Sunday, April 27, 2008

And We Would All Be Safe

Insomnia III
Originally uploaded by Maria takes pictures.
Yesterday I lectured in Geneva to a group of designers on the ways ‘we’ and ‘them’ are produced in youth cultures. One of my key themes in the presentation was the sense of insecurity felt by a large number of teenagers. There is not one single reason to point out: the sense of instability and anxiety results from the Internet, secularism, social inequality, lack of attention and confusion on parenthood just to name a few. The Internet is giving a voice for millions of freedom fighters but also acting as an efficient tool to terrorists, pedophiles and bullies. Therefore it does not come as surprise that one can witness an escapist sentiment in many youth cultures, which can be interpreted as a reaction to the world that the baby-boomers are offering. We’re destroying our planet, the public sphere and killing people on our borders. A growing number of teenagers are asking: what is the point really?

Of course the sense of instability and anxiety is not a privilege of teenagers. Kate Kellaway writes in this weekend’s The Observer how insomnia is becoming an epidemic of our era. The numbers are shocking: 27 % of Brits have at least three nights of bad sleep per week, 63 % suffer at least one. One in four Brits are finding it difficult to sleep well. The Western world seems to be turning into a community of unhappy, scared and wealthy zombies.

The Observer had asked a number of insomniacs to tell about their difficulties with sleep. As an insomniac myself, the stories are frighteningly familiar. During the last three and a half years I can’t remember a week when I had slept well seven nights in a row so reading the article felt like they had installed Big Brother cameras into my bedroom. As any insomniac knows, lack of sleep is not 100 % bad. Journalist Tim Adams describes the unusual moment of clarity emerging often in the middle of the night when sitting in a quiet house with your laptop and schoolgirl Elsa Vulliamy talks about the fear of the bed. It is black AND white, good AND horrible. “I’d just want it to be morning again” – a quote from Vulliamy – is something right from my mind earlier this week but I also can remember from my freelancer days the addiction to working in the middle of the night - which had as its flipside the grumpy zombie moments around three-four in the afternoon. And someone who always sleeps well cannot understand how much like a Superman an insomniac feels after nine hours of continuous sleep.

After my presentation yesterday we ended up talking about the responsibility of adults – teachers and parents specifically - when it comes to teenagers sharing intimate stuff online. We have entered a world where more and more parents are finding it difficult to perform some of the key roles of being a parent: protecting the child, passing knowledge onward and at times making the decision for the child. The helpless feeling is something we all insomniacs recognize – you feel very abandoned and helpless, lying in your own bed eyes wide open and thinking about the rest of the world resting in peace.

Friday, April 25, 2008

I Know Me

In the course of the last two years I have attended I think five British Council networking events on topics ranging from corporate social responsibility to social cohesion. And what do you get every time you put a group of young European professionals in a room: a discussion on immigration. And sadly, the discussion is always rather dominated by the Western Europeans extremely concerned for the reason of their existence.

Today’s most stimulating speech was Swedish Actor/Director America Vera-Zavala who showed a clip from her play Etnoporn. The monologue takes the position of a young woman with an immigrant background who wants to win the Swedish Idol competition and simultaneously start a political and sexual revolution. The highly acclaimed and popular play attacks the way Sweden deals with immigrants, immigrant women and tolerance. In her clip the main character is seen shouting:

“We are normal! We don’t want to be multicultural! We are Swedish!”
“We’re tired of multiculturalism. I am tired of project managers!”

Vera-Zavala herself has Latin American parents, was born in Romania and moved to Sweden in the age of three. She accused the European culture for being fundamentally racist and criticized heavily the way the Swedish establishment has for instance embraced the Gringo phenomenon where a group of immigrants started claiming back the notion of an immigrant through a magazine and other forms of media. She stated that she feels that things are not improving when the establishment is introducing notions like second-generation or third-generation immigrant and branding a range of social problems as ethnic problems. According to Vera-Zavala the focus has only shifted from 1970s’ “violent and abusive Latin American men” to today’s “problem with the Muslims”. As she said:“I don’t want another generation of girls needing to feel like they have to defend their fathers against stereotypes on violent immigrant men.”

She said it is absurd when a teenager with an immigrant background is all through childhood told that she is Swedish but at the age of 13 she seems to always turn into an immigrant or when a woman beaten by her husband is forced to a discussion over “your culture” with the police.

Vera-Zavala’s take was personal but according to some of the Swedes she was inaccurate and incorrect and thing were improving. As a British theatre director Karina Johnson rightly stated, we have a major problem where one’s personal experience of discrimination or racism is not valued but brushed off as a coincidence or as an exception to the rule.

The situation reminds me of an experience of my dear friend who was interrupted in an important seminar by a Finnish middle-aged multicultural expert when my friend stated in her talk that she as an immigrant feels more comfortable in Amsterdam than in Helsinki. The Finnish “expert” felt that she had the right to publicly invalidate someone’s personal experience of discrimination. The level of arrogance shown in this is just criminal.

Vera-Zavala’s presentation made me wonder what is the Finnish future in this respect. Just a few month’s back the lifestyle magazine Image praised in their editorial and in a big feature the Gringo phenomenon saying that we would need something similar in Finland. I am wondering whether these kinds of phenomena help the native establishment to “talk with and about immigrants” but whether they actually lead to equality of opportunities. Because let´s face it: this kind of critical self-distancing ironic reflection is the way we are used to talking about identities.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

European Time Capsule

Individualistic, skeptic, snobbish, multi-layered, superior, romantic, guilt, democracy, large middle classes, Bildung, division of state and church...

This was the list of European characteristics of one of the speakers at the conference European Culture -Just Do It, a networking event of the European Union National Institutes of Culture which I am attending as a speaker. I defended in the panel my position that although I recognise Europe's troubled and glorious history, it does not work as a source of inspiration nor does it give a role to the individual. And to be honest, I understand the elite's wishes to talk about Europe as the (super)state of criticism and skepticism but I am not sure if I want to be European based on that list.

Some other fascinating quotes from the day were:
"Europe is a nowhere culture which is not about real life."
"What are the two things you would put into a European time capsule?"
"What do we exhibit at the metaphorical European embassy in China?"
"Europe is outside itself."
"Europe is in moral decay."
"European Union is a coverup of the market."

I don't know. I am feeling even more clearly that maybe something has gone wrong with my European upbringing but I am just not too interested in Europeanness which builds on anti-Americanism, elitism and resentment of private ownership or the English language. For me Europe needs to make sense and it needs to link to the individual. It needs to be clear what Europe wants me to do and what do I get in return. It might be that we need a better advertising agency.

Over dinner tonight the red wine speeded the brainstorming and we created more and more opposition towards cynicism and skepticism. Skepticism is releasing yourself from the responsibility. We all agreed that we need common goals and we need a culture that does not punish one for naivety or for trying.

But a question for you, dear reader: what are the two things you would put into the time capsule of Europe that is sent to Mars? I have personally still problems with the second thing but I am quite confident that I would like to put in some Legos.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Trust Me, I Am A Journalist

Originally uploaded by mint tea
Stockholm is such a beautiful city. Seriously, a few places can compete with it on a sunny day with a slight drift. It feels so fresh and bright. An when one crosses the bridge to Södermalm´s Götgatan, one ends up feeling underdressed and in urgent need of a haircut. Or maybe it is just my Finnish low self-esteem in relation to the Swedes.

I had a fab dinner with two friends of mine. Both of them journalists, the discussion went from the relations of Finland and Sweden to the role of language. One of them being Finnish and one half-Norwegian, we had quite a good pack for analysing the Strong Old and the Aspiring New of the North. We all shared a passion for language but in the same manner a certain level of frustration due to being limited to a marginal language area. For all of us, if we wish to excel in our own language as journalists, that means that the rest of the world will not be able to judge our creations. But I think it still counts. I would even say that I feel personally some responsibility that my generation would keep the Finnish language alive and would keep twisting and reinventing it.

And after returning to my hotel room, I got a good reminder why good journalism is still needed - in any language. In the complementary Nordic Reach magazine Eva Stenskär has interviewed H&M's Head of Design Margareta van den Bosch. I was really interested until I read the following sentence:

"Stella McCartney is a great designer, too, and Margareta (who happens to be my sister-in-law) has a high regard for her professionalism."

I love the way she just drops the information like it was a funny coincidence. I wonder what Ms van den Bosch's assessment of Stenskär's professionalism would be. I mean just think of it - would you write a critical article on your mother-in-law or uncle?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sunny Jenkins

Henry Jenkins
Originally uploaded by Joi
This was not how it was supposed to work. On Thursday I left the office energetic to prepare for the next day's evening with my team members. I had invited them over for casual dinner and drinks. My idea was also to use some of the evening for preparing for my lecture next Saturday in Geneva. After Friday I had planned an active Saturday of studying, shopping and so forth.

Well, as I got back from work on Thursday it was clear that the flu had caught me. And it came over like a flood. By the hour it only got worse and by the evening it was evident that the next day would be ruined. Before two I could not get up from bed as my head was pounding. I had to cancel the party planned a month back which sucked big time. In the end I ended up staying home also most of Saturday as I still felt relatively weak.

My weekend was however saved by two things: Professor Henry Jenkins and a sunny Sunday. Jenkins is MIT's Professor of Comparative Media Studies and writes phenomenally and in an entertaining manner on popular culture, fans, convergence of old and new media as well as media education. He has a critical but not cynical take on media, he admits being a fan of popular culture and he provides suggestions for improvements. I also like the fact that he often consciously looks at phenomena from the point of view of the viewer. His research on how Americans watch American Idol socially is awesome. Highly recommend his book Convergence Culture. Here I also need to thank Daniel and Celia for leading me to his literature.

The weather does not need explanation apart from pointing out that I am sure everyone knows how it feels when you get outside after being ill. Superman is back! Seriously, you feel reborn. I felt so energetic that we ended up discussing the European Dream for five hours on a terrace. It functioned as a good training camp for a debate in Stockholm on Thursday on the very existence of European culture.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Real American Idol

In a bit more than a week, I am giving a lecture to a professional audience in Geneva on how ´we´ and ´they´ are produced in youth cultures. When preparing the lecture I have been going through a lot of audiovisual content (fancy expression for hanging on YouTube) and value studies of European youth. I wish to elaborate a bit on the shared or divied values today and between generations. The quest made me go back to one of my favourite moments on Dutch TV some months back: the winner of the Dutch Idols Nikki decided to sing a gospel song in the finals of the competition and got criticism from one of the jury members (gay celeb singer) for the song selection. In that moment, I felt like the Dutch society was accurately presented in a matter of seconds and forced into dialogue.

Well, the moment came back to me watching the annual charity show of the American Idol called Idols Give Back. The star-studded show for Aids work featured everyone from Miley Cyrus and Fergie to Brad Pitt. However, the most fascinating moment was when this mainstream of the mainstream programme ended with the finalists singing together a religious song called Shout To The Lord. This was not a song they picked themselves but was for sure selected by FOX. Fascinating, wouldn´t you say? It seems like religion - more accurately Christianity - is getting cool again on both sides of the Atlantic. Or religion has consumer power? Or both. I keep watching these clips again and again in awe.

I find it wonderful that people are in touch with spirituality and wish to express it. But the difference between the Dutch and the American example is important: in the Dutch Idols Nikki chooses to express something important to her when in the American Idol mainstream entertainment adopts religion as a collective practice.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Brilliant commentary

This is why I love running StrangerFestival. Our Polish friends at Kultura Miejska in Gdansk really know how to make brilliant videos and use the video as a tool to the full.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

We Exist, We Really Do!

Barack Obama on the Primary
Originally uploaded by jurvetson
It is somehow cute how Finnish media loves covering when we are mentioned by anyone of any standing. Even as a Hillary supporter I need to mention this. Tonight Finland's main newspaper had a headline that Obama believes in Finland's NATO membership. Apparently Obama had said the following things at the Senate hearing for new ambassadors to Europe.

"Amongst the new ambassadors was also Finland's new ambassador Barbara McConnell Barrett. According to Ilta-Sanomat (country's leading tabloid) Obama mentioned that Barrett will represent America in a country that has travelled further than others on the road to democracy and welfare. But it still has challenges in its relationship with Russia and its longstanding position outside Euro-Atlantic security institutions. At some point soon Finland may move closer to Nato, Obama stated. According to Obama said that Finland is a true friend of the United States."

Somehow cute. And also a brilliant example of creative headlining. Obama actually made a prognosis and did not state anything about his own opinions regarding Finland and NATO. But hey, we were mentioned by the possibly next most powerful man on the planet.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Optimism Is An Obligation

Originally uploaded by amsterboy
I just got back from Andrew Keen's lecture at Felix Meritis. Keen has made a fortune during the last year's by writing a bestseller called The Cult of the Amateur where he attacks the Web 2.0 phenomenon. According to Keen, we are not witnessing growing democracy but public masturbation of narcissists and a race to the bottom. As Keen puts it:"Most of us aren't talented. Most of us have nothing to say." According to Andrew Keen true democracy is not handing people the tools for self-expression, it is providing articles of professional journalists globally to everyone. "One learns about the world by listening to experts", he points out.

People like Keen frustrate me. He has found a segment in the market and hit it by simplifying his arguments to a cynical provocation piece. Personally I find it so sad when I witness professional writers choosing full pessimism as their final resting place. According to Keen, Web 2.0 is not about Wisdom of the Crowd, he thinks it is the Rule of the Mob lead by oligarchs such as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Larry Page of Google.

I am right on the hit list of Keen's attack. We launched today a new version of which links videos by those vicious amateurs thematically and allows just everyone to even comment on them. Already now the thematic map shows fascinating aspects such as the amount of violence compared to religion. Come and have a look.

I get annoyed by attacks such as Keen's which blame user-generated culture for everything from drop in CD sales to falling subsciption rates of newspapers. Keen consciously forgets that at the same time as the Internet fosters blogs which are all about Me-Me-Me, it also creates opportunities for more people to reach quality and share quality. It allows people to gain recognition and creates a sense of belonging. Borrowing an idea of Karen Spaink from today: the goal of videos like the ones in StrangerFestival is not to prove that amateurs are as good as journalists and artists, not at all. We are talking of a new culture which creates its own narratives, frameworks and rules. Sometimes the goal is to change the world, sometimes it is just to share a feeling with friends of like-minded. Sometimes you reveal systematic torture by governments, sometimes you tell about struggling sleepless nights with a newborn, at times you want to show your holiday pictures to your loved ones and sometimes you tell about losing your legs in a bomb in Iraq.

Pessimism like Keen's is easy but not helpful. As Karen Spaink asked smartly:"So should we just tell people to shut up?" Maybe it my studies in political science but according to me this does not sound like spreading democracy, Mr Keen.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Don't Give Me That Shit

Originally uploaded by Brian Elstak
One of the best parts of my work is meeting dedicated and inspiring people and organisations. This weekend I went to see a performance of our potential partner for StrangerFestival, the theatre company Made in da Shade. Ooh Shit is a play/performance by four girls focused on something highly important for them - friendship. The name Ooh Shit refers to the dramatic turn in the group of rowdy girls when one of them finds herself pregnant, not fully sure who is the father.

Made in da Shade's take on theatre is highly physical. The two productions I have seen now both mix dance, music and theatre. Yesterday's performance was due to its subject aggressive and loud down to the last movement. These were the girls I saw in real life in Nirit Peled's hip hop girl documentary Say My Name. These girls gained so much strength from their friendship that they felt no need to apologise for anything or to anyone.

The audience was very mixed both in terms of ethnicity and age. It was fantastic seeing how different people laughed at different things during the performance. Without falling too far into kitchen psychology, one saw parents of teenagers laughing uncomfortably and teenager girls identifying with the empowered and aggressive nature of the expressions on stage.

In projects that bring amateurs into the field of culture, one always has the balancing act between product and process. This time the girls really did a superb job in making the performance their own. But I must say still that my heart warmed up the most when I looked at their faces when the performance ended, the lights went on and the audience was clapping wildly. The joy on their faces is something you very seldom see on professionals' faces.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

No More Monkey Business

Alexander Stubb, MP
Originally uploaded by Dansk Industri
Just before heading to our summer house for Easter, I sat in a cafe in Helsinki with two of my politically active friends. As usually, they were my deepthroats to current political thinking. One of them mentioned regarding Foreign Minister Kanerva's text messaging and the sexual harrasment cases in the Parliament:"Well, one could see something good in this entire fuss. It shows that these old guys just cannot keep going as they wish."

Right on the mark, my friend. Kanerva obviously thought that he can just shrug this off and trust on his buddies. And for a long time it seemed so. You had (male) politicians saying that who cares about his texting as long as the man does his work well. But when it came out that Kanerva had twisted the truth on his messaging a number of times, it became unbearable for him to continue. I guess that his party leader Jyrki Katainen realised that losing Kanerva is safer than gambling on the nurses and teachers that vote his party. Those people in Turku will keep on voting the "martyr" Kanerva but the female voters are easily in the hands of the Social Democrats and the Greens.

Even against the mainstream of my (mostly leftish) friends, I am extremely happy with the person replacing Kanerva, MEP Alexander Stubb (see pic). He is smart, liberal (also socially), internationally experienced and younger. Stubb has been brilliant in the European Parliament in raising issues concerning sexual minorities and transparency. One can see his background as a civil servant and a political scientist here: this is not about waving the rainbow flag, but about civil rights and good governance at the centre of the European project.

I like having a Minister who is opinionated, experienced, skilled and not building on an Old Boys' Network. I don't mind if he supports NATO: that is an issue decided by the the political coalition and finally by the Parliament, not by the Foreign Minister. If this is the generational change in Finnish politics, I kind of like the taste of it. As President Halonen put it so well: it is positive that decency and gender equality are starting to play a bigger role in Finnish politics.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Simple As This

You know, I was thinking of writing about the generational change in Finnish politics but then I heard this song in Apple's Air commercial and I just did not feel like it anymore. La-la-laa-laa. And yes, Apple Air is light and oh so wonderful.