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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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.

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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.

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Patatje Kapsalon

For Unfold Amsterdam, I wrote a new installment about food  or rather: grease. You can also read it below:

Are You Finished with That?
Episode 2: Will the ‘hairdresser’ enter the Global Grease Canon?

by Steve Korver

On my first encounter with the patatje kapsalon – ‘hairdresser fries’ – I did not actually taste, or even see, the product. I was merely a witness to its after-effects. I had dropped by the practice space of some friends who usually play a rather rigorous rock n roll. But this time when I walked in, they were all lying around lost in some sort of space jam. Occasionally one of them would fart. And then apologise (they may be rock n roll but they are also polite and well brought-up boys). After the seventh apology they admitted to indulging in a kapsalonnetje from a nearby Turkish snackbar. Continue Reading…

Posted: February 19, 2011 at 12:06 pm.

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Cabbages, Magic Windmills and Plastic Surgery


















The above painting The Baker of Eeklo hangs in the kitchen of Muiderslot castle just outside Amsterdam. It was painted in the second half of the 16th century by two rather obscure artists, Cornelis van Dalem and Jan van Wechelen. The depiction of cabbage-heads can probably only be truly understood by a people who grew up on medieval tales of magic windmills grinding up old people and pumping them out all young and sprightly again. In this particular story, bakers are slicing the heads off clients, adding special flours and oils, and re-baking their faces to specification. A wonder cabbage (a symbol for an empty head) was placed on the neck to keep the body fresh and viable while it waited for its ‘whole new look’. Of course accidents did happen. But these mishaps helped to account for such personality types as the ‘half-baked’, the ‘hothead’, and the plain old freak ‘misfiring’.

Looking through the Dutch tabloids of today, it’s clear that these same descriptions can still apply to the more contemporary products of Dr Plastinstein. And coincidentally (or not), most of Hollandwood’s glitterati who take advantage of rejuvenation technologies live within 10 kilometers of this painting. So not only is the story behind this painting alive and well, it has also stayed close to home. And certainly with this mythic background of rejuvenating windmills and ovens, it’s easier to accept the fact that the Dutch exceed even the Americans in their ardor for plastic surgery. Perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising, given that the Netherlands used to be on the cutting-edge of penis extensions. (Currently this expertise belongs to certain non-metric countries — weenie enhancement being a specialty, one supposes, about which people want to hear about inches, not centimeters. But that’s just a theory.)

So what’s my, um, point? Maybe the Middle Ages were not so ‘other’ after all…

Posted: September 21, 2010 at 8:04 am.

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Creative anatomy

anatomische-les-van-dr--frederick-ruysch-6876There is a new virtual museum dedicated to the Amsterdammer, Dr Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731), who is regarded as one of the greatest anatomist and preserver of body-bits of all time. But he was not just content with potting parts in brine and suspending Siamese twin foetuses in solution. Artistic compulsion led him to construct moralistic panoramas of bone and tissue. He started simple: an ornate box of fly eggs labelled as being taken from the backside of ‘a distinguished gentleman who sat too long in the privey’. Another had a mounted baby’s leg kicking the skull of a prostitute. But these were tame next to his later work which oozed with baroque extravagance: gall- and kidney-stones piled up to suggest landscape, dried arteries and veins weaved into lush shrubs, testicles crafted into pottery, and these whole scenes animated with skeletal foetuses who danced and played violins strung with strings of dried gut.

anatomA visiting Peter the Great (1672-1725), who was passing through to learn shipbuilding and how to build a city on a bog (which would inspire his pet project St Petersburg) became fascinated with this collection of preserved freaks — not surprising for a seven-foot giant of a man. After kissing the forehead of a preserved baby, Peter paid Ruysch f30 000 for the complete collection and brought it all back to St Petersburg with him.

You can still get a flavour of those heady times by visiting the Waag which once served as Death Central as the place where criminals were executed and later dissected in its Theatrum Anatomicum, a spot immortalized by Rembrandt as the setting for his goriest paintings The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (the guy who had Ruysch’s job before him). You can also check out the painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederick Ruysch by Jan van Neck (pictured) at the Amsterdam Historical Museum. And for another impressive collection of dead bits, be sure to visit the frolicsomely named Museum Vrolik that is located in the Amsterdam’s largest hospital and features a bona fide Cyclops in brine.

Posted: January 21, 2010 at 11:29 am.

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Brel under a bridge

brelOver this last weekend, Jacques Brel was paid tribute under the bridge Torensluis. Brug 9 is an amazing location indeed — keep an eye on their agenda. Below I pasted an article I wrote for the 25th anniversary of his death.

Brussels Goes Brel/
The Face of Brelssels/
Oui, I’m Talkin’ to Jou: Brel is Belgian!


The Globe & Mail, 2003

 Brussels is out to remind the world that the king of French chanson, Jacques Brel, was in fact as Belgian as fries, waffles, comic books and bilingualism. This chain-smoking icon of heart-on-your-sleeve expressionism died from lung cancer 25 years ago and his hometown is now spending 2003 striving to commemorate him with an intensity that befits a man of such walloping charisma. By organizing hundreds of events such as concerts, cabarets, exhibitions, guided tours, sculpture competitions and outdoor screenings of concert films, it’s as if Brussels wants to overshadow its perceived facelessness brought on by being home to EU bureaucracy with Brel’s horse-toothed and handsome face convincingly twitching between tender romanticism and spitting vitriol within a single wheeze of a melancholic accordion. And indeed, Brel can be seen as worthy poster boy for the dream of what the EU should be. His songs and performances – both singular in their urgent need to shake the world free of hypocrisy – transcended language barriers and made for large rapt audiences whenever he toured across Europe, USA, USSR and the Middle East. As one of the most covered songwriters in history, Brel’s message was also echoed in such diverse English interpreters as David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Scott Walker, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Petula Clark, Shirley Bassey, Nina Simone and Mark Almond. He also came up with a concept for Belgium that seems equally applicable for across Europe (not to mention, Canada…): “If I were king, I would send all the Flemings to Wallonia and all the Walloons to Flanders for six months like military service. They would live with a family and that would solve all our ethnic and linguistic problems very fast. Because everybody’s tooth aches in the same way, everybody loves their mother, everybody loves or hates spinach. And those are the things that really count”.  

But what really counted for Brel was to follow his heart and that meant that he was quick to forsake his family’s suburban Brussels cardboard factory – as well as a wife and two daughters – for the chanson clubs of 1950s Paris. Here he paid his dues with years of heckling from the black turtleneck set who could not quite get their beret clad head around this rather odd and emoting foreign entity. But with the help of the business brain of Jacques Canetti (brother of the Nobel Prize winning writer, Elias) and an immortal song, “Ne me quitte pas”, Brel entered the 1960s as France’s most shining star. With the mastery of his art, he could now nail audiences to their seats with his sweaty and intense sincerity. But just as American journalists were hailing him as the “magnetic hurricane”, his heart told him to quit the “idiotic game” of touring and with typical dramatic flair he emphasized his resolve by coming out during his 1967 farewell concert dressed in pyjamas and slippers. But he did not rest… Perhaps spurred by the feeling of mortality brought on by a cancer diagnosis, he went on to focus his considerable energies on film acting and directing while still finding plenty of time to indulge in his passions for flying, yachting and exotic affairs. This latter obsession subsided when during his last film, L’aventure c’est l’aventure, he fell in love with the young dancer/actress Madly Bamy and together they spent the last four years of his life on Hiva-Oa island, the same Polynesian pearl made famous by Gaugain. Here Brel created a huge fan base among the natives by air taxiing much needed supplies between the islands. He only returned to Europe on occasion: once in 1977 to record his final album – managing to attain new heights with but a single lung – and the last time to die at age 49. His body was later returned to Hiva-Oa and buried a few meters from Gaugain.

Paying worthy tribute to such a dynamic legend – especially one who did not shy away from depicting his countrymen as “Nazis during the wars and Catholics in between” – has proven a challenge. For example, the contrast between an inspired exhibition of comic strip tributes and the decidedly kitsch fireworks program at the Mini-Europe theme park seems to suggest that Belgium remains a divided country. But perhaps a year’s worth of reminders to Brel’s legacy will prove unifying. As his daughter France observed: “While the French relate to my father intellectually… the Belgians feel him. Brel is somebody who ate mussels and fries and drank beer. He belongs to them, he’s one of them.” And visitors to Brussels can perhaps best express their oneness to the idea of both a united Belgium and a united Europe by settling themselves down in one of Brel’s charming old haunts to listen to his worldly tunes and to indulge in some fine mussels, fries and beer…

Posted: October 13, 2009 at 10:59 am.

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Andre Hazes RIP — 5 years later

Postzegelboekje Hazes concept 4 met perforatie.inddYes folks, tomorrow it will be five years since volkszanger Andre Hazes went to the big sausage factory in the sky.  In tribute,  TNT-Post is coming out with a series of stamps dedicated to him. I was at the ArenA stadium for his funeral and witnessed 50,000 people cry at the same time. Who knew  the Dutch  could go for non-football related mass hysteria? (Actually now we definitely know; it was just then we didn’t.) Here’s the obituary I wrote at the time.

Posted: September 22, 2009 at 11:36 am.

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Simon Vinkenoog RIP


Writer, poet and inspired wild child Simon Vinkenoog died this weekend a few days short of his  81st birthday. Nothing like a death, to stop one fiddling with  a new website and just start blogging.  Especially since  Simon was all about  action. I was counting on him to live to be 100 so he could keep giving me quality advice. I took this picture last year visiting him and his wife Edith at their profound garden house. He shall be missed…

Posted: July 13, 2009 at 10:40 am.

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