Stories from inside life's big top.

State of Curiosity

Posted on January 2, 2017

State Festival 2016, at Külhaus, Berlin. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

In November I had the good fortune to attend STATE Festival, a festival for “Open Science, Art and Society” at Kühlhaus, Berlin.


When Berlin turns on a good festival, you really feel it. I had the same range of happy emotions and visceral engagement coursing through my body at spectacular sound festivus Berlin Atonal in 2015.


Now in its second year, the theme for this year’s STATE was “Emotion: The Sentimental Machine.” Scientists, researchers, artists, makers, musicians and thinkers from Germany and beyond contributed to what was an incredibly exciting and progressive program, split into several strands: a two-day conference (where research papers were shared), public talks, interactive art installations, workshops, films, and an extensive pre-program of  pop-up labs and workshops, where inter-disciplinary collaborators were brought together to work on various projects, some with seriously fascinating implications for society and culture.


The opening night “Warm Up” event manifested as A Night At The Museum, with the main room of Berlin’s famed Naturkundmuseum (“Natural History Museum”) opening to festival guests and the public.


Wandering among the interactive installations, beautifully displayed fossils and spectacularly lit dinosaurs,  I half expected the prehistoric beasts to come to life in a ‘ta-daa’ moment of event-appropriate surprise. Once the jungle-esque soundscape by DJ Grizzly subsided, key note speeches began. We listened to STATE’s founder Dr. Christian Rauch, (a physicist with a PhD in nanoscience and excellent taste in electronica), the museum’s Head of Science Programme & Public Engagement Dr. Katrin Vohland and primate research scientist Dr. Katja Liebal, who gave a glimpse into her animal emotions research project with primates.


The night set the tone for what was an incredibly exuberant, optimistic and progressive few days: the festival celebrates not only science but its intersections and cross-pollination with other modalities and disciplines – namely the arts, philosophy, medicine and design. Oh – and the public.


“Affective research” was high on the agenda with a number of conference panels devoted to the neuroscience behind affect and empathy. Creative research methods were also advocated – including communicating findings via storytelling and creating “narratives” around data.  Open source science and “citizen science” were also embraced, with Katrin Vohland openly declaring Naturkundmuseum’s advocacy for public involvement in scientific “deliberation” during her opening night speech. Word was out: the scientific community needs to change tack if it’s going to be relevant in – and make an impact on – today’s “post truth” society.


“Emotions seem to play an increasing role in science and science communication,” she said in her speech. “Scientists have to pack their results into stories. Some researchers already talk about the post-factual era we are entering, opening the room for populism and manipulation.”


Could science be letting go of its long-held aversion towards ‘affect’? Is “subjectivity the new black”? Listening to the STATE 2016 discourse, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.


As we poked around the exhibits opening night, it felt like a dance party for curious people, observing, listening and discussing in unadulterated awe and wonder. It was nice to feel that way again – like delighted, curious children discovering the world for the first time.

Walking with dinosaurs at STATE Festival Opening Night. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

‘Dem bones’. Opening night at Naturkundmuseum, STATE Festival 2016. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

One of the projects that piqued my curiosity was ‘Digesting The Anthropocene‘, devised by American “experimental philosopher” and conceptual artist, Jonathan Keats. Namely as it made manifest the link between mind and body, and the capacity we have for intelligence using our senses (an embodied experience of knowledge, as opposed to purely a cognitive one.) It is based around his theory of “gastronification”, what he calls “an alternative tool for visualising big data”.


“Data gastronification is where we might engage the emotional cognition of people’s stomachs and intestines in getting a better understanding of “wicked” problems involving a huge number of different data sets and influencing factors, such as for example, in anthropogenic (human influenced) climate change.”


“Instead of visualizing model projections for processing by the visual cortex and brain, Keats’ method makes the data ‘fit for consumption’, literally: flow diagrams are reformulated as recipes, which can be cooked up and digested. Different scenarios and conditions will now be represented in culinary terms.”  (Description from STATE catalogue.)


His local collaborators were David Marx, founder of Berlin food lab Science Kitchen; scientific researchers at Berlin’s Futuruim Project, and designer and data visualization specialist Stefan Thiel. The team worked with Keats in an attempt to make the science around climate change “digestible” for the general public, coming up with a recipe for ‘climate change sorbet’ based on three flavour profiles:

  1. Green = low greenhouse gas emissions.
  2. Blue = medium C02 emissions, and
  3. Turquoise = high fossil fuel emissions.

The hope being (from my interpretation of it anyway), to create a more inclusive public conversation around the problem of climate change – ie a deeper, less fraught engagement with the problem based on intuitive perception – so that taking action might become a reality rather than a political football.


To, as it were, create a solution through shared ‘gut feeling’.


It’s a very exciting idea, especially as the scientific evidence around mind/body medicine continues to grow, and the bias against ‘affect’, subjectivity and emotion within the scientific world, diminishes. Listen to my full interview with Jonathon Keats at the audio link below.



Other highlights from my STATE Festival experience:

  • Listening to the research findings of Cornell University emotions researchers Dr. Adam Anderson and Dr. Eve de Rosa in their work around using feelings or “affect” as valid measures of perception;
  • Dr . Helen Stark’s paper about the “History of Emotion'” and “The Man Of  Feeling” in the Romantic period of literature (Queen Mary University of London);
  • Receiving an immersive sound and touch massage from “sensation composer” Jacques-André Dupont and instrument designer/music composer Clément Destephen, as part of their MIM installation (“The Medium Is The Massage”). It was so beautiful I was moved to tears, and
  • Seeing Werner Herzog’s documentary about the digital age, ‘Lo And Behold: Reveries of the Connected World.’ Sad, funny, frightening, and vintage Herzog.

* * *

And my festival rating? Big happy face emoji : )

Woman of feeling: Dr. Helen Stark, delivering her paper about ‘The Man of Feeling’ in the history of Romantic Literature. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Digesting climate change: Jonathon Keats at STATE Festival, 2016. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

* * *

Words, images and sound (c) Megan Spencer 2016.

Many thanks to the STATE Festival team for support, and to Jonathon Keats for the interview.

In black & white: Penelope Scanlan. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

The Country Inside: Penelope Scanlan

Posted on November 19, 2016

“Greg Miller is one of the photographers who inspires me. I love the aesthetic of his work: the people he photographs are positioned like mannequins and sometimes appear stuck in time. He doesn’t have a huge following on Instagram but he’s one those photographers who deserves a bigger one.”


A degree of urgency accompanies this communiqué. I open my inbox only to have its words leap on me, wiping sweat off their brow. I sit up and take notice.


Sent to me by Australian photographer Penelope Scanlan, this is the last in a raft of emails we’ve sent  each other over an arc of two years. On an unexpected trip back to Australia this year, I manage to get my shit together – enough to invite Penelope, finally, to convene in the country town I used to call home for five years prior to escaping to Berlin. I want to photograph her for this feature, lolling – as it turns out – on the green grass in front of one of the town’s most popular tourist attractions.


She drives several hours to be here, me too, up from Melbourne on a family visit after a season of bereavement. I’m very glad to see her, and to talk about our mutual passion: photography. It’s only the second time we’ve ever met in person, but we get to it pronto.


But back to the email, which arrived as an omission needing rectifying as if a life depended on it. She was right. I’d be concerned too if someone didn’t shine a light on this fella, Greg Miller, such is the excellence of his work.


She wasn’t just name-dropping; as considered and devoted as Penelope is to her own photography, she’s even more so about the work of others. Generous with her praise. After checking Miller’s website and Instagram account, I was gobsmacked at how he could have slipped through my radar. Unnoticed. Remiss of me. He’s really that good.


But so is Penelope. A country grrrl through and through (born in Mansfield, now residing in Northern Victoria after an extended stint in Melbourne), Penelope loves taking photos so much she’s hesitant to talk about it, lest she lose her superpower. Shy, humble, and utterly smitten by making photos, she has the eye of someone who truly gets what it is to be outside of something – in this case the city.


Living in the quiet of the country, she’s spent years tuning herself into frequency of being there: the smallness, vastness, the moments – chaotic, still and otherwise.  She has a delicious eye for detail, slipping as easily between the shadowy interiors of farm sheds and sheer-curtained front rooms as she does throbbing B&S crowds or big, fat, country weddings.


We might have missed meeting each other, but we didn’t. We’d both driven down from Northern Victoria to attend a photo workshop in Melbourne, quite possibly overtaking each other on solo, long road trips down the Calder, with speakers blaring, unknowingly in parallel.


It was a grey, drizzly day, the kind Melbourne likes to turn on in July. Strangers, we finally spoke on the roof of an inner city building, playing with depth of field and light in an exercise led by NZ “pretty light” photographer Peta Mazey.


After working out we were the only country grrrls in the room – and at the conclusion of a very enjoyable and informative day wending our way around gear, confetti and ‘TDF’ Melbourne laneways – we pledged to follow each other on Instagram, and, to try and make a photo date somewhere in our mutual, regional backyard.


The latter never happened, but the Circus Folk interview I later thought of did. I’m very glad to have met Penelope, and to have found out more about her burgeoning practice and passionate love affair with photography. She has an unashamed fan.

Way out west: Penelope by Kristen Proud (c)

Circus Folk: When we first met, you were living in Northern Victoria, and had just moved there from Melbourne. And – had just started taking your photography “seriously” with the hope of making it your ‘profession’. Could you give me a bit of a “snapshot” (pardon the pun!) of your interest, background, education in photography?


Penelope Scanlan: I have always been a bit of a compulsive documenter. It helps me make sense of the world in some way.


My interest in photography dates back to high school: I started using the dark room to develop photos and I was hooked! I loved the process of developing my own photos. I loved the quietness and seclusion of the dark room, seeing the image appear on the paper as it sat in the liquid. It was always a dream to have my own dark room as an adult, but it’s never eventuated. I have gotten back into film photography recently, so the dream might still come true!


As I got older I became obsessed with photographing my grandmother. I wanted to document her life to try to hold onto as many memories of her as I could. I can hear her say so clearly, “Put that camera away Penny!” I must have thousands of photos of her. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I only got a good camera a few weeks before she died. So although I have lots of photos of her, I only really have a few that I appreciate from a photography perspective.


I have also kept a journal since I was 18. Writing helps me process what is going on for me as much as photography does.


When I was in high school I applied to study photography at TAFE in Wangaratta. I ended up going to Uni to study a degree in Social Science and never ended up getting any formal training in photography. However I [feel that I] do need to: I sometimes struggle with the technical side of photography, and find that it holds me back in getting the photographs I want to capture.


CF: How would you describe your photographic work?


PS: I love portrait photography which I think can be attributed to the natural interest and curiosity I have in people and their lives. Like most introverts, I don’t have much interest in small talk and like to get straight into deeper conversations with people: “Who are you really, what makes you happy, what makes you sad…” I also really like taking photos of kids. There is something really joyful in the exchange you can have with kids when taking their photo, especially if you meet them on a playful level.


I am really interested in documentary-style photography and would love to develop skills in that area – though I really struggle with the voyeuristic nature of that [kind of] work. When I was travelling in India I was really confronted by the poverty but compelled to photograph it at the same time. It almost felt like ‘poverty porn’ though. I was aware that as someone with the resources to travel and an expensive camera, photographing people living in such poverty can be extremely disrespectful. There is such a huge power imbalance that doesn’t sit well with me. It is something I struggle with every time I travel. Ideally I would love to travel and immerse myself in different cultures to enable me to photograph them. That would be a dream.

"The chair was taken at my Nan's best friends house. She was born in the house and lived there for 94 years. It was like a time capsule." Photo: Penelope Scanlan (c)

“The chair was taken at my Nan’s best friends house. She was born in the house and lived there for 94 years. It was like a time capsule.” Photo: (c) Penelope Scanlan

I recently realised that I am crap at landscape photography, which was a relief! I also realised that while I appreciate good landscape photography, it isn’t something that interests me personally. It was a relief too – to stop wasting time feeling disappointed with my landscape photos!


At the same time, I love to take photos of houses and architecture of any kind. I love the way the shapes and textures intersect. I was recently in Greece and was more interested in taking photos of the shapes that occur when you don’t have the whole house in a frame, than the more traditional ‘tourist’ shots.

In Greece. (c) Penelope Scanlan

In Greece. (c) Penelope Scanlan

CF: What is your “day job”?


PS: I am a Youth Worker and absolutely love it! I am fortunate in that I have a profession I am passionate about and enjoy. I bummed around a lot in my 20s, and had a struggle with mental health issues. I worked in security and in the real estate industry. Neither job really fitted with my values. I think it was inevitable that I would end up working in the community sector in some capacity.


I currently have two jobs: I work four days a week as a Youth Development Officer in local government. (This role is mainly around developing leadership programs for young people in secondary school.) I also work one day a week as a School Chaplain at a primary school. This role has been fantastic and has opened up a new area of interest for me. I use art as a way of engaging with the kids, and as a tool to get them to open up.


When I first started in that role I was surprised to see that kids have such a lack of inhibition when it comes to making art: they just start drawing without thinking too much about what they’re doing. We lose that as adults and become so self-conscious that many of us stop creating altogether, which is such a shame!


I’ve also started doing a bit of photography at both jobs. I usually take a camera to work if we have something on. This year the primary school had an event for Mother’s Day which included family portraits of all of the kids with their mums/carers. I think I did about 80 family portraits in two hours! I was so buggered, but it was such a gift to give some families who don’t have the economic capacity to have family portraits taken.


Photo: (c) Penelope Scanlan

CF: And your own photography practice and business: how has it evolved?


PS: I don’t have a photography business, but I do the occasional family portrait session. I have been really held back by a lack of confidence in my photography skill and ability: I’ve spent too much time looking at the work of really amazing photographers and comparing myself [to them]. I don’t even refer to myself as a photographer – I always refer to myself as someone who likes to take photos. My partner has said that this devalues my work, which I agree. Trying to step up and have some ownership over this is something I am working on…


CF: You can really feel regional Australia in your work: you express a really intimate understanding of living outside of a big city in your images, albeit understated and subtle. Will you continue to remain there do you think? Or are other places calling?


PS: I was born in Mansfield and lived there throughout my life. Both my grandparents lived in Mansfield and I spent a lot of time with them as an adult. They have both died over the last few years and I now have a strange relationship with Mansfield. It is a town that I feel immensely proud of and connected to, but I also feel like an orphan there in some respects. I would like to move back there but think I would be haunted by the legacy of both grandparents.


I currently live in Northern Victoria. I like where I like but I don’t love it. I have been planning to move since I moved here two and a half years ago. However, I love both my jobs, my family live here and my girlfriend is also here, so there are a few factors that have made it difficult to move away.


I have been keeping an eye out for interesting work in remote Indigenous communities. I am part Indigenous and would really love to connect with culture. I imagine the photographic opportunities would be amazing.

Photo: (c) Penelope Scanlan

Photo: (c) Penelope Scanlan

Photo: (c) Penelope Scanlan

Photo: (c) Penelope Scanlan

the grass is greener: Penny at Lake Weeroona. Photo: (c) Megan Spencer 2016

The grass is greener: Penny portrait by Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: What would you say are the main differences between living in urban and regional Australia, for you?


PS: The main difference for me has been community. There is a much greater sense of community living in a country town. You know your neighbours – people wave and are generally a lot friendlier. People are also a lot more trusting in the country; lots of people still don’t lock their doors. While I have really enjoyed this greater sense of community, I really miss the queer community of inner city Melbourne where I lived. There are queer people here but I definitely feel exposed as a lesbian in a way I never did in Melbourne.


I have also experienced homophobia since living here. My partner and I went out on New Year’s Eve and we had lots of comments in the pub. One person actually shook my hand and ask if I was my partner’s boyfriend (even though I am clearly a woman). I hadn’t experienced homophobia like that in years in Melbourne. Politics is also a huge difference. I currently live in a safe National seat and it is not uncommon for people to like Pauline Hanson and Tony Abbott, and to express deep anti-asylum seeker sentiment. There is a misconception around here that asylum seekers get more financial benefits than pensioners and so forth. That has been a real shock. When I lived in Melbourne I was safely entrenched in the queer, left, artsy community, and I miss that.

Fred Brophy's boxing tent, Cape York. Photo: Penelope Scanlan (c) 2015

Fred Brophy’s boxing tent, Cape York. Photo: Penelope Scanlan (c) 2015

Another big difference is access to services. There is a four-week wait to see some GPs here; I have had to travel to the closest regional city to access a dentist – a three-hour round trip! And I still haven’t found anywhere to get a good haircut! But all in all, country life is good. There is no traffic and I am home from work in less than a minute, which you can’t beat!


CF: Do you think living in regional Victoria gives you opportunities with your photography that, in the city (where it can is more populated and competitive), that you might not have found? And are you happier in the country over the city?


PS: Living in the country has given me opportunities with my photography that I wouldn’t have had in Melbourne. There is a bit of a niche market for my photography here – that has been great. I was pretty unhappy in the last few years I lived in Melbourne. I had a stressful job at local government, I felt isolated, my mental health wasn’t great. I kept wondering if I was living the best life for me. So the move has been good in that respect.


However I don’t feel settled here. Ideally I would like to live somewhere where there is a bit of a queer/art/sustainability community. I am also over three and a half hours from Melbourne, which is too far. That’s a long drive to go for a swim at the beach, or to visit friends.


CF: Other than Greg Miller (!), do you have any other photography or creative “heroes” who inspire you and motivate you to keep you going?


PS: One photographer whose work really inspired me years ago was Nan Goldin. She is known for her personal and candid photography work and documenting the lives of LGBTQ community, particularly in the 1980s. I found her work when I was on the verge of coming out and hadn’t yet connected with the LGBTQ community in Melbourne. I also love the voyeuristic nature of her work. It feels like you are privy to some very personal moments.


I also love the story of Vivian Maier. Besides loving her work, I love that it was discovered years after her death. Like many photographers, her work was very personal and she seemingly loved photography for the process of actually taking the photos, not for any recognition. And I am also inspired by the work of Howard Arkley and Jeffery Smart, both Australian artists who were preoccupied with depictions of Australian suburbia. I’ve recently discovered a love for photographing architecture. I love finding beauty in the shapes and textures. I went to New Zealand earlier this year and realised that I suck at landscape photography! My favorite photo from that trip was of a very ordinary, suburban house.


I love the quote by Ansel Adams: ‘Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” I just returned from the Greek Islands and felt frustrated that I didn’t get more photos that I love. But I did take three of my most favourite photos I have ever taken, which I am really happy about. I think that we can put too much pressure on ourselves to be constantly creating amazing art, when in reality the creative process doesn’t work like that. It is important to remind ourselves of that.

This "was taken on a boat at Milford Sound (NZ). It rained so hard that day and I kept running outside to take photos then back in, trying to not let my camera get too wet. I snapped this from inside the boat looking out." Penelope Scanlan (c) 2016

“This photo was taken on a boat at Milford Sound (NZ). It rained so hard that day and I kept running outside to take photos then back in, trying to not let my camera get too wet. I snapped this from inside the boat looking out.” Photo: Penelope Scanlan (c) 2016

CF: Whatever you think of “social media”, many artists do find that Instagram provides them with a positive or tangible sense of ‘creative community. Do you?


PS: I am quite obsessed with Instagram. I love the work of Nicole Mason and Christian Watson – specifically the tone of their photographs. Christian has also been very open about his battle with mental ill health and talks about kindness. I love that message. I also love the work of Jill & Kyla (Our Wild Abandon). They are best friends driving across the USA and having a wonderful adventure – I love the idea of giving away the 9-5 lifestyle and embarking on a great adventure! I also love the aesthetic of AmericaIsDead. Locally, the work of Andrea (@mylittlewildlings). She takes beautiful photos of her kids.


There are definitely two sides to [Instagram] though. As a photographer it can push you to continue to improve your photography and inspire you to get out and take photographs. It also provides a platform to promote your work and display your photography.


However, there’s also a negative side: as a photographer it can impact on your self-esteem if you get caught in the trap of comparing your work to that of others. It is good to remind yourself that a lot of people on that site are professional photographers. And if you’re feeling a bit depressed it can also be a trap looking at people and their ‘perfect lives’ filled with loving family. It is important to remind yourself that it is a ‘curated space’.


The other negative is the environmental impact that it is having: I have heard stories of people causing damage to delicate ecosystems in an attempt to get a good photo. I know some photographers won’t add a location to their photographs to limit the number of people visiting sites.


The main ‘return’ Instagram gives me is the continued push to improve my photography – technically and creatively. I have also found a small supportive community of like-minded photographers through Instagram (including yourself!) Overall I think the main thing that sustains me in my work is the sheer joy I get in taking photos. I am happy to go anywhere, as long as I can take my camera and take photos.


CF: Lots of people these days dream of a “tree” or “sea change” – ie moving to a regional area in Australia (you and I both did this!) It’s kind of a romantic notion – and it can be a big shock when you land in a smaller place to live from a city life. How did you find your initial transition from city to country life? Personally and professionally?


PS: I was born in Mansfield but moved to Melbourne to go to Uni after year 12. I lived in inner city Melbourne for twenty years and was really happy there for the most part. I do think that a lot of people who grow up in the country end up living back in the country. The busyness of Melbourne became too much for me in the end. I was sick of the traffic and living so close to my neighbours.


The initial transition was really difficult. I moved from North Fitzroy to a dairy farm in the middle of nowhere. It was such a culture shock. I had trouble adjusting to the quietness of the farm, having to be vigilant for snakes and sharing a house again after having lived alone for 15 years. I think the hardest transition was being away from friends and having a hard time trying to connect with people and make new friends. I think people underestimate how difficult it is to make friends in some of these small communities, especially if you don’t have kids who play sport. Sport seems to be the main way that people connect.


Professionally it was difficult. I had a break from work because I was burnt out. When I decided I wanted to work again there were no employment opportunities in the community sector here. I ended up milking cows and working at an RSL Club. The RSL work was challenging, primarily because I am anti-gambling, [though] I did manage to do a few sneaky counselling sessions with people who clearly had issues with problem gambling. The Club itself did nothing to support people who were problem gamblers. I asked what their policy was on problem gambling and they said there was “a poster up in the toilets”.


[When] I moved to Northern Victoria a few years ago, I lived with my sister and her family. I was on the verge of a breakdown after my grandmother died. I think I am only recovering from that grief now. Now I spend a lot of time wondering and talking about where I will move to next. That is a dangerous trap as it means it is hard to live in and enjoy the present moment. If anyone has any ideas of where I should move to next, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!


CF: When I moved away from Melbourne to Sydney (ages ago now!), I felt a pretty big sense of sense of isolation which really set in after a particularly difficult relationship break-up. To recover – and to overcome an overwhelming sense of vulnerability – I picked up a Lomo camera and began to connect with my new city and life by really giving it some focused attention through the lens of that camera. It’s something I still do to this day, whenever I move anywhere new…


I’m curious as to what kind of a relationship you’re “in” with your camera: have you ever used it “therapeutically” as I did? Or in other ways that sustain you – in addition to professionally?


PS: I definitely have a therapeutic relationship with my camera. As long as I am taking photos, I am happy. I don’t even need to show one single person the photos I take, it is entirely in the process of actually having a camera in my hand and composing and taking the photo. When I moved here [to Northern Victoria] I went through a creative burst. I was taking about 700 photos a day consistently for a couple of months. My camera needed to be repaired at one point and I totally freaked out! I wasn’t sure how I would cope without it. I also spend every night editing photos, which I don’t enjoy nearly as much as the process of taking photos.


I would say that photography is the most important protective factor in managing my mental health. It not only gives me something to do, it provides me with an opportunity to connect with people and places. It also gives me something to aim for, to always try to get better and produce better work.


Feedback from others also helps with that. A little bit of positive feedback about your work certainly makes you feel good.


CF: I love the intimacy of taking photos and documenting: what do you enjoy about – and receive from – photographing people and places? Do you find it empowering? If so, how?


I love the intimacy of taking photos. You can get access to people in a way that others do not. There is also a vulnerability of having your photo taken. It is important that you treat that vulnerability with respect and kindness. When you can help people feel relaxed and feel comfortable, you end up with much better, more intimate photos. I would love to work on a project where I could combine photographing people and recording their stories. I love hearing how couples met and fell in love, and would like to do a project to record that.


There is also great joy in giving people good photos of themselves and their families, especially people who haven’t ever had professional photos taken. I can’t imagine the joy really skillful photographers must feel, especially those who capture special days such as weddings etc.


I recently had someone write on my Facebook page that my photos of Greece were fantastic, and that she had never wanted to go somewhere as much as she had seeing my photos. That was pretty ace!

Photo: (c) Penelope Scanlan

Photo: (c) Penelope Scanlan

CF: Is there a story that comes to mind about a memorable photo shoot?


PS: I was scheduled to do a family portrait at a family’s house and was chatting to the kids prior to going there, and one of the kids said to me, “Good luck, we have booby trapped our entire house!” They also asked me why I was driving a “shit bomb of a car”. They certainly kept me on my toes – I think they’re the only family I’ve ever photographed where I didn’t get a good shot of the whole family together. They had five boys under ten!


CF: And what is the most valuable thing you have learned so far, about being a photographer?


PS: The most important thing I have learned is that making people feel comfortable is one of the most important things you can do to get good images. I hate having my photograph taken and feel really self-conscious in front of the camera. It’s important to keep that in mind when taking photos of others…


Huge thanks to Penelope Scanlan for the interview and photos!

  • Interview: Penelope Scanlan
  • Credited photos: courtesy of Penelope Scanlan
  • Words, other photos + edit: Megan Spencer
  • Follow: Penelope on Instagram
  • View: my photo album from Photo School
  • Visit: Greg Miller’s website
  • More: about Photo School’s courses
Super woman: Casey Jenkins, Berlin. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016.

Pussy Riot: Casey Jenkins

Posted on September 20, 2016

When I watch ‘Vaginal Knitting’, the video of Casey Jenkins’ performance installation Casting Off My Womb, I see a powerful, graceful figure at work.


With her beatific smile, the artist looks like some kind of angel as she sits there, back perfectly straight, quietly going about the business of knitting, using wool she has buried deep inside her vagina…


The yarn hanging above her is so pearly white it shimmers: the only thing that’s missing from this picture is a pair of wings. Wings that in my opinion belong to a bit of a superhero…


A simulacrum of historic portraiture also erupts from this moment of looking: centuries cascade across the image. It becomes a critical reflection on the historic act of men painting women – of men representing how women ‘should’ look to the rest of the world – through the rarefied, patriarchal, exclusive act of painting them.


Except in this instance ‘the portrait’ has been subverted, and cleverly perverted. For the author of this portrait is a woman, the woman in the picture. She has taken control: of her likeness, her body – and what happens to it – during the artwork. (It is a temporal still life.) While on the surface the ‘subject’ – artist Casey Jenkins – may resemble that of a Rembrandt or a Vermeer, this portrait is very unlike the depictions we’re so used to seeing by the so-called “masters”. No-one owns her; she owns her self. She has agency.


If we accept this art we must also accept it goes beyond boundaries of ‘taste’. It is a portrait happily, naturally, stained with the menstrual blood that defines the artist-subject’s sex. She demands that we accept femininity – and therefore by definition, that it is powerful on its own terms. It is creative, free, beautiful, messy, real, radical, political, and, as valid as any art created by a man.


Perhaps this is why Casting Off Her Womb caused such controversy: within the silence of this contemplative, profane work is a defiant questioning of not only the validity of male representation of the female form (via art, throughout eons of history), but the validity of male art, period. The work demands that we validate Casey’s right to flout conventions of taste, thereby ‘unsilencing’ femininity within art and culture.

Tell 'em boots... Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Tell ’em boots… Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Maybe that’s what stuck in everyone’s craw – that it was an implied “fuck you” to not one or two, but generations of revered male artists, towards whom we have historically ‘looked to’ for moral guidance and the definition of beauty. It’s a “fuck you” to our collective fall back position of “father knows best”…


And that she dared to use her own body as the site of this subversive commentary.


Ironic then that such a still, contemplative work would cause such a loud, surging, abrasive noise – and an ugly, frenzied, thuggish controversy. So far seven million-plus people have viewed the video: it was – and continues to be – a “Yoko Ono” moment.


Do we really hate women’s bodies that much? Is artistic expression really held ransom to “good taste”? Are we really that ‘sex negative’? Judging from the plethora of comments posted beneath that video, the answer is overwhelmingly, resoundingly “yes”. Gulp.


When I saw Casting Off My Womb – photos of it, news articles, eventually the video that triggered the flurry of outrage – I was gob-smacked. I felt really proud to be a woman, to be represented in such a way. I thought Casey was heroic. The work tickled me pink.


So when I found her one day, in Berlin, sitting at my friend’s kitchen table, I told her so. Then I signed her up for a chat – and a photo shoot in the city’s free-est space: Tempelhofer Feld, an airport confiscated from fascists and returned to ‘the people’. It smacked of poetic justice.


There she was – the woman who’d spent an entire month quietly sitting knitting in a gallery! The artist who’d dared to weave an infinite woolen ‘scarf’ from the depths of her vulva! The craftivist who’d gracefully endured one of the most prodigious internet controversies in recent history!


By all accounts, Casey’s experience was truly a “psychological endurance performance artwork” – one that only someone with a wee bit of a superpower could endure…


Field day: Casey Jenkins. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Circus Folk: Casey Jenkins: “activist, craftivist, rabble-rouser”… Do you recall the first time you were ever creative?


Casey Jenkins: I have done a lot of my creating as part of groups and posses and that probably stems back to my childhood; I was big into secret societies as a kid. I really wanted to be a spy and remember poring over a lip-reading book in the local library after school, thinking I could kind of make it my super-power…


My sister and cousin and I formed our own posse around that time called ‘Cool Dudes Club’ and wrote each-other letters in code, mainly plotting important things like midnight feasts.


CF: And the first time you were ever “crafty”?


CJ: I designed a nappy for my baby brother using cottonwool, gladwrap and litmus paper I’d nicked from science class. It would change colour when he pissed so you didn’t have to stick your hand in to check.


I think someone manufactures something similar now.


CF: Where did your love for ‘making’ come from do you think? Did you have any particular influences or mentors in your life who helped form your sensibility?


CJ: Maybe I’d say I’m driven to express, rather than “make”? I’m not sure if there should be a distinction there?


“Making” to me seems to imply the creation of tangible things whereas I feel I’m more driven to try to articulate ideas. I do love wielding tools and the satisfaction of solid creations, but much of what I create is ephemeral.


My desire to express myself comes from indignation and a desire to chuck a spanner in the works of the Patriarchy which only gives voice to rich old white men or those who champion their plight.


Particular influences were a domineering father and a student exchange with Rotary, the ultimate boys club. But the world abounds with bigots who inspire me to action.


Some of my artistic heroes and inspirations include LA based sculptor Charles Ray; Japanese-British writer Kazuo Ishiguro; country singer Dolly Parton; Russian all-women punk group Pussy Riot, and Belgian-born, Mexico-based artist Francis Alÿs.


CF: What do you love about making art?


CJ: It gives me clarity, it focuses chaos and despair and channels them into a path of transformation.


CF: And craft?


CJ: The rhythmic physicality of it is grounding and satisfying. I love the quiet sense of camaraderie and generosity in craft communities.


Casey Jenkins. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: I first discovered your work and “craftivism” via Anna Brownfield’s* documentary Making It Handmade, where you were interviewed as part of the Craft Cartel, a collective that uses craft to demonstrate against discrimination. Would you tell us a little about the Craft Cartel, why it was set up, what you made, and some of the ‘actions’ you did?


CJ: I co-founded Craft Cartel in 2007 with Rayna Fahey, who runs Radical Cross Stitch Posse. We were interested in people making craft on political and activist themes but there was nowhere for them to display their work – too rough-hewn and humble for galleries and not commercial enough for craft markets.


Most craft markets charge a lot of money to have a small table space and unless you’re making masses of cutesy mainstream stuff it’s not affordable – so we set up our own dirt-cheap market just for radical craft in a city bar and called it Craft Cartel.


We later also had pop-up street markets called ‘Flock n’ Flogs’ by-passing council regulations and just keeping an eye out for cops and suits.


Mainly though we wanted to move away from the connection between craft and commerce altogether so we started doing street-art actions, a podcast and produced a series of group activism events called ‘Trashbag Rehab’.


We taught a basic craft technique to a bunch of people in a pub and together creating an activism project such as making crocheted explosives to protest the proposed pulp mill in Tasmania.


Craft Cartel is more of a ‘sleeper cell’ now. It comes out of hibernation for important events, such as before the 2013 election that saw conservative nitwit Abbott take power. I organised a national protest banner action called “Knit Your Revolt”.


Over a hundred knitters from around the country contributed pieces [to it].


CF: Do you have a particular philosophy around your work? What motivates you? And what kind of conversations are you interested in having with the public?


CJ: I’m seeking honesty, transparency and equity. I feel hypocrisy, duplicity and shame are at the root of most of the systems and behaviours that stymie us, domestically, politically, locally and globally.


I’d love to have well measured calm and thoughtful conversations with others without needing to censor or hide myself. You can only control how you behave in an interaction though so I’ll just keep making art and wait until the world is ready to engage calmly.


Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Casey Jenkins. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: Casting Off My Womb has been a bit of a “journey” for you to say the least! How would you describe it, from when you began it in 2013 until now?


CJ: The reaction was overwhelming and staggering. Very weird. I felt like I’d gone through the internet worm-hole. I had people approaching me in the street and photographing me when I was out in public and journalists hounding me for a while. It felt quite ruthless.


I sort of thought all the negativity in the web comment streams had washed over me but compiling them for my most recent piece, Programmed to Reproduce (a psychological endurance work in which I, in part, recited and absorbed some of the abusive comments directed at me over 35 hours), I realised they’ve made me wary and insecure in some circumstances. And that is how the patriarchy is policed – through relentless shaming and belittling.


I realise that I was being used as a sort of example or warning to other artists who present as women not to put their head out or do anything that didn’t accord with common standards of feminine behaviour or they’d cop the same sort of reaction. I have no intention to be used this way and am really enjoying venting by recreating some of the more common web abuse as large-scale knitted banners with a touch of menstrual blood dyed yarn.


CF: What was your intention behind Casting Off My Womb?


CJ: Casting Off My Womb was an exploration of the dissonance between society’s gendered expectations of individuals, and an individual’s potential and desire. Knitting, the vulva and menstruation are currently inextricably linked to notions of womanhood in the popular imagination, each with strong stigma attached.

“In ways that sometimes seem contradictory to me: it made me feel fragile and strong, wary and determined.”

I am fascinated by how incompatible those stigmas are though they all feed into this mythical idea of what being a woman is: “knitting is for grandmas”, “vulvas are for sex”, “menstruation is for baby-making” – those concepts do not sit together in the current cultural paradigm, and all have elements of embarrassment and shame.


Combining these concepts in my work created the disconcerting effect that I think people responded to. We have a strong compulsion to categorise and judge people by gender, with Casting Off My Womb I was hoping to give people pause to consider how illogical and unstable those categories are.


As a menstruating person in my mid-thirties, there was a strong expectation and pressure from society that what I should do (and should want to do) with my body and my life, was to bear children.


In Casting Off My Womb I created a long knitted passage to mark one full menstrual cycle, and to quiet down the noise and distortion of gendered expectations to consider what I, as an autonomous individual, want to create with my body and my life.


CF: Stepping back from it all, I can see, as the creator of Casting Off My Womb, that there has been quite a long ‘arc’ of experience for you over time: from the execution of the work back in 2013, until now, and it still endures… What was your experience like during those first 35 hours: physical, emotional, mentally? I’m intrigued as to what it might be like to go through something like that, and the changing nature of that experience throughout that duration.


CJ: Generally (and hopefully!) when I begin a performance work, most of the legwork – the production, staging and logistical aspects – have been completed so I can immerse myself in the process of the piece.


Casting Off My Womb was a very slow meditative work and my experience of it was calming. It was a quiet, gentle and rhythmic piece. People who visited the gallery were engaged and respectful, some came and chatted to me while I knitted, so it was quite casual.


CF: And the moment it was over? What was that like for you?


CJ: I remember feeling satisfied – looking back on it and feeling content that I had created a work that felt strong and complete to me. The SBS2 video didn’t air until a couple of weeks after the performance was over; I’m glad that I had that time to consider and weigh the work on my own [terms] before interweb mobs joined the conversation…


CF: And now: where has it moved to for you, given the myriad of responses?


CJ: It’s been a fascinating journey: Casting Off My Womb was such a quiet, slow and gentle piece to perform that the mass of web commentary felt loud and discordant with it for some time.


Now that I’ve started to address those reactions – with the endurance piece Programmed to Reproduce and by knitting banner replicas of web comments – it seems the responses to my work are becoming more circumspect, which is heartening.


CF: As we’ve talked about, you have received a wide array of responses about it, from essays in academic journals to an “online backlash” from hate-trolls.. What are some of the more positive or interesting responses or commentary you received?


CJ: I’ve had some really touching emails and personal encounters, and have felt incredibly honoured that some artists have responded by using my piece to create works (paintings, poems, sound pieces) of their own.

Super woman: Casey Jenkins. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Daring greatly: Casey Jenkins. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: And the online bullying: what kind of shape did that take? And how did you (are you) weather/ing that?


CJ: It was overwhelming: there were tens of thousands of comments but all expressing similar core sentiments. So I filed them into categories: “crazy”, “attention-seeker”, “not-art”, “she should be shot”, “disgusting”, “I’m gonna knit from my arse” etc.


The prevailing wisdom is “don’t read the comments”, but I didn’t want to hide from them. I thought by doing the endurance performance, Programmed To Reproduce and reading and absorbing them for hours I might somehow become immune to them, but actually they really wore me down. By the end I felt sad and depleted.


The only counter for it is to seek the company of good, kind people.


CF: What fears about women, women’s bodies, feminism (or anything else for that matter!) do you think that kind of one-sided aggressive reaction revealed about our culture and society, especially about women?


CJ: Wading through the reams of comments and seeing how predictable they were, how people move en masse reinforcing staid ideas gave me an insight into how cultural norms are perpetuated. I think people are terrified of not being accepted. They are much more likely to make comments, positive or negative that are supported by an authority in the community.


Huffington Post have written several ‘articles’ about my work over the past few years – they started off hyperbolic and the comment sections mirrored this, often just parroting the headline verbatim with a few emojis thrown in. Recently their articles have taken a much more positive turn and negative comments have lessened considerably.


People just want to be on the winning team and not be ostracized from the crowd, even if it means putting other people down to be there.


CF: What kind of censorship occurred around the work?


CJ: Lots of news reports added boxes and stars to cover my pubes (that was all that was visible in the video by SBS2) and big NSFW (“not safe for work”) banners. The Vaginal Knitting video now has an 18+ entry requirement – I’m not sure whose decision that was.


And I was told “off the record” by an employee, that a city gallery didn’t want to exhibit my work because of the potential controversy…


CF: Has the experience changed you as an artist?


CJ: Yes, in ways that sometimes seem contradictory to me. It made me feel both fragile and strong, wary and determined.


CF: And what happened to the artwork – the giant textile that you created during that month? It looks like a giant scarf…


CJ: The length of knitting that I produced during Casting Off My Womb – although it was widely reported as being a scarf – it isn’t one.


I can understand why people would believe that it visually alludes to scarves [as] it is about 12 meters long. [But it’s] not intended to be an item of clothing at all. It is a marker of a period of time in my life, that is all – more like a ticker-tape than a scarf.


I think part of the reason people jump to the conclusion that it is a scarf is the insistence that “women’s work” must produce something practical, something of service to others – not simply [be] an expression of ideas. However that is what it is: an expression of my ideas: not wearable or of practical use to anyone in any manner.


At the moment it’s sitting in an airtight bag in my fridge. I displayed it at the Festival of Live Art in Melbourne earlier this year as part of my Programmed to Reproduce performance. I will show it again in December at the Venice International Performance Art Week for my new piece sMother. And the ABC will be filming a little grab about the work for a program: a little grab about the work for a program they’re making about “art that has caused controversy”…

Pauli hearts Casey. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Pauli hearts Casey. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: Finally, please finish this sentence: “You know it’s been a good day when…”


CJ: …When you’ve been swimming. It’s hard to not realise how wondrous the world is when you’ve spent part of the day suspended in liquid blue.


Huge thanks to Casey Jenkins for the interview and photo fun in the ‘Feld!

"Out in the street": in Neukölln, Tatyana Krimgold. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Electric Ladyland: Tatyana Krimgold

Posted on August 31, 2016

You could say that Tatyana Krimgold is the perfect Wahlberliner


A writer, singer, acoustic musician, electronic music maker, yoga teacher, event producer and occasional stand up comedian, Tatyana is one of those adventurous ‘creatures’ for which Western Europe’s “poor but sexy” artist colony is so famous. Its eclectic, creative ‘bio-dome’ atmosphere has been attracting artists for well over a century, with no sign of letting up in spite of looming takeover bids by opportunistic entrepreneurs and residential gentrification.


As a musician, part of Tatyana’s creative practice is to allow herself to dare greatly: to move outside of her comfort zone whilst applying the “structures” she’s studied and learned across the years. Unafraid to play, discover and experiment with her music, she also harnesses the energy of audiences inside her spirited performances and collaborations.


On stage she is magnetic.


Originally hailing from Washington, DC, Berlin called her from across the waves. She’s been inching her way towards the “City Of Dreams” since catching the travel bug in her formative years.


This year she and Berlin celebrate their four year anniversary together: it’s a very happy union.


While her music can be fierce her personality is not: Tatyana has a gentle countenance and a wicked sense of humour, which she puts to good use in both her stand up and music – especially as “Krimgold“, her recent foray into electropunk with talented Berlin-based Canadian producer, John Warkentin (ADHD|Zen).


Meeting “on craiglslist” last October after Tatyana put out a call for a music collaborator, she says “John responded to an ad of mine… and I was excited because his stuff sounded really good.. We met weekly and chatted and he… came in with some nice ideas.” (Oh – and music software program Die Maschine – key to their sound.)


In Berlin, I’ve seen Tatyana perform twice: firstly with an acoustic solo set brimming with intense, lyrical guitar songs, and then at tiny, iconic club, Loophole.


Dump Trump: Krimgold at Loophole. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

The latter was a spirited soundcheck for a Krimgold electropunk gig. Standing on a bare bones stage in what could pass for a micro-version of CBGB (every inch of its walls inked in funny or provocative graffiti, the best being “Dump Trump”), Tatyana playfully wailed and railed over John’s sexy, inventive beats and melodies.


Not only did they have great PRESENCE, they sounded GREAT. (Their polite, adept Berliner sound engineer thought so too.)


Krimgold was seductive, spectacular and urgent in the way only punk and electrona can be. As she hypnotically wound her way around each note, I realised I’d lucked into what could only be described as a sonic lap-dance from the love children of Nina Hagen, The Slits, Trio and Chicks On Speed. It was a ‘plug in and play’ match made in heaven.


“People with soul and guts inspire me,” Tatyana says. Back at you, Ms Krimgold…


Tatyana Krimgold. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Circus Folk: Where are you from originally? And how did you make your way to Berlin?


Tayana Krimgold: I was born in Alexandria, Virginia and grew up in McLean, Virginia, both suburbs of Washington, D.C. I continued living in Virginia for college but spent summers abroad – in language programs in Costa Rica and Spain, and on trips with my family to Europe and India. So my appetite for exploring had been whetted!


Of course as part of a student group or as a vacationer, your experience is limited: I always craved more time and freedom to explore on my own, to really get to know another culture and make a way within it.


After college I moved in with my sister in New York to attend acting school. The program was great and the city was exciting. But after a few years of the NY hustle (restaurant jobs, expensive living and so much stress), I was worn out and started to wonder what else was possible – whether there was an alternate route to living as an artist. And, somewhere with a bit more air to breathe and room to think outside the box.


Meanwhile, I had heard bits and pieces about the great city of Berlin and met a Berliner (a fellow waiter at a restaurant in Brooklyn) who’d moved for his girlfriend. Smart, funny, fastidious yet laid back, he seemed unusually at peace with himself. When I asked him what he really did, he just said, “I’m a waiter,” without the typical song-and-dance about what he “should be“.


When I asked him which city was better, he matter-of-factly answered “Berlin”.


Eventually I moved from New York back to Virginia, and then to Vietnam where I’d found myself a job teaching English. Living in Vietnam was wonderful: the cost of living was low, the food was great, and with plenty of time,I began to write songs again. I’d also found a totally different world, where the stresses and sense of the US were abstracted and put into perspective. Life felt lighter and more playful.


But I was eager for a more exciting music scene. Soon enough I met and dated a traveler and musician who happened to come from Berlin. When I visited several months later, I fell for the city and have been here ever since!


CF: Do you have any family ties or heritage in Europe?


TK: My grandparents on my Dad’s side were both immigrants from Europe. My grandpa came from Russia – from what is now Ukraine. My grandma came from Holland. They met in California when my grandpa was studying, later settling on the East Coast. I believe I have some remaining relatives in Russia and Holland, but most of them live in the US now.


My Mom’s side of the family has been in the States for quite a few generations, but are apparently of Scottish and Irish descent.


CF: How long have you lived in Berlin? What do you like about the city, especially artistically?


TK: This September I’ll have been in Berlin four years.


The main benefit the city offers artists – and everyone! – is a real sense of freedom. This comes in many forms but one cornerstone is the high quality of life available to people of all incomes (including low income.) It’s inexpensive to live here and there’s lots to do that’s next-to-free, and, lots of people (thanks to Germany’s Hartz-vier!) with whom to enjoy all of this.


Making little money doesn’t make you an outcast here; you fit right in.


It’s certainly possible to work a full-time job and make art, but for me, the cheap living and thus, ability to work part-time, has been huge. For paid work I do voiceover work, teach English and yoga. With my jobs – and making and performing music – I still have some time to see a show, go out dancing or relax in the park.


Then there’s the music: before moving to Berlin I had never heard much techno! I fell completely in love with dance music and culture here – that is, that imperative to move. The complex patterns and shifting rhythms; the collaging of songs and beats and the associations that accompany them; music so precise and diverse in timbre and tone to stimulate you from head to toe… Talk about clearing your chakras! And it’s not just dance music – there’s a place and a community for all types of music, and room for deep experimentation.

Die Maschine. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

“Die Machine”: Krimgold’s TC Helicon. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 201

Creatively inclined: Tatyana Krimgold. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Creatively inclined: Tatyana Krimgold. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Rather than scoff at ‘the weird’, Berlin embraces it and lets it thrive.


Finally, there is a wealth of opportunity to develop your craft. Though it often doesn’t pay, there are lots of places to perform and lots of open, interested crowds in Berlin. So it’s a great place to cut your teeth and grow as an artist.


There are lots of open stages for music and comedy to show your work, or work-in-progress. Rather than finding competition you find really supportive communities. There are lots of venues open to new performers and also to hosting events or regular shows.


CF: You’ve travelled a lot: what fuels your “wanderlust”?


TK: [Travelling] shakes up your world and helps you take culture, society, all apparent ‘normalcy’ and your identity, with a grain of salt.


For a while I was pretty horrified of losing my “home” or having to choose between homes, my home here or the one in the States. Now I feel that the quality of my relationships – with loved ones and myself – is what home is. Breathing and relaxing takes me ‘home’.


CF: What is your ‘music story’ and when did music first enter your awareness as a ‘vocation’?


TK: Now I play guitar, use a vocal loop station, and am starting to produce with Ableton (it’s the most popular software for making music, pretty revolutionary actually. Nearly all electronic musicians use it.) But my first musical experience was learning to play piano.


My mother – who loved but didn’t make music – had me practicing an hour a day from age five to seven. By seven I was a great little pianist, but I couldn’t stand being trapped inside for practice and was sick of my strict teacher, Ms. Mang. I told my mom I wouldn’t play, even for a pony!


Krimgold: Tatyana & John Warkentin. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Out in the street: Tatyana in Neukölln. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Beat street: Tatyana. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Waiting for Krimgold. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Waiting for Krimgold. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Dump trump: Tatyana Krimgold at Loophole. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Following piano I joined The World Children’s Choir and spent the rest of my childhood singing in concerts and operettas. I kept singing through high school and in an a cappella group in college. Only at the end of college did I return to playing an instrument, this time guitar.


That’s when I started to put songs together. Meanwhile, at the end of college, I took a class, ‘Technosonics’, which became my introduction to experimental music, from John Cage on.


I loved that too, and it started me off playing with music software and thinking experimentally…


CF: Why did you switch from piano to guitar?


TK: I can’t remember exactly what prompted it, but I was writing poetry and had the feeling I’d like to write songs. In my third year of college I had a teacher named Michael who taught me the basics. I found it quite daunting actually, and mysterious, and it hurt my fingers. As with the German [language], I wasn’t sure if learning it would happen! I remember he told me to relax my wrist; that took a while…


Putting chords together and forming songs actually came before I had any strumming technique. When I first came to Berlin I actually put the guitar away, interested only in electronic. But now I’ve found my way back to it, both as a writing tool and to perform with.


CF: And singing: you have a very powerful singing voice as well as being playful with it! Did it take you a while to find your ‘authentic’ voice?


TK: I grew up singing in choirs and have a good ear and a big range, so I was always comfortable using my voice.


I went from singing classical to pop to jazz, and learned to use it in different ways. And I’ve had a bunch of great teachers over the years. My voice teacher in acting school taught me the value of loosening up and exploring outside of normal habits. I had a great teacher here in Berlin too, who taught me to scream like a baby to warm up.


Getting a rich sound mainly has to do with the relaxing body and mind, so that the natural sound can emerge and resonate. Yoga has helped a lot with this, too.


CF: You seem to experiment a lot with your sound – from traditional bluesy and stripped back music, to more ethereal experimental and electronic music. How do you approach your singing and music – do you have a particular philosophy?


TK: On my first foray into writing music I went for very simple, traditional guitar songs. I don’t play these much anymore, but what I discovered is that a very clear emotional logic develops. I’ll try different chord combinations until I find something with emotional resonance. Then the next part of the song has to feel right, to make sense to me in the arc of the song. What I learned of theory usually aligns with my intuition.


In the early songs, after the chord structure, I went with the first melody that worked and then wrote lyrics. These days, I take a bit of a step back between the chords and the melody, playing around in all sorts of ways ‘til I find something that really interests me rather than something that just fits. This is where I feel I have to wrestle with my first sense so I can find something new, so the melody isn’t just echoing the chords but playing with them.


I do other kinds of music – including improvisation – built on a loop station. I also write top-line (lyrics + melody) in collaborations, but I always use this same principle of contrast, casting new frames or perspective on the existing sounds and sense.


I love experimentation but I think it’s been good for me to express this tendency within some traditional structures. I once made a bunch of sound collages and no one could really understand them; it’s nice when people can feel they understand at least enough to go along with you…

“Performance… creates a sacred space. Everyone in the room, with their attention, holds this space together.”

CF: What have been some of the ‘formative’ gigs you’ve played, or moments, where you have felt as a performer you have evolved further or changed you in some way?


TK: The first moment I thought of is a recent one: I was just playing an ‘open mic’ about a month ago at Lagari (live venue in NeuKölln, Berlin).


A few years ago I had been doing a lot of improvisation with a loop station but just at home, creating whole landscapes and then deleting them. I performed a few times out, but it’s hard with improv and machines at new venues because sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work as well – especially with no sound check.


Anyhow, after writing a bunch of proper songs and preparing a show, a few months ago I finally let myself play with improvising again. At home it was very cool. So, I brought it out and played at an open stage. And it was a great experience! I felt as comfortable as if I were playing for myself and had a great time. And as it turned out, the audience were having as much fun! A few people talked to me afterward and told me at length about the depth and power of their experience. That was very gratifying – a big “keep going” for me!


CF: And what’s your relationship like with the audiences you play to – are they intrinsically part of your performance?


TK: I just love them and want us all to have a great time! Sometimes I want to tease or tickle them, but whatever it is, I want to engage them. It’s like a conversation: it works if best if you’re both interested.


And like a conversation it works better if you’re relaxed, not pushing or bracing, but sharing and listening. It’s also a bit like teaching – the audience will have more fun if they feel like they can trust you, that you have a plan, and know what you’re doing. Then you can take them on a ride, if you have their trust.

Hear no evil: Tatyana Krimgold. Photo: (c) Megan Spencer 2016

Hear no evil: Tatyana Krimgold. Photo: (c) Megan Spencer 2016

CF: What do you enjoy about recording – and also about performing live?


TK: I haven’t done a ton of recording but what’s nice about it is all the great ideas you can realise in the final production. And also the intimate, free atmosphere you can create to record in. I can understand why many bands go out and record at little spots out in nature, where their hearts have space to roam.


But a performance also creates a sacred space. Everyone in the room, with their attention, holds this space together, brings their energy and participates in the creation that results. It’s nice to have a recording and say, “hey, I did this,” to have something to hold on to, but it’s also great to have this experience with a group of people – a sort of secret between you and them…


CF: You’ve also studied Creative Writing, and write short stories, and keep many journals: what do you like most about the writing process?


TK: I love how you can sort it all and lay it all out – “it all” being that amorphous stuff inside you with emotional charge that’s sometimes hard to spit out, especially on the spot, to someone else, in real time.


Sometimes you can find a friend who understands your way of thinking really well – and that’s great. But more complex thoughts are hard to explain, even to people if you haven’t worked them out, at least a bit, yourself.


Writing means you have the chance to understand what you yourself have experienced, and gives others the chance to take it in, in their own time.


I also love how intimate writing is. It’s sexy that way. This alone thing you do, hoping to be caught…


CF: Who are you most influenced by in your music?


TK: My influences are very eclectic, but people with soul and guts inspire me: The Parliament, Marvin Gaye, Ottis Redding. Nirvana. Fiona Apple. Nico. John Lennon, Patti Smith. Elliot Smith. Portishead. Public Enemy.


Verdi’s La Traviata was a childhood favorite. Matthew Herbert, Arthur Russell. Depeche Mode. Kraftwerk… Great dance music, Detroit house to Berlin minimal.


I’m also inspired by all the people I love of course! And I’ll mention, too, one of my best friends, Stephen Paul Taylor, another Berlin expat musician with the Reddit hit Everybody Knows Shit’s Fucked. He’s a very warm, fun performer, and seeing him integrate his humour into the music has been an inspiration to me.


CF: you live a very rich and vibrant creative life in Berlin: what other artistic pursuits are you engaged with? And what new releases and projects can we look forward to you ‘manifesting’?!


TK: Currently there are three ‘voicings’ of Krimgold…


One is electropop/punk with live producer John Warkentin who has reimagined some songs I’ve written on guitar, and with whom I’ve collaborated on other tracks. Another is my solo improvised looping, and the other is an acoustic set.


I’d like to continue to perform and to record in all capacities. But the priority at the moment is getting out with the electropunk set, with my live producer and collaborator John on board.

In vivid colour: Tatyana. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

In vivid colour: Tatyana. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Additionally, a project that will soon be underway is a monthly showcase and party, “Krimgold presents ‘The Show’ ”. I’ll be hosting and performing, followed by three to four other acts of music, comedy, and performance art, all ending in a DJ set and dance party. The venue is not yet set, but I hope to have it up by September.


Soon, I hope to have an EP of Krimgold (electronic). I’d also like to have an EP of acoustic tracks.  Professional recordings are in the works!


I also teach yoga and I am getting organised to hold a weekly a restorative yoga class, the kind where you lie around for an hour. Very chilled… Otherwise I have a few other musical collaborations in the works where I will accompany others on their productions and compositions.


And I am slowly starting to cook up some stand-up bits, to do a bit of comedy again : D


Thanks to Tatyana for the interview!

Raw power: Killerbirds. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Everything Louder Than Everyone Else: Killerbirds

Posted on August 28, 2016

Earlier this year a music dream was realised: I got to see the Killerbirds play live.


I know one of the ‘Birds: Prue Allan. I count her as a friend, a beautiful, wise, hilarious person with a giant heart, and, a rocking good yoga teacher. I got to know her over the five years I spent living in Bendigo, frequenting her yoga classes for some much-needed respite and restoration.


We hadn’t known each other long before I kidnapped her to take A VERY LONG DRIVE to the outer south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne (read five hours in the car together.) Travelling in my sardine-can-sized Getz, we drove there and back in one day, me fuelled with the kind of drive-by ‘buying mission zeal’ that can only come with an impending wedding (mine, in a week’s time), with understanding Prue up for a marathon chat as we stared down lonesome highway after lonesome highway.


Completing the four-hundred-km round-trip in record time, during it I discovered that in addition to being a yoga teacher and well on the road to becoming a clinical psychologist, Prue was also a musician – the bass player for Killerbirds no less, an accomplished, kick-arse, heavy, all-grrrl three-piece, which had previously toured and played amazing gigs all over the country since forming around (then) six years prior.


And, while they were on a bit of a break, they were talking about playing again…


It would take a while, but reform they did. My timing was out but: as I prepared to exit Bendigo for Berlin, the band was arcing up again. To my dismay, after waiting four years to see them play – in that time hearing more and more great things about their live gigs and love of stoner rock – it looked as if I was going to miss out. I staved off the kind of regret-tantrum saved for missing awesome live music opportunities (eg. Talking Heads at the Melbourne Entertainment Centre, 1984. With ticket in hand, I was too sick to go courtesy of a plateful of hash cookies I’d consumed not knowing of course that they were hash cookies. “I thought they were muesli?” Hilarious to my friends…)

Golden: Killerbirds at the Vine. Photo: (c) 2016

Golden: Killerbirds at the Vine. Photo: (c) 2016

Luckily the stars aligned on a visit back to Australia earlier this year. It coincided with not only Prue’s birthday, but a rare gig by Killerbirds at one of Bendigo’s old music haunts. I’d get to say happy birthday to my lovely friend and finally, finally, get to see her and the band play.


Killerbirds didn’t disappoint: muscular heavy rock with harmonies. Yin/yang, light/shade, night/day, feminine/masculine: their music and presence took possession of every cell of every person in that room. No-one stood still: we twitched and cheered and punched the air as they fuzzed and slammed us into submission. I fell into a kind of music-induced swoon, one I’d rarely found myself in since the riot-grrrl 90s – a time when all-women bands finally got to shed their ‘otherness’. Like Sleater-Kinney, The’s and Bikini Kill before them, Killerbirds were mesmerizing: short, sharp, cranked, and inspiring.


They made me feel very alive. I loved every second. They were indeed “killer”.


Killerbirds are Bindi Masterson (guitar/lead vocals), Prue Allan (bass/vocals), and Nadine Muller (drums/vocals). Front n’ centre fan grrrl that I am, I bailed two of them up for an interview.


Axis of awesome: Killerbirds. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Circus Folk: How did you first meet? And could you please give is a bit of a snapshotas to how the band came to be, and what motivated you to form it?


Bindi Masterson: We all grew up in Bendigo. Prue and I knew each other from school, and I knew Nadine as our families are friends. Nadine approached Prue to play bass in a band after being suitably impressed with her air guitar, then they asked me. We are all very musical and had the same taste in music, so we gelled from the start.


Prue Allan: Nadine approached me when I was working at the skate/music shop my partner and I owned (and ran very badly) at the time. I had only briefly met Nadine at gigs where her band “The Strays” played. Their set comprised of Stooges and Radio Birdman covers, so I really dug them. Hence, I dubiously agreed, but told Nada if she found someone else to play bass that I wouldn’t care.


I have pretty bad anxiety, so the thought of playing gigs stressed me out a lot (it still does.) Nadine’s dad [Dean Muller, drummer from Cosmic Psychos] once told me he builds an imaginary wall when he feels nervous on stage. This seems to work for me. I also have a ‘grounding ritual’ I do in the girl’s dunnies before a gig.


CF: What do you do for day jobs?


Bindi: Nadine is a freelance hair/makeup wardrobe/ stylist in TV and film, and I am a set dresser for a TV show.


Prue: I have been teaching yoga for about 16 years. I have recently finished my post-grad Masters of Clinical Psychology after a long stint of full-time study. It was synchronously a head fuck and the most invaluable experience, to put it mildly. I am still ‘pathologising’ myself: apparently it comes with the territory.


Yogi on bass: Prue Allan, Killerbirds. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: What are your individual music backgrounds, and do you have any music mentors or teachers youd like to acknowledge?


Bindi: I’ve played in bands since I was about 16. Both mine and Nadine’s families have played in many bands, and been involved in the music industry our whole lives. So they have been our mentors and huge influences – it was natural we followed suit. Killerbirds was Prue’s first attempt at playing bass in a band; as soon as she picked up the bass she was a natural.


Prue: I had a piano teacher who was my mentor. I started lessons with her when I was six until I was about eleven. I didn’t like practicing but I used to improvise a lot and make up my own songs in minor scales. I loved going to see my teacher; she is still one of my best friends. She cultivated my love of classical music and took me to the opera. My parents didn’t often listen to music. Their record collection consisted of Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Nana Mouskouri and Demis Roussos. The best they had was Hot Chocolate, and Elton John, who I still love. I guess I learnt to harmonise with these records. I’ve always loved to sing the harmonies of anything. I am always looking for them in any piece of music.


Mum and Dad did have a Skyhooks record but I think that was in there by accident. It did get a flogging by me though.


CF: After initially forming and playing, you had a bit of a break; what made you come back together, and why did you decide to reform?


Bindi: We had a break around six years ago. There was always talk of us getting back together for a gig at some stage. Then two awesome friends of ours from Adelaide came to visit Prue in Bendigo and got matching Killerbirds tattoos on their arms. So we thought we’d better get across to “Radelaide” and play for them! Since then we have been gigging around a bit, and writing new material.


Killerbird song: Bindi. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016


Nadine Muller, Killerbirds. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Prue: It feels more cohesive now; we are really enjoying making music with each other. My bass playing has improved so I can provide more support and input. We also laugh a lot! I laugh so much I get asthma.


Bindi: Killerbirds to me is having a great time with my best friends, and being able to create music we love. We have had some crazy times in the last 10 years, and I love every show we play. I love seeing how a song develops from a little ditty or riff I was singing at work, into playing it live and seeing people enjoying it.


Prue: [Killerbirds] are my extended family, and [an outlet for] creativity, self-expression and stress relief.


CF: You cite your influences as “grunge, doom, stoner rock, stoner metal, Sabbath and Motorhead”.. But your sound is distinct: how do you describe it? And evolve it?


Bindi: I guess you would class us as rock-slash-grunge? Prue and I are 90s kids so that has really influenced our music and songwriting. Between the three of us we have so many influences – I wouldn’t know where to start!


Prue: Yes, I would say our sound is grungy garage rock with pop sensibilities. Once I thought we were more sludgy and hard rock. I think I was kidding myself though.


Shoegazer at work: Prue, Killerbirds. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Hello ladies: Bindi Masterson, Killerbirds. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Hey ladies! Bindi Masterson, Killerbirds. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016


Killer drummer: Nadine, Killbirds. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2916

As far as influences go, I agree, that’s a hard one. We all listen to music spanning various genres and time periods from The Shangri-Las to Pentagram. It is all very mood dependent…


Bindi: Our style now is a lot different from the early days. I think it just develops or matures over time, and is influenced by what we are listening to at that moment.


Prue: Bindi is the driver. She comes up with most of the riffage and lyrics. Nadine and I add our two cents worth. We develop the songs together.


CF: You’ve gigged a lot: where have you played in the early days, and more recently?


Bindi: In Melbourne we played the usual suspects – a lot: The Tote, the Old Bar etc. We also frequented Adelaide, Tasmania and Brisbane back in the day.


Prue: The first place we ever played was the Satan Soldiers MC clubhouse. I think we were too loud for them as most of them went outside and had a ciggie when we played. (Either that or they hated us.) The next gig we played, Bindi’s Goldentone amp blew a valve and caught on fire. That was visually impressive.


The first Melbourne gig we played was at the Greyhound Hotel in St. Kilda with Ian Rilen & The Love Addicts. Cathy Green played bass – I had a bass crush on her. They were really good to us. Some of my most memorable gigs have been at The Espy and St. Kilda Bowl [Bowls Club.] I liked playing in St. Kilda: we always got a warm reception on that side of the river.


Adelaide and Hobart are still my favourite places to play. They got what we were on about: there was no pretension or bullshit.


CF: Your live gigs are visceral – its kind of like watching a force of nature! When youre on stage together, how does it feel when youre in the thick of playing – and, what do you love about playing live?


Bindi: I love to be able to play loud music with two awesome humans, and zone out in our own little world…


Prue: As aforementioned, I shit my dacks every time we play. I shoe-gaze mostly… But I agree, I do love it when you get into that zone and everything flows together. There’s an inexplicable euphoria in that. Gets the neurons on the pleasure/reward brain pathways firing, releasing the dopamine which effectively creates the same effect as snorting cocaine. Oxytocin (a bonding chemical) is also stimulated.

5678: Bindi & Nadine, Killerbirds. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

“5678”: Bindi & Nadine, Killerbirds. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Maybe that’s why you develop a deep connection with people you play music with. They become family. Even with bands that don’t like each other. Which is not the case for us ; )


CF: And which do you consider some of your most memorable Killerbirds gigs?


Prue: We have been fortunate enough to play on the bill with several seminal bands over the years including Magic Dirt, The Hard-Ons, The Lime Spiders, X, The Meanies, Ian Rilen, The New Christs, The Super Suckers and the Celibate Rifles. We supported The Living End in Bendigo one night, then drove down to Melbourne to play the 2am slot at Pony. That was memorable. It was packed and people were throwing their shoes in the air as a tribute (apparently).


One wild night in Hobart people threw roses on stage and into Nadine’s floor tom while women up the front flashed their boobs at us. (Nadine also played with a rose between her teeth.) We also supported the Pierced Arrows (Fred and Toody from Dead Moon) which was definitely a highlight for me.


CF: Prue youre in a couple of other bands: Vaginaballs and Affordable Repayments. What other bands or music projects have you been involved in? Bindi and Nadine as well?


Prue: Bindi has played in lots of great bands since she was a teenager. She more recently played in a phenomenal band called Dead River for a few years. They were well regarded in Melbourne and went on tour in the US. Bindi is currently working on a new project with some seriously noteworthy Melbourne musicians. I am really stoked for her, it is going to be pretty monumental.


Nadine has also played in several great bands over the years, including my favourite, a 60s garage band Wolfy & The Bat Cubs. She swapped the drum kit for the bass and was mesmerising to watch.


The only other band related stuff I have done was a brief stint on vocals in a 90s grunge band, back in the height of my Babes In Toyland/L7 [fan] days. We went to the Melbourne Rock ‘n’ Roll High School in Collingwood for a bit. It only lasted a few months unfortunately.


CF: Is there a story behind your band name?


Prue: At the time I wanted to be called “Killer Kane”, in homage to the bass player (Arthur) from the New York Dolls. He was such an unhinged, god-fearing weirdo, and I found him beguiling.


Unfortunately there was already a band with that name. We then drew from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 American horror film ‘The Birds’, where birds would violently attack people. We saw ourselves as attacking people with raw, unapologetic sound (I made that bit up). I guess you could interpret it in an Aussie bogan way – “those birds are killer”. But that was not the intention. We are not that conceited!


CF: What are some of the challenges female musicians especially female bands – face? Are there particular disadvantages even now in 2016?


Bindi: When I started playing live I noticed that the attitude towards women in bands was different than [towards] male musicians and bands. There were times when engineers would tell me how to use my amp, or how I should sound, which is frustrating when you’re not overly-confident, and can’t stand up for yourself.


I don’t notice it as much these days, as women are killing it in music, and well and truly hold their own as much as the next guy. I don’t feel the divide is as wide as it was.


Prue: I commend more and more female and male musician calling bullshit on the misogynistic culture of the music industry and inappropriate behaviour. For example, Melbourne bands like Camp Cope or High Tension who have highlighted threatening or sexist behaviour of punters, reiterating that it won’t be tolerated at their shows.


Some female-based bands or musicians are less impacted by sexism and inequality but I am sure all of them have at least one story. I have got quite a few but I don’t want to take up the whole interview dwelling on douche bags. But yes, it still happens.


One more generic example that springs to mind, is the countless times people have said “you don’t sound like a girl band”, as if that is supposed to be a compliment. Or [they have] compared us to other female-membered bands (who have a completely different sound or musical objectives), or tried to insinuate some kind of rivalry between us and them…


It’s like some people are inadvertently trying to maintain a derisory stereotype – that women are inherently threatened by, or compete with, each other. Why does this happen? I don’t know. Maybe to try and keep us separated and disempowered, or something…


CF: I guess technically are “a Bendigo band”, meaning based in a regional Australian city. What does that mean to you? And is it – and has it been – a supportive music culture or environment in which to develop?


Bindi: Bendigo is a town with only a couple of venues supporting live music – even less loud rock music. There is a very supportive network – and some amazing bands and artists – that need more venues spaces to play.


But if the venues aren’t making money from punters, they will can the gigs and replace live music with pokie machines or restaurants. This is not just a small town problem though.


Prue: I still live in Bendigo, the other two [Killerbirds band members] left years ago, so I think it’s funny when people still think of us as “a Bendigo band”!


There are not many venues to play in [in Bendigo], especially for punk/noisy-type bands.


However there are good bits: even though most people I know in Bendigo don’t necessarily have the same music palate as me, they will still come to gigs because they are supportive. So yes, there is a supportive music culture. Perhaps more so in the genre pockets of blues, folky stuff or metal.


There is a huge blues festival here every year. There is also a small but prodigious noise scene.


Terminal Sausage is my favourite Bendigo noise band.


Bindi: The biggest thing I noticed about being in a regional band is you have to work harder to get recognized and acquire better gigs in bigger cities.


By work hard I mean travelling from Bendigo to Melbourne a lot, go to see other bands, meet people… It can be exhausting spending every weekend away, but that’s was the only way to do it. It’s a bit easier now with the internet.

Killer: Killerbrids. Photot: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Cheers: Killerbrids. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Circus Folk: If you could imagine “a dream gig”, what might that be? And what’s next for Killerbirds?


Bindi: My dream gig would be to play a ’90s band cruise ship tour’! Don’t know if that exists, but it should!


Prue: Playing at a music festival in Europe. I would also like to play in Spain and in Japan.


Bindi: An album is on the cards, so hopefully that happens within five years. We hope to record by the end of 2016.


And we have a couple of gigs coming, but we’re staying low, working on new material…


Many thanks to Bindi & Prue from Killerbirds for the interview!

  • Interview: Prue Allan + Bindi Masterson (Killerbirds)
  • Words, edit + photos: Megan Spencer
  • Follow: Killerbirds on Facebook
  • Hear: Killerbrids latest demo
  • Listen: to Killerbirds on Last FM
  • View: my Killerbirds photo album
  • Read: vintage Killerbirds review
Ally Portee by Megan Spencer (c) 2016

A Pilgrim’s Progress: Ally Portee

Posted on August 24, 2016

“Travelling: it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”

– Muhammad Ibn Battuta


Ally Portee loves people. She also loves her Christian faith, travelling and telling stories.


It’s no wonder she’s taken on the challenge of transforming her humble blog into a burgeoning online magazine, Seele (“soul” in German.)


With the tag line “Bridging Faith, Cultures, People” – and an academic background in history and international relations – Ally launched the independent e-publication in May.


Keen to use it to develop her writing, editing and storytelling, already she’s racked up readers from 80 countries, offering interviews with an impressive array of (mostly) women – from judges and social entrepreneurs to activists and filmmakers.


Hoping to eventually grow it into a going concern, she also travels any chance she gets, exploring the world and documenting it with gusto as her vibrant Instagram account attests. There you’ll find images from many destinations including California’s famous Napa Valley, the city of Mahon on the Spanish island of Menorca, Jerusalem, and the intoxicating city of Cairo in Egypt.


Now 28, Ally has spent the best part of a decade living away from her home in the US (Columbia, South Carolina), eventually making her way to Berlin, via Madrid and London.


Our paths chanced to cross this year during Circus Folk + Flower Punks, the performance photography exhibition Kate Seabrook and I co-presented between February and May at the Australian Embassy in Berlin. Ally had previously introduced herself, declaring on email that she was “passionate about women’s empowerment and the work that women around me are doing”.


Curious about my documentary work, she asked to interview me for for Seele. Curious about Ally’s journey to Germany, I invited her to coffee.

House Of Small Wonder

As above and so below: Small House Of Wonder. Photos: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

We met in the middle of Berlin at the amazing Small House Of Wonder, an eclectic Japanese-American-German space designed to celebrate cultural diversity through the harmony of food. In these exotic, aesthetically beautiful surrounds (including killer wallpaper!) we discovered common ground within our ex-pat experiences and respective travels through life and spirituality. I found Ally to be gracious, open, and in possession of the kind of curiosity perhaps not so often attributed to those of deep religious beliefs, these days anyway…


She’s also an attentive listener: the best attribute to have if you’re in the business of telling the stories of others.


Ally’s just returned home after living in Berlin for three years. Enriched by her travels, she hopes to continue developing her magazine and engage professionally in social justice and business.


She’s finding her way. To borrow from author David Mitchell: “Travel far enough, you meet yourself.”

Ally with green tea latte. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Ally with “wondrous” green tea latte. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Circus Folk: From South Carolina to Berlin… I bet there’s an interesting story that goes with that journey!


Ally Portee: I came to Berlin to do an internship. Originally I’m from Columbia, South Carolina, the Palmetto state that produces the best peaches – even over Georgia, “the “peach state”!


I left South Carolina at 18 for university in Washington, DC. I spent a summer in Madrid, Spain before my senior year of university, then I went to London for a year and a month for my Masters, right after my Bachelor’s. After that I returned to DC for two years to work. Then I moved to Berlin, Germany.


I studied history for my Bachelor, specifically American History during the Reconstruction era, circa 1863-1877. And for my Masters I studied International Relations with a focus on diplomacy and negotiation during the Cold War.


In Spain I was an au pair. I wanted to do something different outside of the suffocating bubble of politics and government of DC. And in London I volunteered as a financial development researcher with The Parent House, a charity that helps lone parents gain qualifications through short courses so that they can find jobs. It was the first social justice, ‘unconservative’ job I’ve ever had. It changed my life to see how mothers were being empowered. I also volunteered in the British Parliament and it was a wonderful experience to compare that internship to my various internships on Capitol Hill (America’s legislative branch of government).


In Berlin I worked for a startup and venture capital firm. And I just finished working as an interim communications assistant at an international school in Berlin, where I worked on various communications projects. But now I am currently transitioning back to the US.


CF: Please tell us a little bit about your blog, and its transition now into an online magazine, Seele? What were your main motivations for starting both?


AP: My blog has gone through quite a few phases but initially it was born from a challenging time in my life when I was in a lot of pain and truly found Jesus. I got the idea to send encouraging Friday texts to my closest friends, and I did that for two years.


Someone mentioned [to me] that I should turn my texts into a blog, which I called Friday Fuel. I then got the inspiration to transition Friday Fuel into something that was more than just one day a week of posts, into interviews. So I changed the name of it to “Meine Seele Singt” (in English it means “my soul sings”), based on Matt Redman’s song, ‘10,000 Reasons’. In the German version there is a line that has the line “meine Seele singt” in it, and I loved it!


Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

A year later I decided to transition the blog into an online magazine and shortened the name to Seele, which means “soul” in English. Seele is a niche Christian publication that profiles inspiring men and women, also including some who are not Christian.


I still have my Friday posts (which I have written almost every Friday for three years), plus lifestyle pieces, tips, monthly recipes, book reviews, a monthly book club, with a section dedicated to women.


And why a magazine? Because why have a blog when you can have a magazine!


CF: “Faith, Cultures, People”: what intrigues and interests you about these areas, in particular? And are there many publications or forums out there that look at all three and how they are interconnected?


AP: I’ve always been interested in people. Growing up I only read biographies, memoirs, autobiographies, and watched documentaries about people. I can’t get enough of biographies. I just can’t seem to get into fiction books (except Harry Potter!) I also have a heart for the nations: I love learning about various cultures and making friends from all different backgrounds. I love hanging around them and understanding them.


I have a Christian-based magazine that bridges faith, cultures, and people, which I think is unique. There are quite a few Christian magazines, but I don’t see too many stepping out of the Christian ‘bubble’ and writing about topics Christians don’t really talk about.


Seele‘s content is geared toward Christians. But Christians have been called to be in the world and not “of it” – to go out and mix and mingle with all kinds of people, and that means people who aren’t Christians. While Seele is Christian, it embraces all kinds of people and faiths to inform the reader about intriguing stories of other faiths and other kinds of people: people who are Muslim, Jewish, gay, disabled, Christian, vegetarians, HIV-positive, meat eaters – whoever!


I want all to feel welcome when they are on the site.

Seele magazine online. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

At Oranienburger Tor. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Ally at U-Bahn Oranienburger Tor. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: Whose stories have made the biggest impact on you?


AP: I interviewed my cousin, Katie Nichols Harrod, who is a Family Law attorney and Administrative Law Judge in Buffalo, New York. I was so blessed interviewing her: listening to her journey from pre-law school to where she is now, 30 years later. The way she talked about God guiding her on her life’s journey was touching; I felt like I could relate. Also an interview I did with Hardy Wu, a Taiwanese music student in Denmark. It touched me for the same reasons.


I interviewed my mom a year ago: she’s the most kind, compassionate, and forgiving woman I’ve ever met. Over 800 people viewed the profile – it’s Seele’s most viewed profile to date, which is testament to the many lives she has touched in her part of the world.


Writing is a release: I have to write down the things God puts in my heart, and I enjoy sharing them with my readers. I’ve always been inspired by people and the interesting stories of their lives. I simply love sharing people’s answers and words of wisdom through interviews.


CF: What kind of perspectives have you ‘grown’ since leaving the States, and becoming a “world traveller”?


AP: I find it so interesting to study someone who is from a completely different culture to me: I realize that we’re more alike than I thought, while at the same time being different. We’re all humans: I find similarities between Spaniards and Southern Americans, Indonesians and Latinos….


I realize that the world is big, but not too big. I am more open, more understanding to various cultures, and less annoyed by a culture difference. When I first moved to London I thought the British would be like Americans because we speak the same language. Au contraire – we’re so different! And when I visited Israel a couple of years ago I wasn’t bothered by the gruff Israeli people: they’re tough but I didn’t get upset.


So I’ve learned not to judge a culture based on my own.


CF: How important is it do you think, for people to leave home and what they know, and to travel? What are the advantages of travel? And perhaps some of the challenges too, that you might have experienced?


AP: To live away from home is one of the most enriching decisions anyone can make. I see the world much differently from when all I knew was South Carolina…


I’m more open to different types of people and their lifestyles. I’m more accepting of different cultures: I no longer judge a culture based on my own. I learned that the hard way when I lived in London – to never expect another culture to be like Americans.


It’s important to live away from your hometown if you can because it will force you to have to handle and juggle problems on your own, away from your parents. I remember when I studied in London for my Masters, from the States I arranged for an apartment, and then paid the deposit. The day I arrived in London I got a call from the landlord saying that they could no longer rent out the flat to me. I didn’t know where I was going to live! It forced me to spend a whole night on Gumtree searching! Luckily I found a place the next day, but I had to face that situation on my own in a foreign country without my parents to solve the problem for me.


Because of experiences like that in England (and others in Germany – and oh, I’ve got some stories!), my faith in God has increased. Now I know that I can take care of myself.


So I don’t freak out or become anxious when life throws me difficult moments. Because I’ve had many challenges, God has gotten me through them.


CF: Travelling to places like Egypt, and elsewhere in the world, where other religions are prevalent, what do you learn and notice? And do you enjoy experiencing other religions and faiths, ‘in situ’?


AP: I love the fact that all my five senses are awakened at once. My eyes are taking in the donkeys pulling carts on the shoulder of the superhighway. My ears are taking in the sounds of the congested traffic. The air smells of humid desert air. I feel like I’m in an exotic land. And the spices of the foods awaken my taste buds. Istanbul and Israel were like this for me too.


I’m also reminded in Muslim, Jewish, or Catholic countries that the faiths are different, and that I must strive to understand faiths that are different from mine. I usually meet with an imam, priest or rabbi in that respective country, where a particular faith is dominant. I do this because I enjoy talking apologetics and various religions and their dogmas, so that I can understand and learn things I didn’t know. I haven’t been to Asia yet, but when I go, you can expect to find me at a Buddhist monastery or Hindu temple, speaking to their leadership on the tenets of their faith.

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

In Egypt this year I met with four imams at a mosque. And though I was passionate about my faith, I was reminded that I must listen, understand, and respect the Muslim faith.  Respect goes both ways.  I could also see that Muslims really love God and have a high reverence for Him. They just don’t see Jesus as the same, but God is in their talk, in their tradition to pray five times a day through speakers that cite the call to prayer. I really admire how they really seem to be zealous, something that’s very different in the Western Christian world.


CF: You have been away from your home in South Carolina for a long time now… What did you love about living there? And what were some of the challenges?


AP: I’ve been away for 10 years now. It’s the people that make South Carolina great. Southerners are open, friendly and inviting. I miss that. And I sometimes miss the food (but not the waistline that comes with eating it!)


I don’t miss the racism. I don’t think I could live in South Carolina again. Sure, it’s getting better and I see more and more interracial couples when I go home. But Americans like to hold on to their racial views; Europeans are far more progressive. It was challenging in high school with the underhanded comments of racism. And it was challenging in Washington sometimes with the cliques of some people…


CF: Has your definition of ‘home’ changed as a result of travelling? Or does it remain a constant? It must be difficult living away from your family…


AP: Yes, home is where I am. I know where I am from. And I’m grateful that God made me be born in the American South, in South Carolina. I love that I know Jesus, I love the friendly and open culture, I love the food, I love the kind people that I know, and I love that I’m a black woman born and raised in the South.


I sure do miss my parents. I think if my parents weren’t in South Carolina I wouldn’t really feel the need to go back.


Because I have done a bit of traveling over the last ten years – spending very little time in South Carolina – home is where I am.


Graceful: Ally Portee. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: Who are some of your influences, inspirations or heroes?


AP: Firstly it’s Jesus. He’s the model of how I strive to live my life. He is constantly transforming my heart to love, forgive, have boundaries, to be open, and to be gracious.

– My mother because of her resilience to forgive quickly.

– My father for chasing his dream to run for public office.

– Princess Diana for compassion. She wasn’t perfect but she was gifted to show love.

– Jacqueline Kennedy for her subtle presence and iconic fashion influence.

– Francis Ford Coppola for making the best movies: The Godfather trilogy.

– Christine Caine for her ministry and heart of Jesus.

– Harriett Tubman for her courage to help guide slaves on the Underground Railroad.

– Oprah Winfrey for her journey and her soothing words of wisdom.


CF: Finally, what goals or dreams do you have for your online magazine, Seele?


AP: In time, I’d really like to grow Seele. My professional experiences now are preparing me to do this.


I also love film and documentaries. I’d love to start a media company of some sort. In Berlin I had some exposure to filming and editing as a form of storytelling, and I really enjoy it. But not as much as I do editorial and managing Seele!


Grateful thanks to Ally Portee for the interview!

© Megan Spencer 2016
© Megan Spencer 2016

Land of Balconia

Posted on July 6, 2016

Berlin balconies are spectacular – especially in summer. Look up and you’ll witness some of the city’s most creative spaces. You don’t have to be a poet or painter to live here: being a keen home gardener will do just fine.


Balconia: part-urban balcony, part-Narnia – a fantasy land just outside your window (instead of down the back of the wardrobe). A magical space to cheer you up on grey days (and there are many in Berlin), and on long, hot summer nights a paradise where you can find a cool breeze, a grill going and friends over for a feast.

In all likelihood Berliners like dogs more than they do people, but they dig their balconies, taking great pride in both their design and what they grow in them. And for the good many who prefer to take their summer holidays ‘at home’ (taking a “stay-cation” is also popular in the cash-strapped capital), balconia ain’t such a bad place to be.

Balconia tommies. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Balconia tommies. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Sunshine becomes a commodity in a place that is winter (or winter-like) for most of the year. And with average apartment size 70.6 square metres, having this outside “green space” can make all the difference between “cabin fever” and “yay” (especially when the temperatures begin to drop).


Balconias are also great sources of food. In addition to homes for spectacular blooms, they’re also easily transformed into vertical veggie patches, herb gardens and fruit plots. Pumpkins, tomatoes, broad beans, broccoli, chili, raspberries, grapevines – you name it, virtually anything that can sprout from seed, in a pot, and within the “humid continental” climate, grows with gusto in spring and summer.


Balconias are Berlin’s equivalent to Melbourne’s Christmas Lights: during summer it’s not unusual for neighbours in the same street – nay building – to compete for the most outrageous Balkon, with grotesque garden gnomes, umbrellas, sculptures, flags, windmills, fairylights, sails, mobiles, signs and “whatever you’ve fished off the street” thrown into the mix.


Moving to Berlin from a sprawling, veggie-populated backyard in the middle of regional Victoria (Australia) as I had, I was a little worried about how I’d survive without serious edible greenery within arm’s reach. We ate out of that glorious garden for five years, six months of the year.

A fistful of geranium. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Outside our window: the land of "Balconia". Photo: Megan Spencer 2016

Outside our window: the land of “Balconia”. Photo: Megan Spencer 2016

I needn’t have worried: with the great fortune of finding a place with not one but two balconies, my plant whisperer of a husband got our balconia garden started before the ink had even dried on the lease.


It’s mainly a herbarium (curry, basil, rosemary, parsley, thyme, chives), with strawbs and tommies on the way. We could also open a florist shop tomorrow: geraniums, oleander, nasturtiums, carnations, lavender, marigolds… Most nights of the week we eat in the company of our flowers and plants, outside, listening to birds, traffic, people returning happy from the ice-cream shop (or drunk from the döner shop), and on the occasion of Germany playing in the European Championships (as they are right now), fireworks. It’s like living in the Northern Territory all over again.


The Magic Faraway Tree is right on our doorstep. A little piece of paradise two floors up, halfway between the earth and the stars.


My balconia keeps me from feeling too far from home – and, right at home.


How lucky am I, yes?

Thank you Oliver.

Thank you nature. Thank you Berlin.

And thanks Sam for the chat about “balconia”, on Three Wicked Women.

Woman Of Substance: Vanessa Ellingham

Posted on July 1, 2016

Human rights journalist, magazine editor and social storyteller Vanessa Ellingham seems to regularly be mistaken for someone else.


It’s something which has beset her for the past five years, since “Jasmine Cooper” first got glasses.


“Jasmine Cooper” is one of the characters on New Zealand’s most famous soap opera, ‘Shortland Street‘. It seems Vanessa and the actress who plays the troubled teenager share eerily similar features: honey-brown hair, perfectly-manicured bobs and cat’s eye glasses, framing heart-shaped faces and delicate smiles.


Both call New Zealand home. And as I discover soon after meeting Vanessa at a writers group in Berlin (where she now lives), it’s a case of mistaken identity the 25 year-old is wont to write about in hilarious, excruciating detail.


Even recently a hapless Mac user mistook Vanessa as one of the faces of Apple’s newly-minted Twitter Support Team, reaching out to her in 140-characters-or-less.

As the saying goes, ‘you can run but you can’t hide’ – especially not on Twitter. “It’s happening again!” tweeted Vanessa, in bemused desperation, finally conceding, “[I] just have one of those faces, I suppose”.




Be that as that as it may, there’s nothing generic about this “digital native”, whip-smart storyteller. While Vanessa’s default setting might appear shy and self-deprecating – upholding the stereotype of her “nerdy” doppelgangers – it’s cosmetic only. Get Vanessa onto something she believes in and you get to the heart of her: an articulate woman of substance with an ardour to rival the flow of her homeland’s mighty Waikato River.


Upping stumps from Aotearoa almost four years ago, she’s not only turned into a world traveler (making her a bit exotic back home), she’s also sought out social enterprises that make a difference. At Give Something Back To Berlin Vanessa works as the organisation’s blog editor, helping to tell the stories of the many refugees currently seeking asylum in Berlin.


On the walls at GSBTB. Photos: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Founded by Swedish journalist Annamaria Olsson, the enterprise endeavours to connect more “privileged” immigrants (ie those in Berlin by choice) with those more “vulnerable” in the community, such as the ever-growing, diaspora of displaced peoples arriving in Germany, the country bearing the brunt of the EU’s “great migration crisis”. They do this via projects, programs and partnerships, the emphasis being on creating support, opportunity and community.


It seems fitting that the organisation’s HQ is in a converted church in Neukölln, one of the most open, culturally diverse and thriving neighbourhoods in Berlin. With meditation spaces, meeting rooms, workshop areas, a new communal kitchen and a beautiful rooftop garden (complete with modular veggie patches and fruit plots), it’s staffed with expats and locals alike.


Not only do they care, they actually do something to help. They take action.


It may not be very “Jasmine Cooper” of her, but you won’t find Vanessa Ellingham making a big deal about it…


Vanessa Ellingham. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Circus Folk: A New Zealander in Berlin: could you please give us a snapshot of your journey to becoming a “Wahlberliner”, including a picture of where you are from in New Zealand?


Vanessa Ellingham: I’ve lived in Berlin now for just about three years. I never intended to live in Germany (I learned French at school, and when I left New Zealand I was headed for Denmark.) But I ended up here, and I’m so happy in Berlin I might never leave!


My partner, Andreas, is Danish, and we lived together in Copenhagen for a year before we came to Berlin. It wasn’t really working out there for me (job-wise, culture-wise), so we made a list of other places we could see ourselves living and whittled them down until we settled on Berlin.


We picked this city for its multiculturalism, arts scene, affordability and acceptance of difference, but most of that was based on what we’d heard from others. It turned out to be a very good choice for us.


I come from Wellington, once dubbed the “coolest little capital in the world” by Lonely Planet. It’s a tiny city known for its café culture and arts scene. New Zealand as a whole is pretty multicultural and that’s what I’d missed in Denmark.


Funny how I gravitated towards a new place with a spirit a bit like the one I left back at home…


CF: And you also have Maori heritage: could you please give us some details about your family background? And what it means to you, to have that heritage in your identity?


VE: My mother’s father was Maori, which makes us part-Maori. In New Zealand we say, “you’re as Maori as you feel”, and I probably feel more Maori the longer I live away from home.


I wasn’t raised with a lot of Maori culture or customs, but after my granddad died when I was a kid my family made an effort to learn more about that part of ourselves and that’s a journey we’re still on today.


To me being Maori is about being spiritually connected to your ancestral land. And it’s about being inclusive – we talk about the idea of whanau, something bigger than a family, more like a community of people who hold each other dear and support one another.




Urban jungle: GSBTB’s rooftop garden. Photos: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: Please tell us more about your work here in Berlin?


VF: I’m a freelance writer and editor. I cover a range of different roles.


Last year I edited an anthology for Slow Travel Berlin to celebrate their fifth anniversary. Slow Travel Berlin is an English-language city guide slowed down, with hidden places, not-so-familiar faces and long-form stories coming out of Berlin.


I serve as an editor and feature writer for, an online magazine about human rights and the environment. There I mostly write about migration and issues affecting indigenous peoples.


CF: And your role working with refugees at the organisation “Give Something Back To Berlin”?


VE: I work part-time editing and managing the Give Something Back to Berlin blog. It’s a work in progress: right now we interview members of our community, and produce general news about our organisation, but in the future we hope to have more writing about migration, politics and local issues affecting Berlin’s newcomers – that’s our audience.



Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016


Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

GSBTB started three years ago as an answer to Berlin’s anti-gentrification discourse. We don’t claim to ‘fix’ the problem of gentrification, but serve as an opportunity for new Berliners to contribute to the city through volunteering, shirking that stereotype of hipsters who only came to town to party, make art and push up the cost of living here.


The volunteer work was targeted at the expat crowd, volunteering with elderly folk, in after-school care programs, that sort of thing, but we also became networked with the refugee rights movement at Oranienplatz, organising a weekly cooking event in the park and English classes for refugees.


When the number of refugees arriving in the city increased by what felt like a bajillion last summer, we were well positioned to show the city how it’s done: that ‘integrating’ people doesn’t have to mean a one-directional aid exchange, but providing spaces for them to come and forge genuine friendships with like-minded people, and also have the opportunity to contribute to the city themselves.


Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

I wouldn’t be doing justice to my colleagues if I didn’t mention that we recently won an international award for this work. In April we won the top prize at the Intercultural Innovation Award from UNAOC and BMW Group. It felt like the whole world could suddenly hear what we had to say about migration – it’s been a wild ride!


CF: What have you learned from working in this environment?


VE: The biggest lesson I’ve learned from my time spent getting to know some of the refugees in our community, is something that I already knew but I’m being reminded of every day: that refugees are just like everyone else.


As a newcomer to the city myself, I have so much in common with these people: working out how to find a flat in Berlin, struggling to learn German, enjoying a good döner, missing loved ones back home…


Because I didn’t come up with the concept myself, I think I’m allowed to say that this is the real genius of GSBTB’s concept: it’s migrants supporting migrants.


A lot of people in the GSBTB community with refugee backgrounds are now volunteering themselves. Integration can be so much more than a one-way exchange. I think we’re proving that everyone has something valuable to offer.


CF: Just over one million refugees entered Germany last year, over a 12-moth period. What is your personal take on the refugee situation in German right now – especially in Berlin: what needs to happen? What are particular the challenges they are facing here, and is any ‘good’ coming out of the situation?


VE: Wooooo boy, how to answer that without taking five hours – and [without] getting really, really mad?!


The biggest challenge seems to be bureaucracy. My friends with refugee status all wait months and months for very small steps forward: whether that’s getting legal refugee status, getting help to find somewhere to live, getting into German class, or getting permission for family members back home to come and join them here. It’s painfully slow, and we know it’s because of the huge number of people who all came at once. But it would be wrong to say Germany hadn’t been warned that this would happen one day. Human rights authorities had been pointing to the potential for bigger migration movements for years.


I disagree with some of the housing plans for refugees. It may seem like a dreamy idea for refugees to be housed on the auspicious grounds of the former Tempelhof Airport, but mass accommodation – like the 7000 spaces planned at Tempelhof – isn’t healthy for anyone. It’s isolated, prison-like living, a breeding ground for mental illness, and human rights groups have condemned the conditions. As if these people haven’t already been through enough!


And those are just some of the issues affecting people in Berlin: what about all the people left behind when Europe closed its borders and said it was ‘full’? That’s never going to be the answer to this problem: it doesn’t stop wars, it doesn’t stop people dying in the Mediterranean, and in the end it won’t stop people arriving in Europe.


What good is coming out of the situation? I think many people who didn’t know much about the issues facing refugees have taken an interest for the first time, and that’s good news. I think refugees have been humanised in the media in a way they weren’t before, and that’s galvanised the German public.


It’s been a trying time for Germany’s politicians and services, but we’ve also seen droves of people turn out to volunteer who normally might not have. That’s a society I want to be part of.


CF: You call yourself a “digital native who doesn’t believe that print is dead”: what do you mean by that?


VE: I work mostly in the digital space but I’m a lover of old-fashioned print. The feel and smell of a new book or magazine simply cannot be replicated in digital media.


A few years ago some media people were saying “print is dead” but instead we’ve seen a resurgence of print media as coveted items to be treasured. You can see the same with radio and podcasts. Instead of dying out, print has been elevated.


GSBTB’s international souvenir collection! Photo: Megan Spencer 2016

[One of my favourite things to do] to relax is to sit on my balcony in the sun and read a magazine (I’ve always got a pile of at least five that I’m hoping to make it through one day). When it’s cold I like to have a bath and listen to a podcast. Ooh, there goes that traditional media again!


CF: What is the most “unusual” writing job you’ve ever done – and most rewarding? And what is it that you love about writing – and freelancing?


VE: My most unusual job was my first job out of uni: I was the editor of a fishing magazine for six months while the regular guy spent some time overseas. The job came with a boat, which was totally wasted on me. I didn’t know a thing about fishing and I couldn’t drive a car, let alone a boat.


My most rewarding job is the one I have now at Give Something Back to Berlin. I don’t just get to be the editor of a blog where we tell really important stories about awesome people doing great things, but we also have a community that takes the time to read our stories and engage with us. I love it.


I love storytelling in general. I think I just picked writing because you have more time to craft the story. I also have a really nasally voice, so writing stops that getting in my way! As a freelancer I spend a lot more time doing financial stuff than I’d expected. Invoicing clients, or just staring at my budget with a look of terror. It’s hard yakka. The thing about being able to work in your pyjamas is true, however. And sometimes that just saves my day…


CF: You’ve travelled quite a bit; what has travelling taught – or given – you? There must be some things you miss about not being ‘home’…


VE: In New Zealand we talk about something called The Big OE – “The Big Overseas Experience”. For many Kiwi youth it’s considered a rite of passage, and most of my loved ones expected I would move overseas one day – they just might have expected I would’ve moved back by now.


I think I’ve learned that I can feel at home in really unexpected places. That it’s okay to call more than one place ‘home’.


I really missed how friendly Kiwis are to strangers, but when I went home for a visit I had to remember how that works: that every supermarket checkout operator will want to know how my day’s going, and then ask at least three follow-up questions, so I’d better have an answer ready. That’s just customer service back home, but Berlin has trained me out of that.


I love the beaches. I love how muggy it is. I love how people call out a thank you to the bus driver when they get off the bus. It’s awesome.


As for Berlin, I love the diversity of arts, culture and people. I love being able to ride my tricycle around my Kiez and these days I even see some people I know. I feel at home here now, too.



Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

I do get homesick for the people I love. Sometimes I’d give anything for a hug from my mum. Preferably with a mince and cheese pie to eat afterwards.


[I miss] food and people. But mostly people.


CF: Do you have any long-term you dreams or ambitions for your writing and storytelling?


VE: I’d love to make and run a magazine one day. I know exactly what it would look like and what would be in it – I would’ve done it by now but it’s really expensive.


I think I’ll always be telling stories and it’s the minority voices that interest me. I’m lucky to already be doing what I really care about but there is plenty of room for my writing to develop, and my editing skills too. I’ve got my eye on some bigger publications I’d love to work for. It might take a lifetime!


CF: Please complete this sentence: “In five years Time Vanessa Ellingham will be…”


VE: Thirty! Oh my God. (Just kidding!). I think I’ll still be in Berlin. I really hope I would’ve gotten my German to a fluent level by then because I’d really like to get back on my Maori language journey and reconnect with that part of myself. I am sure I will still be telling stories…

Notes from a Wicked Woman

Posted on June 29, 2016

Radio has been my first love FOREVER.


I made my very first program in the mid-1980s. It was the time of gargantuan shoulder pads, John Hughes movies and elbow dancing. Thankfully by then I’d discovered ska music, black Levis and brothel creepers.


In my second year of university, one lunch time I stumbled upon an “extra curricular” workshop paid for by my Student Union fees. The good folk at the Union had kindly put it on for misfits like me, desperate for distraction from what I was finding to be less-than-fulfilling paramedical “yoonee” studies. Radio production and reel-to-reel tape decks it was!


Run by a guy called “Paul” (veteran radio trainer Paul Vadasz as I later found out), he was recruiting students to make rookie programs for a local public radio station with an “educational” license.


The “station” turned out to be 3RRR-FM, and the moment a major turning point in my life. I instantly fell in love with making radio, jumping at the chance to become a part of Melbourne’s alternative broadcasting scene, which at that very moment was becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2015

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2015

A boyfriend in a Japan-knockoff band had introduced me to 3RRR when I was 17. I’d not long been listening to this lavish wild-child of the Melbourne airwaves, an uncompromising, non-commercial FM haven of “alternative” and “punk” music. It was vastly different from the diet of predominantly commercial bombast that 3XY and EON-FM had fed me throughout my teens via my beloved Hitachi three-in-one.


I couldn’t get enough.


Fast-tracking my transition from Australian Crawl, ABBA and Leo Sayer (yes, Leo Sayer), to Talking Heads, Laughing Clowns and The Triffids, I’d happened upon an incredibly exciting, vociferous, world of opinion, art, culture, comedy and politics. It was far from anything I’d known growing up in the deep south of suburban bayside Melbourne.


All this. Without ads. I was a goner.


After throwing myself wholeheartedly into the workshop I careened into a five-year love affair with RRR, derailing my “paramedical career” in the process. For the next half a decade I would spend endless – countless – hours, late nights and weekends cranking out as many radio documentaries, live shows, stories, packages and programs as possible. Anything I could get my hands on.


All analogue. All as a volunteer.


L1050431I had my crap “day job” at a crap call centre. I had patience. And faith that ‘the long game’ would pay off some day, somehow. No plan. Just hope. That it would.


Both my parents thought I was nuts, bless their cottons. The fruit of post-WWII, Depression-era, struggle town upbringings, they were horrified at how I could chuck in my studies and “a good-paying career at a hospital” to work at a scungy radio station for free.


They spent the next five years telling me so, asking without fail each week whether I’d “earned any money from that radio business yet”.


With the arse literally hanging out of my pants, still no professional prospects on the horizon, yet a deep, unwavering optimism, in 1993 I decided the time had come to jump into ‘the real world’. I consummated my tenure at RRR by producing the comeback series of EEEK!, a much-loved, weekly, 90-minute live program with the guiding mantra, “Educate, Elucidate, Ejaculate”. Was there any other way to go out?


Hosted by trash and junk culture aficionados Bruce Milne and Philip Brophy (also old friends), it was underground radio of the highest/lowest order. My crazy, eclectic, immersive and illuminating DIY traineeship had finally come to an end. You couldn’t buy that kind of formative experience today – for love nor money.

Eeek! artwork by Philip Brophy. Courtesy Outre Gallery.

EEEK! artwork by Philip Brophy. Image: Martin Macintosh/Outre Gallery

(Recently, while hosting his late-night music show on – believe it or not – 3RRR, Bruce affectionately (?!) likened my production style “to that of a dominatrix”. Such were the ‘complexities’ of wrangling this collective of darling misfits, I took it squarely as a compliment. That behemoth of a show MADE IT TO AIR EVERY WEEK: no mean feat. Bruce – you slacker! You only ever knew the half of it! lol)


It would of course take another five long years before a “proper” job came along and any remuneration to speak of. But my time at RRR taught me something that others – who’d perhaps had a swifter pathway into professional radio via stand up comedy, a trainee-ship or national radio school – didn’t have: Resilience. Oh, and a shit-ton of Resourcefulness.


And I was Resolute. So be the three ‘Rs’.


Plus, once in 1988 Joey Ramone walked so close to me that I almost fainted right onto RRR’s stinky, sticky carpet. (Smoking and drinking in the building were allowed in ‘those’ days.)


Right then, I knew: this must be the place. Home.

Since 1998 I’ve been more or less ‘on the books’, mostly at the ABC: first at triple j where I had the great privilege to be the incumbent film critic and commentator for a decade. (Oh, and an arts reporter.)


I worked really hard there too. (I work really hard at every job I do. Another corollary from the early days…)

3WW podcast artwork RRR sticker

Pretty quickly it led to regular spots across a ton of different shows across all ABC networks: Local Radio, Radio National, Radio Australia, ABC Rural – even Classic FM, where I had one of my most fulfilling radio experiences ever talking for what seemed like hours (it was) about progressive film score music, on ‘New Music Up Late’. (Save for the latter, unfortunately 99% of those friendly “cross-network” specialist spots were very seldom paid. Yep. Volunteer work at the government broadcaster: alive and kicking.)


After being a full-time critic and commentator for ten years, I moved on to present my own programs on “grown up” radio (ABC Local) on networks in two capital cities (Sydney and Darwin), and one big regional one (Bendigo). Another “steep learning curve” when it came to learning the craft of presenting – and making – good radio.


After a wee break, my last ‘posting’ was at ABC Central Victoria (2013-2015) where for three years  I rose at sparrow’s every Saturday morning (and a good number of weekdays), to broadcast “Breakfast” to great swathes of my home state.  The hours were crap but it was a ton of fun, thanks in part to a big-hearted producer and a rare, kind-hearted manager. I fell in love with radio all over again.

A year on and I now find myself living in Berlin. I also find myself without a radio show. And I’m starting to miss it.


I look around and see every man and his Zoom is starting a podcast. “Yeah, I could do that,” I say. But what kind of ‘show’ do I want to make? I have no agenda, no broadcaster to work for, no “real” reason to.. What would it be about? What do I have to say? And who would care either way?


Turns out I know a bunch of very interesting people here, women especially – “wicked” you might say. And I’m in the right town to find them: Berlin, “Babylon on the Spree”, a city whose inhabitants once instilled “voluptuous panic” into the hearts and minds of Central Europe (as author Mel Gordon so deliciously coined its “Weimar era”). The grumpy, Deutschland capital where bohemians, punks and circus folk continue to flock, even as gentrification threatens to rot its historic hedonist foundations… Maybe they’d like to have a bit of a chat?


Unlike 1987, the hard work has been done. Now I have a voice – a point of view – and most importantly, experience. Fully formed. And somehow, most beautifully, as I come full circle, back to the starting point with nothing but a will to create, a makeshift studio, a laptop to edit on (instead of a reel-to-reel) and a drive to make something meaningful to listen to – IN A SEA OF NOISE – I find myself realizing that I can do it. With my eyes shut. I’ve spent over half my life making good radio and connecting with audiences. Listening to other people and what they have to say.


Still curious.


The hours are long again; the learning curve is steep, again. Frankly, it’s a massive undertaking, I’m a bit tired from all this ‘trying’, and just like 1987 it’s another ‘career gamble’… (My dear parents’ voices are in my ears again!) But arriving back at that place of possibility – to “begin again” – has its advantages. I now have the ‘long game’ perspective: I know what I don’t want to sound like. And I know someone who might want to co-pilot with me – hurrah! So much more fun than flying solo!


I can do it.


Radio’s my band: this is where I get to shred my instrument.


“The Wickeds”, Megan & Sam, presenters of Three Wicked Women (3WW), the podcast.

The thing I love the most about radio is the dance: the dance between freedom and format, the dance between “you” and “the audience”, between your voice and their minds. Between music and talk; playfulness and solemnity. In real time. The present moment. If you can nail that, radio can be a truly empathic, enlivening exchange – and vocation.

One day, working for the ABC and presenting Drive, I was “invited in” to the manager’s office. At ‘peak hour’ I’d played Joy Division’s ‘She’s Lost Control‘, urging people during the back announce to see “the mighty biopic about Ian Curtis and his tragic life cut short by his own hand.” (It was called ‘Control’ and had just come out on DVD). The manager scolded me, saying “you could harm the brand”. I got terribly upset: I thought she meant I was encouraging people to self-harm by playing Ian Curtis on the radio. When she finally explained what “harming the brand” actually meant – “Really?! That’s a THING?! OMG…” – I laughed in relief for FIVE SOLID MINUTES. Yep. I just wasn’t made for these times.

Maybe I can release my daggy, Sonic Youth-loving inner rock chick again. Dial up her volume up (instead of down).  There’s been a Wicked Woman lurking behind that mic for years. Time to let her out with the aid of an articulate, audacious co-host –  Samantha Wareing, a sister Wahlberliner who’s been embodying a kick-arse wicked woman of her own for several decades and just as eager to give her an airing.


So this is what we made: Three Wicked Women. We’re into it three episodes deep with another three to come. Lots of laughter, frayed edges and thoughtfulness. Seriously interesting people to chat to, listen to.. In our “bordello of pod” as I like to call it. One hour’s worth. Fully loaded, fully sick, fully voluptuous.


From my heart to your ears – and on behalf of my co-host Sam – I hope you have as much fun listening to this podcast, as we did making it.


“Don’t be afraid to start over, it’s a new chance to build what you want…” – Anonymous

New Romantic: Stella Turner

Posted on June 22, 2016

“I love William Turner: that’s why I took ‘Turner’ as my performer name,” Stella Belinda Franke tells me as we walk down a busy Berlin street, looking for an impromptu photo shoot location.


Her eyes glint with inspiration as she speaks the Romantic landscape painter’s name. It turns out the artist now known as Stella Turner loves to talk about art, and music. As we dodge cars, dog shit and stinging nettles, she manages to cram a lot into our brief conversation. Her aliveness is palpable.


Stella Turner also loves to play music. I first saw her belt out a couple of well-honed originals late one open mic night in Berlin. While clearly in her formative stages, she had something special to share: a rich, confident voice, a flair for songwriting and connecting with an audience.


Which was just as well: gun shy from a misogynist spray by one comedian, hesitation had filled the room about “who” or “what” might come next (the blessed price of an open stage). Stella stepped up like a veteran, re-tuning the space with humbleness and an assured, graceful performance. Collectively we breathed a sigh of relief. Only later did I find out how nervous she was.


The next time I saw Stella play it was in front of a hundred fervent late-teens (quite possibly the entirety of her International School classmates), crammed into a club deep beneath a Kreuzberg street. She was support for rising teen alt-rock sensations Cardboard Hearts (also members of Stella’s school year.)


With her beloved ruby-red Epiphone in hand (“he’s called Aaron!”) she took to the stage in bare feet, smashing out self-penned ballads and the occasional cover (Radiohead’s discarded 007 movie theme ‘Spectre‘ being one on the upright piano against the wall). The place oscillated between vibrant cheers and hushed attention.

On stage at Junction Bar. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Three encores later – and a piano pounded into submission – a would-be Tori Amos was born. It was a long way from the family Christmas at which Stella had made her performance ‘debut’.


Roll-calling her influences between songs (a good number of rock stalwarts among them), somehow I felt  reminded of Nick Drake. Maybe it was the bare feet and over-sized guitar, or the vulnerability of her storytelling: that clear-eyed view of an inner landscape and the willingness to expose it to rooms across one of the grumpiest cities in the EU. I couldn’t help but be impressed by Stella’s courage.


“It is only when we are no longer fearful that we begin to create,” so said William Turner. Clearly it’s not only the artist’s namesake this young, British-Berliner has taken to heart…

Stella Turner. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Circus Folk: You are a rare creature – a ‘native’ Berliner!


Stella Turner: Yes, I was born and raised in Berlin seventeen years ago, with my mother coming from London and my father from Saarbrücken, Germany.


I also have an older brother called Sebastian. We’ve lived in the same flat all my life – I’ve only ever moved rooms inside the flat!


I absolutely love Berlin and definitely will come back to live here when I’m older. I’m bilingual, so both German and English are my mother tongues. But I do like to speak English more as I go to an International School, which involves being in contact with all sorts of different cultures. The common denominator is that we all speak English.


CF: When did you first start playing music? Are there any ‘formative’ music moments or stories in your life that you can share with us?


ST: I started playing the piano when I was five. When I was six, I decided to start playing the cello and for a long time I wanted to become a cellist in the Berlin Philharmonic, where both my parents work. (My mother sometimes plays in the orchestra and my father is a producer for the Digital Concert Hall.)


Since I come from a musical family, music is second nature to me and I was brought up on great music such as the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Radiohead and many more.


I only started playing the guitar when I was 14, after I saw Jake Bugg at a concert here in Berlin. It was a strange moment: as I looked at him I thought, “I am going to do that someday”. I borrowed a friend’s guitar and obsessively started teaching myself.


Without ever having touched a guitar or playing anything non-classical, since that night, I knew I wanted to become a musician in the pop/rock field! I wanted to become a musician since I was tiny, but it was only then that I found the right way to express myself.


CF: When/how did you first start singing?


ST: I was always singing when I was younger – I joined the school rock band when I was eleven and sang lead vocals. I also loved singing in the school choir, however was quite shy about singing in front of people.


I only properly started singing when I began composing and playing the guitar. I felt much more comfortable singing my own songs. Ever since January 2016, I have been taking singing lessons to hone my craft.Stella turner Photo: Mehan Spencer (c) 2016

Stella Turner, Berlin-Kreuzberg. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Stella Turner, Berlin-Kreuzberg. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: What instruments do you play – and do you have a favourite?


ST: I actively play the guitar and piano; I played cello for ten years, and [also] play the bass guitar in a band with friends of mine.


I definitely like the guitar the most: as it has not been taught to me by a professional, [this] let me develop my own technique, and gave me a lot more freedom than [what] I got from classical training.


It’s also easy to whip out at a party – everybody can sing along. It’s basically a ticket to a good time! Also, it doesn’t have the ‘snobbiness’ of other instruments. As the basics are simple to learn, everyone can play guitar.


To me, it embodies the spirit of music.


CF: Are there any particular music teachers, influences or mentors in your life, who might have helped you along the way? What have you learned from them?


ST: There have definitely been a few people who have majorly inspired me.


Of course my parents have had the most impact! They educated me on what good music sounds like and gave me the opportunity and freedom to choose whatever instruments I wanted to pursue, as well as encouraging me to practice and focus on my instruments in a way that others would focus on sport or school.

With "Aaron". Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

With “Aaron”. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

My jazz piano teacher Wolfgang Köhler opened me up to improvisation and trying out different styles of music, which has greatly improved my capacity for playing in situations where I am outside of my ‘comfort zone’.


Another major influence is my first guitar teacher: he educated me about loads of music, gave me feedback on my songs, and helped shape my style. His name is Mihai Iliescu and he is part of the Romanian soul group Zmeitrei.



Colin Brown and Rebecca Carrington [Berlin-based UK cabaret performers ‘Carrington-Brown’, also featured on Circus Folk] have been a huge influence on me too. We started working together in late 2014 after I saw their show ‘Carrington Brown’. I decided to ask them to teach me because I thought their show was just incredible.

Stella in full flight. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Stella in full flight. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

They agreed and ever since have been helping me sort out my songs, taught me how to behave onstage, given me valuable advice in terms of singing techniques, and so much more. Colin has helped me work towards a full set of thirty songs and has been an incredible mentor in every sense of the word – I could go on and on and on!


My most recent influence has been my singing teacher Kristiina Hofmann Tuomi, who started teaching me in late 2015. She has taught me tremendous amounts about the voice and the body – I couldn’t believe there was so much to learn!  I feel I have improved greatly thanks to her. Seriously – I don’t know what I’d do without them!


CF: You write and perform original songs – how would you describe your own music? What do you write about? And is it a process that you enjoy?


ST: I would say it is a concoction of my major influences, mostly [of] the Beatles, Radiohead, the Rolling Stones, Tame Impala and [English alt-rock band], The 1975. [It’s] definitely guitar-based and very melodic. I try to keep the harmonies interesting and love to play around with modulation, but I also love a good, simple song – the thing the Beatles were ‘masters’ at.


In terms of what I write about, I go through phases… For the first year or so I mainly wrote about concepts in a more abstract way, as I was afraid of directly speaking about things that were going on in my mind.


Recently – and especially since I saw The 1975 perform in Berlin – I have dared to directly address things. Matthew Healy’s lyrics greatly influence me as I believe he captures the ‘vibe’ of my generation in a genius way.


I absolutely love the process: it’s my way of coping with all that goes on.

CF: Who are some of your musical heroes – and why do you admire them?


ST: I would say forever my greatest musical icon – surprise, surprise – is John Lennon. I believe he made music that was a universal language: not too intellectual but still incredibly poignant and intelligent. But I can’t mention him without the rest  – it wouldn’t have worked without Paul, Ringo and George.


Kevin Parker of Tame Impala inspires me massively in terms of his perfect production. Stevie Wonder for the soul. Matt Healy for the lyrics and sentiment. Freddie Mercury for the mojo and eccentricity. Thom Yorke for incredible emotion and atmosphere. Mick Jagger for stage presence and rawness; Debussy for the musical magic; Beyoncé for making me feel majestic and powerful. David Bowie for, well, David Bowie…


I wish I could name more women!


CF: What kind of ambitions or “dreams” do you have around your music? Is it something you would like to pursue professionally?


ST: I just want to be able to inspire good things in people: [to] make people feel okay to be who they are, make them feel ignited, feel alive. Make them feel how my musical heroes make me feel.


It would complete me to make it my profession. Fingers crossed.


CF: When did you start playing ‘publicly’ – and do you remember your first ‘gig’?


ST: I only very recently started performing publicly, and it was at open mic nights [Sunday Slips] at Lagari, here in Berlin-Neukölln. My first one must have been in February [2016].


However I also performed at my family’s Christmas party last year. I was extremely nervous as there were many very important musicians present.


(Don’t tell my parents, but there may have been some wine involved!)

Five leaves left: Stella Turner. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Five leaves left: Stella Turner. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: What has been your best gig so far – and why?


ST: The best gig so far was one of the open mic nights.. But I’ve had many great gigs – it really depends on the crowd! I once had someone compare me to Jesus – so there’s that!


One time I found out that some people waited for me to play at the open mic, as they had enjoyed my performance so much the last time! I was very last on the bill and it was past 1am on a Sunday evening: that was special.


CF: How do you think you have changed as a performer over the time you have been playing?


ST: I have become much more confident: at a performance in front of my school I basically cried and ran off stage because my legs were shaking so visibly. I’ve learned to be relaxed and channel my ‘inner Jagger’. I wish!


CF: What’s been your best moment as a musician so far – and perhaps your most challenging?


ST: My best moment was probably when I performed in front of my grandparents, who are extremely critical. They said they truly believed I was onto something – the biggest compliment they could have payed me!


My most challenging was actually to decide to perform in front of strangers. I’m extremely shy about showing my vulnerable side and like to act quite nonchalant.


My challenge at the moment is to let go of the notion that I must be ‘self aware’. I believe that it is necessary to look past your ego in order to create something truly beautiful.


CF: What do you enjoy about being on stage and performing? And what’s the most important or significant thing you have learned so far, about being a musician and performer?


ST: I love feeling the energy that I get back, depending on how much I give. The more I give, the more the audience responds. That is the most satisfying thing in the world.


The most significant thing, for sure, is that you cannot compromise your vision. You have to do what you want to, and what you feel you have from inside yourself – to give everything you have.


CF: Could you imagine your life without music?


ST: No! I definitely could not imagine my life without it. It has simply always been there and always will be. It is a fact that everybody understands it. I react to it as if it were a drug – I get rushes, goosebumps and extreme highs just through listening so certain songs.


Watching someone fully embrace themselves onstage is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced. I could go on like a madman – my friends know this already!

Giving everything. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Giving everything. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: Who are you listening to at the moment?


ST: Well, mostly Tame Impala’s album ‘Currents’ – possibly the best album of 2015.


Also, ‘I like it when you sleep, for you are so unaware of it’ by The 1975. It speaks to me like few other recent albums.


I’ve also been listening to The Japanese House [20 year-old UK musician, 20 Amber Bain], Alt-J, Foals, Fleetwood Mac (song ‘Everywhere’), The Doors and Pink Floyd – ie, lots of psychedelic rock!


CF: Do you think Berlin is a good town for musicians and artists – especially younger artists, such as yourself?


ST: Yes, Berlin is great! Berlin is a young city, and more seasoned professionals are always offering help.


I’ve met so many fantastic, supportive people and have been given so many great opportunities in the short time that I have been performing in public.


Berlin has a great, supportive artists’ scene in which you can try out anything you want to with the certainty that someone will connect with you. That also means you see many things you cannot ‘unsee’… Many!


CF: Please finish this sentence: “in five years time Stella Turner will be…”


ST: “..Inspiring love and happiness.”

  • Interview: Stella Turner
  • Words, edit + photos: Megan Spencer
  • Listen: to Stella on Soundcloud
  • Visit: Stella Turner’s Facebook page
  • Read: more about William Turner
  • View: the full gallery of photos from the shoot with Stella.


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