Monday, 20 July 2015

The Stockholm During Wartime Tour: Swedish style neutrality

The Living History Forum, a Swedish organisation dedicated to promoting human rights, published this self-guided walking tour of Stockholm city centre. This tour takes in some 30 sites which were selected to highlight different events that happened during 1933-45. Taken together, they give a picture of how Swedish neutrality was not absolute, and how within the country there were divergent opinions.

The booklet includes a handy foldout map but gives no indication how the 30 sites should be connected. They are numbered in chronological order with the first event, number 1, dating from 1933 and the last, number 30, 1945. To navigate them in this order would be crazy, however, as they are dotted haphazardly around the city centre. If this existed as a guided tour first, and a booklet second, it would almost certainly have sorted out this problem and found a way to shape the tour into a walkable route, or else have found another way to give it thematic development instead of this frustrated chronology. However, as it exists as a booklet only, it has never had to properly confront this expectation of the live event offering a narrative. At first I experienced this as laziness on the part of the author, but I later found that the expectation of being given a narrative is also a lot weaker when following a self-guided tour. It was, in fact, quite sufficient to just wander neighbourhood to neighbourhood picking out these wartime sites as I went, making my own sense of it.

The first site I visited was Liljevalchs Art Gallery where I learnt that Picasso's Guernica was shown here in 1938. The Swedish newspaper coverage was, apparently, doubled-edged both praising the painting but also saying the indignation it would spark in the general public would be not against Franco but against modern art.

Sitting on the tram, I passed a site where an English businessman was arrested for plotting to sabotage Sweden's iron ore exports to Germany. The sign advertising 'fika', an afternoon snack, was more present than any British spies and this was to be the general feeling of the tour more generally: a distant past provided an often oblique lens to view a the contemporary city. In this instance, I struggled to see how the two had any obvious relation except to imagine spies tucking into fika in between plotting missions.

Roxette is another story altogether. The Swedish 80s band, still going strong, have songs that can just about provide the soundtrack to refusing jews asylum in 1938. It Must Have Been Love (but it's over now...springs to mind and then there's Dangerous. The seventeen individuals listed as being refused by the official office on this site, all later died in concentration camps.  

A meeting here in the The Medical Society Assembly Hall in 1939 resulted in a 263-18 vote against allowing a group of ten Jewish refugee doctors being granted permission to practice in Sweden. The meeting was highly anti-semitic and featured a student protest against the "refugee imports" on the grounds they would undermine Swedish doctors employment prospects.

And this is the site of Aberg's Bookshop: an anti-semitic bookstore whose owner founded 'The Anti-Jewish Fighting Brigade' in 1941 which called for "the total destruction of Judaism in Sweden". Today it's a H&M who, providing unexpected continuity, had to withdraw a T-Shirt last year as it featured a scull inside a star of David that was considered anti-semitic.  

I began to find that the way I was taking this tour was not to follow it as a formal tour start to finish but rather to use it as an accompaniment to spending a couple of days in the the city. When there were no better things to do, I consulted the map and located the closest wartime site, in this case where the last Swedish Nazi rally in uniform was held before the law was changed in 1933 prohibiting the wearing of uniforms in public. This meant there was always something that could get me moving to a new point in the city but I was also at liberty to break off this tour at any moment and do other things. What's more, the map became my general map for getting around during those two days so, in a sense, I was on this tour for 48 hours, though most of the time doing other things.

This is the site of a theatre, now closed, which staged the premiere of the anti-Nazi play The Executioner in 1934. The play was largely ignored in Stockholm whist it received standing ovations in Oslo. Indifference not only existed as a feature of the story of this site, it was a feature of the tour more broadly as the tour set itself up to provide a picture of a not quite so indifferent neutral country. The sense I got from the accumulation of stories on this tour was that the country was, in the 1930s, culturally closer to Germany than to the allies and non-participation in the war was about the best to be hoped for. Despite the tour's stated objective of dispelling the sense of Swedish neutrality or indifference, this feeling nonetheless seeped through every pore of the tour as this was a largely neglected, low-intensity, self-guided walking tour of a city that was more busy with fika and boat cruises than with examining its past.

The Berlin Olympics of 1936 were mentioned as the departing Swedish athletes were encouraged not to make Nazi salutes in Berlin, advice they sensibly heeded. It would have been wise if the British monarchy had done likewise.

Freedom of the press or Viking Longboat Souvenirs? This is the sort of dilemma that I was faced with when arriving in the old town where a newspaper that published an article critical of the level of Nazi support within the country's navy was prosecuted.

I finished the tour with this story about the first Swede to enlist in the SS. Credit should be given to the Living History Forum for publishing this booklet as it does not show Sweden in a particularly positive light. Reading it and looking around their centre I had the feeling that the impetus for their active promotion of universal human rights took the holocaust as its starting point so this tour can be seen as a part of a broader project. Indeed, during my two-day tour I came across the Nobel Centre and I had the sense that the country as a whole positioned itself as being at the forefront in promoting human rights around the world. Reflecting on this took me back to an experience I had listening to a Swedish arts manager speaking at a meeting in Brussels decrying the Roma gypsy's tendency towards marrying women young and denying them education, something he said should be actively stopped. He was a fundamentalist of human rights. Taking this Stockholm wartime tour I felt something of a similar contradiction behind the project as a whole and how it fitted into the society, contemporary and historical. It felt like it was trying just a bit too hard. It is only normal that a society is broad and contains divergent views and impulses that do not resolve themselves into one simple message and in this sense the tour did something to communicate this. It is quite definitely a worthwhile tour but I would have liked it to have been given by a live guide so I could have asked questions as in this form it leaves a great many unanswered, perhaps the greatest of which is, are the 30 events truly representative?

Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Stockholm Metro Art Tour

Stockholm is busy right now branding itself as The Capital of Scandinavia, a title I can only guess they have seized upon without bothering to consult their neighbours. So, what does the Scandinavian 'capital' have to offer beyond painful prices and Abba nostalgia tours?

For starters, it has free guided tours of its subway's art programme organised by SL, the company who run the trains. The tour began with an introduction to the city's transport network: facts and figures stuff.

We then descended down into the metro, our spritely granny guide leading the way.

She seemed to enjoy guiding us; she told us she had been giving tours of the metro's art for 16 years. Just as it is difficult to maintain a stage show for such a length of time, it is is also very hard to give a tour for such a duration and for it to not become sleepy. Bizarre Bath is one of the rare examples of an old walking tour/show that still feels fresh despite its age, but this tour did not have such vigour: spontaneous it wasn't. Still, we slowly made our way through the station listening to the same story that had been spun out time and time before.

We were to be shown a number of the cave-like subway stations such as this one. The tour only ran to one hour in length and we visited just four stations, however, we learnt that the majority of the 100+ stations in the city feature artworks of one kind or another. In this way the tour was an eye opener as now, after the tour, I continue to look out for the art at each stop.

At the same time as getting a basic art appreciation tour, we also got some background history. The basic story was that the country was more powerful in the past and that not participating in the major world wars of the 20th Century has made the country rich again. 

Since the tour was spread over a number of stations, was interspersed with short metro rides, and the artworks were very different to one another, it was always going to be a difficult tour to hold together and frame through any coherent narrative. The solution of not bothering to develop anything across the tour was of course predictable, but I would have liked to have seen something to elevate it beyond a succession of moments. In situations like this I try to find something of my own to explore but even that largely eluded me till some time later when I got focussed on her hands.

Some of the locations were elaborate and more than a little kitsch. I can imagine this arrangement sinking into the background if I lived in Stockholm, but as a visitor I found it quite amusing.

Others were rather more predictable showing themes like sport or folklore. This is a 3D picture which we were encouraged to explore from both sides. In terms of art appreciation this was quite unlike the tour I took of the Kunstmuseum in Stuttgart, which aimed to get the public talking about the art themselves. This tour was more of a one way affair in which the guide pointed out the art and made some short comments such as, the footballers in this picture are the Swedish national team from the mid-seventies.

Whilst her face was not particularly expressive and the descriptions of the artworks anodyne, I came to notice that she used here hands a great deal to explain her ideas. I remember once coming across a theory of there being different cultural uses of hand gestures based on some studies in New York City back in the 70s: Italian Americans used their hands for emphasis, Jewish Americans used theirs to indicate the causality of ideas, etc. This got me focussed on her hands trying to figure out how she was using them. For a while, this completely revived my flagging interest in the tour. If I were to describe her hands I'd say she mostly used them to draw maps and demonstrate physical processes such as how layers of concrete and paint are put together, though now and again she was doing other things with them too. In fact, once I started noticing her hands and the two chunky blue rings she wore, I got far more interested in looking at them than at her face or even at the art itself. In this respect she reminded me of Jeff Goldblum who, in my opinion, has the most interesting hands in Hollywood and who can make a Spielberg movie watchable simply on account of his gesticulation.

One of the more impressive works was a large-scale piece that took up a major intersection of the subway. We were told that the figures were all based on real people.

She made a point of how even many Stockholm residents were not aware of some of the art works, such as this black trumpet on black tiles. I like subtlety and believe there should be more space for it in public art, but this struck me as something else. It looked to me like a not so interesting decorative art work that was largely invisible to the casual viewer. Maybe there are levels that escape me here but I had to think back to a conversation I had earlier in the day with a choreographer living in Stockholm about the generous level of public financial support for the arts in Sweden. We were having this conversation as we both came from places with much less public financial support and we were caught in the dilemma of both admiring it, and in his case benefitting from it, yet also doubting its effectiveness in producing great, or even half-reasonable, art. The old theory goes that if you want the great art you need to also have the depressingly mediocre and the downright terrible art too: any head requires a body.

These doubts didn't seem reflected in our guide's commentary, however, it was upbeat about the art right down to this final scratching on concrete with which the tour came to end. My overall feeling was that the tour could have been a great deal more dynamic and it was popular mostly because it was a rare free tourist activity in an otherwise over-expensive and under-exciting city. That said, there is always something to enjoy if you look hard enough and her hands really made the tour for me. There are more tours to come, however, so maybe the city has some unexpected delights waiting around the other side of the proverbial corner. 

Monday, 6 July 2015

Amsterdam North: A Guided Tour of Anywhere

The Amsterdam Tour of All Tours is now up and running and I have had people ask me which tours are really from Amsterdam and which are from elsewhere. I replied that this information is all on this blog. I was not lying but the writing is scattered over many reviews spanning two years so to make it a little easier to find, here are the tours that inspired the show. If you have not yet been on the tour but intend to go, I would suggest taking the tour first and reading the reviews second, as there is probably more to be gained that way round. 

The Political Tours Study Tour of China

The Political Tours Study Tour does not exist as a formal review, though I do quote their China tour in my Beijing Tour of All Tours. They do not currently offer a tour of The Netherlands. I also mention, in passing, a foraging tour around Amsterdam North. This is based upon one in Bath, which was similarly disorganised and did not actually take place. As for the rest of the tours, they are practically all not from Amsterdam North; the Amsterdam tours that I took were mostly ones from the centre. I particularly like to take tours that are the town's speciality and where else are Red Light District tours the popular mainstream thing to do? 

In this performance I have treated Amsterdam North as a canvas (not a blank one by any means) upon which to paint a portrait of tours more broadly. This picture has been painted with sensitivity to the local conditions so that it appears to be a lot more local than it actually is. Indeed, it has been a case of choosing tours from elsewhere which met the conditions I found here. The work involved in making this show has therefore been less about researching Amsterdam North tours and more about opening myself up to the area, finding a route that contained enough of the qualities that I sensed more broadly in the area and then adapting pre-existing tours to fit. The tour is still running daily another week till July 12th.