Friday, 1 November 2019

"Art was our lifeline": the GDR's creative rebels

Painted photo of Cornelia Schleime, taken by Gabriele Stötzer,  1981


Gabriele Stötzer is a really remarkable artist and writer who deserves to be much more widely known. I interviewed her for this piece in the Economist on the GDR's rebel artists, who created incredibly bold, funny, provocative, fearless art that challenged the surveillance state.

Stötzer was imprisoned as a young woman, in her early 20s. Until then, she thought she'd go to university, get a normal job, etc etc. But in prison, she decided to become an artist. Here are a couple of extracts that didn't make it into the final piece, but that stayed with me long after the interview:

"If you think about it, everyone has certain childhood dreams that just go away at some point. And when I was in prison, I'd lost everything, and then I remembered: oh, you used to want to make art. And now you've lost everything anyway... when you get out, you'll be poor, you'll have nothing. So you might as well make art."

"I wasn't afraid. After prison, I wasn't afraid of anything anymore. And it was clear to me that I wouldn't stop."

Christine Schlegel, Rollo (painted window blind),  1983-84


(About painting on window blinds and concertina books, like many other underground artists at the time):

"We didn't have official exhibitions. They'd take place in a church, a flat, you'd send out invites saying we're having a birthday party, or a christening... I'd go there, unroll (the folded paper), pin it to the wall, and take it down again. It had a certain performative character... and it was about evanescence. Because we didn't actually exist at all... It was an existential cry. The Stasi wanted to destabilise, isolate, spread loneliness, silence people, or drive them into suicide. It was everywhere, this extinguishing. Sometimes I didn't know who I was. So I made my own pottery, just to know: I am. And I ate from my plates and drank from my cups. You know, sometimes one was so desperate and isolated and alone. That was also why one needed groups. They made me believe that I was. And that I was an artist."

Hope you enjoy the piece! And do visit the Dieselkraftwerk in Cottbus if you get the chance. It's easily accessible by train from Berlin, and as I mention in the article, has art from the GDR era that you won't see anywhere else. There is so much more to discover!

Annemirl Bauer, Woman and Child behind Bars and Barbed Wire, 1985




Saturday, 18 May 2019

The kids who smuggled out an East German defector





It's not often that you get to revisit your little hometown, speak to a group of people who grew up around you, and stumble across a story involving a Stasi file, a bugged Trabant, an East German defector and a bunch of teenagers on a school trip. And then have someone make it into a podcast with brilliant 1980s tunes.

This feature for the Guardian took me back to the 1980s, and stirred up memories of my own childhood in the divided Germany. It made me look at my hometown in a different light, and led to lots of conversations about family, politics, belonging - and how hard it can be to do the right thing when the world around you is wrong.

One thing that struck me was the timeliness of this story. It's about young people challenging conditions that the older generation has accepted as the norm. Today, as children are separated from their parents at borders around the world, teenagers are taking to the streets to urge action on the climate crisis, and refugees are risking their lives to cross the sea to Europe, it's a good reminder that we do have the power to help.







Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Teach yourself to echolocate




Awakening your hidden senses can be a life-changing experience. It can help you compensate for the loss of other senses (like vision), improve your confidence and everyday safety, or even just enrich your experience of the world. Researching and writing this feature for BBC Future on the power of our hidden senses really made me appreciate the untapped resources that lie within all of us.

And also, I now know what "bimodal precision advantage" means and why it's crucial to something as simple as safely crossing the road.


Wednesday, 27 February 2019

"Like ear wax": On language and the senses




My latest for BBC Future, on how the language you speak reflects the senses you use. It was a really fun piece to report and write, but one thing left me baffled: apparently, English speakers (but not speakers of other languages!) consistently confuse sour, salty and bitter. First question: Why? And also, what about multi-heritage, multi-lingual English speakers? And also: "like ear wax"??

"When offered bitter-flavoured water, all Farsi speakers in the study described it as “talkh”, the Farsi word for bitter." 
This was not the case with English speakers. When offered the same bitter-flavoured water, “English speakers said everything from bitter, to salty, sour, not bad, plain, mint, like ear wax, medicinal and so forth”, says Majid. 
She says this kind of taste confusion consistently happens to English speakers in lab tests: “They describe bitter as being salty and sour, they describe sour as being bitter, they describe salt as being sour. So even though we’ve got the vocabulary, there seems to be some confusion in people’s minds over how to map their taste experience onto language."

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Saving the fertility of children with cancer



This feature for the Guardian Weekend magazine feels like a fitting article to end the year on. Fertility preservation is about the future, about uncertainty, about hope - and about the belief that given enough time and resources, scientists can find solutions to problems that may seem unsurmountable right now. Here's to a happy and healthy 2019.

Young cancer patients face uncertainty, aggressive treatment – and a risk to their future fertility. Can a cutting-edge procedure offer a solution?


Friday, 14 December 2018

Unlocking the secrets of the ancient world




Can machines help us translate the world's oldest written language? Ancient Mesopotamia has left us more texts than ancient Rome, Egypt and Greece combined, some say. About half a million Mesopotamian clay tablets carrying cuneiform script, the world's oldest writing system, have been excavated, detailing life at the dawn of history. But relatively few can read this script and the languages (Sumerian and Akkadian) it records. Here's how algorithms might help us crack the secrets of the past - and spark new research into our earliest civilisations. 

Saturday, 27 October 2018

What's the best age to learn a language?



Can you lose your native language? And what's the best age to learn a second (or third, or fourth) language? Here are two features I wrote for BBC Future about languages and language-learning.

Interestingly, the feature on losing your mother tongue seemed to resonate with a lot of people - I've had fascinating exchanges with rusty native speakers from around the world. But I also enjoyed researching the one on age and language. As one of the experts says: “Not everything goes downhill with age." Our attention span increases, for example. Our study skills improve. And we can read books! Which has definitely been a huge factor in my own language learning. What's your favourite learning strategy?