Tadjik Baimurat Allaberiyev (37) sings Jimmy Adja

May 3, 2010 at 11:09 pm

The song is from the popular Indian film Disco Dancer (1983), a response of sorts to Saturday Night Fever; the original clip from the film can also be seen on YouTube. A Tadjik citizen of Uzbek origin, Baimurat is a guest worker in Russia, where, in 2008, he became a local viral sensation that has been compared to the Susan Boyle phenomenon in the UK. Born near the Afghan border and having worked as a cotton picker, he now works in a storeroom in a shopping centre in Kolomna, central Russia. His overnight celebrity status secured coverage in The New York Times and other high profile media around the world; he also had the opportunity to state his opinions on the enormous popularity of Indian cinema in the former USSR.

Why is this clip of particular interest to me? Because
– first, it shows a cinema viewer from a remote country; we know very little of the film viewing habits of the audience in Tadjikistan.
– second, the subject is a migrant worker who lives in diaspora. We thus learn what film material has been available for him to view. I would speculate he may have seen the 1983 Indian film in a cinema and perhaps, later on, on a DVD. He says he learned the song from listening repeatedly to a cassette.
– third, it points at the fact that his popular culture preferences are not as commonly believed and in this case reveal that a Bollywood product is definitely more popular than, say, a Hollywood blockbuster.
Thus, it is yet one more example that feeds into my interest toward Cinema at the Periphery. In Korea, there is even a dedicated Migrant Worker Film Festival, which caters to this type of Gastarbeiter audiences.*

© Dina Iordanova
4 May 2010

*Hwang, Yun Mi, ‘Under the Migrant Lens: Migrant Worker Film Festival in South Korea,’ In:Film Festival Yearbook 2: Film Festivals and Imagined Communities >, 2010.

Film Festival Yearbook 2: Film Festivals and Imagined Communities

February 23, 2010 at 12:54 am

I am pleased to announce the publication of my new volume on film festivals, co-edited with Ruby Cheung, a research associate of the Dynamics of World Cinema project and an alumna of our PhD programme in Film Studies at the University of St. Andrews. The book is the second in the series; the first volume, the Film Festival Yearbook 1: The Festival Circuit, was published in 2009.


FILM FESTIVAL YEARBOOK 2: FILM FESTIVALS AND IMAGINED COMMUNITIES

Edited by Dina Iordanova with Ruby Cheung
ISBN: 978-0-9563730-1-4 (paperback) £17.99; 304 pp. , 2010.

Film Festivals and Imagined Communities, the second volume in the Film Festival Yearbook series, brings together essays about festivals that use international cinema to mediate the creation of transnational ‘imagined communities’. There are texts about the cultural policies and funding models linked to these festivals, as well as analysis of programming practices linked to these often highly politicised events. The case studies discuss diaspora-linked festivals that take place in Vienna, San Francisco, San Sebastian, Havana, Bradford, Sahara, South Korea, and London and that feature cinema from places as diverse as Nepal and Kurdistan, Africa and Latin America. Authors include Lindiwe Dovey, Ruby Cheung, Michael Guillén, Jérôme Segal, Miriam Ross, Roy Stafford, Yun Mi Hwang, Isabel Santaolalla and Stefan Simanowitz, Mustafa Gündoğdu, and Dina Iordanova. The Resources section features an up-to-date bibliography on film festival scholarship (by Skadi Loist and Marijke de Valck) and an extensive thematically-organised listing of a variety of transnational festivals.

CONTENTS

Introduction (Dina Iordanova and Ruby Cheung)


PART I: Contexts

Mediating Diaspora: Film Festivals and ‘Imagined Communities’ (Dina Iordanova)
Directors’ Cut: In Defence of African Film Festivals outside Africa (Lindiwe Dovey)
Funding Models of Themed Film Festivals (Ruby Cheung)

PART II: Case Studies
Bite the Mango: Bradford’s Unique Film Festival (Roy Stafford)
Under the Migrant Lens: Migrant Worker Film Festival in South Korea (Yun Mi Hwang)
A Cinematic Refuge in the Desert: The Sahara International Film Festival (Isabel Santaolalla and Stefan Simanowitz)
Diasporas by the Bay: Two Asian Film Festivals in San Francisco (Michael Guillén)
Film Festivals and the Ibero-American Sphere (Miriam Ross)
Film Festivals in the Diaspora: Impetus to the Development of Kurdish Cinema? (Mustafa Gündoğdu)
Identities and Politics at the Vienna Jewish Film Festival (Jérôme Segal)

PART III: Resources
Thematic Bibliography on Film Festival Research – Update: 2009 (Skadi Loist and Marijke de Valck)
The Listings: Transnational Film Festivals (Dina Iordanova)
1. African Film Festivals (Lindiwe Dovey)
2. Latin American and Ibero-American Film Festivals (Miriam Ross)
3. Asian Film Festivals (Andrew Dorman)
4. Jewish Film Festivals (Jérôme Segal)
5. Palestinian Film Festivals (Serazer Pekerman)
6. Turkish Film Festivals (Serazer Pekerman)
7. French Film Festivals (Ruby Cheung)
8. German Film Festivals (Ruby Cheung)
9. Greek Film Festivals (Serazer Pekerman)
10. Taiwanese Film Festivals (Yun-hua Chen)
11. Overseas Film Festivals in London (UK) (Andrew Dorman)
12. Overseas Film Festivals in Los Angeles (U.S.) (Andrew Dorman)
13. Overseas Film Festivals in San Francisco (U.S.) (Andrew Dorman)

Buy from St. Andrews Film Bookshop by clicking through here.

Buy on Amazon by clicking on the image below

‘Ayde!’ and ‘Lele pile’

January 16, 2010 at 9:49 pm

Looking at the December issue of the once authoritative newspaper Kultura (which has nowadays lost much of its previous ground in Bulgaria’s social context), I see they have marked the twentieth anniversary of the changes by running a piece called 20 Years Later, referring to materials published in the newspaper back then. The author of this review does not happen to have found an article of mine, which run on their front page about April 1990, of importance. However, when I recently discovered and re-read this text, I was genuinely struck by its predictive power. It was called Ayde! (difficult to translate it, but perhaps Screw it, let’s do it may come close in this instance). It contained a forewarning to what I thought was to come: a deluge of what later on came to be known as pop-folk, turbo-folk and, a term that only came in circulation later, chalga; mass popular culture that most of us truly abhorred back then… If I remember correctly, when writing that piece, I did not even believe myself very much. Twenty years later, though, the chalga has become the mainstream and has grown really strong roots.

Thus, twenty years later, my predictions have not only come true but have far surpassed my imagination. And, as I am largely absent from Bulgaria, I am told, I have not really been exposed to the excesses that my friends and family who are based there have been treated to over the years.

In any case, my recent visit in December 2009 gave me some exposure, as it is virtually impossible to avoid the chalga; it is ubiquitous and inescapable. There are at least five or so 24-hr channels that broadcast nothing but. The first pan-Balkan channel, called Balkanika, also broadcasts mostly chalga in blocks sourced by the various nations in the region, from Croatia to Turkey. The market leader in Bulgaria is Planeta Payner, a record and events company that runs a TV channel on the side, apparently one of the few extremely successful enterprises in the sphere of the so-called creative industries. I understand that I have only been exposed to the tip of the iceberg, as all I have seen is television images, far remote from the real live contact with the range of talented and superbly looking silicone beauties that reign the show circuit in various clubs and bars (see picture, featuring here chalga performers celebrities called Andrea and Galena). The interesting thing is that there are literally scores of these women, and I am made to wonder how can a small country like Bulgaria (about 7.5 million population) sustain such a vast cohort of busty celebrity. Most of the tabloids in the UK deal with the bosoms of author Katie Price a.k.a. Jordan, and, until recently, the US had its Anna-Nicole Smith; somehow these two women seemed to provide enough tabloid material and, even though there are a number of secondary stars and starlets of this type, there is usually one larger than life undisputed queen of the bombshells that reigns. Not like this in the Bulgarian case — it seems there are at least twenty of them that have regular presence in all sorts of media. It was difficult to learn my ‘who is who’ for the short duration of my stay in December, but it was enough to establish two things: first, these stars are, among other things, also leading role models for the young generation, and, second, some of them are using their influence to sell classical feminist ideas to their audiences (perhaps one of the most interesting interviews I witnessed broadcast on Planeta Payner TV early one morning and featured one of the silicone beauties who looked as if having just come out of a night club, wearing a strapless black leather body with matching leather gloves that reached far above her elbows to foreground her sculpted exposed shoulders; at 7 a.m. a few days before Christmas she was dispensing with Betty Friedan-type feminist advice to her young viewers).

The most recently broadcast chalga musical clip this season, I believe, was the one I feature below. It is fairly representative of the genre and is called ‘Lele pile‘ (again difficult to translate, perhaps something like ‘come on my birdie‘ would come close). The perhormer is Milko Kalaidjiev, previously unknown to me but, as I am told, a man of robust presence in the respective chalga circles and referred to as ‘the republic’s first moustache’. Indeed, I saw this song performed not only on the specialised television channels but also on some of the terrestrial channels that broadcast to the entire population. The singer is using some local rap talent as support, as well as the usual entourage of chalga groupies; the text of the song is structured as advice to the ‘birdie’ of the title, suggesting that she gets ‘out of these clothes sooner, it is so hot here’ and that he would be her real fan if she lost two pounds, and more along these lines. Ayde!

© Dina Iordanova
16 January 2010

Berlin, December 2009: Highlights 1

December 11, 2009 at 5:42 am

This December I spent five days in Berlin: three for my own enjoyment and two to attend a conference. I thought I would do two separate posts to record the impressions of the travel: one about the leisure experience and one about the working context. I flew in on Ryanair, the first time I am using this company, as I have been avoiding because of the horror stories that British media regularly run about it. As it is the only one that flies directly from Edinburgh to Berlin, I had no choice, really. And then, the experience was not as bad as I had expected, I have had much more unpleasant time on flights of EasyJet in the past, a company that I am determined to avoid at any cost. Arriving at Schoenefeld I looked around for signs of the promised new airport for Berlin (which, hopefully, will help the city overcome its isolation) but could not discover them. Who knows, there may be things that are happening but are still invisible and it is possible that in 2011, as promised, we will see a big change. For now, however, things were the same as I knew them from the period I spent here in 2007; the next morning I was woken up by the noise from airplanes flying into the good old Tegel — my friend’s house in prestigious Ossie locale Pankow-Heinersdorf happens to fall just below the flightpath, so no avoidance of airplane noise is possible. It is noisier than living in the vicinity of the RAF airbase at Leuchars in Scotland …

The leisure experiences in Berlin were many and nice. The first day we visited a friend in the town of Zeuthen, which is located in the region of Brandenburg and thus does not count as Berlin. Nice large houses, trees, quiet atmosphere, and an S-Bahn to take you into the city. All in all a very nice place to live, with beautiful promenades on the waterfront. An imposing mansion painted in pink and ornate with statues, located on the waterfront where we went for a walk, turned out to house the Training Center for the company founded by Peter Dussman, the businessman who started in home cleaning services and care homes for the elderly but now owns Berlin’s premier cultural locale, Dussman das KulturKaufhaus on Friedrichstrasse. In the past, the mansion, reportedly, had belonged to the widow of a rich Jewish merchant who survived WWII and who sold the property to the Soviet forces, receiving several suitcases full of money, to just days after the sale see the value of the funds received dwindle and vanish.

The next highlight was the visit to the special exhibition Koscher & Co. at the Jewish Museum, which also housed its annual Chanukka Markt where we were able to treat ourselves to potato pancakes (latkes) with smoked salmon and sour cream. The exhibition is truly impressive and much larger than any of us expected. More than ten rooms feature information on the origins of various beliefs about what is appropriate to eat and what not. The material is not restricted to Jewish beliefs but is much wider and includes extensive information on Muslim, Hindu and other worldviews. I was pleased to see, for example, that there was some coverage on the practices of the Jain, a Hindu sect that I know from my period in Leicester (where their only UK temple is located), whose beliefs on what of the vegetables are appropriate to eat are among the most restrictive I have ever come across. One of the video screens in an adjacent hall featured clips of Aamir Khan’s vehicle The Ballad of Mangal Pandey, a recent anti-colonial Indian historical blockbuster that covers the 19th century mutiny which starts among Muslim mercenaries, triggered by British disregard related to Muslim and Hindu beliefs related to food.

In the evening, it was a visit to trendy Monsieur Vuong, a new Vietnamese eatery at Alte Schonhauser Strasse, the heart of cool Berlin. Indeed, the place, which features a large poster of this sexually inviting boy on the wall (an image replicated on servers’ aprons as well), was full of cool people of the kind that one usually encounters in this part of Berlin, mostly international students and local intellectuals, wearing elaborate black concoctions and spiky black hair with punk ornaments in it. This is the same street, by the way, where I had spent an exciting evening of potato cookery at the nearby Kochstudio Berlin Mitte (at Nr. 36 here), another cool Berlin location where they teach you how to make creme brule of potatoes and a starter of fried potato skins. The menu at Monsieur Vuong consists of only about 5 dishes, all very fresh Vietnamese fare which is adapted to the local taste but still remains authentic in feel. It is most of all about atmosphere, not so much about eating. I orderd a traditional chicken Pho which was acceptable, especially due to the freshness of the coriander in the pot. The spring rolls, coming with the thick peanut sauce, were also nice (and they still had them, even though ‘der Sommer ist vobei’/’the summer is over’ – an excuse used by a waiter in another Vietnamese place in Berlin a few years ago, when I tried to order spring rolls).

There is nothing like a German Christmas market! The one pictured here is the WeihnachtsZauber at Gendarmenplatz in the very heart of the city, one out of about 20 such marketplaces staged around town. In comparison with others (I also passed by the one at Alexanderplatz), this one is upscale and features really artistic fare: original jewellery, felt hats (I got one!), kashmere, ceramics. There are all sorts of nice little things to eat (racklette, grapes in chocolate), and one walks around with a glass of warm Gluhwein in hand while children’s groups perform carols on the stage near the Christmas tree. Nearby is Unter den Linden where all the trees are dressed in chains of lights and look truly fabulous.

This is a photo of one of the nicest concert halls that I have ever been to, the one of the philharmony at Gendarmenmarkt. I do not know what this building was before, and it seems it had been on the Western side, so I do not really know it. In any case, this concert hall was restored in recent years; this was my second visit to it. It is a really beautiful rectangular white space, and, as I was a guest of one of the musicians, my place was at the balcony just below the organ, overlooking the performers from the back: it was great, being able to observe the workings of the orchestra from this unusual angle, that gave me full insights into the movements and the actions of the percussionists and of the members of the blow instruments section. As the programme was mostly modern music (Frank Martin, Bruckner), all these instruments had a prominent role in the performance. Most enjoyable!

The only thing I had planned but did not managed to do this time around, was to eat a currywurst at Konnopke’s, in Prenzlauer Berg. A real Berlin institution, a Wurstchen at Konnopke’s was quoted as the last dinner of choice by Angelika Taschen, the eponymous publishing empire empress, a slender great-looking German woman. The taxi driver who took me down to the conference at Humbold University agreed that, by missing the chance to do my rites at Konnopke’s, I had failed to fulfill an important function that is a must for ‘Leute’ who claim to appreciate Berlin. He must have had about 500,000 pieces of wurst here already, he said. Eh, well, next time!

Thank you, all: Elena, Sabine, Muttu, Heidi, Markolf, and Rudy!

© Dina Iordanova
11 December 2009

Gorbachev ad for Louis Vuitton, 2007/2008: Why am I Obsessed with this Photograph?

May 2, 2009 at 12:18 am

The first time I came across this advert about two years ago, it was displayed on a full page of broadsheet South China Morning Post (I was visiting Hong Kong*), but I have since seen it in Financial Times and in a variety of glossy lifestyle magazines like Monocle. Back then, I thought for a second, how interesting it is that now older men are being used for advertising. My second thought was that this man looks somewhat like Gorbachev. It was only in the third instance that I realized it not only looked like him, it WAS him! I must admit, it came as a shocking realisation to me. But why? Hasn’t Gorbachev become by now just another one in the line of celebrities like Sean Connery, Catherine Deneuve, Keith Richards, Steffi Graf, and Frances and Sophia Coppola, who posed to Annie Leibovitz for the other adverts in this successful promotional series?

The photo is clearly created for a certain context, but the act of someone like me seeing it opens up a host of other memory frameworks. Why am I still obsessed with this photograph? Maybe because it shows him in a car that is taking him somewhere, away from the Berlin wall seen in the background**. The man is checking out, he is leaving, and thus denying us his assured paternalistic presence. We, the losers, are left alone whatever follows.

Gorbachev announced the end of the Soviet Union and checked out. Communism collapsed. Many people across the Eastern Bloc were ill prepared for the knock-off effect on work and domestic routines that followed. Those who had nurtured an idealized image of western prosperity were startled by the increasing economic disparities within their once egalitarian universes. Confronted with the collapse of ideology and memory frameworks, many were plunged into an identity crisis.

I am clearly not the only one who is obsessed with this photograph. I discover a similarly-titled blog entry, Pourquoi suis-je obsédé par cette photo ?, on the site of a Canadian Francophone writer called Patric Lagace, who evidently saw the photo on the back of his copy of The New Yorker. Remarking that he can barely imagine a more bourgeouis-looking image than the one of the former communist leader turned luxtury promoter, Lagace writes:

Or, voilà, je suis obsédé par cette photo du nouveau « visage » de LV, j’ai nommé l’ancien (le dernier, en fait) secrétaire général du Parti communiste soviétique, Mikhaël Gorbatchev. Je veux bien que Gorby fut l’homme de la perestroïka, l’homme qui a amorcé un virage, mais ça reste l’homme qui représenta, jadis, le monde communiste. Bref, je n’ai de cesse d’étudier cette photo, qui est à l’arrière de mon magazine New Yorker de la semaine. Donc, il y a ça. L’association Gorby-luxe. Mais il y a que la photo est prise devant le Mur de Berlin. Il y a un je-ne-sais-quoi de troublant. C’est peut-être le sac plein. C’est peut-être la légende sous la photo, vaporeuse comme toutes les phrases de campagne de marque. C’est peut-être que ça symbolise une époque formidable de la grande aventure humaine, cette époque dans laquelle on vit. Je veux dire, un ancien chef communiste qui nous vend de la gogosse de luxe, moins de 20 ans après la chute de l’URSS. Vous m’auriez dit ça en 1986, j’aurais ri de vous (enfin, pas moi, j’avais 14 ans, mais vous comprenez ce que je veux dire). Bref, un ex-kamarade qui devient on ne peut plus bourgeois. Je ne serais pas surpris que, de mon vivant, un pape lâche le Vatican pour devenir producteur de télé-réalité…

Lagace’s post has generated eighty three reactions in the comments***. I admit I had no idea that, as one of the commentators remarked, this was not the first array of Gorbachev into advertising. In fact, it transpired, the man had already done a Pizza Hut ad in Moscow, featuring a group of Russians who ave gathered for lunch at the Pizza Hut restaurant near the Red Square and concede that Gorbachev is the man who brought them freedom, so that they can eat this pizza to the end, and shout ‘Long Live Gorbachev!”. Here it is:

The Gorbachev ad run in a number of male luxury lifestyle magazines. My copy of the Monocle from February 2008 displays it with an inscription below the picture, which reads: ‘A journey brings us face to face with ourselves. Berlin Wall. Returning from a conference’. Futher below it says: Mikhail Gorbachev and Louis Vuitton are proud to support Green Cross International (an environmental charity started by Gorbachev). It is a fine, understated advert, which has probably brought some proceeds to the Green Cross, and which is no flashier than the set of Marc Jacobs-designed set of Louis Vuitton trunks (pictured) that were dragged across India by Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody and Luke Wilson in Wes Anderson’s recent Darjeeling Limited.

© Dina Iordanova
2 May 2009

*It happened in October 2007, in Hong Kong, in the afternoon. I was at the at Holliday Inn on Nathan Road, in the very center of materialism, a place surrounded by innumerable shops selling everything imaginable, from Tahitian pearls to h-tech electronics. The buffet at the Viennese Cafe is one of the best deals in town, with mountains of raw oysters, a delicacy of an acquired taste for the local Chinese who mount piles of them on their plates and keep coming for more as soon as more emerge from the kitchen.

** Media reactions to the ad mostly focused on the fact that the magazine that shows from the half-opened bag, alongside the pale-salmon shade of FT, features an article on Litvinenko’s murder. NYT called it a ‘visual joke’.

*** Some of the commentators refer to other situations, like an imaginary Jello ad which plays on the images of an exchange between Dalai Lama and the Pope and somebody else wonders what are Gorbachev’s real motives to do such a shoot, probably not money — precisely like one wondered back then what were his real motives undermining the communist system. Like it is typical for comment press, all sorts of comments and agendas come to the surface here — touching on issues of spirituality, capitalism, aesthetic, commercialism and so on, but there is no unique voice to dominate the discourse. Someone remarks that the ‘sfumato’ quality of the image is the reason for triggering a specific unacknowledged nostalgia. Someone who has even copyrighted his comment speaks of Mephistophelian quality of the photo? The post is made on Le Vendredi 21 Septembre 2007, 7h44 in reference to the NYT article Gorbachev Made Me Buy it. on July 26, 2007, pre-announcing it.

Film Festivals and Catwalks: Life on the Red Carpet

February 21, 2009 at 3:32 am

Speaking on BBC 4 in 2008, fashion queen Vivienne Westwood complained of the exhausting treadmill of the fashion world: as soon as the showcase of the season is over, she said, the new ‘treadmill’ cycle kicks in, and designers are expected to come up with fresh new ideas all the time. This excessive pressure on incessant creativity is something she identified as a downside of the profession. In this, Westwood’s remarks are in direct dialogue with festival veteran Moritz de Hadeln’s description of the film festival business as an exhausting cycle that compares to a ‘conveyor belt’.

Indeed, the world of film festivals is, in many respects, comparable to the fashion industry (including its hierarchical structure that distinguishes between haute couture and prête-à-porter). Film festivals, however, have difficulties keeping the right balance between the periodical nature of the event and the steady flow of supply of product (films). Unlike the film festival business, the fashion industry is perfectly vertically integrated in a sense that whatever is made in the ateliers is sure to be showcased at the catwalk, and the continuity of supply is steadily linked to a guaranteed cycle of showcasing opportunities. In that, the events of the fashion industry exist for the purpose of servicing the output of the industry: whatever is made, is shown. In the case of film festivals, however, the linkage between film production and film exhibition is much looser and conditional.

Similarly to the fashion week cycle of catwalk events, the festival business is in the category of ‘event management’. Both thrive on excess and celebrity, both rely on limelight attention and media coverage, and both need a constant supply of (seemingly) new product. They are both likely to be affected by the economic downturn as well, yet recent writing I see in places like Financial Times or Business Week has made it evident that journalists are surprised to realize that, amidst all the gloom of the financial downturn, both the catwalk and the film fest red carpet seem to not be particularly affected so far.

The redness of the red carpet at the film festival steps and, frequently, at the catwalk, is yet another aspect that invites comparisons. It is a similarity that has been discovered and is already exploited in the context of some media: A few months ago, for example, I came across an hour-long show on a TV channel called Fashion TV, which usually broadcasts endless fashion shows. This time around, however, it was not a fashion show but rather a lengthy reportage from the glamorous Rome festival, naturally mostly focusing on the arrivals of celebrities and their few minutes-long presence at the red carpet. (There weren’t any high profile celebrities featured in the show, but the ones that were shown were usually good looking Italians of superb elegance, thus the programme was more fashion than cinema; it can be viewed by clicking here.) Likewise, the comparisons abound when one watches the new documentary on Karl Lagerfeld (Lagerfeld Confidential, 2007), which contains a number of scenes where the camera closely follows the designer in his numerous catwalk appearances: it is as if navigating through the space of a top tier film festival.

The catwalk skills of fashion people have been occasionally exploited by film festivals: In 2005, for example, designer Nino Cerutti was invited to serve at the jury of Berlinale, and a Lagerfeld photo exhibit was on display at Moscow IFF in 2008 (this was their way to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Cannes Film Festival). It may be a link that should be exploited on a more regular basis, however: Tilda Swinton makes for a perfect jury head at a festival, but I can see Viviene Westwood in the same role equally successfully as far as the PR aspect of the business is concerned; Lagerfeld, respectively, can easily upstage many seasoned red carpet players. Only I have no idea if Westwood/Lagerfeld and their likes actually like the movies…

© Dina Iordanova
21 February 2009

Who is Your City? Tyler Brûlé, Part II

February 7, 2009 at 4:21 am

Here is where Tyler Brûlé comes into the picture. This is the man who essentially picks up where Richard Floridaa drops it. Brûlé is not only aware of the ‘spikiness’ of the world today and of the intense condensation of creativity in some of its select spots. Unlike Florida who forsakes his important premises and volunteers to limit his findings to the US (a place that can easily be questioned as a sole source of innovation today), Brûlé identifies the places where creativity thrives. And then he spend all his time circulating between these places and reporting on them.

No wonder, his itinerary does not go through North America very often. He much prefers touching down in Tokyo, Copenhagen, Seoul, Zurich, or Sydney. A native of far away Canadian prairies, Brûlé is a man of inexhaustible determination and commitment to propagating the lifestyle that he has discovered for himself and has made a selling point for others. He still mostly goes by the fame of having founded Wallpaper, the great design magazine that is still better known than his more recent project, Monocle.

I do not know why he has left Wallpaper and has come to develop other projects, but Brûlé is now mostly focused on projects that promote the creative lifestyle and the places that people like Florida miss out on. He tried a short-lived TV show (I believe it was on BBC TV 4) and is now mostly visible through ventures like Monocle magazine (and a recent shop in London and other locations), and his writing for the Financial Times.

Brûlé writes a weekly column for Saturday’s Lifestyle section of the Financial Times, and has been doing so for about two years now. The topics are somewhat repetitive and reading his writing week after week gives the feeling of monotony and, ultimately, boredom. But what he talks about is, in principle, exciting to me: airports, design, modern architecture, user-friendly cities, comfortable travel, nice hotels, luxury shopping, global creativity. He is often quite critical of the country (England) and the city (London) where he is primarily based. This came across particularly clearly in a column entitled Band Aid’s Won’t Save Britain (18 July 2008), a piece which I found truly enjoyable as it was summarizing precisely what people like myself and friends think of this country’s misguided self-esteem and antiquated management styles. But, I am in the minority here, as usual. Brûlé’s ‘rants’ , especially when they get to praising non-Western locations and to criticizing the metropolitan hubs of the West (as it were, untouchable by default), routinely trigger angry (and sometimes approving) reactions from readers on the letter pages of the FT, as well as in the blogosphere or other media. Like this blog post, for example, which simply invites him to shut up.

Monocle magazine is Brûlé’s main undertaking at the moment. I have been subscribing for a year now, and feel I can say a few things about it ( my 14 year-old son, who is interested in style matters, reads it with great pleasure). I will not subscribe for the next period, though, as I did not think it was value for money: you see, while the magazine costs £5 if purchased in a shop, the subscription costs you £75 for 10 issues. I was curious to see what could possibly justify the 50% increase in price when subscribing, as the only identified extra benefit was access to the web-site. And now, after having had access to the web-site for a year, I do not think it is worth it, as even though the web-site is nice, there isn’t anything much on it to make me feel I have got my money’s worth. And I do not see the point paying for the chance to watch all sorts of promotional videos for which the publishers already have been paid by the promoter. Normally, subscriptions are cheaper than purchasing a magazine in a shop. Reversing this and making the subscription more expensive than a shop purchase is certainly a cunning approach to marketing, and I would be curious to find out if it has worked, in principle. I am sure that there are people out there who would feel nice to know that they are simply taking up the chance to spend more when they could spend less. I do not belong to this group, however.

Monocle the magazine engages in diverse promotion of a cosmopolitan yappy lifestyle for those who have good taste and who know that the nicest places to be are not the ones that Florida is discussing in his book but are more likely to be found today around Osaka or Stockholm. In line with the current manga-craze, the magazine has commissioned its own series, Kita Koga, which features the adventures of a young cross-breed advernturer, Niels Watanabe, and which is executed by a Japanese cartoonist and attached to each issue of the magazine (a collector’s item, in other words). Monocle features a range of articles on global cities, from Beirouth to Reykiavik, and never limits its worldview between the East and the West Coast. What I like about the magazine is its great vision of the world as a globalized place where a variety of people (and not only Americans) exist and spend their lives, its concern with livability and its daring encouragement of truly creative and diverse lifestyle choices, its excellent advertising and style trends features, its competence in assessing important aspects of modern travel, and, in general, its relentless concern with issues of the quality of life in the modern globalized age. What I do not like about Monocle is the repetitiveness of its endless lists (it feels like crushing monotony after some time), the tiny font size used, and the subscription price.

But even though I am dropping my subscription and will probably not continue following this publications, I cannot stop admiring Brûlé’s inventive entrepreneurship and his commitment to promoting his vision of the lifestyle of the creative classes (precisely the area where Florida fails so badly). Monocle is also used as a platform for selling stuff which is of the style and quality personally approved by the man in charge. There is an on-line shop, and there is a shop in London’s Marylebone, featuring items developed in partnerships with high brow brands such as Comme des Garçons (Japan/France) or Valextra (Italy), largely reflecting the nature of Brûlé’s global trendspotting travails. You can buy a small selection of high quality items at extremely high prices: the target audience here is clearly yappies with a good style sense. (It would be interesting to see if the venture will survive beyond the current financial downturn, provided we have already seen predictions that services that rely on the same clientele, like the Bloomberg media empire, may be severely affected soon). What I find particularly interesting is this ‘interdisciplinary’ entrepreneurship of sorts, which spans media (magazine, web-site with videos, on-line shop), advertising (some of the best advertising can be seen on the pages of this magazine), events (they have branched out in some conference organizing lately), and retail.

© Dina Iordanova
7 February 2009