Monday, September 27, 2004

Graffiti Walk

I tell you, all I wanted to do was to grab some shots of some of this new stuff before the rain got to it and the vandal-taggers destroyed it, and what happened? I headed out yesterday afternoon and came back with thirty new shots, including a new Nike painting right around the corner that I swear wasn't there two days ago.

Clearly I'm going to have to learn how to make a webpage for all of this, because slapping it up on this blog's gonna waste bandwidth, and anyway, that's not what I want to do with the blog.

What I do want to do with it is report on stuff, and that will undoubtedly start happening Wednesday, as PopKomm comes to town. PopKomm was started some years ago in Cologne with a bunch of Cologne city money, and quickly became the German music-biz event. Which doesn't sound like such a big deal until you reflect that Germany (or, as it's called in the biz, the GAS Territories, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, ie, the German-speaking nations of Europe) is the second-biggest music market in the world. Really: and it's all people most Americans have never heard of. After many permutations and changes of management and all, PopKomm has now emigrated to Berlin, and this year is its debut here. Given that Universal and Sony both have their German headquarters in Berlin now, it sort of makes sense. Given that there are very few clubs for the bands to play in, it makes less sense. Given that few of the bizzers go out to see -- ick -- music, it is, as we say here, scheiss egal.

Anyway, the guys and gals from SXSW are coming to town tomorrow to participate in the PopKomm trade show, which starts on Wednesday, and I hope to be blogging live from the event. Much depends on whether I get a badge and whether there's wireless or other access inside the convention center.

So until that happens, here's Nike's "Les Fleurs du Mal," which isn't the one around the corner, but is one that just sort of appeared on a fence one day, and I like the shot because it gives you the sense of seeing her work in context, and how it just jumps out at you, which is a result both of her great use of color and the fact that it's, you know, a nekkid lady and all. Enjoy.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Impossible Is Nothing

This morning, as I was eating breakfast, I became aware of a sound I've been hearing increasingly around the neighborhood. It wasn't the Turkish builders who are still chipping away on the wall of the building across the way, more the ambient sound of a lot of people. Another demonstration, I thought.

But no, there were no chants, no horns being blown, no tinny harangues through loudspeakers. Still, the sound was undeniably there. I would have gone out if the weather were warmer, but the coffee was too good, and I wasn't that interested. If it were something important, I reasoned, I'd hear about it.

And sure enough, as I walked to the bank on my daily jaunt to see if so-and-so had paid me (nope), I walked by a restaurant and there was a guy in a t-shirt that said "Berliner Marathon." Of course: today was the marathon. Good day for it, because at least the sky wasn't urinating ice water, as it's done a couple of times this week. There were some small clouds and the majority of the sky was blue.

And, as I came back from the bank, I realized that of course: there had been signs up and down Torstr. for at least a week saying that it was the path of the marathon, placed so high in trees I was wondering if they were for the benefit of the birds. And there were the silly billboards noting the rising number of participants, with a third box unchecked that said, in English, "2004: 50,000. Impossible Is Nothing."

I wondered who the hell approved this billboard every time I saw it, which was frequently. (Apparently large companies have given up on trying to sell stuff to Berliners, having finally realized that nobody here has any money). See, it's sort of a given in the German advertising industry that you can sell younger consumers by using English. Everyone -- and, ever since 1990, that means everyone in Germany -- studies English, and it's the default language of the European Union and most major businesses. You see it everywhere, and it's gotten so routine that it's rare indeed to see a youth-oriented product campaign in German. (This, I noticed, is also true in France, although the law there requires a translation into French in a prominent place, and in legible letters. The law, however, didn't prevent's blitz ad campaign when it was introduced -- Do You Yahoo? -- from being translated as "Etes vous Yahoo?" -- hardly the same thing.)

The thing is, when they do do this, they usually get it right. So instead of running the marathon -- something I was never in danger of doing, don't worry -- I spent some time today reflecting on the subtle difference between "Nothing is impossible" and "Impossible is nothing."

Unfortunately for any burgeoning career as a philosopher, I didn't come up with much.


Yes, I'm aware that I promised photos of the new graffiti today, and you may rest assured that I went out in the sunshine and grabbed a whole bunch of shots this afternoon. In so doing, I couldn't help but notice the battery-level indicator, though, and thanks to the discovery of a whole raft of tiny new pieces, little silhouettes cut out of black paper, I was right down to the end of my available power. I won't have my batteries recharged until tomorrow afternoon (or maybe late tonight), but at least the documentation is safe. Once charged, though, I'll go out in search of more stuff to grab before I post anything. Stay tuned.


One further note on billboards. It's not that nobody is trying to sell Berliners stuff. The food giant Dr. Oetker has introduced a new line of yogurt called Jobst, which combines the words for yogurt (Joghurt) and fruit (Obst). The slogan, with typical German sledgehammer ad subtlety, is "Mein Obst heisst Jobst!" or "My fruit's called Jobst." As I was walking down Friedrichstr. the other day, I saw an all-too-obvious, and very artfully done, defacement of the one for blueberry, done with a simple black marker so that the slogan now read "Mein Obst heisst Jobs." To many people here, nothing could taste sweeter.

Friday, September 24, 2004

One More

That worked out well enough, here's another Swoony and I'll stick up some more tomorrow.

This Is A Test

And if it works -- and I'm trying! -- you'll see a masterpiece by Swoon from the pictures I shot last year. And, in the days to come, a lot more pictures of the current Berlin graffiti and a lot of the other pix from last year, which put the new pieces into context.

Let's try.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Deutscher and Digideroos

I'd like to thank the mighty Cynthia Barnes for turning me on to this wonderful essay by a half-Irish, half-German novelist named Hugo Hamilton, which appeared in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago. I've been meaning to write about this, especially in reference to vacations, but it's a tough subject, and I always felt just a bit of trepidation about approaching it.

Hamilton's saved me a lot of the work, though, and you should take a minute to read this. The basic idea, that Germans will do just about anything to avoid being "German," is a profound one, and reaches to the root of one of my basic dislikes about this place. It's sticky, as Hamilton points out, because of World War II, to be "proud" of being German, but I think people here have taken it to a ridiculous point of self-abasement. Some of this shows up in what I've always thought of as the "Italian Restaurant Syndrome," and it also manifests itself in what I've thought of as the "World Music Syndrome."

"Italian Restaurant Syndrome" is something you observe if you dine in the sort of Italian restaurants here patronized by the sort of people who vacation in Italy. These folks don't just buy a guidebook and launch themselves into the countryside, or take a guided tour. They learn Italian, take Italian cooking lessons, educate themselves about Italian wine, learn some political history and art history, and then launch themselves into the countryside. In fact, they may have done a year abroad in school to learn the language and pick up the rest gradually, via osmosis. But when they're home in Berlin they always talk to the waiter in Italian (which causes confusion in one of my favorite joints, because everyone there is from the Sicilian countryside, where, as one Italian-speaking German I know says, "they speak...African or something"), and affect a kind of "we're all friends" bonhomie which goes against the server/served relationship the restaurant tries to keep going in order to preserve order.

In extreme cases of this syndrome, these people venture to Italy, strike up a relationship with a wine exporter, and open an Italian deli, which the husband usually quits his job to run. There, he waits morosely, leaning his head on his hands, elbows on the cooler case, in which rest the same 17 sun-dried tomatoes, 15 discs of grilled eggplant in olive oil, 250 grams of taleggio cheese, and half-salami of odd provenance as were there yesterday. There are about 27 different wines on display, all in quantities of five or six -- probably three cases apiece were ordered -- and the one distinguishing characteristic of all of these places: no customers. This is because, due to the extreme conservatism Germans show when they go into business for themselves, the deli has probably opened in close proximity to two or three other Italian delis, the thinking being "Bella Italia is doing well, so that means that people who want to buy this kind of thing come to this street," not "Bella Italia seems to have this block whipped; I should look for somewhere else." But as long as they can keep this feeling of deep attachment to a country where life is easier because it's not Germany, and as long as their life's savings don't evaporate, they exude a melancholy sort of peacefulness.

World Music Syndrome affects a somewhat younger, less affluent demographic. Since there's very little identifiably German music to listen to (and what there is, called "Volksmusik," is not only identified with Bavaria and the far right, but is also really, really bad), and since they want to reject the hegemonic capitalistic axis of the Anglo-American music industry, they gravitate to the music of other cultures. This movement is seen all over Europe, actually, and there's a lot of salutary things to be said about it, despite the large number of assholes in the industry itself, but the world music listened to in Germany falls into a couple of identifiable categories.

First is that which is motivated by guilt. The guilty fan becomes fond of Turkish music or the Balkan brass bands, not because they are interested in the former's century-old classical tradition or the latter's undeniable groove and anarchy, but because these are People Who Have Been Treated Badly -- By Us. Smart members of these minorities quickly learn to adopt a mantle of victimhood, whether or not they actually feel it, when they're around these Guilty Germans. For one thing, it's an easy way to get laid.

Of course, the real Guilt World Music is klezmer, which Germans argue is the Only Jewish Music, conveniently forgetting that Jews have always been dispersed into other cultures and have taken on aspects of their musical traditions, so that there's North African Jewish music, for instance, which dates to the centuries that the Arabs ruled Spain. But klezmer has the advantage of having been played by Jews who were forced out of places like Poland, Russia, and, yes, Germany and who had to emigrate to the U.S., where they invented a show-biz music that drew on traditional elements from the Old Country as well as the jazziness and pep of the New World. An astonishing number of otherwise intelligent young Germans really do believe that before Hitler and the pogroms, Eastern Europe was dotted with little villages filled with Fiddler on the Roof-style Hasidim, tootling on clarinets and living colorful, but persecuted, lives.

The other strain of World Music Syndrome here is that which is motivated by envy. This is why you almost never see any of the Scandinavian folk bands here, the Catalan revival hasn't made a dent, Eliza Carthy and the new Brits don't get a look in, township jive and Congolese rhumba are absent from the world music festivals, but baby, are there ever drum ensembles! You see, the audience for this stuff is the young version of the folks Hamilton's writing about, miserable because they know they can't be free and spontaneous because then they'd unleash the dragon that sits inside them because of their German birthright. They envy these handsome black men with the gleaming muscles who pound drums -- No melody! No lyrics! Nothing but elemental rhythm! -- because they're free and, uh, primitive, and have a direct line to their primitive freedom! Oh, to be like that! a German, it's impossible, I'm afraid. That there might be just the teensiest tinge of racism in all of this, of course, never occurs to them. (Nor do drum troupes have to be African all the time: numerous Japanese kodo groups come through Berlin each year).

This idea crystallized in my head in the aftermath of an incident where I'd gone to the House of World Cultures, probably to talk to someone at Radio Multikulti, probably about a job I couldn't get because I was a hegemonic capitalist American sonofabitch. Since it was during the daytime, it wasn't easy to find a way out of the building, and I stumbled on an outdoor courtyard in which an Ausralian aborigine was teaching a digideroo-carving class. Around him were a number of very earnest-looking college-age (which here means under 38) men, all working on their hunk of tree-trunk or whatever it is you carve them out of, and the aborigine was saying something (in English) about "you must carve your dreams," to one of the Germans, who was looking baffled. At that point, I must have had a wry grin on my face, because the Australian flashed me a "I can't believe I'm getting paid well to do this, and at the public expense" look, and I walked away, hoping none of those young men was a neighbor of mine. Digideroo practice is hell, and you just know those guys were gonna practice. After all, they're German.

A side-thought: the absolute antithesis of the syndrome Hamilton writes about is, of course, France. And after eleven years of living with this syndrome, I'm about ready for France. The French, far from being self-effacing and guilt-ridden like the Germans, are arrogant. So, I need hardly say, are Americans. I think one problem I've always had here is that I've had trouble dealing with this flaw in Germany. I was born and raised in an arrogant society. Better the devil you know, and all of that.

And France has much better music.

Friday, September 17, 2004

The Other Art

Silly me. The art in galleries, of course, isn't the only art going on here, and it's interesting to note that, although it's opposed in theory and practice to the gallery art, the other art burst forth the other day with stunning vigor.

I refer to what might broadly be called "graffiti," or what I prefer to think of as "street art," and although I've been rather desultorily documenting it since last year, I've neither the knowledge nor the software to post any of it here, which is a shame because a lot of it has disappeared by now and I'd like to document the new crop as well as showing the old crop.

My favorite in all of this is a woman named Swoon, whose intricate, lace-like paper cutouts, four feet high, suddenly blossomed all over my neighborhood (and other ones, like Kreuzberg) last year. Her works invite contemplation and, since some of her basic forms change from piece to piece, you want to find as many as possible. Two days ago, I saw two small trees, one of black paper, one of white, about a foot tall, at street level, on a wall. Looks like she might be back.

There's lots of paper graffiti around at the moment, with one newcomer pasting up huge tiki gods in the most unlikely places, all done in light brown chalk so you can barely see them. Another guy is using stylized skulls on brown butcher paper, and there's a crew of three who depict themselves as square-headed Bart Simpsonoid beings floating high above the street. One of them may be Paris, the 12-year-old brother of Spair, who's 15, both of whom Swoon was very enthusiastic about last year, with good reason in Spair's case, because his jellyfish-like beings rendered with a shaky line are very spooky indeed.

Two members of the Greek pantheon have also impressed me recently. First was Zeus, whose piece I missed totally until one night, which is when it's supposed to be viewed. I saw a bunch of thick lines on the sidewalk on Auguststr. near the start of Gipsstr. and thought it was a graf tag, but one night as I walked that way, its genius was revealed: the thick line exactly, and I mean ex-act-ly, follows the shadow of a parking sign cast by the streetlight next to it. It's a piece which invites interaction, ways to play with the ways in which the piece is "there" or not. I love it. Then there's Nike, whose charming oil paintings of female nudes are nailed up beneath billboards. There's one quite near Friedrichstr. station, which I noted today has been defaced by a regular tagger (a Berlin tradition: Keith Haring's Wall piece was only up a few hours when some dickhead drew a thick orange line through it; at some point I'm going to write about how envious destruction of people's had work is a very important element of life here). Three more, identical paintings of a woman facing left in what I believe is called the Crane position in yoga, stand near the corner of Torstr. and Ackerstr., and some idiot apparently wanted one and decapitated her in a ham-handed attempt to pull her off. And I can't remember where I saw the third one, although I think I know. I'd better grab these with the camera fast.

A lot of these artists have banded together in a loose association called Urban Art, whose big star is CBS, which is actually a crew whose initials stand for Crash BrotherS. CBS stuff is all over the place, in the most amazingly improbable places from the yellow fists with knotted limbs beneath them to a sunrise high atop an apartment building to stickers declaring in German "CBS is Everywhere," which is pretty much true. And then there's 6, who draws big 6s on things, along with mysterious URLs and messages, in whitewash. Everyone who's met him says he's harmlessly demented.

Incidentally, a good, if undercurated, place to explore this stuff is here, although it's kind of Hamburg-centric. The stencil work and the cutouts are very nice; I saw my first stencils in Brussels in the late '80s, and remember vividly a Mohawked mouse doing a swan dive into a huge piece of cheese somewhere near the Grand' Place.

And somewhere between the free-for-all of graffiti and street art and the narcotizing atmosphere of the galleries is another project I ran into, most notably because it suddenly appeared in a space Urban Art had had a two-day show I missed. Called Topshop, it's a hilarious version of the many "discount" shops which seem to infest every storefront that's not a gallery around here. Inevitably staffed by Vietnamese, and with a bizarre mix of solid inexpensive stuff, garish decorator items (folks, the clocks alone are so horrible they've got to be seen to be believed), and cheap crap, they're obvious indicators of the severe financial condition most people here live in. Among the things I saw offered were pillows made from shopping bags from the horrible "box" grocery stores we have here (goods are just put on the shelves in their shipping cartons, no fresh meat or cheese and very limited vegetables, if any, but all rock-bottom prices!), a number of do-it-yourself projects (blank business-cards, machines to make badges, a diorama you can photograph with a 3-D camera), and tons of CDs, DVDs, and books and magazines. This does have a connection to the art-world: the insufferably boring Dr. Bazon Brock is among those reading there tonight, and there are several links to other "high art" bastions, but there's enough anarchy and fun going on there to make it worth dropping in on.

I'm not going to buy anything, of course, until the 26th, because that's the clearance sale.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Change Of Season

Last night at 1, as I went to bed, the wind was blowing steadily. I noticed that the bedroom was cold, so I shut the window. But it's mid-September, and this isn't Texas. Another summer, such as it was, is gone.

Such as it was: we only had a few actually hot days, a few more warm ones. And it may not be totally over yet: according to the weather forecast, we have a warm weekend coming up. But the basil I planted earlier this summer looks to be all roots (and what leaves there are have now been spoiled by the fine yellow dust which covers everything both in and outside, thanks to the construction next door), and I often find myself stopping to wonder if I should wear a jacket before I head outdoors.

One thing's for sure: the art season's started. Saturday was the first Galerierundgang of the season, the open-house where galleries are allowed to stay open late, and the first collectors come into town, drawn by the Art Forum Berlin, this city's often-pathetic attempt to compete with the big contemporary art markets in Cologne and Basel. This will be the second year in a row that I won't be there, absent some freebie floating my way; my last attempt to cover it for the new administration at the Wall Street Journal was quickly tossed back in my lap because I spent too much time talking about works and trends and didn't try to find out who had bought what for how much -- information which is carefully kept aside until well after the event, and managed in such a way as to only draw attention to acquisitions people want publicly discussed. Truth to tell, neither my feet nor my esthetic receptors miss it, because there have always been far fewer diamonds than lumps of coal. About its only real virtue is that I get to see what's going on in Leipzig, where there are some very interesting painters at work. Since painting is hardly at the center of the galleries in my neighborhood (or, when it is, it sucks), that's always nice.

But there have been a lot of new galleries opening up of late right around my house. The reason for this is not so much that there are tons of great creative people whose work needs to be seen as it is that the local government will give a tax break to a landlord who shows art rather than let a building sit empty. Since landlords rarely understand art, they lease the space cheaply to a gallerist. Near me on Torstr. was a nice big space which became a gallery one day (it had been a TV repair shop), showed for about a month, and then the gallery went away. For three months workers toiled in the space, and one day the most high-tech-looking hair salon you've ever seen opened up, art-directed to the hilt. It was in business for two weeks and then it was gone. A month later, another gallery was in there. I found myself remembering the Turkish artist who did such a realistic installation of a travel agency at Mehdi Chouakri's gallery back when he was in this neighborhood that I lamented the gallery's sudden disappearance, but wondered why the travel agency only occupied half the space, since it appeared that there was still an office in the rear. Just part of the zany goings-on at that place back in those days.

I have to say, most of the stuff showing in these new galleries is deadly dull, though. The most successful, and one I pass every day on my way to the store, is Galerie Markus Richter, which I took to calling the "everything proceeds from theory" gallery, because it sure doesn't have any goddam content. But at least it's slick. Some of this other stuff is so bad you wonder if it's some ironic commentary about technique, but, given the clueless people running the galleries, it's probably sincere. About the only thing in the 'hood currently showing that interests me at all -- and it interests me a lot -- is a show at theNBK of one of my heroes, William Eggleston, and another photographer named Wilmar Koenig, both shooting similar stuff -- Memphis in the '80s and Madrid this year. I've only looked at it briefly (and sorry, folks, that last link is only in German), but I'll be back at least once before it closes.

Still with the onset of cooler weather, I seem to have gotten an ingrown reflex to turn to art, a sort of artotropia. You walk the streets, it's chilly, you step in a gallery, the person in charge raises their head in case it's a wealthy collector, it's not, they sort of sigh, and they leave you alone as you wander around wondering a) who could possibly have made this crap and b) who would even think of buying it. You do that til you warm up, you say "Danke," and you leave. Maybe I'll get invited to an opening or two, avoid the cheap wine and the inevitable headache-inducing Beck's, step outside for a cigarette when the equally-inevitable professor starts in with the explanation of what the art on display is and why it's so important, and notice that, even though it's only quarter past seven, the sky above Berlin-Mitte has gotten dark, and a cloud is scudding over the moon. That will feel like Fall.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Leaving Linz

I've been threatening to write about Ars Electronica now for so long that I came to realize that I'm about written out on it in any systematic way, what with my three articles (all of which are linked below), and the subsequent discovery that Howard Rheingold is not the founder of Wikipedia, as I mistakenly wrote based on some badly-worded press from Ars, but, rather Jimmy Wales is. My fault entirely for not checking, but the heat of daily journalism as a freelancer -- with no staff to support you -- can mean that kind of thing happens. I'd just rather it didn't happen to me.

Instead, just some meanderings on the trip and the festival today, so I can leave it behind and return to the doings, such as they are, in dear old Berlin.

It's a 9-hour journey to Linz, changing trains on the way down in Nürnberg, which was great: the cheaper ticket meant an hour's layover, which was enough time to run across the street to the Bratwurst-Glöcklein for lunch. Pinkie-length sausages grilled over a beechwood fire with sauerkraut or potato salad, pretty much the same as they've been serving since the late 14th century, in the rather touristy and yet authentic Handwerkerhof, one of the best lunches in Germany.

Then, back on the train, rocketing through Bavaria until the border at Passau, which appears to be (and by all accounts is) a gorgeous city, and slowing down for Austria. I had no reservations, so I wound up sitting in the smoking car on this leg, which wasn't so bad except for the garrulous gentleman ahead of me talking to another guy, who was apparently deaf. The old coot kept talking about his son in "Dootledorf," and I don't know if that's an Austrian accent or what, but I do know that's how I'll think of that city from now on.

Linz's train station was in total chaos two years ago and it still is. I thought I was smart, having done a Map Quest or something for the LFI Hotel, where I was staying, and pretty much figured out where it was, so I just lit out walking to get there. Linz is small enough, after all, that it's perfectly possible to walk from the train station to the banks of the Danube, and that's pretty much what I wound up doing. I couldn't find the place anywhere. I finally snagged a cab and we set off, but he'd never heard of it and phoned in, finally, at my request, and then drove me all the way back to the train station, past it, and into a driveway marked Landesministerium für Wirtschaft. This is the office which promotes Austrian agricultural products to the world, and they have a guest-house for visitors, as it turns out. It's in the middle of a park, on top of a steep hill. That's the good news and the bad news.

Sweaty (it was way warmer in Austria than in Berlin) and tired, I nonetheless had to make sure I made the opening party, because it was being catered by Gordon W's Scharfness Institut, and Gordon would then abandon his post at the tandoor to play with Fuzzy Love. This party, too, was on top of a huge hill, in the dark, with the tower at its top, the Franz-Josef-Warte, whose context I never did get, but at least the festival provided buses to the site; after an hour's aimless wandering after the train-ride, I was pooped.

Standing in line for one of Gordon's justifiably-famous naan pizzas turned out to be a great way to meet people, and I talked with a composer from MIT and a professor from the University of North Carolina Greensboro, and various other folks. It took about 90 minutes to get served: Gordon's "performance cooking" is as much performance as cooking, after all. (Of course, since he operates Imbiss W on Kastanienallee here, I can get one any time I have a couple of Euros). There was another marathon line for beer, and after I was supplied, I watched Fuzzy Love until the exhaustion set in.

The LFI was, appropriately enough for the event, in a park called Der Gugl, and the next morning I started the routine of an absolutely amazing, all-Austrian-produced (except for the orange juice, I guess), all organic breakfast, then gathering up my stuff, and walking down the hill to the Brucknerhaus, the huge concert hall on the banks of the Danube where the conference was held. I had my first chance to use my Airport card, too, just opening up my iBook and wham, being connected to the Internet! Wonderful thing, technology.

That's also the way the speakers at this "Timeshift" symposium felt, although some of them (the younger ones, interestingly enough) sure could be dull about it. The first morning's highlights were Roger Malina, a space scientist who also heads something called The Leonardo Project, who discussed the place art inhabits in technological progress, among many other things, and effectively revised C.P. Snow's famous "Two Cultures" argument in favor of one with five cultures: Art, design, and entertainment; Science, particularly in its relationship to government; Technology and its relationship to the corporate world; a culture of "world views"; and a fifth, which he called Situation, about which I'm a bit nebulous. Esther Dyson turned in a nice lecture about progress (the theme of the morning symposium), and Ismael Serageldin, director of the Library of Alexandria project, attempted a video-conference, and although the sound came through very nicely, his image resembled nothing so much as the CGI bad-guy from (yes, I confess to having watched it one night while bored) the recent remake of The Mummy.

The afternoon session was called "Disruption," and was guaranteed to be fun: Joichi Ito slammed intellectual property laws, David Turnbull overturned the concept of maps as fixed representations of data, and then Bruce Sterling got up and gave his now-famous speech on spimes. Finishing with his battle-cry of "The future's already here; it just isn't well-distributed!" he got a thunderous ovation.

In need of nutrition for the non-brain part of my body, I walked back into town and quickly found the Klosterhof, which I remembered from last time, although not fondly. Turns out that the Wiener Schnitzel is about the only bad thing on their menu; I had amazing stuff three nights in a row, and the Stiegel beer is also fine.

That night's party was on the banks of the Danube below the Ars Electronica center, using the flood tunnels as spaces for performances and allowing everyone to just hang out and talk. The highlight of the evening for me was a live performance of Julien Maire's Demi-Pas, an amazing little "film" performed with souped-up slide projectors and hundreds of very complicated multi-part slides, many with moving parts he manipulates. The story is just a day in a guy's life, and I'd seen the video of it at the OK Centrum, where a lot of the CyberArts winners were housed and not thought much of it. But live, with the performer jamming around his projectors and moving his fragile slides around like a club DJ does records was really impressive.

The next morning's symposium was "Spirit," and the stars were out again. Sherry Turkle, a psychologist who studies human-computer relationships, among other things, talked about "nurture as the killer app," and perhaps made too much of toys like the Furby. She was followed by a much more successful video conference with Marvin Minksy, who looked like himself, jovially refuted all the spiritual talk that had gone before ("Spirit, to me, is a very dangerous and pernicious idea which says your being is a gift, and it comes from somewhere else"), and invoked Freud's structure of personality to posit one of his own, ending with the prophecy that "In the next five years we'll find ways to let computers use tens of millions or hundreds of millions of ideas."

The conference's low point was the afternoon symposium, which was too academic and dry for my taste for the most part. Worst offender was a guy named Gerhard Dirmoser, who's been following Ars Electronica since the beginning and has developed charts based on such things as the themes or key phrases of each one and how they networked with each other. His current project is mapping 44,000 verbs used in the texts generated by the past 25 years of Ars. This is the sort of person one gives a wide berth to at parties. Finally, Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation put everything in a Big Time Persepective much as Roger Malina had done with his Big Space Perspective at the start. One thing I found particularly good about Brand's speech is that in a milieu which thrives with much schadenfreude on dystopias and disaster scenarios, he's actually optimistic, thanks to his interpretation of data accumulated over long stretches of time. None of us, of course, will likely find out if he's right, but it was the difference between Chicken Little and fried chicken.

Right after the symposium, I decided to walk to the dance performance, "Apparition," at the Posthof, which appeared to be about a 15-minute walk from the Brucknerhalle. I should have remembered what Turnbull had said about maps, because it was 30 or more minutes along the Danube and then into the harbor (and who knew Linz had a harbor?), during which I'd gotten so turned around that somehow I'd lost the ticket I'd had to get for the performance. I got in, though, fortunately, because I needed it for my Times story. Saturday night's party was at the OK Centrum, and I got there just as it ran out of beer, which was just as well because I had a noon deadline for my first IHT story the next day, and anyway €1.50 got you a beer out of the soft-drink machine at the LHI. So civilized!

Sunday was spent chasing down art, some of the best of which was the student work from IAMAS in Japan, and I ended my festival with the Digital Musics award concert, which was really disappointing. Janek Schaefer's "Skate" was interesting enough, the sounds of records with blank grooves (which I think he makes himself) which are easily damaged being electronically altered, although at 30 minutes the piece was maybe ten minutes too long. But whoever gave this gal who performs as AGF the idea that we wanted to sit and hear her sing tunelessly about her boring life and her fears that her education was perhaps useless while a guy rumbled around on a piano and a woman put projections behind her, should be fired from jury posthaste. Thomas Köner's "Banlieu du Vide," which was the grand prize winner, also didn't strike me as so much music as a video installation, and it was interesting as such. Someone's going to have to put someone who knows about music on the jury next year and let some of the groovy professors out to pasture.

Monday morning was chaos, since there wasn't any Internet access at the hotel, and I had to walk to the Brucknerhaus, file by noon, and go back to the hotel, pick up my luggage, pay the bill, and get to the train station by 12:25. It was okay: the train was late, and I stared longingly at the opposite track, where a train to Budapest was going to arrive. I'd shopped around the idea of doing a story on the paprika harvest in Hungary, only to be met with puzzled responses, and I sort of wished I was heading out that way. Ah, but there are harvests every year, so I'll try again then. I like the idea of going from the high-tech, high intellect world of Ars to a pepper harvest, so I hope it happens.

And I'm very, very happy to report that the return journey, although delayed by almost a half hour eventually, was totally eventless. Mostly because the events, when they happen, tend to be annoying. But I'll tell you one thing: after all those great meals at the LFI and the Klosterhof, I didn't eat meat for a week.

So I've been back for a little over a week, and now I guess it's time to start agitating for my next trip. And to be a bit more regular with this here blog.

Saturday, September 11, 2004


Hey, sorry to anyone who tried to log on this week. Technical difficulties at our beloved host (whose exact nature I am blissfully ignorant of) kept the site down for a while, but we're back up.

I've been wanting to jot down some notes about my fantastic long weekend at Ars Electronica this year, because only a fraction got into the three articles I wrote (the third of which came out today), but between the site being down and the incredible amount of (paying!) work I had this week, it just didn't happen. It might in the next day or two, though, so stay tuned.

That is, if the long, long article I'm writing for Tekka, doesn't interfere. This is a very interesting mag, but it costs $50 a year to subscribe, and I don't know if the article is going to be reprinted elsewhere -- or if it can be. But it's about the future of the record business, why I hate downloads, and iPods and all the rest, and believe it or not it all makes sense.

Well, I think so, anyhow.

But the frequency of this blog will definitely pick up in the days to come. Thanks for your patience!

Tuesday, September 07, 2004


Sorry to anyone who checked in over the past couple of hours and saw the same post three times. But in coming back here to deal with it, I can post the URL for a remarkable TV show that PBS is about to show, for which I did some writing on the website.

Back From The Danube

Just thought I'd drop in and say that the first of the three stories I did on Ars Electronica is up, although I'd still like a paper copy if anyone has one lying around. The next is supposed to run Saturday in the New York Times and the third Saturday in the IHT.

I'll also be laying some of the marginalia and cool shit I didn't have anywhere to write about down here in the next few days, but first I want to get the paying stuff out of the way.

Of course.

The Danube, incidentally, is sorta copper greenish. At least it is in Linz.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Another Expat

This is too good to let pass. I've been corresponding with Ray Reece for a number of years, since he solicited my advice about expatriation. Seems he was at a conference in Amsterdam and met a beautiful young Italian widow. One thing led to another and the next thing he knew was he was living in beautiful downtown Cagli, in the Marche region of Italy. But in order to retire early, his beloved had to spend some time teaching abroad, so they wound up in Szeged, Hungary, where she teaches at the university and Ray, well, Ray was restless for a while.

But as of today, he's got a gig writing a Postcard From Szeged for the Budapest Sun, the English-language weekly in Budapest. I wish him luck: the first column is one, I think, he might look back at with a tinge of embarrassment in five or ten years, but it's also probably important that he can go back and see the place with the eyes he's wearing now after he settles in some.

Be curious about what you folks think, too.

The First Crumbs of September

One thing I forgot to mention in that last post is that I will not be blogging from Ars Electronica. I'm probably the only person who won't be, so I should stand out. I just wish I could be the only person without a cell phone. But it means I will be absent from this blog until at least Tuesday Sept. 7, because I get in late on Monday night.


O ye of little faith! Blaise Lawless, the man with the best name in art, came over the other night with a clipping from the notorious BZ, one of Berlin's tabloids. Unfortunately, that link will get you lots of cheesecake, but it won't take you to the article, which shows a cop sitting on a guy, waving a grill-fork in the air. The headline says "Here the neighborhood police practice the grill-fork war." Berlin now has a new neighborhood-based police force which patrols in twos, the article says, with the aim of making sure dogs are leashed, grill-parties in forbidden places are ended, and bicycles are kept off the sidewalks. They undergo eight weeks training for this. A grateful nation sighs in relief. I'm holding on to this clipping, though, for when people express doubt.


Meanwhile, time to invoke the Power of the Blog again. In the past, this mysterious power has gotten me paid by people who owed me for nine months, and has caused the city government to cut back on the Hitzefrei, the curtailed workday for hot weather, so I hereby call upon it to wish my friend Bob, one of the world's first bloggers, a speedy recovery from his recent operation.


And, just on the off-chance that someone reading this has a sense of adventure (which pretty much eliminates everyone in Berlin), a friend of mine tells me she's got very little time left to raise the seed capital for a wonderful project that the city of Berlin is looking to help her do. If she can raise €15,000, she can get up to €100,000 from them and get to work on it. She's got a great track record in the business she's trying to start, and I'm under nondisclosure, but suffice it to say it ain't vaporware, and I think she can probably make some money with it. If anyone wants details, just e-mail me and I'll put you in touch. Nothing in it for me except probably a couple of free meals, but hey, I could use 'em.

On The Road Again

Hard to believe it's been a week since I checked in here, but, well, it has been. It's a lot easier to believe from this side of the screen, though, because the week was consumed with basically one thing: getting two editors, one at the New York Times' Arts news section, and one at the International Herald Tribune's Tech section, to coordinate my trip to Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria. It's their 25th anniversary, and the last one I attended was one of the most thought-provoking, entertaining, and mind-blowing shindigs I've ever been at. I figured they'd really be pulling out the stops for the anniversary.

You'd think that something like this would be fairly easy to do. I get the assignments, we clarify what the editors want and when they want it and how long it'll be and so on, and then I do it. And, to be fair, that's just about how it worked. But there are always snags, and I really only clarified the assignments on Monday. That wasn't the problem, though.

For one thing -- and it's amazing that most people don't realize this -- I have to finance this trip myself, and then I'll get paid back. In my current financial state, this means borrowing a month's rent money from myself so that I wind up with three or four months' in a couple of weeks. But first I have to have it, and in the end I wound up borrowing it yet again.

Then I had to make my reservations, once the money cleared the bank. I did that this morning, going through Deutsche Bahn's online system, only to get to the very end of it and discover that they couldn't make reservations or give me an on-line printable ticket. Also, because it was less than 24 hours before I was travelling, the price had gone way up.

So I walked down to Friedrichstr. station to use the vending machine there. Not nearly as easy as the website, I'll tell you. Plus, it routed me totally differently, giving me an earlier departure time. Hell, I don't care: sleeping on trains is easy. On me, at least: I do remember being shaken awake by an old lady whose grizzled visage was the first thing I saw when I woke up. Apparently my head had lolled back and I was snoring like crazy, to gather from the sore throat that set in later. There were a bunch of old ladies, all going "Such a sound!" or "How does your wife stand it?" I was too embarrassed to make the obscene remark the latter comment fairly begged for, unfortunately.

But: one problem with the machine. When it spit out the ticket, it told me it couldn't make an international reservation for me. I doubt the train's going to be too full, but I have stood all the way from Frankfurt to Berlin on a day when it was over 100 degrees and the air conditioning blew, so I'm really hoping most people are going to Linz on Friday. Also, it was just the ticket that came out. I'd totally ignored the departure time and transfer (in Nürnberg), figuring it'd be on the ticket. Not to mention that I didn't have anything to write with.

My next adventure, after getting severely burned changing a $20 bill a guy had given me because he was €15 short on a debt (I got €12 and change), was getting a friend's cell phone topped up. She told me just to go to a Vodafone store and they'd do it for me. There was one opposite Friedrichstr. station, so I walked in. The guy even spoke English, which is good because cell phones are a new technology for me and I don't understand even the most basic stuff about them. I've never needed one and I don't want one in my life: you can send me an e-mail or you can call my answering machine. I'll get back to you. But everyone at Ars Electronica will have one, and they're all from different places, so if I'm going to get any interviews, I'm going to have to use one. And better to borrow than to buy one.

The guy popped my phone open and told me that it was a Debitel chip so there was nothing he could do. He offered to sell me a phone for €59 or more with €15 already in it, but the cheapest phone was just like the one I already had. Anyway, I didn't want to buy one and I didn't have the money. So I figured I was screwed. A quick phone call after I got home to a friend who writes about this business all the time disabused me of this: apparently Vodafone buys time from Debitel, or maybe it's the other way around. So I got on the train and went to Potsdamer Platz to Saturn, the big electronics store there, found the Debitel stand, and the guy told me all I had to do was charge it up with more money and I'd be good to go. He told me to hit the cashier on the way out and she'd sell me the card.

"Oh, we don't sell those, " she said, after I'd stood in line for five minutes (Memo: write a Sauerkraut on the German love of standing in lines some day). "You have to go downstairs to the Vodafone store."

Which I did. And they sold me the card. I had an overwhelming temptation to get out one stop early on the way back and rip the guy at the Friedrichstr. store a new asshole, explaining to him that people who behave like that and lie to potential customers make the entire company look dishonest, and that, in the extremely unlikely event that I ever am in the market, myself, for a cell phone, Vodafone is the last place I'd go.

One good thing came out of this. I got so disgusted with the runaround that I took a break and found the Cornwall Pasty Co., which is hidden across from the Marriott in Potsdamer Platz, which is itself hidden behind the Ritz Carlton. Their beef and Stilton pasty is so good that I'm still glowing from it, over 90 minutes later.

Okay, I just got word from Joichi Ito, one of my sources, that he's going to SMS me when he gets in. Now I gotta read the manual for this stupid phone again and figure out how to access that feature. Not to mention how to SMS him back. This was something I hoped to die at a ripe old age without ever knowing how to do.

Did I mention that I hate cell phones? I suspect I'll be very, very glad to hand this one back.