Vox Populi’s “Peace Be Upon You” at MESS 2017


Bullet holes around windows on a building in Sarajevo, likely from attempts by snipers to kill civilian occupants hiding inside.

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).”

Sunset on the way to the theater.

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.

I didn’t take photos during the performance, but this post-performance shot gives an idea of the stage setup. The two actors, Diego and Mila, are front left in front of a silk screen.

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.

But no one stands up.


The Sarajevo War Theater stage, post-performance.


Some short scenes are of Mir Vama are available on YouTube here, while the original playbill for Mir Vama is available here in Bosnian, and here in English.

Want to see what Vox Populi are up to currently? You can follow them on Facebook here (in Bulgarian, but Google Translate works alright)

Ars Electronica Festival 2017

A robot stops walking in response to a barrier (hand) placed in its path at ARS Electronica Festival 2017.

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*:

Repurposing of industrial robot arms for shadowplay art.
Doge overlooks a cryptocurrency gathering.
The LightSail II in the Linz Cathedral, an interactive mesh-and-PVC pipe construction the size of a whale that responds to touch by varying sounds and projected images.
The crowd in the basement of POST CITY for the Ars Electronica Festival Concert.
A robot constructs a three-towered sculpture for nothing but concrete chips and string, while its creators look on from the right.
RFID-reflective clothing, meant to protect your identity in the wireless future.
A demonstration of DuoSkinDuoSkin, conductive temporary tattoos that enable you to control your smartphone or other electronic devices. Here, a man demonstrates skipping songs and changing the volume on a phone’s music playlist.
A man reloads markers on an industrial robot arm repurposed for sketching.
A woman interacts with a display that explores the ability of machines to read and respond to human needs.
An artist explains his interactive darkroom-and-flashlight display.
Visitors watch and film a synchronized drone show.
Attendees at the festival’s seminars, which explore everything from the ethics and law of AI to art created from AI learning.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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)
  4. 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.
  5. 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, city of prosperity and re-construction

A butcher sells his wares at a market in downtown Hong Kong.

It’s cloudy when we arrive in Hong Kong, only an hour’s flight but worlds away from Hanoi. We board a modern double-decker bus to carry us from airport to the city, marveling at the skyscrapers that line the highway and the slew of construction equipment building ever-more. We’re only here for a week (in an ill-fated attempt to get Chinese visas), but even in that short time it feels like the city will be different—an old, crumbling building lost there and a new, shining one erected there. And between our arrival and departure, the city will have grown even further, adding to itself as land is reclaimed from the sea.

Endless rows of high-rise buildlings on the way into the city.
A barge, laden with sand, likely for land reclamation work.

It’s a city of lonefulness, a feeling I get when I visit New York. The streets are full of people, all rushing to get somewhere in quick strides, staring down at their phones or straight ahead to their destinations. You could pass hundreds of people in an hour here and not know you had passed a single one. Interactions only come when necessary, and otherwise people huddle in their groups of friends and acquaintances, sharing inside jokes and giggling. Or they sit without anyone, full in their alone-ness.

A man walks alone by the space museum and planetarium.
A man sits alone and drinks on the waterfront.
A face, lit only by screen-light.

The people that will interact with you on the street want to sell you something, often “copy” or “replica” products. These street-sellers are immigrants from South Asia, India and Pakistan, who came here for the same reason most people come to a city: the prospect of jobs and better money. They crowd the main streets, asking if you want to buy a ‘replica’ watch, a SIM card, or need a room for the night. Their epicenter is Chungking Mansion, where we happen to be staying. Several decades old and brimming with stalls selling Indian curries, electronics, and everything and nothing you might need, Chunking Mansion is a city unto itself. It lives and breathes, exhaling and inhaling human bodies that make their way up the few squeaky elevators to tiny guesthouses and homes and restaurants run illegally from apartments.

Immigrants from South Asia socialize at one of the entrances to Chungking Mansion
Our hotel room, from end to end, is the width of one Stoytcho.
The internals of Chunking Mansion. We’re on the fourteenth floor. Thirteen floors below us is the center cesspool, a mix of rainwater and whatever people throw down here.

Despite Chungking Mansion’s relative poverty, the rest of the Hong Kong downtown appears wealthy. Hong Kong was and continues to be a huge financial hub, although there have been some grumblings that the city is declining in prominence as China attempts to elevate Shanghai’s status as a financial center. Steps from the entrance to Chunking Mansion are storefronts boasting glittering figurines and jewelry made of pure gold. Parks are full of sculptures and art installations, while galleries line the streets of wealthy neighborhoods and an “Affordable Art Fair” we visited boasted works starting at only a few thousand dollars. Old buildings, like the PMQ, have been entirely renovated to house artisanal bakeries and design shops. There are people here in Hong Kong who want to live well and have the money to pay for it.

A sculpture stands in the pond behind the Hong Kong Space Museum.
A woman explains her work in an exhibit.
Spot the banana: visitors giggle over a real banana hidden among ceramic replicas, a joke by the employees running the exhibit.

But undercurrent in the city is a mild anxiety, of what it is and will be in relation to China. Much news has been made abroad about the Hong Kong democracy movement, but it’s hard to say Western news outlets are unbiased, given that Britain only gave up Hong Kong in 1999 and would like to maintain influence there. Nor can it be said that China is unbiased, since it’s likely looking to bring Hong Kong’s government closer to one approved by the nation’s Communist Party and to avoid the spread of any ideals that would weaken the Party’s power. In the absence of unbiased sources, the best course of action is to ask the people of Hong Kong directly what they worry about and want, on streets and in coffee shops and clothing stores. Their response isn’t surprising: they worry that their future is dim, with investors nervous about China’s increasing influence in the city and China working to develop Shanghai as a major financial hub. What they want most is an assurance that they, too, have a future where they can prosper.

A cat peers out from under stacks of goods at the market.

Hang Nga Crazy House

A view of the guesthouse portion of the Hang Nga Crazy House. Yes, you can stay there, although it’s not the cheapest accommodation in Da Lat.

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. ❤

The guesthouse, hidden amongst trees and bougainvillea.
Narrow stairs with low railings snake around the structure like vines, leading you between different buildings.
Two women pose for a selfie atop a stairwell.
A maze of stairs leading between the different levels.
Touirsts duck under another stairwell while climbing, as another tourist eyes the short railing warily. This place is definitely not childproofed or adultproofed.
People wander the labyrinthe paths, which wind through gardens and over buildlings.
The front garden, complete with concrete mushrooms and a koi pond.
A live soursop tree grows among the buildings. The entire Hang Nga Crazy House is a mix of living plants and concrete structures shaped like living plants.
A tourist finds his way into the under-construction region; you can see the normal apartments across the street in the background.
The back portion of the Hang Nga Crazy House lies fallow, waiting for artists to continue work on its extension. The project has grown from its original size, and looks poised to grow more.
Artists discuss a mural in an under-construction part of the house. I have a sneaking suspicion that the woman in the hat is Dang Viet Nga (the project mastermind), but chickened out out on asking her.
Stoytcho stands in an under-construction ocean-themed part of the house, where coral and anemonae await paint in the background.
I talk with artist Hoàng Đức Thành about his work on the house. They’ve been working for months on this part, using reference material to create undersea-inspired sculptures from concrete and plaster and painting murals on the room’s walls.
Hoàng Đức Thành’s workspace and reference material.
A Google Photosphere produced from one of the balconies, making the house no more or less strange than it already is.

Want more architectural wonderland? You can find it here, because I don’t know how to embed Flickr Galleries into WordPress yet: https://www.flickr.com/photos/146223950@N02/albums/72157687692351401

The art at Hotel Pondok Tingal

The inner courtyard of Hotel Pondok Tingal

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.

The morning view from our balcony.

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:

Faces of Wayang dolls punched and painted into a buffalo hide.

Then there’s this stuff:

This face of a man, made from a dew-glazed leaf, overlooks Borobudur. I have no idea who this guy is–only that it doesn’t look like Sukarno or Suharto (to me).
And then there’s this sci-fi Indonesian tribal painting.

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?

Te Puna Quarry Park

Old quarry equipment and a bench hidden among the greenery in Te Puna Quarry Park

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).

“The Dreaming Stone”, a sculpture on display in the park. A full list of the park’s sculptures (many by local sculptors) is available here.

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.

Wooden totems hidden among the ferns

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:

Chamomile flowers bloom in the park’s herb garden.
A touch of surreal: A worm sculpture in an old tree.
A blooming dahlia flower. This variant of dahlia is apparently fairly rare.
An Aztec-style jaguar sculture blends in with quarry stone and bromeliads.
Little friend: a leafhopper hides behind a leaf. This is probably one of the introduced leafhoppers, Scolypopa australis.
A sculpture rests among bushes
Bees gather at flower to collect nectar.
A blooming white lily
A cluster of tiny white orchids, probably a variant or relative of Epidendrum secundum, which we saw growing in the wild on our Salkantay hike in Peru.
A young milkweed pod. The park propagates large swathes of milkweed to feed monarch caterpillars, and will even collect unwanted caterpillars from nearby gardens.
Young royalty: a small monarch caterpillar on a milkweed pod.
Husks and cocoons of monarch butterflies in the park’s butterfly hatchery.
Adults at play: the park features old quarry equipment that you can play on, although there are warning signs to take care and be safe.
The rusted insides of the beast, complete with gears
Springs and plugs in the old quarry equipment, long since rusted beyond use
Rust up close, where the uniform reddish-brown becomes individual speckles of yellow, orange, red, and black.


01-IMG_7524 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.

08-IMG_20170209_114750 06-IMG_7533

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.


Auckland and the little things

Auckland is at once the same and radically different from cities in South America. It’s not the overarching categories of things that are different; there are still roads, cars, restaurants, parking lots, houses, parks. But how they look is radically different compared to South America. Gone is much of the roughness, the sensation of that the city is unfinished and in flux. Auckland instead resembles the coastal cities of the United States, with a static polish over everything. There are things under construction, but they’re politely hidden from view and fenced off by perimeters of cones and fences. All of the roads sport the glossy sheen of asphalt and sidewalks are formed by immaculately poured concrete. And the buildings form neat little units, sized and proportioned to match each other even when they differ in appearance.

But even in the static polish of Auckland, where you could for a moment mistake yourself in Seattle or San Francisco, there are little things that stand out as different. It’s the details that make a place, and here in Auckland these little things take on a form of whimsy we’ve come to associate with New Zealand.

A city block in Auckland, which looks much like a city block in Seattle or Los Angeles.
A wooden arch erected in a park for summer festivities with Maori-inspired designs. Here in Auckland, the differences are in the details.
A community garden space in Auckland. The city maintains 42,000 hectares of parks and open spaces. Compared to Los Angeles (9,700 hectares) and New York City (11,300 hectares), Auckland has more than ten times the park space per resident in the city.
Mushrooms grow at a park in Auckland. One benefit of so much parkspace is a panoply of nature is always only a few steps away.
A house in an Auckland suburb. Like most cities in the Western world, Auckland is a city center surrounded by a massive sprawl of suburbs.
An grocery ad at a bus stop. The switch in gender roles here would be nigh unprecedented in U.S. advertising, which promulgates the myth that most men can’t cook.
A coffee shop mascot near University of Auckland. Even the monsters here are polite.
Guide signs in a warehouse grocery store in Auckland. Dinosaurs are really cheap this week…
Chinese for lunch: Nearly 22% of Auckland’s population is Asian, and the city boasts an amazing array of restaurants specializing in Asian cuisine.
Election signs erected in a park in Auckland. There are nearly 10 different candidates you could vote for in this election.
“The Sound of Rain”: A miniature bronze house commemorating New Zealand’s transition from a colony to a dominion.

Museo Soumaya

One of the great things about Mexico City is that many of the museums we visited had free admission, making them accessible to everyone. Museo Soumaya, one of Mexico City’s newest museums, is no exception. Unlike many of the museums around the city though, it’s not dedicated a specific theme. Instead, most of what’s on display here is the collection of Mexico’s richest man and CEO of Telmex, Carlos Slim. He funded construction of the massive museum building and provided his private collections for display, naming the museum after his late wife (Soumaya).

The works on display are diverse. While there are a total of six floors, we only explored the first two. The ground floor was dedicated to sculptures and murals, including a bronze cast of “The Gates of Hell”, a massive and incredibly detailed work by Auguste Rodin. Here’s one tiny part of it:

Here’s another of runners, racing toward the finish line: IMG_0495

The first floor was dedicated to Mexican and Hispanic art and artifacts, including religious works and early coinage from the Mexican republic. One intersting highlight was an entire cabinet-full of hearts of Jesus and the Virgin Mary:

The second floor was dedicated to Asian ivory carvings, consisting of work from China, India, and Japan. There were pieces carved directly into tusks, like the one below: IMG_0501

There were also smaller pieces, including this one of Guan Yin:

Overall, we thought Museo Soumaya was a fantastic way to spend a day looking at religious and cultural works. While researching the museum online I came across a lot of criticism for both the art collection and the project, one of which was that Slim spent millions on this museum while most Mexicans make a fraction of this. But art and culture aren’t the sole privilege of the developed world. Just like a free museum, like the Soumaya, it’s something for everyone to enjoy.

– Natalie