Riga: E-l@bs:RS

By Rachel Baker, 10 January 1997

Rachel Baker meets Rasa Smite in October 1996 at Metaforum 3, Budapest.

The amount of digi-virtual-cyber- conferences I have attended in the last two years has assured a certain level of predictability in what can be expected. The best ones are not bathing in a slick and shiny self-reflective glow, primed for cyber-consumption. My favourites are the small, experimental ventures borne of a collective desire to generate real communication; ones where the name tags get swapped around or are non-existent. 'Art+Communication' was this kind of event. It was produced on a tiny budget from a tiny office in Riga with just one computer sitting on a desk and interesting people willing to throw something in the air to see what happened.

I met Rasa Smite in October 1996 at Metaforum 3, Budapest, where she invited myself and others to participate in 'Art+Communication', the first new media conference in Latvia. I was wearing a blonde wig at the time - an undisguised attempt at disguising my identity for the purposes of conference espionage. This has become a favourite pastime of mine since I began to suspect that these cyber-conferences were not just an excuse for globally-dispersed friends to get together for a cup of coffee. There was distinct evidence to suggest that a networking East-West mafia was being constructed. I have followed a trail that runs along Amsterdam, Berlin, Ljubliana, Budapest and Tallin. And now Riga in Latvia. (I have very good information that the London branch will be hosting the next venue for these secret meetings masquerading as conferences - ask someone at Backspace). This emerging network of independent 'net artists' who are refusing to play by the usual institutional system are looking like a force to be reckoned with. They have managed to help produce some exciting events on very little, including el@b's 'Art+Communication' conference. As your self-styled conference agent this is all the info I have on Rasa Smite and the Latvian Connection.

For the last year Rasa Smite had toured the East/West European conference circuit presenting media work from Latvia with her colleagues. After the first Baltic conference on New Media in Tallin, 'Understanding Interactivity', held in November 1995, Rasa decided to establish E-l@b, an electronic arts and media centre in Riga, Latvia. The E-l@b crew participated in this year's V2_East Documentation Meeting conference (held at DEAF96) and it was there that Rasa decided an official opening of E-l@b with a small conference was in order.

Rachel Baker: What and who is e-l@b?

Rasa Smite: officially e-l@b is an electronic arts and media centre, but more and more I prefer to call e-l@b an open creative group. There are four founders - Rasa Smite, Janis Garancs, Raitis Smits, Alise Tifentale. And some more young artists - Gints Gabrans, Arvids Alksnis, Toms Vitins - they all participated in their first Internet art project 'Riga-fresh' (I guess this was also the first on-line art project in Latvia). Riga is part of the Internet project 'Refresh' (which is organised by Vuk Cosic, Alexei Shulgin and Andreas Broeckmann).

RB: How much do you think the development of new computer communications in Latvia, wider access to it, and strategic application of it, is dependent on commercial investment? Will you need to work with these commercial factors?

RS: I think a lot about this. Today's reality is dictated by market relationships and in our everyday life we are all closely connected with these social rules. To pay too much attention to commercial interests seems to me very boring and not actual. The question is - what are we looking for? I am not against - I just don't want to respect this system we live in today too much. Market relationships are not a very high level of communication (though they are highly developed). If we think of Communication in terms of computer communication networks, meaning evolving technology, then of course the development is dependent on commercial investment. But we also think of Communication in terms of people and their desires. This way we can hopefully look forward to the rapid development of computer networks, and be impressed by the new possibilities of Communication. I have to deal with this reality and enjoy its complexity more and more everyday.

RB: Rasa, you said you had new ideas and energy as a consequence of the conference. What are you planning to do?

RS: Some collaboration projects with people in Budapest, Moscow, London. Also, we are thinking about a local electronic arts project - a live sound and computer-animation concert-show. And sure, we will actively keep working on the Internet, to meet friends wherever they are located. I am interested in organising collaboration-exchange workshops (with the Tallin e-media centre and with Slovenija for instance), because for Latvian students and artists the most important thing is still to get work experience and personal contacts in different places in Europe.

RB: The Secret Experiment Club is evidently a fruitful and creative affiliate for e-l@b. Do you plan future collaborations? Who else in Riga/Latvia would e-l@b like to collaborate with?

RS: Collaboration is one of the most important directions of e-l@b's activities, locally and internationally. We are already collaborating with the Riga Multimedia Centre. They will soon be opening an Electronic Cafe where they will run workshops with video equipment as well. We collaborate very closely with the creative group OPEN (Kaspars Vanags, Ilze Strazdinja) who organise raves incorporating art events. We want to collaborate with many places in Riga, to help artists realise art works by using all these possibilities and contacts in places where equipment is accessible. We prefer to see e-l@b first of all as an idea and creativity Laboratory or as an information and co-ordination centre. That's why we are really interested in different collaborations with media art institutions.

RB: Do you think the audience at the conference were inspired to engage creatively with new media (if they weren't already). Was there a good response?

RS: For most of the audience this conference was their first introduction to new media, Net culture and Net ideas and I think they were really inspired. I've heard many good responses from students/artists and from official institutions like the Soros Foundation and the Latvian Ministry of Culture. There was also big interest from Latvian newspapers and TV. I think that this event was really important and timely for the public in Latvia. During the last year here, the influence of new media has been emerging more and more, especially in a commercial way. The possibility of a new market place is arising and that's why questions about creative and multi formal Internet usage are becoming particularly important. I hope that after this conference people in Latvia will know and understand more about Net culture and new communication systems. I also hope there will be a desire to develop the Internet first of all as a space for creative self-expression.

RB: What did you learn from the conference yourself?

RS: This event was very important for both of us - Raitis and me. The first event in a new field is always the most idealistic, concentrated and fresh. If one gives up on having criteria and comparing how conferences should be, then the dominant feeling is that, at present, there is still the potency and space for the development of creativity in new media. Though Riga has become steadily more wired, only limited information and ideas about Net culture exist, whilst globally the new media situation is changing fast and getting more complicated. Actually new media isn't so new. Increasingly, in wired society, the same questions appear about the influence and power arrangements precipitated by these new media. For this conference's programming we attempted to work in our thoughts and ideas about future development possibilities and we are satisfied with the result.

Rachel Baker <t_mould AT>

Rasa Smite <> E-L@B 11.Novembra Krastmala 35-94 LV-1050, Riga, Latvia. Tel: +371-7210297