BLOG

Kaliningrad: A deeper shade of gray

kaliningrad-in-gray

“Even when suppressed, history has a way of bubbling up to the surface. In Kaliningrad, that gray blob of dislocated Russia in the heart of the EU, local creatives have turned this bubbling into an arts scene. For visitors, the city-formerly-known-as-Königsberg provides a surreal, and economical, crash course in Teutonic Knights, WWII, the Cold War and today’s Russia. Plus, with the Baltic Sea, there are long stretches of unspoiled beach…”

Read the PDF of my travel feature published in Code magazine here.

kaliningrad-knights

Posted: March 29, 2016 at 1:21 pm.

Add a comment

How to be a dictator and sell cola at the same time

DUF is a Dutch-language book-magazine for 12- to 18-year-olds. It’s a ‘cluster bomb’ of text and visuals. Edition three is out now and acts as a primer in navigating our world’s media insanity. Buy it. It’ll blow your mind and your kid’s. There’s even dirty pictures. Below is my contribution in its original English.

duf1

COLA & PROPAGANDA

Do you want to lord over your friends, parents and – why not? – the whole freaking world? Learn now how you can become a dictator and sell cola at the same time! In seven easy lessons!

by Steve Korver, for DUF 3 (2012)

What is the difference between advertising and propaganda? Um, good question. Advertising aims to sell a service or product (‘Mmm that’s the best cheeseburger ever!’). Propaganda aims to sell a particular ideology (‘Yippee, we’re the happiest country in the world!’) or goal (‘This war is justified.’) Meanwhile in most Spanish-speaking countries, when people say ‘propaganda’ they mean ‘advertising’.

Both advertising and propaganda tries to influence human behaviour – to get you to open your wallet for a cheeseburger, or to sign along the dotted line at an army recruitment office. They both play on your emotions and not your intelligence. So it’s not ridiculous that both dictators and marketeers use the same box of tricks.

BIG SECRET NUMBER 1:
People are sooooooooo stuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuupid! But…
‘There’s a sucker born every minute,’ the American circus showman PT Barnum allegedly said. And it’s true. So keep it simple. But remember that people NEVER consider themselves as stupid. Half the time they are not even aware they are being brainwashed. Yes, humans suffer from overconfidence.

So it’s very important to not make your target audience feel stupid otherwise they will find someone else to get brainwashed by. The easiest way to do this is by dumbing down. Be folksy. Be a regular person who represents regular wants and needs. Be the Joneses or be Henk & Ingrid. In short: posh it down and sincere it up! Continue Reading…

Posted: November 29, 2012 at 3:44 pm.

2 comments

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

502986-041824589f351cbf1e0a6def37978f16

[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.

3 comments

Mladic found

mladic_arrestedWhile Yuri Gagarin was my heroic rocket into Russia, General Ratko Mladic was my runaway genocidal horse cart into Serbia. I would never compare the two men. I’m just saying it’s sometimes handy to have a focus when entering new territory. And actually my original entry into Serbia in the late 1990s was via the crazy kinetic music of gypsy brass bands. Guca! But I soon got confused by the discovery that this music – developed and played by Rromani musicians – had evolved into becoming the nationalist soundtrack to the idea of a ‘greater Serbia’. How did that happen? Yes, the war in former Yugoslavia proved to be very confusing. For a while I retreated into being a tourist: enjoying the food, the drink, the dance, the people and the non-war stories. I also enjoyed being asked: ‘Um, you do know that lately we don’t actually get a lot of tourists around here?’ Regardless, ignorance was bliss and I even ended up discovering some lovely and largely forgotten wine regions in Bosnia and Croatia… Yes, it’s vital to remember what happened in Vukovar, but it’s also important to visit a place like nearby Ilok. People are people – and the nice ones are often best enjoyed with a glass of fine wine.  

Later, almost 10 years ago, I spent a few months living in Belgrade with my ex-Yugo ex-girlfriend who was working on NIOD’s Srebrenica Report. She was there for Mladic and I was along for the ride. Milosevic had just been arrested two months earlier and so it was hoped that Mladic was soon to follow – or at least that he would want to tell his side of the story of what happened in Srebrenica when the Bosnian Serb troops under his command rounded up and methodically massacred 8000 Moslem men and boys. We ended up staying in Belgrade through 11 September 2001 – witnessing the dawn of the emerging apocalypse in a post-apocalyptic city. It made a deep impression.

My ex-Yugo Ex never did get to talk to Mladic even though he was still being spotted enjoying football matches and restaurants around town (and apparently living – bizarrely – on Yuri Gagarin Boulevard). But we did get to share mixed grill with one of Mladic’s best friends. And while I don’t have the balls to name him by name, I can say with all confidence that this general was a scary little shit – a true mini Mladic, but one who had cut a deal with the International War Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to cover his ass.

Sadly, there is no justice for all. But at least today I can finally update the introduction to my Welcome to Yugoville archive which asked ‘Where’s Mladic?’ The runaway genocidal horse cart is now behind bars a few kilometres up the road in The Hague. Perhaps his presence there will help remind many of the governments of Europe – in particular the Dutch one – that flirting with nationalism/populism is as a dangerous game as it’s always been. Sorry to preach in clichés, but it can really still happen anywhere. That’s what I learned in Serbia – and the rest of former Yugoslavia. People are people. Politicians are politicians. And the damaged are damaged and often dangerous – Mladic being the perfect example. There are always those who are willing to turn the rhetoric of politicians into something bloody. But meanwhile I think I might finally plan a return trip for some crazy ass brass at Guca. Hopefully the people are closer to completely liberating the music back from the politicians. Then we can really eat, drink and dance.

Posted: June 2, 2011 at 12:57 pm.

1 comment

Stoned Tourists: R.I.P.? A YouTube tribute…

It’s currently a pretty sweet deal for tourists in the Netherlands. They can strut through the front door of a coffeeshop, smugly engage in a simple transaction, and then smoke the sweet smoke. They can exit the same front door: wiggly, wasted and most importantly — for they have done no wrong — free of paranoia. The glitch is that the wobbly law that allows them this simple pleasure neglected to deal with how the wacky weed got there in the first place. The ‘back door’ where the produce arrives by the kilo is still a gateway to an illegal distribution system.

It’s a typical situation in the Netherlands. It may not be legal but it’s ‘tolerated’. This is why the Dutch national government has been regularly re-introducing the debate of how to deal with this situation — and all those silly, stoned tourists. Whenever this debate reared its head an editor from a foreign newspaper would call me and ask ‘Hey what’s going on? Are they really closing the coffeeshops?’ And then I would have to kill any work opportunity by going ‘No it’s all just talk’. But now the national coalition seems more serious. Crazy. But serious. They plan to institutionalise a ‘weed pass’ whereby only locals would have access to coffeeshops. Were these zealots stoned when they came up with this idea? Now don’t get me wrong, I would love to have a weed pass. I could then show it off to friends back in Canada so they can go: ‘A weed pass!?! You’re kidding right?!?Continue Reading…

Posted: May 31, 2011 at 1:53 pm.

3 comments

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.

2 comments

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.

2 comments

ROAD TO GAGARIN ON FACEBOOK

gagarin_by_rene_nuijens

Please join our ROAD TO GAGARIN Facebook group.

On 12 April 1961, Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (1934-68) yelled ‘Let’s Go!’ as he was launched for a 108-minute circuit around the earth to become the first human in space. For the last decade, photographer René Nuijens and I have been re-visiting Russia to document the major settings of Gagarin’s bizarre and dramatic life, and talking to people who were close to him. In the process, we are capturing the essence of both the man who is dead and his myth that is still very much alive. He remains the most popular 20th-century figure in Russia, where he has the legend status of a JFK or a Bruce Lee – inspiring love, art and conspiracy theories. We believe, like many others, Yuri should become more of a global icon again.

To be published in 2011, the book Road to Gagarin – In Search of the First Man in Space combines photography, travel writing, archival material and a tasty selection of cosmonautic kitsch. Yuri was our rocket into Russia. We recommend the ride to anyone.

 

Posted: February 22, 2011 at 3:00 pm.

Add a comment

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.

Add a comment

Looking for Stories…

I guess I have been avoiding blogging because I would then have to say something about the gains made in the last Dutch election by an amateur film-maker and populist politician. It is indeed depressing that something like 15% of the population can still fall for the same, old nationalist story: that all social ills can be blamed on some scary ‘other’. Yes I can understand how some of the population can feel fear and uncertainty. But do they have to buy into such a transparent hate-monger? But anyway… it does reflect the power of a simple story.

I have been doing some work for the European Cultural Foundation (ECF). Yes: ‘Europe’ and ‘culture’ are two words that usually inspire the glazing over of eyes. But the ECF is starting a very interesting project: looking for stories/narratives that can cross borders instead of define borders. Nationalist stories are clear and effective: one collection of people is deemed great while another collection of people is made responsible for all of society’s problems. Play on fear and you’ll do well at an election — just look at WWII and the wars in ex-Yugoslavia. This is all pretty straightforward. But where do you find stories that work to bring people together? And how do you promote them and spread them without sounding like a freaking hippy? That’s trickier.

A couple of months ago ECF brought together a group of academics to discuss ‘New Narratives for Europe’ and how they can perhaps work as a positive force. I had to write a report. The process hurt my brain but at least this Canadian boy got his crash course in European Studies (thanks Sarah!). And while the resulting report is too sprawling to get a  general audience excited, my greatest personal goal has become: to be able to bring up some notion of Europe into a conversation without losing the attention of whomever I am talking to. Reach for the stars, I say, reach for the stars! And if it ever happens: what a story it will be…

Posted: August 3, 2010 at 8:53 am.

2 comments