Berlin: In Which I Venture North

22 09 2011

Just as August approaches its close, a golden invitation wings its characteristically unexpected way into my life. Dear friend Pennie, with whom I spent many months adventuring in Bangkok over a year ago, has plans to attend a global education conference based in Berlin. Might I like to come see the city?

It was back in wintry January that the idea of Berlin as a sweet summer destination entered my pretty lil’ head; however, as they are wont to do, far-in-advance plans became beautifully sidetracked by spring surprises. The Pennie-prompting is all the push I need to book my flights.

My experience thus far with European capitals: Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, and my beloved Madrid. Berlin looks nothing like any of these. Particularly in comparison to the Spanish center, the city feels spacious, each and every path including a wide bike lane. There are intersections where bicycles dominate, and pedestrians and cars alike show enormous respect for the sanctity of the reserved space. The public transportation system here is excellent, sublime in its clockwork connections between trams, buses, and both above- and below-ground metro, but there is an enormous sense of freedom in mobility by bike, one which I most notably experience in a 3:00 AM wild ride back to an awaiting bed.

The bikes are ubiquitous, and often beautifully personalized.

Eyes open, the city is replete with treasure.

Berlin is an undeniable street art mecca; the immediate impression that every available surface has been coated in color and form is soon corrected when it appears to double 24 hours later. There are some seriously stunning pieces here, several impressive in sheer several-story size, others innovative in elaborate design and execution. There is plenty of paint, but also loads of paste-ups and chip art (wherein an image is constructed in negative, painstakingly chipping flecks away from whatever coats a surface); an informal walking tour I take informs that many pieces are done by artists who specifically pass through the city aiming to leave their signature style on its streets.

Obviously, expression isn’t limited to spray painted wall bombings; wallpapered posters everywhere proclaim a plethora of exhibitions inhabiting the most unassuming corners of city blocks. I pass through one taking up residence in what appears to be a dilapidated tenement of some variety, advertised as Die Revolution Im Dienste Der Poesie (Revolution in the Name of Poetry). The mixed-media collection revolves around the theme in its title, coupled with a load of historical context presented in a “newspaper” available at the door. Of course, being in German, this escapes me entirely, and I’m contented checking out the details of a revolutionist’s take on a still life.

Infamous five-story art squat Tacheles raises queries regarding creative legitimacy, as it represents at once the city’s libertine expression of youth and a prime piece of real estate. The place is visually resplendent in its freewheeling glory (naturally I’m informed that “it was better five years ago”) and acrid in its stairwell scent; seems the big bad government has recently shut off the water in a push to convert the space to something more commercially suited for the downtown zoning.

It’s probably evident in my tongue-in-cheek wording: I find the whole David-and-Goliath storytelling to be rather blown out of proportion. I too would like to see official support for free community art displays, but my gut tells me Tacheles continues to be successful because of its mythology.  The area doesn’t need another touristy pub there whatsoever, but the auctioning of the place would certainly turn a pretty penny – which ideally could be funneled into social programs. Berlin’s identity appears to be ever in flux, but I have no doubt that the displaced creative energy would pack its tools and pop up elsewhere.

This is only one tourist’s opinion. What’s your take?

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Recent highlights from La Frontera (entre profes y mocosos de JLS)

8 02 2011

The new year has brought with it new teaching blood, who goes by the name of Rebecca. She’s actually part of the Old Guard at el Instituto José Luis Sampedro, having worked there for years; however, she was kept busy giving birth and all that goes with it during the entirety of fall. This term finds her back and working with me four times a week.

She and I get along splendidly both in and out of the classroom, with all the fairy-tale magic that word implies. Somehow the exact same groups of rambunctious, rebellious students from the semester prior have been transmogrified into eager little beavers, anxious to catch the next directive from Miss. Apart from loving the immense learning opportunity to bear witness to classroom management techniques that actually work – respect! not wasting the students’ time! getting serious! – I find the time we spend together marvelous in that Rebecca offers me the opportunity to design and execute my own lessons. She gives me directional hints over coffee, and the caffeine hit inspires creativity along with acrid jittery goodness.

Here are five lessons I’ve whipped up in the past few weeks for our students. If you’re so inspired, feel free to use/modify them in your own classroom.

WHAT A CHARACTER
third year bilingual students – equivalent to 9th grade in the US

Rebecca’s been working with her third years to develop their own creative characters, a useful first step in the process of constructing fictional narrative. My task was to prod them into deepening this development, which took place through two descriptive exercises.

The first one offered the students a paragraph concerning a fascinating fellow known as “Generic Character:”

Generic Character had many things to do today. S/he moved around the house attending to this and that. S/he remembered to go outside and check the mailbox just in case that one thing had arrived. It hadn’t, which made her/him feel some emotion. There were still many more things to do, and the item which was to arrive in the mail would have made a difference.

Suddenly, her/his cell phone rang. S/he heard it, noticed it was from an unknown number, picked up, and greeted the person on the other end.

“Hello. Who is this?”

They were to adapt the general structure of the narrative to fit how their own character would execute the actions as seen through their creative mind’s eye. One student’s medieval invention had the message arrive by unmarked carrier pigeon.

The second part was significantly more open-ended: I wrote five prompts, and the students had to choose one to which they would like their character to respond. I emphasized the inclusion of “massive amounts of descriptive nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives – after all, it’s not just what they do, but also how they do it!”

1. One afternoon, your character is enjoying their favorite series on television. All of a sudden, the TV set begins emitting sparks and black smoke.

2. Your character is buying something in a convenience store and notices two shady young punks in the back stealing liquor.

3. While cleaning the attic, your character comes across an unusual box. Inside is a note.

4. Your character has been asked to give a speech at a university on his/her area of expertise.

5. At the bowling alley, your character sees someone very attractive two lanes down. This person is a very talented bowler.

FRUITY POETIC DESCRIPTION
second year bilingual students – equivalent to 8th grade in the US

After leading the class through a reading and discussion of the Li-Young Lee poem “Persimmons” (which is really quite wonderful, highly recommended), we had each student physically bring in a piece of fruit from home. I then led them through a general overview regarding how one might play with sensory description. We covered the power of the various parts of speech in conjunction with poetic expression; for example:

Use verbs. Verbs are strong, direct words.
* Use verbs for the smells themselves. Smells can waft, distract, hint, permeate, suggest, confuse, conjure images, command attention, or intrude upon the consciousness.
* Use verbs to describe the source of the smell. Here are some actions that you might associate with smells: baking, frying, digging, sweating, burning, rotting.
* Visualize what the smell does. Does it creep into your nose? Wrap around you? Follow you? Bombard your nostrils?

It’s immediately obvious that the vocabulary level is through the roof, even for “bilingual” students – which was a conscious decision on my part. Poetry is such a wonderful venue for confidently exploring the far reaches of language that may otherwise lay beyond one’s speaking ability, and as such I wanted to encourage pushing those comfort zones as much as possible.

The second half of the class was dedicated to individually brainstorming images/ideas that the students wanted to include in the poems they would be writing the following day. To this end, I passed out lists of adjectives pertaining to the five senses that might prove useful when considering their piece of fruit. Rebecca encouraged physically interacting with your fruit in search of inspiration; we had the students-cum-poets pensively munching appleflesh, attempting to ascertain whether it might be called crunchy, gooshy, crackling, squishy, or squelchy.

EXTRA EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT!: THE RHETORIC OF HEADLINES
third year bilingual students

Rebecca had been talking periodicals with her third years; to me she posited a lesson focused purely on the art and purpose of headlines. Predictably, I took it in the direction of argument analysis; what’s a good headline if not an argument that you ought to read the paper?

First, we checked out headlines I had snagged from online news sites and magazines the night prior, ranging from the New York Times to the Huffington Post, from Cosmopolitan to Perez Hilton.

Can Europe Be Saved? – New York Times
A Continent of New Consumers Beckons – Wall Street Journal
What Men Secretly Think of Your Hair – Cosmo
The Euro Could Be Doomed – The Huffington Post
Horrifying! Five-Year-Old Gets Her Eyebrows Waxed! – Perez Hilton

The range is both funny and fascinating, if you’re the sort that’s titillated by rhetoric. With each set of headlines, we worked through a series of discussion questions together:

1. What can you tell about these news sources based on their headlines?
2. Are they informative? entertaining? intriguing?
3. MOST IMPORTANTLY: are the headlines EFFECTIVE? Why (not)?
CRITICAL THINKING: what tools do headlines use to create interest?

After establishing a decent list of what qualities the best headlines included, it was time to turn over the reigns. I found five clips from recent articles and removed their original headlines, leaving it to the students to compose their own dramatic titles based on the text. Each pair handed in an entry to be judged by presiding officials Rebecca and Janel, each aiming for a chance at a coveted prize from the assortment of Ed Hardy style temporary tattoos I brought over from the States. They dug on it, their competitiveness kicking them into high gear while considering the intersection of elements in a successful, appropriate headline to fit the texts.

I’ve since lost the winning slips of paper, and no one quite beat the original “Octomom: Why I’m Addicted to Having Babies” – but we had a blast, and I think they just might have learned. Whoa.

INTERNATIONAL RIGHT TO PRIVACY CONFERENCE
third year bilingual students

Headlines are a mere introduction to journalistic writing; we deepened the discussion with a focus on the indefinite intersection between the individual right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression as it relates to the press. An article giving an overview of different aspects one might consider started us off; we learned that most newspapers draft and adhere to their own personal interpretation of this fuzzy zone between rights.

From this jumping off point, each student was (semi-)randomly given a role, which they were informed was a secret so as to add totally unnecessary intrigue. A selection:

  • You are Lindsay Lohan: a celebrity with a (constant) drug and partying problem.
  • You are Michael Jackson (back from the dead): a celebrity who has undergone frequent cosmetic surgery and spends a great deal of time with children.
  • You are an American senator who uses campaign money to pay for his lovely beachfront condo in the Bahamas. No one knows your secret yet, but you are currently being investigated by several top reporters.
  • You are a current events journalist at the Wall Street Journal. Your salary is fixed. Recently, you have been investigating into the current activities and past actions of American senators. One of them appears to be spending his campaign money on something else.
  • You are a top reporter for The Sun, a famous British tabloid. Your salary completely depends on how many big stories you can write this year.  Recently, you’ve been looking into Lindsay Lohan, Tom Cruise, and Michael Jackson.
  • You are an avid reader of tabloids – your favorites are The Sun, The National Enquirer, and Weekly World News. You love reading juicy celebrity gossip.

As soon as we had defined “avid” for half the class, I banged my fist on a desk and welcomed the attendees to the first-ever International Right To Privacy Conference. As I was aware of the presence of a few celebrities among the invitees, I opened the floor for them to speak with respect to their personal experience regarding privacy and the press. I had slyly made sure the role of Lindsay Lohan had gone to someone particularly chatty in each class, and it managed to get the discussion ball rolling.

I barely had to intervene whatsoever as suit-jacketed moderator; the students caught on extremely quickly and were game to ham it up in their interpretation of the roles. One class ended up focusing on the politicians, using them as an example of what the public had a right to know using the press as an investigatory tool; the other went around in circles for some time as to whether Justin Beiber’s theoretical sexuality was a matter of public interest.

This roleplay style of debate was highly successful; I plan on using the heck out of it in the future.

THE MAGNIFICENT METAPHOR
third year bilingual students


The reigning ruler of linguistic devices: the metaphor (see what I did there, ah-ha, clever auxiliar has a trick or two up the ol’ sleeve yet). After soliciting a basic definition from the class – a comparison of two objects that creates a new idea through juxtaposition – I offered that I found metaphors important for two principal reasons. One, they help us “be on the same page” about something that’s tricky to understand in a literal sense. Memory in a computer is a perfect example; computers can’t remember anything, but that’s certainly the easiest way to express what it is they do when they code and store information in 0s and 1s. Two, metaphors are one of the most powerful tools we’ve got in terms of inspiring and expressing totally new ideas. Unexpected juxtapositions help us gain deeper perspective on how a subject might be understood, and this is very, very exciting to any writer looking to put something out there.

The most common issue with beginners’ attempts at metaphor is that they are bad. Straight up, top-notch metaphor is tricky. How does one use well-understood ideas in conjunction to summon totally original thought? It’s altogether too easy to fall into the cozy arms of cliché – yawn. In order to get the students thinking deeper about metaphor creation, we read and discussed a series of hints on what makes good metaphors work. For instance:

2. Keep it clear. Carl Sandburg wrote a wonderful metaphor in his poem “Fog” (“The fog comes / on little cat feet”). His metaphor is wonderful because it is clear. It is easy to imagine a fog creeping over the city much in the same way that a cat creeps up on mouse. It is simple and clear, like all great metaphors should be.

We then looked at three examples I had snagged from the net, dissecting their syntax just enough to ascertain possible meaning. I also got to draw a poodle on the board.

Enough with the introduction – production time. I wrote “High school” on the board as our subject, and asked for an object to compare it to. Each of the classes immediately offered “a prison,” which I just as immediately shot down as borrrrrrinnnnng. We eventually got to “a forest of trees putting down roots” in one class, and “a temporary birdcage for parrots” in the other – not bad.

It was time to set my parrots free: I gave them the subject prompt of Spain, and in partners they again competed for the temporary tattoo spoils. An idea bank full of freely associated thoughts I had had on the metro helped out the less imaginative, but the winners tended to be generated on the spot. The best entry, which had Rebecca and I clutching our guts in surprised laughter:

Spain is a Christmas tree, lots of lights and party but dead from the roots to the top.

Another winning entry for a different prompt:

Young love is a soft drink (with gas); the best part is the beginning and the worst the end.





Vincit qui patitur

31 01 2011

And, at last, the magic auxiliar princess snapped her french-manicured fingers, and – poof!– in a puff of brilliant rainbow smoke, absolutely everything was resolved. Her adoring public was fully aware of the enormity of her slew of trials/tribulations/quests/slaying-of-dragons, and immediately forgave her the brief lapse in verbal communication. For, in their collective heart of hearts, they knew she carried a little bit of each of them with her always, akin to a beautiful golden charm necklace strung thickly with love, gleaming pearls, and bits of coral from all seven seas.


Oh, non-magical-Far-Away-Land audience, how may I placate thee? For amongst your mongering hoards lies one particularly insistent, fastidious clamorer: she goes by the name of Inner Monologue, and she’s a tricky bitch to satisfy. She seems obsessed with motion, specifically, my own through space and time, and never tires of nipping at my heels with the most stinging whelps of questions – “But why? To what end? From whence have you come, and where exactly is it that you think you are going? …… eh, princess?

….. shhhhhhh. If you don’t speak a little more softly, you might miss it.


So I’ve decided to stay in Madrid another year. BAM. My coordinator’s been out the past week on personal leave, but I should be able to catch her tomorrow and declare my intentions to renew my contract. I’ll be staying at José Luis Sampedro – that’s part of the bargain, and I wouldn’t have it any other way – and will be working officially for the Comunidad de Madrid (not Fulbright). I earn just a smidgen less, which I plan on making up through teaching weekly clases particulares, and I plan to continue living with the same folks – Hector and Marta – assuming they too choose to stick around.

I waffled on this decision for a spell, unsure if staying equated to stagnancy. But even my Inner Monologue Mistress knows that one’s time is absolutely dependent on what one makes of it.

Me, I have big plans. Things I’ve wanted to do since coming to Madrid that have yet to be realized (finding a darkroom I can play in), things that are on the cusp of beginning (a massive mural project, studying German), things that come up unexpectedly all the time just waiting for me to sign up for the ride (Florence?). I continue to do freelance projects for InMadrid magazine; the January issue holds a guide I sketched out of my home barrio of Atocha, and up-to-bat is a series of articles regarding Madrid’s international ingredient scene. Fulbright’s offered to pay for a Photoshop course; now I just need to hurry up and find one that appeals.


After a month in a state of limbo, much too far away from the creation process, what I want most now is to delve back into honing my various arts, in valuing production over consumption, in being once again impressed by my own output. I am happiest when I write like a madwoman, when I use photography to play with perspective, when I stretch my technical knowledge to edit my photos into a vision of superreality previously existing only within the realm of my imagination. I find that the more I externalize all the bits and bobbles floating around in my headspace, the more complicated and compelling patterns they form the next time I look.

So, I stay. I like it here. Madrid is an excellent setting for me at this stage of my development, and I’m definitely the one mixing up the chemicals. A light leak or two might cause unexpected distortions in the anticipated image, but the magic of the darkroom lies in the ample opportunities for error. There’s no saying I can’t get back out there and shoot another roll.





País Vasco/La Rioja: Brushstrokes and Spray Paint

18 12 2010

País Vasco/La Rioja Introduction here.

In this exquisite corner of the earth, the creative energy so playful within the realm of gastronomy unsurprisingly extends itself into official institutes of Capital-A Art as well.

Bilbao’s metal-petaled Guggenheim is a major architectural treat both inside and out. The many distinctive folds of the form make for fascinating chambers within, many of which house pieces specifically designed to fit the particular angles and curves of the building. Some of the rooms are intensely powerful – we walk away stunned from one photography exhibit in particular – but the overall quality of the place is a bit impish, a successfully sprightly counterpart to comparatively musty Serious Art Spaces elsewhere. It’s perhaps best modeled in Koons’ gigantic Puppy made entirely of flowering plants and standing fragrant guard at the entrance.

On Couchsurfer Muriel’s suggestion, we poke our heads into the Artium during our day in Vitoria, País Vasco’s somehow often-overlooked capital.

Inside, I am particularly called by this piece, which spans an entire wall. Sam, classical art aficionado, notes my fascination and inquires – what is it that I find successful about modernity?

I respond that it’s not modernity in itself that captures my attention, but rather presenting forms in innovative ways such that they cause me to consider what I already know in a new light. Sam’s uncomfortable with the lack of context in many contemporary works, because it often leaves the meaning unclear. For me, this is exactly what makes them so successful – when they work best, they invite the audience to develop its own relationship with the art in the moment of experience. To me, this piece summons thoughts on prayer, femininity and the female body, what it is to ask for something, dreams, the ways in which ideas are and are not connected to each other, and where thoughts go when we project them into the world, among other things. It isn’t that I come to any specific conclusions, but I cherish the creative time spent considering the prompt.

Detail from another successful piece for me; the entire work is at least four times this size. Leah comments that this is a faithful rendition of her brain.

I see open-ended commentary on architecture, and I’m reminded of the climactic scene in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and I consider a house made of sea and light.

As is likely evident by now, my personal favorite encounters with creativity are in public spaces, where it can be interwoven with the mundane and the daily (as opposed to officialized, institutionalized). Vitoria is replete with multi-story murals, rainbow paints and glittering tiles spanning the hilly streets. Many feature the multiple languages spoken in the region, English and Castellano phrases at play with Basque, all pockmarked with X’s and K’s and top-hatted A’s.

This, on the other hand. The other other hand. No, I don’t want to get my hands anywhere near that. Vitoria, why??

Both Muriel and I are seduced by Vitoria’s extremely well-designed publicity. I’m pretty sure this one’s calling for some variety of protest; isn’t it a thousand times more attractive than the red and white that papered Madrid pre-huelga?

And then there’s the straight-up graffiti, which I absolutely adore when it’s clever. This one (“Put spicy in your life“) is just off Calle Laurel in Logroño. I’m considering printing it out for display in my kitchen.

On a playground in Vitoria (“Stop complaining and act, asshole!“).

Yes, he does. In Donostia-San Sebastián.





Street Art/Vandalism

29 11 2010

Madrid is full of incredible street art, ranging from this hyperdetailed saxophonist in Malasaña…

(detail)

… to this lonely pair o’ peepers in Delicias…

… to this colorful queen on Ronda de Embajadores…

… to this exemplary piece of metro vandalism in Callao…

… to the unintentional beauty in an excess of anuncios near Gran Vía.





Reina Sofia, Round Three

4 11 2010

[[round one can be found here]]
[[round two can be found here]]

I’ve been looking forward to the third floor of la Reina Sofia since Leah gushed to me about a German artist featured in the temporary exhibit area that she adored. This Sunday is the Day of Destiny.

The sparsely populated terrace of the museum, recommended to me by Fausto, is dotted by ergonometric benches and lined by the faux-peril of glass walls. I get a new perspective on the black and white bacon.

The intriguing German artist turns out to be Hans-Peter Feldman, whose exhibit is full of clippings from newspapers and magazines. Collages! I love collages!

My personal foray into collage work focused on advertising copy, particularly the attention-grabbing headlines (“Fairies! But Don’t Be Fooled,” “Now Tell Her Where The Thermometer Needs To Go,” “Famous Blowhards,” etc). Feldman works with images, playing with commercialism and sexuality, the extraordinary made banal. I dig it immediately.

Feldman’s photo work is a striking catalogue of the everyday. I’m reminded of Edward Weston’s famous pepper photography.

He’s most successful, though, when he works with the human body and its bits and bobbles.

This room contains portraits of 100 friends and acquaintances of Feldman, each at a different year of his/her life and arranged accordingly. Walking from one end to the other invites an eerie awareness of the progression of age, of our own inclusion on this blown-up lifeline.

“¡El arte tiene derecho a ser malo!” – Hans-Peter Feldman
(“Art has the right to be bad!”)

Sequestered behind a foreboding curtain lies a cavern illuminated with swirling shadow: the myriad forms of a spinning cavalcade of plasticky toys and utensils of all sorts are projected onto the long wall.

The other half of the third floor belongs to José Val del Omar, a famous Spanish filmmaker. The exhibit doesn’t call to me as much as Feldman’s, but it does have lasers.





La Cucaracha

21 10 2010

This is the only cockroach I’ve seen in Madrid………………….. so far.