Invited Gentrification: Riga's Andrejsala Project

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Ben Schaafsma

In his article Invisible States: Europe in the Capital Failure, Brian Holmes describes a Europe divided into three divisions; Core Europe, New Europe and Edge Europe; New Europe being the recent accession of 10 new to the EU in 2004 [and two more in 2007], Edge Europe being the non-member bordering periphery and Core being the original members of the EU. This integration of new members in the EU has created a fertile hinterland for transnational corporations, making it difficult to differentiate between citizens of actual nations and those of capitalist entrepreneurial systems. In 2005, the International Artists Studio Program (IASPIS) and the European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies (EIPCP) collaborated to produce a document for the Frieze art fair – European Cultural Policies 2015: A Report with Scenarios on the Future of Public Funding for Contemporary Art in Europe. This report is more than just a projection - it is an accurate reading of the current climate in much of Europe, specifically ‘New Europe.’ These forecasts are basically exaggerations of the present; increased difficulty in distinguishing the private from the public and the commercial from the non-commercial, focus shifting from the centers to the peripheries, increased Private Public Partnerships [PPPs], and museums and galleries becoming second to the art fair. A visit to Riga, Latvia has led me to empathize with Holmes’ somewhat pessimistic outlook for these new EU nations, who seem to naively believe they can finally establish a post-soviet national identity. These issues, specifically private versus public and those of national identity, are currently unfolding in a collaboration between foreign corporate investors and the national government in Latvia. This project, known as Riga Port City, is laden with contradiction and a closer examination may afford some clarity.

Riga Port City is being developed by a private company known as Jaungrigas Attistibas Uznewmums [JAU]. JAU was established on 10 Sept 2001 as a limited liability corporation formed by two partners; PortPro AS, a Norwegian company who holds 98 percent of the company, and Rigas Brivostas Parvalde [Riga Free Port Authority] who holds less than two percent of the company. In June of 2005, JAU became a holding company and is now comprised of 8 subsidiaries [see appendix A]. According to the company’s website, they hope to become a professional developer of large scale projects and their mission is, “to establish a multifunctional and high-quality urban territory in the area cleared from port operations.” The first of their large scale projects is Riga Port City, which is divided into two districts, Eksportosta and Andrejsala. The area known as Andrejsala sits on the Daugava River and is one of two districts that will make up the 2,700,000 square meter development; Andrejsala measuring out to nearly 700,000 square meters. The development plan shows that Eksportosta’s completion will not happen until 2025 and is currently not a priority. Andrejsala, on the other hand, is slated to be finished by the year 2010, complete with Latvia’s first national Museum of Contemporary Art designed by the renowned architect Rem Koolhaas and the Office of Metropolitan Architecture [OMA].

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Koolhaas also was afforded the opportunity by JAU to develop a master plan for Riga Port City, which has already begun being implemented. This plan is being executed by JAU with the assistance of newly formed Latvian governmental agency called New Three Brothers [J3B], its name referencing its function as the overseer of three new “cultural constructions”; Latvian National Library, National Concert Hall, and Museum of Contemporary Art.

“New Europe, whose political privileges have been substantively weakened by the loss of economic control over their industries … and whose territories and resources are wide open to exploitation by transnational corporations can be curtailed arbitrarily.”
- Brian Holmes

In the case of the Baltic states, this may not seem that different from Soviet rule. Specifically in terms of Riga, this is befitting of its history of a city plagued by occupations; Germans, Swedish, Russians, Soviets – and now, transnational corporations. Prior to 1991, Latvia [and the city of Riga] had only seen just over 20 years of independence in 800 years of existence, from 1920 to 1941. Since 1991, the country seems to have forgotten the 50 years it was under Soviet rule. Wolfgang Becker’s 2004 film, Good Bye Lenin! – set in East Berlin, revolves around the Alex Kerner protecting his mother from having a second heart attack; her first one happened October of 1989 followed by a coma which she woke from in the spring of 1990. The doctor warns that any excitement could trigger a second episode. In hopes to not have this happen, Alex must protect his mother from the fact that the Berlin wall no longer exists and communism is on the outs. Just the opposite of Alex, the Latvian Ministry of Culture attempts to hide the fact that Soviet rule ever existed through initiatives like its limited cultural policy upholding “national heritage” as its pinnacle and keeping foreign investors from having any “heart attacks.” Helena Demakova, Latvian Minister of Culture, is not timid when it comes to working with private money and foreign businessmen to secure funds for the Ministry’s projects. This could be the reason that they may have overlooked the fact that the government will be building their National Museum of Contemporary Art on land owned by foreign investors. Is this an oversight? Is this blurring of private and public no longer problematic within the EU context? Is the development of Riga Port City another occupation of foreign interests or exploitation by foreign corporations? Is this Latvia’s attempt at creating a regional identity, legitimizing itself in comparison to Core Europe? Has Latvia joined, what Hardt and Negri refer to as, "universal rule of capital without a center”?

“In 2015 art is almost completely instrumentalised [sic] in the economic sense, regardless of whether financing is private or public. Art then services either national or European interests that wish to construct a certain identity: it is a desirable marketable commercial good for private ownership and it contributes to regional development and provides society with new creative employment opportunities.”
- Maria Lind

What Lind describes is unconcealed in JAU and J3B’s approach to Riga Port City. JAU has invited artists and other creative people to move into this area of future development for the next two years, a process described by the office of J3B as “invited gentrification.” The language and theories being employed by those involved in this development reek of Richard Florida. The idea that a creative class, defined by Florida as “people who add economic value through their creativity,” is not new, but in a former Soviet-state pregnant with potential commodifiable real estate, it is complete gold. Currently, Andrejsala has not seen any new construction – only limited restoration to existing structures by its temporary inhabitants. The current residents of Andrejsala appear to have made a concerted effort to make it the center of a growing vibrant young contemporary art and music scene. One group of three artists spent time converting the former Customs house on the island into apartments and a hostel. Completed in the spring of 2006, Singalong Hostel offers both local and international artists a place to stay among like-minded people to work on projects and artworks. Each room is decorated and themed with found-objects from around Andrejsala such as the “map room” and the “Lenin room.” The exterior of the building is somewhat telling of what it holds, boasting a giant magenta diagonal line on its facade.

According to the organizers, “the line is a symbol of the positive processes that have taken place on the industrially [sic.] looking island of Andrejsala during the previous half a year – thanks to artists, cultural activists, skaters and others, these buildings dating back to the Soviet times gain a new breath and context.” Through conversations with the organizers it’s obvious that they are more than happy to be working on this project. When asked how they felt about being “kicked out” of Andrejsala in two years they had no complaints – “We know that we were only going to be here for two years and who wants to work on a project for longer than that anyways,” was just one of the personal responses.
Personally, I wish I were able to take such an optimistic stance on such an opportunity, but knowing the sum of this equation – it is impossible. These artists are being used as catalysts to create an identity for an area that will profit millions of dollars and there is no sign or intention of them being compensated. In fact, according to the “Concept of Development of Riga Port City, “the plan provides that apartments are to make up 65% of the whole development area, 20% of the area shall be offices and hotels, shopping centers, restaurants, cafes etc. Commercial area will make up to 10%, and cultural and entertainment objects up to 5% of the area.”

A conference held by the EIPCP in Helsinki Sept 2006 offered multiple critiques and alternatives to Floridian gentrification and Creative Industries. Gerard Raunig presented, “Creative Industries as Mass Deception,” looking back at Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectics of Enlightenment. Raunig argued that “contemporary Creative Industries can be understood as a form of self-deception of the producers working in Creative Industries. Both forms of subjectivation [sic] use the desire of the subject in order to integrate her in the economic system.” It may be unclear as to what leads to this “self-deception,” in the case of Andrejsala, but it is evident, as well as the artists integration into economic terms. This story is more than predictable. But what alternatives are there?

“When artists begin to explore the operations of capital, and point directly to instances of capital failure, they are participating with their own expressive methods in a complex response to the gradual installation of the competition regime. The process of exploring and interpellating these currently invisible states is one aspect of the broader effort to constitute social formations that might act in common, having not only shared objective interests but potentially interest in one another.”

Holmes continues to explore this possibility, but realizes that for such conditions to exist the contemporary art museum’s reliance on corporate funding and sponsorship, whether minor or obvious, will have to diminish. Though, for obvious reasons, this is not a simple task – “Hyperindividualization and the capitalization of everything seems to be the breakdown for solidarities.” This was evident in Riga where people were relishing in the new luxuries of capitalism and willing to pay the price.

Posted on February 2, 2007 3:40 PM

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