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‘I have no idea what a lagom artist could possibly be’

MY SWEDISH CAREER: John-Paul Zaccarini is the first-ever circus professor to lecture at Stockholm University of the Arts. He sat down with The Local to talk about his career, his relationship with Sweden, and everything else from elves to dinner parties.

'I have no idea what a lagom artist could possibly be'
John-Paul Zaccarini on stage. Photo: Mark Morreau
Circus artist Zaccarini was already in love with Sweden when he moved here in December 2012.

Born and raised in London, he had come to the Swedish capital for work intermittently since 1998, and the relocation became permanent when he and a friend decided to have a child together. “It wasn’t a plan, it was just a happy coincidence that we both wanted to have kids at this one moment,” he says, so he moved on the December 31st and woke up in 2013 with a whole new life.

 
“I finished one phase of life in London. I had a theatre company for 13 years, and we were folding Then I arrived here, finished my PhD, had a kid, became a professor. It was the best year of my life,” Zaccarini tells The Local.
 
He describes his first impression of Stockholm as magical.
 
“The first time I was here was during midsummer, and I fell in love. And over the years, coming back and forth, it was very much, to use a Tolkien metaphor, like coming to the city to live with elves. And then I’d go back to London with the orcs and the dwarves.
 
“It feels funny to say now but I also felt an incredible warmth, emotional warmth, and a willingness to be quite direct about emotion. It was beautiful. But I think I have to qualify that by saying that I was working with artists all the time and I didn’t have much contact with other environments.”
 
It was only after he moved to Stockholm that he began to see what he calls the city’s “bad habits”.
 
“I use the metaphor of having a holiday romance and then deciding to move in with each other and realizing he leaves his pants on the floor, doesn’t wash up the teaspoon, never pays the bills and snores,” he says of the adjustment to living in Sweden full-time.
 


Photo: Mark Morreau

Zaccarini is South African-Italian and fluent in French, Italian, Spanish and English. He says his Latin way of expressing himself can sometimes make situations awkward in Sweden.
 
“I have this very generous way of expressing myself – I could have said loud, or colourful, but I say generous. And in London that was absolutely fine, because the Babel of languages and cultures clutter in with each other, and it’s all just part of the mix. No one is surprised. But here, it’s different. And that’s the thing I find hardest, I think,” he explains.
 
After being in Sweden for so many years he says he has adapted “just a little”. He appreciates the measured way things are discussed in work meetings, but believes that as an artist, it's crucial to have an opinion: “I think it’s a good compromise. I have no idea what a lagom artist could possibly be.”
 
Although Zaccarini understands Swedish quite well, he doesn’t speak it. 
 
“I find it weirdly difficult,” he says. “I’ve got these three rolling, lilting, Latin languages, which are complex in ways that Swedish is not. I’m not saying Swedish is not complex, but it’s got a small vocabulary because I think it’s designed to be direct – which to me is not a lot of fun.”
 
All his work is in English, but he has found no issues communicating with students and peers, and even if he says Stockholm isn’t the best place to be as a spoken word artist, he is not complaining. 
 
“There are enough people who can sit through my evenings of poetry and appreciate it, even if it’s is hard work for them.”
 
And his career has sky-rocketed in Sweden. He is the first person to hold the title Professor of Circus, and he runs the first ever Master’s programme in Circus (which he designed himself). This, he says, is all due to an appreciation of the arts that is “embedded in the culture here”. He is responsible for the course’s content and administration, as well as supervising and mentoring students at both the MA and PhD levels.
 
When asked if he envisioned any of this for himself on that New Year’s Day back in 2013, the expat confesses he “was on a secret mission.” And it so happened, he says, that his boss was on the same mission as him. When Zaccarini finished his PhD and became a professor, he was asked to start working on the Master’s programme right away.
 
“I knew that this was the place that could do this; that was open enough to do this,” he says.
 
Swedes’ attitudes towards equality also inspired Zaccarini, who says: “This is a gentle culture that wants to encourage relationships, communications, and networks along very democratic lines.
 
“The thing that’s been most incredible about my experience in Stockholm and Sweden is this notion of horizontal power. It’s not bullshit, it’s not rhetoric, it’s not a myth. In my experience, it’s a very real thing.”
 
Because of this, he considers every one of his students to be his equals. 
 
“I’m just older, I’ve read more, and I have more experience, but they are my peers. But that also means that if they behave like children, I’m not having it.
 
“We’re not educating just artists, we’re also educating citizens, the kind of citizens we want to see in the world, to make it better. Not just by making better art, but by being better citizens,” he continues.
 

Photo: Mark Morreau
 
Zaccarini is happy with his busy life in Sweden, and says “there is no off-switch to being an artist.”
 
“This sounds a bit sad, but I don’t have much free time. I’m the dad of a five-year-old. So when I finish the day job, which is full of art, and I finish the daddy job, then it’s writing,” he explains.
 
“Recently what I’ve been doing is a dinner and then performing my new work for the guests in the living room afterwards. It's a really intimate environment, where I can really see them and we can have a conversation about the issues in the work. That has been the most fun. Poetry dinner parties have become my latest hobby.”
 
However, he has found Swedes weren’t overly receptive to his habit of complimenting strangers. 
 
“At first, they think you’re a little crazy, but then they realize how nice it is to be complimented, and then it’s completely fine. But no one really does it to me.”
 
And this is how Zaccarini has harmonized his personality with Stockholm’s.
 
“Now I’m having fun with Stockholm – this is my way to fit in. It’s to find my place within the social psychology of the place. Otherwise I was feeling frustrated, I was just going to dress in black and grey, and not stand out, and not make a fuss, and not be vocal.”
 
After being a performer for 20 years, Zaccarini left the stage while pursuing his PhD. But after eight years focusing on his academic work, he received an invitation from Castlemaine Festival in Australia to perform a comeback show in 2017. He accepted, and Head, his one-man, part-memoir, part-breakup show, was born.
 
During the show, he 'breaks up' with the audience, saying how much he loves them but also letting out some hard truths: “Look at the things I did for you, and you just sat there, and all you ever said to me was this [claps]. You’ve never stayed the night, you’ve never told me your name, and then you go and I’ve got to mop all this shit up.”
 
“Basically I am telling the audience that they are co-dependents in an unsustainable, toxic relationship about infatuation and seduction – in a very humorous way!”
 
He describes Head as transferring the circus act into a poetic address, a memoir of what brought him to the circus in the first place.
 
“I say, ‘You know, if you have a co-dependent relationship with someone for 20 years, you might want to know why you’re doing this, and why they’re doing this.’ So I tell them why.”
 
“I go through some poetic, traumatic, beautiful moments of my life, to say: ‘Is it starting to make sense now? What kind of person this is, up here, this stunning, seductive, manipulative narcissist, who’s in love with you but also has to dump you, because you won’t do it – you enjoy this too much. But I stopped enjoying this.’ So it’s very deep, and it’s also very funny.” 
 
What he thought would be a single performance in Castlemaine has grown. He is touring with Head and has also started working on other projects.
 
“I’ve got the bug again. The artist has been reborn, out of the confessional,” says Zaccarini.
 
He has just finished the draft of a spoken word and hip-hop album and accompanying music video. It’s called The MixRace MixTape, and he describes it as “exploring my queerness, my mixed-race heritage, my class and my gender.”
 
“The good thing is, I’m not under the pressure to be a professional artist; to have to make my living from touring, and selling, and sucking up to people, and writing funding applications. I do my work within the university, and that work produces a course, and a reading list, and new methods and new processes to inform my students, so I kind of have the best of both worlds,” he sums up.
 
“A professor in an artistic subject needs to be out there working, understanding what the world is doing with the art form and trying to push the boundaries themselves.”
 
John-Paul Zaccarini will perform Head in Stockholm during the CirkusMania Festival.
When: February 16th 2019, 8pm
Where: Teater Reflex, Kärrtorpsplan 14, Kärrtorp
Entrance fee: 120 kronor (Suitable for 16 years and over)
More details can be found here (page in Swedish). 
 
The MixRace MixTape is an ongoing project. Songs and videos will be released in February. See his Instagram (@professorcircus) for more details and updates.

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MY SWEDISH CAREER

My Swedish Career: ‘What I have found here is that the key to life is free time’

Federico Micolucci is a modern-day Venetian renaissance man, combining scientific research in water treatment at Gothenburg University with a second career as a techno DJ and label owner.

My Swedish Career: 'What I have found here is that the key to life is free time'

Micolucci arrived in Sweden four years ago, when he won a post-doc position at Lund University researching energy-efficient water treatment technologies, and for the last two years, he has been commuting weekly to Gothenburg University, where he is further developing experimental methods to clean the water supply, using membrane filtration and activated carbon to remove pharmaceuticals and other harmful contaminants.

But Micolucci has for more than 12 years had a second life as an established techno DJ, and in Sweden he has somehow also found the time to spin records at raves and various clubs around Malmö, where he currently lives, creating his own music on a label (Eight of Cups) he founded with a fellow foreigner Gregory Vartian-Foss.

“On a creative level, this town is unique, golden,” he says of Malmö. “There’s real, dynamic energy in the arts scene, and you notice more and more that it is being recognised – internationally, even.” 

He met Vartian-Foss, a professional bass player with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra who comes from Los Angeles, three years ago, and they soon started bonding over a passion for rare Italo disco records. 

In their most recent project, they formed a trio with the Swedish multi-instrumentalist and singer Miranda Gjerstad, covering a rare, nearly forgotten gem of Italo disco, which they have reissued on vinyl, alongside their own cover version.

Vartian-Foss now creates his music in a shared studio in the growing creative haven of Norra Grängesbergsgatan, he previously produced his tracks at the arts and music venue, Inkonst, and he regularly performs alongside Gregory as resident DJ at Plan B – a frequently packed Malmö concert and club institution.

Federico Federico Micolucci examines a hollow fiber membrane. Photo: Private

At the same time, Micolucci’s research has been developing at a fast pace. He recently took over operations at an innovative waste-water treatment plant in Helsingborg, and this winter, he won the prestigious Marie-Curie fellowship for postdoctoral scientific research.

Micolucci has been impressed by the extent to which his Swedish fellow researchers and mentors have gone out of their way to make him feel comfortable in academic life.

“Generally speaking, the feeling I got from Swedish society was that people are polite, thoughtful, and seem to avoid prejudging. At the same time, it was a bit challenging as everyone started to push me (in a positive way, I might add) to listen to, speak, and immerse myself in the Swedish language.”

His experience of academia in Denmark and at home in Italy has shown him that the sector is marked by stiff competition, something he believes can be positive if helps drive innovation. In this Sweden is no exception, he says, with the main difference being the level of conflict avoidance. 

“Swedes are uncomfortable confronting people when something goes wrong,” he believes. “They try to keep a positive work environment, which is great – but this can sometimes lead to mistakes going uncorrected and unresolved misunderstandings. I don’t want to sound overly judgemental, but I think it’s just a stark difference from Italian society, in which people can be pretty direct and sometimes confrontational.”

Federico Micolucci in his day job as a scientist. Photo: Private

Federico’s eyes light up when talking about his new job in Helsingborg.

Part of Helsingborg’s urban renewal district, Oceanhamnen, the operational plant and research site is the world’s first full-scale filtration system of its kind.

“It’s the best job I have ever had,” he says. “My Swedish colleagues are supportive, welcoming every day, and positive in a real way. They encourage employees to be comfortable and maintain a good work-life balance. At the same time, they believe in making strides in research and finding solutions to improve the ways in which we interface with the environment. It’s a great feeling. Rarely before, did I wake up every day feeling good about going to work.” 

Micolucci still misses his native Italy, which he describes as “the most beautiful country in the world, taking into account the combination of landscapes, architecture, and food”, but he makes do with keeping in touch with friends and family in Venice on the phone, and making regular trips back home. 

“It’s harder to live there and much more stressful from a working perspective,” he says. “What I have found here in Sweden is that the key to life is free time. Sure, work is important, but it can’t always be the priority in life, and many companies, at least in my field, understand this. I’m able to develop my passions and spend time with my beloved friends, doing what I love – much more than would be possible back home. “

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