Riga 2014: how Latvia celebrates feelgood culture

As European Capital of Culture for 2014, Riga is fostering a DIY approach to art, valuing creativity and quality of life over financial return. Maria Roberts reports from the Latvian capital

When Riga 2014 launched earlier this year, thousands joined hands for the mass participatory Chain of Booklovers event. And as citizens passed books to one another from the old library to be shelved in the new library, it was a very visual display of what Riga 2014 stands for: collectivity, community and ownership.

‘Riga 2014 has been a project of cooperation,’ says Aiva Rozenberga, programme director at Foundation Riga. ‘When that energy comes together it involves everybody and it leaves a great impression.’ Foundation Riga aimed to spread responsibility across an experienced base of knowledge and talent. ‘From the very beginning we decided that we would not have just one director of arts at Riga 2014 and so we have six curators,’ says Rozenberga. ‘We decided early on that we would select pieces of work by taking majority votes. I think it was a very good idea because even the best arts manager can sometimes miss the subtle nuances that come with a rapidly changing world. When professional curators gather to share ideas and opinions, discussion really does make  a difference.’

Audiences at Born in Riga concert © Martins Otto
Audiences at Born in Riga concert © Martins Otto

What’s most interesting about the atmosphere around Riga 2014 is that programming has been driven with human – and not economic – interests at the forefront of its manifesto. ‘Our theme of Force Majeure explores ideas around the role of culture today not just in Riga, but in Europe at large,’ says Rozenberga. ‘Every day we see force majeure happening all over the world: flooding, fights, economic crises. And so we pose the questions: Where is culture? What can culture do about that?’

‘It’s very important to us that the people of Riga, and Latvians at home and abroad, understand that the European Capital of Culture is not just for them, but actually is theirs. As we are a country of just two million, we really wanted to open the gate to the whole country – this is not just a programme for Riga but for every citizen in Latvia and for every guest visiting our country and city.’

Solvita Krese is director of the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art, a programme curator for Riga 2014, and was a member of the original team that lobbied to bring the European Capital of Culture to the city. ‘At the very beginning of the bidding process in 2009, Latvia was in a moment of deep crisis,’ she says. ‘We thought we should fight for this title, but  the challenge was how to convince people that we needed to win European Capital of Culture status when many citizens were depressed and concerned about losing their jobs and homes.’

Krese forged ahead with various artistic projects under the title Survival Kit, an international contemporary art festival that began almost six years ago and has been carried through under the Riga 2014 scheme. This year Survival Kit 6 includes a symposium on art  in urban spaces, and an audiovisual concert by Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda, who is known for his exploration of datamatics.

‘In 2009, many of the shops along the main street were empty and so we invited artists to fill the void – it was difficult without a budget; that’s why we called it Survival Kit. At that time our budget had been cut by 60 per cent and so what we achieved was very much based on the collective initiatives of artists.’

Survival Kit © Andrejs Strokins
Survival Kit © Andrejs Strokins

This practice of do-it-yourself, one of the fundamental thematic lines of Riga 2014, has hit home with the public; in the past 100 years Latvia has suffered political upheaval, economic depression and continues to feel the effects of mass emigration as people leave their families to earn money abroad. If there is one thing Latvians know how to do, it’s survive.

‘Formerly, Latvian people felt powerless against the government, but now people are taking their own initiative to change their  environments. With something like Survival Kit, we encourage  participants to look at how to turn a small hobby into a business  and be entrepreneurial by doing something they love.’

And this idea of making people – not products – a dynamic force of progress, is a welcome change from terms such as ‘audience development’, ‘increased ticket sales’ and ‘outreach’ bandied about the industry in a way that views people simply as consumers out to be entertained.

Explains Rozenberga: ‘If you change, then your friends change, your environment changes, and you get more active. When you become more active and develop your career, better hobbies and your talents are opened up and you are a happier person. If you are happier person, you are more productive. Through our participation activities, people can look at their own talents and what is useful. Riga 2014’s grassroots programming gives hints and opportunities for you to develop yourself. But also from another point of view, it gives the city a chance to develop – we think culture is important because it improves quality of life.’

Survival Kit © Maris Morkans
Survival Kit © Maris Morkans

One such exhibition the team hopes will soothe and develop  the city is the KGB Building project, housed at a former Soviet building known for imprisoning, torturing and executing Latvians. For Riga 2014, it has been opened up as a visual arts venue.

‘At the KGB Building people are really queuing to get in,’ says Krese. ‘The display tells the history of what happened in  this building through art. It has a therapeutic effect; visitors are touched by the most painful aspects of our history, and somehow come out feeling relieved. By revisiting this painful part of our history through arts and culture, and how it affected tolerance and created a divided society under the presence of Russian  influence, as well as addressing the aggressive politics of Imperial Russia, we can somehow make people more united.

She adds that because the building has a sad history, the atmosphere in the rooms is spooky – just walking through the display is a challenging experience, whilst facing the horrors of what happened there paves the way to emotionally moving forward. ‘This huge empty building was something of a hot potato in the centre of Riga but turning it into an arts venue has been a  success. We do not have many infrastructure solutions and repurposing this building was the right thing to do; we were then able  to invest in the content and the people. It was not our task to  build something to house this art exhibition.’

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In Britain, Latvian ambassador to the UK, Andris Teikmanis, is  providing opportunities for young Latvian artists as part of a wider plan for trained musicians to gain recognition abroad. He is handpicking music graduates with enough promise to flourish on the international stage.

One such showcase event will take place on 27 October at Milton Court, London, where a group of trained musicians aged under-27 will perform for free to the general public and a group of useful contacts, selected by the Embassy, to help progress their careers. ‘I’m happy to support our young talents and it’s important for them to have a good stage in London and to show them to the London public,’ he says. ‘Moreover, arts and culture will play a substantial role in our activities at the Embassy as we prepare our programme for the European presidency, at which our Latvian Radio Choir will perform a unusual multimedia piece of John Cage at the inauguration opening event on 20 January 2015.’

Teikmanis too echoes the words of the curators in Riga: ‘The concept of Riga 2014 was not only to connect with Europe but for us to improve the environment in Riga and Latvia in general. It’s also important to get into people’s minds that they have a daily need for culture – it’s not just for one evening. They have a need to consider culture on a large and a small scale and bring it into their lives.’ And as well as promoting artists abroad, Foundation Riga is enticing artists home via events such as the large outdoor concert, Born in Riga, which took place on 6 July.

Born in Riga © Martins Otto
Born in Riga © Martins Otto

For now, Riga 2014 seems to be working its magic, says Rozenberga. ‘In terms of tourism we are gathering forces to  make that impact as big as possible. The Riga Foundation team  has collaborated with the Latvian tourism sector, Latvian Institute, Riga Tourist Board, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and our Embassies abroad. The results have been good for the first quarter of the year, which is usually a quiet season for tourists – visitor numbers were up 19 per cent. We don’t have the figures yet for spring and summer but we know many hotels are full over the coming months, so we have the feeling that we are doing very well.’