Ecological themes are rightly pervading our current discourse, as the latest climate report from the The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change exposes just how vulnerable we are due to human-induced climate change. The growing popularity of the Extinction Rebellion, Guerilla Gardening, Urban Farming trends and living “Green” are testament to the everyday practice of environmental consciousness at the level of the individual as the Anthropocene is felt more often in aspects of our IRL and URL existence – from memes lambasting an apparent return to nature (#natureishealing, #wearethevirus) in the wake of our current pandemic – to wildfires, heatwaves and floods permeating the current news cycle, illustrating things to come.
Land (or Earth) Art emerging in the 1960’s and 70’s provided the possibilities of interventions in the natural landscape, coinciding with countless “Green” socio-political movements emerging worldwide, and building on ancient traditions of marking out semiotic narratives in nature for spiritual and cultural purposes. This perhaps best culminated in pioneer Environmental Artist Agnes Denes (Dénes Ágnes; born 1931, Budapest) famously planting and harvesting a field of wheat on landfill rubble near Wall Street in 1982 in Lower Manhattan (then) worth $4.5 billion, creating a powerful paradox between our agrarian past and aggressively capitalist present. Most Australians my generation and older know of Latvian-Australian photographer Peter(is) Dombrovskis’ ethereal photograph of the Franklin River in Tasmania, its immense popularity ultimately leading to the majestic river’s protection against a controversial dam project from 1979. Dombrovskis was mentored by Lithuanian-Australian conservationist and photographer Olegas Truchanas, and it was these two nature-loving Baltic immigrants to Australia who introduced me as a young nature-loving art student to the power of art in transmuting the sublime into an ecological (and conservational) framework.
Arguably the most poignant environmentally themed work in recent times though is the operatic performance piece Sun & Sea (Marina) by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė for the Lithuanian pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale. The Golden-Lion awarded piece, curated by Lucia Pietroiusti – who is also the founder of General Ecology at the Serpentine Galleries, London, has now begun touring, and special focus has been on the carbon neutrality of the tour. Such a focus enables us to set new precedents for what are carbon-heavy logistical feats that are rarely discussed, let alone addressed in the art world and society at large.
So, why does there seem to be a plethora of talented contemporary artists and projects emerging out of the Baltic region whose work operates to examine radical new ecological futures out of the ruins of the Soviet era – physically, culturally and metaphorically? As a relative newcomer to the region, the historical development of Environmental Art in the Baltics is better surmised by others, but what an outsider can observe is an intricate understanding of place, people and the canons of both Eastern and Western European art. The February 2020 Anthropocene Issue of Estonian Art Magazine is a fascinating overview of ecological art in contemporary Baltic art, with a nod to its past. This historical context is best described in a conversation between curators Inga Lāce and Heidi Ballet, whose research and curatorial practice often places art and ecology in critical dialogue. While the motivations of environmental protests in the Soviet-era Baltic region ranged from xenophobic fears of losing demographic balance to migrant workers from elsewhere in the Soviet Union, to a genuine fear of environmental degradation, some came as a general opposition to the Soviet occupation as a whole. As Ballet explains, “an ecological protest is in principle apolitical, so it was a relatively safe way to gather and criticise the government.” Lāce elaborates that the “pollution” associated with ecological concerns was conflated with an overall social movement of sustained discontent with the USSR occupation of the Baltics. Latvia established an Environmental Protection Club (EPC) as other green movements of the 1980s-1990s such as Žemyna (the goddess of the earth) were established in Lithuania in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. A “Green” club Atgaja (Revival) was formed in 1987 resisting the plans of the USSR Ministry of Energy to operate oil wells in the Baltics off the shores of the Curonian Spit, while the so-called Phosphorite War in Estonia in 1987 became another example of the various veils of ecological concerns mixed with socio-political and economic power-plays common in the genealogy of Baltic environmental movements.
Current day Baltic communities affected by economic disparity plaguing the region post-independence will likely find little place for environmental issues as a major priority in everyday life, yet simultaneously be employing age-old eco-practices for purely economical purposes and as a cultural practice. Agrarian agricultural activity continues in the abundant swathes of forest and farmland of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, as does glasshouse permaculture, the drying of herbs and the practice of pickling & preserving to survive the long winter months. This comes perhaps down to the nature-conscious remnants of a quiet yet persisting pagan culture that survived the northern crusades, the reformation period, and centuries of a variety of occupying powers. The Baltic Sea was a wartime dumping ground up until as recently as the Cold War, and despite an effort by Nordic-Baltic states to clean it (The Helsinki Convention), a quarter of the Sea is deemed a variable dead zone. There remains a risk to the biodiversity of this region, and not only due to climate change, as heat records are broken all over the European continent (and worldwide) this Summer, while Latvia’s water quality is rapidly deteriorating due to human behaviour. Malpractice, such as the lack of centralised sewerage systems, along with outdated forms of nepotistic governance and the effects of the two decade long “brain-drain” in the Baltics bring with it threats to progressive environmental policy across the region. All of this comes as the economic and socio-cultural effects of the ongoing pandemic are only beginning to be processed. There is, however, a new generation of ecologically minded artists emerging out of the malaise of post-soviet system collapse, the assembly of nascent democratic governance, and with it, an unbridled leap into Western capitalist society.
Decades of peace-time art and cultural policy with regards to environmental themes has combined art with science, with successful mergings sometimes few and far between. In forcing science and art to become bedfellows, ultimately artists are widely seen in these contexts as expected to provide didactic illustrations of scientists’ empirical research data, and in doing so become a mere tool in the kit of corporate scientific endeavour. Still, funding is abundant, especially in the EU, and enabling artist-scientist cooperation and collaboration remains a fruitful exercise that will (and should) continue. This year saw the inaugural International Art Triennial Unpredictable Futures, organised by the Lithuanian Artists’ Association at the Molėtai Regional Museum and Lithuanian Museum of Ethnocosmology near Molėtai north of Vlinius, showing the work of 60 artists and art researchers. Standing out is promising Lithuanian artist Rūta Spelskytė, whose 20-year old parachute, cocooned to a pupal case and hung inside the dome of Molėtai observatory, fuses human narratives with animals, place, geography, and the elements of life. Partially funded by the Lithuanian Culture Council, this new triennial proves that these initiatives are in demand and growing more diverse – and relevant both to a wider audience, and equally to creative practitioners.
Lauka pētījumi or Fieldworks in Cēsis, Latvia is another new example in the Baltics exploring human-nature relationships under the umbrella of scientific cooperation. An initiative organised by the Institute for Environmental Solutions, curator Aleksejs Beļeckis transformed a former barn of the famous Cēsis castle into a space for ongoing experimental art featuring largely Baltic practitioners from a wide gamut of disciplines including dance, video, performance and ongoing interventions. One notable performance is the adapted and deconstructed work Void Within Reach by Ieva Krish, the Latvian/Lithuanian performance art duo of Krišjānis Sants and Ieva Gaurilčikaite whose captivating processual and collaborative performance and installation involves several performers over 50 days, fusing the human body with swathes of harvested timber. Estonian artist and designer Sandra Kosorotova and Latvian artist Linda Boļšakova’s collaboration in this exhibition marked their first (and hopefully not last) work together, and whose respective practice in general aims at a tactile engagement with plants and the natural non-human universe. The local and site-specific elements in their respective materials and processes act to root their practice in questions of place, belonging – and border on being defined as forms of ecofeminism and ecovention. Boļšakova often places her body or the spectators presence as an ontological framework, a “catalyst” within natural settings, from rewilding sites in the vestiges of former industry, to creating biozone installations and encouraging hybridisation and forms of genetic biodiversity – in stark contrast to the monoculture of modern agriculture. Her work Semina futuri (seed of the future), originally produced for the the 2020 Sculpture Quadrennial Riga and now housed at the National Botanical Garden of Latvia in Salaspils, draws attention to a need for tender interplay amongst species – away from a patriarchal Darwinian-esque view of strength above all and hyper-individualism, all through a poetic and informative narrative of rare orchid species.
Kosorotova works sensitively with a range of textiles and natural dye processes, using foraged plants and flora from their local origin to bind people and place, culture and community. With projects that include weaving and natural dyeing workshops, performances and establishing community gardens, her recent foraged-herbs package WEEDS FEED! – fuses self care with environmental care in a post-capitalist society. Both of these innovative and engaging approaches come to a region still unpacking its past legacies, and how better than through the elements of shared ritual, community sustenance, weaving and binding past and present through the natural. Kosorotova and Boļšakova are both well-versed in collaboration between various parties, and individual municipalities and institutions taking a strategic and financial interest in forward-thinking creative initiatives is a wholeheartedly positive outcome in supporting the role of the arts in fostering environmental and ecological awareness.
In addition to offering solutions and alternatives that emphasise sustainability and biodiversity, there are other, nuanced ways in which the arts can play a notable role in unpacking the effects of the Anthropocene. One such way is a unique 37 hectare territory between Dūķi and Jaundrusti in Latvia; a sprawling, vast nature area with meadows, bogs, forests and overgrown residential ruins. Founded by acclaimed Latvian artist Andris Eglītis, who is no stranger to employing natural materials and motifs in his work: the project, Savvaļa / Savage is now in its latest iteration, or “season”, with a new web platform and 12 new commissions. Despite the dubious sound of the name to post-colonial ears, the term is perhaps being fittingly reclaimed by a generation of Latvians whose pagan ancestors were deemed such by colonisers. Broadening its scope and ambition in its latest incarnation, Savage promises to be a progressional experience, with artists operating as a mediator in bringing the public into close contact with natural phenomena in what is a kind of art-nature park, with artworks reworked and remixed over time and seasons in a mimetic gesture of natural forces.
At NIDA Art Colony (NAC) in coastal Lithuania a herd of 26 Skudde breed sheep belonging to Lithuanian artist Laura Garbštienė (Verpėjos) are being brought in for the duration of summer and early autumn seasons this year to reside in the forests and deforested areas in Nida, located on The Curonian Spit, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Sheep will inhabit the landscape, graze, and become cohabitants in this structure of protected wildlife, tourism, forestry management, and cultural practice – with the ability for artists and researchers to care for the sheep in the form of a “shepherd’s residency”. While it remains to be seen whether runemerating artists less than an equitable minimum wage to operate as both a primary and cultural producer can obtain meaningful and lasting results, the intention here is certainly noble – and a refreshingly radical one.
The Bambi Project is a new curatorial initiative by Šelda Puķīte at Kogo Gallery in Tartu, Estonia where artists spanning the Baltic region were invited into an online book club to read and respond to Felix Salten’s evocative animal tale Bambi, a Life in the Woods – contemplating how this evocative story of a young deer connects with their personal experiences, environmental awareness and a reconnection with nature in the post-human. The subsequent exhibition features a range of ecological approaches intertwined with personal histories and Salten’s fantasy narrative – best known from Disney’s iconic animated film adaptation, Bambi (1942). Works include an installation of shamanic instruments, deer blood powder, milkweed poison and hunting implements by aforementioned artist Rūta Spelskytė, and a woodcut from a digital drawing by talented Latvian multimedia artist Līga Spunda depicting Bambi and his “forest friends” – cunningly framed inside bulletproof glass.
Other recent examples include the latest inception of the Baltic Triennial (BT14) in Vilnius, which touched briefly on the ecological with the presence of the ominously transcending works of Lithuanian artist Emilija Škarnulytė at the central exhibition at CAC, and a written reference by the curators to the comprehensive and informative narrative work on the two nuclear reactors imposed on Lithuania as part of Soviet colonisation NUCLEAR ASSEMBLY by influential artist/architect duo Jurga Daubaraitė & Jonas Žukauskas. The duo, like their contemporary, Aistė Ambrazevičiūtė, uses an architectural methodology to examine interdisciplinary material and spatial practices related to ecological phenomena. Together with NIDA Art Colony director Egija Inzule, Daubaraitė & Žukauskas have initiated a unique program at NAC called Neringa Forest Architecture. Spanning 2020–2022 and acting as both a residency & research program aimed at a range of sectors, from policy makers to artists to scientists, the project centers around the material cycle of growing, harvesting, natural drying and processing of timber logged in the forests of the Curonian Spit. The initiative marks an exciting interdisciplinary and intersectoral cooperation that equally represents healthy forms of hyper-locality in times of increasing walls and borders. This, and the projects before it are examples that a full generation later, colonial and patriarchal histories – through ecological narratives – are being slowly dissected, disassembled, and the roots laid bare in order to heal and move forward.
Community gardens are a form of ecological intervention that work to build (or repair) a sense of community in the face of hyper-individual Western liberal values, a radical statement in the post-soviet diaspora of the Baltics. This is especially felt in cities and villages whose diasporic ties with the former Motherland find themselves caught between boundaries of citizenship, language, place and ultimately, belonging. Kreenholm Garden is one such community garden project located at the NART residency in Narva, Estonia; a residency program with a focus on youth community programs that are led by resident artists. Aforementioned artist Sandra Kosorotova founded Kreenholm with fellow Estonian artist Sille Kima who both tend it in cooperation with both the residency and community at large. In this location at the physical and metaphorical divide between the EU and Russian border, the ritual practices of gardening, dyeing/weaving and botany thus become a cipher for the joining of new (and old) cultures, as well as repairing community and promoting social inclusion – including female access to traditionally male-dominated public spaces. Here, a dye plant-bed and workshop was recently initiated by Karolina Janulevičiūtė, a young Lithuanian artist and fashion designer, as well as a series of workshops with natural materials conducted by versatile Latvian artist Vineta Gailite. This initiative and the NART project as a whole in Narva proves itself a viable test case at community-driven ecological intervention and demonstration of nonviolent coexistence with nature as a healing, therapeutic act, and it is a thoroughly Baltic affair.
These artists and initiatives are just the tip of the melting iceberg, as the need for radical ecological intervention grows ever-more immediate in all forms of daily life and culture at large. Ecological radicalism emerges in the urban and suburban environments of vacant lots, the rapidly dilapidated buildings built by unskilled soldier labour, and out of the physical and metaphysical vestiges of corrupt and jailed oligarchs of past and present. Baltic cultural producers are sowing seeds between the cracks among these unlikely ruins, demonstrating our greatest gift on this green planet by providing a simple guiding hand in allowing things to grow, and by doing so, producing natural wonder. Unlike the generation before them, whose concern for their environment and ecology came with more immediate concerns of removing their coloniser, this new wave are hyper-connected, cross-institutional collaborators, who recognise this is as a global crisis as much as a local one. And, despite the prevalence of fleeting eco-trends in the malaise of the post-digital, the practitioners I have mentioned are demonstrably committed to forms of tangible, long-term engagement with the ecological. Like the pioneering environmental artists before them, these talented contemporary artists and cultural producers possess a practice that is not easy to define, lest pigeon-hole. With a vast array of training in a myriad of crafts, trades and modes of production, they reveal to us the possibilities of ecological revolution as we hurtle toward a hot mess of sharp edges and hyper-individualism in the Age of “You” – emphasising that a return to natural processes need not be a de-evolution, nor a step backwards, but rather, a radical step toward new futures.
 According to their official website: “Extinction Rebellion is a decentralised, international and politically non-partisan movement using non-violent direct action and civil disobedience to persuade governments to act justly on the Climate and Ecological Emergency.” https://rebellion.global/about-us/ Accessed 8.8.21
 According to the Community Law Center (USA), Guerrilla gardening is growing or cultivating on land that belongs to another, without the landowner’s permission. Usually, guerrilla gardeners choose land that has been abandoned, vacant or is otherwise unused, drawing attention to long-term speculation (common in the Baltic countries). Guerrilla gardening is technically against the law in a majority of countries and represents a “civil trespass” against the land of the landowner.
Community Law Center, Inc, Maryland, USA: https://communitylaw.org/urbanagriculturelawproject/guerrilla-gardening-trespass/ Accessed 12.8.21
 These two hashtags refer to the 2020 viral fake news phenomenon and meme series where outdated photos of dolphins and other aquatic life photographed in Venice canals were falsely attributed to reduced human activity due to the Covid-19 pandemic (#natureishealing), and the belief that the Corona virus is nature’s vaccine for human-kind (#wearethevirus). For online genealogy, see here: https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/the-dolphins-have-returned-to-italy-nature-is-healing, https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/we-are-the-virus
 Denes’ artwork, titled Wheatfield – A Confrontation was deemed “one of Land Art’s great transgressive masterpieces” (Art Forum, September 2018) http://www.agnesdenesstudio.com/works7.html Accessed 28.5.21
 Pietroiusti elaborates in a recent interview with Aoife Donnellan: “Carbon neutrality, regenerative or reparative actions: these are avenues that we aspire to with the tour of ‘Sun & Sea,’ and ones that we discuss with every inviting institution.” Aoife Donnellan (2021) Art & Ecology: An Interview with Lucia Pietroiusti, Berlin Art Link, August 6, 2021. https://www.berlinartlink.com/2021/08/06/lucia-pietroiusti-interview-ewerk-luckenwalde-curator/ Accessed 6/8/21
 Heidi Ballet (2020), in, “Conversation between Inga Lāce & Heidi Ballet” Ecology for Change, Eco-Nationalism & Environmental Movements in the Baltics in the Late 1980s, Estonian Art,:The Anthropocene Issue, February 2020. Tallinn: Estonian Institute https://estinst.ee/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Estonian_Art_2_2020_PREVIEW.pdf Accessed 19.6.21
 According to the Museum of the Green Awakening (Latvia) the “EPC was the first to bring up a number of critical issues, such as protection of the Baltic Sea, deforestation and preservation of natural diversity. EPC also became a key advocate for (a) green lifestyle.” Latvian Museums Association, https://www.muzeji.lv/en/museum-catalogue/museum/museum-of-the-green-awakening Accessed 2.7.21
 A documentary produced in 2015 follows the history of “Atgaja” from its origins as a hiking group to an influential political-environmental movement that heavily influenced Lithuania’s move toward independence. Film available here: https://www.kinofondas.lt/filmas/zalieji-muskietininkai/
 Inga Lāce (2020), in, “Conversation between Inga Lāce & Heidi Ballet” Ecology for Change, Eco-Nationalism & Environmental Movements in the Baltics in the Late 1980s, Estonian Art,:The Anthropocene Issue, February 2020. Tallinn: Estonian Institute https://estinst.ee/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Estonian_Art_2_2020_PREVIEW.pdf Accessed 19.6.21
 The Phosphorite war, or Fosforiidisõda, was a resistance movement in rejection of planned phosphorite mines in Virumaa, Estonia. Prominent political and social elites rejected the further destruction of the fragile ecology of Estonia by the “insensitive remote hand of Moscow” Toivo Miljan
claims: “Most Estonians regard the Phosphate War… as the catalyst that led to the destabilisation of the Soviet Union and its rapid dissolution.” Toivo Miljan (2004) Dictionary of Estonia. Maryland: Scarecrow Press, p371.
 Hypoxic or “dead zones” with low-oxygen conditions have been common in the Baltic Sea. However, “Modern-day hypoxia is driven by two main stressors: increased temperatures due to climate change and nutrient inputs from humans.” Jenessa Duncombe (2018) Just How Anomalous Is the Vast Baltic Sea Dead Zone? EOS Science News, 30 July 2018. https://eos.org/articles/just-how-anomalous-is-the-vast-baltic-sea-dead-zone Accessed 24.7.21
 “The results of the Latvian Freshwater Survey, conducted by the Nature Conservation Agency (DAP) show that the quality of water is rapidly decreasing, rare and endangered water plants are disappearing, and that the main cause of this deterioration is human behaviour” Latvian Public Broadcasting (2019) “Freshwater quality in Latvia is decreasing”, July 12, 2019, https://eng.lsm.lv/article/society/society/freshwater-quality-in-latvia-is-decreasing.a325383/ Accessed 28/6/21
 The “brain drain” of the Baltics began during the Soviet occupation as emigration and defection increased, then due to the mobility enabled by EU membership and the 2008 financial crisis, which saw the three Baltic countries lose a significant portion of their population to emigration elsewhere. According to Kata Fredheim of the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga: “So far this century, no country in the world has suffered a greater depopulation rate than Latvia.” This does however seem to be slightly abating. Kata Fredheim (2019) Remigration and brain gain in the Baltics, Baltic Rim Economies Review, 29.5.2019 https://sites.utu.fi/bre/remigration-and-brain-gain-in-the-baltics/ Accessed 1.8.21
 A relatively new term in the canon of Western art history that is related to Activist art, Ecovention (ecology + invention) describes an artist initiated project that employs an inventive strategy to physically transform an ecosystem. It defines artists whose work operates to creatively solve ecological problems through direct participation with audience, community and industry. See: Sue Spaid (2002) Ecovention: Current Art to Transform Ecologies, Ex. Cat. Cincinnati: The Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati.
 Information taken from the NIDA “Shepherd’s Residency” open call 2021: http://nidacolony.lt/en/1718-open-call-shepherd-s-residency-in-nida Accessed 4.5.21
 Information courtesy of Bambi Project curator Šelda Puķīte. More information available here: https://www.kogogallery.ee/en/
 Jonas Žukauskas & Jurga Daubaraitė (2020) Nuclear Assembly: Timeline of Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant assembly, operation, disassembly and final disposal of radioactive waste. https://daleliuskilimas.cc/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/NUCLEAR-ASSEMBLY_by_Jonas_Zukauskas_and_Jurga_Daubaraite2020.pdf Accessed 14.5.21
 Paraphrased from the NIDA website description of the program: http://nidacolony.lt/en/projects/neringa-forest-architecture Accessed 18.8.21
 Description taken from Daubaraitė and Žukauskas’ original project that sparked the creation of the Neringa Forest Architecture program, Forest Parts. See here: http://nidacolony.lt/en/projects/neringa-forest-architecture/nac-forest-parts Accessed 18.8.21
 For an interview between Sandra Kosorotova and director of Narva Art Residency (NART) Ann Mirjam Vaikla about the Kreenholm community garden project, see here: https://www.estonianart.ee/art/kreenholm-plants-community-garden-at-narva-art-residency-nart/
 For a description by the artist about her activities at Narva and Kreenholm, see here: https://www.vinetagailite.com/residency-in-narva-estonia?fbclid=IwAR3csyTMHL13ob9fH5DkV-jc4qjpfBvHnul7Lr8EAUPERCaHxGQa2oAYU2A
 This is a reference to the new era of the “Extreme Self” – a concept introduced by Shumon Basar, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Douglas Coupland and explored in their touring exhibition, Age of You, first exhibited at MOCA in Toronto, Canada in 2019. See also: Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland, and Hans Ulrich Obrist (2020) The Extreme Self: Age of You. Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter und Franz König