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‘BLACK PETER’ MAY OR MAY NOT BE RACISM… BUT ST. NICK IS DEFINITELY SATAN

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[Spoiler alert: Not recommended reading for those who believe in Santa Claus.]

Each year in the Netherlands during the Christmas season, the tone around the debate on whether Zwarte Piet (‘Black Peter’) is a form of racism gets darker. This year, the discourse was further inflamed by the rather violent arrest of ten protesters with ‘Black Peter is Racism’ t-shirts and the news that the Dutch-Canadian community in Vancouver decided to no longer allow Black Peters in their annual Sinterklaas (St Nicolas) procession. Meanwhile many of the Dutch-Dutch just get increasingly defensive as they treat such talk as a threat against their culture.

For the outsider, it remains a curious tradition: countless Dutch adults putting on black face, smearing on red, red lipstick, popping on a wig of kinky hair and adorning their ears with large golden hoops – and doing all this without any sense of malice. Then they hit the streets like a pack of highly caffeinated Al Jolsons to help St. Nick distribute sweets to children.  Years ago, a visiting friend and I came across such a posse. I was long used to it, but my friend’s jaw hit the ground in disbelief – and this is a man who has witnessed much weirdness worldwide. ‘What is this minstrel madness?!?’ he asked flabbergasted. (Not long after while in Russia our roles were reversed in a strange and convoluted way when we were waiting at a backwoods train station and some skinheads came to confront my friend about the colour of his skin. He stayed cool and dealt with the situation. I just stood there. Totally flabbergasted.)

Local Dutch cultural history only goes so far in giving my friend a reasonable explanation behind the Black Peter tradition. Continue Reading…

Posted: December 2, 2011 at 1:22 pm.

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The Hole Report (or at least part of it)

Yesterday I had a night full of holes. And it wasn’t about drinking to excess, but about attending the ‘On Portable Holes and Other Containers’ night at Felix Meritis organised by Paleisje voor Volksvlijt. Artists, philosophers, musicians and writers gathered to present and ponder such questions as ‘Is a hole a container?’, ‘How do we talk about something that does not exist?’ and ‘If you buy a donut, are you also buying the hole?’

It was actually quite enlightening. Lately I’ve been looking for new ways to perceive reality, and holes might just be the ticket. But I must admit I am still a little stuck on: ‘How do you successfully describe a knotted hole without refering to the immaterial?”

The night was partially inspired by the excellent and often hilarious book Gaten & andere dingen die er niet zijn [‘Holes and other things that are not there’] by the Easy Alohas. This DJ duo, comprised of Bas Albers and Gerard Janssen, were on hand for what must have been one of their easiest gigs ever: playing silence – or rather a mash-up of John Cage’s ‘4’33”’ and Mike Batt’s ‘One Minute Silence’. Because there was no turntable, the Alohas were forced at the last minute to download these tracks of nothingness from iTunes. This also meant we could not listen to the album they had brought along called The Best of Marcel Marceau – everyone’s favourite mime.  

Later I confessed to Gerard of the Alohas that my life is filled with huge, gaping holes. He reassured me as only a holy master of holes can: ‘You shouldn’t see that as a problem. These holes are just spaces that you can fill up with new people and ideas.’ I was suddenly filled with a huge sense of belonging. I was now truly part of the silent majority.

[Full disclosure:  You remember when the CERN Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator was first turned on in 2008 and it mysteriously shut down almost immediately, and it was theorised that a particle from the future had travelled back in time to do this in order to ensure that the accelerator would not form a black hole? I am that particle.]

Posted: December 1, 2011 at 4:42 pm.

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Dragan Klaic (1950-2011), RIP

dragan_klaic_by_robin_van_der_kaaVery sad news. The cultural analyst and theatre scholar Dragan Klaic has passed away at age 61. I knew him as a host with the most. He was also perhaps the most freakishly productive person I ever met. Yet he always had time to answer any silly questions that this Canadian boy had about ‘Europe’. During his memorial at Amsterdam’s Felix Meritis this past Sunday, a video compilation was screened. In one clip, he was particularly hilarious as he mocked populist politicians who imagine a loss of national identity through outside forces. ‘Identity is not something you can lose! It’s not like a wallet or a shoe!’ Below is an interview I did with him a few years back that aspired to capture his bouncy brain in action. It doesn’t do him justice.

 

 

The FSTVLisation of everyday life
Amsterdam Weekly, 31 May 2007
By Steve Korver, Illustration by Robin van der Kaa

There’s one incontrovertible explanation for the explosion in the number of festivals over recent years: festivals can be fun and people like to have fun.

Amsterdam-based cultural analyst and theatre scholar Dragan Klaic, however, has a deeper view. Among his many activities as a Central European intellectual type — lecturing here, leading discussion groups there — he is chairman of the European Festival Research Project (EFRP), and plans to lead a workgroup at the University of Leiden’s Faculty of Creative and Performing Arts to research what he calls the ‘festivalisation of everyday life’.

In short: he’s a festival professor. Continue Reading…

Posted: September 6, 2011 at 1:45 pm.

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Yuri Gagarin, human (50 years human space flight)

Our Road to Gagarin project was originally inspired by what we came to call ‘cosmonautic kitsch’ and the JFK-level of conspiracy theories around Gagarin, the myth. But recently we got to meet people who knew Yuri, the human. In tribute to the 50th anniversary of Yuri’s flight, I have put together some excerpts from these meetings with remarkable people. Cosmos Libre!
 

GagarinTown, House mum GagarinAs it turned out, the road to Gagarin was one of the better highways we ever drove down in Russia. In 2002, it was very new. Our driver Alexei, meanwhile, was very old school. He was a boy in Moscow when Yuri’s First Flight was announced. Like all his friends, Alexei skipped classes to be part of the masses that flowed to Red Square to celebrate. ‘But we were not punished because it was a great, great day. Our country had nothing, yet we were the first to enter the cosmos. From then on, every boy wanted to be a cosmonaut and every girl his wife.’ But times changed. Alexei doubts that his 15-year-old daughter has even heard of Gagarin. ‘She just wants dance and debt.’

Alexei’s views of the universe have only seemed to have darkened in the decades since the bright and glorious days of the First Flight. ‘By the time Gagarin died, everyone was tired of him. Within a year he was fat from vodka but still he became a general. The later cosmonauts were actually much cleverer since they were real scientists. Yuri was just an animal for an experiment.’ Alexei also claimed that Yuri wasn’t even first: that it was some Vladimir Ilyushin, son of a famous aircraft designer, who was the first to enter space. And in fact, most people now believe that Yuri himself was responsible for the still-mysterious training flight crash that killed him in 1968.

Suddenly our ambitions to make the ultimate coffee table book about Gagarin seemed a bit under-considered. Continue Reading…

Posted: April 12, 2011 at 12:19 pm.

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Yuri Gagarin in Cuba (50 Years of human space flight)

The first human in space, Yuri Gagarin (1934-68), was our rocket into Russia. But it was usually a wintery Russia. So it was a refreshing change when last month he had us blast us off to a warmer place: Cuba. It was also a bit of a different planet. So thank you, Yuri. Thank you.

Gagarin will always be Cosmonaut Number One. But he also came to hold another title: president of the Soviet-Cuban Friendship Society.  As such, the tiny cosmonaut who had conquered the vastness of outer space also became a symbol for a tiny nation who had seemingly conquered the vastness of American business interests. It was interesting times…

Barely a week after Gagarin’s first flight on 12 April 1961, the US-backed invasion of Playa Giron (AKA Bay of Pigs) tried to overthrow Fidel Castro’s two-year-old revolutionary government. But the attack only worked to strengthen Castro’s position and ally Cuba more closely with the Soviet Union. The resulting increased tensions with the US would build up towards the Cuban Missile Crisis (AKA October Crisis) 18 months later.

So what exactly was the role of the first off-world traveller in the events around what many consider the closest the world ever got to blowing itself up?

In Havana, we not only got to ask the first black dude in space (who incidentally credited his dentist wife for his Yuri-competing grin), but also an old chess-playing buddy of Che…  Thanks Yuri! We also went off-road in search of a school and a goose farm named after Gagarin. It was ‘ganso journalism’ at its best. Especially since due to unforeseen circumstances (stereotypically involving an unlicensed 1950s Chevy and a young lady of the Revolutionary Police), we went without an interpreter. But luckily the international language of Yuri got us far (as you can see in the above clip).

However the fact that the Spanish word for goose, ganso, is also Cuban slang for gay, did lead to a few moments of deep confusion. Thanks again Yuri!

Posted: April 12, 2011 at 10:05 am.

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Gagarin in Amsterdam

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Of the hundreds worldwide, three Gagarin-related events are taking place in Amsterdam tomorrow on 12 April 2011, the 50th anniversary of Yuri’s flight around the planet.

Between 4 and 10pm: Cosmic Mania Anno 2011 is the official Yuri’s Night party and features an exhibition of press photographs from the collection of cosmonautics obsessive Jaap Terweij.

Between 5 and 7pm: Opening of small exhibition of Gagarin-related books at University of Amsterdam’s PC Hoofthuis library on Spuistraat. I’m being interviewed by librarian/rocker Marko Petrovic who has lived intimately with Yuri’s legend: he grew up on Yuri Gagarin Boulevard in Novi Belgrade, Serbia. Free vodka. While it lasts.

From 8.30pm until late: International Day of Cosmonautics at the Smart Project Space. Ambitious-sounding programme of space art, microgravity performances, video and swinging Soviet space tunes. Entrance 9 euros.

Posted: April 11, 2011 at 10:07 am.

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Talkin’ Craft

craft_night_04_largeOver at Unfold Amsterdam, they published a Q&A I did with Crafting Temptress and Country Cleave Queen Katie Holder about her Cosy Craft Corner she hostesses at Nieuwe Anita every second Thursday of the month. The evening is a fun and honest way of exchanging needles — and talking crap! Illustration is by Joshua Walters of the deeply curious shop and wunderkammer The Otherist.

Posted: April 5, 2011 at 11:43 am.

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Geoff Berner in Amsterdam

Arise spirits! You will be able to reel and writhe as singer/accordionist/raconteur Geoff Berner and his Klezmer Trio play this Wednesday 30 March at Cafe Pakhuis Wilhelmina in Amsterdam. Don’t miss it. He’s a bit of a Whisky Rabbi and his latest album, Victory Party produced by Socalled, is really quite excellent. I particularly appreciate the more spiritual direction he’s taken with such tunes as ‘Rabbi Berner Finally Reveals His True Religious Agenda’. You can read an interview I did with him last year HERE where he also reveals much about the Odessa underbelly, an ex-Rastafarian mentor and how curling is making a comeback in Canada.

Posted: March 25, 2011 at 2:23 pm.

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A Messe of Books

g-Katzenkalender_2011I just returned from a few days at the biggest book fair on the planet. I got lost in the mass that is Frankfurt’s Buchmesse with its 300,000 visitors and 7500 stands belonging to publishers, printers and distributors from 111 countries. As examples: there was one publisher from Haiti, two from Albania, 16 from Iran, 188 from China, etc, etc. With 3,315 stands, Germany easily won out in the property wars. Strangely, many of these stands seemed to reflect the country’s unaccountable passion for books about cats. However I ended up being most charmed by the more forgotten back corners of the fair where, for example, Manga comic publishers nestled up with Christian fundamentalist pamphleteers.

I was one of around 10,000 journalists wandering endless kilometres to follow a story or interview an author. And like me, probably half of these journalists had a personal project to pitch. My favourite came from a guy who was pitching his book by going cubicle to cubicle in the press room. His dream project was called ‘Sulphur is your Friend’ which argued that this smelly element was in fact heroic because of all the worthy work it does within the wine industry. Another highlight of Buchmesse arrived around five or six each evening as the drinks and food began to flow. Rumours would quickly spread as to where the best freebies could be scored. Naturally, the French and Italian bookstands were the most highly regarded. Sadly I missed the big Dutch publishers’ event when they feed the 5000 with bottomless barrels of raw herring. Apparently the whole hall stinks up and there are always leftovers. Actually I guess in the book trade these fish would be called ’remainders’.

Because I did not book a room a year ahead, I had to stay in the spa and gambling town of Wiesbaden at the end of the S-Bahn. On the way to the hotel from the station, I asked the cab driver about what I should know about this town. After inquiring where I came from, he answered laughing: ‘I think we can compete with Amsterdam here. We have public clubs but we also have very many private clubs — if you know what I mean.’ I did. However I decided to seek my happy ending at my hotel with a shower. Unfortunately my hotel turned out to be the German version of Fawlty Towers. Luckily my Manuel spoke excellent English and we had a good laugh as the mishaps piled up. There was a leak over the bed (not exactly the shower I had imagined) so I was put into another room. As it turned out, that room did not come equipped with a functioning toilet, shower or lock. So in the end I mentioned the war and got away with it. They gave me a free night and a fancy room the next day. And since freebies and slapstick always put me in a good mood, I didn’t even mind later when a lit cigarette butt bounced off my head when I was unwinding with a beer on their patio. In fact it was like the cherry on top.

Actually I’d like to stress how much I love Germany. And my respect goes beyond just their rich culinary tradition in reconstituted meat products (for some thoughts on currywurst, click HERE and HERE). I might even consider moving there if Canadians end up getting stigmatised under the Dutch right wing government that is now being formed with the backing of the populist politician and amateur filmmaker Geert Wilders. I keep getting the feeling that Germany has done a much better job at dealing with its past. There are certainly a lot of books on the subject – it’s a topic right up there with cats.

Posted: October 15, 2010 at 8:35 am.

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Klik! Amsterdam Animation Festival

 

Until 19 September. Klik!

Posted: September 16, 2010 at 2:32 pm.

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