consecutive summers between school semesters working as a clerk in a tobacco company and what I did not spend on the books I would read under my desk during my lunch break and slow hours at work, I saved for travel. In 2000, with very little money, I travelled from Montréal to Toronto by train, from Toronto to London by charter flight, from London to Venice by plane, from Venice to Zadar in Croatia by a slow-moving boat across the Adriatic, and then back again in reverse order. It was a powerful experience travelling alone and in August 2000 I wrote the following in my journal about this feeling. While there is an immaturity and innocence to the writing, the experience is one I have experienced many times since.

“As the airport shuttle bus neared the point at which I was completely lost looking for the marina on the exact same type of day only one week and some days ago, I feel my eyes water. I know already that I’m sensitive but rarely does something like this bring me to tears. It wasn’t a bad feeling I felt, not something entirely in the pit of my stomach. Sad, happy, hopeful. I cannot believe how wonderful everything went, not at all what I expected. It was more than I ever could have hoped for and I just want to cry some more. I’m so sad to leave Venice, not only because of its charm and beauty but for what it has come to represent; a testament or symbol of my independence, my ability, my capacity to live, love, and whatever … wander the streets, get lost, fall in love, have your heart broken, break others’ hearts, buy postcards, admire art, let places  change you and mold you forever. It’s an indescribably wonderful feeling of promise that just wells up from within, rising up in your throat and settling somewhere in some subtle smile.”

Travel journal from 2000 from a trip to England, Italy, and Croatia

In my journal I write frequently of getting lost (and of getting lost frequently), of payphones and night buses, and of meeting new people. There was the Canadian girl who had similarly spent the summer laboriously reading ‘Anna Karenina’. I travelled from Venice to Verona with her by train to see the opera ‘La Traviata’ in an open-air amphitheatre. It is an opera I would later see repeatedly at the state opera house in Budapest and in a confusing modern Nordic reinterpretation in Oslo. There were the Croatian bartenders, an apartment full of Polish girls, and an Italian sailor; all of whom spoke little English. There was the American boy whom I befriended on a boat. He bought me a sandwich and we kept each other company as we attempted to sleep on the hard surfaces of the Venice train station platform, waiting for a train to Rome. This was all before the pervasiveness of mobile phones and roaming data, when the blue light of screens did not interfere in these serendipitous encounters of travel and public space, protecting us from the discomforts of small talk and human interaction with strangers. There were the three Irish boys I met on the train from Rome to Venice. We began talking when I noticed one of them reading ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ by George Orwell: the same book that I had also packed with me but subsequently lost. I still cannot remember ever having finished reading it. We talked about Jackson Pollock and The Stone Roses and when we arrived in Venice, I walked them to the Peggy Guggenheim museum which I had visited earlier. I still remember the small gallery space and the emotional force I felt encountering the soft blues of Picasso’s ‘Bathers with a Toy Boat’ from 1937.

Renaissance hues of the Grand Canal, Venice (2000).

I met up with those Irish boys some days later in London. I mispronounced the River Thames when I called them from a payphone along the embankment in London. We tried to meet up at the Tate Modern but our wires got crossed and I instead made friends with a French girl whose name and face I can no longer recall but with whom I ended up going dancing with later that evening; I danced with abandon to the British music that I loved so much, the songs that they never played in Montréal. I got lost heading home from Soho that night and I called the transit authority helpline from a British telephone box, trying to make my way back to my dormitory room in Earl’s Court. I sat at the back of a double-decker bus where a man mixed gin and tonics out of duffel bag and somehow on that chaotic night bus, some fellow passengers kindly escorted me back to my hostel at five in the morning.

Early morning shadows at Piazza San Marco, Venice (2000)
Early morning walks before the tourists arrive at Piazza San Marco, Venice (2000)

I have thought a lot lately about the nature of research and how important it is to keep moving in new directions, not to get stuck in one place, yet all the while maintaining the core or the heart of our work constant. While topics may certainly vary, the pith remains the same. Pith in the sense of the core, but also pith like the white bits of an orange running through the whole fruit, interstitial, intervening spaces running through our entire corpus. I know what the pith of my work is. It has always been something in the meeting of art and science, the tensions of art and science, the sameness of art and science. I have boxes in my childhood home of albums of photographs and paraphernalia of travel; ticket stubs and stamps, and bits of foreign languages. Looking through these albums, I can see not just the developing sophistication of my travels but also that of my photography. I also see the heart of my work. It is present in the ways in which I travelled, in the journal I wrote at twenty, in the photographs I took. In these grainy film photographs — some of which are shared here — I see the beginnings of my love and skill for photography, those photographs taken with my small point and shoot Canon film camera. It was cheap, grey and red, plastic and childish looking, automatic and unsophisticated, and nothing made me happier. In my photographs I can see a love for place and travel, a love for light and shadow and the beauty of the everyday, a love for walking and exploring. And I am so surprised in fact to see that I really have not changed all that much, that my heart of twenty still beats strong inside my chest. I still see the world with that magic, and with that endless curiosity of my much younger self when I might have stared at flowers and sung at trees and fallen in love with cute foreign boys on trains. Or sat on the soft grass at Concordia’s Loyola campus and read with a dictionary by my side as I struggled through the difficult words of Tolstoy, not understanding all that much about the significance of its politics nor in my inexperience, not really understanding much about the love story either but muddling through nonetheless as I prepared for my first trip alone.

We do things without knowing we are doing them. Not that we don’t understand, we simply do not or cannot know. It is often only with hindsight that we see, oh yes, it makes sense why I did this.  We make patterns subconsciously. I no longer travel the same way; I no longer stay in hostels or drink to meet people. I rarely go dancing or trust so confidently in strangers. But the heart of my wanderlust is the same. I still buy books and I write, I take photographs, I drink coffee and wander, I cry looking out of the windows of trains and buses, I traipse through galleries and museums, and try to figure out how I might change the world in some small way, travelling with hope and faith. I travelled to Gdańsk to see the Lenin Shipyards in 2016. And in 2000, I travelled from London to Brighton just to see the pebbles on the beach. I wrote the following:

“Now I’m sitting on the beach once again. You can hardly blame me. Despite all the people at seaside amusements it’s beautiful. I’m just in time for sunset. The sky’s a gorgeous pinkish hue in the direction in which the sun is setting. The sound the water’s making as it rolls against the pebbles, even the cries of the seagulls and the boom boom bass of the clubs along the seafront are oddly in harmony with each other. You can forever capture a moment with a photograph; that sudden visual instant come and then gone forever but you can never capture everything because with that moment are attached so many other elements. That sound that slight chill in the air, enough to just make the hairs on your arms stand on end, the way the pebbles feel cold and damp at my ankles, the slight smell of, hmm, what is that? Even the visual is incomplete. I just took a photo of some people against the pink sky, looked really quite interesting because they were a distance off and only silhouettes to me. But you won’t see to the left the west pier extending out over the water or the double strings of lights that line the street up above at the right. Still, I guess that’s what memories are for? Memories. I’ve left so many out of this journal that I’m afraid they’ll be lost forever. I just ripped up a love letter.”

I am surprised at my younger self, at the unknowable foreshadowing of my future work. I never thought I would be applying the practices of my travelling self as a type of research methodology in the city. I am surprised at how much I have been reflecting about the idea of moments and the instant of a photograph as I write my dissertation.

After an afternoon of exploring the Roman Forum, I rinsed off in the sink in the washrooms at Termini station; washing the sweat of 40 degrees Celsius weather and Roman dust from my arms; a rather nomadic act. Rebecca Solnit writes the following in her 2006 collection of essays ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost': “nomads, contrary to current popular imagination, have fixed circuits and stable relationships to places; they are far from being the drifters and dharma bums that the word nomad often connotes nowadays”. I like this way of unsettling the term nomad, a word which is frequently applied with a modicum of disdain for an individual’s inability to stay in one place. I have been a nomad since I first travelled alone, but not without roots and not without a desire to settle. I suppose, I long still for independence and mobility, to know what I am capable of, to walk cities and take photographs like I am twenty years old, alone for the first time in a world of possibility. But I do have these fixed circuits now and stable relationships to place, and though I continue to saunter nomadically, and I do enjoy doing so alone, I am equally open to sharing these experiences with those who are similarly content to walk for hours exploring the city, sit quietly and write in cafés, take photographs, explore bookshops and museums, those who can talk emphatically but also revel in silence, those who still see the world with the magic eyes of youth.

Waiting for the boat at sunrise in Zadar, Croatia (2000)

Some thoughts on the end of art

Ideas on the end or death of art have been a topic of debate among philosophers for over a hundred years. You can blame the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel for that, or at the very least you can blame his students.

Reach out, touch faith, Gdańsk (2016)

Hegel is frequently cited as having developed one of the most significant aesthetic theories since Aristotle. In his Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics – transcribed it should be noted by his students not written by Hegel himself and published posthumously –  it is suggested the art has peaked, its moment past, no longer able to convey the truths of human existence through sensory experience alone. From Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics, Volume 1, published circa 1835:

 “In all these respects art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has rather been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality and occupying its higher place. What is now aroused in us by works of art is not just immediate enjoyment but our judgement also, since we subject to our intellectual consideration (i) the content of art, and (ii) the work of art’s means of presentation, and the appropriateness or inappropriateness of both to one another. The philosophy of art is therefore a greater need in our day than it was in days when art by itself as art yielded full satisfaction. Art invites us to intellectual consideration, and that not for the purpose of creating art again, but for knowing philosophically what art is.” — Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, circa 1823

The problem with Hegel’s arguments that art in its highest vocation is a thing of the past is not so much that his claims are untrue but rather that they hold true for a specific moment in history, for an understanding of art which has since ceased to exist. That is because art is not ahistorical. Not only has art’s place and role in society changed dramatically through space and time, the very nature and definition of art is in a constant state of flux. Since the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, divides between the arts and sciences have been cemented with the need for increased specialisation of labour and also with subsequent backlash against the elite and bourgeois nature of art. That Hegel’s call for the need for philosophical discussion on what art is may indeed hold true for certain less figurative realms of visual art in particular; though Hegel wrote before abstract art and conceptual art, before the time when art itself pushed forward philosophical thought.

Admittedly, my own readings of Hegel are entirely cursory, and my interpretations may lack a certain finesse and may certainly benefit from further reading. Still, I remain instinctively skeptical.  Whether or not Hegel actually believed in the death of art is highly questionable, and such claims have likely been somewhat overestimated. Given that art is not something static, Hegel’s arguments today are tenuous, and should be read with their historicity in mind rather than applied without careful consideration for their points of origin.

I find more solace in Hegel’s ideas of art as spirit and would argue that the spirit of art persists today, should you know where to look for it and permitting you are able to let yourself go into the uncomfortable and emotional experience of art. I remember a trip to London in 2011 and my first visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum. I remember a pot of tea and a scone with clotted cream and jam and I remember weeping so unexpectedly as I sat before John Constable’s landscape paintings. This experience supports Hegel’s claims on the nature of art for it is precisely this type of figurative art which requires little interpretation but rather sensuous experience, a viewing which truly rouses the spirit. But I was equally moved in spirit by the concurrent exhibition on Postmodernism: Style & Subversion 1970–1990 which showed everything from photography and architectural drawings to clips from Bladerunner, music videos by the Talking Heads, and Laurie Anderson’s O Superman hauntingly looped on repeat before an assemblage of empty chairs. The suspended grace and contours of Chihuly’s glass chandelier in the rotunda of the museum was equally rousing. And I can offer many other examples of my own emotional experience of art, even those which I encounter habitually in my everyday navigations of the city.

Art after Hegel, Gdańsk (2016)

Art is not just expression, but meaning. There is expression and meaning in every piece of art, even in the most seemingly trivial of expressions. These expressions and meanings change with time. What art is is completely nebulous then, for these expressions and meanings change through history. Art evolves, just as thought does. Rather than argue about the end of art, if anything, Hegel wrote of the death of a certain era of art; one in which beauty, mimesis, the divine, and authorship figured more prominently and one in which philosophy was not present. Eras of art, it should be noted, in which the artist was male and women figured predominantly as object. Art is not just object just as woman is not just object; art is also impulse and process. There have been many considerable philosophical contributions of art movements that have arisen since Hegel. And perhaps one of the most significant contributions is that art itself can further philosophical thought.

Hegel wrote in a time before the revolutions of modern art. He died before German expressionism, before Otto Dix’s prints depicting the travesties of war, before Picasso’s Guernica, before so many great classics of literature, before the golden age of cinema, before the poetry of the Beat Generation, before all the powerful works that questioned the wars and injustices of the twentieth century.

References to Egypt and other writings on the wall, Gdańsk (2016)

Aesthetic philosopher Arthur C. Danto uses the art movements of Dada and Pop Art to underscore the important philosophical contributions of art since Hegel. In his 2013 book What Art Is, he uses the specific examples of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box. The idea that anything can be art exemplified through the readymades of Duchamp presented philosophers with many questions: “What are the boundaries of art? What distinguishes art from anything else, if anything can be art?” And as Danto continues: “ that something could be art but not beautiful is one of the great philosophical contributions of the twentieth century” (Danto 2013, 2628). Danto wrote in his initial reconceptualisations in the 1980s and 1990s of Hegel’s end of art that it is only when art and reality are indistinguishable that the end of art has arrived. Yet even Danto softens slightly on his original stance, revisiting his initial claims on the end of art in his 2013 book; that even Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box in their imitation of the everyday, even if aesthetically indistinguishable from reality, nevertheless exist as distinct pieces of art. There are no doubt countless other examples in which art has made contributions which Hegel could never have anticipated. From my own work, graffiti and street arguably take philosophies of Dada and Pop Art further, adding aspects of site-specificity and geography which contribute to the very essence and meaning of works while simultaneously questioning the bourgeoisie of art like the Dada movement and commercialisation of art as with the Pop Art movement.

The colour of collaboration, Gdańsk (2016)
The colour of red, Gdańsk (2016)
The colour of Tarkovsky, Gdańsk (2016)

I sketched a simple little bird this morning, full of life and meaning, when I was thinking about this debate. I cannot help that this is the way that I think through ideas and how I am best able to communicate and express myself, mediated through art and the visual. I communicate in photography and illustrations, in quick little sketches, and even something as seemingly pedantic as a website contains for me an artistic expression tinged with dissolute traces of Hegel’s spirit. I find blanket assertions that art is dead not only provoking but angering. Indeed, I am not the only one for Hegel’s views on the dissolution of art have been contested and reconfigured by generations of philosophers since, from Adorno to Heidegger to Danto. While the notion of art as component of spirit is comforting, I have to disagree with the idea that the moment of art has passed. I contest this assertion as both an artist and as a scholar whose body of work is contingent on the continued importance and relevance of art in conveying truths, not just beauty, and in innovating thought, and in rousing spirit.

That spirit can still be felt in the experience of art is testament to its continued life. Art cannot end when the creative impulse of the artist continues to exist.

Reflecting on the nature of art, Gdańsk (2016)

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.