What makes Latvian media art sustainable?

Originally published || Sustainable Calendar on Techno-Futuristic Media Art. Vytautas Michelkevičius (ed.). Vilnius: Photography and Media Department of Vilnius Academy of Arts, 2019. ISNB 978-609-447-334-0

Anna Priedola is the director of Liepaja University New Media Art BA study programme, works at Liepaja University Art Research Lab, curates exhibitions and organizes international interdisciplinary culture events in Liepaja and Latvia

Being a relatively recent media art practitioner I attended the Symposium on Baltic Media Art: 1989-2019.Cracks and Continuities in Nida Art colony with a great interest in exploring and comparing the trajectories media artists and institutions from the different Baltic states have taken, and seeing if some shared paths may be taken in the future.

During the symposium I felt intrigued by culture producer Jurij Dobriakov’s claim (and PhD hypothesis) that media art in Lithuania is dead – unlike the still very active media art scene in Latvia. Active yet repeating itself – still trying to save the world (which is clearly doomed by now). What makes Latvian media art sustainable – in regard of both the means and the message? The following exploration of Latvian media art history to answer the questions raised will consist of subjective impressions coming from an artist exploring sustainability issues herself, not an art historian.

The ecological thought and environmental activities have been the vehicle for political and cultural change in Latvia since 1980s – back then still under Soviet occupation environmental organisations were the only ones given a permission for public gatherings, and expression of local politic opinions. Vides aizsardzības klubs (Environment protection club) became an important part of the National Awakening movement. 1984 marks the opening of the scandalous exhibition Nature. Environment. Man which was a bold manifestation of an unrestricted contemporary art in Latvia. The exhibition was conceptualised by the painter and art theoretician Ojārs Ābols who compared the intensive discourse about pollution and ecology with the problems in social and mental environment of the time[1] – thus already mentioning the idea about interconnected mental, social and environmental ecologies analysed and argumented by Felix Guattari in his essay “Three ecologies” (1989) which is later used by Latvian sustainable art practitioners (including myself) to frame their work and field of exploration.

Part of the participating artists in Nature. Environment. Man were Hardijs Lediņš, Leonards Laganovskis and Imants Žodžiks from the experimental music and art group NSRD (Workshop for the Restoration of Unfelt Feelings) who documented their performances and art actions in video, as well as Artūrs Riņķis and Valdis Celms – who developed their innovative abstract kinetic art objects under cover of an industrial design since 1970s – combining art and technology.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union crumbled also the elite social status of being an artist, along with the economic security which was provided by former state art institutions, procurements, and Artist union. The young artists who graduated form Art Academy had no notion of any career prospects within the new system still in the making.[2] Living in the moment turned out to be the creative ground for developing innovative art forms and institutions. Curators Kaspars Vanags and Ilze Black (Strazdiņa) established art bureau OPEN, and organised interdisciplinary electronic music and art action events in abandoned industrial buildings exploring subcultures and lifestyle art in the middle of the 1990s. OPEN appropriated mass media language and entertainment to bring art where the auditory is. Later their practice becomes more sociocritical, and they subvert market economy machinery by appropriating advertisment mechanics to promote free exchange of goods in the project T-Shroom (2000–2001) by artist group the Primitives (Katrīna Neiburga, Pēteris Ķimelis, Kaspars Vanags). Project T-Shroom helped to sustain the traditional tea mushroom drink brewing practice in Latvia that became increasingly less popular due to the attractive marketing of imported soft drink brands.

The 1990s was not only the time of the very popular TV where OPEN presented their artistic interventions in the form of what they called slideplays but also the rise of the internet the use of which was celebrated only by enthusiasts like artists at the time. Cyberspace offered free exhange of knowledge, world-wide non-hierarchical communication, and democratic content distribution platform. Artists Rasa Šmite, Raitis Šmits, Jānis Garančs and art critic Alise Tīfentāle unified their effort to create an environment for experimental electronic art running everyday not only during exhibitions[3] and established electronic art and media centre E-LAB in 1996. E-LAB unified Latvian net.art initiatives, archived the local net.art projects, organised public meetings where topics regarding new technologies and networked societies were discussed, and worked on their innovative net.radio project OZONE which explored the acoustic properties of the Cyberspace. Rasa Šmite and Raitis Šmits made field recordings and real-time audio streaming form events and happenings, as well as organised international connected live broadcasts together with their foreign partner institiutions, exploring the new medium. For the project E-LAB was awarded the prestigous Ars Electronica prize. Project was made possible by saving the data on servers in the Netherlands and in Germany because one of their own the new organisation could not afford yet.

Since E-LAB got their own server the organisation (which later transformed into RIXC – Riga centre for new media culture ) have done an admirable work on preserving net.art and new media art pieces, articles and documentation[4] – while Latvia still does not have a contemporary art museum the sustainability of recent cultural values depends on private initiatives.

The 1990s was a prospective ground also for video art development which was accelerated by the foundation of the new Visual communication department in the Academy of Arts by Ojārs Pētersons who used video in his installations.

During the 1990s due to the lack of state funding artists had to quickly develop producer skillset and knowledge how to attract funds in project contests. Latvian State Culture capital foundation was established only in 1998, and the main funding for art came from Soros Centre for Contemporary Arts-Riga (SCCA-Riga). It changed the art world dramatically, and supported almost exclusively installation art – even by artists lacking formal education – which would be considered a tabu still in the beginning of the 1990s. Artists complained about the lack of project evaluation criteria and the exaggerated role of the curator.[5] Even installation artist Gints Gabrāns applied to a (SCCA-Riga) project contest for a support only to reviel in the application letter that the room is bugged and conversations between the members of the jury are transmitted (they were actually not listened to).[6] New media art at that time was not consisting of pre-conceptualised projects but art in the making instead – exploration space for the unexpected to happen in social and technological exchange.

After Latvia joining European Union the Ministry of Culture provided seminars on how to “smuggle in cultural content [collaborative multimedia projects of non-profit cultural organisations] under the Tourism and Education support”.[7] Media artists turned out to be successful producers backed by their international partner networks, and local media art centres like RIXC in Riga and K@2 in Liepaja emerged, their activities supported by embasies and foreing culture foundations.

K@2 was a several times awared socially inclusive art space located in the very marginalised Karosta district of Liepaja, running from 2000 – 2008 and closely connected to the foundation of Liepaja University New media art department. During the years creatives from Film studio Locomotive renovated a run-down Russian imperial buildings in the former military district, and transformed them into a gallery, cinema hall, mediatheque and photo/video workshop space for the locals to participte in. The centre quickly became popular among the children of Karosta which could learn to use the newest media equipment, and somethimes even get a warm meal there. K@2 ran a regular exhibition programme successfully including locals in the production (sewing a screen for projections, volunteering as gallery guides, producing the content etc.) – proving to be one of the rare art projects establishing a real dialogue and collaboration with the local community.

The post-soviet, post-war zone marginl vide of Karosta was attracting foreing artist attention. K@2 were organising many international art events and simposiums like Subjective/Objective (2000) – a meeting point for artists and locals during several workshops, Transit Zero (2000) – meeting of documental film producers, Workshop on Locative Media where RIXC artists Rasa Šmite and Raitis Šmits began their exploration of RFID and GPS tracking technology – exposing the international food distribution networks and relationships in their award-winning project MILK (together with Ieva Auziņa and Esther Polak).[8] The last project realised at K@2 together with French artist collective EXYZT was LabiChampi – celebration of the successful yield of mushroom growing system that would apply the wasteful emissions of the heating system in Karosta to grow mushrooms in public farms.

Unfortunately sustaining the art centre in the huge run-down buidings that needed constant care, and being robbed several times turned out to be a great financial burden, and k@2 was closed in 2008 despite of public interest in its programme.

Art Research laboratory [MPLab] and New media art study programme was established in Liepaja Pedagogy Institute – soon to become Liepaja University – in 2006 and 2007 accordingly by prof. Aija Druvaskalne–Urdze. The first lectures took place at k@2 where also Ojārs Pētersons and Visual communication students from Academy of Art ran summer plennars in.

The new, regional new media art programme attracted international interest, and was constructed and lead by international working groups of professors exploring art as research. Supported by EEA & Norway grants MPLab quickly became a creative hub for students 24/7, which allowed new artist collectives to form and develop their sonic or visual acts – like VOID[9], Trihars[10], and others. To help sustain active media art and experimental electronic music production, MPLab works in close collaboration with non-governmental media art institutions like E-LAB and ASTE. Art. Science. Technology. Education[11], supporting numerous artists’ initiatiaves with equipment and space, and a critical discourse.

Members of MPLab often explore sustainability issues in their artistic research. Rasa Šmite explores the symbiotic relationship between human and other living organisms and communication in the form of energy in her and Raitis Šmits ongoing deep technology project Bacteria Battery / Swamp Radio (2012 – ).[12] Maija Demitere examines slow media and mental ecology by trying to sustain herself with homegrown food and calculating the price for each calory she consumes, but Anna Priedola archives DIY sustainability solutions developed by the sustainability experts – Latvian seniors – subverting the widespread notion of senior expertese being outdated and useless in the digital era.[13] During the time of climate change sustainability is a persistent theme in media art which examines both the conditions and the probable solutions – depending on the artists’ strategy either to dramatize the story or to activite the audience.

The new institionalism[14] that provides a memorable address and image to new media art activities to return to, but is flexible enough to adapt to the audience and environment, close collaboration with academia, strong international networks (EMAP/EMARE, Renewable Futures etc.), as well as careful strategic and fincial planning combined with personal enthusiasm and initiatives are the key components that provide the sustainability of Latvian media art. Young artists see the career paths in the field. Graduates teach the tools and methodology to both Liepaja University New media art and the Latvian Academy of Arts Visual communication students thus increasing the general fluency of new media language which gives the assuring feeling that technology is not out of control, and Singularity is not near. And one can explore what messages are hidden in the new media like VR, AR or A.I., or disruptions of their operations.

[1] Borgs, Jānis. The Cock on St. Peter’s Steeple Sings Its Early Song. Free Art – A Soviet Product. In Nature. Environment. Man. 1984. Latvijas Mākslinieku savienība: Riga, 2004. 30 pp.

[2] The Beach Beneath the Paving Stones. Ieva Astahovska and Solvita Krese talk with curator and culture critic of the nineties, now art historian Kaspars Vanags, musician Toms Vītiņš, journalist Jūlija Rumjanceva, film director Juris Poškus and artist Ilva Kļaviņa about the alternative environment starting form the Parks magazine.. In nineties. Contemporary art in Latvia. LCCA: Riga, 2010. 479–480pp.

[3] Rasa Šmite in an interview with art historian Māra Traumane. Worlds-Worlds. New Media in Latvia. Mare Articum. 2000, No. 2, pp. 47

[4] http://rixc.lv/projects/netart/

[5] Vējš, Vilnis. Unsubstantiated Art: The Issue of the status of the Artist in Latvia in the 1990s. In nineties. Contemporary art in Latvia. LCCA: Riga, 2010. 99 – 107 pp.

[6] What Was a Wave to Some More a Lough to Us. Solvita Krese and Ieva Astahonska talk with Gints Gabrāns, Miķelis Fišers and Ēriks Božis. In nineties. Contemporary art in Latvia. LCCA: Riga, 2010. 446–447 pp.

[7] Traumane, Māra. Locality: Between the Curch and the Bar in Mit Allem Rechnen/Face the Unexpected: Medienkunst aus Estland, Lettland un Litauen.

[8] http://milkproject.net/

[9] https://www.facebook.com/pg/ontothevoid/about/

[10] http://trihars.mplab.lv/

[11] https://aste.gallery/

[12] http://smitesmits.com/works.html

[13] Current minimal pension is EUR 70,43 Old Age Pension. State Social insurance agency: Riga. 2017. From: https://www.vsaa.gov.lv/en/services/for-seniors/old-age-pension/

[14] Mazika, Santa. The Alternative Scene of Latvian Cultural Organizations in the 1990s in nineties. Contemporary art in Latvia. LCCA: Riga, 2010. 84 pp.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *