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“Conditions for Contemporary Culture. Riga” – Essays by Twenty Remarkable Northern European Authors in a Book Devoted to Riga

Photograph by Andrejs Strokins

“Megaphone Publishers” have published a bilingual book of essays “Mūsdienu kultūras stāvokļi / Conditions for Contemporary culture. Riga”. One of the active members of the publishing team is Inga Karlštrēma, Master’s student at the Art Academy of Latvia.

The book Conditions for Contemporary Culture. Riga tries to identify and analyze the conditions underlying the development of contemporary culture and civic society. During the production of this publication, an interdisciplinary space for the exchange of thoughts was created allowing to gain better understanding in the structure of this society, its potential, strengths and weaknesses and to understand how these qualities could be used in a positive way to support further development within the age of knowledge and cultural economics.

Editor-in-chief of the book is an architect Oskars Redbers. He has assembled twenty different authors who have devoted their work to Riga and Latvia and therefore have come across and experienced the most common and topical issues of this place.

Although these authors represent different fields of study, all of them have previously expressed independent, critical and well-grounded views in the mass media about the concept of culture, models of social relations, historic notions and interpretations as well as other issues which influence society’s overall understanding of culture therefore having a strong impact on its further development.

The book begins with two essays written by semiotician Sergejs Kruks, namely, “Culture” which discusses the concept of culture and its interpretation in Latvia, and “Cultural Canon” which once again confirms the author’s conclusion that the contemporary concept of Latvian culture is held hostage by romantic discourse, ignoring the social, political and economic reality that has created it.

In his essay on the development of Latvian culture, historian Kaspars Kļaviņš draws attention to the problems related to Latvian identity and self-confidence deriving from the existing controversial stereotypes that Latvians apply to their history, values, meaning and place in the world. These stereotypes not only prevent Latvian society from building an awareness of their mission but also stimulate their segregation and timidity in the international context, accounting for both a disdainful attitude to anything that is new and creative as well as a lack of civic activism. Psychotherapist Viesturs Rudzītis sees the acceleration of stereotypes as an escape from our fear. As a doctor, Rudzītis also analyses dependent systems in Latvian society, and explains how they were created and formed on the level of both state and municipal governments.

In his essay “Why is Riga Bigger than Latvia?” historian Leons Taivāns outlines the most significant issues encountered by Riga, struggling to become the capital of the nation-state while being an ambitious European city with long traditions and a history of multiculturalism.

Urban theorist Krzysztof Nawratek continues to analyze the relationship between the city and the state by discussing the future opportunities of the city. In the essay “Territory, Autonomy and Provisional Revolution: How to Survive in the 21st Century” Nawratek argues that the days when cities were treated as political ideas are numbered and that new alternatives to free market should be found. He urges modern states to experiment with their local autonomy for the common good. Whereas, in the essay “Contemporary Capitalism and a Post-socialist City: the Bankruptcy of Neo-liberal Riga”, Nawratek indicates the restrictions of the existence of a neo-liberal model in the European Union and the necessity to assess the unique potential of Riga as an Eastern European city with a spatial and social structure characteristic to post-socialist cities. The author believes that the only reason we are not yet ready to use this potential is because of a substantial lack of political vision.

Researcher of social and political development Andrejs Berdņikovs also encourages social experimentation stating that it is necessary to find new and innovative ways and alternative approaches to reform society in order to deal with the challenges that the world faces today, to overcome the global economic crisis and other risks and dangers of the 21st century, i.e. the rapidly ageing population and threats related to the existing models of social services and inevitability of increased migration. Migration expert Aija Lulle elaborates on the subject of the liveable place and transnational mobility, arguing that such simplified contrasting descriptions as ‘here and there’ or ‘emigrants and stayers’ should be avoided when referring to migration. She points out that mobility is one of the most striking phenomena in Latvia in the 21st century and that mobile lives require a new mobile way of thinking.

Photograph by Andrejs Strokins

Anthropologist Vieda Skultāns writes about the experience of Latvian political emigration after World War II which in some respects relates to the contemporary experience of those Latvian citizens who are considered to be economic migrants, e.g. in the sense of Otherness they may feel not only while being in a new country, but also when returning to their homeland.

The book also questions the role of the media in society and politics. In his essay “Propaganda, Disinformation and Latvia” Finnish journalist Jukka Rislakki talks about misleading information about Latvia and Latvians expressed in the Eastern and Western mass media, arguing that such disinformation not only damages the country’s image in the eyes of the international community, but also causes greater fragmentation within Latvian society. Rislakki also discusses the critical situation in the Latvian mass media and the propagation of various prejudices in a certain range of local media.

Anthropologist Viesturs Celmiņš writes about the existence of local culture and everyday life in two temporalities: in one case, the present is seen through a prism of factual, successive, decisive historical events, while in the other – it is the mundane, unremarkable and flowing present that is emphasized. Celmiņš underlines that the clash of these two temporalities is inevitable in Riga and that this kind of interaction is necessary because, unlike the state, the city exists in a more ambiguous nation-space, in a united flow of two seemingly contradicting temporalities. In this clash of two temporalities unity is constantly challenged by diversity where the Unknown and the Different are not outside, but inside the nation.

Otherness is the central topic in the essay “On the Limits of Otherness. Intimate Reflections on Ethnicity and Memory in Contemporary Latvia” by the cultural theorist and communications science specialist Deniss Hanovs who refers to the permanent presence of Otherness in Latvian society. Memories associated with nationalities cause the emergence of Otherness, while public and political discourses contribute to its strengthening. The author admits that the creation of a new collective memory, characterised by the diversity of memory and acceptance of Otherness is probably the most challenging task for the contemporary Latvian society.

Researcher of politics and philosophy of economics Xavier Landes provides a critical view on the phenomena of multiculturalism, its various forms and practices in different countries of the world.

The book also gives a brief insight into the challenges encountered by architecture and art as forms of culture, which have had a historically important role. In his essay “Tradition and the Ecstasy of Newness”, architect Juhani Pallasmaa shows that the obsession with artistic uniqueness and thematic or formal invention is clearly associated with the capitalist consumption doctrine and that the criteria it has set have precluded art and architecture from focusing on the quest for the existential meaning of the human race.

In his essay “The Sense of Architecture”, architect and art historian Alexander Rappaport (Александр Раппапорт) also notes that architecture, as for material culture, is losing its true sense and is becoming more and more neutral in regards to both anthropological and human values.

Poet Guntars Godiņš believes that it is also the information itself, which has now become a medium between truth and lies.

In his essay “Three memory images of Riga” art historian Hans Lepp recalls the time when the Scandinavians had hardly any idea about Riga or Latvia and when information about the Baltic States in schools was very limited.  Lepp sees Riga as a dynamic city with significant future potential, but which unfortunately has been forced to ‘keep silent’ for a very long time.

An important role in this publication is given to five photo essays, each of which reveal the relationships and interaction between people and the environment they surround. These photo essays were created by contemporary Latvian photographers Arnis Balčus, Aivars Siliņš, Andrejs Strokins and Reinis Hofmanis – authors, whose works uncover and analyse social aspects and aspects of cultural landscape.

Photograph by Andrejs Strokins

The photos included in this publication reveal different aspects of Latvian society and their interaction with the public space of the city both in everyday situations and more festive settings. Some of the photos demonstrate the contrast between those settings and the symbolic meaning of the surrounding architecture as well as the juxtaposition between the existing post-socialist landscape and social processes.

Leons Taivāns, a professor at the University of Latvia, shares his opinion on the book “Mūsdienu kultūras stāvokļi / Conditions for Contemporary culture. Riga”:„In the era of deconstruction, this project does the opposite – it constructs. In my opinion, that is a good thing. Besides it constructs something new. The professional discussions which were held within the framework of this project proved that absolutely nothing in Latvia has a concept. Not even in my profession as an Eastern researcher. We do not have a concept of country, we do not have an economic concept, we do not have a concept of foreign policy, and we do not have a historical concept. We do not have any concepts. Not even a single one! And I believe that this book can help us to determine and develop the concept of Latvia in accordance with the rules of modern era – with the rules of the 21st century.”

Deniss Hanovs, a professor at the Riga Stradiņš University gives his opinion on the book: “Polyphony in the process of research is related to the ability of academic staff to rise above the restrictions and prohibitions of political discourse. The main problem of Latvian scientific discourse is its institutional inability to perceive the interdisciplinary as a dialogue of disciplines rather than just a ‘mixture of genres’ and unfortunate definition of subsectors; as a noun rather than an adjective. Interdisciplinarity should become the strategic space of sovereign sectors. This project is not just a book. The debates which are part of this project provide food for thought. They invite readers to think about the direction in which the scientific community of Latvia is heading.”

The book can be purchased at „Jānis Roze”, „Jāņa sēta” and other bookstores, online at www.karsuveikals.lv [1] or by contacting Megaphone Publishers.