K@2, KAROSTA - UNDER THE SURFACE

Kristine Briede
interviewed by Joanne Richardson

 

 

>> The Culture and Information center K@2 in Karosta grew out of the previous activities of the independent film group Locomotive. So can I first ask, who and what is Locomotive?

"Locomotive" was founded in 1995 by young filmmakers Carl Biorsmark and Roberts Vinovskis. Locomotive was initially a studio focused on documentary filmmaking, but also made television programs and organized other culture events. Later the studio changed its name and became "Locomotive International". The people changed as well - some left, some new ones joined. We cooperated with other organizations, artists and filmmakers of different backgrounds and nationalities but the main aim remained the same - to hold up to a mirror today's society and its processes - even if the art forms we used have changed through the years: texts, paintings, organizing exhibitions or filmfestivals, making films or social advertisement series.

>> Locomotive was also collaborating with Re-lab and is one of the founders of RIXC?

Locomotive, the film group was one of the founders of RIXC at the beginning of last year, but after founding the Culture and Information center K@2 in Karosta, Locomotive has slowed down its activity a bit. K@2 is not part of the RIXC organization but we do work together with RIXC. We are organizing similar things, programs of cultural exchange and collaboration. RIXC is Riga based, and they are also happy to have a regional partner outside the center, and we can cooperate in different ways.

>> You founded the Cultural Center K@2 in Karosta. Why Karosta? When did you first encounter the place - and why did you decide to stay?

We first came here in 1997. We didnít know this kind of place existed, we were living in Riga, and in Riga, in the capital, people often donít know what is happening in other spaces and places in Latvia. We came for a Swedish and Latvian documentary filmmakers meeting, and when we saw this place for the first time, it really fascinated us. It was a fascination about the simultaneous beauty and ugliness of the place. The seaside and environment is beautiful. Its actual condition is something else, which you can understand from its history.

Karosta was built by order of the Russian Tzar Alexander III - this region was under imperial Russia, and he decided to build here a military port in the Baltic sea region. For that time it was a very modern town, the houses and bridges were modern. A fortress wall was build all around the whole city, but the interesting thing is that the fort was never used, there has never been a single shot fired from here. Then there was the Russian Japanese war. Liepaja had become an intermediate stop for Russian emigrants to go to New York - there was a direct ship Liepaja-New York - and in this sense there was a concurrence with Japan. The Japanese won and the agreement was that the Russians would destroy their own fort by exploding it. After the Russian Revolution, this remained a military port for 50 years while the Soviet army was ruling. During that time, Karosta was a closed district, and civilians from Liepaja (or elsewhere) could not enter - there were guards at the bridge, and people were permitted to enter only with special permits. The Soviet army left in 1994, and some 6000 people (mostly Russians, who were relatives of the army, or the staff and servants serving the army, or pensioned military). And practically the next day after the army left those who stayed behind and also those from the countryside came here to rob the houses. They took out the doors and windows, sometimes bricks, and all the metal things, lamps, wiring, etc (sometimes the houses were exploded to make it easier to take out the metal). There were metal shops set up that bought metal 24 hours for black trade. People were so uncertain about their future that they grabbed whatever they could. Today there are some 7500 people living in Karosta, mostly Russian speaking, less than 25 percent of those living here are Latvian citizens, the rest are either Russian citizens or so called "aliens" (stateless, they have a Latvian passport for aliens or they even carry the old Soviet passport which they never replaced).

  So now the town appears to be a landscape of ruins, many houses are completely destroyed from the original vandalism. There are problems of mass unemployment in the region as well as depression. There are no cultural events or any organizations that could organize them. But from the first time we came here we could see that there is something under this surface, something which may not be observable to tourists. Many tourists donít come out from the busses because from their windows it may looks like a ghetto, and maybe they see poor people and destitutes and they are afraid to come out. One of the aims of our project was to see things differently, and maybe we saw the beauty in this place because we were seeing with different eyes.


>> You told me in an earlier conversation that one of the things that fascinated you about Karosta was that it was a town of ruins. Perhaps ruins are fascinating not only architecturally, but symbolically, because you can never start something completely from zero, and ruins are a kind of in between space. They donít already have a pre-determined use, they had one once, but now they represent a stage of transition. They donít come ready-made, they must be transformed.

Since they are in between, they have potential. There is something that you could create. There are not so many places that I have been where I have felt that you can create something out of it Ö art and history and social life all came together and gave me this impression. In our film "Borderland" there is a text that goes: "If something is created in an empty place itís not empty anymoreÖ"

>> How did you decide to stay and start the social center?

It was after our transit zero filmmakers workshop and exhibition - we felt we didnít want to leave. We wanted not only to live here but to do something for the area. We weren't sure what we could do, since we are not social workers, we are not pedagogues, we are artists. We had already started a process of workshops with kids during the summer (ceramic, painting, and photo workshops) while we were preparing for the transit zero exhibition, and it was so difficult to leave. We felt that if we left the children, it would be like someone who takes care of a cat for the summer and in autumn when they go back to their towns they throw it away, leave it behind. And we didnít want to come to such an occasion.

 

I will tell this in Carl's words: in deciding to move here, we did something that professional filmmakers would never do. In moving here we have come to the other side of the screen, we are now inside (or outside, or behind) the screen. If someone would be making a film about Karosta now, they would film us because we are integrated into the community here. But we felt this was the right step for us, and that it was more important than keeping a professional distanceÖ So from being documentary filmmakers we have become documentary social workers. Itís kind of strange, we have actually become part of the place to such an extent that it feels like shooting a movie without any film in the camera.

>> You choose the name K@2 for the center. What is the significance of the name?

There are several reasons we chose the name. The address of our center is Cathedral Street number 2, (Katedrales iela 2). And we have a Russian Orthodox Cathedral across the street. This is a cathedral for spiritual life, and we thought we could be a kind of cathedral for earthly, material life. But the most important reason is that in Latvian there is an expression K2 which means transport on foot, by your two legs, and this is connected to our conception. We didnít come here with everything ready, with equipment, and with a finished concept and ready money. We are doing it as a process, and we go step by step, quite slowly sometimes. Along the way we see how it develops.

>> What is the connection between the films that you were making about borderlands, about physical borders across territories (although physical borders are also about something that is between two different states, between the virtual and the actual) and the choice to move and work here. This is not exactly a border town, it is not on the geographical border between Latvia and Russia. But it is in other symbolic ways a borderland because the Russian community who lives here doesnít speak the language, and because the town is between having been something once (a military base) and becoming something different now.

At first, Karosta was one of the objects of the documentary film Borderland. Karosta is a part of the many segments of the film. This is a very compact borderland, because in this microcosmos many border phenomenon are present. There is the language border, there is the border of economy, since it is not really integrated in a capitalist mode of life. There are mental borders since Karosta is in Liepaja, but yet it's outside since when it was a military base it was a closed district. And still now people from Liepaja look upon Karosta very suspiciously. If you ask someone in the center, they will tell you not to go to Karosta because itís such a terrible district. And if you ask them: "Have you been there?", they might say: "Yes, I drove by once." But probably, they did not get out.

>> I'm wondering why here and not in Riga - and I can think of two reasons, first that there are already these kinds of initiatives in Riga, and secondly, that the atmosphere here seems kind of barren and depressive and there's a lack of social activities.

Yes, exactly. And also, to be honest,I was tired of so-called high art, and sometimes I cannot follow the meaning of this kind of activity. If it doesnít have an emotional and social significance it does not have any value. Sometimes the paintings and the work done by the kids at K@2 is much more interesting and relevant to life.

>> How did you acquire the space for the center from the municipal government? And how are you getting money to maintain it on a daily level?

In December 2000 we established an NGO together with Liepaja people that is called the Culture and Information Center K@2, and this organization has signed an agreement with the city council that we will rent the house for 15 years for quite a low rent, and we have agreed that we will not pay in rent but with the renovation work that we ourselves are doing. We have applied for finances on a project basis from different institutions, including local ones as well as in Europe and beyond. The hardest problem we have is operational infrastructure costs because the house is big (1000 square meters) and its impossible for Carl and me to do all the organization. We have not found any foundations who will pay salaries for people to work here. And the money for equipment and hardware has so far come entirely from project costs.

>> What workshops and other events have you organized?

We have made workshops for children under the program Art for Social Change, thanks to the "European Cultural Foundation". So there is a photo workshop that is not teaching kids photo art, but trying to get them to express themselves through the tool of the photo - through the image. For different workshops there are different age groups, for the photo workshops the age range was 9-14. For the graphic workshop there will be smaller groups of different ages, between 4-18. The workshops began running during the school year, and are now continuing in the summer, and next autumn. Sometimes we have about 30-40 participants every day. Although we focus on workshops for children, we also have programs for adults, like evening lessons of Latvian language, and cultural events with larger audiences, concerts, film screenings, visual poetry readings. Sometimes we organize events ourselves, sometimes we invite our friends from other places, for instance from Riga, to take over the space and do it.
And most recently, we have just started operating a small cinema theatre in a building not far from the K@2 center. Three times a week we're screening "oldies but goodies" and on Sundays, an animated matinee for the kids.

>> Why did you decide to focus most of your attention on creating workshops for children?

Or, we could ask: why did the children decide to do workshops with us? We think it's productive for them, especially these kids who have no other possibility to do anything creative just because of the social conditions in their families. And it's productive also for us. We get more pleasure out of working with others, especially with children, because we get so much response (emotional and conceptual) from them. We just like interacting with each other.

>> The fact that you picked children for the Art for Social Change program seems to imply that those who are most able to enact social change are children - the new generation.

It is important to work with the new generation because these are the seeds for development. Maybe it sounds cruel to say that the attention today should be devoted to the younger rather than the older generation, which we cannot influence so much because they are more fixed in their habits and thoughts. It seems to us that it is these kids who are capable of remaking the past into a new future.

>> And you feel this is something that they can't get from their routine school education? Do you think of these workshops as an alternative educational model?

Maybe they can, I donít know, but they seem more drawn to it. Before we used to have the center open during the morning, and it turned out that some of the kids were skipping school to come here, so we had to change the hours, and now we are open from 2-7 pm. Maybe they are more drawn to us because we are neither professional pedagogues nor their parents. We approach things in a different way, and they see us differently, more like their adult friends than their instructors.

I wanted to mention the new workshop we are doing this the autumn called Digital Billboard which started in September. Kids and young people from Karosta are making their own newsreel every week; different groups film what they think is interesting, and it is totally different from news on TV. They are editing it together with us, and we plan to start screenings on an outdoor screen outside the house, and then to screen it on television the next day. At the end of the project, they will make a larger film from the newsreels and the new media group will tour by bus to different places in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia that are similar to Karosta, and they will present the Karosta newsreel film themselves.

>> People usually receive news passively, as something made by somebody else and served for them for consumption, so to switch this and have them take on the function of the producers of news seems to have significant implications. By analogy, their lives are organized from the outside, and they are just receptacles, so to put them in the position of producing news, indirectly seems to give them a message that they can actively produce their own lives.

Yes, it is important for their own sense of production, but also the screenings are meant to be interactive, so that the audiences where they present can also question the production of news. Maybe after it becomes a routine every week, we will receive proposals from the audience about what should be in the news from their own perspective.

>> Before, when you were working on the film Borderland, it seemed that you were yourselves in transit all the time, going to different locations, not having a fixed place where you lived and worked. And now youíve chosen to stay in this one location, to identify with this territory Ö

Yes, but staying in this fixed place is not an end in itself, it is also a transition, temporary. We want to set it up, to involve the local people to such an extent that they can run it themselves in the future. At first maybe we can be in a position of consultants, and when we see that it can work without us, we can move on, maybe go back to making films. Our plan was just to set it up, after that it can develop organically, out of its own momentum.

>> Who do you think will take this over, since it seems that most of the people who are involved with K@2 are children?

We have found very good people that could do it and are interested, but they can't do it yet. They need more confidence, and also more knowledge. It's not a question of months, but of years. Several of the youngsters are interested. One of the girls wants to be the director of the center, and she is perfect for it. She is 14 now, and she has herself said that she wants to do it, only that she has to first grow up a little.


Karosta, Latvia, August, 2001

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