Incubator: Cultural Heritage as Resource

September 10–13, 2015 at SERDE (Aizpute, LV)

The third gathering for Frontiers in Retreat organisers, artists, invited guest speakers, and students took place in the lush rural landscape of Aizpute, Latvia. There, 50 kilometres away from the nearest town Liepāja, along the main road of this small village, is SERDE Interdisciplinary Art Group. The centre is located in an impressive complex of 18th-century wooden buildings, known as one some of the oldest (if not the oldest) houses in the region.

Since 2002, the complex has been renovated by SERDE using traditional construction methods. The project has been both practical and educational. Coinciding with the occasion of the incubator, SERDE celebrated the recognition of their building as an example of a significant contribution to tangible, regional cultural heritage, as the centre was awarded status as a national protected building.

The incubator was curated and organised by Director Signe Pucena together with her husband Ugis Pucins, a wonderful group of active neighbours from the village, as well as students working for the centre. In the core of SERDE’s programme, the surrounding community is in the centre of the activities – brought together by an experimental mix of emerging technologies and age-old manufacturing skills fostered by the art centre.

For one sunny September weekend in 2015, the Frontiers organisers and artists who had been in residence at Serde, a number of international curators and guest lecturers, local residents, and art students from Liepāja University came together to explore how cultural heritage could be seen as something other than just conservation or nostalgic longing. This incubator set out to enquire what counts as cultural heritage, how it could inform contemporary ways of living, and – when brought together with critically-informed use of emergent technologies – provide unexpected solutions for challenges that may lie ahead for humans transitioning towards less ‘resource-hungry’, post-fossil societies.

When discussing cultural heritage, it is important to recognise that what is considered valuable changes over time and means different things for different stakeholders. In UNESCO’s definition, heritage is divided into tangible culture (buildings, monuments, landscapes, books, artefacts, art), intangible culture (folklore, traditional ways of doing, language, stories, knowledge) and natural heritage (ecosystem and biodiversity).

Elaborating on the detailed notes of artist-researcher/facilitator Andrew Gryf Paterson, who skilfully moderated the incubator, cultural heritage “includes inherited artefacts, attributes, and systems from a particular locale, group, or society that are: passed on from past generations, maintained through actions in the present, and given over for the benefit of future generations”.

In SERDE’s case, the approach toward heritage has not been so much human-centred, but has explored the complex relations, the intra-actions and co-evolutionary processes between humans, and the local biotic and abiotic environment.

Serde’s residency centre is active in the summer season (May–September) hosting artists, crafts persons, and researchers. With an outdoor kiln for firing ceramics, and facilities for making objects out of wood, metal, and ceramic, SERDE hosts workshops, symposiums, and festivals. Besides manufacturing-activities, SERDE has created a series of publications on the local cultural heritage and narratives. These ‘Notebooks on Traditions’ have documented, for instance, moonshine making, micro-brewing, foraging, and herbalism cultures in the Kurzeme region.

Besides introductions to Serde’s activities, as well as keynote lectures by international guests, a central part of the Incubator programme consisted of artist presentations, performances, and workshops.

With Bartaku, the participants got to experience the Soviet-era Aronia plantations bursting with purple, flavonoid-rich berries. Dressed in white protective overalls (mainly to keep the ticks away) and equipped with buckets, the group headed to the formerly neglected fields to harvest berries and to learn about their properties from the artist. Bartaku’s fascination with Aronia, or according to his nomenclature, ‘Baroa Belaobara’, has led him (among other things) to co-compose ‘Aronia Overture’, a choir piece in which human voices turn into something unrecognisable due to the throat-clenching effect of what is also known as the ‘choke berry’.

The field excursion was followed by the experimental laboratory, ‘Labsy’, where plant biologist Anete Boroduske gave a fascinating talk and a performance explaining how plants, aronia included, can be modified by human technologies. According to Boroduske, for instance, most of the cut flowers on the market these days are cultivated from cells carefully selected and grown in vitro.

For her project, Anna Rubio, a Catalan dancer and movement educator, had been spending most of her artist residency in an old oak tree close by the art centre. The outcome of this commitment was a mostly-vertical dance piece, where the tree was one of the performers alongside Anna, with acclaimed pianist Rihards Plesanovs accompanying from the root-level. Both in Rubio’s and Bartaku’s works, the artistic authorship was very much shared with these plant world agencies, bringing them centre-stage as co-performers, whose presence is vital to the human community in the area.

The same observation applies to Gints Gabrans’ works that investigated the possibilities of introducing new types of digestive enzymes to the human body, which would allow humans to utilise wood fibre as a source of nutrition. Although this may sound like a futuristic initiative, many people of, for instance, my grandparents’ generation still remember the war years, when wood bark and cellulose were used as a flour substitute in bread. For many people, finding these types of nutritional substitutes is a matter of life and death today. Gabrans had chosen to present his research in the form of sculptural installation, where he used clay pillars to illustrate statistical information on nutrition, food waste, and scarcity.

The artist and activist presentations, as well as the many field trips (for instance, to a nearly self-sufficient garden and an old juice factory) during the incubator, illuminated ways in which it is possible to contribute to the re-valuing of cultural heritage, by developing alternative or new ways for its development, sharing, and communication. When it comes to the understanding of ‘resources’, a wide interpretation of cultural heritage takes into consideration natural heritage (ecosystems and biodiversity), recognizing that the inter-relationships and -dependencies of these resources form also the conditions of life.

Whether we discuss ‘renewable’ or ‘non-renewable’, materials and natural processes are nearly always defined from a human-centric perspective, in other words, whether they renew themselves in a time span meaningful to humans. Again quoting Andrew Paterson’s reflections, “cultural heritage can focus our attention on the care and concern for the material and immaterial things that humans share in our environment. It is sensitive to the sustainability of cultures and practices of value over longer durations of time”.

– Jenni Nurmenniemi, Curator, Frontiers in Retreat,
with special thanks to Andrew Gryf Paterson