The game is reasonably straightforward. Pass cards around from one player to another until someone collects a set of four. Each player can only hold four cards in her hand at once, and choosing to keep a new card means discarding another. Once someone has “four of a kind,” she grabs a spoon and the rest of the players follow. There are four of us and only three spoons – the only goal is not to end up “spoonless.” It is a game with the perfect combination of skill, eye contact, and clanging silverware. It is also a game our guide, appropriately called Happy, is particularly good at, and he spends most of the time with a half smile on his face that is transformed by his grin when we each lunge forward, scrambling for the silverware on the slanted table in the mountain side restaurant in Nepal.
We have one day left of trekking on the Annapurna circuit, and my arms are one of the few parts of my body that aren’t excruciatingly sore. Today has been one of our longest days, with a 4:30 am climb up to see the sun rise from the 3210 meter Poon hill, followed by a full day hike to Ghandruk, the town where we will spend the night before finishing the trek in the morning. We should be exhausted, but Happy’s enthusiasm is infectious. Spoons proves to be an easily translatable game, which Happy well knows: only in his mid-twenties, just a few years older than I am, he regales us every night with a seemingly endless collection of stories about the groups from around the world that he’s led through treks. After we leave he’ll lead a group from Poland – I tell him on one of our hikes that the only thing I can say in Polish is “give me a kiss,” which we agree probably won’t be the most useful phrase in the mountains of Nepal.
On our last night of the trek I am astonished that I have somehow tricked my body into hiking through mountains for four days. The night before leaving Abu Dhabi, I woke up with the realization that growing up outside New York and going to college in the Philadelphia area had done nothing to prepare me for any sort of trekking. My travels before mainly involved navigating foreign public transportation systems, but not trails through the woods. Even when I arrive in Nepal, I am initially more comfortable in the streets of Kathmandu, where rickshaws and motorcycles swerve around messy-haired, baggy-pants clad tourists like myself, than I am at the base of the mythic mountains. I decide on the plane ride over that the best strategy for approaching the physical challenges is to ignore them completely until it is too late to turn back. Although probably far from a practical “life philosophy” this seems to work for the 32-mile trek. Granted, the daily Snickers bar that Happy took out of his bag when we were particularly tired probably helped as well.
Despite my trepidation when first putting on my backpack at the base of the mountain range, in less than an hour I am completely captivated by the trail – the way the landscape is a mixture of surprisingly humid jungles, complete with rushing rivers and overgrown ferns, to stone cliff sides looking out at mountains that are at times almost indistinguishable from the clouds that surround them. When we ask Happy how many times he had done this trek, he tells us the number is too high to remember. I wonder if we stop in the same places, feel awestruck in the same moments as every other novice trekker Happy guides, and how many times Happy has smiled and said, “just you wait” when someone gasps at the first view of a snowcapped peak.
The morning of our last games of Spoons, Happy woke us up for the view we had been told the whole trek to “just wait” for. In the darkness groups of walkers that we had seen throughout the trip moved in the cold, up the steps to the hill, guided only by pinpricks of light from nearby flashlights. Finally at the peak of Poon Hill we stared transfixed by the moonlight falling on the snow of remote mountaintops and by the countless stars above. With a combination of awe and exhaustion I tried to remember the last time I had seen the sky so clearly. I had seen nights of stars before, spent summers lying on grassy lawns to count the few that weren’t hidden by the street lights, but for some reason all I could think of was a time when I was younger and swimming in a river and I had tried to focus on each of the pebbles on the bottom. The pebbles were impossible to look at all at once and the way they drifted past turned floating on the water into flying – it was same combination of unsteadiness and an unreachable clarity. Turning my head from the sky was like lifting my face from the water, drinking in air that was fresh and cold.
I turned back to the mountain, and am momentarily surprised that I am not alone, and we sit as a group along the edge of the viewpoint and wait for the loud cheer from the crowd when the sun starts to peak from the edge of the horizon. For the next hour, as the mountains are slowly immersed in sunlight, we share moments of breathlessness with the crowd atop the hill.
On the last night, in the restaurant playing Spoons, I cannot remember where in the sky the stars were, or the shape of the pebbles at the bottom of the river. Instead I am fixated on the movement of the cards, the concentrated, furrowed brows of each player, and tension in our hands before someone reaches forward and creates a brief moment of chaos as silverware spins across the table out of our grasp. I try to memorize the smell of the local dish Dal Bhat from the kitchen, the lines on the increasingly familiar faces of fellow trekkers, and the way Happy’s hands move as he shuffles the deck. Like watching the sunrise that morning, none of it feels real, and the occasional clattering of the spoons is the only thing that reminds me where I am. In the morning we will return to the city, and in a couple of days I will be back on a plane to Abu Dhabi with stories of indescribably beautiful mountains, aching muscles following a climb up over 3,000 stone steps, and the best Snickers bar I’ve ever tasted. When I return, my stories will echo countless poetic tales of this romanticized country but for now Happy is passing me a card, and we are, for a however brief a time, cradled by the mountains.
If you are looking to take a break from the overwhelming daily pace of Abu Dhabi, commit to an afternoon exploring the city. You’ll be surprised how far 50 dirhams will get you.
Catch the number 5 bus to the Al Mina Port. Get off at the Electra Street stop, which is about thirty minutes from Marina Mall.
Walk facing Electra, with your back to the park. Pay no mind to your fellow pedestrians’ hasty rhythm. Relax as you leisurely make your way down the street, watching people go by, and take note of all the little shops and restaurants that tickle your senses. Stop at any of them that strike your fancy, but I recommend you go on.
Keep going until you find yourself face to face with the majestic El Dorado Cinema. There’s no way to miss the vibrant lights on its facade. The city’s first-ever movie theater, the El Dorado stands as a proud memento from another era, completely out of place between the modern structures that surround it. A small number of dirhams will get you into a showing of one of the South Indian films they feature, from afternoon matinees to evening screenings.
The entrance to the theater is on the other side of its Electra St façade. Across from the El Dorado there is a restaurant of the same name. Complement your movie with a delicious Southern Indian traditional meal for no more 15 dirhams. Be sure to try their delicious masala tea and chat with the owner, Omer. He tells interesting stories about the theater if you ask!
Hang around the shops in this superblock until at least 6pm, when the sun has set and the monumental “El Dorado” neon sign of the theater is turned on. The radiance of its raw lightbulbs is awe-inspiring. The whole area gleams in shades of bright blue and pink, with the light reflecting off all kinds of surfaces under the splendor of the sign. With the flick of a lightswitch, the street is saturated in the glamor of the 80s. Only the sweet syrupy scent of kanafeh from neighboring street vendors will remind you that you’re on Electra Street.
Turning the woolly marine creations around in her hands, Margaret Wertheim, one of the founders of the Crochet Coral Reef Project and co-director of the Institute for Figuring, spoke to a small, but diverse collection of people from the New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) community. Students, faculty members, Global Academic Fellows, administrative staff, and members of the Abu Dhabi community were in attendance for the workshop, each person closely listening—with a ball of yarn in one hand and a crochet hook in the other.
The Crochet Coral Reef Project was co-created in 2005 by Margaret Wertheim and Christine Wertheim, inspired by their mutual concern for the devastating effects the rising of temperature and pollution have had on the coral reefs. Ms. Wertheim and her sister, Christine, grew up in Queensland in Australia, where the Great Barrier Reef has been ravaged by the warming of the water. “[The project] has exceeded our expectations in any possible way,” said Ms. Wertheim, while starting to crochet a simple green coral reef structure. “When my sister and I started this project in 2005, we honestly thought that maybe 20 or 30 people would be interested in doing this project with us, and now there are well over 7000 people who have made models for the exhibitions themselves, and 3 million people have seen the exhibitions- we never imagined it would become a world-wide phenomenon.”
Ms. Wertheim showed the participants the different hyperbolic structures that could be made with a simple knowledge of crochet techniques, from a tight, dense hyperbolic pane made with red yarn, to a more elaborate kelp-like structure made from a special material called Jelly Yarn. The coral reef can be crocheted with any material, even with strips of disposed plastic bags, a bold statement in itself that protests against the immeasurable amount garbage present in the ocean today.
The most significant achievement of the Crochet Coral Reef Project is that in bringing the various levels of community together, the end result reflects the overarching culture of the region in which the project is executed. Together, participants create a rich composition of textures that represent the various customs, attitudes, and lifestyle of their community. Each city that has participated in creating a Satellite Reef has exhibited a different theme—and message—to its viewers. I suspect that the NYUAD Satellite Reef will be a veritable conglomeration of shapes, sizes, and colours, owing to the spectacular diversity of backgrounds present in the community body. “Abu Dhabi is a very unique place to be doing this project for various reasons,” said Ms. Wertheim, continuing on to expound on the logistical challenges the location has already presented – “This is the first time that we have done [the Reef project] in the Middle East, which is exciting in its own right, but [New York University Abu Dhabi] is very eager to involve people from all sectors of society as much as possible, which presents many logistical challenges because there is a [severe] separation of communities here…[one must] do outreach to individual communities…there is the student community, the Emirati community, the guest workers who work at NYU, the academic staff, and each of these populations have to be targeted in a different way.” Although NYUAD students fully embrace the cosmopolitan nature of the university, they have also experienced much difficulty in connecting with the different populations that exist within the university. Communal projects like the Crochet Coral Reef Project are important because they present great opportunities for collaboration across the community that might otherwise have difficulty establishing connections.
An important aspect of the project is its connection to feminism. Crochet as a handicraft has traditionally been passed down from mother to daughter, and remains to this day a female-dominated activity. It is not surprising, then, that the participants in the Crochet Coral Reef Project are almost all female. In fact, the project has met with disapproval from some women, who consider the project to be propagating the stereotype that women must take care of domestic responsibilities, and engage in feminine activity in their free time. The tradition of a mother teaching her daughter “hand work” has suffered over the past half-century, in part due to the idea that these skills are “old-fashioned,” or limiting. The word ‘feminist’ has developed negative connotations precisely because of those who call themselves active feminists and challenge the traditional separation of roles and hobbies to advocate sexual prejudices, mistaking cultural gender differences to indicate sexual discrimination; in this way of taking issue with everything, people have ceased to take their concerns seriously because the resolution of such matters does not advance the agenda for equality. It is altogether too easy to forget that feminism is the advocacy of woman’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men- the abolition of a traditional handicraft will never achieve this feat, and will more compromise the rich history and significance of female history.
Lamenting that gender feminism has overwhelmed what was coined as equity feminism by Christina Hoff Sommers in her book, Who Stole Feminism, Ms. Wentheim declared that crochet is a distinctly feminine activity that empowers women and men alike, a technical skill of artistry that must be mastered like any other skill or craft. The Crochet Coral Reef Project is a feminist project that unites women and men from all walks of life, allowing them to collaborate on making stunning models of marine structures through the beautiful feminine tradition of crochet. Personally, I felt joy in learning how to crochet again, because my mother had been increasingly reluctant to teach me the technique as I grew older.
The opening statement on the Crochet Coral Reef website is the perfect distillation of the project: “The Crochet Coral Reef is a woolly celebration of the intersection of higher geometry and feminine handicraft, and a testimony to the disappearing wonders of the marine world.” The people who attended the workshop held at NYUAD had varying levels of experience with crochet, but all were present because they had taken advantage of the communal space and time that the project created for the community. Bringing the Crochet Coral Reef Project to NYUAD is the beginning of a powerful series of conversations across the many layers of community extant in the university, one that will gain momentum as the project progresses.
For more information about the NYUAD Crochet Coral Reef project, please email: email@example.com
I recently had the chance of attending a workshop conducted by Zena el Khalil, a Lebanese artist. Some of you may know her from her performance as “The Pink Bride of Peace” in which she participates in the Beirut International Marathon, while wearing a bright pink wedding dress, as a way to raise awareness about pressing social issues. The performance originally started off on a personal level, but quickly turned into being about promoting peace and love in Zena’s beloved Beirut. As an aspiring artist – though I may be stretching it a little by calling myself an artist – who is interested in “activist art”, I was very eager to meet her.
When Zena started talking, during her workshop, I didn’t want her to stop. We started off the discussion by talking about other artists and work that inspired her, such as John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Bed Peace’ for instance. Zena’s own artwork includes installations, paintings, performances, mixed media, and collage. She believes that her work is a creative offering, a way to raise awareness about the issues and challenges people face.
During the workshop, we spent a significant amount of time on a topic I personally find very intriguing: gender issues. Zena showed us an array of artwork and video that focused specifically on gender issues, including a short clip about the Guerrilla Girls, a group of women in gorilla masks who raise awareness of the fact that very few female artists get exhibited in museums. We discussed Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, an installation of a banquet with a triangular shaped table, with place settings for thirty-nine important women from history. Zena hopes that one day women will be given full credit for their achievements; her own art is, in part, dedicated to that possibility.
And The Girls Watch On… (Fulla Mary) mixed media on wood 25×25 cm (2007)
After about an hour and a half of discussion, Zena had planned for us to get into small groups and start brainstorming ideas about what we would like to work on as young artist activists. Personally, I just wanted her to keep talking, and it seemed like almost all of the attendees agreed, so she did just that. A few of the students asked Zena for advice on how to get started and others told her about projects they have already done or intend to do. Some of the students wanted to implement projects in the public sphere in Abu Dhabi, something that Zena has a lot of experience with in Beirut. She was very insightful and encouraged us to respect the local laws when it comes to artwork in public spaces. The UAE’s art scene is rapidly growing, however, which may create new opportunities for emerging artists.
In addition to talking about art and activism, Zena also talked about the importance of working at one’s art. She told us that when she was in college, her professor asked her to draw something every day as part of the coursework. She said that, as hard as it was, she did manage to draw something every day, and thus learned to create even when she had little to no inspiration. Her story reminded me that we can’t always wait around for inspiration to show up; we need to pull up our socks and get our work done, create our own inspiration.
As I was leaving the workshop, I saw many students stay back, hoping for some one-on-one time with Zena. She inspired us all, by giving us hope that we can all make a difference in the world if we work hard and believe in ourselves. Her art helped us to see that we could all be “activists” in our own way, with our own creative energy.
On the theater’s back wall a menu pops up, interrupting an animated scene from the Wild West. In the action’s pause, the cursor drifts down a list of weapons before clicking “shotgun.” The action resumes and—as the epic voiceover describes the Roman pillage—this cowboy opens fire on a donkey. The scene then cuts to the medieval-fantasy world of Golden Axe II, but according to the narration it seems we remain on the destroyed outskirts of Rome.
For ten years, Eddie Kim has been producing machinima theater with his current and former students from the Pierrepont School in Connecticut. With machinima, artists manipulate video-game worlds to produce more-or-less cinematic sequences, usually to be shared online. Kim’s EK Theater is distinctive in that they produce live performances using video-game characters as puppets. Adding to the significant technical challenges, EK Theater draws on classical literature for its inspiration, retelling episodes from Ovid for example or adapting the Japanese ghost stories of Kwaidan. The company, which now includes middle schoolers as well as college students in its ranks, has drawn curiosity and acclaim while showing their work at venues such as the Brick in Brooklyn and the ART in Cambridge.
In their latest piece Legendary, Maybe, the six puppeteers—“gamers,” as they call themselves—sit at a long working table, their backs to the audience; in silhouette, they are effectively in the front row. In front of them are six monitors as well as a dizzying web of wires that link mismatched laptops, X-Boxes, controllers, and keyboards; the room feels a bit like a TV control room. The “finished” drama, edited live from the table’s monitors, is projected on a screen at the back the black box, with the theater’s conventional playing space between table and screen left empty. The performance is in the relation of these separate worlds, the scrambling ensemble here and what is projected out there.
Legendary, Maybe is Kim’s adaptation of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, a two-thousand-year-old, fragmentary history of Rome. Eddie’s version—based on his colleague Carrie Thomas’s new translation—stitches together a number of Livy’s episodes with particular attention to acts of heroism, a theme suited to both classical theater and video games. His adaptation’s abrupt shifts in story, place, and character are made even more startling as the production cuts across gaming platforms. As Rome is alternately protected and seized—the details of Livy’s plot were a bit of blur for me—the image vocabulary departs from the initial faux-mytho-classical World of Warcraft. On a Cold War base in Call of Duty: Black Ops there is an execution scene, and more lightheartedly, Mario’s full-screen mouth is pulled and stretched to ventrilloquize narration.
There is a consistent voiceover of the text, an epic recalling of heroic deeds performed in the voices of these young gamers. One of the more experienced players splices together the many machines’ work to match this sound, to cut across scenes, to shift optical perspective. There is a strange delight in the incongruities of the cuts across fantasy-kitsch, realistic violence, goofy-cartoon nostalgia. The gamers type and click, they lean with their controllers’ movements, they pull and plug wires, they whisper urgently to one another. The seeming innocence of their work is then sobered by the eruptions of hyper-violent imagery on-screen.
In the crowd, there’s delight at what seem to be in-jokes. Some things appeal to video-game players (of various generations), others to those familiar with the history, occasionally something clicks for everyone. To me, the appeal was in the intricate unfolding, and in the bringing together of twelve- and fifty-year olds for something both serious and decidedly playful. With its mixed vocabularies, it is a hard form for anyone to feel quite at home with, and perhaps that’s part of the point. On the big screen the animated bodies graze what psychologists call the uncanny valley; the characters somehow resemble us while remaining infinitely foreign. In the tradition of all good puppetry, EK Theater produces this new-media Unheimilchkeit, the sense of not-at-home-ness that reminds you there might not have been a home in the first place. The pixelated mouths, like in dubbed film, teeter close but often just behind or ahead of the story’s speaking. The timing wavers like an old radio needle; occasionally, it’s just right. Whether or not the audience knows the games or cares about Livy, in these moments they laugh together, they watch wide-eyed. Mario is telling a grave story. Somehow, in this melding of people, machines, and geographies—Ancient Rome, the Wild West, a dark theater in Brooklyn—Legendary, Maybe produces that weird kind of shared present to which live performance aspires.
Photo courtesy of author
Reindert Falkenburg is an art historian who specializes in late medieval and Renaissance art, with a particular focus on Netherlands. His most recent book is the monograph, Hieronymus Bosch: The Land of Unlikeness (2012). Falkenburg presently serves as Vice Provost for Intellectual and Cultural Outreach at NYU Abu Dhabi. He spoke recently with Electra Street about recent books that have been important to him.
What is the earliest book that you remember reading?
I come from a Christian background, and my father was a Protestant minister, so the earliest book I remember reading is a children’s version of the Bible.
What was the last truly great book that you read?
Chris Stringer, who works at the Natural History Museum in London, is one of the key scholars in paleoanthropology. His book Lone Survivors (2012) describes the very complex emergence of humankind against or in the context of other humanoid species. That is the kind of book that I really love.
I would say I love popular scientific readings. When I was in high school I thought that I would be a scholar of paleoanthropology myself. We had a teacher who brought to class some prehistoric flint stone axes, and I was just so fascinated that from that moment on, I was convinced I would be a prehistorian or a paleoanthropologist. Due to all kinds of events, I eventually decided to do art history. But I never forgot my romantic fascination for the history of early mankind.
Another book I would like to mention is The Mind in the Cave (2004) by David Lewis-Williams. He has a very interesting idea about rock art and how it relates to the dream world of mankind some thirty thousand years ago. The book has a deep historical perspective. Not only does it go back in time to 30,000 years ago or so, but it also has deep implications for artworks across the world. Lewis-Smith comes up with a theory of the interrelationship between the physical environment, representations of animals, healing processes, the representation of the inner mind, and the human subconscious. Whether or not his theory is correct, he touches upon something very basic that defines the fundamental function of what we call art, and that is why it is great reading for students.
Photograph by Johanna Klein
How are books like these related to your own work?
Hieronymus Bosch, a Dutch painter who lived around 1500, painted very enigmatic work, many of which have a landscape setting. Last year, I published a book on one of these paintings. It is a triptych with hundreds of strange pictures. What I do when I work on interpreting these images is the way that I would do excavations in the real world. Digging into a painting, for me, is almost like digging into the earth. That’s how the two are connected. This digging is an interpretive digging, of course. But it also relates to the wondrous dream world of many of Bosch’s paintings.
As a writer, what can you say about how you view the reader?
For me, the reader is more important than the writer. When you write, you have different readers in mind. You yourself are a reader, you have people in mind who are your ideal readers, and there is often a shadow of people who you think are great readers or writers, and you are kind of afraid of them looking at your writing. You have higher intentions that your writings may inspire other people. So, you have different readers.
How do you feel that reading culture has evolved over the years?
Due to the availability of other media, our reading habits have greatly changed. Even in my own lifetime, I read differently now than I did, let’s say, forty years ago, before the Internet. I see in younger people that they have reading habits that differ a lot from mine. I have three children, and they go to college in Holland, and I see that their intellectual outlook is greatly influenced by what they read but what they read is not what we would necessarily call literature in the high sense of the word or what we would call scholarly literature in the deepest sense of the word. But their intellectual pursuit is perhaps more authentic, more variegated, more open than that of those who pride themselves on being deep rooted in scholarly or literary culture. So I have deep respect for the new reading habits of young people. I’m a bit jealous actually of the ability of younger people to acquire knowledge and to discuss. A large part of reading today is to discuss what you’ve read, isn’t it? It’s now far more interactive than it was before. I think that the reading habits of younger people are not getting worse; they are improving. But it comes at the cost, if you will, of not being localized in one particular section of culture. If that is a cost. Maybe it isn’t at all.
You’ve been living and working in the UAE for some time now. What book would you suggest that someone read before coming here?
Well, I have found Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (1959) very inspiring. I discovered it when I was here, and now I give it to friends when they visit us, or I bring it home to the Netherlands to people who are thinking of visiting us. It’s marvelously written and very evocative. If you look at some of the empty spots even at the Corniche, sometimes you realize that this little piece of sand that I’m seeing in this little corner that’s forgotten is actually the original desert. Then, I realize that fifty years ago, everything was a desert. The book offers a marvelous counterpart to what this community has built here right now.
Falkenburg, Reindert. Hieronymus Bosch: The Land of Unlikeness (Zwolle, Netherlands: W Books, 2011).
Lewis-Williams, David. The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 2004).
Stringer, Chris. Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth (New York: Times Books, 2012).
Thesiger, Wilfred. Arabian Sands (1959: rpt. New York: Penguin 2008).
CONVERSATIONS WITH AUTHORS