Kaspars Groševs, Artist

At the end of october, kim? contemporary art centre organised a reading by curator kaspars Vanags and a presentation by curator and Homotopia Liverpool festival director gary everett, thereby commencing cooperation with the Mozaīka lgbt and friends alliance within the framework of the anticipated europride 2015 cultural programme. a public announcement made by the political party “nacionālā apvienība” (national alliance, na), which supervises the ministry of culture, stated that na does not support the events organised by kim? within the framework of europride 2015. this fact considerably affected the publicity of the event, and on the eve of october 22nd the premises of Birojnīca were crowded with attendees. liene dobrāja moved to new york city a few years ago in order to study at the new york university tisch school of the arts and, although she still resides there and works productively in the costume design industry, she can also sometimes be spotted on the streets of riga. i meet liene on the walls of Facebook much more often, frequently finding out something new about those who fight for their rights. to add more sparkle to the flame of recent events, i skyped with liene on sunday evening. i happened to be in Vilnius and having an evening beer, whilst liene was in new york city drinking her morning coffee.

Kaspars Groševs: How’s life?

Liene Dobrāja:
Good. is Vilnius cooler than riga?

K.G.: It seems so. The art scene is more vibrant, more things are happening. It’s been like that historically, too.

They also have more events in opera. more small events that we lack.

K.G.: And there seem to be more parties.

and we left everything in the 1990s....

K.G.: In Riga everyone now sits, advertisers meet and work on their white-collar stuff.

We agreed with a friend once that advertisers regard themselves as being better than others.

K.G.: Well, everyone thinks that they are better than others. We, perhaps, consider ourselves better than garbage collectors.

Or americans.

K.G.: Yes, do you consider yourself better than Americans?

Of course not! they are not one unified mass, there are all kinds of them – fools and also very smart people. a lot of fools, though.

K.G.: And yet it seems to me that to some degree an average Latvian is similar to an average American. I am referring to a typical Republican.

I agree. conservatism, being reluctant towards change, holding on to advantageous christian values, as if it were a buffet. mentioning god’s name is also related to money – “in god we trust” is written on the dollar banknote.

K.G.: But a Latvian turns to Christianity once every three years, when the pride parade is organised. I suspect next year everyone will believe in God again.

Whereas at christmas latvians are keen to follow the traditions of paganism.

K.G.: Now it’s referred to as the Latvian way of life.... But the reference point for our discussion is a recent lecture in which Kaspars Vanags in rather free form tried to argue about identity issues, including sexual identity. After all, the public announcement made by the NA gave rise to greater publicity than other events organised by kim? normally do, which, I must say, are often more interesting. Therefore, we decided not to underestimate this subject of discussion. How does it look to you from a certain geographical distance?

I visit latvia frequently enough and am still in fairly close contact with it. to my mind, it is sad. i don’t understand why in latvia everything is happening backwards. because in estonia, which everyone is sick of referring to as the good example, everything has hugely advanced. i came to new york city because i wanted to receive a good education. but another reason why it has always been difficult for me to live in latvia is the zero tolerance towards people who are different. it is very hard for me to accept that. to me, it seems like a self-explanatory thing – those same christian values. everyone knows jesus’ lesson: treat others the same as you treat yourself.

K.G.: Yet the Bible also dictates that one cannot eat shrimp.

Well, that’s the old testament. nevertheless, in latvia there has not been any dialogue since the collapse of the soviet union.

K.G.: But imagine, 25 years ago you could theoretically be put behind bars. Surely it was the same situation in Estonia.

I understand. homosexual relationships were legalised only in 1992.
Liene Dobrāja and Vodka Stinger in Pieces bar, New York City
Photo from the private archive of Liene Dobrāja
K.G.: I imagine, for example, my uncle, who lives in Zvejniekciems and who would most likely be very surprised to see the first-ever black inhabitant of Zvejniekciems. The situation is similar with homosexuality – he cannot apply human-like features to it because he doesn’t know any homosexuals personally. Therefore, it’s easy to imagine all sorts of things. I came across this idea when paging through Rita Ruduša’s book Pagrīdes citādība. Homoseksuāļi Padomju Latvijā (Underground Otherness: Homosexuals in Soviet Latvia), where in a relatively simple literary vocabulary various stories from Soviet times have been told and where a human connection with real-life examples has been provided.

Well, that’s simply a lack of empathy. you cannot put yourself in someone else’s shoes. this is a much broader phenomenon, too. you cannot put yourself in a ukrainian’s shoes, or actually in anybody’s shoes who is doing worse than you.

K.G.: In Vanags’ lecture, I liked one of the examples with which he began the lecture – Zenta Ērgle’s book Uno un trīs musketieri (Uno and the Three Musketeers).

That was one of my favourite books!

K.G.: I liked it, too, mostly due to the illustrations by Edgars Ozoliņš. The book tells about a group of boys who are joined by a mysterious boy named Uno. At the end of the book, Uno turns out to be a tomboy, a girl. Vanags had also managed to get hold of drawings from Ozoliņš’ famous collection of sex positions, some of which were not included in the final version because the editor thought they were too unrealistic. Anyway, I think that the main subject of Uno and the Three Musketeers – a girl who pretends to be a boy – does not differ much from the “scandalous” publication The Day When Carl was Caroline. At the same time, it’s a classic of children’s literature from the Soviet times.

People as a whole have become more prudish and more reserved sexually. people do not trust each other anymore. some time ago you could take your neighbour’s children to the nursery, nowadays you would be looked at suspiciously. but we have something similar nowadays, too. look at jarāns and porgants in the roles of skaidrīte and mildiņa.

K.G.: Russian pop music stars, too, often seem to be located between two genders. Doesn’t that also look to you like some kind of deconstruction of gender identity?

In my opinion, russia’s relationship with the gender identity issue is very clear. it is manifested by the notorious child protection and lgbt propaganda law. the fact that it is not clear which gender leontiev and moiseev belong to is most likely a result of numerous plastic surgeries and very oppressed sexuality. cross-dressing (a man in women’s clothing) can be dangerous if it is done for the purposes of entertainment. it breaks down the boundaries of where you begin perceiving people in a frivolous way. to my mind, russia is a good example of how stereotypes are created. look at Comedy Club – men dressed up as women play weak, stupid, peevish characters that might be labelled with the disdainful term “baba-like” (characteristic of an old wife). however, in uno and the three Musketeers you don’t put on the clothes of the opposite sex just for fun. uno wants something more.

K.G.: But, of course, it is acceptable also due to the fact that a girl wants to be a boy. Everyone wants to be a boy, nobody wants to be a girl. A story about a girl who wants to become a man is quite frequent in popular culture. Another classic of the Soviet era is the film Some Like it Hot, in other words, the emergence of transvestites in cinema.

But that’s actually a wolf dressed as a lamb in order to get what he wants. the fact that it’s a part of entertainment is perhaps a good approach for how to make people get used to the idea of various gender identities, but it’s not enough.

K.G.: In the above-mentioned lecture someone proposed to Latvianise the term queer by replacing it with the word šķērss (transverse). What is your understanding of the term queer?

Queer refers to those sexual and gender minorities that are not heterosexual or gender-binary. Šķērss is not a bad term, taking into account that the gender-binary aspect is very strict and “straight” – from point a to point b – and queer transverses this outdated and reality-inappropriate division with a great force. i like it!

K.G.: It must be noted that this lecture was organised as a kind of warm-up event for the exhibition next year, in which one of the protagonists will be Tom of Finland.

As you can imagine, i really love his work. but, of course, i won’t be surprised if furious masses will come to the exhibition.

K.G.: Of course, the public reaction can be anticipated. Yet what seems intriguing and what was mentioned by Vanags, too, is that it’s dangerous to exhibit Tom of Finland alone. The historical context can be easily lost; these drawn characters have become stereotypes to some degree, and they should therefore be shown in a broader context touching upon the subject of sexuality and gender identity. Connecting them with the queer context.

Living in new york city, which is home to the stonewall riots and the gay liberation movement, i think they should be examined in a historical context, taking into account the aids epidemic and the fact that homosexuals were once regarded as the plague. they are not single-handedly erotic drawings; at least his initial fans did not perceive them in such a way. tom of finland himself did not fight for gay rights, but at the same time his works have become an important icon.
Liene Dobrāja. Caca Chinel. Digital print. 2009
Publicity photo
Courtesy of the artist
K.G.: To my mind, Tom of Finland might seem an annoying stereotype to someone who does not know the context. At the same time, it can be easily forgotten that before Tom’s exaggeratedly masculine male drawings the image of a gay man in the popular culture was a feminine “sissy”. What is your opinion of these changes in stereotypes? Perhaps both of these stereotypes – the feminine and the super-masculine – have downsides?

Tom of finland’s drawings with all the super-masculine bikers and lumberjacks became so popular after the second world war due to another reason, too. they were a form of protest against the very conservative and conformist lifestyle in the usa. tom of finland’s characters were radicals – like james dean. before tom of finland, this trend was started by the painter etienne, who died of aids in the early 1990s. the fact that before these artists a homosexual man (by the way, have you noticed that this conversation is mostly about men and their gender issues? hmm....) was portrayed as a sissy, as anti-masculine and as a character with all “feminine” (and therefore scornful) features was much more dangerous, because it cultivated not only homophobia but also sexism. in general, i think using terms such as “feminine” and “masculine” in relation to personality traits, looks or things that are not bound by genetics is stupid and gives rise to stereotypes.

K.G.: The example of Terre Thaemlitz is significant. She is a transsexual American musician who lives in Japan and actively writes about problems of identity. I recently read one of her letters about her avoiding defining herself – whether she is a transperson or gay or a lesbian or a heterosexual. She likes a certain aggregate of humane qualities that has no connection with orientation stereotypes.

I agree completely. to me it seems that this is where society should be heading. judith butler, a fantastic feminist and a founder of queer theory, says that sexuality is more a social construct, and i agree absolutely with that. the degree to which we allow ourselves to be subjected to these constructs is each person’s own business. sexuality is fluid, which is why i understand thaemlitz. and positioning oneself as queer or straight may be something that we ourselves need, namely, these names we attach to our sexuality – queer, gay, bi, cis, trans etc. – make communication with the outside world easier.

K.G.: But in your profession don’t you to a certain extent take part in the building of these social constructs?

My work is dependent on literature. of course, i don’t try to cultivate stereotypes. but if the director wants something specific, for example, a tom of finland sailor, and if i see that in the context of the play it is being mocked, then that would be unacceptable to me and i’d try to talk to the director about whether we could do this in a different way.

K.G.: Have you had this happen?

More in Latvia, before i left, but not in america. you can discuss anything in new york. there are also self-evident things, such as the fact that you don’t use indian symbols.

K.G.: It seems to me that not too long ago everybody was wearing Indian headdresses.

I don’t know, but living here i perceive it all more sensitively. i understand that i want everything too much and much quicker. but here i haven’t come across people in my work who cultivate gender stereotypes. the fact that they exist both on the stage and in the world of cinema is a fact, but i have been very lucky up till now and i have worked with wonderful directors, who by chance have been mostly female. but, no doubt, one day there’ll be a negative example. i’m only at the beginning of my career.

K.G.: As a costume designer you get to work in both the opera as well as in the entertainment industry. How do you position your attitude to the “high” and the “low”? Bearing in mind that the entertainment industry still takes part in the process of conjuring up identity fantasies in an ever more powerful way.

I don’t agree that the entertainment industry is taking part in this process in an ever more powerful way. i think it’s quite the opposite. you’ve no doubt noticed that there are ever more films, performances, sitcoms and tV dramas that look at this very many-angled phenomenon of sexuality from all sides. a tV series called transparent has just been released, the main character of which is a father who in his later years has decided to undergo a sex change operation; the series is produced by the giant Amazon. in the Orange is the New Black series, there is a specific portrayal of how many different types of female sexuality there are among lesbians. the same thing also happens on the stage. i don’t think there is this “high” and “low” level of entertainment. opera is the same thing as rave, just with better shoes.

K.G.: In talking about your work Caca Chinel, doesn’t it seem to you that it was a queer work?

I made it like a social commentary about how i feel in a world where fashion is allocated great significance and where very bony bodies dominate.

K.G.: Still, there was a certain dose of camp, wasn’t there?

I have heard that a fair bit. it really happened unknowingly. i have always really enjoyed sparkles, and even now they steal into my works quite unknowingly. but the work is more about how i feel in a world where i am not considered beautiful.

K.G.: I am, for example, a great lover of RuPaul’s Drag Race TV show, but I have met people, homosexuals specifically, who don’t particularly like the show because it strengthens a specific body of stereotypes about transvestites. It seems interesting to me, this gradual growth and development of this stereotype.

I know that the drag commune is much divided. for example, some transvestites don’t like the term tranny, but others use it with great pride. i think that the more these branches are looked at and examined, the more they will branch out. i think they are very healthy discussions.

K.G.: Among other things, I have thought up how to make tranny into a Latvian term – traņķis. Still, RuPaul has become a part of pop culture. Even Latvia’s gossip media tend to write about his show’s parties. The recent Eurovision win by Conchita Wurst is also a recent example.

Definitely. and in that respect it’s great that they have got into mass rotation and are visible. but stereotypes are a good beginning for getting society used to this, to show society that there are people like this, that they are normal and they have the same rights as everyone else.

K.G.: Well, the discussion here is again about humanity.

Obviously, despite the crazy make-up and wigs and false breasts.

K.G.: But this show is hugely entertaining compared to other American shows. On the RuPaul show you can always hear about a variety of life stories. In the first years, they were mainly sad stories about family problems, homophobia and the like. Whereas, in recent years a new generation has come in, which it seems is no longer affected by this. Here, the show provides this personal contact with homosexuals, showing that each one is different.

There are a lot more personalities.

K.G.: But, for example, what would you do if you lived in Russia?

I don’t know. i think i’d leave. i’d fight from the outside. that’s probably cowardly, but i’d leave and fight from the outside.

K.G.: But do you think anything is changing for the better in the case of Latvia, if everyone is leaving?

I agree, i’m not trying to justify myself. i’m also not trying to justify those who leave looking for a better life.

K.G.: For example, in the film homo@lv Māris Sants packed his underwear and left.

Imagine what sort of life he had here. i had a different sort of situation. i didn’t have any problems, i left for much more selfish reasons. but i understand them completely, in a humane way.

K.G.: But it seems to me that young people have become much more open – I observe that at the school where I teach.

For example, i read Sviesta ciba after rinkēvičs’ announcement. my god, sensible, educated people, people of our generation hang out there. but a real pandora’s box opened up – such negativity came out. the same thing on Facebook, and Delfi commentators are no longer anonymous. it’s not even homophobia but some kind of mild hate: “i don’t have any objections, but don’t come into my bedroom.” i think that’s the worst, a “don’t want to hear, don’t want to see” attitude.

K.G.: “I’m not a homophobe, but....”

Yes, “i’m not a racist, but....” something stupid usually follows.

K.G.: I’m not sure if discussions on social networks are real.

But there are people sitting there on the other side who write all of this. even those anonymous commentators, who are sitting somewhere, and perhaps we may never meet them.

K.G.: Most likely we will meet them. Possibly at the Gaismas pils (the National Library of Latvia). Because there’s free Internet there.

Translators into English: Uldis Brūns, Laine Kristberga
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