Orient Express From Eastern Helsinki (and Eastern Europe) with LOVE

THE RIGA LOOP

  • A pic from our field trip, September 2015: a wall in the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia
    A pic from our field trip, September 2015: a wall in the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia
  • The main building of the Latvian University
    The main building of the Latvian University
  • Justice for all
    Justice for all
  • Organizers - with Pauls Daija
    Organizers - with Pauls Daija

I have always enjoyed reading civilized, semi-kitschy essay books on cities. In my favorite one on Venice, Guida sentimentale di Venezia (1955), Guido Valeri describes the schizophrenic nature of La Serenissima by saying that it as a city of “grandeur and decadence, Dichtung und Wahrheit, Spleen et Idéal, verse and prose, and story and legend”.

 

Not all cities have a schizophrenic nature, but most of my favorite ones have. For me dynamic polarizations stand for enchanting complexity. I must also add that Valeri forgot something very important: Venice is Western, but the city is also Byzantine.

 

Riga is more straightforward than Venice. The city has historical layers, but they do not touch you as much as the converging energies of the cultural paradigms which clash in the city. Riga is Baltic but Russian. She is a neat Little Paris (as they say), where people walk lightheartedly on his/her beautiful streets, but (s)he is also an industrial, Post-Soviet ruin, where the broad river (Daugava) is framed by aggressive modern bridges and geometrical concrete palaces (like the National Library). The old town is like a German cake shop, the art deco district is a bit queer but down to earth, and I must say that the cultural scene in Riga is for the size of the city (600 000) both big and active. Vikings ruled trade there during medieval times, and later on the city has been occupied by Swedes, Germans, Russians, Danes and Poles.

 

Mostly I have been in Riga because of work. I have lectured at Riga-based theatre festivals (Homo Alibi, Homo Novus), organized by the impressive team of the New Theatre Institute of Latvia. I have been teaching in workshops at dance festivals (New Dance in a New Venue in Rēzekne, Cēsis and Saldus) organized by my friend Inta Balode, who is the warmest and most outsiderish producer I know. Through these festivals I also have learned how many nice small towns there are in Latvia. All these events are melting points of East and West, which is logical, as Riga has had this role in commerce for centuries.

 

February 22 and 23 I organized with Carsten Friberg, a Danish colleague, a session of our Nordic Summer University study circle Appearances of the Political. In "Identifying the Political" we had a fun two days with local social scientists, art scholars and theologians, and a mixed bunch of ‘us foreigners’ coming from Lithuania, Italy, Estonia, Denmark, Finland and Great Britain. Artivists, scholars and politically minded people from the 3rd sector joined forces and presented ideas and projects about the way art, aesthetics and politics clash in the contemporary society.

 

Last fall we studied with Carsten the Museum of Occupation of Latvia to come into terms with the local context. But in the end, art, aesthetics and politics are global issues, and in all presentations we learned how problems which we for some reason consider to be local – from forms of racism to media rhetoric – are the same everywhere in Europe. All presentations forced me to think in new ways, but for my thinking the most radical thoughts were gained from talks on the disappearance of the word political in Latvian parliamentary discourse (Ilva Skulte), the design and culture of money (Johanne Aarup Hansen), peripheries as alternatives to neo-liberalism (Eret Talviste), the history of performance art in Latvia (Laine Kristberga) and the problematic nature of memorials (Ann Mirjam Vaikla).

 

As this was only the first of the 6-8 sessions we are to organize I felt that choosing this topic for our ‘study circle’ was a great idea. There seems to be a lot to discuss, and yet there is not much done which would really bring together aesthetics, social sciences and political art. I am tired of hearing that ‘the American elections are just about aesthetics’ or that you can recognize the members of different parties just by watching their pictures. We must get deeper and be more systematic to really understand the aesthetics of politics. The issue needs to be studied theoretically, not just mentioned, as aesthetics is so central for political culture.

 

Our hosts, Pauls Daija and the Faculty of Theology at the University of Latvia, were great. This made me happy because I have promised to come back in October to organize a conference on popular culture with Daija and his colleagues. It seems that I might also visit the Academy of Culture with a workshop next winter and then visit a dance festival in August.

 

So, I will return... It is a loop. And funnily, the name of the city comes from the tributary loop of Daugava river, ‘ringa’ (Liv language), a word which is today echoed in the Scandinavian, Germanic and English ‘ring’.

 

I truly can’t get rid of Riga. It is a forced marriage. But as some forced marriages are, this is a very happy one. Like many other scholars and artists I enjoy visiting this hotbed of interesting art, which has produced great theatre from UMKA to (the now, sadly, politically corrupt) Hermanis, great dancers and choreographers like Mikhail Baryshnikov and Olga Zitluhina, and just great people who I have become friends with. (Notable residents include also Sergei Eisenstein, Isaiah Berlin and Richard Wagner.)

 

Besides Bratislava I feel Riga is a kind of a home town outside of Helsinki, a place where I find myself from one to three times per year. It is one of the most pleasant loops in my life.

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