October hosts Sarajevo’s annual theater festival, MESS. We learned this through another person on our bus, a Swiss diver here in Sarajevo to meet watch her boyfriend perform as part of the theater group, Vox Populi. He meets us at the bus station and introduces himself as Syrian, though he now lives in Bulgaria. The two of them invite us to come see their play the following night. “It’s about the experiences of refugees,” they tell us, “it’s titled Mir Vama (Peace Be Upon You).”
It’s already packed when we arrive at the Sarajevo War Theater on the evening of the play, and we get tickets only from the kindness of someone who had two extra. The theater stage is set with little more than a line of tape up front and three vertical silk screens in the middle. As the lights dim two people walk onto the stage: Mila Bancheva and Ricardo Ibrahim, the man we met the day before. In what is part play and part documentary, the pair use videos of interviews with refugees projected onto the silk screens, symbolic scenes acted out in their minimalist set, and their own monologues to bring the stories of refugees to life.
Their interviewees are Syrian, Egyptian, Kurdish, people’s children and parents and brothers and sisters. They speak about leaving their countries, what made them leave, what they left behind. They talk about a reluctance to go, and a story about people who left their homes thinking it was temporary and now decades later, they still wait to return. One man speaks of narrowly escaping death when a group of men fired several shots into his taxi. This wasn’t enough to force him to leave. Instead, it was the death of his infant daughter in an accidental raid on his house that prompted him to go. One of the actors speaks about the sensation of bombs being dropped on her city, first of fear, then of normalcy. Someone from the rafters drops a heavy box onto a stage, and it reverberates in the silence. The actors speak of hunger and starvation, as one of them desperately tears apart a pomegranate to eat, red-purple juice covering them. They speak of dodging mines, of the logistics of getting through porous borders, and then less porous borders. As refugees, they adjust to life as it is and as it must be.
Mir Vama reveals the refugees as painfully human, and our inability or unwillingness to help them palpable. Nowhere is that more evident than during a scene in the play where actress Mila cradles a mandolin she has been playing. She carries it to the front of the stage, and introduces it as her baby. And then she offers it to us, arms outstretched, but still lovingly cradling the object. “Will someone take my baby?” She pauses as seconds crawl by and we watch her. She offers it again, to the other side of the audience, “Please, will you take my baby?” Her face is solemn, imploring. I feel the urge to rise and take the mandolin from her, but I can’t tell if this is just part of the play. I can’t tell if this is what I’m supposed to do. I don’t know what is right to do. Mila asks us, again, “Will anyone take my baby?” The seconds crawl by as we all stare at her, actionless.
Growing up as a kid, the question was always whether you went into science or art. It was this weird dichotomy in learning, where there was the precision and quantitative of math, biology, chemistry, and physics, and then the interpretative and creative of art, music, language, and history. Two ways to understand the world standing in opposite sides and never mixing, like students at their first middle school dance.
I understand now that this separation is artificial and that the skills needed in each field intermingle – there is creativity in science, and precision in art – but the world seems to still cling to that science-art dichotomy, where ne’er the two spheres shall meet. After all, we don’t often talk of the exacting quantitative precision of the artist’s work, nor do we speak of the creative interpretations of the biologist’s findings. But why? Why don’t we more often unite these two disparate worlds, or acknowledge that the separation is artificial and never really existed at all?
For me and anyone who has ever had this thought, Ars Electronica is the dreamland you never knew existed, where the artificial barriers between art and science dissolve. It’s a year-round museum in Linz, Austria, but every fall Ars Electronica hosts a festival showcasing the creations that arise from the fusion of art and science. Here science and technology create art and history, and art and history build science and technology. From synchronized drone aerobatics to temporary electro-conductive arm tattoos that control your smartphone, the ARS Electronica Festival is four days of wonder, thought, and inspiration. Here’s what we captured in our visit*:
And a couple of videos:
It can be a little overwhelming to visit the ARS Electronica Festival for the first time, so here are some useful tips to help you get around:
Trust but verify – we sometimes got mixed answers from volunteers as to where/when things were happening. Ask a few people to get a good idea of when/where the big events are.
English speakers welcome – Many of the most fascinating events are in Austrian, but they offer free real-time translations! Grab a pair of headphones on the way into the room, or ask a volunteer on hand if they have any.
Don’t buy a metro pass – Your ARS pass includes free travel on some of the city’s trams, at least from the Linz Train Station to the ARS Electronica Museum and back. (Applicable to full festival pass, not sure about 1-day passes)
The ARS Electronica Concert is amazing – The concert runs late into the night and you might be tempted to skip it if you’re relying on the train to get home. Go for at least a few hours because it’s amazing and absolutely worth it. Tickets are free with the 4-day pass and can be picked up at the ticketing/info booth area in Post City.
Leave time to explore – While most of the events are focused in Post City, there are events throughout Linz for ARS Electronica. Leave time to see those and to wander around Post City without any direction, because stumbling onto something unexpectedly can be thought-transforming.
* I understand copyright law is a bit more strict in Europe, so if you’re an artist or copyright owner whose work is listed above and want it taken down, please email me.
Hong Kong has a perfect storm of huge concrete walls, secluded back alleys, and social freedom that allows street art to flourish. Wander around the downtown area and you’ll stumble on small stencils and tags on walls and sidewalks. Turn a corner and find yourself facing a mural, creeping up the walls of a building or a flight of stairs. Even the trees join in to decorate the city’s spaces, engulfing them with a complex network of roots and vines. Welcome to the concrete jungle.
The “city of a thousand flowers” has botanical displays and delights all over, but its biggest garden is the Da Lat Flower Park. Situated on the eastern corner of the city’s lake, it’s a display of hundreds of flower varieties in a theme-park atmosphere. Almost no one was around on the rainy day we visited, but we had fun exploring the mostly-kept grounds and marveling at the copyright-infringing Disney statues and other baffling lawn displays. I’d say it’s worth going for these alone.
You know how some cities have an iconic ‘thing’, the likes of which you can’t find anywhere else? Something like the Hollywood Sign of Los Angeles, the Sagrada Familia of Barcelona, or the Opera House in Sydney. That’s what Hang Nga Crazy House is to Da Lat. An ever-growing, organic architectural feat, the twenty-seven year old structure is the child of Dang Viet Nga, an architect who found inspiration in the natural beauty surrounding the city. It opens its doors on weekdays, allowing visitors to explore the structure’s winding paths, snaking staircases, and baffling rooms. And it’s a one-of-a-kind place, in part because almost anywhere else in the world it would have accrued hundreds of building code violations. Watch your head while you take in the magic.
This was my favorite place in Vietnam because of its architectural whimsy, but also because it’s still under construction. Hang Nga Crazy House has already swallowed up two nearby lots that went on sale, and Dang Viet Nga shows no signs of stopping. As we wandered through the labyrinth of passages, we stumbled into sites under construction and some laying fallow, waiting for the artist’s hand. Several artists work on the house at any given time, and they’re excited to show you their art.
Below are our most amazing pictures of Hang Nga Crazy House. It stole my heart with its unapologetic quirkiness and unwavering commitment to the organic form. I’ll have to go back one day to get it. ❤
But here in Yogyakarta, the angklung and its players are under threat. The city’s government has recently banned angklung performances from the streets and at traffic intersections, where people previously busked for a living. The government asserts that this measure is needed to clean up the streets and remove ‘vagrants’. But the angklung players aren’t fading away peacefully. They’re organizing protests and arguing they’ve got a right to a living, and by banning their performances the government of Yogyakarta is violating their human rights. We’ve seen one protest that’s shut down Jl. Maliboro (a main street of Jogja) entirely, with angklung players proudly waving signs saying “We’re artists, not vagrants!”
And then there are the groups choosing to ignore the ban entirely, hosting huge anglkung orchestras on Maliboro’s sidewalk once night falls. The band below was out in force nearly every night we were in Jogja, playing for huge crowds as men danced to the music.
I get that Jogja wants to clean up its streets and make itself look more modern, and that a huge number of angklung players clogging the sidewalks and traffic intersections would be a pain. But the angklung players are trying to make a living and they’re a great-sounding and a unique part of Indoensia’s heritage. Having buskers out in the open means that heritage reaches more people, some of which couldn’t afford the cost of an orchestral ticket, some of which might never hear an angklung otherwise. Stoytcho and I would definitely have never heard or heard of an angklung if these guys hadn’t been playing them on the streets. So isn’t there some kind of peaceful compromise wherein both the city and angklung buskers would be happy?
Now that you’ve heard about it, hear what an angklung sounds like! Here’s some video of the guys above:
If you visit Borobudur and Prambanan, it’s likely that you’ll hear about the Prambanan Ramayana Ballet. You’ll see signs for it. People will tell you to take a night and go see it. It’s a big deal around here.
I’ve never been an attentive fan of ballet or theater because in college I lacked money, and in graduate school I lacked time. But with a free evening after visiting Prambanan and tickets that only cost $35 per person for up-close, front row seating…good gravy, why not? The hotel concierge tells us that they’re even predicting good weather for that evening, meaning they’ll use the outdoor theater. We have no idea why that matters, but we’ll find out later it involves fire.
Though our hotel is just down the street from the ballet venue (on the back side of the Prambanan Temple park), the hotel staff insists on driving us. We go along and pretend we’re wealthy for the night, though we don’t have to pretend here in Indonesia—we are. But we did just finish a $2 dinner of fried rice and veggies.
After picking up our tickets, getting our complimentary tea/coffee/drink, and settling into our seats, we’re ready to enjoy the show. We watch other people filing in, including an entire gaggle of Indonesian schoolchildren in uniforms, who cluster into giggling groups as the teachers try to seat them in rows. Then the lights dim and everyone, student and nonstudent alike, falls to a hush at the undulating ring of gamelans.
I’m going to spoil the outcome now and tell you that the Prambanan Ramayana Ballet is AMAZING. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life, though it’s much less a ballet and more a performance of traditional Javanese dance called Wayang Wong. There’s something hypnotic in the way the dancers move–their hands become water and feet become air as they flow across the stage. And while it might not have the absurd production value of a Broadway show or a Wagner Ring Cycle, it has everything else: an epic love story, fight scenes, drama, comedy, brilliant colors, all with bilingual Bahasa/English subtitles. Also, did I mention fire?
Below are more photographs from the ballet, with my irreverent telling of the story. But really, you should go see it live. With tickets as cheap as $7, you have no reason not to:
The ballet starts with a contest for Princess Sita’s hand in marriage, which rests on a suitor’s ability to break a magic bow. Ravana, the story’s antagonist, fails and storms off*. Rama, the story’s hero, succeeds and marries Sita. She joins Rama and his brother Laksamana, wandering the world in an exile that predates this story.
But Ravana still wants Sita, and hatches a plan to distract Rama and steal her away. He sends his minion Maricha in the form of a golden deer to enchant Sita, who begs Rama to catch it for her. Why? Who knows. Old stories.
Rama leaves Sita with Laksamana, but when Rama fails to return promptly both begin to worry. Laksamana seals Sita in a magic circle while he goes off to look for Rama, but Ravana disguises himself as an old beggar and tricks Sita into leaving the circle. Yep, because SMARTS.
Rama catches the golden deer only to find it’s Ravana’s minion. After defeating it in battle, he and Laksamana rush back to find Sita gone. They find out from Jatayu, the vulture king, that Ravana has taken her.
What follows is a series of adventures in trying to get Sita back, which can basically be summed up as they get the ape-king Hanuman on their side who manages to sneak into Ravana’s kingdom and bring Sita a message that Rama is looking for her.
Then Hanuman gets beats up Ravana’s other minions, who are apparently all really drunk at midday because palace guarding, who does that? Ravana defeats Hanuman and captures him, subjecting him to a ‘trial’ and execution by burning.
This is where the performance take a creative twist, because they bring live fire out onto the stage. They light small bonfires, and Hanuman stands between them, unharmed in the story because he’s pure of heart.
Hanuman then proceeds grab a torch from the flames and set the entire stage on fire, then turns into giant ape a la Dragonball Z. In the story he rampages around destroying Ravana’s palace, but in the ballet he mostly rises like a giant monster over the flaming wreckage of the stage. Yeah, these people are serious about their ballet.
Hanuman rejoins Rama and Laksamana, who attack Ravana’s forces and wage war. Rama confronts Ravana and they battle. Rama eventually shoots Ravana with an arrow and kills him, but not to be outdone Hanuman then throws a mountain on him.
Sita and Rama are then reunited, but Rama is suspicious of Sita’s fidelity after all of her years in captivity. So Sita burns herself in flames but remains untouched, because she’s pure of heart—turns out that’s all you need to survive fire, besides like, actual safety and survival gear.
Rama extinguishes the flames and they go off, happily ever after.
It’s a pretty straightforward fairy tale with elements of good and evil, what humans should and shouldn’t do, and archetypal roles of princesses being rescued by princes and their sidekicks. But really, who cares? They lit the stage on fire.
*This differs from the original Ramayana quite a bit, where Ravana steals Sita as part of a plot to destroy Rama for his hand in killing/destroying other demons. I might be misremembering it.
This’ll be a short post. I’m writing from our hotel, Pondok Tingal, which is remarkable because 1) we can afford HOTELS here, and 2) this place has some WEIRD art. I can’t say our hotel room is the most luxurious thing ever, but it’s private and accompanied by a verdant courtyard below and a good restaurant in-house.
But THE ART. I don’t know where these folks got their stuff from, but it’s bizarre and amazing. Some of it’s more traditional:
Then there’s this stuff:
I don’t know exactly what’s going on in that last one, but I’m pretty sure it’s a sci-fi resurrection of an Indonesian robo-tribal chieftain. A hundred questions about this painting remain, but the most important is: where can I buy one?
People extol the virtues of New Zealand’s natural beauty, but landscaped local parks also flourish in the country’s perfect mild climate. And while there are enough local parks in New Zealand to fill a lifetime and we visited more than a dozen in our two weeks, Te Puna Quarry Park was by far the most beautiful and quirky. Situated just outside of Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty, it’s the perfect stop between visiting the region’s wineries/cideries, buying fresh fruit from roadside stands, and noshing on some of the best meat pies in the country (more on that one in a later post).
Te Puna was our favorite local park because it had something for everyone: a dizzying array of botanical life from cacti to orchids, beautiful granite sculptures hidden in the greenery, a butterfly hatchery for the scientifically inclined, and old rusted quarry equipment kids (or kids at heart) can play on. It’s the perfect combination of see, smell, touch, and do. And everywhere you can see signs of how much the park is loved and cared for, from the painstakingly-weeded walkways to the densely-packed park regions full of bromeliads, irises, and palms.
A visit to the park can take as little as 45 minutes and stretch into the hours (we were there for two). It’s also free to visit and cared for entirely by volunteers, so if you’ve got some coins to spare, consider dropping by one of the donation boxes. There are some by the restrooms in the parking lot, where you can also pick up a free map. If you’re staying or living nearby long term and end up loving the place, also consider volunteering to help keep the park beautiful. As usual, here are our most gorgeous photos of Te Puna below:
North of Whangarei, at the crossroads of the 1 and 11 highways, sits a town of 1400 people.Passing through it looks to be like any other small town in New Zealand, its single main street littered with bakeries, coffee shops, and art galleries. In other, unfortunate ways, it shares an economic outlook with other small towns in New Zealand’s ongoing thread of “dying towns”. Kawakawa and other towns like it in the Northland and across the south of the north island are collectively suffering from declining populations, increased unemployment, and decreased income. An interesting article on the topic can be found here.
The visible symptoms of this are loitering, downcast people and clearly shuttered businesses with no sign of being replaced. One sushi shop we saw had been closed for years, yet the sign and posters for it were still up. Kawakawa is a one street example of the growing inequality in New Zealand and around the world. The coffeeshops on the street are filled with people purchasing Starbucks-priced drinks and snacks, while outside, near the social services building and the thriftshop, stand a group of people who have nothing to do and are clearly unhappy about it. As with many other countries, it is the minorities and indegenous people who are hit the hardest by this growing inequality. That they are not better positioned across New Zealand society speaks to a long-standing divide, one which is actually less prevalent in New Zealand than in other countries, but is still strikingly large.
For Kawakawa, one of the main causes of downturn was the close of the nearby coalmines. Original built as a service town, the mine closure led to high unemployment. Without the beaches and summer getaways that define the surrounding larger towns, KawaKawa has not had an easy time. Today the primary output is agricultural, with a high employment count in the social services and healthcare field.
Kawakawa does have some interesting features for a traveller. Every town in New Zealand has a set of public toilets, or so it seemed, and Kawakawa’s was particularly striking, designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, an Austrian designer who lived in the town for twenty five years. Its vibrant colors and amorphous patterns lend it to feeling half colorful tavern, half art exhibit. While it is a commonly used and fully functioning toilet, it is also not uncommon for people to pop in just to take pictures.
As we strolled up and down the main drive, we found an art gallery focusing on Maori artists. Much of the work involved carved wood, statues incorporating natural material, or paintings of human or natural scenes. The Maori tradition involves intricate and ornate carvings on objects as small as a dime to as ones as large as trees. I found the iron-and-wood statues particularly moving, but like many art galleries, this one was out of our price and carrying range.
On the way out of town we stopped at a beach 30 or so minutes to the north to beachcomb, one of our favorite activities. Since we didn’t want to take our find out of the beach environment, we took a few pictures.