a blog on the Free Riga festival:
Another epic trip into outside the UK, to the Baltic, where I havent been for ten years, visiting all three nations, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, but really for Latvia, Riga, thanks to the amazing Totaldobze art collective, and the British Council who supported me visiting and performing for them. Im the fourth year of British to visit Riga, and Totaldobze brought the wonder Hannah Silva over a few years back, so I slot in nicely, though in Latvia anything outside of literature is called spoken word / slam, so I was a bit worried they wouldnt be up for what I do. Not that I planned anything, I intended to wait to see the space and speak to the curators Austra and Kaspars about what this festival was really about, called Freeriga, I had been told it was a specially organised exploration of abandoned spaces in Riga, which were denied to artists while rents rose, blocking them out of the city. This is a world wide issue, a huge one in London too, with so many flats empty and so many people struggling for space. Many reasons to be grateful and excited.
The performance day was a brutal / brilliant one. At it's close I felt like I had beaten myself up, which I did. The whole time in the Baltic I have walked, at least 50 miles over the ten days, all told, and on the performance day, just after arriving, I started by walking miles in 30 degree heat, right out to the outskirts of Riga, near countryside, listening to moondog, before walking all the way back past my factory studio (which was an incredible space, a once abandoned place, enormous) across the railway lines and all the way across the city to the river, crossing the Daugava via bridge and arriving at the Press building, the new home of Totaldobze for the afternoon to teach a workshop. The press house was a massive space, just indescribably big and dustry and resonant and ghostly. Like real resident evil set, it had been left to mulch for twenty years, just recently cleaned, recently electricked and watered by the arts collective and room after room was empty, sealed off, full of furniture, glass, material. Just breathtaking.
For my workshop, just a few people, but really generous and lovely people. 17 year old Kristina, and the remarkable journalist Ivars, established poet Laura...we worked on translations of their work from Latvian into English before they filmed covers of my poems. Then Ivars interviewed me and his erudition and intelligence, and incredible knowledge of literature really made me feel more situated in the space and the atmosphere of the collective.
So the performance, as I said this whole festival was about Freeriga, how so much of the city sits unused, inaccessible to artists and the people of the city, while rents elsewhere price them out. I wanted so much to let this idea and the environment itself create my performance. I considered doing many things, readings, exercise performances, sound performance, but when I arrived in the space I knew it had to be about the space. I felt I could see how the buildings are constructed (one being built, a high rise, with the address 9 11, in sight of the Press house), then abandoned and deconstructed, stripped down, and occasionally, someone like Totadobze then reconstructs them. I wanted to highlight how that process is about regeneration, through the act of destruction. How it is not about utility, or presence, or history, but business, the appearance of improvement. The press house is black stone, so it is a ghost town. The new tower is glass and rises, during a crippling depression. I spoke to Austra and Kaspars in depth about what parts of their new home had to retain their integrity and which parts I could go nuts in, practical things.. We traced out a path where I would travel and the rooms I could absolutely level. We settled on me using a sledgehammer to crush the rooms and walls and old furniture and piles of tiles and doors etc... We couldn't find one anywhere, I walked over an hour to an industrial estate in the countryside, in the torrential rain, but they had shut. Just before closing time, just before I gave up hope and would have two hours to come up with a new performance, I found a gardening shop and bought a brand new cast iron shovel. I had read recently (On the plane over in fact!) does a rifle kill someone? yes. does a spade kill someone? yes. does a spade dig a hole? yes. does a rifle dig a hole? no. Choose the right tool for the job.
I had real, sweating, retching fun in this performance. I loosed, so rare I get to express anger so immaturely and bare monkey power in the process of the concept I felt somewhat behind. I reached moments during the performance where I felt like I was going to collapse from exertion, and had to keep repeating my mantra, and reading the excerpts of found text I had taken from the net about abandoned urban spaces and the history of Riga. I smashed floors, walls, piles of glass, cement, tiles, concrete, wooden boards, furniture. I smashed a metal dress into hundreds of pieces. I stopped when, with extraordinary satisfaction, I broke the brand new steel spade in two pieces.
After the performance I felt elated, but also like a pall had fallen over me in the space. People seemed understandably weary of me, though complimentary, and the standoffishness, which was not anyones fault but was terribly exacerbated by a few moody hipsters (who made me think for the first time that the abandoned space / squat vibe is a stereotype of vapid artists, especially in East London, and that this hadnt even come close to occurring to me in Riga was such a compliment to the legitimacy of Austra and Kaspars activity and attitude) made me feel like I should leave, to let the adrenalin of the assault fall away gently.
Ive walked across unfamiliar cities at night when travelling over the last few years, quite regularly, by accident, as I tend to leave late but earlier than others when they start drinking. In the last half year Ive nightwalked Mexico City, Bratislava, Reykjavik, Paris, Copenhagen, Edinburgh, Venice, Erbil, Prague, and now Riga, crossing the Daugova to fireworks. An hour back to the factory, more, suburbs and high rises, I realised as well as cutting my hands quite badly during the performance (which was bandaged at the venue) I had mushed my previously broken right big toe with the spade. The adrenalin wore off, its what I deserved.
An article for the British Council website http://literature.britishcouncil.org/news/2014/july/thrashing-riga
In June 2014, Steven J. Fowler travelled to Latvia where he performed for the Totaldobze art collective as part of the FreeRiga Festival. Here he explains his performance.
Of the three towering blocks that dominate the not-old-town banks of Daugava, it is the middle building I will be wrecking. Not demolishing, they considered that, a local journalist, Ivars, tells me. They built the highway to the airport too close, and by smashing a structure twenty levels high, the debris, let alone the dust, would bathe the road. The middle building, my building, known as the Press House (in English, from what I can discern) has been allowed to stand empty long after its use. Cold, black, an obelisk rising squarely into the air, it is the third ugly child of the looming skyline. It towers above the man-made beach on the river and pierces the view from the church tower. It once housed hundreds of journalists and the entire machinery of Rigan newspapers. The news of the upper floors was printed on the lower. News, no doubt, that was carefully assembled, given the era in which it was produced. As I’m allowed to stroll from room to room, I come across artefacts that I am the first to touch for decades. Personal affects, 80’s pinups plastered to the wall, desks whose dust covering seems from a distance like a white sheet. Many rooms have no windows, are lightless wrecks, strewn with glass, tiles and bricks. The metal has been stripped, and throughout the Press House anything of any value has long been lifted. Yet some rooms, maybe minutes walk from the shopping mall across that airport highway, are alone, sullen and still perfectly arranged. Someone worked here, everyday, sat at these desks.
I find myself with the privilege of walking these ethereal halls, like a set for Resident Evil, prying off boardings and poking my nose into another country's past, through the invitation of Totaldobze, an arts collective in Riga who have just moved into the Press House. It is their home now, and the work they have undertaken so far, with a small army of volunteers, is extraordinary. Electricity, a few working toilets, some enormous spaces lined with huge windows looking onto the city, are almost clean. My performance will be one of the very first in this space. I am, in some small part, christening their boat.
And their presence here, and mine, and the abandonment of this building, and the nature of its two sibling towers nearby, is no accident. I am performing as part of the FreeRiga festival, an attempt to shed light on the counterintuitive lack of space for artists and cultural activities in a city which is packed with equally spectacular empty old buildings, relics from the Soviet era, while imposing newbuilds fly up every month. A culture of short term real estate ambition has bypassed regeneration or reclamation. In London too, people can barely pay their rent, of course, while thousands of flats sit empty. This is an issue. So Totaldobze has terraformed the Press House, and though they will not ask me directly to do so, I have a remit, and a responsibility for the subject of my work here.
One of the neighbouring buildings is a bank HQ, the other, still being built, awaits its business tenants. It has the address 9.11, I am told. I am looking at it go up, standing with Kaspars and Austra, the heart of Totaldobze, its founders and creators, as they lean on their makeshift bar, fully functioning before the toilets are flushing . Volunteers, all of them artists of one form or another, use bikes to go from room to room, setting up for the big night, such is the travelling distances involved when navigating the Press House. For this night, we are all restricted to one storey, thankfully. I am testing my ideas against Austra, having deliberately not formulated a sure sense of what I’ll do until arrival. I start with the most conceptually extreme. In Riga, it seems, anything that isn’t a literary poetry reading, is called Slam, which is a long way from what I do, by the UK definition, being a performance artist when not experimenting with poetry. Austra seems to know this, and encourages me to do something which is very different from the work the British poets who have visited before have shared. I am the fifth year of British poets visiting Totaldobze through the British Council. Hopefully not the last. More responsibility.
We can’t find a sledgehammer. I walk an hour in the rain to an industrial estate on the outskirts of the city. I get some looks in my pink shirt and with my stupid haircut. Austra and Kaspars and the volunteers are busy, so I don’t want to bother them, but the store is shut, closed years ago, during the crash. I can’t find one anywhere, and haven’t mastered the trams so instead, for the third time, walk over an hour across the river and the city to the once abandoned factory studio where I am staying, where Totaldobze used to be. Ten minutes before it closes, I find a gardening shop and buy a steel spade. Quite a few people after the performance ask me the significance of the spade. Before the performance begins, I meet the Latvian representative of the British Council, she is incredibly gracious and warm, but asks why I am wearing a mask and carrying a shovel. I ask her to not judge me on what is about to come, and despite what she is about to witness, I am a nice person.
The text I read is something I’ve shaped from online information about the FreeRiga festival and my own research into the issue of abandoned towns in Latvia, where young people have fled into the city and further west because of the recent depression. I am told Riga was awarded the city of culture on the same week the financial crash happened. The celebrations might have been mooted. My text is found text, but written through and ready to be changed when live, as exhaustion is likely to play a part. I am sure it will seem violent, but I hope also comically impotent. I’m hoping its lack of apparent sophistication, its extreme distance from a ‘reading’, its wasted energy, reveals its real intent.
I wanted so much to let the environment itself create my performance. I considered doing many things, readings, exercise performances, sound performance, but when I arrived I knew it had to be about the space. I felt I could see how the buildings are raised, used, emptied, abandoned, stripped, destroyed just in this one day I had had in this city. It felt so strange being the first contact with these lost rooms, this building that was so palpably full of activity and life, and the trace of that having stayed dormant, until I sought it out. Something unsettling about being the first to encounter what has been abandoned. I felt I had to fill these rooms with life again.
I reached moments during the performance where I felt like I was going to collapse from exertion, and had to keep repeating my mantra. I smashed floors, walls, piles of glass, cement, tiles, concrete, wooden boards, furniture. I smashed a metal dress into hundreds of pieces. I stopped when, with extraordinary satisfaction, I broke the brand new steel spade in two pieces. Walking back over the Daugova that night, I have stitches in my right hand and a broken toe, fireworks are going off over the city. I am probably now less welcome in Riga than I once was, but the city seems more familiar to me. An extraordinary experience to have visited Riga, I feel buoyed to have had a glimpse into a thriving and energetic community and to have made connections, if they aren’t completely put off by me, that may last long into the future.