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New course to look at the gritty, alternative Copenhagen

A sunny Copenhagen full of blonde, beautiful, people with impeccable taste in clothing, and rich. This is the official brand. But a new course at UCPH is to dig deeper

Is there an alternative culture in Copenhagen? What about authenticity? And what ever happened to Copenhagen’s “cool” neighbourhoods? These questions will be raised at a summer course at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) in 2015.

It thereby taps into the growing interest for urban studies and will engage critically with the debate about what Copenhagen is, and what it should be.

According to Assistant Professor Rasmus Christian Elling from the Department for Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies (TORS), he and colleagues in the so-called Urban Culture Lab Initiative had discussed the idea after the journal Monocle announced that Copenhagen was ‘The World’s Most Liveable City’.

“We were watching the 5-minute video Monocle had produced in order to justify the award. It basically showed a sunny Copenhagen full of white people with impeccable taste in clothing, all blonde and beautiful, and essentially rich, being able to dine at Noma and just hang out and enjoy the culture of the city”, Rasmus explains.

Commodification, gentrification

“I thought to myself: that’s not the Copenhagen I know – or at least, a lot of things are missing in the picture. Or maybe Copenhagen has become something that I cannot recognize anymore”.

Copenhagen’s claimed ‘livability’ and its international brand turned into a more comprehensive discussion: Who defines Copenhagen? Is Copenhagen culture for all or only the select few? Is there an alternative culture in Copenhagen? Or as Rasmus Christian Elling puts it:

“Are the spaces for this culture being diminished by the onslaught of neoliberal commodification of public space? How about authenticity and the victory of gentrification in Copenhagen’s ‘cool’ neighbourhoods?”

Alternative events organisers

Rasmus himself has a background as a DJ and event organizer on the Danish electronic music scene. His colleague Frederik Birket-Smith organized underground raves in the 1990s with Rasmus, and in 2003-2013 the annual electronic event RAW. Frederik has a degree in urban geography, and has published on the relationship between pirate radio stations, geography and urban culture in London.

“For RAW and other events, Frederik has always had a keen eye for identifying overlooked spaces in the city; and when events like RAW grew too big for existing locales, we would experiment with creating new spaces”, Rasmus explains. “One example is how we started using 40-foot shipping containers to build a ‘festival city’ for when RAW had reached 10,000 participants a year and we simply couldn’t find any buildings to accommodate it in Copenhagen”.

Now, Frederik is the head of the Strøm festival, which draws the global electronic music scene to Copenhagen each year. It uses everything from underground caverns to empty parking lots and turns the Copenhagen Metro into one huge electronic concert, Strøm has experimented with using the spaces of the city in new ways.

Copenhagen should not be ‘Eurovision song contest’

Strøm was therefore an obvious partner for the summer school, Rasmus explains.

The summer school will coincide with the festival in August: It will be an open laboratory for studying the theories of urban culture empirically, out in the field.

Another partner is Steen Andersen and the co-creative community PB43.

“Like Strøm, PB43 represents a Copenhagen that I think we should also ‘brand’ the city with, rather than only the mega-events such as the Eurovision Song Contest”, Rasmus says.

There IS something special about Copenhagen

“The sort of do-it-yourself, open source urban development and grassroots-level community organization that PB43 is involved in is the way forward for cities. Thanks to people like those in the PB43 network, Copenhagen has a lot of potential to grow in this direction,” Rasmus says.

“Hopefully, this summer school will draw on the creative energy and innovative thinking of Strøm and PB43 to show students from around the world that there is something special going on here in Copenhagen; something that the whole world of cities can learn from”.

Who should define Copenhagen? Read a featured comment by Rasmus Christian Elling here.

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