CIVIC ENGAGEMENT: SPACE, PLACE AND UNITY AT THE WOMEN’S MARCH

On an overcast Saturday in January, my mother and I walked the National Mall in Washington, D.C. with close to 500,000 people, in awe of the of the sheer diversity of opinion and unabashed advocacy that makes America great. An eight-year-old yelled, “Tell me what democracy looks like!” to a chorus of “This is what democracy looks like!” We ogled at signs both inspirational and bitingly humorous, unifying and glaringly polarizing. The crowd moved slowly but undulated with purpose. The wide streets of Washington and patient policemen allowed for pink-hatted humans, strollers and wheelchairs to move safely. It was a peaceful march, and though perhaps somewhat unguided in its message, provided millions with hope and an opportunity to be heard.

The next day, I returned to the site of the march (this time for those rad, free government-funded museums) and was astonished to find the streets entirely cleared of debris. Not even a stray pink hat. What a city! Built and maintained to support the active, frequent civic engagement of the masses! I believe this is one vital part of American democracy that is still thriving: providing citizens with a safe space to engage in the freedom of speech.

I often find that our work at CIC and at innovation centers around the globe follows a similar model. We provide innovators and entrepreneurs with the structure to build community and to pursue one’s own dreams, to occasionally accelerate past the speed of society, and to provide that safety net (or trampoline) for failure that only comes with the bravery to try.  It was “success as usual” that marked the decline of Venice, and those who challenged the status quo paved the way around them towards exponential globalization.  

In this great age of entrepreneurship, I challenge you (yes, you!) to dwell at the intersection of civic engagement and political innovation. I believe it is our civic responsibility to challenge the loopholes of our nation that some may say has led to regression on both sides of the aisle by way of racial, economic, health, education, religious or gender equality. While you’re at it, have a full conversation with someone who does not share your political stance. We need to begin understanding each other in order to move forward.

Speeding through the National Portrait Gallery (I take free museums very seriously) the night before returning to Boston, I found a painting of Lucretia Mott, a famed anti-slavery and women’s rights advocate of the 1840s. Her portrait was accompanied by this quote: “Let women then go on–not asking favors, but claiming as a right the removal of all hindrances to her elevation in the scale of being.” I think we’ll get there, but for the sake of dear Lucretia and her contemporaries, let’s make sure it doesn’t take us 200 years.

This post was published on the CIC blog.

Le Noir de L’Etoile

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On Friday evening, five percussionists from the Sound Icon ensemble came to the Armory to pound out the concentricity of cosmic space and music. Le Noir De L’Etoile (The Night of the Stars) is a composition by French composer Gerard Grisey. After meeting Berkeley astronomer Jo Silk in 1985, Grisey became infatuated with the pattern of electromagnetic waves emitted from a particularly radiant neutron star, Vela. This Vela pulsar formed the compositional inspiration for 58 minutes of a serious listening workout and destroyer of all attention spans. In normal circumstances I would have fidgeted out of my chair by the half-hour mark, but theses were no normal circumstances.

Unusual circumstance #1: As soon as entering the armory performance hall I unexpectedly and merrily reunited with old Boston Symphony Orchestra co-workers and friends, making me silently thankful to have returned to a city where this stuff can actually happen. After accepting a beer kindly offered out of half-pity for my inability to afford anything at the moment (the performance was free!), we made our way to our seats.

Unusual circumstance #2: The performers surrounded the audience. About 100 folding chairs were arranged somewhat crosshatched in a circle, so that no one was awkwardly staring into the eyes of other audience members. Six sets of percussive instruments encircled us; the people of the earth encircled by the drums of the stars.

Unusual circumstance #3: The performance created such a sense of encompassment and forward motion that the itch to start moving didn’t come. At this point I was glad to have that beer with me if just to peel the wrapper off, stop listening too hard, and finally ease into the “shamanic” surround-sound pulsations.

The performance itself was not as unusual as contemporary performances tend to be. As soon as the lights dimmed, the rumbling voice of Michael Caine’s closest French cousin methodically introduced the piece over a loudspeaker. I was lulled, and therefore missed most of the premise about pulsars and cosmology.  For lack of proper percussive terminology, I enjoyed the slow onset of deep rumbling drums echoing across room and audience, working off of each other as frequencies, tempo, and complexities increased. The sounds of the room slowly increased to cacophony, then suddenly retreated for a live recording of the Vela Pulsars. This introduced a distinct tempo to an otherwise fluid meter. Which was the music then, the drums, or the pulsars? Well played, Grisey.

I particularly like this phrase from the program notes, touching on a concept that I was pondering in not so many words:

“Of course, we know – or think we know – that with or without us… the Vela pulsar will continue [its] endless round and indifferent sweep across interstellar spaces with its beam of electromagnetic waves. But it is not by trapping them in a radio telescope and then integrating them into a cultural and sophisticated event – the concert – that they give more to us than their own songs?”

Whoa there. We are so sophisticated, us humans with our concerts. What more, exactly, are the stars giving us than their songs? More importantly, stars have songs? Because it seems to me that humans are making these songs as a way for us elite beings to make ourselves happy in our big, cold and scary surroundings.

Perhaps they give us hope to understand something greater than ourselves. When I look at stars I feel small and insignificant, and at the same time cannot comprehend how I have such a thing as a consciousness, or a soul (debatable), or eyes to see their brightness and register them as beautiful. The best conversations happen when stargazing, not during concerts.

At live music performances I don’t think about stars, but I do think about consciousness, the soul, and beauty. I am inwardly focused while also perceptive to other people’s experiences within my immediate proximity. With the Vela Pulsar playing a starring role (ha) in Le Noir de L’Etoile, I  think the stars were laughing at us: we call ourselves sophisticated and empirical beings, but we don’t really know very much yet, nor do we get out very much. We are child-like hermits, “trapping” starlight and using science and the arts to simulate our larger universe within a small enclosed atmosphere. Here we all are, the audience of the earth within the drums of the stars: only now trying to understand what more the stars are giving us.

There was a moment in the concert when a chain effect of drumming rotated around the audience. First once, then twice, each rotation modifying or elongating in time or intensity. I felt like the center of the universe, everything around me flowing clockwise and counterclockwise in concentric circles. Ironically, this is exactly what humans thought about our lofty existences before Copernicus strolled in. I think we all just want to be at the center of the universe.

That’s the main reason why I liked Le Noir L’Etoile. I liked the world flowing around me in primal explorations of percussive earth-stuff sounds and time measurement; stars sending rhythmic messages and inspiring moments of intense listening and simple appreciation; sitting with people and imagining their perceptions, while at the same time in awe that I have ears at all.

Goodbye to the socially content, hello America!

And, with my bicycle in the hands of a fellow international intern, and my guitar safely stored with a lovely Swedish family, and all of my belongings sitting next to me in three bags, it’s become real- I’m going home tomorrow. It’s like someone just put a popsicle inside my sternum.  By the time I’ve meandered through the English-speaking crowds at JFK airport, the last sweet moments of life in Copenhagen will have dissolved and I’ll be left with the Popsicle stick asking my heart,  “Whats the hardest thing about learning to leave a place behind?”

The answer is hitting the pavement, and I find myself considering which country, the USA or Denmark, is currently falling harder when it comes to national social values and quality of life.  I’ve always thought of the USA as a dynamic nation whose successes are as dramatic as its failures. My home country has sparked hours of discussions with my fellow interns about politics, health care systems, and diversity. Of that fact alone I am proud, even though I’m usually throwing the US under the bus. But Denmark is a dreamland for Danes, and will probably continue to be so for a long time. For my collective eight months in Scandinavia, and especially for the last four months as the only American at my internship, I’ve struggled to decide whether I should praise my country or wake up and smell the Danishes.

Every Dane I know has or is pursuing a masters degree because it’s free and convenient. Everyone seems to be beautiful and fit, whether because 50% of all Danes cycle to work or because there is a gym on every corner. Or they’re superhuman. A sliced finger and an expired CPR card still somehow granted me free hospital admission and two stitches. Even though income taxes range from 30% – 60% and everything is overpriced (more taxes!), I will never see more fur coats on a morning bike ride than I have in Copenhagen.  Laid-off Danes are eligible to receive up to 90% of their average earnings for up to four years. Parents are granted 52 weeks of maternity leave to split between them. There is a 3% unemployment rate (yes, I’m looking up statistics now). I’m not saying that Danes don’t struggle. People struggle everywhere for different reasons. What I mean is that most Danes function comfortably within the same social and economic class, and very few dip below the curve.

However, socially uniform societies can sometimes be self-detrimental. For one, immigrant populations run up against a society that is challenged by diversity. I’ve already felt unwelcome by paying large visa fees and being denied national health insurance, but I can only imagine what it’s like to be Muslim in Denmark. And even though Greenlanders are technically Danish citizens, they are still drastically marginalized.  Still, order a Congo beer and be rewarded with the best chocolate milk in Denmark. In an amazing feat of ensuring a national understanding of sarcasm, all Danes are in on the joke. Just because their sarcasm breezes freely into racism doesn’t make Danes racist, unless you’re one of those people who can’t understand sarcasm.  But when “Danish sarcasm” is a part of Danish culture and language, it means that becoming an increasingly multicultural society will challenge the Danish identity (eg. the infamous Jyllands-Posten Muhammed cartoons controversy of 2012).

Yet the USA has so many problems that a full comparison of American and Danish social functionality would be boring and probably turn out in the Danes’ favor. For example, the recent Ferguson shootings and ongoing trial investigations do not put the USA on a higher moral ground. Probably a lower one, because Americans have guns and some of us aren’t afraid to use them. And it took killings, violent protesters, and social media for us to remember that we still have a long way to go in regards to racial equality. But if the protests, videos, articles, and comments that show up on my Facebook news feed say anything, it’s that my peers don’t stop at a comfortable status quo when it comes to social rights. Most people I know strive to make things right and equal. Perhaps in a country with a continuous influx of people and cultures, a status quo means that we’ve forgotten someone.

I think that’s what it comes down to- the status quo. Danes have few social challenges. A Dane in a bar told my Serbian friend that he looked like a terrorist, which would have sparked Ferguson Part 2 if we had been in certain parts of the US. Instead, the “joke” brushes over, the status quo remains and Danes continue enjoying life in one of the happiest nations on earth (I thought?).  Every Dane I know speaks fluent English, is friendly, smart and funny (how’d I get so lucky?). While Americans protest and step on the toes of other national superpowers, Danes actively avoid conflict and instead use this energy to advance universally good things: wind technology, architecturally green design, and quality of life on a global and humanitarian scale. I like Danes. I don’t like conflict. I like biking to work, good beer and open-faced sandwiches. The status quo is comfortable. What more is there to want in Denmark if the only downfall is that it’s difficult to integrate as a non-Dane?

But conflict is good. I avoid it if I can and it’s uncomfortable, but I think it’s also necessary. It lets me know that people recognize where there needs to be change and then care enough to do something about it. Of course there are right ways and wrong ways to make change, and I think the USA has tried just about every way. But at least the US is trying to actively do the right thing (even if outrageously immoral attempts often fly under the radar, at least there’s press coverage afterwards). For Denmark to change their language, school system, or loosen visa requirements for immigrants would threaten a societal and economic structure that has been the source of pride for most Danes, and has existed since the United States’ Civil War.   There would be risk of conflict. I haven’t seen a national awareness or willingness to make changes in favor of welcoming foreigners or foreign values permanently into Denmark, though perhaps I was looking in the wrong places… like on the streets or written in English.  For the five million Danish citizens with Danish ethnicity (89.9% of the total population, 2012) it doesn’t seem to be a priority, and I can understand why.

If it ever comes to self preservation, the Danes have it covered. They started as vikings and will continue as vikings, and probably figured out which battles to pick long ago to stay the relatively content country they are today. The USA is always in some sort of domestic or international tug-of-war, but nationalism and social justice runs strong and hopefully can soon be used to smoothly navigate domestic and international waters. I don’t think the United States is capable of a status quo until all races, genders and believers feel equal, which will take as much time as there are differences in races, genders, and believers. Americans have to be ok with that, and the trust that in order to do the right thing we must solve conflicts to make peace.

I would tell Danes not to leave Denmark until they’ve acquired their masters degrees, and I wish the best to the Americans moving to Denmark who would prefer the status quo (and to consider developing a healthy dose of sarcasm, and to learn Danish fluently). I will be very sad to leave the friends I’ve made, the beautiful city, and the generally content atmosphere. There are few places in the world like this and I feel lucky to have experienced it for eight months. I have to admit that living here long-term would be difficult for me, especially if I must maintain my own belief that the status quo doesn’t really exist in a social or economic context. I’m not saying it would be impossible to live in Denmark – I could do a few more years easily. It would be really nice to stay with my friends here and not think about homeless people, gun-toting crazies, Democrats vs Republicans, obesity, hospital bills or paying for graduate school.  But I have an American passport, and this is part of American life. Even if quality of life here is far from perfect, at least the constant revolution of social values gives 316.1 million citizens a voice to address conflicts and potentially change the course of a nation.

Lucia Concert

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A quick post for now, because I’m packing. Last night I attended a St. Lucia Concert in Lund with my two Swedish friends, whose daughter Sophia was performing. We had perfect second row seats after Roland waited in line (fighting off a crowd of 350, what a nice guy). Plus I have a new-found interest in Swedish folk and Christmas music! More on St. Lucia’s Day. 

I mostly just wanted to share this picture. Pay no attention to the men’s costumes in the back. They do look suggestive of a particular cult, but I was told that it represents “St. Stephen, a stable boy.”

Afterwards, we ate excellent Lebanese food and walked through Lund one last time. A perfect Swedish night of music and company.

Meredith Monk / Introducing: A FALL

This is a two-pronged blog post. Firstly, this week I discovered Meredith Monk:

She shows true freedom of expression, or at least in a way that speaks to me. Even if she’s a little cooky (a collection of Jew’s Harps and tapping into the brainwaves of turtles?), her rich voice and singing style give purpose to the feeling we all have when we forget the words to a song, but need to sing it anyway.

Yesterday was the final Lounge event of the 2014 for Hotel Pro Forma. Artist-in-residence Karl Van Welden presented a prototype of his work A FALL. The installation was a large wooden box frame that manufactured ash clouds, which then descended upon a vinyl player to “create patterns of musical ruin”. An elaborate sound system played minimalistic piano with ever increasing undertones of volcanic eruption (much credit for this goes to Tobias Lukassen, sound design intern). It was quite beautiful in a Spartan-has-a-heart way. Other works from Karl’s United Planets series supported the night’s themes of staging a disaster and man’s obsession with catastrophe.

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Artist acrobatics installing lights for A FALL
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The “ruin your record” station – interns stand by to sprinkle your record with ash so that you can listen to its destruction (it’s kind of a downer, but funny if you don’t like that particular record).
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People came.
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Arist-in-Residence Karl Van Welden vacuuming ash between shows.

Thanksgiving

Even though I’m miles away from home, this year’s Thanksgiving was pretty hard to beat. As the only American at Hotel Pro Forma, I attempted the two-day process of cooking the most epic American meal of the year for my European co-workers. For the most part it worked well. The amount of excitement and help I received truly brought out the spirit of the holiday. Though no Thanksgiving is complete without a trip to the hospital… my finger now sports two stitches from a food processor sneak attack. Here are some pictures of a Thanksgiving never to be forgotten.

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That’s either a Danish, Greek, or Russian turkey, we couldn’t quite tell from the packaging.
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US dog show / hand turkey / American
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A Dane, Norwegian, and a German carve their first turkey.
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Luka’s “tipsy turkey” pumpkin punch.
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Hopefully I gave an accurate representation of the holiday to these 8/10 newbies.
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Clean Plate Club members
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Pie in a pan (and it’s butternut squash, not pumpkin, since there seem to be no appropriate pumpkins in Denmark at this time of year)
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Frankenstein finger battle wound.
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Wounded turkey pulled through.

Berlin

First, 14 Danish bands we just can’t get enough of. 

Here are a few snapshots from my quick weekend trip to Berlin. This city is the best  – there’s so much to do, it’s incredibly affordable, and there’s enough currywurst, bratwurst and doner kebab to feed an army of non-Germans.

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Truth be told, I knew very little about the wall before going to the Berlin Wall Memorial. It’s 25th anniversary was only a few weeks ago
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You can see the Berlin TV tower while standing next to the Reichstag
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Proving I was there (inside the memorial).
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Templehof, the airport with the biggest complex (in both senses of the word). No longer in operation, it is located in the center of Berlin. Nearby they serve excellent coffee, perfect preparation for a November stroll around the airstrip.
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Kites and skateboards!
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An installation symbolizing the Holocaust at the Jewish Museum. These metal faces cover the floor of an entire room, and the clinks you hear when you walk over them echo and pervade.
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Saturday night at the Berlin Philharmonie! The music hall is a truly amazing musical space. For the first time, my seats were behind the orchestra. Potentially the last time too since I was next to the French horns. However, all the facial expressions of Alan Gilbert were visible as he conducted a Bach cantata, Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony (**outstanding**) and Nielsen’s 3rd Symphony.
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Sunday morning: too early for the Christmas markets at Alexanderplads.
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How did my iPhone make this picture!? #nofilter #Potsdamerplads
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Favorite picture. Taken at the Brandenburg Gate.

Visited, but not pictured: Checkpoint Charlie, Gropius House (Memory Lab exhibition), Mauerpark, and the Topographie of Terror.  Easyjet pulled through with a departure only 20 minutes later than expected, and the eight hour bus/ferry trip back to Copenhagen on Sunday was actually quite lovely. The hostel EastSeven was a little awkward but clean and well-run, and it didn’t matter since all I did was sleep.

So, Berlin is finally checked off the bucket list… but if anyone wants a buddy to accompany them to this fantastic city, I’d make myself available.

Tourist Weekend with Dad

My father visited me this weekend. Friday, we walked. Saturday, we biked. Sunday, we walked, biked, and became so tired that we just had to sit down to a documentary (Drone … I highly recommend it).

To expand a bit more and provide some hyper-linked reading material:

On Friday, we ventured by foot around the center of Copenhagen. The National Museum featured a fantastic exhibition on the economic and social impact of fur. The famous shopping street Strøget had just opened a Christmas market, and we both drank gløgg for the first time. Of course, we also visited the Black Diamond library and the picture-perfect Nyhavn.  We ended the night at Den Frie Museum’s opening reception, watching a video installation called “Run Time Error” by Simon Steen-Andersen.  I enjoyed watching the artist precisely control the independent playback speed of two identical audio-visual tracks using joysticks (see hyperlink).

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Dad on the steps of the Black Diamond Library, next to the Dome of Visions.

Saturday began with a morning bike ride around the lakes of Nørrebro, a lunch of French cheese and ginger beer, a stroll around the meatpacking district, the Round Tower, and the Tycho Brahe Planetarium, and ending with a three-hour dinner at Øl og Brød. The restaurant is associated with Mikkeller (my favorite brewery in Copenhagen) and included a beer or aquavit pairing with each of the five courses.

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View of Copenhagen from the roof of the Rundetårm (Round Tower) which functioned as an astronomical observatory, royal library, and church during the reign of King Christian IV.
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Our lack of selfie coordination is…clearly genetic.

Sunday morning, we took the train to Roskilde and visited the Viking Ship Museum and the Roskilde Domkirke. Returning to the city in the afternoon, we visited the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek and ended with the Drone documentary on the last night of the CPH:DOX film festival.

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Yup, it’s big and old on the outside and the inside. This ship was excavated in the 1960s from the Roskilde harbor. It had been sunk by the Danish vikings to create a barricade, preventing the potential advance of the Norwegian vikings in the 1000s.

I’m not sure we could have fit any more into those 72 hours while staying relaxed… and relaxed is the goal! Plus I ate four full continental breakfasts at my dad’s hotel, so there’s an epic win. I hope this is the most touristy blog post I ever write (We did this! And then we did this!)… that’s why I added hyperlinks to make it “educational”.

I also just returned from a concert at the Black Diamond Library by the Figura Ensemble featuring hurdy-gurdy soloist Matthias Loibner. The hurdy-gurdy! What is this instrument!? What does it even sound like?! Where does it even come from?!

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What the Danes really think of the Americans.

What They Say /ReCovery with a “Capital C”

First and foremost, this is my weekend songwriting and recording project. It didn’t have this 70s vibe until I sent it to my friend Tobias, who’s a sound designer and fellow intern at Hotel Pro Forma. He saw the vintage in it, and I think it’s great now. Though I need to work on my recording skills… the clipping is my fault, not his.

I’m enjoying a little time in the Studenterhuset café where I used to bartend as a DIS student. Though I can’t connect to the internet because I’m no longer a legitimate pencil-pusher, I can still drink tea and pretend I’m a writing an important paper.

Yesterday, in an attempt to recover after almost two weeks of preparation for our successful Lounge event at Hotel Pro Forma, I decided it was time to try yoga. I found an easy Hatha Yoga Saturday afternoon class quite close by, but the class did not start off in English. Sitting in the very front row, the next 90 minutes were promising to be a very awkward series of downwards dogs looking between my legs to follow the crowd behind me.  Probably noticing my distress, the instructor switched to English about 1/3 of the way into the class, so the rest was fantastic. I have no idea what yoga education is like in Denmark, but this class was anatomically rejuvenating.

Right now, the Copenhagen Documentary Film Festival CPH:DOX is in full swing.  I ventured out into the Sunday afternoon sunlight to venture back into the darkness to see “Capital C”, a documentary about crowd funding in the USA. The documentary was well-made and inspiring, for me at least. It had the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” entrepreneurial way about it, lauding the merits of social media as a platform for small businesses and ideas to gain traction.  And… it was so darn American, the audience actually laughed at the southern drawl of a slow-talking South Carolinian sock manufacturer. There are Americanisms that I’m even starting to see but still can’t put my figure on it, as an American. Strange experience. I hope to catch a few more international films before the festival ends next week.

Finally, some pictures from Friday’s Lounge:

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The promo pic snapped during Sigbjørn’s video filming of ‘Kikkuuvugut’.
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We used questions from the OkCupid dating site, translated them into different languages, and stuck them in our homemade cakes as conversation starters. Photo courtesy of Nanna Møllegård Madsen.
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A favorite. Taken by Luka Pavelka.
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Our kaffemik table! At the head of the table is the tongue twister karaoke station complete with disco ball.
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Kicking back afterwards at the Jaguaren, featuring four Tuborg Julebrygs. Tuborg releases their Christmas beer every November, giving “Christmas comes early” an official date on the calendars. My burnt brownies with 3X the required flour are featured here too. I was too embarrassed to serve them to strangers at the kaffemik, so here they are. They’re getting better with age.

Kikkuuvugut

I’ve been observing artist-in-residence Sigbjørn Bratlie as he creates his upcoming video intallation ‘Kikkuuvugut’. His film and many of his previous projects focus on the difficulties and awkwardness of learning new languages. This presentation will be Sigbjørn’s first ever, out-loud conversation (after six months of silent study) in Greenlandic.  With a Greenlander. We haven’t seen it yet, but in a previous video that records his breaks up with his Icelandic girlfriend in broken Icelandic is pretty funny. He doesn’t add subtitles, but you pretty much know what’s going on.

We decided to turn the night into a Kaffemik and invite the Greenlandic community in Copenhagen to attend. Much to our dismay, there are already two Greenlandic concerts happening on the same night. However we’re offering free coffee and homemade cake to everyone who comes, sooo….. here’s the Facebook event. Some of the interns are working on a Google MisTranslate performance and others are in the process of creating an international tongue twister karaoke station. We are all baking a cake to represent our nationality. I’m making brownies.

And our promo video.

Mush Push

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That crazed look when you find a piano and eat a ham and cheese sandwich for the first time in two months.

The past few weeks have been a jumble of thoughts and things and music and art. I’ve officially passed the halfway point of my time in Copenhagen, which does something to the psyche. Now everything I do mushes together like the epic amounts of oatmeal I’ve been consuming. On top of that I’ve moved to a different apartment, and on top of that there’s our second intern exhibition coming up this Friday, and on top of that I should probably be doing more with the few remaining weekends I have left in Europe.

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The view from … uh… the bathroom at Hotel Pro Forma. I need to get out more.

This weekend was nice. I saw the Danish band Ice Cream Cathedral at Lille VEGA with two friends, and have now discovered the space pop genre, for better or for worse. It took a little bit of re-adjustment since I had never heard ICC’s music before, but by the end of the set I really enjoyed their enthusiasm for darkness and space sounds, and overall hard rocking.

On Friday, the Hotel took a trip to the Helsingør Maritime Museum. The architecture is kind of ingenious – the museum is built into an existing dry dock where boats used to be built and repaired.

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The view from the cafe, eating carrot cake and sitting on fur. Coudn’t be more Danish, except for the Halloween pumpkins.
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My new abode. First floor this time, thank Thor.