Many Thanks

There are so many things I have not had the time to mention here (hello Historian Laureate adventures!), but I am too blissed out not to share this news:

My latest show at CJSR – All That Matters – just won a national award and a listener-voted award back in Edmonton!

Corine Demas, Marie Fontaine and I accepting CJSR's Best News Show award for 2016.
Corine Demas, Marie Fontaine and I from the All That Matters team accepting CJSR’s Best News Show award for 2016.

It’s been a really fun and creatively challenging show to make since it launched in January 2015. It’s an Alberta-focused arts and culture show. The idea is that with each episode, we try to take small bites out of a big question. We’ve put together stories about big ideas like whether anything we make is permanent, what “good behaviour” means, what the Art Gallery of Alberta could do to turn its attendance around, and what makes a diva (one of my favourite episodes).

ncra award
Our NCRA award for Special Programming.

In June, we won a Special Programming award from the National Campus and Community Radio Association (NCRA) for a 2-part documentary we made called Boot Camp Poets. It was really exciting to get to be in Ottawa to receive it in person. And a big surprise!

In Boot Camp Poets, we told the stories of 8 men who were part of a group sharing their poetry and rap with each other while serving as inmates at the Edmonton Remand Centre. We used the two parts of the documentary to share their songs, stories, and poems, and offer context for the issues they faced. We interviewed someone from the John Howard Society who helps men transition back into regular life after jail, and we spoke to The Inside Circle author Patti Laboucane-Benson about why Indigenous people are so over-represented in Canada’s prison system.

This was one of the most challenging radio projects I’ve worked on so far. It was definitely nerve-wracking getting up the courage to go into the Remand Centre for the first time with my two collaborators on the doc, Sara Khembo Alfazema and Joe Hartfeil. It took a lot of guts for those men to share their stories with us too.

Here are the two parts, in case you want to have a listen:

And we were very touched to win the CJSR award for Best News Show this year at the annual CJSR volunteer awards. This is a listener-voted award, so it means a huge amount to know people out there have been loving the show as much as we’ve loved making it.

Community radio is such an important platform to share under-represented stories, and nurture talent. Hanging out with radio folks from across Canada (like these lovely dweebs below from CJSR, CJSW in Calgary and CKXU in Lethbridge) reminded me how innovative and talented this sector is. These awards are a nice bonus for the privilege of being in that world.

alberta radio peeps

Nobody Does This Alone

I don’t consider myself a social media maven, but there’s something I really like about the hashtag #QTheFuture.

Picture of a microphone with text overlaid: #QTheFuture - Send us your insights and ideas. We're listening.

Not long after the revelations about Jian Gomeshi’s string of abuses came out, the team of CBCers behind Q started asking their audience to use it to make Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ posts with ideas for the show’s life post-Jian. Fans are tweeting about their favourite ideas for a new host (Piya Chattoopadhyay would be my pick – she’s such a great interviewer), whether the name should be changed to Zed, and how to change the culture of the workplace to protect staff from sexual harassment. I’m totally bewildered that Norm MacDonald seems to be the Twitterverse’s pick for the next host.

What I like about it is that is essentially hopeful, and it makes obvious that nobody does this work alone. I know I’m not the only one who feels conned realizing that so many of our favourite interviews with people like Caitlin Moran and Rich Aucoin were hosted by a man with a shadow life of brutal sexual aggression. But every great interview you ever heard Jian do — and any that sound retroactively sleazy now — was the product of a team. There were people racing through books to find brilliant authors, people calling up bands and doing fastidious pre-interviews, people writing up scripts for Jian to read on air, and people continuing the conversation on their website and social media. Hosting is an incredibly important role, but it’s just one among many that create great radio.

Recognizing that fact, I’d like to recommend a few ways you can help great artists make some great work. First of course, you should definitely shout out to Q with the hashtag #QTheFuture.

Next, you should donate to help Radiotopia and Canadaland thrive. Radiotopia is the luminous new podcast network that brings together shows like 99% Invisible, Strangers, Theory of Everything, Love + Radio, and more. They’re really close to their goal of 20,000 backers on Kickstarter, and it’s going towards really worthwhile things like subsidizing health care for 99% Invisible producers (single payer rules, but kudos for working with what they’ve got) and bringing new shows online to make sure half of them are now hosted by women.

Meanwhile Jesse Brown’s Canadaland was a show I’ve been listening to mostly because there is nobody else making podcasts about comedy writers from Northern Alberta, the wonder of Kate Beaton, and the CBC’s attempts to cover its cutbacks in futuresauce. But seeing his work uncovering the Jian Gomeshi scandal and interviewing Glenn Greenwald about Canada’s spy agencies monitoring our own citizens, I feel very prescient for becoming a monthly Canadaland supporter on Patreon.

Lastly, you should pick up a copy of Paddlenorth: Adventure, Resilience, and Renewal in the Arctic Wild by Jennifer Kingsley. I have the honour of being a friend of hers, and I’m really adoring this guide to her journey paddling down the Back and Baillie Rivers in the tundra. Ordinarily I wouldn’t find a book about someone else’s journey gripping, but she really sells it by peeling back layer after layer of skin to reveal little truths about herself, and about how we relate to wilderness.

When she’s talking about her pre-trip anxiety, it shows as much about her as it does about what it means to survive. There’s a scene where a trip companions named Jen wants to fire a test shot from a plastic pistol meant to scare away bears, and Jennifer’s picturing herself trapped out in the wild with a bear circling for days to slowly hunt them down.

It would be my turn to hold the bear off, and I would reach into the plastic bag, powdery and acific, only to find we had used every little packet of sound and light.

My irrational fear and mumblings of complaint continued as Jen jammed the cartridge in place and fired.

“There,” she said. “Easy.”

And she was on to the next thing, dinner, while I stood on the bank, trapped by my imagination.

Or how about this gem: “Going into the wild is like going to sleep; you get there in stages.”

Paddlenorth is her first book, and I think it’s a fantastic read.

Nobody makes a book, or a podcast, or a great interview, alone. So let’s give some love to the people making great stuff out there.

Edit: I feel embarrassed seeing that my last post before this lauded Jian Gomeshi as a great host. This is the pain many Canadians are feeling right now – those of us who he didn’t directly hurt: that radio makes a host seem intimate and knowable, but dark water of fame and distance can hide what they’re really like.

Red Mountain Fragments strewn across Whyte Ave


Finn Sound’s paintings are riddles in geometry, abstract symbol, and colour. They’re like individual cells of an unseen body, each one containing the DNA of the larger coded and playful landscape.

Finn Sound is my boyfriend. And this weekend, that landscape is on display at Art Walk on Edmonton’s Whyte Ave.


When I first met him, he told me he was working on about 20 different canvases, piece by piece, all at the same time. It makes sense when you see the twisted arms, peaks, and scraps of memories that keep making appearances.

I love his stuff because it’s usually both tense and whimsical. Mad god-like creatures, ceolocanths, squid, his family, churches… they all intrude, and he doesn’t seem to be able to predict when they do.

I’m helping him show off his work this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10-5. We’re on the south side of Whyte Ave, between 105 and 106 Street. Come by and see the body of work he’s calling “Red Mountain Fragments.” It’s a world worth swimming in.


Scott Vaughan, What Páll Makes, and Life Without ID

This spring, I’ve had the chance to peek into what life without ID looks like in Canada, interview one of Canada’s most interesting authorities on environmental policy, and produce the most music-centred story I’ve ever done for Terra Informa.

A close-up look of the stone harp.
A close-up look of the stone harp that Páll invented.

First off, the story I made for the many people who asked to hear the recordings I made of artist Páll Guðmundsson while I was in Iceland. This story was a mix of liquid luck and preparation that paid off. If ferry workers hadn’t been striking in south Iceland where we originally wanted to go, our friends at the tourist bureau in Reykjavík would never have recommended we go check out Páll’s rock sculptures in his tiny summer village of Húsafell. Fortunately I had packed my pocket-sized Zoom audio recorder just in case I met someone life changing, whose story I absolutely needed to tell.

Have you ever gone somewhere new and had the feeling that you’ve been there before? Imagine going away on a trip and finding that everything you see reminds you of home: the stores have the same shape and sell the same clothes, the restaurants serve the same sort of food, the people listen to the same kind of music…

What about somewhere embraces its own character and qualities? That’s what I saw in Páll Guðmundsson, an artist whose local and naturally inspired work makes his home feel one-of-a-kind. Listen from about 10:18:

scott vaughan
Scott Vaughan, plus my hand.

Next, my interview with Scott Vaughan, Canada’s former Environment Commissioner and the new President and CEO of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). IISD just took a big leap forward for themselves, and for aquatic science in Canada, by successfully negotiating to become the new operator of the Experimental Lakes Area in northern Ontario. It’s one of Canada’s most important (and most famous) scientific research facilities.

There, scientists have a unique ability to conduct experiments on entire lake ecosystems — in some cases, their research lasts over decades. The research there has caused major changes in the way we live in Canada: like how acid rain affects freshwater fish, and how phosphates in our detergents can cause algae blooms.

But in 2013, the federal government said it felt the Experimental Lakes Area’s research was no longer necessary, and to be be shut down. That set off a mad scramble from environmental groups, activists, and researchers around the world to find a way to keep it alive.

I got a chance to meet Scott Vaughan at the Zero 2014 sustainability conference in Edmonton to discuss how the year of upheaval will affect the research at the ELA, and what he learned about the federal government’s attitude towards research during his time as Canada’s Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development. We had a frank talk about whether he and the other parliamentary officers who’ve irritated the government ever get together and commiserate, but regrettably I had to cut it out of this Terra Informa story. The rest still makes for a fascinating story, I think. Listen from about 1:28:

Finally, this week I finally got a story out that I’ve had in my head for a long time. Last year, I noticed a flyer up in the Stanley A Milner library in downtown Edmonton, advertising an ID storage service at Boyle Street Community Services. I was intensely curious why anyone would need to have the centre lock their ID away. It led me down a rabbit hole of the frustrations that face seniors, homeless people, the recently-incarcerated, anyone who wasn’t born in Canada, and ultimately, our democracy.

You can check out the story online or on newstands in Vue Weekly.

A Space for Us

A massive boulder is carved into the shape of a contented man with closed eyes. It sits in a field of stone and snow.
One of Páll Guðmundsson’s sculptures outside his studio in Húsafell.

It wasn’t obvious at first. The snap of the wind off the Atlantic, and the sheer scale of the mountains plunging into the sea all around us, didn’t initially suggest that Iceland’s landscape was one that invited people in very much. Our first glimpse of a highway outside of Reykjavik was covered in slush half the way, and it was hard to look out the car window, because the snow in the fields was so bright.

My partner Finn and I were in Iceland last month trekking around snowy peninsulas, saga museums, and glacial creeks. I caught the bug so many of us have, listening to Björk’s music in high school, and then urgently needed to see the land of eruptions and emotional landscapes she sings about.

Maybe the first hint of the vision was how reverently our guide that day talked about the creek we were about to swim in. Called Silfra, it is a small watery crack in an expanding continental fissure between two tectonic plates, and that 4-kilometre long plain grows as fast as your fingernail. Over the centuries, the drift opened up this channel wide enough for groups like us to snorkel in. Before we slapped our snorkels and drysuits on, our guide cautioned us to let the current from the glacial melt push us along, and take time to meditate as we peered down to boulders many metres down through the ghostly blue-green light of what he called “the cathedral”.

Finn in front of the inimitable Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavik.
Finn in front of the inimitable Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavik.

Or maybe the first hint was seeing Hallgrímskirkja, the towering Lutheran church that overlooks most of Reykjavik, with its narrow pillars sweeping up to its belfry. The architect, Guðjón Samúelsson, is said to have been inspired by the shape of the basalt columns left by volcanic eruptions around the island. It certainly became more clear when we swished our fingers around in a hot spring pool that had been built about eight centuries ago. It was hard to deny when we visited a geothermal plant helping deliver Reykjavik’s supply of electricity and steam heat — almost entirely collected from boreholes deep beneath the earth channeling superheated water to the surface.

But it was impossible to ignore when we met an artist named Páll Guðmundsson. Páll was initially described to us as a pretty interesting sculptor who made faces out of rocks. When we drove into his village of Húsafell though, and saw stone cairns in circles along the road leading up to a workshop nestled beneath a grassy hill, we knew it was something more.

A friend of his from a nearby museum called ahead for us and asked Páll if he could show us some of his art. There, in the shadow of icy slopes overlooking farms and broken lava fields, this gentle man in a knit toque opened the doors of his workshop for us, and walked us past his sculptures to a musical instrument I didn’t recognize – because he had built it. On long tables against the walls, he’d laid out rows of narrow stones, some with lichens or charcoal faces. He called it a steinharp (or stone harp), and he told us he found the rocks himself in the mountains and canyons nearby. Then he pulled out two handfuls of mallets and played us Bach, and a composition he wrote himself.

Through the clear, hollow notes of the steinharp and the rocky faces he showed us in the fields outside, I realized I was literally seeing people in a landscape, and seeing their image built out of the land itself. I couldn’t stop saying “Wow,” over and over.

What Páll showed me, and what I saw in that power plant, and in the church columns, was a model of how to imagine a world with space for humans. Many of us live in spaces that say nothing about the land we live on, or its history. If you drive to the outskirts of any urban centre in North America, you’ll see roughly the same drab squares of home improvement and furniture stores. Our finest buildings could be plopped down anywhere (and in Edmonton, they’re often designed for a Californian climate). Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to imagine living like we’re part of the land.

There is a space for us everywhere we are, though. Our homes don’t necessarily have to be made out of handfuls of rocks and lichens from the creek down the street. But we can find ways to carefully observe what’s around us, what we can add to the land to make it better, and how we can reflect our histories in ways that respect the place they play out on.

There are stories to be told about the land here in Alberta. We can live like we’re here for good.

Chipping away through a complete disaster

A snowy, muddy field leads up to a castle of snow at dusk.
Ice on Whyte’s iconic ramparts of snow are being melted away by the warm weather, and built back up by Delayne Corbett.

When the January cold dropped off into that warm, wild wind last week, I found myself sprinkling gravel on my sidewalk as quietly as I could in the morning. It was already an inconvenience having to address the fresh ice that had spread out over the walks, and when I saw a woman get out of her truck to move a branch that had blown down from our tree into the road… well, I’m not proud of it, but I slunk away with my bag of gravel, lest she think I threw the branch there or something, and harangue me into arriving even later to work.

All in all though, the warmth was a treat. Which made me wonder who’d be really annoyed by the weather. That’s how I met Delayne Corbett.

Delayne is the Artistic Director of the Ice on Whyte Festival — a fact I discovered when I penguined over to End of Steel Park and shouted across the gates that I had a microphone and I’d love to talk to anyone inside. Ice on Whyte, you see, is the local ice sculpting festival that spreads through Old Strathcona in January. I had a hunch that if anyone resented the temperature hitting 6ºC, it’d be the folk who had a week left to finish building a mini-empire of ice and snow. As an ice carver, Delayne said, 6ºC with full sun was a complete disaster.

Delayne was the only one working on the site at the time, and he let me watch him for a while as he ripped cardboard covers off 150-pound rectangles of ice. He clamped one of them with metal tongs he swore were older than him, and threw it on the snow so he could “walk the dog” and shuffle it into place with the rest of the ice slide he was building. The slide would bring you to the bottom of a mountain of snow his team had stomped into the ground. All things considered, he was in good spirits.

-15ºC, Delayne told me, is the ideal temperature for ice sculptors. The ice doesn’t crackle much when you add water, and the cold wicks away the sweat you’re building up. The warm weather made him want to rip off layers, but he couldn’t because it was so wet and goopy that he had to keep his rainpants on.

Even worse, the wind had blown sheets of cardboard all around the site. That would have been okay, except that the record-setting gusts also tossed an 8-foot tall plywood box into the fences “like a bowling ball,” and he spent most of his morning gathering cardboard that had sailed into nearby streets.

He said something that stuck with me though, about the ice slide and the whole business of working with ice. He was in the process of adjusting the slide to make it a little slower at the bottom, by adding a little more distance. I mused that people building roller-coasters didn’t have that luxury.

“Those are all so planned meticulously,” he agreed. “Basically when I get here, I don’t know how much snow I have… so I kind of have to just go with the flow, rather than pre-plan.”

That, I think, is a skill we could all stand to learn. You’ve got to work with what you’ve got.

I also told this story for a 3-minute story challenge on CJSR. Have a listen.

Risky Business

If you’ve taken a chance on a new play at Edmonton’s Fringe Festival, you know the anxious thrill of sitting in your seat, wondering if it’s going to be the best $12 you ever spent, or the most tedious hour of interpretive dance you’ve ever watched. The Fringe detonates around the city for the next eleven days, and it’s got me thinking about the tension between taking a risk and finding comfort in a sure thing. This week, Fringe Theatre Adventures Executive Director Jill Roszell spoke at an Aprikat-doused Rotary Club event at the Artisan Resto Café on Whyte, where I had a chance to bounce some ideas off her.

Jill raises her hands in front of a tree-lined Whyte Avenue backdrop.
Fringe Theatre Adventures Executive Director Jill Roszell sharing some stories at the Artisan Resto-Café on Whyte Ave. Photo credit: Idris Fashan

Jill has one of those horizon-wide, full-toothed smiles that says, “I love what I do.” I asked her what she anticipated would be fascinating, and this was her un-prompted answer:

“I am very interested in the zombie tag, I’m not gonna lie.”

That would be An Apocalypse Survival Guide: Undead or Alive?, going up in the TACOS space that Punctuate! curates. Un-prompted!

You might have heard of how the green onion cake-dappled, fire-juggling festival has evolved over the last few years. Since the Fringe’s inception, crowds of artists have entered their names into a lottery, hoping to be randomly selected to perform at one of the festival’s venues. That means professional performers have the same chance to get a spot as someone who’s just got a leotard and an idea. In recent years, the festival has begun allowing shows to open at BYOVs – Bring Your Own Venues. Those venues, like TACOS, can select shows that they think will be intriguing, electrifying, or just guaranteed crowd-pleasers.

The number of shows this year is so gigantic that Jill laughed about the size of the program guide. If they have to add one more page, she said, they’ll have to re-think the staples in the middle and move to a whole new binding size. This year, they’re also adding a family-friendly hangout space for those who don’t want to trundle into the beer garden, and experimenting with activities in an iconic gazebo.

What’s the most audacious thing they’ve tried in the last few years, though?

“The expansion of the BYOVs,” said Jill. “I don’t think the previous festival administrators could have anticipated the popularity of the BYOVs.”

She said she doesn’t think they fully know yet how it’s changed the character of the Fringe, but it has definitely changed the way veteran performers are thinking about the festival.

“Local companies that know that they have access to venues,” she explained, “are not putting their names in the lottery as much. So it’s opening up that local lottery for people that don’t have access to venues. We’re getting different groups come through the lottery system. And we’re also seeing a lot of national and international touring artists start to embrace the BYOVs because they know they can get a spot. Places like Edinburgh and Adelaide, the bigger Fringes than Edmonton… they do all BYOV, so it’s all based on venue.”

What’s the concern, if it’s bringing us zombie tag?

“In some ways that’s good,” said Roszell, “in some ways that’s taking away from the spirit of risk and chance. The Varscona [Theatre], there was a huge controvery a number of years ago when they decided to become a BYOV and not a festival venue anymore. At the end of the day, the decision was made that because companies like Teatro la Quindicina grew up in the Fringe, you know… they got tired of playing the lottery game.”

Being able to choose the programming at their own venue, she said, lets established companies like them guarantee opportunities to their artists who want to grow in a new direction, like actors who want to write plays for the first time. More to the point, she added, festivalgoers come back every year expecting to see signature artists like Stewart Lemoine’s work, or Guys in Disguise.

BYOV-hosted shows make up about half of the festival this year. For now, said Jill, it’s not obvious that their hyper-expansion is threatening that heady anticipation you can get by buying a ticket to a show you’ve never heard of before. Their strategy for managing the tension between those forces at the moment is to keep the number of BYOV and lottery shows the same.

What does she want to experiment with next?

“I really want to do some more work with found space,” Jill mused. In other cities, she’s seen actors hang from trees, or perform their whole show outside in a glass cube.

Too many spaces with chairs right now, I asked? Pretty much, she agreed. She beamed as she leaned over with her next idea. You know the glassed-in outdoor washroom everybody’s talking about on Whyte Ave?

“I want to commission a show to do in that bathroom. You could do an interpretive dance in there.”

Enough Already

One of my favourite pictures from the whole Shareables enterprise, from last summer's walk on Plants in the River Valley.
One of my favourite pictures from the whole Shareables enterprise, from last summer’s walk on Plants in the River Valley.

Last summer, when I went door to door looking for people who wanted to show off their backyard garden for Shareable Neighbourhood, and everything they knew about growing plants, one person whose door I knocked left a thought with me in return. She was asking about the motivations and mission behind Shareable Neighbourhood, and with her I played up how much I wanted to give neighbours an opportunity to get to know each other better, and feel a little more tightly woven — like they had people around them they could rely on.

She seemed dismissive of the idea. Old Strathcona and Mill Creek already have lots of community groups, she said. Don’t you think there are enough already?

Since then, I’ve kept worrying that maybe she’s right. Especially on days like the Urban Birds walk or the Death in the River Valley walk, when only a handful of us showed up. But thinking about how Punctuate! player Adam Cope recently took his own life, and a classmate named Alex before that, and Ross Moroz before that, have convinced me that she’s wrong.

I feel like Holden Caulfield at the end of Catcher in the Rye. How he sees himself in that field, watching all those kids falling, and can’t help but feel like he’s got to catch them all. I knew Adam. I knew Ross. I didn’t know how to save them — didn’t even know they needed saving — but I feel like I understand their despair. Like life is too painful, too unbearable, and it’s relentless. It never stops. And it can feel like you don’t have any options, any ways to make it better, or make the pain go away. I’ve felt that pain before, and it’s only because I felt how strong the web of care was around me that I clambered out.

How could anyone look at despair like that and think, “You know what? We’ve got enough circles of care in our community.”

A terrestrial and aquatic food web
I’m really curious about the relationship between the raccoon and the snake. Like, really? (Photo: LadyofHats)

In ecology, we recognize that systems are more resilient when they’re more complex, with greater interconnections. Simplified ecosystems, with only one genetic variety of a plant or too few pollinators, are more vulnerable. If anything happens to one component, the whole thing could collapse.

In human communities, the same thing is true. Organizations are susceptible to collapse if too few people are doing all the work. If one gets sick, it can throw the whole organization into crisis, or more often, people will make themselves sick by taking on more than they can really handle.

Shareable Neighbourhood is partly an attempt to make our neighbourhood more resilient by showing people that they have something to offer, and others appreciate and recognize it. Recognizing that worth in one another can light up both individuals, and nurture their care and compassion for one another. Maybe, one day, when one needs help, they’ll think of the other and be less shy to ask.

With this latest walk happening tonight, we really wanted to get some of the kids at the Old Strathcona Youth Society involved, because the theme is public art, and they are a perfect model of people who have expertise that’s not accessed or recognized enough. They make street art! And when they think about the controversies around it, they have a perspective that middle class people down the street don’t. I told Jaya, one of the staff there, that I was really excited that they were participating. Here’s what she wrote back:

Doing small things with great love and compassion to create compassionate communities goes a long way!

I sure hope so.

Celebrate eccentricity and other lessons from Björk

A circle of screens showing constellations hang above the instruments on stage at the Craneway Pavillion
Seeing Björk perform live in San Francisco with this swirl of screens and instruments around her was a treat for the ears and the soul.

Last week, I got to see one of my idols in action in San Francisco, and every splash of electricity, every heart-thumping wail, helped affirm the creative and spiritual path I’ve been drawing up for myself. Many people have asked what it was like seeing Icelandic singer Björk perform live for the first time, so I’ve tried to distill some of the lessons I learned here. First, let me set the scene for you.

Björk has always had murmurs of volcanoes and snow-goddesses in her music, but her latest project, Biophilia, explicitly invites you to think about our place in nature as sort of a midway point between the cosmic and the microscopic. I’ve written before about the iPad/iPhone apps she created for Biophilia. It was something different entirely to see her perform the songs beside a harbour, with the almost-full moon rising behind her.

Man in swan dress stands outside with friends smoking
The obligatory fan wearing a swan dress outside.

It seemed right for my boyfriend and I to dress up a bit whimsically, considering she’s performed in a swan dress and an outfit made of tinkly red fingers of glass. We didn’t realize we’d be so out of place in the city where she was performing, though. Across the Bay from San Francisco itself, she’d set up camp in an old wartime assembly plant in Richmond, refurbished into a glassed-in pavillion overlooking the harbour. I’m glad we wandered around, because it helped us put the evening in context. Richmond is palpably poorer, more latino, and more black, than San Francisco. And while the pavillion was breath-taking to be inside, wandering drew my attention to the more sinister side-effects of the refineries and factories in today’s Richmond.

Meanwhile, we stood in line with digital artists, punk kids from Sacramento, and yuppie parents from Oakland. Once inside, we found a spot standing ten metres away from a small stage surrounded on all sides by fellow eccentrics, creators, and dreamers. The lights dimmed, a ring of screens lit up with videos introduced by nature documentarian David Attenborough, and a cage of tesla coils descended from the ceiling to join the enormous pendulum harps, drums, and pipe organ on stage. That’s when Björk herself came out with ruby platform shoes, a frizzed-out blue and orange wig, and a choir in tow to teach us this:

  • Celebrate eccentricity
    Songs about lunar cycles, and videos of starfish embracing each other, are not for everyone. Björk’s work kind of embraces her fearless, outlandish tendencies, though. As a consequence, she accomplishes things that a less daring artist would never get close to. What could I accomplish if I was less afraid of what people would say, or how they’d react?
  • Don’t give up on the impossible
    Like a giant child’s legs dangling under a desk, the pendulum harp she played was an invention from her own mind. It is literally four enormous wooden pendulums, and when before each one falls she can rotate a circular harp wrapped around its base to pluck a different note. It perfectly suits a song about gravity and Earth’s place in the solar system. She dreamed it up this incredibly complex thing,approached robotics experts and programmers, and gave the world something that never existed before. What else could we make if we looked at our audacious dreams and said, “Yes please, let’s create that”?
  • Comfort is an illusion
    Björk is almost 50* now, but she’s still creatively peaking. Sometimes her experiments don’t work, but she’s not afraid to skip most of the hits and habits that made her famous, to make space to try something new. I think a lot of artists get into a rut of continually reproducing their old stuff to make their fans happy. All the songs about viruses, DNA, and cosmic origins on Biophilia showed me that it’s often safer to let go of what feels comfortable though, because the meaningful and relevant ideas change a lot throughout our lives.
  • Go beyond aesthetics
    Frizzy wigs and tesla coils playing bass synths with lightning are cool, of course, but they’re only worth seeing if they add up to a message. Throughout Björk’s music, there are messages about the need to forgive yourself, to stand up and fight against injustice, to embrace where you fit into a landscape. M.I.A. and K’naan are two other incredible musicians who get that it’s fine to lure people in with sick beats and catchy melodies, but what keeps people coming back are layers of real meaning behind them.
  • Giving matters more than getting
    Generosity comes up a lot in songs like Undo and Generous Palmstroke. This was a theme we felt many times in San Francisco: the only way to create lasting, fruitful bonds in this world, between people, with the rest of our environment, everywhere, is to offer more than you expect to get back.

On top of all of these experiences, it was such a joy to be in that tightly knit little crowd. We serendipitously stood beside a thoughtful quantum physicist from New Mexico and his hilarious wife, an optical engineer who works with lasers, photographs reflections, and sings Björk’s Cosmogony with her daughter as a lullaby.

What was seeing Björk like? It was like being raised up by a sea of people not afraid of their passion.

*Oops! I accidentally aged her and said she was over 50 originally. My apologies for awarding un-earned years.