During a recent discussion that I attended on socially engaged art, conducted during the run up to the next Open Engagement Conference (an international conference devoted to socially engaged art that will be held in my current city of Chicago, IL USA in 2017 and in Oakland, CA USA in 2016), points were raised that (1) socially engaged art has become a practice that is increasingly institutionalized and curricularized (there is a growing number of degree programs in the United States of America, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia), (2) many of the artists whose work could be described as “socially engaged” or “activist” do not directly identify with either term, and (3) socially engaged art is an artistic practice without much follow through either by the institution or artist (community engagement begins and ends with the project). As socially engaged art (sometimes known as art as public practice, politically engaged art, or activist art) becomes a larger part of artistic and exhibition practice internationally, it remains to be seen as to whether or not it is an art that is truly beneficial to the communities with which it engages. With these thoughts in mind, I want to add another piece to the discussion – which is how the issues that surround socially engaged art are currently in play within the Baltic States.
This past winter and spring I conducted a pilot research project on socially engaged art in the Baltic States, wherein which I conducted semi-formal interviews with five contemporary arts organizations, two artist-run spaces, two artist-residencies, and one artist.((All research participants quoted or referenced in this article provided oral and/or written consent. Those that requested to have their names or the names of their organization(s) kept anonymous are noted when needed.)) I was especially interested in how socially engaged art is practiced in the Baltics: Do the artists and art organizations that create these works recognize them as socially engaged or do they prefer to not classify their output at all? Is socially engaged art or art in the public sphere an artistic practice that has merit in the Baltics? Looking at the literature alone, there is a history of public art and art in the public sphere in the Baltics and broader Eastern Europe, as evidenced by the volume of work produced by scholars such as Bishop (2011, 2006), Bryzgel (2013, with Apostol 2014), Michelkevičė (2014), and Rounthwaite (2014), among others. While this research explores public, participatory, art in the public sphere, and, sometimes socially engaged art within the context of Eastern Europe – few focus on the Baltic States as a whole (examples include Bryzgel, 2013; Michelkevičė, 2014).
During this pilot stage of my research, I found that, for the most part, there was not a lot of familiarity with the term “socially engaged” among my interviewees. There were some exceptions to this rule, such as one mentioned by a curator that I interviewed at the Center for Contemporary Art (CAC) in Vilnius. They spoke of a 2012 Goethe Institute Vilnius-funded multinational project on art and public engagement (“Going Public. On the Possibility of a Public Statement”), which included a workshop (“How to Say”) at CAC. They noted that the workshop, which was on art in the public sphere (another way that socially engaged art is commonly defined) explored how “artists can engage with the public sphere” and “how people of different backgrounds engage with the notion of the public sphere” (Interview, February 2015). According to my interviewee, the outcome of the workshop was that of a network of artists and institutions, but there was not much material produced other than a series of “public interventions”. The art produced was art in the public sphere, but it was not an art “for the public”. Instead it was “art in the public”. Ultimately, it did not create the type of work that art in public practice or socially engaged art can produce — art that American artist Pablo Helguera (2011) defines as containing the following elements: (1) long-term creative processes, (2) engaged listening, (3) placement of research into practice, and (4) connection with the audience’s and participants’ experiences.
The problems that are linked to this type of artistic practice – whether it is art in the public sphere, socially engaged art or even a less-engaged participatory art (especially those for socially engaged practices – outlined above), were also not raised by my interviewees. There is also the need to ask whether an artist or an artwork needs to be defined as overtly political or activist in order to be considered socially engaged or as a legitimate socially engaged artists. When I recently posed this question at a presentation on Artists as Activists at the Chicago Humanities Festival, the reaction from two out of three of the artist-panelists was to state that they did not define themselves as activists. This created some frustration in the audience (and moderators) because it opened up a space for introspection and critique– if art is not activist can it still have a social-political dimension?
The examples of “socially engaged” art or artistic projects produced in the Baltics are not necessarily activist (my interviewees, like some of the Artist as Activists panelists, do not identify as activists), but they do have a social-political dimension – even if it is calling attention to the usage of empty space or the transformations taking place in a neighborhood. For me, what comes after the project is completed is more of an issue than the project itself or its activist intentions. Therefore, it is important to take into context my interviewees’ perspectives and investigate how the works with which they engage are ones that are of any long-lasting impact or do anything for their collaborators/communities in the long run. Does socially engaged art in the Baltics manage to avoid the problems mentioned in the Open Engagement discussion or do they reproduce them directly or indirectly after the festival closes or the artist moves on to another project?
Examples and Projects
One instance of a project that could be seen as utilizing some elements of socially-engaged art (if one takes into context the social-political dimension of socially engaged projects) is Latvian Center for Contemporary Art’s (LCCA) Survival Kit festival. The festival idea itself, as described by the individuals that I spoke to at LCCA((Permission to use the name of the organization, not of my contacts.)), comes from a place of social-political commentary that is grounded in the 2008-2009 economic crisis:
(…) we just decided that we should do something with those empty shops along the main shopping streets and we should fill them with art and somehow to deal with those limited resources we have at that time. And then we are just picking up different themes which, from our point of view, appeared on the map or in the air after the crisis, which means that obviously the world has changed after this break down of economical crisis and how we should find other ways to survive (…) (Interview, April 04, 2015)
The utilization of empty buildings, abandoned due to economic downturn and political change, as a commentary on the changing nature of Riga’s urban landscape continues to serve as the festival’s structure. It is about calling attention to how these buildings can be used as places for artistic expression, as well as thinking about the impact that their current emptiness has on the spaces and people that surround the buildings. It is also a project that, to borrow from Kester (2015), moves “beyond existing definitions of both art and the political” (p. 1). Last year’s iteration (Utopian City) looked directly at the nature of urbanity and the festival’s exhibitions were located at both the former Boļševiča Textile Factory and the now empty Wagner Music Hall. The work exhibited (and performed) ranged from explorations of the “haunting” effect of empty building spaces (Janin Walters’ Horror Vacui) to the Estonian artist collective Visible Solutions’ piece Ligudik, Valumeter and Artwork Consisting Only of its Value (a commentary on capitalism). The festival also included a research-based piece on the communities that occupy the islands of Rīga and a series of public discussions on the festival’s theme (via Foucault’s Hetereotopia). This year, Survival Kit or Survival K(n)it, as it was titled for 2015, took over the former building of the Latvian National Library. Not all of the projects included in the 2015 festival were as politically overt as in previous years, as many ruminated on the nature of art and artistic spaces themselves.
The one critique that could be lodged at Survival Kit is that while it continues to engage with the question of the usage of empty space – once the festival is over, those spaces return to the Rīga real estate market (often with a high price tag attached). This is the irony of its purpose – it draws attention to these empty spaces and the impact of the economic crisis, but then once that attention is drawn, it becomes part of the economic engine of the city (When I left Rīga in the summer of 2015, the rents were continually increasing past the point of affordability for the city’s residents) and, it could be argued, no longer of benefit to the neighborhoods within which they exist (with the exception of those who can afford to live, work, and eat, in the now or soon to be trendy neighborhoods or districts).
The one critique that could be lodged at Survival Kit is that while it continues to engage with the question of the usage of empty space – once the festival is over, those spaces return to the Rīga real estate market (often with a high price tag attached).
This makes the work of Survival Kit fit into the problems presented by the American artist Rick Lowe (with Lee, 2015) – how to “be something outside of what it is and how do you get there again once it becomes what it is?” (p. 8) Is there any long-term benefit for the community (or building) with which the project engages? Does the artist or institution take the time to reflect and reconsider the process behind the work? Does the artist or institution plan to continue or reconnect with the project in any way, shape, or form (outside of publications)? Or, to borrow further from Lowe, at what level are they taking into account “the poetics of relationships” (2015, p. 12)?((Lowe defines the poetics of relationships as “Building relationships in new ways that people don’t normally do them. And that challenges us to see things differently” (2015, p. 12).)) I would argue that with Survival Kit and similar festivals and projects, while there is a goal of reconnection (through the continuity of the festival and its extended projects – like its work with Urban Institute) and, from the narratives in my interviews with LCCA, there has yet to be a move towards thinking about the “poetics of relationships”. There are also some problems that need to be addressed: “the what” that comes after, the “get there”, and the lack of long-term engagement with the communities where past festival projects were based, such as Sarkandaugava (where the Boļševiča Textile Factory is located).
There are other examples of similar projects in the Baltics that also interact with the same problems as encountered by Survival Kit, one of which is part of this year’s Kaunas Biennial –Vita Gelūnienė’s and Ed Carroll’s project Friendly Zone #6 – Cabbage Field, a Site Specific Land Reclamation Project. The project takes place outside of gallery walls and is situated in a neighborhood in Kaunas that used to be home to (at various times) a military base and a sauerkraut factory (hence the cabbage field). The artists worked in collaboration with community members in order to complete and realize the project. This particular aspect is on that the Biennial calls attention to in its description of the project:
For over a year Gelūnienė and Carroll worked on the cabbage field  with other collaborators. They had engaged the users of the site, collected their stories and visions, explored the potency of the ground and the needs of different groups of people. Over the last summer they have cleared and cleaned one of the military storage units. They are seeking a small scale physical transformation that will change the image and perception of the site from the negative and hopeless into a promising, creative community development space.
What is not clear is how the community benefited from their work with the artists or whether the artists were considered to have been “invited” by the neighborhood in order to engage in this type of effort.
Friendly Zone #6 contains the collaborative elements that are found in many socially engaged artistic projects – Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses comes to mind (Miranda, 2014), as well as Silvia Juliana Mantilla Ortiz’ Talk is Cheap: Unicorporated Language Laboratories, both of which require local community participation in order to be successful. Friendly Zone #6 theoretically aims to give its target neighborhood control over the project outcomes, not unlike Project Row Houses. According to the description provided by the Kaunas Biennial, the project is to continue after the Biennial closes. The artists (or at least the artists’ statements) hint to the possibility that Friendly Zone #6 will be taken over by the neighborhood’s residents, who will also guide its future. However, what is not clear is how the community benefited from their work with the artists or whether the artists were considered to have been “invited” by the neighborhood in order to engage in this type of effort. I would argue that since the project was created specifically for the Biennial, Friendly Zone #6 may have not occurred outside the auspices of a festival project application or invitation.
These types of “long-term” socially engaged projects, at least to my knowledge, are also few and far between in the Baltic States((As is the documentation of this type of work (see above), although Baltic-based scholars like Michelkevičė (2014) among others, are starting to fill in the gaps.)). And, not unlike Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument (which was located in a public housing project in New York, NY USA) and Theaster Gate’s Build|Rebuild (wherein which abandoned properties in Chicago’s Southside are repurposed with the goals of artistic and community engagement), there are valid critiques about the benefits and continual accessibility of the works. With the case of the Gramsci Monument, once it was taken down, there was no evidence that the sponsoring organization – Dia Arts Foundation – would continue to work with the neighborhood or the public housing project (even the website is no longer accessible)((In response to critiques of the Gramsci Monument, a Dia curator responded that Hirschhorn “(…) wanted to create a monument that didn’t burden anyone with the fascism of permanence (…) He wanted a monument that you could walk into and be inside” (Miranda, April 2014. http://www.artnews.com/2014/04/07/art-of-social-practice-is-changing-the-world-one-row-house-at-a-time/ ).)). As for Gate’s work, Build|Rebuild is by-appointment-only (with the exception of Stony Island Arts Bank which is free to the public during working hours), limiting the when and who can interact with the artists and work contained within (not to mention the limited socio-economic benefit to the surrounding neighborhood). The question with Friendly Zone #6 is if the community will continue on with the work after the closing of the Kaunas Biennial in December 2015, the project is actually mutually beneficial to the artists and the community, or the artists are the only ones who gain anything from the work. Ultimately, while such a project may aim to reach the same type of longevity and community connectivity (and respect) as, say Tania Bruguera’s Immigrant Movement International (an art project/community center in Queens, NY, USA that is still in operation) or Mel Chin’s Operation Paydirt/Fundred Dollar Bill (an ongoing lead contaminated soil project)((See: Miranda, 2014.)), it may ultimately fall short of those aims outside of the auspices of the Biennial.
There was little proof presented as to the benefit of a project like Totaldobže to the neighboring community – outside of possible real estate investment in the structure/complex itself, which is what eventually got Totaldobže kicked out of its VEF space.
Even those artist groups that intend to create an extended impact sometimes meet resistance from local or state authorities, such as Totaldobže’s (Rīga) and Polymer Art Factory’s (Tallinn) work with abandoned factory spaces, especially if the task is to occupy empty buildings solely for the artistic purposes of one artist or group. During my time in Rīga, there was little proof presented as to the benefit of a project like Totaldobže to the neighboring community – outside of possible real estate investment in the structure/complex itself, which is what eventually got Totaldobže kicked out of its VEF space (leaving the organization nomadic in structure). The building that Totaldobže once occupied in the VEF complex now only contains one art gallery/café and is instead promoted (by the VEF owners) as a creative quarter (in the same vein as Miera iela, Spīķeri, or Kalnciema Kvartāls – very much the trend in Rīga over the past few years) and space for cultural and creative industry (even though there are not many creative industry producers left with offices in the VEF complex).
The economic factor is also what can prevent artists from creating long-term socially engaged projects. The Baltic States, while they contain fast growing economies, are still not economically robust in comparison to their Scandinavian neighbors or some countries in Western Europe. For an artist to be fully devoted to creating socially-engaged work, they would need a well-paying job (or two) outside of their artistic practice or to be well-funded((Meaning that is the only artwork that they create, that they do not have separate pieces that they sell on the art market in order to support their socially engaged practice.)). This has also been commented upon by former head of Queens Museum Tom Finkelpearl (2012) who stated that both participatory and socially engaged art exist outside of the art market. While there is the possibility of state or European Union-based funding for socially engaged projects (especially if they are shown to have some sort of economic or social impact on the communities with which they engage) or sponsorship through the participation in a biennial or arts fair, they are not the types of artwork that can be sold on the art market (which, as another Estonian arts worker told me, is still in its nascent stages in the Baltics).
Economic capital is not the only barrier to the production of socially engaged work in the Baltic States. The viability and longevity of a socially engaged practice also relies on the support of the local arts community – institutions (including academies) and peers have to be open to socially engaged art and artists in order for it to be more visibly produced within and outside of the artistic sphere((None of the artists or artist-run spaces that I interviewed during my pilot research provided consent for their interviews to be used in this article.)). Outside of an annual festival like Survival Kit, the only two (more or less continuous) projects that I know of are the MoKS Artist Residency’s Artists-to-Schools Program, which is more of a museum education/teaching artist model, and a similar project in Võru – both in Estonia. Nida Art Colony in Lithuania flirted with the idea via the concept of art as activism (as part of participatory and socially engaged practices) through programming like Counterhegemony: Art in a Social Context. However, this was driven by an artist from outside of the organization and was part of a curated residency program((The language of the residency’s description was also highly academic (and even obtuse for this PhD) and did not allow for much openness to the general public in its activities (even though it had public programming – the tone and construction of the project description and marketing limited it to a specific audience). http://nidacolony.lt/en/residence/curated-residencies/counterhegemony-art-in-a-social-context )).
Earlier in this article, I posed the following set of questions with regards to socially engaged art (some following Lowe’s own provocations on the subject): Does socially engaged art in the Baltics manage to avoid the problems mentioned in the Open Engagement discussion or do they reproduce them directly or indirectly after the festival closes or the artist moves on to another project? Furthermore, is there any long-term benefit for the community (or building) with which the project engages? Does the artist or institution take the time to reflect and reconsider the process behind the work? While the examples that I provided (most notably Friendly Zone #6) aspire to deliver long-term benefits to their community partners – they have yet to demonstrate a sense of reflection (outside of grant reporting, perhaps) and reconnection. I also see these projects as not yet confronting the problematics that were raised at the Open Engagement discussion – instead they embody them.
I think there is still an opportunity to create work that can attempt to engage with these questions, as well as with Lowe’s (2015, with Lee) “poetics of relationships”. Going forward, I am particularly interested in how artists and arts institutions in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania converse with these poetics within a localized contextualization of socially engaged work – taking into account social-politics, economics, and historical circumstances. What type form do/could these conversations take and will/can they result in work(s) that fully involves their community-partners without exploitation or abandonment?
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_________. 2006. “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents”. Artforum, February.
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Miranda, Carolina A. 2014. How the Art of Social Practice is Changing the World, One Row House at a Time. ARTnews (Online Version), April 07. Accessed online at http://www.artnews.com/2014/04/07/art-of-social-practice-is-changing-the-world-one-row-house-at-a-time/ on May 15, 2015.
Rounthwaite, Adair. 2014. “Sanja Iveković, Marina Abramović, and the Global Politics of Authentic Experience”. Third Text, 471-87.
Lauren Monsein Rhodes’ views in this article are her own and do not represent the views held by Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), or The College of Architecture, Design and the Arts (CADA) at UIC.