Thursday, January 16, 2014

Stavanger in 5 Easy Pieces

Stavanger in 5 Easy Pieces

An early invitation from a school in Stavanger grew into multiple visits to the city over the fall semester, and I have yet to write about any of them.  And so what follows is 5 entries about the city of Stavanger and my time there.  I have enjoyed the city even more than I expected, and I hope that I have an opportunity to return.

Piece 1: The Environment is the Third Teacher

I have written elsewhere about a theory practiced in Reggio-Emilia pre-schools.  Reggio-Emilia contends that the environment is the third teacher, after parents and school teachers themselves.  The theory posits that the environment in which students learn also teaches them.  Rigid desk arrangements and the absence of natural light hampers curiosity and students’ capacities to make connections between the classroom and the outside world.  Reggio classrooms favor skylights, lush arrangements of plants, and light tables on which children arrange playful designs.  Everywhere students look, they can see the light of knowledge, often in the outside, natural world.  Work over the past two years in St.Louis University’s Learning Studio has cemented my faith in the Reggio theory.  A flexible classroom space with natural light seems to raise the spirits and the level of curiosity among young adult students too.

It was delightful, then, to visit the Jåttå videregåndeskole outside Stavanger, an entirely vocational school just recently constructed.  In conversation with one of the teachers, I called the school a “temple to industrial learning,” and she told me that students liken the school either to an airport or a cathedral.  The cement walls accented with blonde wood and tastefully chosen sculptures did, indeed, evoke Gardemon, Oslo’s airport.  

So also did the decision to make visible the work of the building.  One’s gaze can drift upward from the security line at Gardemon to see the offices of airport administrators.  At Jåttå, floor-to-ceiling windows reveal well-dressed student waiters delivering Stavanger’s famous fish soup (also prepared by students) to patrons at tables outfitted with crisp, white tablecloths.  In the front hall and cafeteria, students comfortably lounge in protective and reflective clothes, their regular garb as they learn to scaffold, weld, and, most significantly, in this oil-rich town, drill.

The school is stunning, but as part of a brand-new planned community dedicated largely to the oil industry, its urban landscape is sterile.  After my first-day’s visit, I took the train back to Stavanger’s city center and then walked to and through the city’s lovely park surrounding the lake Mosvannet.  

The natural world became my classroom as I observed ducks, swans, autumnal trees and their leaves and the setting sun reflecting on the park’s central lake.  The park primes visitors to reflect on culture, too.  An art museum was hosting an exhibition that, surprisingly, I had already seen in St. Louis!  A tower of baby pacifiers maybe marked a spot of remembering for locals.  

Stone pillars, reminiscent (to me, at least) of CCC national park markers in the U.S. circled the lake along with my trail.  

I returned home refreshed, intrigued, and enlightened.

Stavanger Piece 2: Humble Beginnings

Is there any place as cool as the Norwegian Canning Museum?!!?  

A return to Stavanger brought me to the marvelous Bergeland VGS and my effervescent host, Nathalie. 

“You must see Stavanger’s humble side!” She announced, and we were off through Gamel Stavanger (old Stavanger) where centuries-old homes nestle against the cobblestone street.  

So intimate is the neighborhood that less conscientious tourists will sometimes try to go inside as if visiting an amusement park. (“Just as they do at Taos Pueblo!” I told students.)  

Our destination was the Norwegian Canning Museum, which chronicles the history of Stavanger’s sardine heyday in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Sardines were Stavanger’s lifeline before oil, and, just as Nathalie promised, the museum chronicles this more humble resource.

We started upstairs where numerous sardine can labels are on display.  To capture a large and especially, American, market, labels showed everything from salty fishermen to kings and queens.  

An annual competition challenges teenagers to design labels that would appeal to Americans today. 

The museum’s curator, Piers Crocker, was kind enough to narrate an early silent film (1905? – Foolishly, I wasn’t taking notes.) advertising the sardines of one of Stavanger’s canning factories.  The film shows Stavanger’s rich sardine resources and able fishermen hauling near-bursting nets into their boats.  Much of the work was done by hand.  The film’s big star, however, was not the sardine, but the epiucure, who delicately consumed his serving alongside a glass of champagne and then rolled his eyes with pleasure. 

By the end of the tour, I was in a similar state.  A good part of environmental history addresses the production and consumption of commodities, and here was an entire museum dedicated to one of Stavanger’s most valuable resources: sardines.  Fishermen had their hands in the sea, and canning factory workers had their hands in the fish. After asking how much time we had, Mr. Crocker gave us a personal tour through the museum, which is outfitted to educate visitors in the canning process.            Everywhere humans were transforming nature, and nature was transforming humans.  I could not stop asking questions from “How long did children work in the factories?” to “Where do you get your fake sardines?” The answers: Until the 1950s in some cases and a medical supply company.  Thank goodness I had the inexhaustible Nathalie with me and Mr. Crocker, who described sardines as “his passion.” 

We learned how early canners strung the fish for smoking, controlled the temperature among the different ovens, trimmed the heads, packed the fish with oil, and sealed the cans.  You can test your own time and skills with almost every stage of the process, and the museum continues to use the ovens once a month to offer visitors a taste of the process. 

The entire production reminded me of the textile factories of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century New York City, and the museum made me think of New York City’s Tenement Museum.  A similar relationship between city, country, labor, safety, resource, and product played out.  Women came from the villages of Norway’s western mountains to work in the canning factories, often living several to a house in what was the poorest and most crime-ridden section of the city.  Speed was of the essence and so nicked or numb fingers were a low priority. An early job for children was snipping the heads from the sardines after they were strung.  Smoking the fish was a delicate process that required stamina and skill.  It was men’s work, and smokers were rewarded during the region’s years of alcohol prohibition with a daily ration of beer.  Men, too, manned the machines that sealed the cans.  Today, most canning has moved to Poland, where workers demand less compensation than in Norway, but the industry persisted long enough in Stavanger that elderly visitors to the museum will sometimes recount their time in the factories.  “I hold the record on that machine,” a man once said to our guide. “Number of cans?” “Number of fingers kept,” he said, holding up his hands.

Sardines may have been the humble commodity of industrializing western Norway, but aficionados of the fish treat it like fine wine.  Once a year, Stavanger’s residents line up to taste some of the aged sardines owned by the museum.  Fortuitously, a Stavanger resident set up a large supply of canned sardines during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  When she passed away, her son donated her stores. Our guide said that you can taste the difference.

“Why don’t my students ask so many questions when I bring them here?” mused Nathalie half-way through our tour.  “You have to learn how to be curious,” I conjectured, “They’re still learning.”  Sometimes the sardines I have now do taste different.  I’m still learning too.

Piece Three:  The Culture of Climate Change

“Next time you can see the other side of Stavanger,” Nathalie told me.  “You can smell the money,” said a teacher about Stavanger’s streets during one of my visits.  “I just liked the bag,” one teacher told me, “So I went in to ask how much it was.”  Her eyes grow wide. “14,000 kroner! Now I know not to go in.”  On the train I see beautiful girls heading to school wearing plush, Canada goose down coats.  They (The girls and the coats) are obviously fashionable.  I ask a teacher about the craze. “7,000 kroner!" She tells me, shaking her head.  (About $1,000 – although they retail for around $750 in New York City) “My niece wanted one and said it would last forever.  ‘But the craze won’t!’ My brother told her.”  A single roving visit over the same weekend as an oil industry exposition made me the most expensive rover of the program for the fall semester. 

Oil is money, and there’s a lot of both in Stavanger.  I was curious, then, to see what the Norwegian Petroleum Museum had to say about the city’s prosperity and its origins.   I was especially eager to see how Norway’s much vaunted enthusiasm for the natural world would square with the deleterious effects of its much vaunted industry.  

The museum itself is shaped like an oil tanker.  Three exhibit halls designed like miniature oil platforms actually sit over the water.  This seemed like it would be an unequivocal endorsement of the source of Norway’s wealth.  It was shocking, then, to walk through the entry turnstile and immediately see wall text that proclaimed: “Climate change is the world’s most pressing problem.”   It is hard to imagine the same sign in a museum in the United States, especially one dedicated, as Stavanger’s is, to a region’s “industrial heritage.”

            A subsequent exhibit allowed visitors to answer questions about Norway’s oil wealth.  All of the money, since its discovery, has been invested in a trust for the entire nation.  Norwegians live on the investment of that money.  And they use very little of the actual oil – snowy winters and a mountainous terrain make hydroelectric power the ideal source of energy.  If you successfully answer the questions in the exhibit, you are rewarded with the opportunity to make a video of yourself prescribing how Norway should handle oil drilling and exploration in the future.  Videos of younger quiz wizzes seemed to favor less drilling, but older experts were inclined to draw attention to how much benefit the wealth from oil has brought the nation.  (National politics seems to mirror the results of the video – Norway has only one green candidate in its parliament despite a national culture quite devoted to the natural world.) 

Most of the exhibitions show the machines and industrial ingenuity that created Norway’s oil industry.  Exhibits take pains to describe the geological conditions that produced oil.  A “time machine” transports viewers billions of years into the past.  

And numerous artifacts celebrate the technological triumphs of off-shore drilling and especially the successful capping of a blow-out: the Bravo platform blow-out of 1977, the worst ever in the North Sea.  The exhibit credits the Americans who helped to cap the blow-out, but does not mention the ecological costs.  I could imagine children delightedly trying on the undersea diving helmets for platform workers, and the supplies required for an oil platform – cities unto themselves -- was astonishing.

I slowed in a final exhibition dedicated specifically to the issue of climate change.  As I entered, I saw a sculpture of the Earth with a running tally of the planet’s human population at its center.  I heard a pair of gasping lungs.  

A near-by platform held a dictionary with just one word defined: dilemma.  One room in the exhibition tackles the question of alternative energies such as solar and wind.  Expensive and with their own ecological costs are the main conclusions of the wall text.  Another room addresses inequality around the world.  How to provide access to the fuel that allowed industrialized countries their prosperity without driving global temperatures too high?  

A final room seeks to provide an answer.  I was excited to find it.  Here would be a solution, I conjectured, one that we have not discussed in the U.S., where too much conversation is still mired in the question of whether the climate is changing at all. 

Lower your consumption; travel by foot and bicycle and public transportation; recycle; give used items to resale shops; and (The last piece of advice caused some chagrin in this American visiting Norway) limit your international travel.  Norwegians are not hampered by the absurd question of whether the climate is changing.  It is, and they know it.  But here was all the same advice I encounter and try to follow in the U.S. 

There are no easy answers.  The last stop of the exhibition is two doorways, covered by black, plastic curtains.  Visitors choose “yes” if they believe that the world’s future is optimistic.  “No” if they do not.  I stood for a long time in front of the curtains.  A dilemma, indeed.  Do I show a sunny American optimism in the face of the facts?  Do I express hope in humanity’s capacity to rise to a challenge?  Do I subtly critique the shape of the exhibition itself, which ultimately concludes that oil consumption -- just not too much -- is the answer?  I finally chose No.  Both doors open on the same hall.  A computer counts visitors’ choices.  I was in the minority.
Piece 4: The Power of Place

I have been known to ask: “Is there any place as cool as the Norwegian Canning Museum?!!?”  It turns out, yes, yes there is, and it’s the Rogaland Kunstsenter.  

Established in 1978, the center is artist-run, serves artists in the community, and provides the community a steady diet of cutting-edge art.

I was lucky enough to have an invitation to the center from its director, Geir Haraldseth, a friend of the younger brother of one of my United World College classmates and a UWC-Atlantic graduate himself (Yay, UWC!)

Since his UWC days, Geir has been collecting art and art history books, and his collection forms the core of an art library that sits at the top of the center.  The space is stunning, and I can imagine many a pleasant afternoon browsing the stacks in search of inspiration or maybe the articulation of an inspiration already received.

The center is a part of a nationwide network of similar spaces.  In addition to the library, it also houses artists in residence, sponsors artists to visit other countries, and provides exhibitions for Stavanger on everything from how we use our clothing to Estonian art.

But what won my heart at Rogaland Kunstsenter was a volume put together by the center’s head of professional development, Torunn Elisabeth Larsen titled Kunst By Befolkning.  The book is a work of art about the center itself and the role it has played in the city for the past ten years.  The book asks: What is the relationship between an urban environment and its art?  As Stavanger grows more prosperous, Torunn explained to me, some in the city want to see a homogenous and prosperous city center grow, even at the expense of some of Stavanger’s less prosperous, or just different, residents.  This is a dilemma, of course, that all gentrifying areas face.  I was reminded of Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place as well as MichaelAllen’s work at the Preservation Research Office in St. Louis and in his blog, Ecology of Absence.  Both address how cities live and grow and the role of public art.  In Kunst By Befolkning, it was wonderful to see artists tackle head-on the role of art and the artist in the course of an urban transformation.  Torunn made a goal of the publication to show how well the center balances differences of all kinds and to stress that supporting the arts and an art center need not displace a community’s members.

            My hope (and Geir’s) is that young people and schools in the area will connect with the art center too.  I can seem them gazing out the windows of the library, making prints in the graphics center, browsing the exhibition halls, learning and knowing their place.

Piece 5: No Such Thing As Bad Weather

            With all the time spent indoors in Stavanger, I might have forgotten what it’s like there outdoors.  But Norway does not allow you to forget. 

My last visit of the year coincided with a major storm.  Having grown up inland, every moment I spend in proximity to the sea is exciting and kind of frightening.  As the winds grew and teachers cancelled their appointments with me so that they could bail out their basements, I realized that it wasn’t just the land-lubber who was impressed with nature’s fury.  The whole city was battening down the hatches (So to speak, I only kind of know what that means.)

            The wind almost lifted me as I crossed the street.  My face was covered in water as I arrived at one destination.  All day people told me that my flight would be cancelled.  When I arrived at the airport, hundreds of people were lined up to re-schedule.  Only two other people headed through security with me. We entertained ourselves speeding our luggage bins down the ramp.  “Do you think our flights will leave?” I asked one.  “No!” He replied, laughing.

            The general atmosphere of merriment followed us past security where hundreds of people waited.  A cheerful trompe l’oeil and an array of sofas and rugs were arranged next to the “Christmas Gate.”  

As one flight after another was cancelled, a surprisingly chipper SAS employee rescheduled us for later departures.  Dozens of people rushed this way and that to collect food vouchers and line up in front of new gates.  When my flight was finally announced, an airport employee came in shedding water and snow from his boots and parka.  He shouted something in Norwegian.  “What did he say?” I asked a neighbor.  “He said that we’re going to form a nice, orderly line.”  Everyone laughed.  Everyone ignored him.  I made it home to Oslo.  It was not raining.