Living History. Gints Grūbe and “Freedom Street”

Living History. Gints Grūbe and “Freedom Street”
Mārtiņš Otto, Riga 2014 . Gints Grūbe during the opening of the Corner House
The “Freedom Street” thematic line of the “Riga 2014” Programme looked into the complicated history of Riga and the entire Latvia, including the far less romantic aspects thereof. A past that is, inevitably, part of the European history. At the beginning of the year Gints Grūbe, the curator of the thematic line, presented the “Freedom Street” as a symbolic stage, a system of signs and symbols: “The Freedom Street (Brīvības iela) is not only the name of the main street in Riga, it is the stage on which the history of world powers unfolded. It is also the story of one particular European city and the relationship between the city’s residents and the ruling power – both insurmountable and surmountable at the same time.”

The absolute pinnacle of this thematic line was the opening of the former KGB building, also known as the Corner House, to the general public, which turned over one of the darkest pages in the 20th century history. This is where memories met politics, emotions, art, commemoration, history, and respect, prompting debates about the building and its future.

What are your first conclusions as the European Capital of Culture year is coming to a close? Can we already talk about what was successful and what was not?

I would like to start by saying something provocative: the title of the European Capital of Culture means nothing! It’s just an imaginary title! It may become a very successful marketing tool, or just as well stand for big amounts of money wasted for nothing. For it to function properly, content has to be generated, and we have done it thanks to a lot of talented people who live in Latvia and Riga. The people who, when we began to talk about the European Capital of Culture in 2008 and 2009 when the crisis was at its worst, had the courage to dream. Perhaps they were feeling like fools – after all, it’s not very smart to dream in such circumstances. Especially if they were dreaming about something to be implemented in five or six years from then! Now, at the end of the European Capital of Culture year, I can say that more than 90 percent of these dreams have come true. This phenomenon embodies the European Capital of Culture. This, and the potential of the people of Latvia. It makes us proud of the European Capital of Culture year in Riga.

As for the content of the “Freedom Street” thematic line, it opened with the exhibition “1914”, which marked 100 years since World War I, and the first guest performances at the “forte forte” theatre festival.

The programme continued as impressively, proving that we cannot ignore fundamental developments in history, and everything that is happening around us shows them in a new light.

I am very grateful to my colleagues and culture activists who participated in the Corner House opening project, and carried on pressing for a political decision so the “Corner House. Case No. 1914/2014” project could continue also in 2015, at least some part of it. By now we already know that it will.

The other project in the “Freedom Street” thematic line, which I personally wish to continue, is the “Underground Riga” study launched by the Žanis Lipke Museum. It started by marking those places in Riga where Jews were sheltered during World War II. I believe that Riga is full of such anonymous history that should become known to the public in one way or another. There also are other projects that should continue in the future. The potential of all these people, over a thousand in total, is so huge that it would be just stupid not to use it in the future.

The European Capital of Culture year was said to bring changes on various levels in Riga. What changes have you observed in the city and its residents?

I think the fact that the talk about the opening of the Corner House had continued for several years proves once again how important any kind of personal initiative is. If there is somebody who is prepared to take responsibility, to find other people who are ready to take part, then the idea can be implemented. You don’t have to wait for years for something to happen. It is therefore important to realise, when objects such as the Corner House and its continuation will be considered in the future, that the fate of the project will be decided by those who take political decisions – but the opinion of the general public will be equally important.

Those who participated in reopening the building oftentimes failed to take into consideration the political inertia, which will always say: “No, that’s impossible, that’s far too complicated”. Therefore the first thing that the European Capital of Culture year and the people who organised it have proved – we have learned how to overcome this position of “no, that’s impossible”. There may be complicated projects and ideas that require much to be done, but the final result is invaluable.

How much does the original objective differ from the results attained so far?

My objective, as far as the projects of the “Freedom Street” are concerned, was for us not to focus on one narrow interpretation of history, but to treat the historical events in Riga and Latvia in a much broader, European context. This has certainly been true of all the “Riga 2014” projects, from the exhibition “1914” to Aigars Bikše’s “Monument Wars”, from the opera “Valentīna” to guest performances at the “forte forte” theatre festival.

History, just like any other discipline, is prone to provincialism. Yes, history does possess such a quality, and given the current situation in the world, this is the last thing we’d want. But we have been clever and far-sighted enough to be able to defend our positions. The “Freedom Street” projects have showed us that the history of the 20th century is very much alive, and the developments in Ukraine only made the feeling stronger that World War II ended just a few days ago.

How much were you, and will you be, involved in the Corner House initiative, to ensure that the building remain open to visitors?

The Museum of the Occupation has been allotted funding so the Corner House would be open to visitors next year also. It took several years for the building to open to the general public, and I had various ideas during this process. I am ready to share these ideas and my experience. Now is the time we need to have a political dialogue with those who will make the further decisions.

There is, of course, another, more radical way – to occupy the building, and not just the building, but all the related processes. Yes, it is a legitimate cultural initiative – simply occupy the Corner House and not leave it. This very theme may be occupied. However, thanks to the media it always remained high on the agenda.

Of course, we had expected people to be interested in the Corner House, but we never expected this interest to be so huge, especially among the younger generations.

Speaking of other thematic lines of the “Riga 2014” Programme – what were the moments that you were surprised, glad, or proud of?

We are a small nation with a weakness for our own great personalities. It could be seen as provincialism, but it is not as it makes us understand that we all can excel in some way. We found our great personalities in the country’s history as well as in the contemporary Latvia. We could see this at the “Born in Riga” concert, which I believe was simply outstanding – including the televised version. The study of our great personalities also included the Gustavs Klucis’ exhibition, Vija Celmins’ visit to and exhibition in Riga, retrospective of plays that Alvis Hermanis had staged abroad.

To me, the most emotional moments included the day the European Capital of Culture year opened in Riga, and the Chain of Booklovers. It really spoke to me as someone who has vivid memories of the Reawakening period.

It was then when we were standing in the “real chain” – the Baltic Way that spanned 600 kilometres, that the idea of building the National Library was born. We, an entire generation, were keeping the dream alive, and the library was finally built and opened in 2014.

People’s involvement in the Chain of Booklovers was amazing – something like that is impossible to plan ahead! Neither Brikmanis [Uģis Brikmanis, stage director, who proposed the idea of the Chain of Booklovers – ed.] nor Čivle [Diāna Čivle, head of the “Riga 2014” foundation – ed.] could have foreseen it. Emotions were running very high.

The emotions at the World Choir Games were similar – the atmosphere reigning in Riga would have been impossible to plan out. All of a sudden, we see that we’re living in a city with so many interesting, different, and positive people. Singers from various countries occupied cafes, Chinese were standing in lines at all the five Asian cuisine restaurants in Riga… Turns out, Riga can be an excellent place for multicultural society if the people who come here have good intentions! And people who sing by definition cannot be bad people!

The “Riga 2014” thematic line “Freedom Street” opened at the start of 2014 with “1914”, a major exhibition marking 100 years since World War I, organised by several Latvian and European museums. Shortly after that, French artist Christian Boltanski’s exhibition “Heartbeats” opened at the exhibition hall “Arsenāls”, and several plays that the famous Latvian stage director Alvis Hermanis had produced abroad were performed at the Riga Film Studio as part of the contemporary theatre programme “forte forte”. The Corner House opened to the public this year, presenting six exhibitions in the former KGB basements and on the upper floors of the building, which went on to become one of the most popular events in the “Riga 2014” Programme – with local residents and guests of Riga alike.

A new production of Aristophanes’ comedy “Lysistrata” looked at the relationship between the individual and power from a new perspective. Aigars Bikše’s tongue-in-chief installation “Monument Wars”, on show at the intersection of Brīvības Street and Elizabetes Street all summer, presented several periods in the history of Riga and the key symbols thereof, whereas project “Show Windows towards Brīvības Street” offered a look at various typical features of Riga through the 20th century. A retrospective of Gustavs Klucis’ works also looked into an outstanding personality living through some of the most controversial moments in the 20th century history, and Arturs Maskats’ opera “Valentīna”, composed specifically for the European Capital of Culture year in Riga, is a story about film critic Valentīna Freimane’s extraordinary life. The thematic line “Freedom Street” also included the “Film Trophies” project, “Kilometre of Culture” during the Riga Marathon, performances by some of the best military bands in Europe in Ķīpsala, and much, much more.

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