Aug 31, 2014

The art of Doing it Yourself

It was my view for my first year in high school. The YMCA dorm where I was living was right across the street, and the desk where my room mate Catarina and I did our freshman home work was at the window facing lokstallarna. 
Googling that word, roundhouses come up, as well as depot and engine sheds. I don’t know what the right one is, but what was on the other side of the street and the railroad was that red brick building with a curved shape and separate garages where the locomotives had their rest while not in work. A direct translation would be locomotive stables, and I really like the idea of locomotives sleeping in stables, so let’s go for the word loco stables from here.
I have always felt that building was intriguing. The brick, the curved shape, the beautiful windows, the floor to roof doors sometimes open reviling the secret inside. The exterior was dark and heavy, but I remember the interior as yellow. A warm bright light welcoming the locomotives when it was time for bed. Children’s book material in my mind.
This weekend the loco stables have been vibrating from light, sound, color, music, poetry, dance, art, installations, performance, food and people of all ages. Come to think about it, a mini version of Seattle’s Bumbershoot which is happening the very same weekend!
Some weeks ago posters and Facebook sharing around Umeå delivered the message Kulturhusfestival, another word that doesn’t translate easily. Kulturhus = a building for cultural arts. So, a festival in a house for cultural arts.
Now, in the seventies, when Catarina and I were watching the loco stables from our home work desk a kulturhus was = a building for all sorts of cultural arts and all kinds of people, free of charge and free from over head power. Basically, what everyone wanted was for the City to provide some more or less deserted place and say, hey, here you are, have fun!
Which didn’t really happen, but over the years numerous more or less deserted houses were occupied by young activists living that dream until the police eventually won the battle.
In 1986 a big building was built right in the city center, under the name of kulturhus. Nobody trusted it to be that though and we were marching the streets protesting against it, the building was, we were sure, way too big and fancy for garage bands and community choirs. Which was proved to be right. 
But. A then (it’s just been remodeled and added on) 700 seat theatre, several smaller venues, restaurants, conference rooms and great lobbies turned out to serve Umeå well. Folkets hus (the Peoples House, it’s related to the Swedish labor movement) is where all the Umeå festivals take place and it’s been voted best convention place in Sweden several times. My friend Maria Gargiulo from Seattle was here with her film The Year of My Japanese Cousin at the Umeå Filmfestival 1995. She has been visiting festivals all over and had never experienced a facility serving the needs for a festival that well. So, it didn’t become a kulurhus to our preferences, it became something else and I don’t think anyone would like to see it gone today.
In a few months now a new kulturhus will be opening. Väven (originally Kulturväven = a weave for cultural arts) facing the Umeå River in shiny glass exterior inspired by the graphic stem of the birch, contains the new City Library, the Women’s History Museum, a black box, two digital movie theaters, work shops, restaurant, hotels, cafés, a new concept for education meeting and conferences, and much more.
The talk around town now is exactly like 1986. There is strong criticism against the City for spending an incredible amount of money on a super flashy building which only a few will have access to. The skepticism is huge and deep. As everything in Umeå that is initiated from above and not coming from the grass roots.
Watching the posters for the Kulturhusfestival these last few weeks brings me back to the seventies. Not only because it is taking place in the loco stables across the street from my high school dorm. But because of the process.
I asked my children who are close to the young grass roots, who started it, and they didn’t really now. Like…nobody. It just happened. Someone laid eyes on the old loco stables which have been empty and dead for a long time. And “as the City owns them, we all do”. I love that, so seventies, so my youth! And suddenly, the stables were filled with people and paint and tools which transformed the raw industrial interior to gallery, stage, juice bar, library, dance floor and of course free WiFi.
What’s really interesting here is how the City has acted. Or not acted. Legally this is an occupation. But nobody has lifted a finger to stop it. I would say this is because of Umeå being the European Capital of Culture 2014. That title is won to a large extent on the Umeå culture coming from under neath, from the grass roots rather than from above. Umeå being a Do it Yourself City. So, who can stop anyone Doing it Themselves 2014? 
Well, the police did a vague try to do their job. As the festival doesn’t have a permit from the City to be in the stables, the police can’t give a permit for the festival. So the thousands of people spending the weekend in the stables are formally violators. The police patrolling during the festival though, are reporting a calm and clean event and nobody has been arrested.
What do I think about Väven as a kulturhus? Well, after som initial grunting and frowning I think it will be a success, and letting Folkets bio (the Peoples Movie Theatre) which has resided in a venue so shabby, moldy and cold it can compete with the Seattle fringe scene, is a City master stroke, it will change the mind set about the building.  Väven will eventually find it’s purpose and we will agree. Yes, it’s shiny, well, let it be! Because 40 years after Catarina and I sitting at our highschool dorm desk watching the loco stables, finally that more or less deserted place exists and all the City has to say is, hey, here you are, have fun!
väven umeå

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