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Karosta Workshop Notes.

Ben Russell

At the RIXC locative media workshop 2003, in Karosta, a unique space and community in Latvia, researchers explored this idea talking to local people, mapping the systems and networks that occupied the space, consulting historians and local artists. Some of the results were maps and film and images, others were stories that describe systems local to Karosta. Systems of social exchange, of paths used by local people, of local mythology (contemporary, mundane, ancient).

From this exploration we have built up a collection of images, video, text and abstract systemic models. As technology evolves and more locative media researchers visit Karosta these can be processed into rich media packets digitally located at relevant geographical point. The aim was to begin to externalise a sense of how Karosta works and how the people see their space. Understanding generators.

Karosta is a recently abandoned soviet military base on the Baltic coast, and its population is made up of the people who decided to move in to the empty apartment blocks, and the Russians who stayed behind after the soviet withdrawl. Karosta has character, feeling, a homogenous community, and its own culture, systems and protocols. But given the military architecture (much of it in disrepair) and the unusual community it can be hard to really see Karosta as much more than an abandoned military base.

It is appropriately ironic that the organizers chose to locate a workshop for artist weighed down with technology that has US military origins in a place like Karosta (which literally means 'war harbour' and was sealed and secret during the cold war). It seems that the pattern of artists as the vanguard of new markets and the messengers of transition from perceivable military control to less visible cultural and economic control is well ingrained. Hardware manufacturers seem to be producing devices that are as capable and open as possible, perhaps in the hope that users can tell them what the devices are for. In this sense, they seek grassroots and consumer level interpretation of what these devices are as surely as they seek an answer from corporate users.

From an artists perspective it is now possible to (relatively easily) location stamp digital art work. The place where a work was made, or to which it refers can be logged using GPS for example. Work can be explicitly associated with a place digitally, and then 'found' according to spatial criteria: 'show me all the work associated with this place'. In mobile device terms, work can be accessed actually at a place predetermined by the artist or by the search criteria of the accessor.

How this is interpreted (conceptually and technologically) is up to artists, tool makers, and users. Filmmakers for example can trace the spatial movements of the camera. Authors can place the next chapter at a new location. Musicians can spontaneously choose a location to perform and generate the audience through a combination of mapping and communications. Festivals, warehouse parties and rave variants have been working on these ideas for many years now, transforming dislocated spaces into gatherings though a disparate range of media.

All through the workshop participants and locals were focused out towards the surrounding area, trying to correlate all media generated with location acquisition. Locals and artist going out would take a GPS and try and log location while taking film or photos or writing notes. Using the Waag society's realtime handheld tracking tools and the local GPRS network artists outside the K@2 center could be tracked and there journey traces visualised. Cheryl L'Hirondelle [CA] and Mari Keski-Korsu (FI) were monitored at K@2 after their trace went static for several hours (as they got more and more drunk on a beach with a couple of locals until one of their wives turned up).

Esther Polak (Waag Society NL) and Leva Auzina (RIXC, LV) went some way towards rescuing landscape painting, following the driver of a milk truck through rural Latvia, as he went through his daily routine of collecting small amounts of milk from local people along a fixed route (in space and roughly in time), and tracing the route using GPS units and software from the Realtime Amsterdam (and Riga) project. In the end however the technology GPS proved inadequate and they had to sit down with the driver and trace out a usable map with paper and pencil.

The maps were generated by the people. Both implicitly, and explicitly as the man made sense of the journey he followed (six days a week) with a pencil, and a paper map, and GPS trace fragments. This use of mapping provided an contextual anchor for their narrative composed of photos and sound recordings, more explicitly than one from literary or filmic convention.

As a follow-up, Esther and Ieva proposed to trace the milk the next step of the way to the people who ended up drinking it (or consuming it processed into food).

Orientating usually requires a conversation with people who know where they are already. These conversations often serve to challenge the inhabitants of a place as to what their place means. Pete Gomes [Parkbench TV, UK] and Gabriel Lopez Shaw [US] found a group of local Russian kids to show them around Karosta so that they could film. In the end the group made the film together. The kids found the locations, acted and improvised. Pete and Gabriel logged the locations and showed the kids filmmaking and GPS (the russian kids had long term access to film making and editing equipment through K@2 the Karosta based art project hosting the locative media workshop). Karosta is a very strange place, a borderland between cultures and times. The film explored Karosta in terms of dislocation and location, and its quality as a portal in time and space.

One of the results of the workshop was also a clearer understanding of the practical extant to which location adds a new dimension to media in social, artistic and technical terms.To this end there were numerous theoretical discussions including one between Zita Joyce and Adam Willetts [NL, NZ], radioqualia's Honor Harger and Adam Hyde [UK, NZ], Ben Russell [Headmap, UK], and Marc Tuters [CDN] focused on 'spectrum geography' which explored the potential of radio as space altering technology.

The Locative Media workshop drew on the experience of K@2 and local people to try to discern and project some of the views of Karosta that might not be immediately visible to outsiders. Although, admittedly, the workshop managed to barely scratch the surface of local mythology, both at street level and historically, the idea that was being explored was that local stories and systems could be externalised and bound to a place in digital form, supplementing the stories told by the buildings and what people passing through are able to see.

Karosta, like most places has its own ways of seeing the world and getting things done. These forms are not immediately visible to an outsider in the way that the dominating military architecture, the housing blocks (some derelict some habitable), the orthodox cathedral and the kids on the street are. It's a harsh, cold environment during the winter and warm and open in the summer. The economic climate is even harsher than the winters for the people who live there. It's housing blocks are divided economically some with hot water and amenities, and some without. It's a contradictory place in terms of social problems and how difficult life is and how unique the place and the social structures that have evolved are

Suspect "new media"
When K@2 first arrived on Karosta they printed up 4000 high quality glossy postcards written in Latvian on one side and Russian on the other. They distributed them throughout the Karosta area inviting local people to come to courses in art and technology. They received only 5 responses from 4000 cards. Later, they talked to friends and listened to rumours, and established that the postcards had looked too expensive and commercial and that the Karostan's had assumed that K@2 wanted money. In response, they cheaply xeroxed another few thousand leaflets telling people to just come along and explore K@2. The less commercial leaflets made the point and people started wandering into K@2.

Karosta is a small and close community with it's own developed local communications network. K@2 found that the best way to get people to come to an exhibition or event was not to put up a poster, but to say quietly to a few people that there would be an event, and not to tell anyone. This resulted in a direct connection to the local communications network, with news of the event spreading rapidly by word of mouth. Attendence would then far exceed anything posters or leaflets could generate.

Elephant paths and military streets
The plan of Karosta is dominated by the grid of wide military roads. The width of the streets is determined by the following calculation made by military planners: width of road = ('height of building on one side' + 'height of building on the other side' + 'the width of a military vehicle'). This means that if buildings on both sides of the roads are blown up and fall into the street, you can still drive a military vehicle through the gap that remains. The people of Karosta have developed there own system of chaotic paths and shortcuts that defy this imposing grid. This network of local shortcuts are called the elephant paths. They represent an alternative view on an imposing military architectural plan.

Karosta is on the Baltic coast (the white sea). The huge and surreal coastal fortifications seem dislocated from the local people lazing on the beach in the summer. Karosta was sealed, a military base, and local people were never allowed to cross the bridge. This prohibition has left a psychogeographical barrier. Occupying soldiers and sailors have come and gone, Russian, German and potentially now NATO. Borders and allegiances shift and the people and the place make there lives between these tides. Only recently have a larger number of local people ventured across the bridge from Liepaja to walk and enjoy the beaches. The psychological barrier was more than physical, the base had bad associations stretching back to the second world war, with mass graves from genocide and executions located close by. From Tsarist occupation, to a brief period of independence, to German occupation, to Soviet occupation, Karosta has seen its share of imperial ambition, much of it shrouded in dark associations.

Tzarist legacy
Karosta was developed as a military base by the late 19th century. The Tsar invested one million golden roubels in Karosta. They built a cathedral and a palace and railway on a spot that might have been anywhere in the Russian imperial dominion. Karosta is near the narrowest point on the Russian side of the Baltic. A naval base can be despatched quickly to intercept a naval force coming from the West. Karosta is also a border town. And there would be political as well as military arguments for choosing to build a potent symbol of Russian Tsarist power and wealth at a point where it can be seen by neighbours.

The reasoning for building Karosta may range from the harsh rational, to the esoteric. The Tsar (according to local stories) may have consulted geomancers and esoteric scholars, before choosing to invest so much on building Karosta. The focus point chosen by the geomancers was judged to be The Two Admirals house, and consequently after all the preparation of the area, it was one of the first buildings to go up in 1896, apparently built to harness enough power to sustain the further outward development. Six years later in 1903 the castle and the cathedral were completed, and the rest of the development of the area radiated from these central points. The cathedral in the center of Karosta is said to be aligned with the setting sun (and maybe aligned with other natural forces, Orthodox perspectives take account of alignment).

Some of the central buildings in Tsars development of Karosta appear to be shaped like letters in the Russian alphabet and groups of the buildings appear to spell out words. The buildings at Karosta also mirror similar script like building configurations in St Petersburg.

Whether the stories of geomancy have any truth to them or not, Karosta was and is a powerful point strategically, with the potential to affect the geopolitical balance in the region. After Russia pulled out of Karosta in the nineties, many Russians chose to stay behind. At the some time many Latvians entered the base eager to get hold of a house in blocks the soviet army had recently abandoned. The Russians in Karosta can only get hold of 'Russian alien' passports and this question over their status makes a difficult life no less difficult.

The cold war aesthetic is still very much in evidence, the Karostan for yes is often 'no' (e.g. 'do you want a beer' is met with an instinctive 'no' which turns out to be a yes). Conditions in Latvia were often harsh during the Soviet era and yet the feeling you get actually being there often contradicts the evidence of your eyes. Karosta has an energy and feeling that other Latvians acknowledge. There are still soldiers on the base, a small number of Latvian sailors train in the palace grounds... but despite associations, both visual and historical, stress levels seem to drop when you cross the bridge. In Karosta the pace of life eases.

Karosta kids
Karosta kids are considered special, creative, crazy (and maybe a little dangerous).The Karosta kids are living in the gap, and the freedom, between Russian withdrawal and the arrival of NATO or property developers or whatever comes next. There have been techno and drum and bass parties on the beaches and in deserted military hangers for many years already. Hopefully the kids living in Karosta will be able to influence how the place they live changes. The harsh restrictions of the Soviet era have been replaced at least temporarily by a more anarchic order. The integration minister has said that if everyone was like Karosta kids there would be no problem integrating Russians and Latvians. The housing divisions in Karosta are more about amenities than ethnicity.

Karosta is a tough place but one with a real magical character that leaves a strong impression on people who find their way their and get to see that tough doesn't mean cold all the way through.