Anna Holmström performs performs Debris
art, Berlin, dance, events, Life in Berlin, theatre, things to do

Pi – Petricore Movement & Zentire Music at Pfefferberg Theater

Last night, I had the pleasure of seeing Pi, a modern dance performance at Pfefferberg Theatre. There is something about bodies moving through space in exceptional ways that is both delightful, energising and emotional — and this performance was no different.

Anna Holmström performs performs Debris
Anna Holmström performs performs Debris

As a writer, it always takes me a few minutes to let go of questions of narrative and story and enter the flow of the piece. But choreographer Anna Holmström does an artful job in creating a structured and engaging performance that expresses different characters, theme and conflict through movement.

The first composition, Dim 4, is about time, presenting different views of the same moment. It snakes through various moods and music — from the resonant and conflictual to jazzy and playful. The five dancers convey complex feelings and relationships without the use of flashy extras — a cardboard object and a net are the only props used.

In Debris, performed solely by Holmström, a piece of plastic takes on a sublime, airy quality as she dances with it. The piece is about the beauty of the ocean, which is becoming suffocated by plastics, and indeed we genuinely become worried for the dancer as she becomes more and more entangled in it. But the emotion that lingers is  the one of sadness that we see in the long, still moments on the dancers face.

Pi is on at Pfefferberg Theatre for only one more night, so grab your tickets for tonight!

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Photo of OSMO, a musical performance at Ufer Studio's in Berlin
art, Berlin, events, Life in Berlin, music, people, things to do

OSMO: A musical performance by Sebastian Blasius and the Sonar Quartett at Ufer Studios Berlin

You walk into room at Berlin’s Ufer Studios. Swirls of salt are scattered across the black floor, orange curtains hang from the ceiling, reminding you of segments of an orange, a silver ball, musicians, music stands and chairs are spread across the studio. As you crunch, crunch, crunch your way across the floor, you stop at one of these stands and pick up an envelope. Inside, is a picture and the words: Perform a dance that hardly anyone can recognise as a dance.

Photo of OSMO, a musical performance at Ufer Studio's in Berlin
Photo courtesy of Ralf Ziervogel

With OSMO, where Beethoven’s last string quartet meets an installation meets an audience, Sebastian Blasius has directed a musical performance with Berlin’s Sonar Quartett that hardly anyone can  recognise as a musical performance. Grating sounds, such as a bow across the hollow wood of a violin, are woven into familiar bursts of classical music. Recordings of children reciting the capitals of countries become a metronome. The musicians keep moving around, and so do the audience.

What results is a space where the line between performer and spectator is blurred. There is also a blurring of the lines separating the arts, so one is constantly stimulated in surprising ways. The ever changing constellations of people, lights, sounds and visuals creates something completely fresh and original. An engaging experience.

OSMO was on at Ufer Studios in Berlin on the 22nd and 23rd September 2107.

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TOA, Berlin, Tech Open Air, 2017
art, Berlin, events, Life in Berlin, News, people, tech

Berlin’s Tech Open Air Festival 2017

Last week, Berlin’s Tech Open Air (TOA) festival took over the city. Now in its sixth year, TOA is an interdisciplinary festival that brings together technology, music, art and science.

The festival consisted of a two-day conference at Funkhaus Berlin, a sprawling complex along the banks of the River Spree that used to house East Germany’s central radio station, and over 200 satellite events that happened all over the city over four days. This year’s festival was the biggest yet, with over 200 speakers and 20.000 participants.

TOA, Berlin, Tech Open Air, 2017

The festival, a bit like technology itself, was pervasive, and, with conference talks lasting an average of 15 minutes each, mimicked the hectic effect of switching between multiple tabs in a browser. It also came with some of the frustrations of modern tech – the conference app did not work, and men dressed in black talked about how important and life-changing their work was without a hint of irony. For example, Magnus Olsson, founder of Careem, which is basically Uber for the Middle East, talked about the principles he lived by, why Careem was life-defining for him, and its social impact, when really, all the dude had to say was, “It’s Uber for the Middle East.”

It was all a bit like this:

 

But there were also tons of interesting talks, and key trends this year seemed to be A.I, VR and Fintech.

My personal highlights included Edda Hamar, Founder and CEO of Undress, talking ethics and sustainability in fashion, Prince Fahd Al Saud, who gave an enlightening perspective on the Millennial Middle East – one that challenged the West’s prejudices and perceptions – and spoke about his aims to support and promote women and feminism, and BBC R&D’s Senior Firestarter (yes, that’s his job title) Ian Forrester, who raised some interesting questions about the future of storytelling while demonstrating the prospects of object-based media. Last but not least, Imagining Coordinator Rebecca Roth, who works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, presented some mind-blowing and beautiful images of space. All these talks will be available to view on TOA’s YouTube Channel within the following week.

In addition, I got the chance to try out some VR porn, have a drink at the Amano Grand Central’s Rooftop Bar, hosted by Invest Hong Kong, attend a Mobile Industry party at coworking space Rent 24 in Mitte, as well as an Afterwork Jam at start-up community hub The Factory. All in all, a fun, enlightening and diverse festival.

For more information, visit the TOA Berlin website.

 

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art, Berlin, events, Film, Life in Berlin, politics, science

STATE Festival Berlin: The Sentimental Machine

Berlin’s second STATE Festival, which brings together leading scientists, innovators, social-scientists, artists and members of the public to explore one topic took place recently at Kühlhaus in Gleisdreieck. The topic in question was emotions.

Emoji balloons at the State Festival Berlin, 2016

Emotions are a fundamental part of being human, and our understanding of them not only illuminates our experiences and interactions but also raises important questions about our growing reliance on machines and the nature of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

We often think of emotions as immaterial and internal, but the festival demonstrated how physically palpable and measurable they are. Adam Anderson from Cornell University’s Department of Human Development and Human Neuroscience Institute talked about how our sight and emotions are linked. Emotions, like colour, are created by the visual regions of the brain and everything we see is affected by emotion.

The Festival’s screening of Stefan Sagmeister’s The Happy Film, in which the prominent designer embarks on a navel-gazing journey in the search of happiness confirmed the strong link between the body and emotion. Sagameister pursued happiness using three methods; meditation, therapy and drugs – and drugs was the most effective. The chemical changes they affected in his body made him deliriously happy to the point of falling in love and almost getting married within a matter of weeks.

The link between the emotion of love and physicality was put to the test at the festival’s interactive Sniff and Date session, in which participants did an aerobics session, captured their sweaty scent on a small patch of material, then sniffed out a potential partner. Although smelling numbered patches of sweat felt dubious, it worked! I matched with a lovely Romanian artist with whom I had a lot in common. Yes, it was a woman, who was there with her boyfriend, but it was nice to have a drink with her.

In such social situations, the hormone oxytocin plays a big role. It helps in social bonding, sexual reproduction, birth and nurturing as well as increasing the recognition and mimicry of facial emotions. Neuroscientist Sebastian Korb explained how he used electromyography (EMG) to detect facial mimicry which is so fast and subtle that it is difficult to inhibit. Facial mimicry is important to social interaction as it is key to feeling empathy (therefore procedures such as Botox, which restrict people’s facial movements, impact their ability to empathise).

As we become more dependent on technology, the ability of machines to understand and respond to our emotions will become more important. The Android game Emotion Hero demonstrated what computer recognition of facial emotion could look like. Naturally, this led to questions about whether machines would eventually be able to experience emotions themselves and what the implications of this would be.

If machines could feel, would they be granted the same rights as people? As it stands, scientists use the human brain as a model to make intelligent, self-learning robots. Of course, companies like Nvidia, Google and Intel are nowhere near creating something as powerful as the brain with its 100 billion neurones and 250 billion synapses, but the possibility is on the distant horizon. Toby Walsh, one of the world’s leading experts on AI, said he did not think the Singularity – the point where robots overtake humans – was coming any time soon.

Still, the warnings of prominent people such as Stephen Hawking, who said AI “could spell the end of the human race” and Elon Musk, who compared developing AI to “summoning the demon” were at the forefront of many discussions. Clearly, AI and its implications must be thought about. In fact, people are already thinking about it, but they belong to an elite with commercial interests. For example, those developing the self-driving car are already making ethical decisions such as who the car should kill or injure in certain crash situations.

One of the most interesting interactive sessions was the critical thinking workshop AI Ethics and Prosthetics run by Marco Donnarumma, an artist who explores human-machine corporeality. The conversation took interesting turns, exploring questions from “Would you live with an autonomous prosthesis?” to “Where does the fault lie if a machine is responsible for killing a human?” The conversation raised more questions than answers, highlighting the complex nature of this crucial time in human history.

What was unique and fulfilling about this festival was how it hit all senses – with music, sound, visual art, films, talks, discussions and physical activities. It stimulated anxiety about a machine-filled future, passionate debate, and joy at the meeting fascinating minds – an important, emotional experience.

This year’s STATE Festival took place between 3-6 November.

art, Berlin, events, Life in Berlin, people, theatre

Palast-Talk: British Evening

Friedrichstadt-Palast – the glitzy show palace in Mitte – recently hosted an illuminating discussion about German and British theatre.

Berndt Schmidt and Alistair Spalding, Friedrichstadt-Palast
Photo: Sascha Radke, Eventpress, courtesy of Friedrichstadt-Palast

The talk focused on the differences between British and German theatre. Alistair Spalding, Artistic Director of Sadler’s Wells in London, observed that the British prefer to be entertained, while the Germans think theatre has to be difficult and painful. Also, British theatre is commercial, whereas German theatres are mostly subsidised.

This inevitably led to a discussion about the difference between art and entertainment. Does art have to be political? Dr Berndt Schmidt, General Director of Friedrichstadt-Palast, joked that although many people do not count what the Palast does as art, it must be – because they get funding for it.

He also stated that although the shows at Friedrichstadt-Palast were not political, the theatre’s attitude was open and tolerant. This is a fallacy: Everything is political. Even the choice not to engage in politics and just entertain people is political. It is a choice that says, the status quo is fine and we do not feel a responsibility or need to question it. That entertainment is more important than politics. It is conservatism of the highest degree.

The Palast’s current home on Friedrichstrasse was the last historic landmark building constructed in German Democratic Republic, in 1984. Under communist rule, the Palast’s shows were also used to entertain and placate. In Setting the Scene: Perspectives on Twentieth-Century Theatre Architecture, historian Florian Urban writes that the Palast hosted a selection of the regime’s most popular television variety shows, including Ein Kessel Buntes (A Cauldron of Potpurri); “the Saturday-night entertainment show with which East German rulers had, since 1972, attempted to win the acceptance of their subjects.”

The Palast’s shows supported the ruling order then, just as it supported the ruling order during the Nazi era, and it is – by choosing not to question contemporary society and politics – doing the same today. Luckily, we live in an open, democratic society, which is, apparently, the ‘general attitude’ of the Palast.

But how does the Palast’s ‘open and tolerant’ attitude manifest itself? When the director of Berlin’s largest theatre was asked whether he actively sought to bring diverse voices from the city into his production-process, Berndt replied that he was not thinking about how many women or coloured faces there were in his theatre; he was just hiring people he thought were cool.

If you are not consciously thinking about tolerance, openness, and diversity, you cannot have an open, tolerant and diverse attitude. People naturally choose to work and socialise with people who are similar to them (see Scientific American’s article on how people socialise, or Business Insider’s article on the fact that managers hire people who remind them of themselves). Berndt is a white, middle-class man. If he is just picking people he thinks are cool, he is most certainly picking people who share his background or attitudes, which is not promoting diversity or tolerance but perpetuating a system of privilege and bias.

This system is the reason that no black actors were nominated for the Oscars this year. It is the reason that female hires in orchestras have risen by half since the introduction of ‘blind’ auditions for orchestras, where musicians must play behind screens that conceal their identities.

It is the reason the director of Ireland’s National Theatre came under fire at the end of last year when he announced a line up of 18 men and just two women writers and directors. In response to the criticism, he tweeted: “I don’t and haven’t programmed plays on a gender basis. I took decisions based on who I admired and wanted to work with.”

To deny gender-bias with such a line-up is ludicrous. The people he admired and wanted to work with were people like him – men. The work he connected to was the work that related to his experience – as a white, privileged male. It was only when he was made to think about it – by a counter movement supported by Meryl Streep and Wim Wenders – that he recanted his words. But his comment is one the Director of Friedrichstadt-Palast echoed: I’m just choosing people I think are cool. As a woman in the toilets said afterwards; “Well whoopee for him.”

Berlin, events, Life in Berlin

What attending a TEDxBerlinSalon does for your mood

Tuesday afternoon was the TEDxBerlinSalon – a series of inspiring talks on the topic of Leading in a Complex World. I didn’t want to go; I was feeling blue, the Bavarian had been annoying me, the days were getting colder and darker.

Besides, why was I attending a conference on leadership? I am not a leader. I have no interest in leading people. People are idiots. But I had my ticket and had planned to blog about it, so I decided to go Gonzo. Think An English Man in Berlin on PMS instead of Hunter S Thompson on acid…

tedxsalonberlinThe first speaker was Amel Karboul, entrepreneur, author, former Tunisian Government Minister – ugh, what an over-achiever. There’s just no modesty nowadays.

Karboul talked about how some companies – Nokia, Yahoo, Kodak – fly into the ‘coffin corner’ due to ‘railroad thinking.’ Yeah, her metaphors were all over the place. To complete her bag of images, she threw a pomegranate into the mix. Companies, she said, should be structured like pomegranates if they want to keep their edge. Despite myself, I actually liked the idea. Mostly, because it confirmed my position in a recent disagreement I had with The Bavarian, who thinks my way of moving between different things – blogging, fiction-writing, an up-coming venture into podcasting – is chaotic.

“Hah!” I argued with him in my head, “It’s the latest in pomegranate-thinking; having no core, but many separate yet connected seeds. And it’s high in vitamin-CI!”

The audience clapped. I almost stood up and bowed.

The next talk gave me more ammunition in my imaginary argument with the Bavarian. Director of the School of Design Thinking Ulrich Weinberg talked about the end of ‘Brockhaus Thinking’. Brockhaus is the German encyclopedia that recently discontinued after 200 years, having even missed the opportunity to go digital. Weinberg’s point was that our companies and education systems must reflect the ever-growing complexity of the world by transforming from ‘linear’ to ‘network’ thinking.’ This comprises 3 core elements:

  1. Working in multidisciplinary teams
  2. Having an iterative, rather than linear process
  3. Working in variable physical spaces

Bosch, for example, recently changed its model from individual to group incentives for its entire 300,000 strong workforce, encouraging collaboration rather than competition within the company. Weinberg argued that even university theses should be done in groups. Oh god. I completely forgot my argument with the Bavarian as a dystopian vision of the future – similar to Dave Eggers’ The Circle – opened up before me; constant connection, team activities, no space for the individual.

The man sitting in front of me clapped loudly, heralding in this new era defined by the shape of technology. I hate loud clappers. I wanted to find a cabin where I could curl up and flick through dusty pages of Brockhaus encyclopedias, alone.

Thank god for Janina Kugel, member of the Managing Board of Siemens, whose grounded and substantial talk on the power of being different served as an antidote. She spoke about her experiences as a woman of colour in Germany, and how exclusion and being different produces good leaders because it a) helps you to look beyond the obvious, b) teaches you how to fight for your position and point of view and c) gives you the skills to understand and adapt to different group dynamics and people. By the time she finished, my mood had settled at a tranquil turquoise.

Next, Hermann Arnold introduced himself as a former CEO, who had stepped down. Great. This was my kind of guy. Modest. Of course, he went to India after quitting, but he admitted to the cliche. Nice. Not only did he step down, he had a downbeat sense of humor. Arnold claimed that stepping down could be educational, and create better leaders. Society and the ego’s expectations of always climbing the career ladder and staying on top could be damaging. Instead, moving in spirals (and here we circle back to round structures, like pomegranates), where you learn, then step up and instruct, then step down again to mentor and let someone else take your place is more beneficial leadership pattern.

Serial entrepreneur Waldemar Zeiler stepped onto stage next, but I didn’t listen to him because he had a ridiculous beard.

Despite this, my mood was somewhat lifted. This might have been the result of cheap tricks like being offered chocolate cake during the break, and doing breathing exercises with Patricia Thielemann of Spirit Yoga.

However Ratna Omdivar made me forget my moodiness altogether when she recounted the story of how she suddenly became a refugee. Leadership for her requires key qualities of resistance, renewal and flexibility. Most important, however, is compassion. As well as being vital to leadership in complex times (just look at the complexity of the refugee crisis Germany is facing today), Harvard University research has shown that compassion is good for you; it makes live longer, appear more attractive to your partner, and feel better. And it did – Omdivar’s story took me out of myself and connected me with her and my fellow humans.

The next speakers continued this positive surge: activist Yörük Kurtaran talked about the Gezi protests in Istanbul, Regina von Flemming recounted the tough challenges she faced as Publisher and CEO for Axel Springer Russia, and Nuhu Ribadu spoke about his fight against corruption in Nigeria. Ribadu not only took on international companies and politicians despite being stonewalled, bribed and threatened, but even ended up arresting his own boss. He received a standing ovation. These were fascinating, diverse people who had survived difficult situations and continued to do good work. I was a warm, inflamed orange.

tatatatamThe final presentation by conductor, composer and performer Roni Porat swung everyone’s focus back to themselves.

With the help of a string quartet, he demonstrated why Beethoven’s 5th Symphony was so powerful: Repetition. Apparently – and I guess he’s counted – the ‘ta-ta-ta-tam’ motif is repeated 176 times in the piece. His question to us all was, What is your ta-ta-ta-tam? By this, he meant, what thoughts were we filling our minds with? Negative s***? Ideas? Questions? Love?

This was profound for me in a few ways. Firstly, as a wonderful insight into how art works – through repetition and variation of motif. I may have been attending a conference on leadership, but I was getting a lesson in composition. Secondly, it made me reassert my control over my thoughts and my mood. And lastly it made me re-focus my energy on what my ta-ta-ta-tam was in life.

By the time I walked out of the TEDxBerlinSalon, I was humming Beethoven’s 5th symphony, burning red.