Urban logic
Ieva Astahovska
From 31 May to 1 July, the ‘Hull Workshop' and the ‘Canteen' project room in Andrejsala will be the venues for the "Urbanologic" exhibition, held by the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art. 

The city, the language of the city and life in the city create a network of links and incongruities of everyday logic, rules and desires. The curator, Solvita Krese, writes in the exhibition catalogue: "The conditions laid down by the urban environment form the dense fabric of everyday ritual and participate in the constitution of meanings of private and public space. The city consists not simply of buildings and transport routes, but actually of containers of meaning, flows of information, lattices of language, and vectors at various levels of tension.

Cities are like living organisms, which can be both dynamic and aggressively expansive, but can also be helpless, confused and shrinking. Cities may be guided by the explosive development characteristic of the generic city (a city that grows and develops spontaneously - Rem Koolhaas), rooted in capitalist pragmatism. It may be the global city, as defined by Saskia Sassen, where the local is in constant interaction with the global. A city's trajectory of development may be influenced by analysis of the urban situation guided by economic interest, and gentrification, or by manoeuvres on the part of the public sector, seeking to protect some segment of public space or win it back from rapid commercialisation. We may go along with the assumption that a city grows of its own accord. Whatever the case may be, it is undeniable that the city significantly influences the behaviour, customs and thinking of its residents."

Ieva Astahovska:
The "Urbanologic" exhibition is one of the many events of Printemps franÁais, and includes work by artists from both Latvia and France, but these are "external factors". What is the inner motivation for the exhibition? What was the route to "Urbanologic"?

Solvita Krese:
In the first place, I'm attracted by the interdisciplinary nature of the urban theme: it encompasses architecture, design, anthropology, sociology... Urban dynamics reflect not only urban planning, but also ideology, politics and conflicts: the city is the scene of all these events. Accordingly, in my view, urban space is one of the most interesting platforms in art as well. Artists work in it, and react to it: they themselves venture into the public space and comment on it. But, in parallel with a personal interest in the city as a testing ground for various ideas, the "Urbanologic" exhibition by the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art underscores the centre's tradition of interest and activity in the urban setting. Since, up to the time when the art centre obtained its short-term permanent exhibition venue on Andrejsala, it has been making use in its activities of the premises of other institutions, "squatting" in abandoned buildings, adapting a variety of settings for exhibition purposes.

If we look back to the days of the Soros Centre for Contemporary Art-Riga, we can go back quite a long way, taking the "Monument" exhibition of 1995 as the point of departure. The curator of that exhibition, Helēna Demakova, presented the artists with an ideologically charged assignment: to create object-based art in the urban setting. The task set out by the "virus art" of Kristaps Ģelzis, curator of the exhibition "Ventspils Transit Terminal" (1998, 1999) required that artists "infiltrate" the urban setting. It was more a case of art as an object that provokes a situation. With the "Contemporary Utopia" exhibition (2001), the curator, Frank Wagner, focussed more on social utopia, and the urban setting was not specifically indicated, but here, too, there were references to the urban setting.

In the project "The City. Stories about Riga" (2002), each artist developed their own individual and subjective story. The exhibition "Re:public" (2004) was totally directed towards creating a situation, and the work of art was realised only through viewer participation. It was particularly in the last two exhibitions that the city was studied and cognised with the help of art, developing communication with it by various means. Now, in "Urbanologic", artists are invited not so much to intervene in the urban setting as to comment on it. As observers, they record a particular facet of the city without interacting with it. This reveals their interest in particular segments of the city, the identification of a particular set of characteristics.

The present-day city is changing very rapidly, particularly because of the development of capitalism, and probably the artists' view of the city and their commentary on it is altogether different from that of the previous exhibitions you mentioned. Now, more than ever, the city is a stage for all kinds of changes: social, economic, political, cultural, relating to the private/public setting, etc.
For this reason alone, "Urbanologic" seems a very topical and interesting project, which could mark some general nodes of the major axes of contemporary life.

S. K.:
"Urbanologic" is, in a sense, a kind of urban critique. In Riga, as in other post-Soviet locations, we're not witnessing a humane expression of "welfare capitalism", but something quite radical and merciless instead, and of course, this is most evident in the urban setting. This is seen most clearly in public space that is absolutely "under siege", as in the case of Old Riga. Secondly, we have the absurdities observable in the new architecture. Economic pressure influences both the loss of public space and the deformity of architecture, since everything is subordinate to it.

How do the works in "Urbanologic" comment on this?

S. K.:
For example, the work by Stephane Couturier shows how a city in the process of development becomes a construction place, a building site, where there isn't really room for people any more. The dynamics of capitalism demand continual construction, building and transformation, and the more rapidly the city develops, the more people feel themselves to be in the middle of a permanent building site, surrounded by the absolutely repugnant intermediate stages of urban development. And this is how life is spent - in the midst of building sites that shift from one location to another. These are "non-places", which cannot be used but exist in the name of the future. Another artist in "Urbanologic", Joffrey Ferry, concentrates in his paintings on such "non-places": the spaces under bridges, petrol stations and bypass roads. Of course, urban growth is necessary, within the frame of sensible planning, but often there is no balance achieved between capitalist development and the human sense of well-being, cultural values and aesthetic criteria - utopian things, in fact...

Utopia is a very significant theme, since, in the perception of the city as a stage for the most universal of contemporary developments, as we have already mentioned, and as a concentrated "non-place" - not only physically, but also emotionally - we unavoidably develop associations with the city as a zone that is turning from a planned utopia into the opposite, a dystopia. And at the same time, such associations also develop into a kind of metaphor for the present day, since contemporary civilisation is, after all, characterised by life in the city.

This is developed most effectively by the situationists, who, already in the middle of the 20th century, opposed the total alienation brought about by the new consumer society or the "society of the spectacle", and who turned it round, with a great variety of urban and also utopian strategies, with "the beauty of the situation" - psychogeography and derivee in the city streets, and detournement, presenting an unusual study of the urban plan and its elements and coming up with proposals for adapting them to promote the well-being of the residents. 

S. K.:
This exhibition, too, includes a reference to Situationism: Pierre Malphettes' map of Paris, which shows the city's one-way streets and appears to refer, in the urban context, to the French mentality as well, which is based on resistance, on a model of breaking the rules, on stubborn going in one direction. But in a historical sense, too, utopia is brought to the fore in the city, both in the context of urban planning, and through examples of social utopia. Thus, we may mention the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau regarding the city as a stage for social utopia. For the most part, two kinds of utopian constructs appear.
One model is that of the green utopias, based on the view that human existence is more appropriate and humane in a natural environment. We can find references to this, starting with the Tolstoyan movement and countless others.

The second utopia is based mainly around the axis of logic and order, and here we can find allusions to the classics, to French cultural history, for example, to the "City of the Sun" of Tommaso Campanella, or the utopian plans for the ideal city by the French Enlightenment Age architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, among which the so-called "salt city", Arc-et-Senans, was realised, and certain other examples of the city as a zone of social utopia.

Contemporary urban plans, too, include a utopian element, but one that in reality reflects simultaneous utopianism/dystopianism, for example the new Paris business district of La Defence, where you encounter a throng of Mr Smiths in black suits, as in the film "Matrix". In the end, it is the case that, at some level of generalisation, the city is transformed from a utopia into a dystopia: the city versus nature, the "place" versus the "non-place", meeting versus isolation and loneliness, the zone of cultural differences.

A very topical and sensitive example is the venue of "Urbanologic" - Andrejsala - where the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art has, like other cultural organisations, obtained a short-term permanent space, and which has at the moment become a kind of "free zone" of utopian culture, in contrast to the "besieged" public space of Riga. But very soon, this "free zone", too, will turn into a business quarter.

S. K.:
Andrejsala really is a concentrated utopia/dystopia, where the logic of the growing city is expressed very clearly. In the process of urban development, the presence of culture, and the humanisation of the environment are being applied, although the economic strategy is also perceptible. No other part of Riga has seen this kind of development, with the invitation of specialists and analysis of the characteristics of the resident of Andrejsala in x number of years. It's not the generic city defined by Rem Koolhaas, blindly following market dynamics. The way this area is being planned (the gentrification aspect, which entails a change in the function of the setting with the help of culture) is something new for Latvia.
Up to now, activities of various kinds have been taking place in industrial and undeveloped areas such as Grīvas mēbeles, the old VEF factory blocks, and, of course, in Bolderāja and the Karosta district of Liepāja, where such activities are mainly based on activism and ecological thinking.

However, for the most part, this has taken the form of spontaneous and short-term activity by artists. In Andrejsala, this is an initiative on the part of the developers, in collaboration with artists, as a result of which an art scene has come into being: a surprisingly broad spectrum at one location, which has not been seen elsewhere. In Andrejsala, a great variety of groups of artists, which previously conducted their activities in marginal locations, now have a much louder voice. But, of course, this is a venture typically rooted in capitalist logic, a mutually advantageous deal: the artists have a place to engage in their activities, and this, in turn, promotes the recognisability of the area. It is unlikely that the popularity the artists have given this area could have been achieved so effectively by other means.

The artists are working in favour of the place. Utopia/dystopia will appear very clearly when refurbishment begins. It's important that the developers wish for the cultural setting to be present here in the future as well, that they understand that the presence of culture humanises the setting and makes it more attractive, something that is to everyone's advantage. But it's clear that major compromises will be made, because the instruments of culture are too weak for it to hold its own as an equal player alongside economic power. I assume that many of the cultural initiatives that have been able to develop their organisational capacity here will find a place for themselves elsewhere, while others may disappear. And this unique setting will no longer be the same. But that's unavoidable; it's the way cities develop. We might, however, mention examples of similar processes in Europe, where the artists have retained their place...

How does the theme of contemporary urban utopia/dystopia appear in the works of the artists represented in "Urbanologic"?

S. K.:
It appears in a certain way in the form of various vectors of urban space, almost all of which express the idea that people do not actually feel so very comfortable in the city. One such vector shows that people long for nature even in the city. Thus, we have photographs by Māra Brašmane of "flower people", for whom indoor plants create a compromise between life in the city and in nature. Or the photographs by Līga Laurenoviča, recording allotment gardens, a kind of ghetto in the middle of the city, where people tend their little plot of land - another element that is already disappearing. Or the installation by Pierre Malphettes, where an attempt is made to reduce the isolation from the initial harmonious setting by imitating it: a fan causes the branches of a eucalyptus tree to sway, and the rustling noise recalls harmonious feelings, as in Tarkovsky's film "Solaris", where the main protagonist attaches strips of paper to the fan, and the rustling permits him to return to his country home.

The young artists Kate Krolle and Katrīna Sauškina document stories of changes in the urban fringe, in areas that still form part of a rural setting, but are evidently coming into contact with the expansion of the urban setting. Another vector shows the city as a communication setting, one where communication occurs very rarely. The city as a delimited area inhabited by a very wide range of people, who live there for various reasons, each with their own baggage of culture and experience, and struggling with a mass of unsolvable problems, but never actually meeting.

The American sociologist and historian Richard Sennett speaks of the city in a broader cultural context as "the other", where people's non-meeting is greater than their meeting, since they are being confronted all the time with this "other". The city becomes a "place of non-meeting" both from an everyday and an intercultural perspective. The most topical example is the rioting in Tallinn in connection with the relocation of the Victory Monument. This also applies to the living space inhabited by Latvians and Russian-speakers in Riga. In the countryside, communication is different. There, antagonism of this kind is hard to imagine. For example, in the work of Latifa Echakhch, the city appears quite immediately as a stage for confrontation between different cultures and socio-political platforms. In the distance, we see the back of a demonstration by immigrants, undermining the city, while in the foreground we see the street sweepers with their green brooms. The Western world puts everything back in place after the riots, and it'll continue in an endless cycle. The photographs of Nicolas Moulin show an empty city, where all evidence of human presence has been erased, leaving only frozen architecture and empty streets, which usually tell of the activities of the people who are themselves no longer there.

Voldemārs Johansons has tried to register one kind of "non-place", the "invisible" noise of the city, which turns into a landscape of sound, possessing a value of its own. Apart from the inter-cultural theme and urban metaphors, this motif of non-meeting also tells of human isolation and non-communication from a social and panhuman perspective - about people feeling, or actually being, lonely. In his work, for example, Ēriks Božis, looks at the junk space (a term used by Koolhaas) of urban architecture on the one hand, a space that is not really intelligible or usable, without any clear function - loggias that people barricade with bars, and on the other hand tells of non-communication and total self-isolation, where urban residents imprison themselves in barred cabins.

The work by Katrīna Neiburga can likewise be interpreted in the context of non-meeting. It reveals the fate of the "little person" in the city, where the personal, subjective story is confronted with anonymity: who he is in the city, where nobody has any business concerning themselves with others and where nobody knows what's happening alongside them. Katrīna studies one flat in a block of flats, which has for some unknown reason been vacated by the tenant, who has disappeared, and observes the evidence of the resident of the flat, the impressions of what has been before.

One section of the artists concentrate specifically on the sign language of the city, its urban logic. For example, Krišs Salmanis visualises the semantics of urban logic, pointing out that the logic of the city is a constructed scheme. He chooses as the basic element of urban logic something that can be regarded as a symbol of the city, namely the triumphal arch, since monuments and signs fulfil an ideological function. They symbolise power, stability, unshakeability, in the frame of which everything happens. But in truth this structure is a fragile, unstable house of cards, which can collapse in a moment, as for example on 11 September, when the logic not just of one city, but of the whole of capitalism collapsed. The work "Root of Evil", by Maija Kurševa comments ironically on the relationship between subculture and the city, on the city-dwellers' attitude towards street art, which is part of the language of the city, sometimes also transferred to the exhibition halls, but regarded in Riga not as an organic element of urban culture, but as an evil that must be stamped out and painted over like a plague or illness. Much in demand as an artist in the sphere of commercial culture, but continuing her activities as a street artist, at the same time as she flirts with it, she shows where the "root of evil" is to be found and whence it spreads in the city.

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