Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Yes, it's been a long time. 

There is actually a specific reason why this post has been so long in coming, but...
I can't share that reason yet. Don't worry, it will come. 

A lot has happened, as you might guess. After all, this is the longest gap of no blogging that I have endured since moving to Europe almost a year ago.

In July, a month in which I did not blog at all, we did quite a lot. 
Well, quite a lot of going to the beach, anyway! 

On our last beach day of the summer we found the best one, a nude beach called Waikiki...

In addition to trying to stay constantly one step ahead of a sunburn, we did actually also visit the French city of Nantes on the occasion of their Maker Faire, which is hosted at Les Machines de L'ile. For those that don't know, Les Machines is a really incredible organization of artists and technicians (and business-people and web-designers and, and, and) who build very large hydraulically actuated puppets which they use in street performance. 

The puppets themselves are obviously mind-blowing, but in some way I have just as much fondness for the maquettes which are on display in their workshop. Maybe it's that they are more approachable, or that it's easier to grasp the idea of the piece on this scale, or easier to photograph them, or...? I think you'll agree they are amazing.

Strangely enough, Nantes is home to not just one, but two organizations built around street theater featuring enormous puppets. The other one, which one can unfortunately not drop in and visit, is called Royale de Luxe. While Les Machines seems slightly more focused on animal forms, Royale de Luxe appears to specialize in human puppets. 

These photos are from a book we picked up inNantes.

Not surprisingly, there is a bit of juicy history between the two groups, with certain key people moving from one to the other, and some good ego-fueled disagreements about theatrical approach and values. All that is beyond the scope of this blog, but you can find some of it online if you poke around. 

Not long after our trip to Nantes, I visited Berlin for a few days to try to evaluate whether this hair-brained idea of ours, this kooky concept of actually moving to Berlin, might actually make sense. Christina had already found a good candidate for a school for Kodiak, and my job on this trip was to check out a specific flat she had found online, in a neighborhood close to the school. Renting an apartment in Germany is no easy task; certain documents are required which prove one's financial soundness and general good-standing in German society, all of which makes moving to Germany as a foreigner a bit of an ordeal. There's not really any way to get these documents unless you live there for a while. Well, the realtor of the apartment Christina found was somehow willing to overlook all of this, which made it a real contender for us. I arrived in Berlin, took the train into town, met the realtor, saw the flat, liked it, and signed the lease. 

And two weeks later, we moved to Berlin. 

As I write this, we are enjoying a sunny day in Zehlendorf. From what everyone tells us, we should soak up the sun while it lasts. They say that winter is brutal. I'm not too worried, but I'll check in again in February and let you know how it's going. Kodiak's school starts in a week.

We've been here almost 10 days now, and to be honest I can't quite tell yet how I feel about it. We moved from a dense and lively city center, which faithful readers of this blog will know was an environment in which I found myself surprisingly happy but Christina did not care for too much, to a quiet and leafy suburb, an environment in which Christina feels much calmer but in which I might just feel a bit too calm. Berlin is about 10 times larger than Barcelona, and all indications are that the German capital offers art and culture on a much deeper, broader, and richer scale than the jewel of Cataluña. But it's all 30-40 minutes away from us, rather than right outside the door. I feel slightly under-stimulated, but time will tell. It might just be the perfect arrangement. Once school starts we will have time to go "into town" and do some grownup things, to see what the place has to offer. It's definitely different from Barcelona, but I'm optimistic. 

I've been thinking off-handedly about some things I will miss about Barcelona, and some things I won't miss. 

Things I will miss:
• The density of the city, and the sense of history in the architecture, especially in the old town.

• The intensity and occasional insanity of bicycling there. It was really a wonderful place to bike; everything close enough, good bike lanes, and enough hills to keep you sweating.
• The beach, the Costa Brava, the access to the Mediterranean.

• All the amazing sculpture.

• My sculpture class. This is probably what I will miss the most. Jorge, your class was a real treat for me. I loved every minute. Thank you so much for the opportunity.
• Cabrales cheese.
• The friendly and approachable cops. 

I haven't had occasion to interact with German police yet, and hope I never do. Knock on wood.
• Our building. The fact that it was rough around the edges was its charm. You felt like you were on a movie set every time you walked in. This is the last picture I took in Barcelona, of the street-level entry hall.

• All the beautiful women, everywhere, all the time. The women in Germany all look like Angela Merkel.
• The access to stuff. USB drives, fresh peaches, spray-paint, and everything in between was always less than 2 minutes from our front door, and cheap. Stuff is harder to find in Germany, and definitely not as cheap.
• The great people we met there. Hopefully we will see you all again, really soon.

Things I won't miss:
• Spanish. Even though I speak it pretty well, a year in Spain taught me I don't have a real fondness for the language. In contrast, I love everything about German, and can't wait to enroll in a language course.
• The Raval location of Carrefour. Jesus, that place was a nightmare.
• The heat. Especially the humid heat.

Midnight in the Raval and it's too hot to wear a shirt.

• The food (Cabrales cheese excepted). Everyone talks about how great the tapas are, but at the end of the day it's mostly olives, deep-fried cheese, and pickled cuttlefish, or variations thereof. I ended up not liking jamon at all, the chewy stringy pride of Cataluña. When we arrived in Barcelona we were really excited about the proliferation of restaurants in our neighborhood, and 6 weeks later there wasn't a single one we were excited about re-visiting. On the other hand, I cannot get enough schnitzel, sausage, smoked fish, and spätzle. My heritage is something like 60% German, with another 20% shared between Scandinavia and Poland; maybe that's why this food feels like home. (Let's see how I feel about it all in a few months!)

Oh, and the beer. Kostritzer Schwarzbier is my current favorite, but it's hard to get a bad beer here.

More blogging to come. Thanks for your patience. Bis bald.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Moving things along

Ok wow, so much has happened since the last time I wrote. In this case, life has just been happening so fast that there hasn't really been time to chronicle it, but I'm going to try to squeeze in a post. I think it will slip largely into travelogue mode because like I said, lots going on.

Do I remember correctly that high school and college essays are supposed to begin with a paragraph laying out everything that is to follow.. an outline... a sort of pre-summary? OK, well we went to Berlin to show the Hand of Man, and Berlin was awesome. We returned to Barcelona in time to catch the Barcelona Maker Faire, after which we spent a sweet couple of days in Cadaqués, on the Costa Brava. There was some art sprinkled in there, and plenty of reckoning about what the second half of our time here in Europe might look like.

After all that hassle negotiating the transport of the Hand over to Europe, it finally really did arrive in Berlin. Although local conditions precluded us from smashing cars, we still managed to annoy the venue folks with the Hand's steady drip drip drip of hydraulic oil onto the pavement. Germans don't seem to have a lot of love for drippy hydro systems, but everyone was happy after we fixed it. The Hand was the main advertising image for the Faire, and damn... that image was everywhere in Berlin! It was very cool to see it on every corner in town.

After we packed it all up for shipment back to Barcelona, we had a few days vacation in Berlin. Personally speaking, the charm of Berlin sort of snuck up on me. It's not a great beauty like Prague or Venice or even Barcelona. The architecture is quite boring and in some cases oppressive. There are no Mediterranean beaches or mountains in the distance; in fact the entire city is quite flat. Also, parts of it are a huge construction zone.

But... the city is spectacularly green, with a super-high percentage of area devoted to park (numbers are a bit hard to pin down, but Wikipedia calls it at about 33% of the city, while Barcelona lags behind at 10%), which people really seem to use. And the river Spree, which snakes through it, is wide and beautiful and you can go boating on it. I understand there are even some beaches in Berlin, although I'm not sure if they are on the Spree or on one or another of the city's lakes. The playgrounds are plentiful and the most imaginative I've ever seen. And there is no lack of monuments (mostly about the war). But more than all that, Berlin is full of art and artists and people who seem to really love living there. Time and again we heard people tell us that the cost-of-living to quality-of-life ratio there is better than anywhere else in Europe. And sure enough.. a bit of searching online shows flats for rent in Berlin comparable to ours in Barcelona coming in at 50-70% of the cost, with garden access to boot. Plus, artists in Berlin seem to actually have workshops, in which they seem to actually work! We even know a few of them already!

Sculpture by Keith Haring

Sculptures by Wilfried Fitzenreiter

Sculpture by Eduardo Chillida

Watercolor by Anne Bengard

So, unsurprisingly, we are starting to think about what it might look like to spend the second half of our time here in Europe over there in Berlin. The challenges would be huge, the bureaucracy burden is apparently even worse than in Spain (hard to believe) and at this point it's not at all clear if it would be worth the trouble. But we are thinking about it. Ironically Christina and I would trade places in some sense, insofar as she speaks German and I don't. It would be an interesting shift!

Well just in case we hadn't gotten our fill of laser cutters, 3D printers, and LEDs in Germany, we landed in Barcelona just in time for Maker Faire (for which I'd tried hard to arrange a showing of the Hand, but I was a bit too late to successfully navigate the requirements of the venue). Catching up with old friend Sabrina Merlo was definitely a highlight.

After that we tagged along with Sabrina and her kids Ruby and Arlo to a great little sublet in Salvador Dali's old beach town of Cadaqués for a few days. What a tough life we lead!

We returned from the coast in time for me to catch the second half of my final sculpture class of the course (after having sadly missed quite a few because of our travels). Here are another few pix of the male portrait. Again, this is after only 3 sessions, while the other students in my class worked on this one for 6 sessions. I'm frankly not sure when I will ever have time to finish it, which is a shame.

In the last few days we've done some memorable things, such as wander around the city during Día de Sant Joan which is widely, and I think correctly, billed as the single craziest day of the year in Barcelona. There are bonfires in the streets and everyone is throwing fireworks everywhere, regardless of whether or not people are nearby. Seriously. And police are nowhere to be seen. Somehow people do not seem to die en masse. Somehow it all seems to work.

Later that night we joined Grey and Nova and a hundred other people for a clandestine midnight marching band escapade at the end of a pier jutting out into the Mediterranean, complete with "firework twirling" courtesy of Christina. Highly memorable.

And most recently we saw "Björk Digital" at the CCCB. I'm a big fan of Björk; I had high expectations and I wasn't disappointed. Well, not grossly disappointed anyway. The show featured 6 new works by her which are essentially music videos from her newest album Vulnicura. But instead of regular videos, one is an immersive 2-screen experience and the remaining five are VR pieces. Personally I think Björk is a genius for her vision and her embrace of new technologies in the service of reaching people in new ways, and the show flaunted these strengths well. In retrospect (and through conversation with Sabrina) I do feel that the VR pieces did not perhaps take sufficient advantage of the possibilities of the platform, in the sense that there was no real interactivity. My experience in Venice with Paul McCarthy's VR piece sheds an illuminating light on this; while the characters in his VR followed me around and made me feel implicated in the narrative, with Björk's pieces I simply felt like a bystander watching her and her avatars go through various therapeutic and gymnastic maneuvers and transformations. Granted, the visuals were spectacular and the experience was great, but... maybe it could have been greater. Let's not forget that the medium is still in its infancy.

After the VR pieces was a video explaining her 2011 project "Biophilia." I use the term project because Biophilia was an album and an interrelated app which attempted to invent a whole new way of music-making, separate from sheet music. I won't get too into it here because it would take too long. But I have nothing but admiration for this kind of big vision. And Björk has it. The Biophilia app has been adopted into schools in several Scandinavian countries as part of their music programs. Christina downloaded the app and she and Kodiak have begun to make music. Initial reports from the family are positive. 

This brings me back to a theme which is starting to recur here, which is the concept of authorship. Let's recall that Damien Hirst is regularly lampooned for his lack of hands-on involvement in the fabrication of his work. But would any of us imagine that Björk is writing the code for Biophilia or her VR pieces? Or that Paul McCarthy writes code? Of course not... they need specialists to help them realize these big visions, although it seems almost certain that they are intimately involved in an artistic direction sort of capacity. Why would we imagine that Hirst isn't also involved in this way? Also, Björk is very vocal about sharing credit with her main collaborators, while Hirst hides them away in anonymity. Is Hirst a target because he's a visual artist, making objects, selling them, and getting rich? Certainly McCarthy is not so different. I had a recent discussion about a "Miró rug," which is to say a rug featuring a design by Miró. Certainly he did not weave it personally and certainly he benefitted financially and/or career-wise from the rug, but was he subject to the same withering criticism regularly leveled at Hirst? Maybe Hirst is criticized because he outsources his work on such a grand scale, or because he's smug, or rich. Who knows. What I can say is that there's a continuum, and it's not just along a single parameter. In my estimation, the variables at play here (among others) are the scale of the outsourcing, the degree to which credit is publicly shared, the public perception of the ego of the artist, and the amount of money changing hands. With these variables plotted on an imaginary graph, it's not hard to see why Björk is perceived in a generally more favorable light by the public than Hirst. But another thing I can unequivocally say is that big ambitious work takes vision, boldness, money, and a team, and I have a ton of admiration for anyone pulling off work on this scale. 

Well, now we settle into the summer. No school for Kodiak, lots of tourists, and HOT HOT HOT. 

Hasta la vista, baby.