Paulius Petraitis: I’m interested in identification. I have various roles, and emphasise different aspects depending on the situation, so identification is something that occasionally confuses me, and I wonder how you deal with it? You work successfully across various media, incorporating video, photographic, installation, sculptural and performative elements. How do you identify yourself as a practitioner, and is there a need to somehow identify?
Liga Spunde: Well, I’m also struggling with this, especially since I work in various media. It sometimes really confuses me how to classify myself. I feel this especially when applying for projects like residencies or funding, where they really want to profile you. It’s also related to commercial work and selling work, for then they don’t really know where to put you. At the same time, I think that art in general is so mixed nowadays that as an artist you don’t have to define yourself, or be attached to some actual medium.
PP: What role does photography play in your practice, and how has this role developed over time?
LS: I think photography is still very close to me, even though I’m not using it so often any more. My interest in photography was the reason I started doing art. For a long time, especially when I was a teenager, I was obsessed with taking pictures of everything. That’s also why I decided to pursue a professional art education. Back then, the only option to study photography was at Janis Rozentāls’ Riga Art School, which is a quite prestigious art college, specialising in figurative drawing and painting. So in order to learn photography, I had to learn how to draw and paint. Then my understanding of art expanded, and I began increasingly to experiment with other media. And I think I’m still doing it.
My relationship with photography is complicated. I wouldn’t call myself a photographer. But I still feel very close to photography as a medium, and also to the photography scene in Latvia. I still sometimes use photography in my work, taking pictures and using archive images. But my relationship is definitely different now to how it was at the beginning, when I was interested mostly in the depiction of reality.
PP: What you say about this interest in capturing a reality that has shifted is interesting. How would you characterise your interest in photography now? What does photography do for you?
LS: At one point, I realised that what interests me in photography is this phenomenon that it still sort of shows reality, the real appearance of something. Even if it’s made-up, or manipulated, somehow, it’s still a depiction of something real. I also started to use the made-up side of photography, arranging artificial scenes in a studio to express my feelings about something real; not how it looks, but how I feel about it. I found it fascinating that at the beginning photography was also a tool for evidence of a crime or identification. However, you can really manipulate it nowadays.
PP: Today photography is wide and hard to grasp. It operates in numerous ways, and is part of many cultural processes, so the question almost begs to be asked: what is it really? When one deals with AI-generated images, photogrammetry, or images that merely look like photographs, to mention just a few examples, an attempt at definition gets slippery. I feel there’s almost a nostalgia for a more straightforward documentary kind of photography that is less confusing. Perhaps the notion of the photographic could be helpful, for there is much in culture that is photographic, but not necessarily photography. Like in video games, for example.
LS: Yes, it’s a good subject to think about. It’s also related to this relationship between the fine arts and photography. In the latest review in FK magazine, professionals were asked about disappointments this year. One curator said that she was disappointed that photography is going beyond its borders and mixing with the fine arts, and that she really enjoys seeing ‘pure’ photography.
LS: Yes, and that also shows that people are looking for simplicity in photography.
PP: Going to your work more specifically, I would like to talk about storytelling. It seems that it is important for your practice, and not only storytelling, but also stories mixed with different elements to create an atmosphere. This atmosphere is quite palpable in your exhibitions. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
LS: I really like storytelling, specifically strange and unbelievable stories. I find it fascinating when reality is stranger than fiction. I use storytelling a lot. Basically, I retell stories, as I find it interesting to add to or deform reality a bit; not showing exactly what happened or how things looked; instead, I try to keep the essence of the truth, but interpret it in my way. That’s also why I use many references: to expand on the emotion. Sometimes I tell stories that are very personal. I see getting too personal as a big risk. Then probably it’s not so interesting for others, and might not always be relatable. Quite often, I use elements from pop culture, which helps to involve a wider audience, for they can relate better to an experience that is made more universal through the use of symbols and references. But that happens without changing the main storyline: I allow myself to change the characters and some actions, but not what’s most important.
PP: You mentioned the references operating in your work. Linking that with the notion of interdisciplinary photography, what I find rather interesting is that, as I’ve noticed, photography increasingly references wider culture. It’s used not as an image of something depicted there, but the image is a symbol for something outside the frame, what the spectator is, I guess, encouraged to decode. I think the ability to imagine and to link different cultural elements is quite useful when viewing contemporary photography. How do you feel about this notion of referencing and creating a fictionalised environment, which becomes a mixture of your personal story and various layers of elements from pop culture, literature, video games, etc?
LS: In my case, references also help me express my emotions and feelings more precisely. I’m from the generation that grew up with Disney and video games, and these things are already specific codes for emotions for me. For example, when someone talks about magic, I can immediately visualise the sparks in Disney. Following my memories and intuition, I use fictional characters in trying to find a very precise element or a gesture that might symbolise what I want to say. In some cases, they are already visual ready-mades. Probably how I use them is not so far from what is done in social networks, with the sending of gifts, which are meant to convey emotions. In that sense, it is fictional and not so fictional at the same time, because we already have these codes and know what they mean. In my case, the feeling behind fictionalised appearances is real, just visually it doesn’t look so real.
PP: Indeed. We can interpret visual symbols differently, but they probably work on some level for those who have seen it: for example the mirror in Disney’s Snow White, which you use in When Hell Is Full the Dead Will Walk the Earth. Do you feel that this recognition of something familiar enables viewers to engage better with the exhibition?
LS: That’s exactly what I mean. I think it helps. They have their stories behind them, those images. Quite often, these stories or emotions are quite similar, actually.
PP: I’m thinking about the discussion in philosophy that we have seen so many images that we tend to think visually: we remember in images to a significant degree more than before. This also relates to the fact that we have a rich repository of images and visuals, almost as if wired into our brain, ready to be summoned up at an instant.
LS: I can relate to that. That’s also how I find motifs for my projects. I try to think what it reminds me of, where I have seen something similar. And then a certain scene from a movie pops up in my mind, in which a feeling or a situation was kind of similar. Then I start to do some research on it, and discover new things.
PP: Maybe we could talk here about a related aspect: technology and the Internet. I feel these are interests that we share. When Hell Is Full the Dead Will Walk the Earth includes a reference to The Sims video game franchise. What role do visual technologies play in your everyday life?
LS: When I was growing up, the Internet had just arrived in our daily lives. I belong to the generation that, in this region, were some of the first to try forums and chat-rooms. My teenage years are really linked to this experience. Of course, it was not only nice. It was actually quite exciting, for as a young person you didn’t know what to expect, and you learned different things. The title When Hell Is Full the Dead Will Walk the Earth comes from rotten.com, which was a horror archive of pictures and various disgusting things. It was very popular, and, surprisingly, accessible for a very long time, until 2012. I grew up with that technology, and also photography, which was my first hobby, although at the time I believed that art photography could only be analogue, of course. But then I got over it. I think technologies play a big role in my everyday life. I spend so much time on the computer, both because I work with various digital applications and software, but also because I communicate that way, and spend my time reading things online.
PP: What’s your relationship with video games today?
LS: These days, I don’t play video games that much. But when I was a teenager, I really played a lot. The Sims was one of my favourite games. I find it fascinating, because it’s also a life-simulation game. It’s really interesting that after some time the game becomes so boring that the only entertainment left is to kill the avatars. Everyone has done it. For some reason you don’t feel any empathy, because life there is super-boring. Also, the existence of all the cheat codes … Somehow, I think it’s also symbolic. At least in the project When Hell Is Full the Dead Will Walk the Earth, the point to use The Sims was an interest in life simulation gone wrong.
PP: You talk about When Hell Is Full the Dead Will Walk the Earth, but I guess that could also apply to your latest project There’s No Harm In Any Blessings, specifically the real-life story of David Vetter.
LS: That’s a very complex and tragic case. I wouldn’t really dare to speculate if David wasn’t there in that completely sterile isolator, were he alive. Most likely not, because he had such a disease (severe combined immunodeficiency) that he couldn’t live without that environment. So on one hand, I understand this decision. But of course, the fact that he lived there 12 years, and not a few months, as was originally predicted, really changed a lot. It’s also a technology, but a different one. In his case, it’s complicated, since it was a question of life and death. It’s really hard to make any comments. I also don’t envy his parents, who made the decision. It’s really tough. But the aspect of life in complete isolation is very thought provoking, especially in the current times. When I started to read a book about him, I learned a lot of interesting things: for example, that the closed bubble environment he was in really impacted his perception. He thought that things were flat because he saw them from only one angle. He was also not familiar with the concept of wind, for example, things that seem normal to us.
PP: What was the process of connecting David Vetter’s story with your personal story? The two are quite closely interlinked in the project.
LS: Actually, I was struggling to connect them. I’m lucky, as I didn’t have the kind of experience he did, and I never had such serious health issues. It was hard for me to dare to connect those two stories, but the angle I could take was through my experience of over-protection. Experiencing actions in the name of love that are probably not logical, or a bit extreme. In my case, I remember once when my mother took me to stand for sixteen hours during the night to see the Theotokos of Tikhvin, which is one of the most celebrated Orthodox Christian icons. She insisted on it, wanting to make sure that my life would be successful. You know, it won’t do any harm to see that icon. It sounds a bit crazy, but we did, and it was fine. That made me think about this duality, when the intentions are good but the results are not so good, or not what you wanted. When you want something good but actually do something bad is an issue for me. In David Vetter’s case, of course, I can’t say that they did something bad; but obviously he was not lucky with his life, living in his bubble, and it couldn’t have gone further, because he couldn’t live there.
PP: What is your way of working from one project to the other: is your schedule largely based on exhibitions planned? And how do you generate ideas?
LS: I usually work on projects connected with exhibitions. I expect this may change, as I now have a studio for the first time. I feel I can come here and work without an attachment to any actual project. The question about generating ideas is complicated. I try to use what has a strong emotional impact on me, because that also helps me to invest in it. It kind of guarantees my personal involvement in the project, since talking about something I’m emotionally connected with becomes really important. I’ve also done projects which were probably more intellectual, and less linked with emotions or personal stories, but more formal. But in the last few years, I feel that projects in which I can really get involved with all my heart and which involve personal stories are also, somehow, more successful.
PP: Do you feel vulnerable in the process of exposing personal stories? I’m thinking, for example, about When Hell Is Full the Dead Will Walk the Earth, where it was an event in the company where your sister was working. You don’t give all the details about exactly what happened, and, of course, I can only speculate or guess, but there’s this implication that this personal event deeply affected you and your family. Do you feel there is an element of vulnerability, and does that also help, in terms of realising a project, or making it, as you say, successful?
LS: Well, of course, it’s very sensitive for me to work with these personal stories. That’s also one of the reasons why I have chosen a strategy of interpreting these events. I invent new characters, new environments and situations to play out the storyline with different characters. I think that really helps me to create distance, and for it to not become too personal. I’m quite aware of this strategy. It’s my way of dealing with it. Otherwise, it’s too personal and sensitive.
PP: Could you say that these projects then become, in a way, at least, therapeutic?
LS: Yes, definitely. I don’t do it on purpose, but in the end, when I’ve been working on an issue for so long, and looking at the issue from all possible angles, and playing it out with different characters and so on, I feel I’ve had enough and can kind of let go.
PP: This is a bit of a side topic, but I remember when I was doing an MA in Stockholm and was struggling with photography, I felt that my old style, which was more diaristic, I was mostly shooting friends and scenes from everyday life, was changing, and yet a new approach had not yet formed. And I did a project where I had a notebook, and instead of taking photographs I wrote them down, noting the date, what happened, and if it was horizontal or vertical. It was a personal and therapeutic project that really helped me to accept the change.
LS: It sounds really nice.
PP: I felt that it was helpful and necessary, this diary of a struggle.
LS: Actually, it’s an interesting point. When I was giving an artist talk at the ISSP school there was a moment when I realised that my ongoing interest in reality, although in the latest projects it is manifested mostly through facts or stories, is probably something I took from my early experience with photography. It’s not the image, but the very basic essence of a fact, like the short texts you wrote down.
PP: I feel that even for artists who transitioned to contemporary art, but were formerly photographers, or trained as photographers, the photographic logic or language in many cases remains relevant. I can occasionally recognise this logic operating.
In a group interview for ‘Latvian Photography’ in 2018, you said that ‘We don’t work as artists, we work to be artists.’ That statement encapsulates quite well the precariousness of cultural workers and artists today. In the last two years, your work has received several acknowledgements: an art scholarship from the State Culture Capital Foundation of Latvia in 2020, When Hell Is Full the Dead Will Walk the Earth was acquired for the collection of the Latvian National Museum of Art, and recently you were nominated for the Purvitis Prize. How has that changed your situation, especially financial, and do you feel your career is now at a different stage to where it was two years ago?
LS: That’s a nice question. I have gained a certain recognition, which helped me with publicity, especially in non-art circles. This year, I can afford to rent a studio, even without the scholarship. The museum has acquired my work, so now I have some savings; but in general, I don’t think this somehow solved the overall situation of being an artist. In an interview with Purvitis Prize nominees, I was asked if Latvia is friendly to young artists. Part of the problem is that Latvia is especially friendly to young artists, but it is really hard to continue your practice when you’re not considered young any more. And at the age of 35, you’re not old. There’s no system or structure for long-term support. It was the first year we had a chance to apply for this art scholarship. During that one year, I was able to do a lot of things, but the year is over. I’m kind of back to reality. A year is too short to really become stable. And I don’t feel that I became really established. I still need to work a lot.
PP: Including side-jobs?
LS: Yes, I teach and freelance. Actually, most established Latvian artists still have other jobs. I don’t know what would have to happen to really make it possible to work as an artist. I’m quite worried about this dynamic: when you’re young, you’re interesting, but you’re not when you’re not so young. It’s hard to keep up this interest. Luckily, now I’m at the point where I’m still interesting, but I don’t know for how long.
PP: There’s this rather cynical saying that ‘You’re as interesting as your latest project.’
LS: That’s a good one. I’ll remember it.
PP: I’d like to talk a bit about community. You’ve already said that you’re part of the Latvian system, as a cultural and societal system, but also a capitalist system that offers certain opportunities. Do you feel a sense of community in Riga? What is it like being a young artist in Latvia?
LS: It’s a small community. The art scene is lively, but small. Everyone is applying to the same foundation, so we all expect to get funding from the same source. It becomes a bit competitive in that sense, but not too much. There are really nice artist-run spaces. But we still don’t have a contemporary art museum, which is a big issue and a shame.
I think artists here, in general, are ready to work a lot, and also to invest in projects without getting paid. They are able and ready to do great things. Some of the initiatives you can see prove that. People are also connected globally. But sometimes I have this feeling that you are often only considered a noteworthy artist here when you’re also successful abroad. This makes the situation more complex. So the way to survive in a local context is to go abroad. And that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot.
PP: I also wanted to touch on the collaborative aspect of your practice. You quite often collaborate with artists, writers and actors. David Vetter is also, in a way, a collaborator. What does collaboration do for you? Do you feel it is somehow different than doing your own individual thing, or is it more practical, that you need a certain different skill, and therefore you work with someone who has it?
LS: I think it’s both. Sometimes I have ideas that I can’t realise myself. Then I’m really happy to invite my friends. Of course, when I invite them, I take into account the fact that they will also bring something of themselves to a project: it’s not only technical help, it’s collaboration in this sense. I enjoy collaborating with them, and luckily, they happen to be actors, filmmakers, musicians, and, of course, other artists. This network also helps to start new collaborations and projects together with young creative professionals, like in my latest project There’s No Harm In Any Blessings.
PP: Does collaborating interest you as a part of the process of storytelling? In other words, is it a way to share the story and involve other people, allowing others to have a voice in the process of telling? It’s still your story, but other people seem to add their own voices, and it becomes a bit more polyphonic.
LS: Definitely. In my case, I invite other people, so I ask them to put their voice into my story. But that’s actually what I look forward to when I collaborate. Especially with text. Occasionally, I write myself, but I really enjoy it when someone else tells my story in their words. Sometimes I’m even surprised how it turns out. For example, in the case of What’s a Girl Like You Doing In a Place Like This, the text tells a story that is completely fictional. I wrote down certain things that I needed to include in the story, but I had no idea it would end up in a kind of detective story. The part with the fridge was completely made up, but I was really happy with how my friend who wrote it managed to interpret it. So other voices are something I enjoy adding to my practice.
PP: How are your current and future plans shaping your practice? Do they point you towards new territories and in new directions?
LS: Yes, I think so. I like to see forthcoming projects as a chance to realise my ideas in unexpected ways. I really enjoy exploring new directions, techniques and solutions. That’s one of my favourite things when it comes to being an artist, to keep discovering. I’m currently preparing an exhibition for the 427 Gallery in Riga, which will happen this spring. And now again I have an urge to try out new materials and bother my friends to do something exciting together.