Conference reports Searching for Baltic Dimensions

In the fall, 2016, Färgfabriken organized the symposium “In Search for the Baltic Dimensions”, where researchers, artists, media practitioners, designers, urban planners, and art students outlined some of the burning social and cultural issues related to the Baltic Sea region.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 4 2016, p 9-11
Published on on January 30, 2017

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Färgfabriken, a cultural institute and exhibition space in Stockholm, is an experimental platform, where culture, politics, academic research, and urban practices are allowed to merge. It launches projects yielding interventions, and producing new agendas through which urgent matters related to life in the Baltic region can be introduced, researched, and analyzed in different ways and through various activities. It is a modern public space, where people work side by side at the forefront of the norm-challenging projects that characterize the space. Färgfabriken thrives on personal connections and enthusiasm among the people working there, and on its close cooperation with funding bodies in the Baltic Sea region.

On October 13, Färgfabriken organized the symposium “In Search for the Baltic Dimensions”, where researchers, artists, media practitioners, designers, urban planners, and art students outlined some of the burning social and cultural issues related to the Baltic Sea region. One-day sessions were attended by people who work with issues of integration, urban cultures, and architecture. They came from places such as Uppsala University, Södertörn University, the Royal Institute of Art, Aalto University, the Baltic Art Center (BAC), the Goethe Institute, Nordkonst, the VAL project, and RISEBA University. The main goal of the workshop was to gather ideas for an ongoing research project on the new imagining of the Baltic region in a culturally and artistically stimulating environment. Its major outcomes will be displayed in the format of an art exhibition on the Baltic Sea regional identity. The explicit goal of the workshop, the search for the Baltic themes, or dimensions, that could define the area’s image, determined the format of the event. Inspiring presentations during morning sessions were followed by an afternoon brainstorming workshop targeting the four major dimensions: water, propaganda, city, and identity. Such a focus characterizes Färgfabriken as a cultural art center with a significant focus on problems of social integration and civic engagement. Its projects speak to the importance of the production of modern urban spaces as well as to communication as a primary tool for sustainable social, cultural, economic, and political development.

The project presentations addressed key dimensions, introducing cases of three Baltic cities. The VAL exhibition and research project (Sonya Guimon, curator, that was launched in Kaliningrad, Russia, in cooperation with Färgfabriken, proposed to city dwellers to look differently at their cultural heritage. In the past, Kaliningrad was a well-connected and rapidly developing German Hanseatic city of Königsberg. After the Second World War it became a part of the Soviet Union and later of the Russian Federation. As a result of the war and reckless urban planning, it lost most of its architectural heritage and cultural artifacts. The participants in the VAL research team noted that fragments of a vanished cultural heritage still existed in people’s memories, as well as in urban toponymies and legends. Fascinated by this “ghost” heritage, participants of the project noticed that, despite the destructions, the town has managed to preserve one of its main heritage sites: its water arteries. The members of the VAL project organised an exhibition in which they made water a dimension linking memories of the inhabitants of Kaliningrad to the remains of the city’s cultural heritage. They created a new map which traced neglected heritage and told a new story about the city that allowed the memories to be preserved.

Other dimensions of identity and propaganda were addressed through the case of the Swedish city of Malmö by Johanna Bratel, a landscape architect and one of the leaders of the New Urban Topologies project at Färgfabriken. In recent years, the media has produced an entrenched image of a dying industrial area that suffers from social problems and criminal gangs. Through a presentation of her team’s project, Johanna illustrated how Malmö was being architecturally and culturally rebranded and transformed into an IT city with a positive social climate. The new story that Johanna’s team narrated had the potential to define the city’s identity in a different way and to change attitudes to segregated areas with immigrant populations.

Oskars Redbergs, Professor at the Faculty of Architecture and Design at Riga International School of Economics and Business Administration (RISEBA University), also reflected on the identity dimension. In his presentation he demonstrated and analyzed various urban layers of Riga that were formed, altered, or destroyed through different historical and political epochs, whether by renaming, reshaping, demolition, or neglect. He pointed out that in many modern cities, the public sphere remains under constant threat of privatization, being turned into spaces with limited public access to the advantage of exclusive groups of urban dwellers.

It was reassuring to see that the topics presented concentrated on urban areas that, in the West, are often seen as having a culturally and politically peripheral location: Riga, Kaliningrad, and Malmö. This focus of the presentations, de-Westernizing and de-colonizing by their very nature, reveals the high intensity of the cultural and political life of the Baltic region.

The inspiring ideas that were introduced during morning sessions fed the afternoon brainstorming. Four tables covered with posters were arranged in the main hall at Färgfabriken. They provided intellectual islands that drew in the attendees of the symposium to a workshop session. The islands were designed by students of R-Lab KKH (Royal Institute of Technology) in Stockholm, led by Peter Lang, professor of architectural theory and architectural history, and students of the School of Architecture at Aalto University, supervised by Frances Hsu, researcher and lecture at the Department of Architecture.

The workshop’s organizer and the mastermind behind the coming exhibition, Daniel Urey, made sure the participants in the workshop mixed in a nonhierarchical way regardless of their professional backgrounds. He invited us to express our ideas in a creative game of mapping the poster islands with colored stickers. Each sticker introduced a thought, a term, an idea, or a question connected to the four main points of discussion: water, propaganda, city, and identity. Those stickers became links among the key themes as well as steps towards the definition of the dimensions that would lay the groundwork for the future exhibition. As a result, each poster received an encrypted pattern line, which recorded the very process of the search for the newly discovered Baltic dimensions. Thus, the associations born during the brainstorming acquired the artistic form of four graphic installations that we might propose for display at the exhibition, since they trace the production of its very origins and represent material records of the search for the new Baltic identity.

It was a challenge to talk about the central theme of Baltic water in different dimensions. Water as essential to life itself, as a transportation route, and as a metaphor for change, segregation, and unification gives rise to rich speculation on how it is bound to and links together those various facets of Baltic regional identity. The workshop participants reflected on whether it is possible to regard water as a cultural heritage, and thus as a source of identity, as well as how to connect it to urban development and political propaganda. All these suggested themes introduced a discussion about mental borders between Nordic and Baltic countries and raised the question about whether it might be possible to overcome them.

We left the workshop enriched with new possibilities and new contacts that may lead some of us to collaborate in the future. At the same time, the crowdsourcing nature of the event made us wonder about our role in the process of cultural production, and about the whole rationale and modus operandi of work in academia in general. Those employees of the governmental academic institutions who are working through the very early stages of their careers are allowed to share ideas in various forms of academic events, such as workshops, roundtables, and conferences, often contributing to the projects of their senior colleagues or enhancing the profile of their home institution, with no reimbursement or advantage accruing to themselves.

On the one hand, the use of brainstorming sessions, crowd-sourcing techniques, and the sharing of ideas is essential to the successful development of cultural and artistic projects with a social orientation; on the other hand, the organizers and host institutions inevitably, even if unintentionally, exploit the intellectual labor of the participants. Engagement in additional academic, social, and cultural activities that are perceived as an unquestionable part of junior researchers’ employment may be educative, stimulating, and inspiring, yet at the same time, it normalizes and nourishes the underpaid or unpaid exploitation of their intellectual labor, especially in these times of government cutbacks on culture and education spending.

Daniel Urey is well aware of the uncertainty and unpredictability inherent in the very form of this kind of event, where intellectuals from various fields gather to spend a day sharing their ideas and contributing to a project with non-concrete goals and unforeseen outcomes. Urey may not be able to overcome the existing conditions operating in academic and cultural production, yet he has been able to question openly the formats that prevail in contemporary academia, inviting everyone, regardless of position on the academic ladder, to search for the new forms, methods, and means of cultural production with the goal of inventing and practicing activities that may challenge the reigning system.

In the sessions there were people from a variety of institutions whose projects addressed the same issues related to the Baltic Sea region. In spite of similar approaches and the huge amount of data collected, they were often unaware of one another’s existence. What could the cause be if not the lack of inter-institutional public spaces and isolation within academic and art communities?

There is also a pressing demand for urban regeneration with a focus on the reconstruction and production of new public spaces that can allow new forms of civic engagement as well as new forms of storytelling. We need inspiring examples and new stories that will reform both welfare states and states that practice aggressive forms of capitalism. Basically, we need to establish urban interventions and accessible spaces where people can publicly express their ideas in different forms, from art exhibitions to protests.

When it comes to such experimental projects as In Search for the Baltic Dimensions, it is hard to stay on the protective side of one’s own ideas and to avoid interesting debates that have potential to develop into projects, which might change the current dynamics of urban and social development.

We hope that the coming exhibition highlighting the outcomes of the project may also become an international academic and artistic platform where different voices can be heard. We also believe that this could be a good start for new cooperation between Färgfabriken, BEEGS/CBEES, and Södertörn. And even though the outcomes are still unpredictable, it is surely worthwhile to share our ideas and to contribute to our future. ≈


  • by Irina Seits and Ekaterina Kalinina

    Irina Seits is PhD-candidate at Södertörn University. MAs in history and fine arts. Research interests: history of modernist architecture of the 1920s and formation of the contemporary living space. Ekaterina Kalinina is Postdoctoral researcher at Department of Art and Cultural Studies at Copenhagen University, Denmark and project manager at the Swedish organization Nordkonst. Research focus: Russian patriotism, biopolitics, nostalgia and national identity.

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