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Àngels Miralda: I’ll briefly introduce you and why I invited you to discuss the idea of energy in the post-Soviet artistic landscape. You are currently the C-MAP Central and Eastern Europe fellow at MoMA in New York City. I have followed your research on eco-nationalism and ecological movements in the Baltics, this combined with the ongoing geopolitical turmoil surrounding Russian energy in the region – specifically the situation of blackouts in Ukraine.
Inga Lāce: In my research and encounters with that I always see it as a bit more complex than a single definition. There were a lot of works at that time that celebrate Soviet progress and technology. Some of these were produced in artist residencies or research visits to those sites where science and industry were happening. For instance, in Latvia we had the Salaspils nuclear reactor where artists were invited for visits and later produced works. Sometimes from those site visits the results were social-realist works that didn’t include any shade of criticality.
Other times you would see that again, there was not a socially critical angle but there were forms of experimentation such as new graphic techniques or going into abstraction. If you chose this theme – of supporting the nuclear industry, then you had more freedom to do whatever you wanted to do formally.
Then there is a third group of works that I can think of also from the Latvian context that were critical. They were expressing an alarm of nuclear catastrophe, sometimes not even catastrophic – that came mainly after Chernobyl. But even before, there were eco-critical works of Zenta Logina (1908-1983) for instance, she was a Latvian artist who was very interested in the themes of cosmos and space – which was of course a very accepted theme – but at the same time the way in which she addressed it was not a socialist realist vision of everybody being happy and cheering progress. She addressed it from the planetary, and this was different.
She had one work called The Weeping Planet (1976), or Burned-out Planet (1979), so you could see that she was worried about the planet in different ways. Soviet Industrialisation was seen here as a damaging factor towards the planet. This might not be directly connected to energy, but there were also works addressing that theme. But Zenta Logina’s works from this period for example were not shown – not until the late 80’s and after her passing.
Zenta Logina. The Burnt-Out Planet, 1979. String and oil. d 20 cm. Courtesy of the Zuzāns Collection. Photography by Māris Mikāns // The Weeping Planet, 1976. Metal, fabric, textile fibers, plaster and oil. 195 x 73 cm. Courtesy of the Zuzāns Collection. Photography by Gvido Kajons
ÀM: In the end a lot of this state infrastructure did lead to catastrophic climate realities, not just Chernobyl but the draining of the Aral Sea, and massive contamination in the Urals. What is the aftermath of this history after the breakup of the Soviet Union?
IL: There definitely is a concern of those issues in the generation of artists who became active in the 1990’s. For instance Deimantas Narkevičius and Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas in the Lithuanian context who were immediately looking at infrastructures. Deimantas Narkevicius is very often mentioned together with Emilija Škarnulytė because they are both video artists working on this subject. Narkevičius was working on Elektrėnai in his work Energy Lithuania (2018), an industrial city built by the Soviets in the 1960s around a newly built electric power station – a totally artificial place. There is also the city of Ignalina built around the nuclear plant – this is where Anastasia Sosunova comes from. So, Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas were looking at the Druzhba pipeline in their ongoing work with the same name that they started in 2003. In Russian druzhba means friendship and this was an ideological name given to many infrastructural projects. This pipeline would transport fuel from Siberian oil fields and distribute it transnationally within the Soviet realm. This was a megalomaniac infrastructural project from the 1960’s which has been in use till recently.
Now this might have changed – but only because of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine which was this final moment to try to divert ourselves off of Russian energy. Even so, it is not very clear whether this was successful. At one point last year our prime minister couldn’t say clearly, whether or not or how the Russian gas managed to flow into our reserves. It is of course due to the energy economy being not only controlled by the state, but also driven by companies and business interests.
Since the 1990’s and into the 2000’s artists have been investigating these infrastructures as ghosts that are still around from Soviet times. These artists are all critical – even if it is in a purely observant way it is approached as something problematic that is left. Then we arrive at this younger generation that includes Emilija Škarnulytė who is often seen as a mermaid swimming inside of Cold War infrastructures, so she is trying to approach the subject in a different way. She also made a work about the Ignalina Nuclear Plant which is being decommissioned (Energy Island, 2017). It is replaced by a new energy infrastructure – a sea carrier “Independence” built by Hyundai in South Korea and designed as a floating liquefied natural gas storage and regasification unit. These works think about the next step of infrastructure – Soviet projects are decommissioned but now we have new capitalist structures coming in to substitute it, so what really changes?
ÀM: This nuclear plant in Ignalina attracts a lot of attention because there are also the works of Augustas Serapinas and Anastasia Sosunova so this infrastructure remains a very contemporary and political issue in the Baltics.
IL: Absolutely, precisely these projects which you mentioned but also because in the Lithuanian context, there was a lot of concern recently about a new nuclear plant proposed in Belarus that would be made very close to the Lithuanian border. There is still the heavy presence and memory of Chernobyl, so artists were worried that if it were built using those Soviet plans then it might collapse like Chernobyl did and then all the radiation and damage would flow into Lithuania. There is no work I can think of that is made specifically about that but I think this political concern is at the back of people’s mind. In the case of Anastasia Sosunova who comes from the city of Ignalina, she is more focused on the social conditions that this energy-centred urbanisation creates. What kind of community is predominantly brought to work in those plants? They were Russian-speakers like her family, from all the different Soviet republics, a community of immigrants who settled in this city built around a nuclear plant.
At the moment I am working on a project called New Visions that just opened in Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in Oslo. We have two artists from whom we actually commissioned works about energy. One of them is Lesia Vasylchenko – a Ukrainian artist who is using a simulation of nuclear waste glass. For this project she is also bringing up the Zaporizhia nuclear plant which was occupied by Russia. This was a very dangerous moment and many memories of Chernobyl were coming back to us – the Russian soldiers were too close to that. She is placing aerial images of the Zaporizhia plant next to the pieces of nuclear glass as a metaphor of the material waste that these infrastructures create and the timescale of their decomposition which is longer than we can comprehend as humans.
In terms of electricity we also commissioned a work by an artist duo made up of Anna Engelhardt who is a Russian artist living in London and Mark Cinkievich who is Belarussian. They are looking at three military bases – one in Syria, one in Belarus, and one in Ukraine. All three of these locations were used by Russia during the war in Syria and now Ukraine which seems like a continuous machine. They use the metaphor of a zombie that infiltrates existing infrastructure and sucks the energy out of it to spread warfare. This is a very dark work but it brings up this parasitic strategy of occupying infrastructures and using them to wage more war. This project also manages to connect Syria to Belarus and Ukraine which all have this Russian component behind them.
ÀM: It sounds like artists are working on the fact that energy can be used as a weapon in many forms, not just a physical weapon but a psychological weapon as well. You mentioned the plans for the nuclear plant on the border of Belarus and Lithuania and I believe I read that it would be able to be seen from Vilnius.
IL: That’s a good question – I am not sure. But certainly, the proposed position is very close to Vilnius and there is no way to stop it because Belarus is not in the EU. There is no way to negotiate and it speaks to the fact that there are no real borders on the planet in terms of the flows of energy waste or radiation.
ÀM: I went back the other day to an article published in 2019 that was a conversation between yourself and the curator Heidi Ballet. It was very interesting to revisit that text from today’s position because the world has changed so drastically. In that conversation, you are speaking about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. This was built very recently for the purpose of bringing Russian natural gas from Gazprom into Germany. Last fall in Germany, people were afraid that there would be blackouts in the winter and they were told not to use gas to save the reserves for winter. I wanted to ask you if there had been any form of political opposition or activism to this extension of infrastructure around Russian gas.
IL: It is quite remarkable that Ukrainian artist Oleksiy Radinksy was already speaking about this in 2019 and doing research long before it became such a topic and before we worried so much about the possibility that this aggression might happen in Ukraine. He was suggesting that as soon as this pipeline is finished then Russia could invade Ukraine because they no longer needed the infrastructure that goes through Ukraine as a place of transit and income because that would be going through the Baltic sea bed. I would need to look up if there was political opposition in the Baltics at that time but clearly the discussion was there. Looking back, it is too uncanny that he actually predicted exactly what happened. His article proposed that instead of building new pipelines so that we can use more oil and gas we should transition to being carbon-free. But what does this imply?
Now I have been speaking with Egle Rindzevičiūte, a Lithuanian researcher who has developed the concept of the “atomic condition.” She is saying that now nuclear power is being reclaimed as a solution for the climate and national security, whereas in the aftermath of the Chernobyl tragedy nobody would see it either as secure or climate friendly. Now even in oil-rich countries like Norway, nuclear is once again being accepted as a viable energy alternative.
It’s absurd when Zaporizhiya is critically endangered to imagine this. But, of course, this is not what Oleksiy was pointing towards but rather local renewables. Even so, we had the pandemic, and then this war which would have been a great impetus for governments to start pushing in that direction, but it did not happen. Instead people are thinking of how to get close to people who still have oil or how to build a nuclear power plant in Latvia.
ÀM: It’s kind of the opposite side of the coin of eco-nationalism. How would you describe this term? Can we say it is the subversive use of ecological protests to further the aims of building new sovereign states and breaking up the Soviet Union?
IL: After Gorbachov’s reforms, ecological protests were allowed in the Soviet Union. For the first time people were allowed to gather, start NGO’s and protest for something. Infrastructural energy projects such as new nuclear plants or river dams became known to people and made them angry because it would harm the river or the beautiful views that we have in Latvia on our beautiful rivers. That was reason enough to protest. The reason it is called eco-nationalism is because these ecological movements paved the way for the national awakening and finally the bid for independence which eventually succeeded in overthrowing the Soviet Union.
The term comes from the title of a book by Jane Dawson, and I think when she uses it she doesn’t think so highly about the ecological concerns of these activists. She paints it more as a cover for nationalist movements, but when I have spoken to the people who were present in these protests they say that the two things could not be separated – it was all one. They say that it was a green, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist movement. They don’t really want to say it was nationalistic but of course it was – but we need to remember that at that time “nationalism” was an emancipatory movement because it was against the repressions and the failures of the Soviet Union.
And then, after a while this nationalism eventually became the ethnocentric reality that we had to live through. There are other researchers like Linda Kaljundi in Estonia who says that we need to write our own history of ecological and environmental protest without referring to the West. Maybe in the West ecology is not related to nationalism but in our case, it is, and sometimes you cannot synchronise those narratives. That doesn’t mean that one movement cared more about nature than the other – just that they are in completely different contexts and other aspects were important.
ÀM: I want to end this interview with a very important question because it has been over one year since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and, unlike Germany, they have been facing conditions of blackout all winter in the severe cold. I don’t know what the current situation is there but as you are working with artists and cultural workers in the region I wanted to ask you how they are managing around the energy precarity, of blackouts and no energy.
IL: Artists who I know sent me pictures around Christmas time where they were using candles or just hanging out without light. Now things appear to be back in order, but just in Kyiv. So I think it really depends on where you are, the fact is that Ukraine is so huge.
ÀM: Some artists created initiatives to provide generators in the fall.
IL: That definitely helped and at least in the Baltic countries we are still continuing to help however we can. If we hear that a specific kind of vehicle is needed, we raise money and we send cars, or generators, or weapons.
I speak and talk with Ukrainian artists a lot and in our emails, there is something that they always say when we are arranging meetings, something like “speak soon if everything will be okay with our connection.” There is always this uncertainty of saying, let’s have this meeting, if we can. Most of the time it is okay, but some days it is not, and they can’t join, and they might not be able to send a message saying they can’t join.
ÀM: Thank you so much for answering these questions.
[Featured Image: Oleksiy Radynski, still image from The Film of Kyiv. Episode One (2017). Courtesy of the artist.]