Latvian culture between tradition and modernism - A visit at Riga’s New Media Culture Center Rix-C

24.07.2015 |

Spending the last months of my Voluntary Social Year at the ARS BALTICA Secretariat in Rendsburg (Germany) I visited our project partner Dr. Rasa Šmite for an interview within the framework of my Social Year’s Final Project on Latvian culture.



What comes to your mind firstly when you think of Latvia? Forests and lonely beaches? Blond, blue-eyed people? The Soviet rule? Or Riga, Latvia’s (un)official cultural heart?

For music lovers it will probably be its rich folk music and opera culture. Latvia holds one of the largest song and dance festivals in the world with over 40,000 participants and until today about one million Dainas, the typical Latvian unrhymed folk songs, have been collected which is likely to be world leading. The Latvians who had always been defending their country against the claims to power of Russia, Sweden and Poland even struggled for their independence from the Soviet Union by singing. The foreign influences and attempts to oppress the country’s inhabitants and culture might be one reason why the Latvians still estimate ancestral customs very highly. The Latvian culture has been retaining many Baltic pagan traditions like the celebration of the Summer solstice, Jāņi, and is still strongly influenced by the North European cultural area. Also music and singing has remained close to the Latvian’s hearts, which is not only visible in the manifold Latvian musical events and festivals but also in the big amount of outstanding Latvian musicians.

Riga Town Hall Square © Carolin Paar

The epicenter of Latvia’s cultural life is the city of Riga which is home to one third of Latvia’s population and with its 700,000 inhabitants also the biggest city in the Baltic States. Encircled by states which would have liked to incorporate the Latvian territory, the changing history of the country also left its mark on the capital.  Riga’s cityscape is determined by Latvian, German, Russian and Polish elements, from the medieval, Hanseatic Old Town and traditional wooden housing to the socialistic concrete block. With reason Riga is also called the 'Capital of Art Nouveau' with around 800 buildings, included in the list of the UNESCO World Heritage.

And then there is the lively cultural scene of Riga with the young, creative minds who give the city a new rhythm and inventive energy. Developed firstly from the offices and factories of enterprises which went bankrupt during the financial crisis in 2008 creative quarters began to grow which brought together artists, cultural workers and sponsors. Today these and newly developed quarters like the Berga Bazārs, the Kalnciema Quarter or the Republic Miera Iela are enjoying growing popularity and attract visitors to exhibitions, art galleries, fairs and festivals. One of the most important cultural hotspot is the Spīķeri Quarter which hosted such events as the Riga City Festival and Staro Riga.

When Riga was the European Capital of Culture, Spikeri also cooperated with the foundation Riga 2014 to implement its cultural program. The European Capital of Culture is a city designated by the European Union for a period of one year during which it organizes a series of cultural events with a strong European dimension. In 2014 the title was given to Latvia for the first time, which was an opportunity for Riga to use the accompanying EU funding and international visibility to generate cultural and economic benefits for the city. In 2015 Latvia assumed the Presidency of the Council of the European Union as well which provided the opportunity of influencing the EU agenda and brought several bigger cultural events to Riga again.

I met Dr. Rasa Šmite, artist, network-researcher and lecturer at the Liepaja University Riga in her office in Spīķeri from which operates the Rix-C Center for New Media Culture to talk with her about the Riga cultural scene and the development of its independent sector.

Rasa, what would you consider the most outstanding about the Latvian cultural scene and for which elements would you say it is most known?

This is a very general question which I can only answer from my personal perspective. I think the Latvian culture is very rich, this is for sure, and we have a very sophisticated music and theatre scene. However, I would tend to regard it as clearly split. On the one hand there is the official level, the state sector, which is very well developed, this includes for example the management of the Riga International Ballet and Opera Festivals, and on the other hand there is a scene which I represent and which mostly consists of non-governmental or artist-based initiatives that don’t receive institutional support; the contemporary culture scene how we call it. You can say that basically the entire contemporary live in Latvia has been developed and maintained mainly by this independent sector. I would like to mention for instance the Latvian Contemporary Art Centre in Riga that initiates diverse art projects and developed the Survival Kit Festival, the New Theatre Institute running among others the Homo Novus Performing Arts Festival, or the Waterpieces Video Art Festival by the NOASS association. There are a lot of things around which are maintained by this small artist initiatives. Rix-C, the Center for New Media Culture, is also one of them. We organizes projects and events on the intersection of art, science and emerging technologies and we likewise have an own annual festival called Art+Communication.

Rasa Šmite​ at Rix-C's office
© Carolin Paar

So, which status does culture have for the Latvian policy and its society in your point of view?

I think that the Latvian policy does care a lot about the development of culture but national institutions, museums or theatres have the major priority. Although it gets support sometimes the independent sector is constantly in different difficulties. I would say that the innovation aspect of culture really has to be reconsidered in Latvia. We are constantly proposing something to the public, trying to show that art contains transformative potential, but this seems to be under valuated still. At Rix-C’s art and science project Biotricity for example we used living microorganisms to generate a bacteria battery and thereby green energy. So, we are working on developing positive future scenarios from which the society really could benefit a lot.
Meanwhile, the Latvian audience seems to have a really unusual view on culture. I am teaching art and communication students at the University and working with them I could understand a lot better what young people think about it. I teach them avant-garde but they don’t even know basic things about contemporary art. When I asked them if culture was boring they answered: ‘Yes, it is boring!’ They have probably never been to much places, but that culture which they know and understand as culture seems to have that impact on them. I think they are referring to what we called ‘professional culture’ in earlier times. During the Soviet area culture was clearly split between professional and amateur culture. Products and works by people with professional education, who fitted into a cultural concept which was completely state defined and preplanned, were called professional culture. People had no chance to initiate something on their own, so that’s why this social activism might be a little bit lacking here today.
I have been always trying to show my students the huge variety of contemporary art activities, culture in combination with other spheres and partial crazy things which are actually happening beyond the society. That’s why I brought them to the Kim? Contemporary Art Centre hosting our festival exhibitions in Spīķeri, and I was pleasantly surprised about the excited essays they wrote after the visit. In my opinion there has to be a much better link with the audience established, and it is especially worth to start with school people. That’s why we set up for instance the Riga Innovation Lab at Rix-C last year to which we invited school groups who participated in art and science research or education projects.

How is the young cultural scene of Latvia currently developing and which role plays Riga in this development?

Although I was a little bit negatively surprised by that sample of the general audience I very much appreciate the young cultural talents and I think we can expect a lot from them.  Not only the young artists in Riga but also my students at the University in Liepaja who study New Media Art show very good first artistic results which we already exhibit in the capital. Riga provides many good possibilities for artistic education; there is the Latvian Academy of Culture, the Latvian Arts Academy or the Latvian Academy of Music, of where a lot of new creative talents come from who play a part in our festivals. The initiatives of the independent cultural sector like Rix-C and others can offer these young talents plenty of developed platforms to participate at.  

 Which impact had the financial crisis on the cultural life of Latvia?

The recent crisis hit Latvia very heavily and very unexpectedly in the end of 2008. In December we got to know that all the funding for the next year would be just cut down, so we were completely in ceros in the beginning of 2009. Many people were affected the same way and couldn’t recover but we did because we could use in a benefit our experiences. We as independent sector had been always used to difficulties. Firstly we shared office with the New Theatre Institute, this is quite unusual in Latvia actually, because in general people prefer having their own space, but we could even develop some nice collaborative projects in that period. We wrote a lot of applications and made a big effort to establish new contacts, so in the end we got back to a good level. Recently we even got Creative Europe funding again to realize our next idea, the Renewable Futures Project. I have the impression that what still can not recover so well is the state sector; the salaries at the Liepaja University for example were cut very strongly several times and have been remaining on the same level since then.

Hyperbolic Planes and Sustainability Networks ©

What has changed in Riga after having been the European Capital of Culture in 2014?

I think we could really benefit a lot from the funding which came along with the title and then there was the Latvian Presidency of the Council of the European Union immediately right after it. With the Riga 2014 foundation it was for the first time that all the projects got funding nearly enough and well planned before so everybody could really work a lot. Rix-C doesn’t have so big capacities but in that year we could implement three big projects which for us is really much. We could organize for example the large-scale exhibition fields on new media art which was visited by more than 10,000 people. Moreover there was the Innovation Lab in 2014 which I already mentioned and another very interesting exhibition called Hyperbolic Planes and Sustainability Networks. We implemented it together with the mathematician and artist Daina Taimiņa who presented her crocheted 3D sculptures. In connection with the exhibition we built up a social network for crocheting as well and we found about 200 Latvian residents who participated in generating the installation White Cloud, which we showcased in the exhibition. So these are some of the projects Rix-C produced and they will surely have a long-term impact, too. However, there were about 200 further events by other institutions and initiatives which were planned under the title Force Majeure in 2014.

What development do you forecast for the Latvian and Riga cultural scene in the following years?

How will it develop or how I would like it to develop? (laughs) I think it has to be made clearly understandable that we support innovation in culture. That would really help a lot and create a better link with the audience, because the fact that young people think that culture is boring can’t be left unanswered. There are so much innovative artworks which are really inspiring and stimulating and there is so much potential which young people need to experience. That’s why this cultural innovation aspect should be much better supported in Latvia according to my understanding.
Now, the actual development of the cultural scene in Riga shows one tendency which I think is rather unfortunate. Let me give you one example: The creative quarter Tabakas Fabrika is an interdisciplinary cultural space where you can find art galleries, creative workshops and certain events. Unfortunately the area of the old tobacco factory located there will be probably turned into a theatre and later given to the Latvian Cultural Academy. So basically all these locations which would be used for independent activities usually are given to governmental institutions, since they always need space. In conclusion this process again strengthens the state sector and makes a hard life for the independent sector, which implies a retrograde step for democratic process to me.

Creative Quarter Spīķeri © Carolin Paar

On the other hand change could be possible, because we might benefit from the agenda of the Latvian Presidency’s priorities in the Council of the European Union. For the first time certain things have been discussed on governmental level and the Presidency attached importance to policy approaches that encourage synergies between culture, creative industries and other sectors such as economy and technology. Within the framework of the Latvian Presidency three conferences were held in Riga in collaboration with the European Commission such as the Cultural and Creative Crossovers Conference which I attended as well. Being there I realized that Latvia is still on a very low level of promoting cultural innovation; however there are some first signs after the EU Presidency that changes are wanted on political level – which we will hopefully experience in culture as well!

Thank you very much for the interview!

Visit the official website of Rix-C for further information about the network and its upcoming events 

 by Carolin Paar

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"Culture includes not only culture and arts, but also the way of life and system of values. In this sense culture becomes the major power for intellectual renewal and human perfection." (European Council Report on European Cultural Policy)