Telling the Baltic is a collaborative storytelling project involving Laznia Centre for Contemporary Art (Laznia CCA), Blekinge Institute of Technology (BTH), Blekinge County Museum, NGO ArtMission, Baltic Branch of the National Centre for Contemporary Arts (NCCA), Nida Art Colony, Kunsthalle Rostock and Stena Ferry Line.
During the course of the three-year Art Line project, participating partners will gather a range of materials and “stories” from individuals who live within and who travel throughout the South Baltic region. The collected materials span many forms and types and will include traditional interviews, photo essays, digital stories, historical and archival media, as well as accidental encounters, ambient sounds, and abstract images, all gathered from sea-travelers, sea-dwellers, and from the sea itself. The stories we collect will form the raw materials and inspiration for artists from our partner countries who will render the stories into art works that will be exhibited in museums and galleries around the Baltic throughout 2012-2013. Both the story-telling and artistic development process will be enhanced through joint meetings, seminars, workshops, and other research practices that explore story-telling, interdisciplinary art production, and intercultural cooperation.
We believe the Baltic Sea has many stories to “tell,” and it can reveal its narrative(s) in countless outlets from which we may explore and share its rich surfaces, depths and all spaces in between. We will seek stories, then, from those who travel the sea for holiday or for work (ferry passengers, island dwellers, sailors, ship mechanics, dock workers, and galley staff, for example), but also from those who live by the Baltic’s international shores and from those whose lives are influenced by its beauty, mystery, hidden dangers and secrets.
Our goal is to collect an array of materials which reflect the many ways the sea can represent an inter-cultural and multi-cultural identity. Just as there is no one Baltic Sea, or one Baltic Sea-story, there is no singular way to represent the numerous ways in which the sea can influence those who encounter it. Therefore our international profile—with story collectors and researchers in Poland, Germany, Sweden, Lithuania, and Kaliningrad—will support our goal to promote multiple perspectives on the Baltic. Furthermore, engaging with the Art Line initiative to sustain creative networks among artists, theorists, cultural institutions and tourism will provide a solid foundation to explore how the sea both connects and divides us in differing and interdisciplinary contexts.
Our work within the Telling the Baltic project is based on a model for critical/creative practice, and we are committed to documenting our methods and supporting research in story-telling methods, interdisciplinary art practice, experimental exhibition, and intercultural collaboration and networking. Information about Telling the Baltic participants, selected stories, documentation of our collection and production methods, as well as a gallery to showcase the art works selected for the exhibitions will be displayed on the Telling the Baltic website. Additional information and related art works will also be available on Art Line’s Digital Art Platform, an arena for exploring art innovation in both physical and digital space.
As I remember well, you’re coming back soon from your vacation but I am about to leave for mine (on August 10th) and I’ll be travelling until the end of the month. We were planning to meet for some days to start writing a text about Telling the Baltic together for the Art Line catalogue, but because of our different obligations it seems to be very difficult. And as always there is the distance of the Baltic Sea between us... But on the other hand, we have to write about this project so that a trace of it will remain, because it was so specific and unusual.
In this complicated situation I have an idea to write this text in a collaborative way but to use a methodology of putting it together in an exchange of e-mails. Once, I read a text written this way by two authors whom I know from Finland. I found the result of such a method of narrating to be very interesting and innovative. So we could write about the project, sharing reflections about it and then our e-mail correspondence “glued together” would constitute the “body” of the text. What do you think about it?
Of course, we would need a structure in this type of text, too - some kind of chapters. I suggest the following:
3. Role of non-artists
4. Nomadic art
5. And finally: what the exhibitions looked like?
Well, that’s it for today. I am very interested in your reaction.
We can start with a summary of the idea and content of, Telling the Baltic:
In a unique collaboration, institutions, academia, museums and sea travellers around the Baltic Sea have gathered together with a narrative as their starting point. Telling the Baltic is structured into several parts, with a collection of stories as a start, followed by workshops for artists and storytellers and finally an exhibition that toured the Baltic countries. The exhibition changed in terms of shape and the number of artists depending on the location. It will continue to be shown in new art institutions after the project is over. An exchange of stories and cultural identities was the starting point of the cooperation.
Stories from people who work and live close to the Baltic Sea, including fishermen, lighthouse keepers, marine scientists, captains, ferry personnel, sailors, islanders and shipyard workers have been collected by artists, scientists, museum curators and journalists using different methods. There is a chorus of individual voices that have spoken and have been heard and documented. The authentic stories are far from the solemnity of history books and have been gathered in a very colorful cross-border archive, a memory bank, and are published on the internet.
The project was developed together with all participating artists during workshops in Karlskrona, Sweden and in Nida, Lithuania and continued to be developed during the exhibition tour. The stories served as a basis and inspiration for the artists who created new works for the exhibition. The exploration of the researchers’, the artists’ and the curators’ working methods has been an adventure and a growing work process.
Around 30 artists from Poland, Sweden, Lithuania, Russia, Germany and Denmark participated in the process. The number of artists varied from place to place.
Should we concentrate on each chapter and headline at a time and schedule a timeline for writing? Start when you are back from vacation?
Here, there is still almost tropical heat and the sea is warm,
Let’s start off by writing to the catalogue. We can’t let the planning of programs take all the time of the day, neither the reports nor indicators. I constantly remind the other writers about their deadlines, but seem to forget that I also have one. There is always something more acute. In less than two weeks we’ll be meeting our catalogue designers.
The first chapter about COLLABORATION.
The idea of writing a text like a dialogue connects to our practice in Telling the Baltic, in which the project has been developed through constant collaboration and dialogue. Our working methods have changed during the project, especially since the touring exhibition took place at new locations and under new circumstances and contexts several times.
We did not plan for a multiple or collective curatorship in the beginning of our joint adventure, but soon realized that our working methods should be transparent. We, as curators from five countries, made a selection of artists from our own countries; we discussed and presented artists’ portfolios to one another and decided that the artists we were looking for should be able to reflect about the project and the exhibition as a whole.
The artists we were looking for should have a genuine interest in other people’s stories and they should pursue a personal practice of storytelling in their work.
We also agreed upon certain vital elements regarding the story collecting. Mainly, it was about the fact that the collected material should be gathered in as many different ways ’as the individual participating institutions and external story collectors chose to use in their professional working methods.
In the storytelling phase and during workshops with artists, both storytellers and artists became part of developing the exhibition. The artists engaged in the exhibition making made a significant change in the way we had talked about presenting the original interviews and storytellers’ stories. They suggested that the original stories should take on a larger role in the exhibition and should be presented at the exhibition locations and not only online - the contributions of the storytellers should be visible and the artists’ working method explored.
The storytellers themselves were also engaged on different levels. Some wanted to remain anonymous. I remember well the fisherman from Sopot in Poland whom you interviewed and who had insisted on coming to the workshop in Sweden. He wanted to join the artists, other storytellers and academics in order to take a more involved part in the project, but also to get his voice heard in a new context; to start up a dialogue. It was such a great moment when Witold Tilsa, the Polish fisherman from Sopot, met Bengt Larsson, the Swedish fisherman from Ronneby, in a gathering with artists and curators. Both had 24-year-old sons, and while the fishing profession had run in both of their families for many generations, neither of these boys wanted to pursue that line of work. The fishermen agreed to meet at sea…and we continue to hear their tales in our bank of cross-border stories. To have curators from the five countries involved discussing the choice of artists resulted in a broadened knowledge about artists from different contexts. A collaborative art practice is more democratic and is consistent with the Art Line project’s purpose to develop and strengthen networking, co-production and collaboration. One curator, as the single sender of content, authorship, definition and theoretical background, would defeat our joint process. In our dialogues many authors were heard, and this means something like a shared authorship. That doesn’t mean there was always unity; at times there was dissonance, contradictions and differences.
When starting up any art project collaboration it is vital that the discussion and sharing of knowledge between artists, curators, collaborators and institutions is always “on”, otherwise an exhibition or project would not survive. Are we now part of the production of curatorial practice? What is important as a curator? Among several things it can be to offer a framework for the art, a first conceptual base and a discussion about location. We had the basic framework, as it was discussed in preworkshops when developing the application and also how it was finally described. We had the cities/locations and the arranging art centers, but the actual exhibition places were changed several times.
I read a text by Jan Verwoert describing the art of curating as a way of talking things into being.
The art of curating resides in the capacity to grasp the potentials inherent in the magic of social encounters and the power to activate these potentials in the act of facilitating collective cultural manifestations. The medium of this art is communication. To curate means to talk things into being, not just exhibitions or events but the very social relations out of which such manifestations emerge, through the effort of creating and sustaining the channels of communication between the parties involved (…).1
Jan Verwoert wrote that all this means responsibilities for a curator and that mistakes can be made and miscommunication can happen.
What form could an exhibition (or any curatorial endeavor for that matter) take if, instead of conjuring up the illusion of seamless communication, it were to allow for the seams, ruptures and sutures, occurring in the process of producing a collaborative cultural manifestation, to become visible?2
He quoted Nitzer Ebb, “Control I’m here. You don’t need me. I’ll slip away”3, and argues for people to find ways to slip away from control.
In the curatorial part of the project it’s interesting to think about slipping away from control. Artists’ working processes might be closer to the uncontrollable, not knowing the end result. In terms of constructing the exhibitions and meeting the opening deadline, one can’t lose control, and seen from the financial point of view, it is absolutely necessary to have control over the required reports that have to be submitted to our main funding body, the EU. But, then again, this has nothing to do with the artists’ working processes. Lisa Chandler wrote a paper about a model of cross-cultural contexts and curatorship in a text for museums and society. Although she especially focused on the Asia-Pacific Triennials of Contemporary Art and in her point of view their need to “rethink expectations of curatorial coherence and closure if pluralism is to be genuinely incorporated into the development and presentation of exhibitions”,4 I think the underlying ideas can be employed in our context too.
Over the past twenty to thirty years, many art museums have sought to incorporate a more inclusive approach in the development and presentation of exhibitions. This has led to the adoption of more varied curatorial practices as institutions have increasingly acknowledged the perspectives of some of the differing cultures they claim to represent. As a result, many curators have been striving for greater plurality in the presentation of particular exhibitions. While there are various examples in museum literature of projects seeking to incorporate diversity, dialogue and difference there is less overt discussion of the disjunction between these ideals and their practical application.5
She continued, “Although this can entail a loss of curatorial control, the inclusion of multiple voices and diverse perspectives can create edgy exhibitions which unsettle expected ways of seeing”.6
I lose control and just send it to you now.
A mail is a mail is a mail.
Enjoy the weekend, the sea is still warm and here, there is beautiful fog over the sea before the sun hunts it away.
And, I must write that it is and has been a fantastic collaboration.
One can image that we are seven art institutions, academies, museums
- which cooperated with more than one hundred storytellers and around
And, even more unorthodox in the art scene, a shipping company.
I read all the headlines for our chapters again and realize all the subjects
are intertwined in my text already...
but so is the work,
See you on Skype next week,
In the beginning I would like to concentrate on the idea of “collaboration”.
I think that it became the fundamental principle of organizing the
process of planning and then implementing Telling the Baltic. I remember
well my first visit to Karlskrona and the Blekinge region in 2010, because
it fell on St. Lucia’s Day celebrated so much by you – the Swedes
– and on the following days. The purpose of my visit was to make contact
with culture institutions and to start thinking about a project, which we
later called Art Line. You took me by car to Blekinge Institute of Technology
(BTH) and introduced me to Lissa Holloway-Attaway and Pirjo
Elovaara, who both had experience with the realization of projects based
on story collecting methodology. For me it was very attractive and interesting,
because I also had some realizations of this kind in my artistic
achievements. So we immediately decided to do something in in the
future. It was only a question of what kind of stories we should collect.
After some time a decision was born that, because it was the Baltic Sea
which united us, we should collect stories from and about people who
lived and worked in close relation with the sea.
The next step in this collaboration was taken during our kick-off meeting on the ferry. Elena Tsvetaeva and Yulia Bardun were present there as representatives of the Baltic Branch of the National Centre for Contemporary Arts (NCCA) in Kaliningrad, which is an additional partner of Art Line. When they heard about Telling the Baltic, they liked this idea so much, that they decided to join it, and subsequently they received a grant from European Culture Foundation that made it possible.
We initiated a complicated process of preparations for an exhibition, to which we wanted to invite artists from our countries. We were a few curators, each of us had our contacts, but finally we were to select a group of artists, on whom we would have a consensus. It was an unusual and experimental way of curatorial work that none of us had experienced before. In practice it became difficult for outsiders to understand who indeed was the curator there and at some point even caused some misunderstandings among us, but finally I think that it was a very interesting and innovative experience.
Finally, because of the processual way of creating this exhibition – first workshops, then the exhibition that travelled to so many venues – the participating artists and the curators had many occasions to meet and so the relationship among them has transformed into a complex network of interactions that does not happen in the case when artists meet each other only once, during a vernissage.
Our emails overlapped during the weekend, since I sent my text and some added comments about collaboration to your other e-mail address. Computers, e-mails, time-delay and technical stuff is also one part of collaborations over the sea.
I like the idea of a looping curatorship. It was a new way of working for us as curators, for the artists, institutions, storytellers and other collaborators. It’s like growing a garden, some things are planned, and some things are surprises.
Language came to my mind. Some artists were worried about not being able to speak English well enough, as English is our working language. But we assured them that this is a collaborative project and we will be there to help and it worked out. English is our language for communication, and sometimes we translated since it’s not a native language but for a few. When I’m writing now I know the language turns into Swenglish sometimes, but I know you understand anyway.
Thinking about the process, let’s start to write about the next phase, the storytelling.
When I was the program manager of a program called Crossmedia at the university we arranged storytelling as one course, from classical oral storytelling to digital storytelling; it was about learning and about storytelling in contemporary art, culture and society. Narration and storytelling have been vital parts of contemporary art for a long time. When we started, some students could not understand the relevance of storytelling today; their reference-points into storytelling were fairytales. I’m thinking of fairytales now, although our stories in the projects are real life everyday stories and not fairytales. There are fairytales everywhere, in TV-dramas, films and even in advertising. They repeat universal ideas about change, courage, dangers, intelligence, good and bad and they mirror personal and existential questions. In a way, our collected stories turn into fairytales for the future.
I remember an evening at Blekinge Institute of Technology (BTH) when Pirjo Elovaara from Technoscience and Crossmedia and I worked late and we sat so still that the automatic lights turned off and it became dark. The sea outside and the glow from the computers mixed and mirrored in the windows. Magic appeared in some sense. We talked about how we could find a way of cooperating in a project where her work as a researcher in new ethnographical methods in everyday stories and mine as a curator could merge, and that is how the first seed of Telling the Baltic was born. We wrote a little, then met in between darkness and light, and suddenly had some lines on a piece of paper. Then we presented the first sketch and you immediately saw links between your way of working as both curator and artist. Discussions started and continued with Lissa Holloway- Attaway from Digital Culture and Communication at BTH, Elena Tsvetaeva, Yulia Bardun and Zinaida Shershun from NCCA Kaliningrad, Rasa Antanavičiūtė from the Nida Art Colony of the Vilnius Academy of Arts, Ulrich Ptak from the Kunsthalle Rostock, Karin Nilsson and Christina Berup from Blekinge museum and Marek Zygmunt as the exhibition designer. Then curators, exhibition producers, researchers and archivists came into the process of developing the idea together with artists.
The stories we gathered, heard, read and saw during the storytelling phase became a very rich cross-border archive of experiences. It made me connect even more to people around the Baltic Sea. I devoured some of the written material. One can compare with our own stories: get into a new relationship with people and countries and get connections between our countries, societies, people, lives, ideas, values, fates, work and leisure through the stories. I will never forget some of the stories and they are what I have in the back of my mind when thinking about, for instance, the sandy coastal area of Nida in Lithuania or of an abandoned lighthouse in Sweden and lighthouse keepers in Poland. I think of the people behind the stories and create my idea of the Baltic countries from it. I weave them into my life and they become part of who I am. The stories are universal, comprehensible and relevant to many.
I have saved some texts from the course about storytelling, one of them describes the basic questions that storytelling raises.
Until the twentieth century, paintings and sculpture were often vehicles for storytelling, and effective storytelling has always used rich visual metaphors for immediate, sensory effects. Recent research also suggests that people process and retain information in narrative structures and that stories are fundamental to making meaning. According to learning theorist, Roger C. Schank, stories are the core of human intelligence. Stories allow us to share our experiences and build a sense of community with others. Peninnah Schram says that storytelling connects people. It connects hearts. It helps answer questions like: Who am I? Who are my people? With what values did they live? How should I live? How should I die? What are the legacies that I want to transmit to my children and to the next generation?7
The stories that were gathered are in many forms and formats, as is the mix of interviews, oral stories, short and long stories, in-depth and quick questions, films, new and old photos and texts. These stories will not be found in future history books, when reading about this decade. History books are often filled with accounts of wars, borders and strategic and political planning, as told in many cases, by militaries and men of power. In our project many people’s voices are allowed to be heard. Everyday stories. Sometimes I find old photos or photo-albums at flea markets, people whose stories are lost and they are disconnected from friends, families and history. I wonder who takes care of them or maybe gives them another context.
In the essay, The Storyteller, Walter Benjamin (1936) wrote that he was afraid that traditional storytelling would soon disappear. He wrote about the world after World War I and the difficulties soldiers had when trying to tell their stories, after coming back to what he sensed was a very different and fast-moving society. I guess it is the story of every decade, that people experience society as a fast speeding train. At the Modernist Lab at Yale University, Leo Hall wrote,
(...) the essay attributes the fall of the storyteller to a time in history devoid of shared experiences. According to Benjamin, people have become unable to reflect accurately upon their experiences, in part because of the dramatic influx and rapid distribution of information in the early twentieth century. Moreover, he asserts that the rise of information is incompatible with storytelling, and contributed to the diminished efficacy of the storyteller.8
In Sweden the oral tradition of storytelling is experiencing a revival in the public. The word storytelling, however, is used in a sloppy way sometimes, about almost everything.
I want to share a few lines by Jonas Frykman and Billy Ehn, two my favorite professors of ethnology: “Much of the discussions during the last years about cultural heritage and history culture have shown that people use the past to answer questions about the present. We look for the magic roots that can provide an anchorage”.9
Take care, Torun
Another important aspect of this Telling the Baltic was how the exhibition
was prepared. It was a long process and this is why we should describe
the whole project rather than just the exhibition. Its first stage
was collecting stories, so we started our curatorial work not from artists
but from people who might be interested in this type of work. We invited
journalists and researchers, and in Lithuania and Russia artists collected
stories themselves. There were many ways of recording stories: texts,
sound recordings and video, and there were a wide variety of people,
whom the collectors approached: marines, officers on a ferry boat, fishermen,
sea rescuers, lighthouse keepers, marine scientists, sailors, islanders,
shipyard workers and others. And only when the collection of stories
was completed were they submitted to the artists.
Mika Hannula writes that a problem of our time is that “we are fascinatingly good at producing more talk, talk, talk, while we are amazingly out of grace at being able to listen – to listen to ourselves and our surroundings”. 10 This is why he postulates the “ethics of listening”, saying that:
Listening becomes the evident and missing counterpoint in contradiction to producing more talk, more works, more action. […] Listening to what’s been said tells you about your life. From there on, it is about following the original catch-and-boom bang effects, thinking through what you hear and how it then relates to your immediate surroundings, and finally how what you heard allows you to, and makes you, think again, and think in a slightly different way about the person who just said what he/she said.11
This is what we wanted the invited artists to do: to listen to the stories collected from people associated with the Baltic Sea before they started to work. Such was the purpose of a workshop held in Karlskrona in March 2012 and in Nida in April 2012. The artists were asked to take the stories with them, to “digest” them and finally to produce an artwork for the exhibition. Of course, we didn’t want them to make “illustrations”. In the end some of the artworks were quite close to the stories from our archive, for example Astrid Göransson’s piece, Life Jacket, which was made into posters, the video by Anna Brag, Whistle in the boat or Irma Stanaitytė and Jurgita Remeikytė’s, Crow catching. Some other works were more distant from the original stories and reflected the artists’ sensitive reaction to the topic of the sea, as it was for example, in the case of Patrycja Orzechowska with her work Deadline, Łukasz Szałankiewicz’s, Horsahallen, Katerina Cherevko’s, Feel yourself like light flow in sea water, Anna Zaradny’s, Cosmos of fish (Fish in outer space) or Paetrick Schmidt’s, Storm around the Baltic. And finally, some of the artists brought still new stories, which were presented in their artworks, like Anna Steller, who, in her performance, Unrelenting beauty of disaster, was relating to the catastrophe of the passenger liner Wilhelm Gustloff, which was sunk by torpedoes in 1945 or Henrik Lund Jörgensen, who, in his video, The Reenactors, included a story about Baltic soldiers extradited from Sweden after World War II.
There was also another process involved in our project. Some of the artists developed their works or created new ones for venues to come. Iwona Zając’s project was evolving the whole time: from embroidered pictures placed in the garden at the Blekinge museum, to the video, The Shipyard Nike Is Leaving shown in Gdańsk. For the exhibition of the ferry, she also created a series of photographs, Miracle of Hard Work, in which she used the original embroidered pictures in a totally new way.
Patrycja Orzechowska started in Karlskrona presenting collages glued directly to walls, and in Gdańsk showed framed collages, in Rostock an artists’ book, and finally in Kaliningrad and on the ferries she presented the same collages in a digital artists’ book along with texts of some other authors.
Another aspect of this process was the way the exhibition evolved in each venue, but this is a story for another chapter…
Maybe our society faces a problem both in terms of listening and of telling stories? (which means we are not open for dialogue?)
Already the Greek philosopher, Plutarch wrote about the art of listening and hearing! He wrote that most people can hear, but to really listen is an art in itself, and continued by saying that most people were poor listeners and that one should be an active listener to be able to be a good speaker.
I will continue to write about PROCESS.
How to tell a story? While a scientist and an artist work with different methods and different languages, there are similarities in their way of exploring the world.
During the workshops we arranged in Karlskrona and Nida the artists met with some of the storytellers, but also went on excursions, took part in other museum archive material, conducted their own interviews and shared their own stories with one another in the workshops, which totaled three weeks. I think we were able to listen and talk; to reflect and then come back and compare with one another. The artists were curious and eager to search for more information.
Documentary practices have been a part of the contemporary art scene for a time now, but the idea was not that the artists should document the stories. Just as you wrote, they were not supposed to make “illustrations”. The artists were to get familiar with the stories, the area and the people and get inspired by them. Artists who could not come to any of the two workshops could not be part of the Telling the Baltic exhibitions, since collaboration and sharing was an important part of the project.
I will add reflections to your descriptions of some of the artists’ work. There were different ways of approaching the subject from the artists’ points of views. For instance, Paetrick Schmidt listened to a story about a Russian lifesaver collected by Alexey Trotsak, and then talked about storms on the sea with all participants. On our last day of the workshop in Karlskrona Schmidt had a sketch of his first ideas and held an enthusiastic and humorous speech about his idea of monuments to lifesavers around the Baltic Sea, an idea which turned out a series of drawings. His main work for the exhibition was, Storm around the Baltic, which consisted of the sculptures of leaning lighthouses from Baltic cities. The beacon is a symbol of spotting land, of safety at sea and Schmidt’s work became the symbol of equality in nature where dramatic weather conditions can appear anywhere around the Baltic Sea.
Anton Zabrodin borrowed a bike to cycle around the coastlines of as many islands as possible in Karlskrona to explore the archipelago and take photos. The photos he showed in the exhibition later were taken in the deserted spits, the no-man´s land, between Poland and Russia and Russia and Lithuania. The photos from Karlskrona are to be developed by hand and used in other projects, which means the work continues in another way and in another place. Łukasz Szałankiewicz wanted to visit prehistoric remnants to find inspiration and made a metaphorical connection to the mysteries of rock carving for his sound piece.
Jurgita Remeikytė and Irma Stanaitytė were very active in the part of story collecting in Lithuania. They made an artistic reenactment of the stories in their films, photos and postcards.
One of their stories had its origin in the way people in the Curonian Spit captured crows and killed them by biting their necks and then cooked them in different ways to eat during poor times. Today the habit is retold through postcards of old photos sold to tourists who come on vacation to the area.
They wanted to arrive to Karlskrona with a sailing boat, but their trip was cancelled the week before due to a forecast of bad weather. We all took a guided tour of the naval base, which is a restricted military area and a large part of Karlskrona’s World Heritage. Among other things we visited the 300-meter-long rope factory building, the Rope walk. Remeikytė and Stanaitytė worked in the Rope walk on a new work for the next exhibition in Gdańsk, a film they recorded in situ and the interior of the building turned into a fictionalized space in a surreal sequence.
Astrid Göransson gathered stories from the archive but also from the workshop participants for her poster, Life Jacket. The stories were the ones many people tell – advice on how to behave on or by the sea. Anna Brag collected the stories about superstitions at sea, which turned out to be very similar in all of our Baltic countries. Brag decided to perform some of these “forbidden” things in her animation, for example, bringing women onboard, whistling on the boat or bringing cheese on a boat.
Astrid Göransson has a habit of going for a swim at the local bathhouses in all the cities where her exhibitions are shown, and hence visited the almost 100-year-old bathhouse in Karlskrona. She decided to come back later and produced two films for the exhibition, with the people she saw there performing at the first time as actors. One of them focuses on a lifeguard, he sits very still and watches over the bathers. We can’t see what he sees, but we follow the reflections of the water from the pool on the wall behind him. In Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, waiting and silence can symbolize that life is meaningless, that we are waiting for something that will never happen. The situation is uncertain in the film, The Lifeguard; silence is prevalent, daydreams seem like an escape and time is both relentless and at a standstill. Göransson’s other film, The Instructor shows a close-up of a swimming instructor who “dry swims” by the side of the pool. He is very dedicated and distinct in his movements and instructions. It’s intense action with a focus on safety.
Henrik Lund Jörgensen brought with him an interest in working on the controversial Swedish extradition of Baltic soldiers after World War II and the notion of refugees. Jörgensen’s work, The Reenactors, mixes time and place, history and contemporaneity, reality and fiction and poses several existential questions like, When can one feel safe? Is there such a thing as being evil or good? What choices in life do we have or take? The video he produced later during spring was recorded with the help of the fisherman from Ronneby, among others.
Johan Thurfjell had a personal starting point which was photographs taken by an old man he knows who lives alone on an island by a little bay. He had seen the man’s photographs of the sea view taken from the same position in the archipelago over many years. The same view looks different every day depending on the weather, season and time of the day. A documenting process can start with a desire to record, to retain and hold every moment, a wish to seize time in the here and now. Or, the photos can be an attempt to register, systematize and organize something as unmanageable as nature. It doesn’t matter, we don’t need to know the purpose. Instead we conjure up a picture and myth in our minds about a man, a sea and a solitude which evokes an atmosphere of Hemingway. The photographs, I picture the island, by Johan Thurfjell were taken in his own studio from a model he built over a sea view. A picture of a picture of a picture.
I can’t stop thinking about the film Smoke where the main character Auggie Wren (played by Harvey Keitel), who owns a cigar store, takes a photo from the same corner of the street outside his store every day. The film is based on a novel by Paul Auster and links together people and stories in an everyday setting. Wren observes the small differences in each day and says, “People say you have to travel to see the world. Sometimes I think that if you just stay in one place and keep your eyes open, you’re going to see just about all that you can handle”.
Katrin Roeber’s father was a captain in the navy and her grandfather was a shipbuilder, but she told us during the workshop that they never spoke with her about their work at sea. Katrin Roeber decided to spend time at the old Saxemara shipyard in Ronneby, which is unique since it has been a functioning shipyard since 1927 and today is also a museum. She took a hands-on approach to reveal her own never-before-told stories and her new relationship to the boats and the stories took on a material form. Sketches and frottages of the boats and old wood found on the premises were done. Some of the other artists helped her on location and she also built up her own studio at the museum for a week. Her work became a kind of image and structure of reality, and then she playfully juxtaposed the frottages with collage elements – an homage to her relatives and to the unspoken.
Let’s write about more of the artists’ work under “nomadic art”. You mentioned the artists who decided to make new works for new exhibition places, like Anna Zaradny, Patrycja Orzechowska or Iwona Zając. Their works showed an interesting process, a process that would be interesting to develop in yet another project. A dream would be to have several workshop weeks at each location.
Thanks for the Skype-meeting yesterday, I will get back to you with proposals for invitations,
Kind regards, Torun
Agnieszka, I added a few lines about memory, stories and the role of
What is fact? What is fiction?
What is truth? What is fabula?
Whose truth is it? Whose memories? Whose stories?
Why do I especially connect to this story, or that one?
I wrote in the introduction that the exploration of the researchers, the artists and the curators working methods has been an adventure and a growing work process. The continuing process, together with the storytellers and the story collectors was also an exciting experience. The cross-disciplinary work was very rewarding in terms of sharing and talking, when knowledge and experience from boat builders, fishermen, shipyard workers, light house keepers, artists, curators, researchers and faculty at an institute of technology and at an art academy, museum archivists, exhibition producers and journalists, hybridized. Many personal stories got to be extended out in the public sphere.
During the next stage, the exhibition, more stories appeared. For instance a visitor approached me during one of the exhibitions and told me that he wanted to share his meeting with a mermaid.
Storytellers’ stories weave together past and present, they mingle personal memories with historic events. I just read a book by the psychotherapist Patricia Tudor-Sandahl, titled, Ordet är ditt (The Word is Yours). She wrote that our memory is in a constant development process and has the potential to be activated again through happenings in the moment. She also writes that memories from the past interact with mental processes in the present. The memory transforms rather than copies, it is an active, creative process that goes on in the moment.
I still want to come back to the role played by non-artists in the project. I don’t know if you agree with me that their role evolved throughout the process. In the beginning we were planning to involve the so-called sea people, whose jobs or lives were somehow connected to the sea, just in the first stage. And that was supposed to be it. The later stage of the project was meant for artists. But when we started to collect stories, and began to meet real people, our attitude changed. There were two reasons for it. The first of them was that people, when they heard about our project, also became interested in it and wanted to be more deeply involved. This is why Sopot fisherman, Witold Tilsa, informed me that he wanted to go with us to the workshop in Karlskrona, and in the end, he and a colleague of his did come and were able to meet fishermen from Blekinge.
A similar thing happened in Lithuania, when local sea people came to meet us during the workshop in Nida. They brought delicious smoked fish and we had a fantastic supper together and a lot of new stories were told...
The second reason for the expanded role of the non-artists was the value of their stories. There was a moment when we realized that they were so interesting and full of life that they should be presented at the exhibitions along with artworks. It was only a question of how to do it. Finally we found a resolution in the form of two boxes: one of them included a compilation of video-interviews and the second - an electronic book with textual stories. Anyway, I write about it because I’d like to stress this experimental side of this exhibition, in which not only the artists participated but also “ordinary people” with their real stories...
Well, that’s it from me today,
The content under all of the headlines is intertwined, together we are weaving a process. It’s like we’re sitting at a loom together and deciding what thread to use next.
When it is finished, it can’t be undone easily since it is already there.
As curators we were able to support the ideas of the artists and add new perspectives to their work. Since we knew what other artists were planning for the exhibition it made it possible to see connections between different artworks.
Iwona Zając planned to bring the tradition of murals from Poland to Sweden but her request to paint on the walls of the Blekinge museum’s baroque garden was impossible, because it is a cultural heritage site. Iwona Zając had to rethink her idea and decided to create canvases and used both paint and embroidery. It was a site-specific work in three parts, composed to fit into the old walls of the baroque garden, which dates back to the beginning of the 18th century. Zając wanted to mix the traditions of southern Sweden with the stories from the Pomeranian area and to mix the tradition of murals with the embroidery-tradition from Sweden in an innovative working practice. She made the embroideries together with the help of several people.
The everyday stories of the shipyard workers in the iconic shipyard of Gdańsk were gathered by Iwona Zając for many years, especially from the time when the shipyard was a restricted area for those other than the workers. In her work, Patience, she mixed the shipyard stories with symbols and colors from the folk art and handicraft of southern Sweden. Traditionally, time-consuming embroideries were mostly made by women for use at home, most of the time their works were never seen in public. In Patience, Iwona Zając connected time and place, public and private, female and male, hand work and handicraft and elevated the stories of people, whose work has previously been invisible to the public, into a public arena.
In Gdańsk Iwona Zając painted a mural on a raw industrial wall as a companion to the triptych she had shown in Karlskrona. This was done in the Science and Technology Park where Laznia CCA arranged the exhibition. In the Kunsthalle Rostock the triptych was shown in a gallery context. During the summer of 2013 a photographic work from the working process of Patience was shown on the ferries going in between Gdynia and Karlskrona, together with the video The Shipyard Nike is leaving. The video was about the wall which used to divide the city from the shipyard in Gdańsk. It was torn down in the beginning of 2013. A 250-meter-long mural was painted by Iwona Zając on the shipyard wall several years ago. The mural contained stories from the shipyard workers and hence the “inside” stories of the shipyard workers were visible on the “outside”, in public. The most iconic part of this mural was a self-portrait of Zając as Nike with cranes as wings. In Greek mythology Nike is the Winged Goddess of Victory. The industrial landscape with cranes and large-scale architecture is disappearing and hence the well-known outline of the city along with the visible story of the shipyard and the symbol of the civilresistance movement contributing to the Walls coming down in Europe.
In the video, Nike frees herself from the wall, she comes to life and leaves the wall symbolically, this time without wings, into the age in which we are living. If the mythological Nike used to fly around battlefields to reward the victors, the shipyard Nike has no-one to reward in the demounting of the shipyard area. As an artist Zając is now free.
Anna Zaradny challenged the idea of what a museum is or can be when she presented her work about a new species of fish called, Esox Lunaris, in a special room at Blekinge museum which was in between the collection and permanent exhibition. In an assemblage of sculpture and film, the astronaut fish was accompanied by sound and videos. The Esox Lunaris had supposedly explored outer space and landed on the moon long before us humans and knew about space technology. On the museum sign the artifact was said to be from 7000 B.C. The artwork was ambiguous for visitors, who could wonder if the figure was part of the collection of the museum or not. In a museum context one can reflect upon what, how and whose history the museum presents and how it is displayed. In Gdańsk her work turned into a larger digital media space laboratory, whereas in the Kunsthalle Rostock she decided to develop a new artwork.
Dainius Dapkevičius made a work which connected the Baltic countries in an installation where he let all lighthouses around the Baltic Sea sound together. All their signals, their light types, frequency, etc. were transformed into a sound composition. Katerina Cherevko’s poetic installation was in constant movement and depended on the viewer’s presence.
The triptych, Sun-diver, by Konstantin Traschenkov was an installation to rest in and was about the similarity between being in a dream and diving under water. Its starting point was a dream described to Traschenkov by a friend in their childhood. The installation reminded you of how sounds transmit underwater in a surreal way. Aleksandr Ljubin and Vassily Kolesnik made a series of photographs from the Marine Brigade in Baltijsk to present the people there who work in a male-dominated and secret military environment with artifacts and symbols of war all around them. I wrote about the sound works of Laura Stasiulytė and Łukasz Szałankiewicz in the text about Art onboard, since their installations were heard by thousands of people in the cabins during the two summers when we had exhibitions on the ferries Stena Vision and Stena Spirit. I haven’t got the texts from our Russian and Lithuanian colleagues about how the work process was developed by the Russian and Lithuanian artists yet. Should we write about this part further?
And, we have to mention the fantastic performances by Anna Steller and Oleg Blyablas as part of the openings and exhibitions.
How to explain the nomadic aspect of our project? It was present on
many levels. First of all we - the partners - were from many cities and
countries situated along the coast and there was ever the Baltic Sea between
us. So we always had to cross it by boat in order to meet or to
do something together. Hmm, sometimes it turned out to be problematic...
Do you remember how I arrived too late at the ferry terminal in
Karlskrona and even though we could still see the ferry standing at the
waterfront, the terminal staff didn’t want to let me on board, because
the moorings had already been removed?
So we were nomads ourselves when working on this project. But also the activities we produced were being moved from one place to another. It started at the workshop organized in March 2012 in Karlskrona, during which the collected stories were presented to the invited artists. Artists from Poland, Sweden, Germany, Russia and Lithuania participated in the workshop. However, because some other invited artists from Russia and Lithuania were unable to attend due to lack of funding, another workshop, something like a twin-brother of the one in Karlskrona, was organized at the Nida Art Colony and there we discussed the stories and planned art projects proposed by the artists from Russia and Lithuania.
Then, of course, there was the exhibition itself, which also traveled. Starting in Karlskrona, it then moved to Gdańsk, then Rostock and Kaliningrad and finally it was even shown on board the Stena Line ferries going from Gdynia to Karlskrona and back.
Do you remember when we discussed how interesting it was that our project caused a transformation of the notions of “the audience” and “the tourist”? It was just the nomadic nature of Telling the Baltic that caused its audience, who wanted to see the exhibition in its different venues, since it changed to a great extent at each location, to become tourists and travel. And, on the other hand, the exhibition on the ferries also caused regular tourists to suddenly become the audience of an art show, whether they wanted to or not, since the art was displayed in the corridors, in the spa and even on the cabin radio.
It was surreal to see the ship leave and there was no chance of getting
on board. Watching the smoke from the large funnel and the slow movement
of a large ship. Seeing the empty waiting hall. And, I remember
you had no one to look after your dog the next day. You had to have your
office on the ferry the entire next day…
The exhibition tour
Blekinge museum, Karlskrona, Sweden
June– September 2012
Laznia Centre for Contemporary Art, Gdańsk, Poland relocated to the Science and Technology Center in Gdańsk due to a delay of the opening of the new Laznia CCA in Nowy Port. The exhibition was planned to be the inauguration exhibition in this building.
October – December 2012
Kunsthalle Rostock, Rostock, Germany
February– March 2013
The Baltic Branch of the National Centre for Contemporary Arts & NGO ArtMission, Kaliningrad, Russia. The exhibition was shown at the Museum of the World Ocean as to present contemporary art works in the most popular parts of the permanent exposition of this institution. In this way the art works and the stories collected by the project participants were linked to the context of the world maritime history. Besides this localisation of the exhibition created a possibility of reaching new audiences. April–June 2013
On board the Stena Line ferries, Karlskrona/Gdynia, Stena Vision and Stena Spirit.
The exhibition displayed everything from existential and poetic works about impermanence; works that accommodate drama and politics, to works with absurd humor and superstition.
The touring exhibition was not an exhibition with the exact same artworks packed into boxes and presented at different art gallery locations. It changed form and there were new works from artists when it was moved to a different place, along with some artworks that were presented at each location. Artworks were created during the project to be shown in a new cultural context. Artworks got new interpretations and meanings for every new situation. It was like an open-ended series of exhibitions. It would have been great to have had an even larger production budget so that all of the artists could have realized new work at every location.
If storytellers brought their personal memories and artists brought their memories, research and work to the project, the visitors from the Baltic countries brought their lives and memories which they reflected against the works they met. It would be fantastic to know more about how the works triggered lashes, recognition, estrangement, new histories and how the memories of the visitors mixed with the artworks and stories.
Marek Zygmunt was the exhibition producer and made the exhibition plans for each location, with the exception of Kaliningrad and on the ferries. He had a hectic time of organizing so many works of art in new locations. His exhibition design gave each artwork its own space. The exhibition at the spacious Kunsthalle Rostock in particular turned out like an open space where the dialogue in between artworks and the visitors offered a long-term view and a lot of space for each work.
The exhibition in Gdańsk was made into a large intriguing maze where the visitors didn’t know what they were going to see around the corner. In Karlskrona, the exhibition moved into several rooms and blended in with the museum objects. The sound installation by Laura Stasiulytė was in the glass entryway, a symbolic passage. Zając’s work was in the garden.
The grey felt Marek Zygmunt decided to use in the exhibition design was inspired by the grey Baltic Sea. It was also functional as it was made into covers for the cubes that visitors could use to sit on and into walls to prevent sound from leaking between artworks, like an insulating protection. Felt is an everyday material, familiar to many. One comes to think about the German artist Joseph Beuys, who used felt in many installations. Zygmunt was perhaps also inspired by Beuys in his own video about saving energy in the different locations where the exhibitions were shown. Like a contemporary monk dressed in orange, he circled around places of worship of any kind, places vibrating with energy. Beuys caught and recycled life energy in many of his works.
NCCA in Kaliningrad was very inventive when finding a location for the exhibition. The space of the Museum of the World Ocean gave a chance to make an unique combination of contemporary art works from Telling the Baltic with the museum’s permanent exhibition and the context of the world maritime history. Employees of this institution invited us to visit all their localities, each with its own atmosphere and content. The artists spread out in locations where their works could find connections to the collection. Elena Tsvetaeva and Yulia Bardun from NCCA had a tough time to arrange all works but the result was very interesting: the permanent exhibition added new layers and interpretations to the artworks.
The exhibition was censored once in Kaliningrad when the World Ocean Museum did not want to screen the video, The Instructor, in the Aquarium during the feeding hour for their fish. The argument was that many of the visitors would be children and since the man in the film is bare-chested and wearing only a swimsuit, it would be construed as offensive. The author of the work, Astrid Göransson, went to the swim center in Kaliningrad to swim and discovered that the men there were also bare-chested. Finally NCCA Kaliningrad managed to mediate between the artist and the museum and the film was shown during all opening hours. The artists wrote short presentations of their works for the exhibition. We added texts around the exhibitions to inform the audience and to put the work in a location-based context.
I’ve been planning for our workshop in October and today have been preparing for next week’s Project Report. We will also meet about the catalogue on Tuesday in Gdańsk! Our deadline for the text is today, Friday 13th. There is sunshine and there is a weekend ;)
Take care, Torun
I would also like to write something about the architecture of the exhibition and its spatial context, because they seem to be very meaningful for this nomadic exhibition. Everything started at the Blekinge museum in Karlskrona – an institution that has had stories collected from people living close to the sea in its program for many years. Its rooms are filled with objects representing the region’s cultural heritage, crafts and fishing tradition. In this way, artworks belonging to the exhibition, Telling the Baltic, were located in the immediate context of the themes to which they related. Even a baroque garden in the museum’s inner yard became a place of display as Iwona Zając’s pictures which combined statements from shipyard workers in Gdańsk with embroidered ornaments from Blekinge were presented on its walls. And Anna Steller’s dramatic performance, Unrelenting beauty of disaster, took place among its carefully modeled shrubs. People living in houses surrounding the museum could observe the performance from their balconies…
In Gdańsk, the exhibition was larger than in Karlskrona, because more works by Russian and Lithuanian artists were added to it. We found a space large enough for it in a building belonging to the Gdansk Science and Technology Park. Previously it had been part of the biggest printing house in Gdańsk, which went bankrupt some years ago. In this postindustrial hall with an area of 550 square meters, a labyrinth, designed by the exhibition’s architect, Marek Zygmunt, was built in such a way that the individual works of art occupied separate spaces.
The Kunsthalle Rostock, which was another place where the exhibition was shown, is a typical modernist museum building from the late 60s of the last century: the classic “white box” with its beautiful open spaces on different levels and huge glass walls. For sure the exhibition benefitted greatly in this architecture.
Our Russian colleagues who organized the presentation of Telling the Baltic in Kaliningrad, were challenged with the space in the World Ocean Museum, where the exhibition was shown. It was not an easy task. This institution has a number of buildings and facilities, in which a permanent exhibition is located that could not be temporarily shut down, and so the artworks had to be placed among the exposed objects. While in Karlskrona the exhibition was shown in the context of the local cultural heritage, in Kaliningrad it functioned in the context of natural heritage - models of flora and fauna or history, such as the inside of a submarine. Certainly, this kind of environment was very interesting, but also required additional, extremely precise conceptual work by the curators. And finally there were the last venues – on the Stena Line ferries which sail from Gdynia to Karlskrona and back. It was also a big challenge to place at least part of the exhibition here. Unfortunately, on the day of the opening I was very ill and could not attend. So I didn’t see this show, because the ferry is a ferry and in everyday circumstances, you cannot go aboard, unless you’re a passenger. Maybe you could write a few lines about how the exhibition was arranged there?
It was great to meet you in Gdańsk this week in between all the projects. It was good to see Evgeny Umansky and Jurij Vassiliev at Laznia CCA too, I will see their exhibition next time. The tour back was on a calm sea. How symbolic that we had our text discussion at the restaurant Perła Bałtyku in Nowy Port. There is still so much we could write about Telling the Baltic - it could be a novel of its own.
When travelling on the ferries back and forth I saw our exhibition onboard again and watched the video, Inner sea everywhere, by Oleg Blyablyas and remembered his performance when a specialist let loose leeches on his body, sucking his blood. When seamen were injured at sea it is said that they were injected with salt water from the sea if there was no blood donor around. Blyablyas connected seawater, nature and the human body in his work.
I saw the digital artists’ book by Patrycja Orzechowska again when on the ferry, an artist who changed her work for each location. Her irregularly built room in Sweden, the abstract oily paintings behind the collage of numerous paper cuttings from old books and magazines mixed with new black and white photographs, covering the walls from floor to ceiling. Seducing at first, and when immersed in the space you discovered the dead birds covered in oil, fish bones and shipwrecks.
“Don’t deliver yourself as a finished package: scream in your laughs and laugh in your screams” is a quote I wrote in a notebook and I think it belongs to the poet and writer Michaux. It came to my mind when I first saw the performance by Anna Steller.
Her breathtaking performance, Unrelenting Beauty of Disaster, illuminated and awakened one of the world’s worst ocean liner catastrophes ever. In January 1945, a Russian submarine fired torpedoes and sunk the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff after it had left Gdynia/Gotenhafen. Over 9000 people died, most of them civilians, but also German soldiers. Now the Baltic is their underwater cemetery. The history of the people onboard is intertwined and combined with her own dramatic personal experience about playing on the beach and in the sea as a child.
This catastrophe turned up several times in other projects within Art Line.
In connection with our project, we heard of the ship, Wilhelm Gustloff, at our first storytelling workshop when the journalist Małgorzata Żerwe told us about her interview with Jerzy Janczukowicz from the diving club Shark.
Our equipment during this, we can say, greatest Polish seadiving expedition, that is the expedition to the wreck of MV Wilhelm Gustloff would today be disqualified right from the start. What we were wearing at that time, would today be simply classified as life-threatening, we wouldn’t be allowed to go into the water in such gear. That really was real free diving. Flippers, mask, wetsuit – they were just beginning to be used. Back then, the basic diving equipment was that heavy metal helmet, lead boots, all that gear that weighed about 100 kg. This diver was connected to the surface by means of hoses, which were linked to the base. In our case, there was really no connection, no Ariadne’s thread linking us with the shore. The diver would just take a cylinder with a supply of breathing air, jump into the water completely freely. He was swimming like a bird…12
The diver said he was sorry that it is forbidden to dive in the wreck of Wilhelm Gustloff today because it disturbs the peace of the dead and compared it to walking in a cemetery at midnight. The wreck of Steuben, sunk only a few weeks after Wilhelm Gustloff, also lies on the bottom of the Baltic Sea.
The summer of 1973. Communism at its peak, and yet we managed to find a perfect key for this expedition. Namely that we, the divers of Shark Club, want to find the Amber Chamber in the wreck of Wilhelm Gustloff, retrieve it and hand it over to our great friend, the Soviet Union. The party notables of the time, whom we had to reach in order to obtain some permits, were totally flabbergasted indeed. ‘Cause you know, it was risky to say no /laugh/. After all, those students from the Shark have such a noble aim, how to forbid them.13
The Amber Chamber was unique treasure from the beginning of 1700, given to the Russian tsar Peter the Great, which later was brought to Königsberg castle where is disappeared just at the end of WWII.
The shipwrecks were shown in the photographs by Magnus Peterson who took part in Art & Apparatus, another Art Line project, and presented his earlier work in an exhibition connected to digital media. Peterson used side-scan sonar, which can read the bottom of a sea and render the sound waves into images. He went searching for shipwrecks on the dark bottom of the Baltic Sea, unattainable for humans and impossible to see. Secrets waiting and lurking in the invisible depths. Many people dream of finding a well-kept, never-before-seen secret. Gustloff was one of the shipwrecks presented in the exhibition Art & Apparatus. Some war crimes are depicted over and over again in films and books about World War II, this is not the case with Gustloff. When we arranged workshops in Kaliningrad, we walked past a memorial by a lake on a cold and beautiful winter day. It was a bronze sculpture of the submarine commander Alexander Iwanowitsch Marinesko, who sunk Gustloff.
Onboard the ferries photographs by Iwona Zając were displayed in the spa’s dark brown lounge area. There was a long glass vitrine wall perfect for the lighthouses by Schmidt and some selected stories from lighthouse keepers. Almost all of the exhibition’s video works were shown onboard on the TV channels, in the spa, or in the specially built orange boxes in between the bars and restaurants. All the passengers passed by this spot. The sound installation by Laura Stasiulytė was heard in every cabin onboard. Showing art on the ferries proved to be a real challenge, since the overall design of ferries seemed to be dominated by horror vacui along with marketing for what to drink and do onboard. Astrid Göransson’s work, Life Jacket, was made into posters which were given out to the ferry passengers as gifts, and now many people around the Baltic know the advice on how to behave when at sea.
I was thinking about the Moomintrolls by Tove Jansson. In Moominpappa at Sea, Moominpappa is writing his dissertation about the sea by a lonely lighthouse to which he brings his family. He is trying to understand the sea and thought that when he finally could grasp what the sea is about, he would also understand himself. The forces of nature and the inner forces intertwined. But the riddle is never unveiled. There is no answer. From the start we had the idea to save the original stories in the archives of the maritime museums around the Baltic Sea, in a cross-border memory bank. When we applied for a six-month extension of Art Line we wanted to make the stories and storytellers more visible. Now we are to present them online and make a presentation for all the museums which means they can show it to their visitors. Together with the documentary of the project made by Justyna Zając and Marek Zygmunt, it will be possible to present Telling the Baltic again and hopefully encourage more people to tell their stories about the Baltic.
I use the sentence which artists from each country translated for the first opening:
Östersjön är det som förenar oss – Bałtyk nas łączy – Baltiĭskiĭ nas obiedinyaet – Die Ostsee verbindet uns – Baltijos mus vienija – The Baltic is what connects us.
1. Verwoert J. (2010), Control I’m here: A call for the free use of the means of producing communication, in curating and in general, in: P. O’Neil & M. Wilson (eds.), Curating and the educational turn, London: Open Editions.
4. Chandler L. (2009), Journey without maps; unsettling curatorship in cross-cultural contexts, http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/museumstudies/ museumsociety/documents/volumes/chandler.pdf
7. Borst Brazas J., Kajder S. & Springer J. (1996), Digital Storytelling at the National Gallery of Art: Museums and the Web, conference paper, Washington DC/Arlington VA.
9. Ehn B. & Frykman J. (2007), Minnesmärken. Att tolka det förflutna och besvärja framtiden, Stockholm: Carlsson Bokförlag.
10. Hannula M. (2012), Critical Reflections In and Through the Practicies of Contemporary Art, Expodium, Platform for Young Art; Utrecht: MaHKU, Utrecht Graduate School of Visual Art and Design, p. 45.
12. Żerwe M. (2012), The Baltic Shark, http://ttb.artline-southbaltic.eu/category/fragments-of-stories/page/5/.
Telling the Baltic is an International collaborative storytelling and art exhibition initiative within the larger Art Line project involving the Laznia Centre for Contemporary Art (Laznia CCA), Blekinge Institute of Technology (BTH), Blekinge County Museum, Baltic Branch of the National Centre for Contemporary Arts, NGO ArtMission (Kaliningrad), Nida Art Colony of the Vilnius Academy of Arts, Kunsthalle Rostock and Stena Line Ferry. During the course of the three-year Art Line project, participating partners gathered a range of materials and “stories” from individuals who live within and who travel throughout the South Baltic region. The collected materials span many forms and types and include traditional interviews, photo essays, digital stories, historical and archival media, as well as accidental encounters, ambient sounds, and abstract images, all gathered from sea-travelers, sea-dwellers, and from the sea itself. The collected stories formed the raw materials and inspiration for artists, who were selected from our partner countries, and who rendered stories or abstracted elements from stories, regions, and personal experiences of the Baltic into works of art. These works were exhibited in museums, galleries, and other venues around the Baltic (including on the Stena Line ferry traveling between Poland and Sweden) throughout 2012–2013. Both the storytelling and artistic development process was enhanced through joint meetings, seminars, workshops, and other research practices that explored storytelling, interdisciplinary art production, and intercultural cooperation.
As a researcher in Digital Culture and Media at Blekinge Tekniska
Högskola (BTH) in Karlskrona, Sweden, and a project
leader in the Telling the Baltic initiative, who both collected
stories and produced digital interventions and media with
the stories collected, my participation has provided many
unique challenges in the exhibition and story-collection
process. What is a story? What makes a story unique from
the artworks produced within the exhibitions? How does a
landscape tell a story, and how is this unique from a personal
narrative collected from someone who lives and
works on the sea? How are both uniquely intimate and
expressive, and how can digital media complement this expressiveness?
These are some of the questions which have
engaged me during the development of Telling the Baltic
and in the exhibition process, and which will continue to
resonate with me after the project concludes. The project
did not, in fact, provide answers to these questions, but
much like the materials we collected, which remained diverse
in theme and form, it remained irresolute in terms
of international influences and poly-vocal in terms of the
narrative and characters they embodied. They continue to
ripple the surface of our intentions, to make waves and disrupt
clear and linear reflections. The stories we found were
not static mirrors of one Baltic presence, nor were they unified
in terms of their form, or even for that matter, formal in
their identification as traditional stories; yet, this proved to
be a valuable lesson provided by our encounter. That is, the
diversity of storytellings forges multiple bridges of experience
across the Baltic region and across the sea. ‘Liquid’
narratives which refuse simple form and definition also assure
that borders are permeable, and art, story, landscape,
history and culture can be accessed through a variety of
means to reveal a multiplicity of Baltic identities and perspectives.
We believe the Baltic Sea has many stories to “tell”, and it can reveal its narrative(s) in countless outlets from which we may explore and share its rich surfaces, depths and all the spaces in between. We thus sought stories from those who travel the sea on holiday or for work (ferry passengers, island dwellers, sailors, ship mechanics, dock workers, and galley staff), but also from those who live by the Baltic’s international shores and from those whose lives are influenced by its beauty, mystery, hidden dangers and secrets. Our goal was to collect an array of materials which reflect the many ways the sea can represent an inter-cultural and multi-cultural identity. Just as there is no one Baltic Sea, or one Baltic Sea-story, there is no singular way to represent the numerous ways in which the sea can influence those who encounter it. Therefore, our international profile – with story collectors and researchers in Poland, Germany, Sweden, Lithuania and Kaliningrad – supports our goal to promote multiple perspectives on the Baltic. Our research trajectory as we engaged this process has been informed by a number of questions relevant to cross-cultural digital media(tions) and expressive (new) narrative forms enabled by emergent mixed media forms. These questions included: How can digital media provide a bridge between “material” and “immaterial” experiences and support/express our sensations of place in a contemporary mixed-media ecology? How can storytelling form sustainable cultural bridges among diverse disciplines (art, media production, humanities, social sciences and cultural studies) and populations (Swedish, Polish, German, Russian and Lithuanian)? How can digital media give “voice” to the everyday, accidental, ambient and liquid life of the sea and its borders (to the sounds, sensations, and embodied expressiveness outside the medium of “pure” language)?
To this end, we tried several methods of collecting stories. For example, we interviewed passengers and workers on ferries both big and small: the Aspö ferry (a small local car and foot passenger ferry in Karlskrona) and the Stena Line ferry (a large commercial ferry traveling between Sweden and Poland). What were the differences, we wondered, between these expanses of water and they people who traversed them? To investigate, we spent time talking to passengers and recording responses from those who took the 20-minute journey between Trossö, in central Karlskrona, and Aspö, a small island in the Swedish archipelago, fittingly near the mouth of the open Baltic sea, populated mostly by summer residents and tourists. What could it tell us? What would it say? Although we did ask those traveling on the ferry personal questions about who they were, we also asked them for ‘stories’ about their journeys, the why of their travels, and invited them to express what the ferry and this particular part of the Baltic sea meant to them. “Tell us your story”, we prompted. “Why are you here, now?” From a German family exploring a holiday destination on bikes, and a young man scouting a site for his impending marriage, to an older woman who lived on Aspö and saw the ferry journey as a “roadway” between very different places (Aspö and Trossö), and a postman delivering mail and collecting it from the floating mailbox on the ferry, we heard many responses. We found many small and personal stories that reminded us that the Baltic could have both a local and international profile at the same time; it could be both foreign and exotic, as well as an invisible work-a-day place, nothing special at all, merely a place to “get over and across”, as one Aspö resident shared. “Why are you here?” many seemed to wonder. “What’s so special about this place to you?” And still many others knew already what was special and were happy we asked them to share.
Our interviews on the larger Stena Line ferry took us down other roads, as we focused there primarily on those working on the ferry, asking them if they had any specific reflections on the sea and what it meant to them. Again the range was diverse, as we discovered: to some the sea and their colleagues on the ferry were a second family, and the ship a “home”. Many spent up to two weeks at a time on board, making it a living space and workplace combined. But, surprisingly, the Baltic was not even necessarily a “seaplace” to some, especially to those who worked in housekeeping or in the engine rooms, as they often forgot they were not on land and rarely even looked at the water. They separated themselves from the passengers, but not in a negative way, as they knew they could not share the experience of a tourist. The ship was too familiar, not foreign enough, and was not a vehicle taking them across to some other place, but was rather already a place, with the journey itself being inconsequential. The ferry sounds too became a kind of invisible background hum, or alternately, a cause for alarm, we discovered as we entered the deafening noise of the engine rooms to which the mechanics seemed almost oblivious, unless it changed slightly, and then they tuned in to find the problem. To the ferry Captains, the sea was hyper-present, something they scrutinized carefully, looking for signs of alarm, danger, or just local traffic. Their panoramic views did not fade into “work-only” views though, as the Swedish Captain we met said he often was astounded by how beautiful it was, and he also spent his vacations aboard ships in other seas, as he never grew tired of the water and its romance. To the Head of Security, who allowed us to visit the “prison” on board the ferry, it was a place that sometimes inspired anti-social activities, ending in a jail cell, but also led to close friendships and long conversations with some who just needed to calm their nerves. As he shared with us the story of a voyage where he stayed up long into the night to calm an elderly man, traveling alone, who grew very anxious, away from his wife from whom he was seldom apart, we realized that stories of connection can come from unexpected sources. The ferry “prison guard”, became a kind of “therapist”, and then ultimately a friend to someone who reached out to him on the sea, and they began a years-long friendship and correspondence. This story was to Stena Line’s Head of Security one of his most meaningful connections to the Baltic, and it was clear as he shared it that he saw his work on the sea as one where people-in-need were central to his best experiences. The sea, he reminded us, brought out both the dreamers and the fighters, but you could never know which you might find on any given day, and especially at night. Our more general research framework for this project – foregrounded within the Art Line initiative as a whole, seeksing to sustain creative networks among artists, theorists, cultural institutions and tourism – provided a solid foundation for exploring how the sea both connects and divides us in differing and interdisciplinary contexts. The Telling the Baltic project is based on a mixed model for critical/ creative practice, and the researchers at BTH are committed to documenting our methods and supporting research in storytelling methods, interdisciplinary art practice, experimental exhibition, and intercultural collaboration and to networking through productive practice. To that end, information about the Telling the Baltic participants, selected stories, and documentation of our collection and production methods, as well as a gallery showcasing the artworks selected for the exhibitions, can be viewed on the Telling the Baltic and Art Line websites, as well in the exhibitions themselves in the form of text, image and video narratives. We worked with archivists at the Blekinge museum, for instance, to find old photographs of Baltic Sea life, as well as with a local Karlskrona photographer, Ida Gustavsson, to create contemporary images from both sides of the Baltic (in Blekinge and in Nida) from which we made postcards and asked visitors to Art Line venues and to Telling the Baltic events to tell us what the pictures meant to them, and to share their own stories. The postcard images are displayed in a book of stories at the Telling the Baltic exhibitions, are online on You Tube, repurposed as “digital postcards” asking for viewers commentary, and also serve as the basis for a spin-off project called Drawing Lines (by Maria Björkman and Erika Deal), which explores postcards in the context of locative and tactile digital media storytelling. The ways in which our raw materials (such as our postcard image stories), our connections across cultures, and our mixing of physical and digital platforms, as well as the inter-development among projects (from the Telling the Baltic postcards to Drawing Lines) is a new model for interdisciplinary collaboration and multimodal exhibition. Like the sea we are trying to capture and tell, the means and methods we evoke are fluid and invite multiple ways to traverse the Baltic networks, and beyond, and seek connections among them.
The Digital Art Platform (DAP), another Art Line initiative related to the Telling the Baltic project, and to which BTH researchers have made significant contributions, is another experimental venue for exhibiting works that include digital components and explore innovative uses of public space, but which also combine and confuse virtual and physical spaces. In parallel to our participation in the Telling the Baltic project, the development of the DAP also illustrates the ways in which artistic and cultural narratives may be sustained and developed with a consciousness towards the materiality of the media employed to inspire/ produce/display it. This includes not only foregrounding the “stories” and story-types we collect within the Telling the Baltic project (and within Art Line as a whole), but also within other art pieces, performances, and media (designed within our research network of theorists and artists) to support a cross-cultural conversation among international partners and contexts. This diverse network necessitates an informed critical perspective on story collection, production and exchange, and throughout the process of development, we contribute to a reflective process to share the methods and practices we use to bring interdisciplinary perspectives together (humanists, social scientists, artists, technicians, and cultural workers). We have engaged this process through active research seminars, workshops with the artists, participation in conferences, and the development of media.
The (s)AND project reflects the dynamic development methods we have tried to maintain in research related to the Telling the Baltic exhibitions, and was inspired by a research residency I held at the Nida Art Colony in Lithuania (another Art Line partner) in late 2011. Working with collaborators (Daniel Spikol at Malmö University) and media developers and musicians in Sweden (Ida Gustavsson, Martin Arvebro, Astrid Selling Sjöberg and Kristin Borgehed), we worked to develop a multimodal method for telling the story of two distinct coastlines around the Baltic, and to both find common ground and to recognize and mediate distinctions. In the project, we explore the physical landscape around Nida, Lithuania and the Blekinge Region in Sweden with an emphasis on allowing the landscape to dictate its character and reveal its natural histories. The project focuses on the murky and indistinct cultural histories that connect and disconnect the regions throughout this Baltic Sea border. Thus, it focuses on shifting sites of location for “true” historical storytelling and includes imaginative “additive” content to forge connections. Hence, the project title, which alludes to “sand” as a physical property characterized by its shifting nature, at the border between solid land and liquid water, as well as (“and”) the additive possibilities that such shifting allows: If borders shift, then what, one may ask, is lost or gained as the renegotiation occurs? What are the Baltic stories held within, washed away, and re-deposited in the iconic (s)ANDs and dunes of Nida and the rocky shores of Blekinge, and how do they exemplify all stories as historically liquid, multitudinous (countless, like grains of sand on a beach), immense (like the dunes and the boulders), and intimate when one participates with them? “Sand”, too, as a property connected to time – through its containment in an hour-glass – supports other explorations of it and its relationship to history-telling, to history-making. The project uses many methods to reveal the stories and adapts them to a number of different contexts and venues. This includes the use of iPads and mobile devices to access augmented reality and other media content comprised of photographs and video from Lithuania and Sweden, as well as live music, song, and poetry based on a telling of the landscapes. Using panorama landscape images/video, and touch screens, for example, users in the (s)AND installation are able to access (to “touch”) abstract narratives based on the histories and locations of Nida and other Baltic sites that evoke the themes of the project. But the story has also been presented as a digitally enhanced performance in which texts and images and responsive technology converge with live actors and musicians. The work has been exhibited in a number of different forms and international venues (and will be throughout 2013), including a video installation, live media performances, and an interactive installation.
The artistic rendering of the raw-material of our stories into contemporary digital media artifacts and exhibitions (mediated and live, or both) maps an important trajectory within interdisciplinary digital culture studies emerging from literary traditions: that is, the movement from textbased literature production to digitally-mediated creative cultural expressions and embodied narratives that foreground multi-modal “textual performance”. Such performances – in print media and in digital (art) forms – depend on identifying complex textual composition and production practices to capture contextualized meaning-making (“storytelling”) within expressive forms without reducing those narratives (or reducing them to narratives) as simple representative structures and/or holistic mediations. We understand that the technical rendering of information within the context of “media representations” requires critical aptitude and nuance to avoid reductive linear storytelling formulas. Bringing our research into conversation with creative practice (such as workshops that draw together theorists, story collectors and Telling the Baltic artists) illustrates how active interpretative methods, ones which overtly engage the story-matters (the documents, media types, and the cultural contexts) can deepen our knowledge of how culturally-informed expressions circulate in emergent technically-mediated contexts, and also encourage participation, collaboration, and experiential sharing. In closing, I will share the words, one final story, from one of my colleagues at Blekinge Tekniska Högskola, Pirjo Elovaara (Ph.D., Senior Lecturer, BTH), with whom I worked during the story-collection process. As a feminist technoscience researcher with experience in ethnography and digital storytelling, her insights about her own research process (before and during the Telling the Baltic experience) and her understanding of everyday stories also reflect the diverse ways in which a “telling” of Baltic stories must draw on a number of perspectives in order to reflect the richness of “the silent and seemingly small”. This is true if the source is an image, a landscape, a sound, a sailor, or a personal history: “a Baltic story about collecting stories...”
When you are interested in everyday life, you suddenly find your way to everyday knowing, and the need to ask yourself how to study everyday practices, especially their tacit aspects, and how people make meaning of their everyday lives. In order to be able to learn more about the complexities of everyday knowing as a researcher I realized that I needed unique methods. In my case, it was the ethnographic approach, in particular, with its focus on observations and interviews, that provided me with a valuable tool kit. And things worked out rather well – I visited many different places and environments and observed and interviewed. Ethnographic skills are not easy to acquire, but slowly, my own understanding of how to respectfully and carefully do research on ethnographic premises expanded. However, somewhere during my own learning process, I started to feel uncomfortable. Observation and interviews are well known and respected research methods, but they were not good enough to notice the unnoticeable, the silent and the seemingly small.
My journey of methods continued. Along with my colleagues, I started to experiment with methods beyond those of ethnography. The most important demand for the inclusion of new methods into our repertoire came from the clear observation that nothing in the everyday is uninteresting, and that we need methods that appreciate and respect this position. We as researchers, coming from outside, stepping into practices unfamiliar to us, do not know in advance what is important, and hence we need open-ended and inclusive methods; the most silent voice should be the voice of the researcher’s meaning. In a research situation, the main actors should be people in their own contexts; everyday stories can come in many shapes, and we need to listen to learn and appreciate them; we should tolerate our own uncertainty when working with creative methods, which should be based on the idea of participation, and finally, should be fun for all partners and participants.
Suddenly I found myself in the middle of the Art Line and Telling the Baltic projects. Bringing my previous experiences into the project, I decided that here once more there was an interesting opening for testing and developing my methods further, methods needed for collecting stories in their everyday contexts. And since I am convinced that stories are not equal to interviewing, there is a linear trajectory from questions to answers, other ways of accessing people’s stories from and around the Baltic would be necessary. Why not start with a simple and clear invitation when meeting the storytellers: “Tell me your story?”, we asked many times. And then we opened ourselves up to the accidental transformations and translations that were told across the encounters, across the seas.
The term museum is derived from the Greek word mouseion, a place sacred to the muses, goddesses of art and science. The Romans used the word museum to describe places where they had scientific discussions. A museum nowadays is an institution that collects, systematizes, preserves and communicates. There are hardly any limits to what a museum can collect. It could for instance be objects, data, video, audio and stories. The reason for collecting varies, but in short it can be described as: The museum collects so that we will not forget- but remember! Telling the Baltic was a collaborative storytelling project. Stories have been told of those about those who travel the sea on holiday and for work. The stories were stored in a public cross-border archive and formed the raw material for artists who could use them as inspiration in creating artworks.
Within the Telling the Baltic project, Blekinge Museum also
collected stories. Our geographical investigation area was
the Baltic Sea, and the timespan was anything from today
to historical epochs.
My role in the project as the person responsible for the Blekinge museum archives and documentation activities was to put the museum’s stories at the artists’ disposal, to be the pilot into mousseion.
For bringing together the material, three methods were used, namely:
· Searching in archives
· Searching on the internet
Blekinge museum has a considerable collection of photographs, articles, interviews and other documents describing life in the archipelago. In this material, we found interesting material, telling about the lives of men, women and children. From this collection, some photographs with descriptive texts were posted on the Art Line/Telling the Baltic website. In the historical stories, we find that the sea mainly was a place for people to make their living, for example, as fishermen, pilots or customs officers, whilst in contemporary stories, the archipelago is mostly a site for recreational activities.
Interviews were made with different persons having connection to the Baltic Sea. For example one man who had visited Lithuania told this story.
At one occasion I think it was 1990 I sat at a dinner table in Vilnius with various representatives for Sajudis, the Lithuanian independence movement. I sat next to a man I did not know and we exchanged some pleasantries. I asked if he had been in Sweden or Western Europe sometime. He had not and that was not a surprise. He asked me where I came from and I said: From a small town near the Baltic Sea called Karlskrona and you can not really know where that is. Then he thought for a moment and said; I know the town. It is where The Old man Rosenbom stands outside a church. I looked at him and said: How can you know that? Well he said. I remember a chapter from Nils Holgersson. That book we read to our children. It was our way during the repression to teach our children Swedish geography. I also asked if it was translated into Lithuanian and it was the course. I had not thought of literature’s power and importance on that way earlier.
Today we find many stories on the internet, where those who want to share their experiences place them. Through the internet, we found both ancient and contemporary stories. A man wrote about his island far out in the sea. On his website, we found a story about a boat that came drifting during the second world war, no one knew from where. The children of the island took care of it and used it in different ways. Håkan Bergström writes: There was an old boat laying in the grass of Långören. You could see it for quite a while until finally it was completely gone. The last thing we saw was the outline in the grass, the outline of an old boat. Nothing special, perhaps, just an old boat. Forgotten and so finally given back to nature, as it always happens. It was winter and the year could have been 1944, when the abandoned boat drifted over the sea and eventually stranded on Långören. From where she came, nobody knows, perhaps from overseas. Many crafts were coming from there in those times…
The collected material was systematized and presented in different ways. One example is the presentation at the workshop held in Karlskrona in March 2012. Some of the participating artists were inspired to look further into the museum’s collections, and so it came about that... Irma Stanaitytė, Jurgita Remeikytė and Patrycja Orzechowska worked with the photo collection and Iwona Zając used traditional embroidery as inspiration. Katrin Roeber was inspired by traditional wooden boats and made a frottage at the museum´s boat yard. Łukasz Szałankiewicz visited historical sites. Patrycja Orzechowska visited boat grave yards. Irma Stanaitytė and Jurgita Remeikytė made a film from the Rope Walk in the shipyard of Karlskrona and Anna Brag drew inspiration from stories about supervision on the sea.
Telling the Baltic - a Museum
It is possible to describe the Telling the Baltic project the same way as you would define a museum. The idea was to collect stories, systematize them, preserve them and tell them again. Re-narration was done with artistic expression in places for art and science and with the purpose, among other things, to generate scientific discussions. And finally, the stories are archived for the future and the collective memory – so that we should not forget, but remember.
Karin Nilsson ethnologist and pedagogue employed at Blekinge Museum. In charge of the museum’s documentation, archives and research service.
When it sounds like the storyteller’s imagination has run away with them, we call it a sailor’s yarn. It needn’t be a sailor telling the story; it just has to sound like it’s more or less a lie. Or at least highly improbable. The sea does something to the imagination, as if distances also stretch facts. The imagination always takes wings when the horizon is limitless.
The fact that the Baltic is actually only a small inland
sea makes no difference. In their Crow Catchers, Irma
Stanaitytė and Jurgita Remeikytė tell us that in the early
twentieth century the coastal population of the Curonian
Spit – which is now Lithuania – were known as “crow
biters” for their habit of hunting crows and breaking their
necks with their teeth. A real sailor’s yarn, you might
think. But Stanaitytė and Remeikytė back it all up with
references to historical sources and documents, probably
the most intriguing of which is an old postcard of two
boys demonstrating how the killing was done.
So it’s true, then? Or is it just clever historical fiction?
And what should we believe when Oleg Blyablyas tells us in his film Semper Domestica Mare that in olden days, injured sailors were injected with sea water to compensate for blood loss? Blood and seawater are said to have virtually the same chemical composition – so an old sea dog could very well be telling the truth when he claims to have “the sea in his blood”.
If the story is true, that is. But is that actually so important?
Maybe; maybe not. The travelling exhibition Telling the Baltic, which in 2012 and 2013 was presented in Karlskrona, Gdańsk, Kaliningrad and Rostock as part of the threeyear collaborative project Art Line, was based on a large number of stories collected in the countries surrounding the Baltic. Prior to the exhibition, the artists were given access to these stories, taking them as a starting point for their work. There were tales of people who live and work near the sea: lighthouse keepers, fishermen, dock workers and soldiers. Tales of altered living conditions and geopolitical shifts. Tales of different worlds and common resources.
But there were also a number of stories of a more lurid nature. Andrius Varnas, a skipper (of course) from Nida in Lithuania remembers his youth with the 1970s Hikers, a kind of Soviet beatnik group, and how he was once imprisoned for drinking milk (!) at one of their wild beach parties. From Poland, Jerzy Janczukowicz tells how he and his diving club obtained authorisation to dive the wreck of the Wilhelm Gustloff on the pretext that they were going to search for the mythical Amber Room on behalf of the Soviet “sister nation”. And according to Alexey Chebykin from the Russian enclave Kaliningrad, the sea was once said to have washed up three tonnes of amber on the beach – stones that people gathered in buckets and took home to use instead of wood, amber being said to make an efficient fuel.
It’s understandable that a creative artist, faced with such extensive source material, would select the lively, exotic tall tales. But it also shows the complexity of documentary art projects of this kind. As American critic Hal Foster observed as early as 1996 in his book The Return of the Real, contemporary art has a strong ideological attraction to the “ethnographic”, i.e. to documentary stories from worlds that are at a comforting distance from artistic life. Foster interprets this anthropological trend as a symptom of the hunger for “reality” that has characterised much of the art and culture in an age in which practically everything is reduced to market relations. Contact with “the other”, he explains, is a way for the artist to legitimise his or her position, to anchor it in social reality. But it is a position which, according to Foster, runs the risk of becoming reductive and “narcissistic”.
Today – some twenty years later – Foster’s analysis is more relevant than ever. Not only because documentary and scientific approaches seem to be more and more central to the art of our time (they were, for example, the focus of Documenta 2012), but also because the basic problem remains, that the aesthetic distance and subjectivity of art allow it to relate to the facts as it chooses. This is also key: a work can build its entire effect on the fact that the viewer doesn’t know where the line between reality and fantasy lies. Yet obviously it is not the same thing. Even in art.
In Telling the Baltic, the register extended right from Pole Anna Zaradny’s baroque myth about a civilisation of fishermen said to have colonised the Moon – talk about sailor’s yarns! – to Russian Anton Zabrodin’s factual photos of abandoned sites along the coast of the Kaliningrad enclave. The “crow biters” of Irma Stanaitytė and Jurgita Remeikytė, and Oleg Blyablyas’ water injections were somewhere in between, in a borderland of subjective interpretations, unprovable urban legends and poetic factoids, which with the right of art could be given an existential and universal meaning.
But what meaning? What were all these stories and tall tales really about? What was the shape of the big story that hid beneath the surface of all the small ones? Was there even a big story at all?
Or perhaps that was just the point; that there wasn’t one?
How, for example, did Patrycja Orzechowska’s powerful collage of pictures of fish skeletons and shipwrecks relate to Iwona Zając’s large canvases of embroidered quotes by shipyard workers in Gdańsk, full of hurt professional pride and concern for the future? What links Johan Thurfjell’s fine image-based account of a man who settles on a deserted island with the photo reportage by Alexander Ljubin and Vassily Kolesnik from the old naval base in Baltijsk?
And is Astrid Göransson’s style study of an idle lifeguard connected with ... all of it?
For me, Telling the Baltic became not primarily an exhibition about the Baltic Sea and its people, but more an opportunity to reflect on just how art can assert its authority as a narrative medium, rather than as a documentary, “anthropological” practice. In other words, the exhibition showed how, perhaps better than any other language, art is able to bridge the gaps, not only between countries, but between now and then, between fact and fiction, between image and world. And perhaps it is in this very uncertainty that a new awareness can be achieved of what is essentially fictitious in such distinctions.
Does that sound romantic? Perhaps it does. But the best works in the exhibition contained just that enigmatic interface between truth and symbols, realism and poetry. Like in Henrik Lund Jørgensen’s film The Reenactors, in which the Swedish “extradition of the Balts” formed the basis of a philosophical reflection on refugeeism. But what lingered in the memory was the metaphorical digression into fantastic facts; for example, how aquatic organisms are transported around the world in the ballast tanks of ocean-going vessels – with unpredictable consequences when the water is released in a foreign environment.
Or Konstantin Traschenkov, who recounted a conversation with his childhood friend Nikita Kokhan, now a military diver, against a backdrop of stylised sunset pictures. As the sun sank slowly towards the horizon, he described in a lingering and thoughtful manner working in the muddy waters of the Baltic as being like descending into a dream.
The body becoming lighter, the movements becoming heavier.
A world that follows its own laws.
Dan Jönsson is a Swedish art critic and writer.
The Writing Lines project is an extension of a project initiated as part of the Telling the Baltic story-collection initiative begun by researchers at BTH to gather material for the artists in the Telling the Baltic exhibition. In the original project, postcards were left in a variety of Balticrelated venues and locations asking people to leave their stories, or to tell stories, based on the images on the postcards or on their own experiences. These 20 postcards were then re-purposed for the Writing Lines project. The project will be displayed in a joint exhibition in the US and Sweden in late 2013, extending the borders of the Baltic into other international contexts.
This project is an extension of a story-collecting initiative
originally created within the Telling the Baltic exhibition.
Initially, postcards were created and used to collect stories
based on the images printed on the postcards. These
images represented landscapes, historical figures and
sea-based locations all linked within the south Baltic region.
They were circulated among visitors to Telling the
Baltic exhibitions and on the Stena Line ferry, travelling
between Sweden and Poland, as well as at other related
venues and events. The postcards also encouraged writers
to share their own personal stories about the Baltic,
and beyond. To extend and repurpose this project with
further reflection on the postcard itself as an inspirational
and complex medium, particularly under pressure in
the digital age, we developed Writing Lines as an exploration
of storytelling, documentation, and traveling among
Writing Lines explores the communication of personal experience and place in the Baltic region: in other words, it explores how we tell ourselves and others stories about where we have been and where we are going. The postcard, a hybrid text/image communication medium, stands at the center of this exploration. It is both shorthand used to communicate our experiences of a place to people who are not with us, and, at the same time, a stimulant for the imagination, always shortchanging the story beyond the image and between the lines. Viewed as a representation both of a real and an imagined place in space and time, the postcard captures and tracks the movement of its sender, thus symbolizing the where and when of one and many subjects. Furthermore, the postcard negotiates the present, i.e. it marks the sender/writer as being in a specific time and place, as well as breaks or extends that present by including and anticipating the concept of the future by evoking the intended recipient as it is being written. Our project explores the tension between traditional print-based postcards that traverse past/present, here/there, sender/receiver boundaries, and digital media forms that collapse and further fuse and complicate notions of time and space into more hypermediated experiences. Shared and viewed via social media outlets such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, text and image hybrids create complex grids and networks of exchange, drawing and sustaining many lines of “open” communication.
Traditionally, a postcard is almost always one-directional, communicating out but not inviting a response. Using digital media, we transform postcards into portals, creating access points for our explorations of place, personal meaning, and the communication of stories through different media. By extending the concept of the portal into discussions of digitally produced and shared postcards that allow for participation on social networks, we investigate the importance of the screen and screened/ mediated experiences to explore the relationship between shared space and place. Crucial to understanding the production and consumption of virtual places and shared experiences in social and digital media is the complex and recursive communication channels operating between physical and material forms and media and virtual ones. Although currently digital media and social networks for exchange are ubiquitous, this does not mean virtual forms completely override material forms.
With postcards for example, it is possible to utilize applications that document and render experiences and locations in digital forms and circulate them via social media, but that also allow one to customize and print postcards, drawing on more traditional means of communication (in Sweden the Riktiga Vykort application developed by Posten includes these dual features). In Writing Lines we work to integrate emergent methods and modes inspired and enabled by digital media, but also draw on more nostalgic forms of writing and storytelling grounded in the physical and material aspects of the postcard and the practices connected with writing and sending it. In effect, the embodied experience of being-in-a-place connected to the materiality/media specificity of the postcard further complicates the distinction between real and digital, material and virtual.
Using text, video, and images, we construct our own archaeology of identity: layers of meaning, layers of specificity, layers of experience that have no linear relationship to each other. We attempt to move beyond the postcard, beyond the simplicity of point-to-point communication of a single thought or place; we do this by inviting response, telling our own story based on the stories of the original postcards and soliciting other stories based on our own.
University of Washington: Seattle, Washington USA
Vanderbilt University; Nashville, Tennessee USA
Postcard 1 - Telling the Baltic