Photo: Kate Phellini

All about Atmosphere, with Konrad Urban

I had coffee with Konrad Urban in Warsaw recently. His story goes like this: Konrad fell in love with Blues because of the freedom it offers. When he was a student at Durham University, he co-founded the local student Blues scene there. He put his key insights to work when developing the Open Blues concept with Isabella Larsen. Outside of the Blues bubble, he is an analytic philosopher.

Greg Austin I’m here with Konrad Urban, co-founder of Open Blues, and we’re here to talk about atmosphere. How to create it, how to nurture it, how to let it be… all things related to atmosphere at dance events. So, Konrad, how’s it going?

Konrad Urban I’m good, how are you?

Greg I’m doing excellent. As we begin, if you could tell us a little bit about Open Blues, and how it came to be.

Konrad Open Blues is an event that Isabella Larsen and myself organize. The idea was quite simple. We wanted to take what the community has anyway, namely, a willingness to make things together, and put it all in one place. To give it a platform for exchanging horizontally or peer-to-peer, rather than vertically from instructors. The most important idea was that Blues is not something that is owned by any one person or any group of teachers, but should be something that is organically formed by the community.

Greg Talking about that community, who are the important people that make Open Blues happen and what roles do they fill?

Konrad At Open Blues, every guest is a contributor. Everyone volunteers and it wouldn’t be possible without that input. Some of the most hard working and incredible people are of course the cooks, this past year it was the Agatas from Łódż, who co-organize Willow Blues, another great, atmospheric festival. We have Isabella, the co-organizer. She is the mastermind behind many things, like the workshop exchanges. We’ve got, of course, all of the DJs and bands. I must mention the owners of the venue, and what they let us and don’t let us do. Open Blues is quite special because we are given free reign, and are completely trusted by the owners. It’s their decision to do that and without them Open Blues wouldn’t be what it is.

Greg How much of the atmosphere is the physical place and how much of it is the people that are there?

Konrad Well, I don’t think one can analyze it in those terms, because people will be different people in different places. The special thing about the Palace for Open Blues is that it has raw, unfinished atmosphere. This gives people the freedom to improvise and make mistakes, so that they are not scared of imperfections. I can only imagine a more finished and refined Palace with a gala like atmosphere, where people would be very aware of what they look like, what they do, how they act… much more restricted, by themselves, by their own choice. What expectations people have is crucial. If they expect to be served by, essentially, servants , they will behave completely differently than they do at Open Blues, where we don’t have this kind of division, between servants and people being served.

Greg Gotcha. Can you explain a little bit more about the Palace? For people who might not be familiar with it.

Konrad The Palace is an 11th century building with most bits that are visible being from the 17th century. It used to be German, as was the entire region, and it was the seat of the local aristocrat. It became a ruin during the war and under communism. Under a free Poland, it was bought by Jim and Anna Parton, an English-Polish couple, who decided to settle there and make it their life project to renovate and share that space. Jim and Anna are very open people. When it was bought and privatized, there were fears that it would become just another spa hotel like many of the palaces in the region… not for the normal folk. But if anyone goes there, they will see all the village children running around as if it were an organic part of the whole village. We are just another kind of organic guests in the Palace, and share that space with Jim and Anna.

Greg As an organizer, as you are trying to capture the atmosphere of a place, how much of it is planned ahead of time and how much is improvised on the spot?

Konrad The first time around, we tried to plan a lot. Most of those things didn’t happen. We decided to keep it spontaneous from that time on. Essentially, our idea is very simple as organizers. Isabella and I, we know that we have people who are willing to contribute, so we delegate things. When we delegate, we delegate in a way that gives those people a lot of agency, so they feel the fruits of their own labor and ideas. And people are happy to contribute. Of course, admin work always has to be done ahead, but most of the things you see at the event are actually done only a day or two beforehand.

Greg Let’s move to the event itself. While you are observing the atmosphere, are there times when you step in and are instrumental in changing the atmosphere? When do you just fade into the background and let things be?

Konrad Well, the first year or two, of course, I tried to control more. That is one thing you have to learn, to start controlling less and delegating more power and responsibility. I quickly learned to delegate more because people are adults and they are capable of organizing themselves, if they are expected to organize themselves. If you market your event as a service that you provide, an experience that someone can buy, then the expectations are different. If I go to such an event, for example, I won’t be as keen to help clean up. But, if it is, as is in our case, and some other events like that also, that we create the event together, there needs to be very little interference. People understand that their co-creation of the event is adding value to their experience, if the event is not-for-profit.

First you need to understand what people are good at, that’s difficult enough. Then you have get them to do that such that it’s a value added to them, rather than making personal favors. If they do it because they feel they’re doing you a favor, then forget about it.

I think the kitchen is the best example where we just say, “Look, there’s the kitchen, they will need so-and-so many people at those times, and they will ask you to help, and you can come in and help.”

The most memorable moments happen in the kitchen. I will never forget Hubert, two years ago, who thought there would be a lake we could swim in, so yeah, I set too high of expectations for him. Anyway, he brought out his swimming goggles to cut onions in the kitchen. It was hilarious and in hindsight it’s very satisfying to know that people can cut onions and bring such tears of joy, given the right environment.

Greg That’s too funny, you definitely can’t plan onion cutting goggles in advance. One thing I am asking everybody that I interview is their personal definition of Fusion. Konrad, what is your personal definition of Fusion?

Konrad Laughs – I have no clue.

Pause

I don’t know, and also I’m not a music nerd so, I actually know very little about Blues and Blues music and all the styles and genres and time periods and so on. I only think whether something is dance-able in a Blues aesthetic or not. If so, it’s OK on the dance floor, if it’s not, then maybe it’s OK.

Greg Excellent. Another question I wanted to get your take on was the role of alcohol at a dance event. What’s your opinion on alcohol?

Konrad I’m a big fan of alcohol. I think that partying comes before everything else. Blues is only one aspect of a party. So, I’m not a big fan of events that are perhaps in a school gym or something like that, where everyone just sits there on the sides and waits for the next dance. I think it is a bit grotesque, even. I think the most important thing is to put the party first. There is a band and all the people are capable of dancing, but dancing becomes a choice, that is organically chosen because the atmosphere invites people to dance. For instance, Black Coffee Blues in Tel Aviv does this perfectly. Now, alcohol is a big part of partying in Europe, so I think it has its proper place in Blues dancing because it’s about partying. That’s just a derivative of the fact that partying is alcohol fueled. If there were a crowd that does not drink alcohol, and for example eats hummus instead of drinking alcohol, we would serve hummus. It’s making a party primarily, then creating an atmosphere that makes it possible to have great dance. At Open Blues, we have both: our festival wine and hummus.

Greg Talking about Black Coffee in Tel Aviv, are there other events in the past that you’ve attended and thought, “This is awesome atmosphere.”

Konrad Yes, Willow Blues in Łódż.

Greg What makes it such a good atmosphere?

Konrad I think it is quite similar to Open Blues, in that the people who make it happen love making it happen. They don’t have any motive other than having a great party. They are not nerds in terms of dance technique, it’s not-for-profit, they just want to meet friends, make new friends, and have a good dance. And make you drink 6 shots of vodka, sometimes.

Laughs

Greg So let’s talk a bit about the future. At the closing dinner of last year’s Open Blues, you gave a speech. In that speech you talked about how you hoped that the spirit of Open Blues would spread around Poland. Can you share more about your thoughts on that, and what we can expect for this year’s Open Blues?

Konrad Yeah, I think I said spread it around generally, although I would hope that would be the case for Poland as well. Yes, it is a very simple model that has proven itself successful. I would love for people to replicate it, because it taps into the resources that are already there. Namely, the willingness to have a good dance and have a nice party. This is extremely useful for new communities. It doesn’t try to, from a top-down level, construct some type of great scheme. But with a bottom-up approach, it just taps into what is already there.

In terms of Open Blues next year. We will do the same as every year. We will have a great camp with lots of great exchanges.

Greg What is some advice you might give to organizers who are new to organizing, or are thinking about starting their own event?

Konrad Well, it might be a cliche, but be bold. Learn a little bit about entrepreneurship, and I use that word consciously. Although Open Blues doesn’t make any money, it tries to stay afloat. It tries not to make any losses. Losses are something that completely kill motivation, especially if it is your first or second event. When you see that you have to put in your own money, you think it has been a failure. Keep the expenses low – your most important assets are people, not fancy venues or expensive snacks. And think about the exchanges that are happening. What are people getting and what you are giving them, and more importantly, what they are giving each other, peer-to-peer.

I think the second part is the most important part for Isabella and I. By creating a platform, where people can exchange what they have to offer to other people, you are tapping into an almost infinite resource. Blues dancers are very passionate people. They think about Blues a lot. They’ve been to many, many, often international events, and they are willing to share what they’ve learned and show what they have to offer. That is an almost infinite resource, so don’t be scared to ask people to contribute other than money. People are incredibly willing to chip in, if it is a non-profit event. Of course, you can’t make people volunteer for you if you are going to make all the money in the end. If you only want to make money, don’t do Blues. There are many other ways of making much more money than Blues dancing. So, be bold.

Greg Along those lines, let’s imagine you’re at home one evening, and you get a phone call. It’s an organizer and they are having an emergency. They need you to come in and help fix their atmosphere. You’ve got one hour to plan. What three things would you put in your suitcase to take with you?

Konrad A time machine. That would be one thing, because I think atmosphere largely boils down to expectations. If you hype your event with very flashy videos, and sell it as this amazing thing that you can’t deliver, then people are going to be disenchanted.

The second thing I would take with me would be any kind of social lubricant. That could be alcohol, but there are many ways and clever tricks and games that people can create and orchestrate to make people know one another. As organizers, who are usually dance veterans, we tend to forget about how stressful it is to know no one and be a beginner, especially as a guy.

And the third thing. I was thinking about whether it should be a bottle of vodka or a good DJ, and now I’m thinking it should be a drunk DJ. Although they wouldn’t fit into a suitcase…

Laughs

Greg So a time machine to set expectations right, a social lubricant, and a drunk DJ? That sound about right?

Konrad Yeah, laughs, I think a bigger event, a more party based event without a camp, a MC can do wonders. A good MC, and I mean a good MC, not just any kind of MC –

Greg A Master of Ceremonies?

Konrad Yeah, someone who’s infinitely charismatic and can really lift an event that is otherwise quite stale. But then again, that requires preparation because you need to know someone who is a proven, good MC.

Greg Would you be up for being one of those Master of Ceremonies?

Konrad No, I’m a terrible MC. Like 3/4 of people, I have speech anxiety and often talk nonsense.

Greg Fair enough, now we know what Konrad the Atmosphere Fixer brings in his suitcase. If people are interested in finding out more about what you’re doing in life, is there a place they can connect with you?

Konrad Yes, either on Facebook or my website konradurban.com.

Greg It’s been wonderful talking with you, thank you very much for your thoughts on dance events and atmosphere.

Konrad Many thanks! Thanks for letting me share these thoughts.