Saturday, October 28, 2006 

i feel like a stalker

The introduction: This past week, we were given the assignment of carrying out a “Mis-Steps” walking project. The basic idea is to take a walk through the city, guided by some concept and structure other than a normal walk would be, and in doing so, experience the city in a new way.

The concept: During my stay in Amsterdam, I’ve walked up a street in central Amsterdam called Warmoesstraat a few times. It’s a skinny street, packed full of sketchy hotels, ethnic restaurants, “adult” video and novelty stores, and coffee shops (which, for those who aren’t familiar with Amsterdam, aren’t where you would go for a morning cup of coffee, but rather for an afternoon joint). Each time I’ve walked it, I’ve noticed how many different types of people were walking through and wondered where they were going. For our walk, Joe and I decided to follow some people who were passing through the area, and in doing so, not only find out where they were going, but experience the city as other Amsterdammers and tourists do.

The plan: Joe and I selected a starting location, the corner of Warmoesstraat and Brugsteeg, right in the heart of the coffee shop district. In the middle of this intersection is a metal panel in the street (pictured at left). To randomly select our subjects to follow, each time we arrived at the intersection, we followed the third person whose foot touched any part of the panel. We followed that person until they stopped at a place for more than one minute, at which point we considered that their destination, took a photo cube there, logged the route, and returned to our starting point to find a new subject. We also, very covertly and stalkerishly, took a picture of the subject we were following sometime during the walk. As we followed, we tried to experience the city as the subject was, going at the same pace, looking at the same things, and, I guess you could say, walking it in their shoes.

The execution: We ended up having a really awesome walk through central Amsterdam, just by following people. Our eight subjects were a variety of demographics, and it was interesting to make inferences about them (where they were from, what they were doing, their relationships with the people they were with, etc.) as we were tracking them. At right is a map of the routes we took, each in a different color. Here are the photos of the subjects, labeled with their corresponding color. It would take far too long to give a full description of my experience on each of the mini-walks, but there are some highlights that exemplify the experience. While following our first subject (orange) and his cronies, we think we were noticed, and realized that we needed to be much more covert in our tracking. Rather than focusing on the person, we tried more to blend in and look at our surroundings for the duration of the project, which made for a more interesting experience. Our second subject (light blue) and his buddies essentially went in a circle to get to their destination, which was kind of silly, but they might not have been in much of a state to navigate, considering their destination was a coffee shop. Our third subject (green) was with an interesting group of punk kids ranging in age from about 15 to 20, and his “destination point” was when he waited for his friends who had gone to use the public urinals. I saw more of those ugly gray urinals on this walk than I had in all my other experiences in Amsterdam combined, and they are really odd, in a kind of disturbing way. Our fourth subject (red) was in a group of really lost older folks who stopped to look at their map for a few minutes at their “destination point” and ended up turning around and going right back where they came from, and then eventually walking back out again. It was really interesting to follow them and stand looking lost while they looked at their map. Our fifth subject (purple) was a man on a mission, walking incredibly fast while talking on his phone. We suspect he may have been late for an appointment, but we’re not really sure because we lost him when he sped around a corner. Our sixth subject (dark blue) just putzed around the area, window shopping a bit, eventually for a whole minute, which meant, by our rules, that we had to stop following him. Our seventh subject (pink) had a rolling suitcase with him that he had to keep picking up to carry on the uneven cobblestone sidewalks. He eventually stopped to look at his map, and a nice bum helped him out. He gave the bum some change before heading on his way. Our last subject (yellow) appeared to be the type I would never expect to see walking through that part of town. Imagine my surprise when she turned into an alley a block from the starting point, unlocked a door, and went in. I have no idea why an older lady would want to live there, or have anything to do there, but I guess looks can be deceptive.

The conclusions: We set out on this walk with a bit of a “psych experiment” mindset (which can be expected, considering we are both psych majors), trying to determine the reasons people of different demographics have for walking through the intersection we selected. It turns out that a fair amount of them were just walking through the area on their way to somewhere else, and people such as our fourth subject, who you wouldn’t expect to have any interest in the area, had probably not intended to pass through there. I was really surprised that by randomly picking people to follow, we ended up traveling in pretty much every possible direction, which means that our intersection is kind of a hub for foot traffic. The walk itself was enjoyable, and we ended up experiencing areas that we may have otherwise not have found our way to, which I guess was the point of this whole thing. Mission accomplished!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006 

new media at its best

The past couple days, we have visited two of Amsterdam’s leading new media groups: the Netherlands Media Art Institute and the Waag Society. Each group welcomed us graciously, excited to hear about our work and share theirs.

The Netherlands Media Art Institute collects, preserves, displays, and distributes media art. They are also involved in some artistic projects, most notably Elephants Dream, a study in the capabilities of the open-source animation software Blender. During our visit, we were treated to a screening of a hand-picked series of single-channel video art pieces, the first set of which established the most common techniques and goals of the genre, and then a second set of more recent pieces. All of them are available for viewing by the public in their mediatheque (in photo at left), where they have both physical copies and electronic ones available at viewing stations. This is the third place we have visited that is involved in the preservation of media, but the first that has committed to storing it all electronically. Both the Anthology Film Archives and the ARChive of Contemporary Music in New York adamantly collected the best copies they could in the piece’s original form, whether it be film or records, and then focused their work around preserving these. The Netherlands Media Art Institute, on the other hand, is storing all of their collection electronically in uncompressed form, using terabytes of space on hard drives that need to be replaced every three years.

I, like the organizations in New York, am skeptical about the viability of storing important pieces electronically because of the speed at which technology is changing and the danger of malfunction of equipment. But, at the same time, there is no guarantee that the old forms will be practical to view far into the future, both because of changing equipment and technology and decay of the physical film or video. It seems that neither way is a guarantee, and both are very costly, but some intervention is necessary because it would be a shame to not work to somehow preserve these art pieces.

The Waag Society was a real treat to visit because they are not typically open to the public. They are located in the oldest non-religious building in Amsterdam, the 600-year-old former city gate, and actually the site of Rembrandt’s famous Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. Now the building stands alone in the middle of Nieuwmarkt Square, in central Amsterdam, and offers a beautiful view of the rooftops from its upstairs windows (photo at right). When we arrived, Floor van Spaendonck and Sam Nemeth gave us a presentation on the group and their purpose. They are funded by the state, and their goal is not to create art for art’s sake, but rather make things that are useful for society. One of their more recent projects is Amsterdam Realtime, where people were given the chance to carry a GPS unit during the day in order to compile a map of the city through the routes a collection of individuals take. The group is also behind an educational game for school groups that uses mobile phones as an interface between the actual city and medieval times. They are even at work on the global scale, trying to implement Creative Commons in India.

After telling us about everything they have been working on, they invited us to make our own projects in response. We had an hour to make a piece around the theme “Circling the Waag”. For mine, I chose to take the theme quite literally, focusing on the architecture of their building and the connections it has with the surrounding area. The building has a central spire, surrounded by six smaller towers topped in spires. For each of these spires, I lined it up in front of the central spire and walked away from it as far as I could while keeping it in view. I then took a photo of the building and from the same location, a photo of something in my vicinity. So, I ended up with six pairs of photos (two pairs are shown at left) taken from the farthest points where unobstructed views of the lined up spires occur. Through this mini-project, I had the chance to explore the surrounding area a bit, taking notice of the differences in architecture and environment between the Waag and the areas around it. I found a wide variety of shops, residences, and people, but they were all connected by their views of the Waag spires.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006 

ballet... and other cultured things

Well, after almost a week in Amsterdam, we had our first official event related to new media yesterday. That may sound surprising, considering this is a media studies program focusing specifically on new media, but we’ve been studying so much more than that. I’ve begun to think of this seminar as a cross between many subject areas, new media being just one of them. As many off campus programs are, this one is also largely centered around the places in which we are studying, rather than just the things we are studying, and it really needs to be that way to even begin to grasp the relevance of the art we are seeing and making. The physical location and culture shaped around it play a crucial role in development of art at any point in time, new media included.

That being said, our first few days in Amsterdam really were a crash course in the history and culture of this country. I learned, for example, that Holland is actually just a small part of The Netherlands (although definitely the most densely populated), and that people from other areas are typically quite offended when people think they’re from Holland. We were also told to keep in mind that the Dutch are not trying to be rude, but just tend to be task-oriented, straightforward people. Also, translation into English can often come off as being much more rude than intended. Honestly, I’m just impressed that so many people here speak English.

Many of these cultural notes came from Jacob Vossestein, author of Dealing with the Dutch. He gave us a very insightful presentation on his perceptions of the Dutch, as a sociologist. At left, my notes on his example of culture being like an onion. It’s everybody’s favorite metaphor, including Shrek. However, this presentation on culture ended up turning into a discussion, or a voicing of viewpoints, not necessarily in response to each other, on perceptions between the Dutch and Americans and the validity of stereotyping. It was interesting, although too heated and political to be particularly productive. One of Jacob’s most notable ideas was that the rest of the world should have some sort of a vote (although less than Americans of course) in US elections because of the vast influence of US policy on the rest of the world. I’ve heard it before, but never so seriously.

Our other cultural/historical exploits included a lecture by art historian Marietta de Bruine on the Golden Age of Dutch painting. It was very reminiscent of my high school art history class (not necessarily in the level or anything, but in the content), and it was nice to revisit looking at art from a critical perspective, trying to infer meaning. Now I really want to go to some museums here, especially because we have museum passes!

My favorite event from the first few days in Amsterdam was definitely going to see Carmen, performed by het nationale ballet. I’m not very familiar with the story, or with ballet, but I know enough to know that it was absolutely beautiful. I hadn’t been to a ballet since I was about 8 years old and saw my next door neighbor perform, but it’s just amazing how a story can be told just through dance and music. And, it was at the beautiful Muziektheater in the heart of Amsterdam. Such a good introduction to the city.

So, now that we have been introduced to the Dutch, we are digging into new media, both visiting places that are at the heart of it in Amsterdam, and working like crazy on our projects. Super busy, but super good as well.

Sunday, October 22, 2006 

i'm still here, i promise

So, I know I've been really bad with keeping this thing updated. There is seriously just not enough time here to get everything done. I have been working like crazy on this big project that I've been saying for weeks will be unveiled soon, and this time, I really think that it will. Joe and I are almost done with the New York and London pieces, and we're hoping to get those up on the web for any and all to see by the time we leave Amsterdam.

Did I mention yet that I'm in Amsterdam? Because I am. I don't feel like I've really gotten a good feel for the city yet, but I love pretty much everything I've seen. We're staying in this place called the Apple Inn, and it's this big old house that they converted into a hotel. The staircases are deathly steep, and every time I walk up or down with a computer I'm clutching the railing, but it's an adventure! It's on this old street with all these other old houses, and, well, the whole city just feels very old. There's canals all over the place (although this photo was taken in some big reflecting pool, hence the reflection in it), and more bikes than cars. As a pedestrian in this city, I feel so inferior. What would be sidewalks in most cities are actually bike lanes, and the actual sidewalks are uneven and have poles all over the place and bikes parked in them and all that fun stuff. It's a very pretty city to walk, as long as you stay in the right areas. We kind of accidentally wandered into the red light district tonight and it was, well, not pretty, to say the least. More than anything, I just found it to be very sad, both for the prostitutes and for the people who feel like they need to go there.

I really love being in a place where they speak a different language. It feels like there's so much more going on around me that I'm not aware of, and I feel like so much of an outsider. I bet Berlin will be even better for that, although I will be going back to my German roots (I'm more German than anything else, although I'm pretty sure it's less than half). Going to the grocery store and figuring out what I'm buying is such a puzzle. I pretty much live on cheese and meat and avocado, and I have determined that "kipfilet" is either chicken or turkey, and any kind of cheese they sell is good (or at least I haven't found a bad one yet), so I seem to be managing. They have lots of good juice here too.

I've found I'm much happier in Amsterdam than I was in London. We live in a beautiful place that overlooks a lovely green garden that just might start turning pretty colors while we're here. It rains almost every night but rarely during the day, and when I go outside it smells like Christmas. Food is cheap and good. I'm getting things done on my project, and it has much more direction and urgency than before.

There's so much more I could talk about, but not enough time, and I don't like making long posts, so it will all have to wait for another day. By the way, I know there's people reading this thing because I have a hit counter, but I'm really curious who you all are. If you please, leave a comment saying hello... and maybe let me know what you think of my blog. I'd appreciate it.