In the fall of 2013 six cultural institutions in the Baltic Sea Region focusing on art, citizen’s participation and urban planning initiated a partnership. This Baltic Network formulated a joint strategy to develop, strengthen and cherish a cross national collaboration aimed to pro-mote democracy and enrich dialogue in the present urbanization processes throughout the region. The joint strategy and a common comparative analysis laid the foundation for the research undertaken in spring 2014, pointing out the direction for future activities and further partners. Under the collaborative umbrella Baltic Dimensions there were programs in Riga, participation in the Tallinn Architecture Biennale and the larger joint program called the Baltic House.
The words used in conjunction with our coastal environment are frequently negative: vulnerability, erosion, setbacks and retreat. These descriptions articulate a sense of loss, that how it is or was very recently is how it should always be – and therefore that the coastline is under potential or real threat. Another word is far more appropriate to describe our past and present coastal cities and land-scapes: dynamic. This word is far more enabling for our future. Like the coastal lines that em-brace the Baltic Sea, our cities have never been static but always interconnected, and in con-tinuous and constant flux.
Around the Baltic Sea cultural institutions are developing new programs that involve different actors with means in contemporary artistic practice in the ongoing urban development pro-cess. Just as there is a present disconnection between the urban actors known as citizens, politicians, academics and artists, there is also the unconnected gap between the many cultural institutions within the Baltic region. The benefit of collaboration is therefore apparent. Baltic Dimensions aims to make use of the social capital of cities so as to strengthen the trust between different stakeholders and to jointly identify today’s urban challenges and possibilities.
Baltic Dimensions will highlight how contemporary cities are dealing with and can deal with the successes and failures of the past. Our method is based on horizontal actions, involving similar stakeholders from different regions, and cross sectoral dialogues, that include different stakeholders from the same region. The objective is to create a platform that enables us to step outside our own experience and discover other cities’ struggles and successes.
The program intends to look at the Baltic cities as a laboratory of the broad-range ways of urban development that emerged due to the strikingly different stories of each nation. By looking at the cities as the products of 20th and 21st century political, social and cultural transformation, Baltic Dimensions aims to clearly state the differences and similarities of the past which are not to be judged any more, but to be taken as a fact of experience.
The Baltic Network
Färgfabriken is an independent exhibition space and experimental platform for art and architecture as well as social and urban development.
The Baltic Sea Cultural Centre in Gdansk is is a public cultural institution that promotes culture and organized cooperation in Poland and elsewhere.
Laimikis in Vilnius, Lithuania, is an interdisciplinary platform for community art, urban research, non-formal learning and activism founded in 2007.
The Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art in Riga is an independent organization that uses art to offer a perspective of past & current events.
The Rauma Art Museum, Finland, works to forward matters concerning art and culture.
The partners of the Baltic Network have in collaboration investigated similarities and differ-ences between their respective cities and institutions. The network has also identified possibilities and challenges in the cities in the region focusing on urban development from a democratic and cultural perspective. By linking experiences the network formulated its common grounds. The findings made by the Baltic Network are summarized in Attitudes, Urban Processes and Resilience.
Challenge 1: Attitudes among artist
The Baltic Network agrees that the skeptical attitudes among certain groups is a crucial challenge for the cross sectoral dialogue. Among these important groups are artists that many times have a weak connection to the communities in which they reside. Artists often see public space as their own exhibition space rather than something owned by and there for the public. Moreover, their education often lacks political awareness.
Among cultural institutions
There sometimes tend to be competitiveness between the local cultural institutions in the region, and such attitude makes the cultural sector weaker. Here it is important to find common goals and work on joint projects. Cultural institutions in the different countries tend to have different strengths and weaknesses. This indicates that a cross national team would be resilient.
Among officials and politicians
Regarding the attitude of officials and politicians they do not always see the benefit of collab-orating with artists, cultural institutions and citizens. Which could have the effect, among oth-er things, that they dare less and do not see vacant or common spaces as publicly owned but rather urban territories to be privately developed.
The attitude among the citizens is another challenge, as they do not always feel ownership towards public space and buildings. Moreover they often lack faith in the dialogues offered. A positive similarity to be found in the region is that there are strong grassroots and neighbor-hood movements that pinpoint political and social issues and fuel a bottom-up process. The urban dwellers have been a powerful force demanding change in many of the Baltic cities.
Among private stakeholders
The main challenge in the attitudes of private stakeholders is that they do not always see the potentials of collaborating with cultural organizations. There are also examples of them claiming to take social responsibility but in fact not engaging in the urban problems in their immediate surroundings.
Challenge 2: Urban Planning Collective Memory and Common History
The urban areas in the Baltic Sea Region have a common cultural history including collective memories and common political, economic, juridical systems. If we look at architecture and planning specifically, there are great similarities where one can find one nation’s heritage in another because of borders that have been changing over time. The Baltic Network concluded that a common urban structure and planning system could be a key to a common language and understanding of the challenges faced.
One difficulty is that there sometimes are no master plans for the cities. This is a problem as the planning processes might become more ad-hoc and less transparent, which in turn ob-structs community participation while damaging the search for a comprehensive and accurate perspective. Another challenge is that many of the Baltic cities undergo rapid change. In this rush dialogues and collaborations tend to loose their status as the initiatives of private actors and a centralized decision-making gain strength.
Vacant, Underused or Misused Buildings
A common challenge with great possibilities is the region’s many industrial structures, lots and former public buildings that are vacant, underused or misused and therefore often faced with demolition or transformation. These spaces could be used for different local needs, whether saving small businesses, creating new cultural meeting places or fueling the economy by letting private developers investment in them. Important questions attached to these spaces have to do with preservation of architectural heritage, keeping collective memories alive and securing public access.
Center and Periphery
The Baltic Network concludes that cultural projects that visualize and discuss integration, segregation and the presently rising xenophobic hysteria in Europe have a great potential to challenge this unacceptable growth. The disconnection between center and periphery is repre-sented through over looked poor suburbs that are blamed for causing segregation and tensions. Affluent centers and suburbs are excluded from this description. Not all challenges in the Baltic cities are alike. In some cases the centers are lacking cultural initiatives, in other instances it is the suburbs that need cultural actions. Some cities are shrinking and some are growing. In some cities the architectural community engages in social sustainable practices and in others not.
Challenge 3: Resilience Temporary Projects
A challenge common to all in the region is that projects, interventions and dialogues are often short-lived. Artists tend to work only briefly on urban projects, politicians and officials tend to look only at the nearest future, as they might soon have to leave their positions, and dia-logues between the municipality and the citizens tend not to be followed up but instead are one-offs, that is singular and brief. This affects the artists understanding of the citizens’ needs as well as resulting in the potential lack of trust between all stakeholders involved. The temporary projects can also complicate the cultural institutions attempts to create resilient powerful projects.
It’s me, Riga!
Baltic Dimensions in Riga September 2014 is an attempt to understand the urban physiological process of this city. In this publication we continue our search for the Baltic Dimensions. To download the publication, press the image.
The Baltic Sea Cultural Centre in Gdansk (BSCC), Laimikis in Vilnius, Lithuania, The Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art in Riga, Lativa (LCCA), The Rauma Art Museum, Finland & Creative Association of Curators (TOK) in St. Petersburg, Russia.