August 12th, 2012

Pastoralympics

Posted in Europe, History, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla

Wait, that’s not an Olympic sport! Photo courtesy UK Department of Culture, Media, and Sport

Texted, tweeted, teasing browsers of a hundred “sneak preview” slideshows ─ in short, serving as the centerpiece of endless international speculation for weeks prior to its debut ─ the verdant green fields on which the curtain of the 2012 Olympics lifted may remain their opening ceremony’s most salient image. Director Danny Boyle’s show brought this rural idyll to life with braying livestock, maypole dancers, and tunic-swaddled peasants playing pickup games of cricket, their hushed reverie set to the hymn of Sir Hubert Parry’s “Jerusalem,” the scored version of William Blake’s famous poem (often called by the same name) rung in by childrens’ choirs from several equally emerald-hued corners of the UK.

Boyle’s opening was a tear-jerking, if hushed, sonata of nationalist sentimentalism ─ and as such, better received in England than elsewhere. Where, the rest of the world impatiently wondered, was the mass, masked extravaganza of drumbeats and leotards that would be the West’s answer to the chest-beating martial pageantry intimidatingly performed four years earlier in Beijing?

Danny Boyle’s “Dark Satanic Mills”. Photo by Shimelle Laine.

Olympic ceremonies typically affect pomposity meant to impress the billion-member international audiences they attract. But London 2012 faced its most skeptical reception closest to home. The intimate, provincial tableau with which he began made clear that Boyle was preoccupied with cutting short this crisis from the beginning: to flatter the country with coded symbolism, to allow Britons to feel that the Games were being staged for them, first and foremost, and not as an alienating global spectacle bound up in their government’s pretensions.

Just as crucial to this effort were the contrasts that followed. Soot-spotted workers emerged, uprooting the stage’s saccharine storyland to install the billowing smokestacks and fiery forges of a steampunk industrial complex. To the beat of thundering drums (meant “to frighten people,” according to musicians who scored the segment), those hoping for a mass spectacle were mollified at last; the Arcadian Albion of placid pastureland had been displaced by a Dickensian dystopia.

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June 9th, 2010

Watching the World Cup

Posted in Asia Pacific, Canada, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

The World Cup kicks off this Friday. I’m looking forward to it. No other sporting event combines sport, geography and national pride quite the way it does. Around the world, millions of people will watch their countries and their soccer heroes do battle in South Africa. Whatever you think of the game itself, it’s hard to deny the sense of exuberance it creates as people gather in cafés, bars and in other public places to watch.

In Montreal, soccer championships — either the World Cup or the Euro Cup — are all-consuming, month-long festivals. People skip out on work to watch afternoon games on café and bar terraces; they usually become so full there are people standing on the sidewalks and in the street, peering over each other to catch a glimpse of the TVs that have been specially mounted outside. When a team wins, its fans will rush into the streets with flags and horns. They leap into cars, driving up and down the city’s main streets, honking and cheering.

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April 11th, 2010

Make Some Noise, Hong Kong!

Posted in Asia Pacific, Music, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

Outdoor concert on St. Viateur Street in Montreal — something that could never happen in Hong Kong under the current noise regulations

Last month, on a muggy Saturday afternoon, a couple of hundred people gathered in the courtyard of the former Central Married Police Quarters for a taste of something rare in Hong Kong: live outdoor music. Three French-speaking hip hop groups from France, Canada and Belgium took the stage as the crowd in front danced and cheered. But audience members standing further away looked rather less impressed.

Noise complaints had been coming in all afternoon, starting with the sound check, and police had told the concert’s organizers to make sure the volume of music never exceeded 70 decibels. So they muffled the sound, irritating performers and audience members alike. “The ambiance is really hot,” said Canadian DJ Félix-Antoine Leroux as he surveyed the crowd. “It’s just too bad about the sound.”

The hip hop show was the third installment of The Indie Ones, a series of free concerts organized by composer and musician Kung Chi-shing for the Heritage X Art X Design festival. Each show received noise complaints and police orders to turn down the music.

“The police came three or four times during the first one,” said Kung. “Every time they came we turned it down. At the end we weren’t even using a mic for the drum set, but the police still wanted to give us a summons. We had to talk them out of it. The funny thing is that I got government support for the shows. They support outdoor music but don’t help you deal with the noise issues.”

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February 13th, 2010

Fighting Over Flowers

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

I’ve never seen anyone get so angry over flowers.

It’s tradition to buy flowers in advance of the Chinese New Year, a festival that celebrates renewal as one lunar year gives way to another. Last year, when I was living in the Mongkok Flower Market, I watched as traffic became more and more snarled as the days led towards the new year. By the time the last week year came around, I was being woken up on weekend mornings by endless honking and angry shouts. Leaving my building meant fighting for sidewalk space with housewives willing to slaughter and maim for the last peach blossom or peony.

When I returned to the Flower Market last week to take some photos, it didn’t surprise me that the first thing I saw was a shouting match. A crowd had formed at the corner of Sai Yee Street as several people stood screaming at a few uniformed men and women.

After a few minutes, the screamers gave up and walked off in a huff. I followed them to a flower stall in a nearby laneway and asked what they were so angry about. I was answered by Kelly Cheung, a petite young woman with plastic-framed glasses and vaguely elfin features whose family has run the stall for more than 30 years.

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January 2nd, 2010

Politics and Pedestrians

Posted in Asia Pacific, Politics, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

On New Year’s Eve, 9pm, Tsim Sha Tsui was packed with revellers. Everyone seemed to be having a good time; even the South Asian touts who are normally aggressive in their pitches for fake watches, tailored suits and Indian restaurants were taking it easy and hanging out in the middle of Nathan Road. Hundreds of thousands of people filled streets normally choked with traffic, including — judging by the amount of Mandarin being spoken — many tourists from mainland China. So what better time for pro-democracy activists to get their message across?

After all, it’s been an eventful season for politics in this part of the world. It started with a plan by politicians from two of Hong Kong’s opposition parties to resign en masse in January, forcing by-elections that would serve as de facto referendums on democracy. What’s at stake are constitutional reforms slated for 2012. That’s supposed to be the year that Hong Kong gains universal sufferage, putting an end to the current corporatist system, whereby half the legislature is elected by the people and the other half is elected by members of “functional constituencies” that represent various professions and industries. But China’s National People’s Congress has decided to indefinitely postpone Hong Kong’s date with full democracy. The mass resignations would be a litmus test to see just how badly Hongkongers want a say in how they are governed.

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December 3rd, 2009

A Detour in Hong Kong

Detour festival

This might be an odd thing to say about Hong Kong, but the place lacks spontaneity. For all of its hustle and intensity, it’s awfully beholden to routine: every day, the same street markets, the same packed MTR trains, the same carnival of consumerism. Even the political protests, though frequent, are quite orderly, almost choreographed.

So thank goodness for things like Detour, a new art and design festival that is headquartered at the old Married Police Quarters, a wonderful 1950s-era housing block (home to Hong Kong’s chief executive in his early years) that was once home to police families and is now empty and abandoned. Just a few years ago, it was meant to be sold and redeveloped, but it has now been preserved and earmarked for creative uses like Detour.

Detour is run by the Ambassadors of Design, a well-funded group whose stated mission is to make Hong Kong into a more creative city; among the events it organizes are Pecha Kucha Night, Cut and Paste and the Business of Design Week.

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September 10th, 2009

“We’re Just After the Profits”

Posted in Asia Pacific, Society and Culture, Video by Christopher DeWolf

I like this short documentary about a Filipino carnival, even if it is essentially an advertisement for a new DSLR that shall remain unnamed (it should be obvious enough once you finish watching it). There are some remarkable shots here but the pace is a bit too brisk for its own good. I wish it would linger on some of its subjects, just for a little bit longer.

July 3rd, 2009

Forty Years Since Stonewall

Posted in History, Politics, Society and Culture, United States by Christopher Szabla

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“Freedom! I want freedom! Let me go!” The woman’s arms were flailing wildly, and she was shouting at a police officer standing guard at the intersection of Christopher and Greenwich Streets. Her gesticulations could have been mistaken for a political protest — she was, after all, among the hundreds pressed against the crowd control barriers, not more than a few feet from which New York’s gay pride parade was moving past: an hours-long stream of floats and dancers coursed down Fifth Avenue and filtered into ever-narrower Village streets before reaching the route’s terminus near the foot of Christopher. But it turned out all she really wanted to do was cross the street and get home.

For all the inconvenience and discomfort of hosting a full-scale urban celebration along its slim sidewalks and underneath the drooping limbs of its trees, though, there could be no more poignant destination for the parade than Christopher Street, where, forty years ago, an uprising began the U.S.’ gay rights movement.

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April 7th, 2009

Big Day in Little Sydney

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space, Video by Christopher Szabla

Videographer Keith Loutit is spending a year filming Sydney in tilt-shift time-lapses, such as this one of the city’s Mardi Gras celebration, above. What does Loutit’s reduction of urban life to miniature tell us about the city he’s working in? And what does tilt-shift photography say about humanity and its built environments? Is it speaking to the individual’s subjection to a grander design? Or does a format that makes people, vehicles, and cities look like models mean to say something about the artificiality of society, about the constructed nature of culture?

Most of Loutit’s videos focus the city’s primary public spaces, its harbor and its beaches. Yet his Little Sydneysiders are no more subsumed to the grandiosity of nature than they are lost in the crowd of the urban carnival. Rather, their lives revolve around a harbor and ocean that have been more or less tamed and harnessed by the city around them – relatively harmless even in the most extreme circumstances, as this dramatic rescue video illustrates. Below is a montage of a busy day in Sydney Harbor, as crisscrossed by boats, ships, and ferries as any square in New York or London is by pedestrians and cars. Appearing like playspaces for tiny toys, Sydney’s watched and controlled public realms appear to be just what Loutit titles them: “bathtubs”.

January 1st, 2009

Hong Kong New Year

Posted in Asia Pacific, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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Last year’s New Year’s Eve celebrations. Photo by sunday driver

New Year’s Eve has always been a bit underwhelming for me, never quite living up to the big-screen romance of fireworks exploding above jubilant crowds. Maybe that’s because, until now, the warmest place I’ve spent New Year was Vancouver, where it was a relatively balmy 5 degrees — virtually tropical compared to the -15 I was used to in Montreal and Calgary. Being in Hong Kong finally gave me a chance to get out, watch some fireworks and celebrate in public like I felt I should do.

So last night, some friends and I headed to what I thought would be a little-known spot on the North Point waterfront, a small cul-de-sac near the water surrounded by graffiti-covered walls. There’s a perfect view of Victoria Harbour and the Central skyline. Unfortunately, nothing in Hong Kong is ever as obscure as it seems, and at ten minutes to midnight this out-of-the-way spot was thronged with people from the surrounding neighbourhood, each of whom, I’m guessing, had gone there thinking that nobody else would know about it.

Luckily, there was a poorly-secured construction site nearby, and the construction office had an outdoor platform that gave us a completely unobstructed view of the harbour. We were sandwiched between a photographer with a serious camera mounted on a big tripod and a bunch of flash-happy families. Thirty seconds before midnight, a giant digital countdown appeared on the front of 2IFC and languid streams of fireworks began streaming out of the tops of Hong Kong’s tallest buildings. At midnight, the streams became geysers. It was strangely and amusingly phallic.

The show lasted only five minutes—nothing compared to the 20-minute Chinese New Year extravaganza that will take place later this month—but people cheered so excitedly we could hear them from across the harbour. Later, I sat at the back of a double-decker tram as we rode away from North Point, through the crowds streaming home from the countdown at Times Square. We stopped at a red light and the tram behind us pulled up close, only a couple of feet from me. A man sitting at the front rolled down his window and looked at me.

“Happy new year,” he said, smiling.

November 12th, 2008

Celebrating Obama’s Victory

Posted in Politics, Public Space, Society and Culture, United States, Video by Christopher DeWolf
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If anyone doubted that the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States was a watershed moment, the sight of him delivering his victory speech before an ecstatic crowd in Chicago’s Grant Park should have changed that. Although every politician’s victory is accompanied by jubilation on the part of his or her supporters, it’s rare to see the kind of public enthusiasm that greeted Obama’s win — and not just in Chicago, but around the world.

Here in Hong Kong, I watched the election results come in at a special event hosted by the Hong Kong Club and organized by a variety of American organizations. Most people were ecstatic when Obama won. It was interesting to be somewhere full of enthusiastic expatriate Americans but, at the same time, I wish I had been somewhere public. Hong Kong isn’t a city prone to spontaneous celebration but I would have liked to see the reaction of people in Times Square or Central as they watched up at the giant video screens broadcasting Obama’s victory speech.

It would have been even more of a thrill to actually be in the United States. In the video above, you can see a people celebrating spontaneously in the streets of New York’s East Village. Similar gatherings occurred throughout the city, including street parties in neighbourhoods like Prospect Heights and Williamsburg and, perhaps most symbolically, Harlem. “Obama win spreads joy through famously cynical New York,” declared a headline in the Daily News.

Last Wednesday, on The Daily Show, comedian Jon Stewart made light of the transformative atmosphere created by Obama’s win: “As you walk the streets of New York City, people are making eye contact and they’re nodding and smiling,” he joked. “I’m literally afraid that someone on the street is going to invite me over for pie.”

July 30th, 2008

No Poor People Here

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, Politics, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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Every summer, Prince’s Island — a beautiful island park in the Bow River, right next to downtown Calgary — plays host to a number of large festivals, including the always-interesting folk music festival, which took place last week with some big headliners and great enthusiasm. These festivals are an asset to the cultural life of Calgary, but there’s just one problem: they’re not free. Each festival surrounds itself with fences and restricts access by charging an entry fee. Sometimes the fee is relatively small, but in the case of the folk fest, it was as much as $50 for a single-day ticket. I’m torn between wanting to support a cultural initiative like this and decrying the way it occupies and privatizes an important public space.

Somebody else was less ambivalent in their opinion. This weekend, while making my way to the festival site, I came across this message drawn into the path with chalk: “Welcome to Fantasy Island. No poor people here.” It’s an apt statement, since there really weren’t any poor people at the folk fest, simply they couldn’t possibly afford to attend. Lately, whenever I visit Calgary I detect a growing undercurrent of anger and indignation, something potentially explosive that lurks among the city’s legions of working poor and homeless, many of them victims of the economic boom that has brought great prosperity to Calgary, but also a soaring cost of living. I suspect that, in the future, we’ll see more messages like the one I saw on Prince’s Island.

July 25th, 2008

Cops and Crowds

Posted in Canada, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

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Police officers on Ste. Catherine Street, Montreal

July 9th, 2008

Metro Partying

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Earlier this evening I attended the latest Montreal edition of Pecha Kucha Night, a creative show-and-tell that is based around a number of brief six-minute presentations on an eclectic array of topics. One of tonight’s presenters spoke about Urban Play, an umbrella term meant to unite much of the public space-related art and intervention that is currently taking place in the world’s cities. It’s an interesting concept, one that (at least in my interpretation) encompasses a lot of interesting stuff: street art like that created by London’s CutUp or Montreal’s Roadsworth, interventions like those staged by Dare-Dare, and even things like the Silophone.

Tonight, though, I’ll leave you with videos of two rather light-hearted subjects that could perhaps fall somewhere on the margins of Urban Play: Korean subway tecktonik and a Montreal metro party thrown in honour of three of my friends.

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