Walking Munich’s Nazi Past

On a grassy lawn in Munich ripe with autumn’s freshness, I stood where the smell of ash and burnt paper once choked the air and learned about the courage of twenty-one-year-old Sophie Scholl.

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Ashamedly and shockingly, I had never met her in a classroom, never read her story in history books. It was at the end of a Third Reich walking tour that introduced me to her and the other members of the White Rose, a non-violent Nazi resistance group of students from the University of Munich.

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Our tour guide Tom, who led the provocative, information-packed three-hour walking tour without once referring to his notes, quoted 19th century German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine who predicted:

Wherever books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned too.

He showed us a picture of Sophie, executed by guillotine on February 22, 1943, along with her older brother Hans and another White Rose member, Christoph Probst, after being caught distributing pamphlets at the university.

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Her last words before heading to her death:

Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go. But what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?

A big question Sophie wrestled with (she studied biology and philosophy) was how to live in the face of a dictatorship? 

Her courage is echoed in Müncheners who took a back street (Viscardigasse) nicknamed Dodgers’ Ally to avoid saluting to Hitler when passing the Feldherrnhalle on the Odeonsplatz that commemorated the death of Nazi soldiers during Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. The pedestrian-only street is marked with a meandering trail of bronze bricks to remember these small but significant acts by ordinary people.

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Dodgers’ Ally

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Tom said Munich hasn’t been as active in erecting monuments as the capital Berlin to remember its dark past as the hotbed of Naziism (Hitler even referred to Munich as “The Capital of the Movement”), but that it is making strides to change this.

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In recent years, a Third Reich documentation centre (above) was built on the site of the Brown House, the building that housed the National Socialist German Workers’ Party headquarters in the 1930s, and which was destroyed during the war. Nearby was the Führerbau that contained Hitler’s office, now the site of a music and theatre school. (If you look closely at the image below, you can see marks over the door on the top floor where a Nazi Eagle used to hang.)

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Near the Marienplatz we looked at a controversial plaque to German women and children mourning the loss of their husbands/fathers during WWII that raises the question, Were they victims or accomplices? And is the answer an easy either/or? No.

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Tom challenged our tour group: How would we live in the face of dictatorship? Would we capitulate or resist? And how can we judge others what we know from hindsight when we haven’t walked in their horrific shoes? As I wrote in my journal after the tour, “I think his point was that it takes a people to let something like Naziism take root—not just one man.”

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One German artist, since 1995, has created his own tradition of remembering. Wolfram Kastner burns a black circle into the Königsplatz lawn to commemorate the original Nazi book burning there on May 10, 1933. He says in this article written by Tony Sonneman:

There is so much systematic forgetting. I think it’s necessary to remember without covering history with grass.

Kastner also organizes a day-long “Reading Against Forgetting” event in the same spot where students, professors, actors, writers, politicians, and the public gather to read excerpts from the forbidden “nation-corrupting” books that were burnt, including those of Heinrich Heine.

The walking tour was a sobering experience, but one that impacted me most out of anything my husband and I did on our Europe trip.

This is an unsolicited post but I highly recommend the Sandemans Third Reich Tour  if you’re heading to Munich and want a deeper experience of the city. The cost is well worth what you learn and you don’t have to be a history buff to follow along.

They keep saying they are happy

I didn’t participate in Bike to Work this week because biking from Vancouver to Surrey along Highway 91 is a) very long and b) a little dangerous, but I like to think I made up for it by biking from Marpole, the southernmost neighbourhood of the city, to the ocean at Jericho Beach today.

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And I was so excited by what I saw on my ride home that I’m on my computer now to share it with you.

I haven’t posted about a public artwork in a while but this one stopped me full-pedal and had me rummaging through my backpack for my camera.

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This LED screen at Point Grey Road and Collingwood Street containing short, pithy statements that rotate every few minutes was right outside a residential house in the affluent neighbourhood of Kitsilano. It was strangely discreet (except for the pink Vancouver Biennale sign) and yet obviously not something you’d expect to see on a scenic route.

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I watched it for a few minutes to see about three different narratives appear on the screen.

Called Vancouver Novel, it was made by Brazilian artist João Loureiro. The description on the sign says:

Inspired by the Vancouver Biennale’s 2014-2016 exhibition theme Open Borders / Crossroads Vancouver, Vancouver Novel by João Loureiro explores the shifting boundaries between public and private life in an era marked by social media and reality TV.  Situated in one of Vancouver’s most exclusive waterfront neighbourhoods, the installation cycles through a series of 23 sentences which weave a poignant narrative of daily life.  These snippets of domesticity, by turns banal and ominous, underscore our ever-growing appetite for updated information and continuous content.  Intensely personal and yet broadcast for the world to see, Vancouver Novel asks us to consider the narrowing chasm between our public and private lives.

While I was photographing the screen, I experienced an uneasiness between the public and private spheres because even though this was “public art,” I was taking pictures of someone’s home. Something like this ran through my mind: Do the the residents know this is here? They must! The artist would have had to get their permission, I’m sure. But they must have gawkers like me all the time just standing outside their home reading this sign. How annoying!

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And then when you watch this short clip, you realize the artist’s work is a fictional story about the occupants in the house, which takes it to a whole new level of voyeurism and discomfort.

 

Yet I think maybe we are supposed to squirm a little? If we had a sign outside our home, what would our story be?

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In some ways, we each already do. It may not be an LED screen and it may not be constantly running, but most of us turn to social media to provide status updates of what’s going on in our homes and lives. We’ve already made the private public, but I think why Vancouver Novel is so powerful is because:

  • Having your private life aired on a screen like a reality TV show where you don’t control who sees it is that much more vulnerable than putting it on social media where you can still put safeguards in place around privacy and security.
  • The “status updates” on this sign aren’t the “show how cool/beautiful/exciting your life is to make everybody else jealous” type of updates most people post on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram etc. Some of the sentences are banal but some are acutely poignant and even dark. In 23 lines, we witness the unhappiness, the struggle, the pretense, and possibly the demise of a relationship.

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  • There’s an assumption that affluent people have perfect lives because everything on the outside looks that way: their houses, their cars, their clothes, their vacations, their kids etc. Vancouver Novel reminds us that we really have no clue what goes on behind those pretty, perfect doors. Things aren’t always what they seem.
  • Vancouver is the city everybody wants to live in. It’s come under fire more recently for its high costs and inaccessibility, but there is still this golden aura to the city. I think the artist must know something about this, or why would he call it Vancouver Novel? He’s turning the narrative of the city on its head, cracking open its shiny facade and exposing its grimy underbelly.

This is what art does—exposes things. As much as I love my city, this Vancouver Novel needs to be written. João Loureiro may have intended it as fictional story, but I think there are elements of reality to it that we are all uncomfortably familiar with.

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Chasing the Clock & Stepping Back in Time

For this post, I thought it’d be interesting to contrast two places/experiences in the city I had recently. First is the artwork at the Canada Line terminus station downtown Vancouver. This is the same space I previously wrote about here where each panel had a list of first lines from songs that all begin with “Here comes…”

The art at this location tends to be time-related, which the current exhibit makes obvious.

IMG_0956IMG_0950IMG_0951IMG_0953I like the bright colours of the vortex clocks, but I don’t find this work as engaging or intriguing as “Here Comes.” Yes, we’re busy and frantic. Yes, we wish we had more time. Does this artwork invite us to stop in a busy area and breathe a little easier? Reflect on something hopeful? Or does it just reinforce the fact that we’re late, need to hurry, walk faster? The sameness of the panels, minus the colours, highlights the relentless regularity of our lives. The tone of the write-up takes a similar doom & gloom stance with descriptions that give all agency to the clock, in which humans are “trapped in its vice forever.” Is its triumph really inevitable? Are we slaves to time? What about all the times we stop people, look at the little girl eating an ice cream cone, listen to a busker belt out melodies; share a conversation with somebody in the grocery line-up?

IMG_0947From chasing the clock, we go to stepping back in time. I was on Broadway Street this morning, meeting friends for coffee & lunch and exploring some shops in that area. My friend suggested we go into a store called Stepback (neither of us had been before) and we were there for almost an hour, oohing and ahhing at its many vintage treasures.

Unfortunately their website doesn’t have any pictures, but you can get a sense of the kind of items they have from this short write-up that VanMag did with the owner two years ago, as well as this blog that has some awesome pictures.

I was especially thrilled as the wedding theme I’m going for is vintage, so I was surrounded by inspiration! The window display was decorated with dozens of old hardcover red books (homage to Valentine’s Day) and pewter dishes. The store contains a stack of suitcases from the 1940s, typewriters, Scrabble letters, eye exam & bicycle posters, plenty of hardcover classics & dictionaries, wooden block letters, old postcards, stamps, matches, wooden chairs, and more. This store may even rival my love for Urban Source!

I will be stepping back there again, taking all the time in the world.

Time to Let Go

Ever since Disney’s Frozen took the world by storm (catch the pun?), I cannot hear the words “Let it Go” without thinking of the Oscar-winning pop anthem that many have earmarked as the theme song for their life, or at least their year. So when I came across this Vancouver Art Gallery offsite exhibit on West Georgia Street between Thurlow and Bute, the tune was instantly running through my head.

Time to Let Go by Babak Golkar. 2014.

Time to Let Go by Babak Golkar. 2014.

 Time To Let Go. Yes. I don’t know if it was the words or the still water or the ancient terracotta vessels sitting atop burlap sacks, but something about this site was extremely arresting. It looked participatory, but without reading the description, I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t know how to participate.

My friend looked for the description and informed me, “You’re supposed to shout into them and release your emotions or do whatever you want!”

IMG_7857Really? Release my emotions? I looked around. There weren’t any people walking by, but there were plenty of cars sitting at stop lights whose passengers could easily see me through their windows. I didn’t want to embarrass myself or anything because, you know, that’s the absolute worst thing that can happen in public.

But the other part of me really wanted to participate. I’m glad my curiosity overtakes my shyness at moments like this. I went up to one of the pots and said something quietly. My voice echoed several times inside—a deep echo that made me feel like I was speaking into the womb of the earth.

IMG_7856I look around again. The cars had moved on, and now there were new ones sitting at the light. The world would go on whether I screamed into the pots or not. Armed with this confidence-boosting realization, I gave the pot a high-pitched yell, short but noticeably louder. It didn’t seem like anyone could hear me as the vessel contained the sound so completely. I turned around and asked my friend if she heard me though, and she nodded. I smiled. For all my nervousness about being heard in a public space, I actually wanted to be heard. (Now I didn’t belt out “Let it Go” at the top of my lungs or anything, but I still think someone should take advantage of that opportunity!)

IMG_7855There’s something about being given permission to scream that is extremely liberating. And not just screaming on top of a mountain or in a field of wildflowers because it’s safe to do that, but to scream in the city—now that’s different. It’s no accident the offsite exhibit is placed on a major downtown street hemmed in by commercial buildings, condos, and hotels. Vancouver itself is a hemmed-in city, mountains on one side, ocean on the other. And don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely beautiful. Yet cities in general, and downtowns especially—with their pace, their noise, their busyness, their commercialism, their competitions, their comparisons—can gradually squeeze up on all your edges until the pressure becomes so intense you burst like the cork off a wine bottle. Where is there a safe space to step away from it all and tell the world how you really feel?

IMG_7858I can’t help but think the terracotta vessels are a reference to ancient Greco-Roman days, when life was a little slower and technology wasn’t so all-consuming. The absence of technology in this installation stood out to me in a positive way. We don’t need gadgets to help us unwind. We don’t need gadgets to make a statement. Babak Golkar’s work invites us to rediscover what each of us has been equipped with since birth to respond to our ever changing world: our voice. Are we OK with using it?

In this installation I was interested in screaming as a release but also a gesture or a form of contestation. We tend to let go in private, not in public, and that letting go has to do with exposing our vulnerability, which here is reflected, not only by the action of participants through engaging with the works and screaming into the vessels, but also through the use of terracotta as a fragile medium.

Offsite, located at the heart of downtown Vancouver surrounded by high-end residences, hotels and commercial buildings, offers a large potential for public engagement and it is this inherent gesture of offering to public that TIME TO LET GO… takes up and expands on. The site provided an opportunity to make a work that is acting as a context, a sort of a platform for public to be expressive and experience vulnerability in a public place, and be OK.

We live in a time that systemic conditions are overpowering our basic human conditions. Systems that once were consciously man made now exist firmly in constative modes. In these kinds of systemic entanglements, this project would pose, is there any room for active and reflective thinking and affective criticism? Are the systems muting us in effect?

Listening for Sounds of Hope

Every writer is trying to describe old things in new ways. It’s a good bandwagon for me to join, to distance myself from my high school days when I was dubbed “the queen of clichés.”

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I’m looking out my apartment window and see a tree. I live in the city but on nights like these, I am back in my childhood home of tire swings and hedges and well pipes you bang your car into when you’re sixteen and first learning to drive. I listen closely, trying to describe what the city sounds like to my imaginary readers. How do I describe the sound of tires going across a road at 80 km/hr to someone who’s never heard a moving vehicle before? When I hear a dozen or more cars flying down my street, halted by a changing green, I hear an intermittent waterfall. But how do you explain a waterfall to someone who’s never heard water drip from a kitchen faucet, let alone nature’s caverns?

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Everything has a referent in this world. It’s like when the dictionary defines a word using another word you don’t understand, and you’re now looking up another word in the dictionary, only to look up seven other words. You’re caught in a cycle of referents so deep you don’t even remember the first thing you were trying to define.

I pay more attention to sound these days after watching a video of a British woman deaf from birth who, thanks to science, can now hear. Joanne Milne: a modern miracle.

If this doesn’t give me hope about recovering what was lost—something you thought was irretrievably lost—I don’t know what does. She probably never imagined her story would be rewritten to read: “Be opened!”

I imagine the deaf and mute man brought to Jesus in Mark 7:31-37 didn’t either. Jesus took him away from the crowd and spoke to him in silence. Fingers in his ears and spit on his tongue, he looked up to heaven and shouted for the silence to be broken. “Ephphatha!” For the doors to open—two doors, actually. Sound and speech restored. And how did the crowd respond? They were “overwhelmed with amazement.”

“The world is just sounding so, so loud to me at the moment” Joanne says in her BBC interview. She had to take the battery out of her clock hanging on the wall.

I don’t know what Joanne’s new world is like. I willingly moved from the suburbs to the city so I could be surrounded by loud and big and exciting and all those adjectives that cities have to offer young twenty and thirty-somethings searching for post-secondary meaning. I fall asleep easier to sirens and honks and activated pedestrian signals than I do to the low hum of a refrigerator or to nature’s insects chirping in the great outdoors or to absolute quiet. When I’m driving, I turn up the volume of my car stereo three or four notches higher than the default setting it was turned to when I bought it. It happened gradually.

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I don’t know what it’s like to be surprised by loud. I grew up with it, so I don’t know if I ever did.

Joanne Milne is waking up to sound for the first time and it is a beautiful thing. It is an emotional thing. But, from her interview, it also sounds like it is an overwhelming thing. How do you go from utter silence to utter loudness? Was there something peaceful about listening to a blank soundtrack, images without audio interpretation? Did it foster the imagination in any way? And then I think of music and the beauty of waking up to notes played over time, at different lengths and pitches, tones and volumes, and if I would cry over the sound of a doorknob twisting to open, how much more would I cry/die over a Bach’s Air on the G String or Yann Tiersen’s Comptine d’Un Autre Été?

I wonder if the ideal process for an education into the sounds of the world would be to start small and work up. Clocks and hand clapping, doors and foot tapping, running water and cackling fires, church bells and street hustle, music concerts and outdoor festivals. But in our world of noise, you are educated not with a whisper but a bang—a big bang. You don’t learn things in increments. It’s everything all at once. Everything has a referent.IMG_5201

Joanne Milne is embarking on a life-changing education in middle age and I am a little envious of her wonder. I would like to hear the world through her ears—to remember what it’s like to be surprised by sound again. And then to listen closely and to write this hope in new and beautiful ways.

A group I recently discovered on NoiseTrade does this so well. I cannot help but imagine Loud Harp (note the name) is responding to Jesus’ fingers in their ears, their eyes, their mouths: “Ephphatha! Be opened!”

The Neon Parade

When I was at the Museum of Vancouver in January checking out their Playhouse exhibit, I toured one of the other exhibits they have currently on display: Neon Vancouver, Ugly Vancouver.

To say it was eye-catching would be an understatement. Fluorescent blues, pinks, yellows, reds, and greens met my eyes. A constant humming sound made it a space you wouldn’t want to spend more than half an hour in.

I walked around from sign to sign, trying to picture these now-vintage signs hanging in their heyday on Granville Street in the 1950s-60s, Vancouver’s “theatre row.”

There are still a few remaining neon signs on Granville Street, but this “visual pollution”, as the City’s Environmental Committee put it in 1974, had to be reduced. So a sign by-law was enacted in 1974 to control the amount of neon cropping up over the city. It was apparently a very polarizing issue. Here are what some opponents said:

I walk into spaces like this and feel nostalgic for the past—to experience coming downtown Vancouver to be greeted with such fanfare—lights, colour, action—reminding me of the city as spectacle, the city as stage. Coming downtown was an adventure. There is something appealing about the signs’ audacity, drama, even grittiness. But then I try and picture what it would be like to have lived in that era where these signs were everywhere, building after building, and perhaps it was more nauseating than nostalgic, more contrived than genuine. A part of me then sympathizes with the naysayers, although some of their rhetoric sounds a touch extreme:

You can have civilization, or you can have neon.

You can have happiness, or you can have neon.

This anecdote is rather humorous:

An urban legend grew up that the most dangerous intersection in Vancouver was along Kingsway where a flashing neon woman swung back and forth, mesmerizing drivers.

As German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote in his famous essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” (1903) the growth of the modern city in the early twentieth century impacted city dwellers psychologically in a new way than ever before. Cities bombarded us with stimuli of all shapes and sizes, contributing to the feeling Simmel identified as the blasé. The blasé is an attitude of indifference caused by the over-stimulation of the nerves because of the rapidly changing sights and sounds in the city. Blasé becomes an item of clothing we wear when stepping out into the streets: it’s a protective shield from the 24-7 advertising assault on our senses. It’s not hard to see how neon signs play a role in this urban armour.

So, what’s your reaction to neon signs? Love ’em or leave ’em?