BALTIC STORIES: A visual guide to spaces of culture and people behind them in

Baltic Stories is a recently released alternative visual guidebook, exploring the relationship between culture, place and people in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. 30 inspiring stories with original photography by local photographers uncover the diversity of local culture and its wide-reaching effects, while examining what Baltic means today. This journey through the Baltic states includes several case studies from Riga - Homo Novus festival, Free Riga place rejuvenation and Orbita interdisciplinary artist group.

PHOTO: Alexey Murashko

Culture seems to be a notion that is familiar to everyone. It could be understood as a vehicle that allows people to engage in shared activities and think of them as natural or at least logical. Culture can justify particular activities and viewpoints, letting us identify with a particular group of people with common interests, and giving us a general understanding of who we are (and also who we are not).

At the same time, culture is a very complex idea. There are numerous definitions of what culture is and an on-going debate on what characterizes it in the contemporary world. "Baltic Stories" aims to demonstrate the diversity of cultural processes and the impact they can bring to place development, and vice versa – how space shapes cultural processes. 

PHOTO: Kristīne Madjare, Kandava Open-Air Swimming Pool

Recent turns in cultural approaches in Europe and beyond, both on a political level and in creative practice, indicate a drive to increase the participation and engagement of global populations in cultural processes. This has reinvigorated the debate of what is really understood as culture – what practices are recognized and encouraged to foster engagement? Is culture just the creative sphere of arts or can it be seen more broadly as the everyday practices which vary greatly depending on who you are and where you live?
Another important question is whether culture is something that we do or rather an instrument to get people to do something. Undeniably, it can be both, but asking this question helps to recognize the ideas behind the activities.
Finally - can a focus on cultural activities bring societal change and how? All of these questions surfaced while selecting cultural initiatives from all three Baltic states for the "Baltic Stories" book. To navigate through these complex issues we created three dimensions in the initiative selection process – people, place, culture. We aimed to emphasize the diversity of cultural approaches by recognizing the various forms in which people engage (large-scale or small, informal or state, as well as a variety in social groups represented), places (urban or rural, a variety in geographical location as well as less tangible forms such as radio), and, finally, culture (including creative initiatives, but also everyday and leisure activities such as gardening or sports).

PHOTO: Andrejs Strokins, Engure Sailing School

While we intentionally looked beyond capitals and city centres to tell stories from different geographical and social corners of the Baltic states, three stories from the capital of Latvia, Riga, are included in this book - Homo Novus Festival, Orbita Text Group and Free Riga. They are all long-term initiatives that have left a tangible mark on the social and cultural landscape in Riga and elsewhere.


An annual autumn highlight of Riga's cultural calendar, Homo Novus International Festival of Contemporary Theatre, offers new ways of experiencing theatre, activating the spectator’s role and producing performances in which diverse people become co- authors and performers. Instead of sitting and watching, you are just as likely to be asked to take a walk or have a conversation.

PHOTO: Andrejs Strokins, Party Animals, collective performance by GolfClayderman, Homo Novus 2020

Since the early 2000s, the festival has focused on using non-traditional spaces — the city has become its stage. This was a conscious strategy for long-time creative director Gundega Laiviņa, who left in 2020 to undertake new studies in urban placemaking. She explains: “The city is a fascinating partner, and working with it leaves a larger footprint. It changes ourselves and the inhabitants of the city; through the lens of the artwork, we view our relationship with the city differently. You identify with it more if the performance happens in the environment in which you live and move through every day.”

PHOTO: Andrejs Strokins. trees have stopped talking since then, processual work by Krista Burāne, Homo Novus 2020.

Beyond providing a fresh take on our daily trajectories, Homo Novus also takes the theatre viewer into unexpected, invisible, forgotten or closed spaces within the city — abandoned factories, out-of-the-way neighbourhoods, overgrown building sites and even a correctional institute for young people in Cēsis (viewers saw a 20-minute performance, but the process involved the young people in a meaningful way for eight months). Simultaneously at the creative cutting edge, but always with a critical and social dimension, the festival will bring you outside your bubble physically, socially and emotionally.

Gundega explains that no matter what, she still feels that art is extremely important, and thus should be supported and actively offered in various forms. For her, art is an active, not passive process — from the viewpoint of the artists, audience and environment. She believes that “critical, honest art can change society, not in a grand “art can change the world” way, but rather that it can create changes on a micro level that can further affect broader processes.”

Not afraid to challenge and tackle divisive issues, Homo Novus performances have engaged with diverse themes such as climate change, domestic violence and disability. The festival has also influenced a younger generation of theatre makers in Latvia who are creating sharp, socially and critically engaged work.

The festival's new artistic director is Australian Bek Berger. Bek explains that the essence of the festival will not change. “We want to provide the best context for artists to make their best work in conversation with the city, its residents and non-human actors”. The 2021 Homo Novus edition aims to speak clearly about uncertainty in various fields of ideas – artistic and social, personal and shared, ecological and biological.

PHOTO: Andrejs Strokins. Part of the Homo Novus team in 2021 — Bek Berger, Dārta Ceriņa, Sandra Lapkovska, Anna Dārziņa and Eva Johansone.


The Orbita poetry and multimedia collective are long-term players on the Riga creative scene, having emerged in the late 1990s as young poets writing in Russian and interested in new electronic media. During this time, they have published numerous bilingual Latvian-Russian poetry anthologies, other literary editions and photobooks, as well as produced pioneering multimedia performances and exhibitions, and collaborated with other artists and creatives.

PHOTO: Andrejs Strokins

Orbita’s activities have consistently challenged stereotypes and bridged barriers. While Latvia has a large Russian-speaking population, the cultural and media scene (echoing local society) is still very much divided along national lines. The impetus for starting Orbita was the lack of official support and infrastructure for publishing Russian language poetry in Latvia. Instead of complaining about it, they decided to join forces, take a DIY approach and publish an anthology themselves.

The collective seems to operate in close collaboration with the city itself, which often becomes not just a space they work in, but a muse and resource. The multinational, cosmopolitan spirit and lived experience of the city is materialized in their own poetry and many of the projects they initiate. As Sergei explains, in some way Riga becomes a universal city in their work. “For us it’s a city per se, a city that has everything — large and small streets, clubs, cafes and parks. Specifically local, but with a more global perspective. This means our projects are interesting outside Riga as well.”

PHOTO: Andrejs Strokins. The four members of Orbita — Semyon Khanin, Vladimir Svetlov, Artūrs Punte, Sergei Timofejev

Through their cutting-edge work, Orbita has broadened the poetic imagination of Riga, and also put it on the contemporary poetry and performance map worldwide, as they often travel to festivals and other events. By redefining the role of Russian poetry in Latvia, they question the borders not just between the diverse media they use, but also those between the national cultural spaces that are often taken for granted. Their poetry and projects reveal a range of cosmopolitan histories and urban geographies outside the dominant national narratives.


The beginnings of the Free Riga organization date back to 2013. In preparation for Survival Kit, an annual contemporary art festival, curator Solvita Krese approached several local activists who had been exploring the unrecognized potential of abandoned spaces. She invited them to join a collectively designed campaign to draw public attention to the problem.

By inviting the public to mark unused and decaying buildings in Riga with bright yellow, provocative stickers with the words Occupy Me, the campaign was a manifestation of Slow Revolution — the festival’s theme that year. Around the same time, the Goethe Institute held Empty Spaces — a series of workshops and seminars, which featured examples of feasible, long-term organizations that had succeeded in activating vacant areas and properties. As a result, a group of like-minded individuals decided to establish an association.

“It’s hard to say exactly who was the author or initiator of Free Riga, it was a synergy,” says Kaspars Lielgalvis, one of several active members of the organization in the past years, underlining its very horizontal structure which still holds true.

PHOTO: Andrejs Strokins. Part of the team working at the former Faculty of Mechanical Engineering and Aero- nautics of Riga Technical University on Viskaļu iela: Zane Ruģēna, Kaspars Lielgalvis Marta Prēdele and Džesika Lubāne.

The eye-catching "Occupy Me" campaign illuminated the magnitude of empty spaces in the city. Mārcis Rubenis, the driving force of Free Riga since the beginning, turned the campaign into an online mapping instrument that still runs today, having marked over 350 empty spaces in Riga city centre alone. Free Riga has evolved into an organization which uses mainly cultural instruments to revive properties that the owners have yet to find a purpose for. They work on temporary terms, seeing themselves as mediators between the property owners and users or, in their own words, house guardians. Currently, Free Riga operate in three properties — the Lastādija quarter, culture centre Alksnājs at Alksnāja iela 16, and culture spot V36 at Viskaļu iela 36.

One of the most visible members behind the Free Riga initiative along with Mārcis Rubenis and Jāzeps Bikše has been artist and art curator Kaspars Lielgalvis. He has experience of dealing with abandoned territories since 2007, when he set up a workshop in an abandoned building in the grounds of the former State Electrotechnical Factory (VEF). It became the Totaldobže Art Centre. In 2013, Kaspars had to leave the premises due to the rise in rents caused by the gentrification he had sparked together with other artists.

After wandering from place to place, he recently landed on a property with a 25-year use agreement. Taking up more than 15 000 square metres of empty space at the former Riga Technical University campus in Čiekurkalns, on the shore of Lake Ķīšezers, Free Riga aims to gather artists, cultural and social workers, informal educators, researchers and others to jointly develop a new Life Quality Design Institute.

PHOTO: Andrejs Strokins

Text by Anete Ušča and Liāna Ivete Beņķe.
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