The Festival Art+Communication

Photo from the private archive of Rasa Šmite
Līga Marcinkeviča: The Art+Communication festival which you initiated and organize has the longest history of all on the Latvian art festival scene, and is also the most conceptually well thought out. Please describe what things were like when you came up with the idea for such a festival.

Rasa Šmite:
It came about in the 1990s at the same time as other fresh influences, with the arrival of the internet. We were interested in the search for new media so that we could create art, not just to copy Western examples but to find a way that we could do it ourselves. For me, the question of what is the latest in art has always been important, as on finishing studies at the Academy of Art you can often have the impression that everything has already been done before – is there anything new left for us to create? Then Raitis (Raitis Šmits – L. M.) and I found out about the internet, and in 1995, whilst taking part in our first conference in Tallinn, we also discovered that you can create art on the internet and collaborate with Western artists – that seemed even more important to me.

One of the definitive events or turning points during that time in Tallinn was the moment when I thought I would die from indecision, being unable to decide whether to go up to Geert Lovink and to say to him: “We are from Riga, and we would like to collaborate.” But, as the bus was about to depart shortly, I forced myself to do it. That feeling was terrible, that you’re unable to talk to the very people who have arrived to collaborate, but his response was: “The only reason why we’ve actually come here is to find people who want to do something like that.” Well, and that’s when we started. We set up the e-lab – the Electronic Art and Media Centre, and the festival, of course, was held that same year. I say “of course”, because the whole of the new media culture developed not just through the creation of art and the writing of articles, but directly through discussions in physical space. They were conferences which began in 1995 at the Venice Biennale. After that, the first large net culture and net critique structure Nettime was established – a mailing list and network. Later on, artists also got involved. Artists worked together with theorists very actively – there were festivals, exhibitions, performance programmes and symposiums, seminars and workshops. The fact that you gather together an international group of like-minded people for a short period was very important at that time – in the nineties. Later, this – the organization of festivals – developed as a feature of media art.

L.M.: Possibly because the long-term exposition of media art is a complex and financially expensive process.

Yes, at that time contemporary art had its market niche and its large biennials. But new media art wasn’t a curatororganized initiative, it was begun by the artists themselves. Even to exhibit an interactive installation – at a festival this could only be a visionary idea or even an installation element that wasn’t quite finished. You can’t put something like that in a permanent exhibition. There are also many works of art on the net. How do you exhibit them? You can’t! But you can talk about them, and conferences or artists’ presentations are the most suitable for this purpose. Simply, in all the most diverse ways, forms were established and approved for everything that was being done in real time.

L.M.: When you created the first festivals, did you also think about an audience? How was it with the society of the time, was the public interested?

At first, of course, this seemed important to us, as we were happy that we’d been able to break down personal communication barriers. It seemed impossible to reach an audience, because in the first festivals we worked until the last moment only with content, creating a very interesting programme, experimenting with form, and not knowing anything about marketing. And then we waited for an audience... without success. Besides, nearly every time we introduced a new theme, for which there wasn’t any terminology in the Latvian language. Each year, between festivals, we publish the magazine Acoustic Space. When reading the first issues, you notice this amazing English language slang. At that time there weren’t any precedents on how to “Latvianize” people’s names like Duchamp, Deleuze and Guattari. It was tough going. After each festival I said that it would be the last. Around 2000, we took a break, but then there was a rise in interest about the Irbene Radio Telescope and we started up again. There have been a few attempts to vary the festival format, by going out into public spaces as well. People did come along then, especially to Eric Cobain’s performance with the fire organ.

L.M.: In your opinion, did this turning point when you felt the need for an audience come from the fact that the new media culture over these ten years developed quickly, and in the first five years of the new century took a significant cultural niche between traditional contemporary art forms?

Yes. While writing my book Creative Networks, I found a lot of interesting research about how art is created, design included, in Russia (during the time of the research we also belonged to this region) and how it’s done in America. We are extremely oriented purely towards self-sufficiency. Here we even create design just for our own pleasure, and we’re completely uninterested in reaching out to an audience or asking whether someone out there has a use for this, and does this even fulfil the functions required of the specific design object. For example, during the Soviet period nearly every time you used a tea pot you would spill tea all over yourself. And another feature – we want to achieve something incredibly well. So on one occasion we might get a good product, but at other times – not so good. But we are so very oriented towards everything having to be really good, that we don’t notice the factors that are of significance. And one of them is that we have never been skilled at thinking about the public. We wanted to create an obvious break in our activities in 2006 with the Waves exhibition, when we built up a very large scale international exhibition at Arsenāls. There hadn’t been one like that in the world before – with such previously unseen media.

L.M.: To my mind, this exhibition was the peak in the evolution of the Art+Communication festival. It was a very significant event, not just for you and the audience closely associated with the arts, but the exhibition addressed a completely new sector of the public, provoking outrage among a great many: how, and from where did RIXC crop up, and have they really been working here, alongside us, for over ten years?

It turned out that other skills were required, because for us personally it all is, and has always been, very interesting, but for you to show what really is the interesting thing to others – this requires completely different skills. And an exhibition, in a sense, is the proven method for presenting it to viewers, as a work of art exhibited communicates in a completely different way with the viewer. An art work is associative, there aren’t as many stories in it any more. It conveys the message more accurately.

L.M.: An exhibited, completed work of art is perceived over time. The viewer communicates with it and perceives the message at that moment when he/she is capable or ready for it.

That’s true as well.

L.M.: But the festival format is more suited to a process, for development.

The first ten years were the most important for us personally in terms of our professional development. We tried to discover the futhermost boundaries, as far as one could go with it – whether this was cyberspace or whether it was even art – advocating the process only. We didn’t even document anything. We were very radical. Today we regret this, of course. But it was a logical phase of development. You have to be radical in your youth, so that something can crystallize for you afterwards from the experience gained, and you can understand what you can give back to society. That’s the contribution of the new.

L.M.: You have, no doubt, noticed differences between the first audiences and this year’s festival attendees. What are they?

Now, when truly many years have passed, seventeen I think, a new generation has grown up, and that is this year’s festival’s most important feature. A lot of our students came along. Raitis and I are lecturers at the Rīga Stradiņš University, the Latvian Academy of Art, and at Liepāja University as well. And the fact that young people are coming along makes us happy, of course, because finally we are addressing people who are interested. They come along and for the first time they hear that these types of communication technologies, and the fact that artists are working with them, can be considered as a form of art. But here again there’s the same old problem of the contemporary art museum, something we don’t have. We can simply see that a generation has grown up, smart, young people, currently studying, who have never seen a contemporary art exhibition. Everything you show to them is new. At the same time, they’re very open and all of them use new technologies, because the media invites them to be creative, as creative as you can be: taking photographs and placing them on social networks.

L.M.: To my mind, the existing situation seriously deforms the perception of contemporary art, as in the case of Latvia the viewer is used to contemporary art having the character and significance of a festival, that it’s also exhibited in an environment of “endless renovation”. The majority don’t try or are unable to shape a context for today’s art. The reality is such that a person believes that contemporary art is a sort of short-term event, but art is something that lies in a museum. And then only 19th century concepts emerge in the discussion, as rarely does anyone “scrape their way” as far as the 20th century.

If there was a museum, then festivals would stand out by the fact that they show something newer, more revolutionary, something that will end up in museums in twenty years’ time. Without a museum, the viewer doesn’t feel that contemporary art is integrated into society’s value system. The viewer doesn’t feel that the way we work and use technology in art is an integral part of the things of value that form society.

The stereotypes in Latvia about the harmfulness of technology are catastrophic. Everywhere you hear the mantra that life in the city is terrible, that we have to go live in the forest, we should stop using technology, but you wouldn’t even survive in the forest until spring without using these technologies.

L.M.: It seems to me that with some part of the brain we understand very well that we wouldn’t survive, and that’s why nobody is going off to the forest. But people have become superficial in their interpersonal communication, communicating using catch phrases, which doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s what they really think. The expressions used don’t even approximate how people live in reality.

That’s exactly why it’s so important for us to reach an audience at our festivals, as what we do really does interest us. Artists, theorists – they’ve put in all their intellectual potential, their daily work for up to 24 hours a day, reflecting on ideas which interest them and which are important. New media artists don’t make ironic remarks about society’s negative aspects. The artists in this field are continually trying to reflect on technologies, about the fact that they are developing so fast, that we are unable to evaluate their consequences. We have to constantly stay with the times and search for new ways of filling the new niches which keep on appearing as a result of technological progress, both in the market as well as in art and culture, rather than forever denying this development. In Latvia we are continually living in self-denial: technology is bad, stop sitting at those computers, let’s go and live in the forest. We don’t have to go live in the forest. We have to make use of the many global benefits that there are, and to appreciate local resources. That’s what we tried to show this year with the ‘Apple’ symposium. We have so many local resources that remain unused.

L.M.: How has European funding affected the structure of the event?

Our first initiatives were supported by the Soros Foundation – Latvia, and from foreign sources. Up until the Waves exhibition, I was convinced that the greater part had been foreign funded, but when I analysed the figures, I came to the conclusion that in 2006, during the so-called growth years, it was really only possible to make the large exhibitions so comprehensive and good due to Latvian financing. European funding is a good thing, but Latvia’s economy is the one which dictates both the scope and structure of an event.

L.M.: What are you working on now?

Next year there’ll be a large world conference The Histories of Media Art. In many countries around the world and in Third World countries these kinds of media art histories don’t even exist, and that’s what we will concentrate on, and will discuss how these histories could be written. Specifically with the emphasis on “histories” – in the plural. In the 2013 festival the most significant part will be the conference, but in 2014 there will be a large exhibition called Fields, and that’s when the exhibition will be the main and central festival event.

Material prepared by Līga Marcinkeviča and Elīna Dūce
Translator into English: Uldis Brūns
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