Miss White Trash

A while ago I visited Portland, Oregon for the annual Miss White Trash Pageant.  Pick up a copy of Fett‘s summer issue and read all about it (Norwegian only).

Photo @ Karoline Hjorth

Eyes as Big as Plates

New work!

This blog has been wildly ignored for a little eternity, but on this very fine first day of June it is a pleasure to bring it back to life with the announcement that new work is in the making!

A month of roaming around Sandnes with brilliant Riitta Ikonen ended with a great private view and presentation of our collaborative work in progress last Friday, at Stasjon K, Sandnes. AiR Sandnes is Sandnes’ artist in residence program, part of KINOKINO Centre for Art and Film.

Blessed with the presence of 90-year old parachuting grannies, sailors of the seven seas, car rental staff, council workers, retired botanists, artisans, philologists, housewifes and babies, and with rhubarb pie and rhubarb punch as part of both the art and the catering, I can easily declare it as the finest private view I have ever experienced.

© Karoline Hjorth & Riitta Ikonen

// Eyes as Big as Plates //

“Gjæren people are very practical. In fact they have come up with many of the nation’s best inventions. They are solid, simple and hard working and haven’t got time to turn rocks and wonder what’s under.” Stein Emanuel Simonsen, 7th generation potter from Sandnes.

While the romantics declared that folklore was the clearest reflection of the soul of the people, the word around town in modern day Sandnes is that the old folk tales are a whole lot of hot air.

Riitta and Karoline went on a quest to find out what’s the order of the day, and traveled far and wide with local sailors, farmers, professors, artisans, psychologists, teachers, parachuters and senior citizens.

Eyes as Big as Plates presents the findings of these ventures.

After the initial presentation of work, models, costumes and photographs at Stasjon K, we are looking forward to showing the final prints both in Norway and abroad after the summer!

© Karoline Hjorth & Riitta Ikonen

On the hunt for Disney’s utopia- Fake snow and cotton candy in the town that Disney built

Tribute to the Truman Show: Celebration's Market Street. Photo by Karoline Hjorth
Tribute to the Truman Show: Celebration's Market Street. Photo by Karoline Hjorth

“Come hungry, leave happy”. McDonald’s monstrous neon sign shows off its morbidly obese grin along the U.S. Highway 192 and the Florida peach sunset can only fight for attention with a red lobster-shaped car parked in front of it.

An army of endless cheap motels, discount shopping towers and the finest selection of fast-food chains known to humanity make up the audience when 60.000 cars clog the four-lane artery between Orlando and the Magic Kingdom of Disney World every day.

The rumour is that New Urbanism Utopia can be found along this strip of asphalt, hidden behind the unrelenting shopping orgies and frantic theme parks. Its name is Celebration and it turns 15 this year.
Take a right turn onto the wide, grassy boulevard of Celebration Avenue, twenty miles southwest of Orlando, pass the shiny white fence and the old-fashioned water tower and you will find a town where ‘neighbours greets neighbours in the quiet of summer twilight… a place of caramel apples and cotton candy, secret forts, and hopscotch on the streets.’

At least that is what Celebration’s promotional material promises.

Uncle Walt’s social engineering experiment

Erected next to the “Magic Kingdom”, Celebration was founded in 1994 on undeveloped mosquito-ridden swampland, shaped like a fat wedge of an American apple pie.

2009 marks fifteen years of utopian urban development and public controversies, and even if uncle Walt’s corporation giant might not be on top of everyone’s travel list, the grand scale of this social engineering experience is itself enough to warrant a visit to Celebration.

Designed as an attempt to recreate an idealized version of the small-town America from a forgotten past, Celebration takes on a surreal feel of a paradise of illusions.

Immediately apparent is the spotlessness, not a bubblegum paper is to be seen, the lawns are trimmed as a fringe, and even the trash is well hidden in narrow alleys running behind the pastel-coloured houses.

And the people are smiling. Everywhere.  Jump in one of their small golf car-looking buggies called “NEVs” (“Neighbourhood Electric Vehicle” available at Wheelz of Celebration, 741 Front Street) and gleefully drive around town watching people smile until the head starts spinning.
Or go hunting down the “singing” manholes, where a constant loop of classical tunes from eerily familiar Disney blockbusters will entertain even the most stubborn of cynics into eternity.

Sugar rush and New Urbanism

It is even possible to stay over in the town’s only lodgings, the Celebration Hotel, nestled lakeside the man-made Celebration Lake (www.celebrationhotel.com, double rooms from £120), fully fitted with sepiah photos from Old Days Florida.

For the starved “cult of Mickey” and the nostalgic sweet tooth the ultimate celebratory joint for a decent lunch is at the 1950s- styled diner innovatively called the Market Street Café (701 Front Street).

Order from a menu worthy the very own Mother Goose and tuck into burgers, fries, grilled chicken, apple pies, shakes, homemade ice cream, sundaes and fresh cookies and brownies.

When the sugar rush takes a  stronghold it is time to dive into the philosophical underworld of this New Urbanist experiment.
The biggest tourist attraction in Celebration is by far the opportunity to stare deep down into the psyche of the American spirit and the myth of the Great American Dream.

With their clapboard exteriors, cake- pastel colours, overly neat front porches and identically white-painted picket fences the houses in Celebration appear as real-life versions of Main Street, the epicentre of Disneyland.

The cult of Mickey by Celebration's man- made lake. Photo by Karoline Hjorth
The cult of Mickey by Celebration's man- made lake. Photo by Karoline Hjorth

Robert Stern’s new EPCOT

“Community events” are organised downtown throughout the year, with Posh Pooch Days for dog-owners to dress up as their poodles, fake snow on Market Street during “Christmas season”(bubbly foam blown from machines on the lampposts) and fake autumn leaves for Thanks Giving (plastic leaves from same machines).

Celebration’s own Preview Center across the square form the Town Hall provides a surreal insight into the ideas of the puppeteering master- planners.

Designed by the late Charles Moore the Preview Centre is the tallest building in town and almost resembles a church with its sky-high tower at the front.

A white wooden staircase flows around the tower initially intended to lead to a viewing area where visitors and Celebrationistas alike could enjoy the view over the alligator-infested swamplands.

Ironically, one cannot climb higher than the third storey due to the master plan’s strict zoning policy.

Celebration’s master plan was developed by cherry-picked architects like Charles Moore and Robert Stern and draws heavily on Disney’s futuristic vision for EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow).

Re-designed to accommodate for the New Urbanism approach to community building, five principles form the underriding mantra of Celebrationism: Health, education, technology, community, and a sense of place.

Architectural pastel cocktail at a cost

This sense of place is promptly summed up in The Pattern Book, containing the five sizes of homes to pick-n-mix from and the lists of restrictions that apply to home exteriors and yards.

Any Celebrationista-to-be may choose from six exterior styles, depending on the wallet: Classical, Colonial Revival, French, Coastal, Mediterranean and Victorian.

Colonial Revival is by far the most popular, and by far the more affordable choice too. Interestingly, the vast majority of the town’s residents are rather well-off and white, not due to any sinister ideology but simply because ‘a piece of dream comes at a cost’.

The minimum-wage workers in Celebration’s Market Street shops can rarely afford to live there, and ironically enough Celebration’s happiness hunters and defenders of environmentally friendly community living end up commuting just as much as the suburbian sprawlers up the road.

As Catherine Collins poignantly explains in her book Celebration U.S.A after living one year in Celebration: “Celebration mirrors the worst aspects of suburbia, in that its all-mod-cons utopia is only achieved at the expense of an escape from the rest of the human race.”
Celebration is a destination for anyone with a healthy crush on smoke and mirrors, eager to explore the Sunshine State beyond the garish strip of frantic theme parks.

Romani camplife- Dispatch from the citizens of nowhere

Campo Casilino 900 overview
Campo Casilino 900 overview. Photo by Karoline Hjorth

Casilino 900 is not mentioned on any must- see lists in glossy Italian travel guides but is competing for the glare of the international media with the most spectacular of Rome’s tourist attractions. Tucked away on the outskirts of the ‘city of love’, hundreds of families from the largest and most marginalised ethnic minority in Europe share their land with rats and mountains of garbage.

Campo Casilino 900 has no waste collecting points or electricity, no running water except outdoor taps and no sanitation except overflowed Portaloos where flies are commuting between the chemical toilets and food prepared on makeshift stoves outdoors.

But you cannot send letters of complaint or pity to this address because it has no street sign or mailboxes. Most of the residents of the oldest Romani camp in the capital of Italy have come from Rumania, Kosovo, Bosnia, Macedonia or other regions of former Yugoslavia. Some moved in yesterday while others have been here for decades.

“Roma people have been living in Italy for seven centuries and many of us are born native Italians but the Italian government have collectively considered us as nomads who must live in segregated camps”, says writer and former refugee Najo Adzovic.

Najo came to Italy as a ”deserter and a traitor” in 1990 at the beginning of the Yugoslav civil war.

The invisible people

Sub- officer Adzovic had received a mission by the Serbian army to shoot 15 young Muslims but rejected the execution and fled to Italy and the way of life he knew from his father and his ancestors.

Almost two decades later his life in the slum has become pages in his book The Invisible People and he still lives in Casilino 900 with his wife and five children.

Najo has embraced the honour and duties as the Roma community’s informal leader and explains with great pathos how the invisible people of Casilino 900 are a vibrant mix of children, teenagers and families who most of all wish to be treated like normal Italian citizens are treated.

“Most of the people living here are refugees from the conflicts in the Balkans and what we need are jobs, housing and status. We are fighting for our children to engage in society”, he says as his 14-year-old daughter Marta walks by.

Being asked what she would like to say if everyone were listening, she looks at her father and at the sea of mud outside her family’s makeshift home.

“I am a Rom. I want to leave this place to become a reporter and explore my world”, she says.

Nostalgic grand mothers and grand fathers dream of a return to better times while Najo and his men juggle between small- scale business ideas and frequent struggles with the local authorities.

The camp is under strict control, visitors are regulated and the police are drawing a fine line between social intervention and ghettoisation.

Roma politics and Balkan beats

Whenever Najo gets the opportunity, he puts on his finest suit and enters Parliament to take part in the innumerous debates on the development of Roma politics.

Balkan beats are booming out of the speakers in the car on the way back from yet another dead end debate with local politicians. Najo shouts out the words he did not get the chance to contribute with half an hour earlier:

“They have confined us to the margins of our host cities and they are segregating us from the non-Roma neighbourhoods. Roma everywhere in Europe are becoming one of the major elements of urban conflict and we need a voice.”

With the recent expansion of the European Union Italy is now experiencing an upsurge of Roma integration, with an estimated Roma population of 140,000 to 170,000 according to the Italian Ministry of Interior.

Around half of these are Italian citizens while the rest are stateless or citizens of other, primarily eastern European countries.

The exodus of Romas and other immigrants since the expansion of EU has caused severe headache for Berlusconi’s coalition with Forza Italia, the anti-immigrant Northern League and the “post-Fascist” Alleanza Nazionale.

Berlusconi’s Romani crackdown

After winning the election last spring with a promised crackdown on crime and illegal immigration, Berlusconi’s team introduced a range of controversial legislative measures that fed the international papers with headlines for months.

One particular method targeted towards “irregular immigrants” caused an international political storm by requiring all Roma to be fingerprinted and identified by their ethnicity- a move that was unprecedented in post-war Europe.

Due to the international outrage they have now modified the plans so that all Italian citizens will be fingerprinted by 2010 and illegal immigration will become a crime that could lead to up to four years of prison.

According to Amnesty International, EU citizens may also be expelled if they cannot prove their “economic resources” for longer than three months.

Thousands of Roma cannot prove their length of stay in Italy without a residency permit with a recognized address end up as prime target for these measures against “irregular immigrants”.

If Berlusconi’s team gets its way, the 800 inhabitants of Casilino 900 will therefore be forced to leave their makeshift dwellings made up of old wooden doors, corrugated iron, plastic and fabric.

The ‘gypsie issue’

Faced with extensive poverty, travel restrictions and social exclusion, combined with a lack of legal protection, employment prospects or the right to participate in political process, stateless Roma are left to their decaying caravans without wheels or anywhere to go.

“Poor Romas are moochers, rich Romas are criminals; professional or intellectual Romas- well they just can’t be happy-go-lucky-Gypsies.”

”The Gypsie Issue” is conventionally formulated either as a mere social problem or as a historically romantic and mythical figure. It is easy to get blinded by ethnicity when walking through the Roma camp but Casilino 900 is not filled with exotic dancers or violin players.

They are all at work in central Rome begging at the restaurant tables of romantic pasta- loving tourists since all other avenues for gainful employment seem to be legally eliminated or denied.

Roma history of cultural blending and adaptability

But the Roma people have a long history of cultural blending and adaptability. Europe’s international orphans persistently cling on to the margins of society, and Casilino 900’s teenagers are not content with their allocated margins.

Marta Adzovic practices her journalist future and asks her friends what they would to tell anyone who would care to listen. Sonia wants a cleaner camp and a Jacuzzi, while Bechan says he is waiting for the day when Roma get the chance to work again.

Zair wishes politics did not exist and Sabrina just wants some peace and quiet. Delwis wonders how his world would look without borders.

Growing up outside of society, yet being surrounded by it and connected to it, Najo attempts to conclude on Romani life’s never- ending transitional state:

“There have been so many attempts to deny us our identity, to isolate us, to remove us, even to exterminate us. But none of it has worked.”

“The only solution then”, Najo proposes, “is to compromise, Roma and non- Roma need to learn how to exist and live in the same world.”

(Originally written for print outlet)