Latent cultural revolution at the VEF
Odrija Fišere, Art Historian
In order to write about activities and the past season at the Totaldobže Art Centre, located in the territory of the former VEF factory, first of all I asked colleagues who are not associated with the centre to characterise the image of Totaldobže that has formed in their consciousness.

Solvita Krese, director, Contemporary Art Centre: It’s a commendable example of something that has developed through the initiative of the artists themselves. The industrial environment encourages experimentation and freedom of expression. It’s nice that the most of events are oriented towards cooperation with a wide circle of artists, curators and institutions. The Totaldobže art centre fills a vital niche in the Latvian cultural space, one which is related to the interaction of various disciplines – art, poetry, music and dance. The involvement of individuals from the most diverse segments of society in creative activities such as the poetry slams should also not be underestimated.

Zane Onckule, director of the Contemporary Art Centre kim?: The Totaldobže art centre is an additional venue in Riga for further link-ups with contemporary culture. Its identity is enriched by games with the “indelible” name of the place and its connotations with the former factory which is known to all of us (the power of the word, among other things, is acknowledged by the poetry slam activities, and the recent electronic letters from the centre’s director, powerfully and poetically commenting on the environment).
Even if Totaldobže may seem like a remote and as yet undiscovered village near the Lithuanian–Polish border, it definitely is dictated less by the “village” itself than by the surroundings and the mood. And here once more we leap back to the previously mentioned letters, where Kaspars Lielgalvis, justifying their content, in a private response pointed to the obvious: “It’s all been building up over these years, we have to start doing something.”

The excessive zeal, being too honest and intractability is, if not justifiable, then to a degree an understandable concatenation of self-admitted cynicism as far as a description of the centre’s activities is concerned, which at the same time is also very beguiling in a positive way.

Vilnis Vējš, Art Critic: At the beginning, I got to know the abandoned VEF buildings as a place where artists had set up their workshops. After that – as a place where they exhibited their works. To my mind, it’s a great way for an art centre to evolve. Furthermore, both of the larger exhibitions – Brīnišķīgais ceļojums [‘Wonderful Journey’] and Es mirstu (es dzīvoju) [‘I die (I live)’] – were good. To my mind repeated achievements of this standard should be enough for any future creative initiatives to be supported by state, city and council institutions, instead of, for example, maintaining the system of culture houses and amateur artistic activities that was developed during the Stalin era. What is on offer at the VEF art centre certainly fulfils the functions of giving a home to current professional art processes, providing education and drawing in audiences. However, I see with alarm that the VEF centre lacks capacity for equivalent exhibitions – there isn’t the appropriate support, and enthusiasm alone cannot be exploited forever, although in regular events the centre cultivates smaller, more intimate forms of contact between artists and those interested.

Some of the evenings at VEF that I’ve attended, or in which I’ve participated, have stayed in my mind for their unique atmosphere. But nearly everything that happens there has to have the term “temporarily” appended to it – it’s still happening, continuing, developing. It’s clear that intensive art activities require a higher level of safety and comfort, at least. The “charm of ruins” is also limiting – there are artworks and performances which are well-suited to this environment, but others which require an aesthetically unobtrusive, perfect background. The fact that sources of support cannot be found for art initiatives that have proved themselves seems absurd, bearing in mind that ever more fantastic plans to develop “creative neighbourhoods” by directive, in places where they have no basis to exist, are constantly circulating among decisionmaking bodies in charge of cultural life.
Exhibition by participants of the symposium 'Changing Felt'. 2008
Photo: Kaspars Lielgalvis
The Art Centre before the close of its first season in December, 2010
Photo: Kaspars Lielgalvis
The project 'Compass'. 2011
Photo: Didzis Grodzs
When you are working right in the middle of it all, then often the things happening around you assume a different value than if observed from the sidelines. Since the art centre began its slightly utopian but tenacious activity one and a half years ago, I’d describe the art experiences taking place in it in two ways: at some moments as slightly depressing, at others – as emotionally uplifting and mentally intoxicating. In the first case, however, it’s unavoidably connected with the patently low demand in Latvia for events that are culturally edifying rather than entertaining, in the second – with the nascence of new creative ideas and projects, which inadvertently push the former into the background.

A depressing note to it all is imparted by the factor which is the lack of financing, but that’s a problem I won’t address this time. At the end of August, the art centre Totaldobže under the leadership of Kaspars Lielgalvis confirmed its stance on the issue of cultural policy and funding with its participation in the ArtBomb campaign(1). The Totaldobže artists and residents, together with other supporters of culture, blew up a culture bomb in one of the VEF courtyards, in this way expressing their support for the representatives of the cultural field in the Netherlands, who were protesting against cuts in the culture budget in their country, as well as in solidarity with those who consider that in Latvia, too, state and council funding for contemporary culture is inadequate.

Looking back, for more than a year now Totaldobže has been operating as an independent platform for various art events, and with its energy has indirectly become a stimulating factor for the development of other cultural initiatives in the VEF territory (Ziema Gallery, the Luste open silk screening workshop and BlankBlank).

This year, due to a newly-created residence programme, the art centre has become a place for meeting and the exchange of ideas for foreign artists as well. Each year, in collaboration with foreign art foundations and cultural organizations, a number of artists, including representatives from Latvia, will compete for the right to be hosted at the Totaldobže art centre for a period of between one and three months. Each artist will be allocated a studio, which will become the visiting artist’s home and zone of creative activity for the duration of residence, where work will be done on an art project that will be presented to the Rīga public at the conclusion of the programme.

One of the residents this last summer was Swiss artist Muriel Baumgartner, whose creative field of interest includes space and the way it reacts to interference within it. On the one hand, the artist deconstructs the existing space and on the other, uses it to create others – new complex spatial environments, imposing new conditions and levels of perception. As it turns out, the roof of the old factory building became the greatest source of inspiration during the heat of the summer. This became, according to Baumgartner’s choice, occasionally a creative place of reflection, and at other times a nocturnal residence under the starry sky. The result is that a remarkable installation was created, and everyone is invited to its opening on 7 October.

Meanwhile landscape architect Joyce van den Berg and photographer Nina Kopp, in residence from the Netherlands Art Centre, are working on a project about the impact of the Soviet occupation on the Baltic Sea coastal landscape that, as a result of historical processes, has taken on traits which from a contemporary perspective are regarded as a burden and nuisance. The artist calls them trauma landscapes(2) and believes that the negative aspect that accompanies these landscapes could be changed, using elements that carry new cultural and historic information.

The art centre has called its first year of operation ‘the experimental phase’, in which time the main directions and goals should crystallize. So, for example, lectures have commenced in the Baltie plankumi [‘White Spots’] series of educative events, providing an introduction to foreign contemporary cultural processes which may be little known in Latvia. The lectures taking place within the framework of the Compass project, in turn, aim to highlight local artists, who have “the courage to enter the dark forest, alone”, those who invest maximum energy and resources in their creative work, seeking new art forms, and in doing so often end up beyond the familiar, and so are not easily understood. Such kinds of activities, seemingly irrational or forging new paths, not only reveal discoveries to the authors themselves – they are essential to the cultural environment as a whole. There are innovators in all branches of art, but they are not always aware of their own significance, and that’s why those who recognize this are just as necessary – curators, critics, researchers and teachers, who with a keen eye notice any new undercurrents in the branch they research and analyze.”(3) The poetry slam is also gaining ever increasing popularity(4). The first poetry slam took place at the art centre at the end of 2010. Its initiator and also the organizer of the continuing events is Katrīna Vastlāve. The poetry slam is a completely new phenomenon in Latvian cultural life, but in the cities of the USA and Western Europe it has become a very popular movement, democratizing and activating poetry. The slam concept requires that the creation and development of poetry takes place in a social situation, in front of the audience, and, bypassing traditional printed form, the poems are immediately conveyed to the listener/viewer with the poet and the audience in direct dialogue, each influencing and adding to the other.

In September, as part of the Baltā nakts [‘White Night’] and Survival Kit 3 festival, a group exhibition Nulles punkts [‘Zero Point’] was held at the arts centre. This was a collection of works created by artists who had reached the state of what could be termed zero point: basically in a condition of enlightenment, characterised by complete harmony with external reality as well as the reality within, and the complete awareness of this. This is an instant which reveals in everyday things many tiny previously unnoticed details, but on a global scale – overarching interconnections. For example, in Rasa Šulca’s installation Otra puse [‘Other Side’] the zero point featured as a dead end, while Anda Bankovska marked this in her photographs as a point of reference within the coordinate system of the surrounding world, but for Romans Korovins it was the moment of meeting the Creator. Katrīna Neiburga’s sensitive video revealed the zero point to be a condition of self-destructiveness, having something in common with the unconscious human bodies seen in Pēteris Ķimelis’ work.

In addition to the art centre programme, this summer the VEF buildings also hosted the Laiks dejot [‘Time to Dance’] Contemporary Dance Festival created by Inese Zīriņa, Taka Café musical evenings, the project Sintezz, Kristaps Kuplais’ vinyl record music, and even classical dance from India. On Saturdays, a flea market organized by Retro Spectro took place in the art centre courtyard, marking on the Rīga map yet another interesting place to go to – for finding in the colourful hurly burly of items, possibly, genuine pearls of a bygone era.

/Translator into English: Uldis Brūns/

2 Joyce van den Berg gained international recognition in 2009, when she introduced the term trauma landscape in her solo exhibition Neues Licht auf das Sperrgebiet in Berlin. The patent for the use of the trauma concept in the field of landscape architecture and urban design belongs to the artist.
4 The poetry slam is a competition where poets are invited to perform original works which are judged by a jury, haphazardly appointed from the audience present. The poets compete against each other and the winner is determined both from the manner of performance and enthusiasm, as well as the content and style of the poem. Anyone can compete in the slam, irrespective of experience, how well known they are, or other factors. The poems can be performed by reading from a page or speaking from memory, but additional points are allocated for the inclusion of music, video or performance elements. The only compulsory condition – the poem has to have been created by the performer. Poetry slams differ from the usual poetry readings by the fact that both the poem and the performance are assessed, and consequently the poets are invited to dramatize their performance, transforming it into an experience for both the ears and the eyes.
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