Navigating History

Site Specific Art Projects in St. Petersburg, July 2003

2003 saw the Russian City of St Petersburg celebrating its 300th anniversary. The traditional Birthday mix of nostalgia and future plans and possibilities is manifest in the festivities with particular emphasis on cultural exchange.

This has brought with it increased international interest much focused on the city’s architectural heritage and future physical and cultural expansion.

A brief internet search brings up various conferences highlighting these themes: The International Architecture Forum’s “St. Petersburg: window on the future” and “Preserving the World’s Great Cities,” the Faberge workshop on architectural preservation, “New uses for old buildings,” and the University of Michigan’s conference “Projecting St. Petersburg.”

Operating alongside yet outside of the network of official sponsorship the project described here aimed at projecting or rather exposing another version of exchange.

It is from this perspective that we move towards a hidden site of St. Petersburg yet to be placed on any map for the cultural tourist.

New Holland is a triangular island of about 74,000 square metres in central St Petersburg.

Situated in the area of the city most closely associated with Peter the Great (near the famous Bronze Horseman and the Admiralty), he founded the site in the 1720s and named it after his sojourn in the Netherlands learning the art of shipbuilding.

Surrounded by the Moika, Kryukov, and Admiralteisky Canals it was used to store and dry lumber for the state-of-the-art navy Peter was building for the Russian Empire. Later it was used as a testing-centre for this Navy and soon became a small “town within a city” composed of oddly shaped brick warehouses and strange pools and tanks of water.

Throughout the Tsarist Empire and Soviet Union, New Holland remained a closed, secretive place known only to the navy. By the 1970s it was no longer used for testing; it was only for naval offices.

In the summer of 2000, the project “Emplacements” enabled the people of St Petersburg to gain access to the historic site of New Holland for the first time in its 300-year history.

Emplacements (a collaborative art project led by Francoise Dupre and Roxanne Permar) collaborated with the Russian curator Dimitri Pilikin to organise and to create work in response to their experience of this site and The Red Flag Knit wear factory on nearby Petrograd Island.

In July 2003 the aim of the collaboration between the London-based site responsive art group Luna Nera and St Petersburg artist and curator Oleg Yanushevsky was to open up this site once more to the public with a one day similar site responsive event.

But the problems of access posed the following question: Is this site ready for any architectural event or intervention whether monumental or transitory?

For the monumental, Eric Owen Moss, an internationally acclaimed architect has ambitious plans for the future of New Holland.

Whilst proposing to add a new opera house to the back of the nearby Marinksy Theatre, he is extending this proposal to include New Holland as a major new cultural centre for St Petersburg.

Plans also incorporate pedestrian access over new bridges entering a central public plaza as a venue for open-air performance and the annual White Nights Festival.

The outer brick warehouses would be rehabilitated as offices and workspaces for the arts enclosing a large glass structure set to be the New Holland Hotel/Conference centre.

A museum is proposed for the old submarine testing pool whilst plans for the central pool are even more ambitious utilising elevated and floating glass walkways.

As this new glass skyline should be seen from Palace Square, the project offers an attempt to understand the site as an extension of the existing organisation of the historic district.

This consists of a linear arrangement of the Winter Palace and Hermitage, Palace Square, the Admiralty, and St Isaac’s Cathedral with New Holland potentially as a continuation of this monumental cultural corridor.

This vision differs dramatically from the actuality of the site at this time.In a highly planned city of museums and monuments, the precarious balance between past and future, preservation and development, is a sensitive issue.

The island site may be thought of as “junkspace” more than ready for a facelift (comparable to the Bilbao Guggenheim) and the regeneration effect this entails.

But many see the modernist designs this architect has on the site as out of place and time.

The island is as yet unconquered by the forces of capital remaining strictly off limits; the cylindrical military buildings (a former prison) still surrounded by high red brick walls are topped with barbed wire.

The rest of the site became temporarily open to our prowling cameras through Oleg’s extensive negotiations providing us with an inside view of the varied productions going on across the moat-including the salt factory, the print works and the Marinsky Theatre workshop.

But, for now at least, our access to this site began and ended with a visual document of already existing activity and structure out of bounds to artistic intervention. What is the point of talking about this if in the end this becomes a “non-eventful” site?

Our event could not take its place in this place at this time but this does not mean that the place itself is uneventful. Although semi-derelict it is still home to activities that lay claim to this territory and may not give it up without a fight.

It raises issues surrounding site responsive practices;it also highlights the contemporary context of urban regeneration and current debates around the protection of historical industrial buildings.

On one of our last evenings in St. Petersburg we took a boat cruise navigating the canals towards the river Neva.

Floodlights and illuminations abound highlighting kitsch churches and majestic palaces and statues against a metal blue sky.

New Holland at present has no cause for halogen beams and as the canals narrow, Oleg points us towards ” our dark island” of mystery and potential.

The journey did not stop here. With our maritime imaginations fired, an alternative site was needed and thanks to Oleg this was found outside St. Petersburg in the historic naval fortress town of Kronstadt located about 29km north west of St. Petersburg on Kotlin island in the Gulf of Finland.

Peter the Great created this sea fortress in 1723 seeing it as a vital extension of the capital on the river Neva. Guarding its approach it offered protection as the gateway of the Russian Empire and became a starting point for many great journeys of exploration out of Russia.

Celebrated Russian navigators studied and researched here with many inventions made, tested, and pioneered in the town. These include Popov’s contested first invention of radio, Butakov’s mechanical telegraph, undersea mines, torpedoes, submarines, and pioneering anti-plague and water chlorination laboratories.

But perhaps Kronstadt is most well known due to the staging of the first and last popular armed uprising against the rule of the communist party.

Kronstadt sailors played major roles in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and, in 1921, they revolted once again against what they saw as the betrayal of the revolution by the Bolshevik regime.

The bus journey from St. Petersburg to Kronstadt emerges from a verdant area of dachas (summer homes) onto a barren dam punctuated with hydro-technical and defence installations.

These look out towards the evidence of an extensive maritime heritage: smaller tumbledown fort islands that surround the main base and are now intermittent venues for raves.

The rough verges are dotted with ladas and jeeps abandoned for swimming and fishing and an imposing but unfinished highway on stilts commanding the marshy approach to Kronstadt town.

15 in area, the civic population of the town of Kronstadt is now about 50,000 people, but half of this small island is occupied by the naval base of the Russian Baltic Fleet. As in New Holland it is only recently (Nov 11th 1996) that any visitor (foreign or domestic) could step onto this secret military island without special permission.

The naval base is maintained, but many of the old naval canals, storehouses, palaces, and docks dating from the 17th to the 19th Centuries are in varied stages of disrepair and dereliction.

It is in one of these empty canal storehouses alongside a former official’s home that we worked, assimilating our original project within the “Word of the Artist” festival. Transferring and adapting the themes of maritime history and military secrets (also common to New Holland) a key word throughout this period of production was navigation: Navigation and interpretation of the sites history, locale, and identity.

The site-responsive installations by Luna Nera incorporated locally sourced ephemeral and found objects. Each artist dealt differently with the history and relationships embedded within the place and the problems of encountering the site.

The process here is paramount with a research period assimilating a fusion of source elements: hybrid fragments of history and associations reconfigured into the work on site.

Julian Ronnefeldt’s optical installation “Spy” took such fragments as found wood, matrioshki dolls, soviet posters, giant lens, record players, etc. from local tourist markets and junk shops to create a peep show shelter within the storehouse.

Just as the space itself was opened to a new experience, visitors were invited to partake in this secret voyeurism privy to stop-motion illusions. Inside the residence Gillian McIver used the sparse wood panelled rooms to create “Sails”: an installation of texts from old books on European history and philosophy, focused on the Enlightenment and Napoleonic eras. Deconstructed, the pages formed hanging sails whilst the now empty covers became “A history in six volumes.”

Through this installation McIver aimed at the creation or provocation of alternative readings of the meta-history of the past. The books chosen date from specific eras and deal with deliberately chosen themes: empire, naval power, and nation building.

Today the books, the most recent date from 1949, can be read as “propaganda” but this brings up the issue of whether today’s “truth” may be tomorrow’s “propaganda.”

On the other hand, the materials that replace the pages of some of the volumes, elemental substances such as bread, salt, wood, and earth, are the timeless realities from which history is made.

She goes on to deal with another almost archetypal substance: the body of water that is the river Neva.

Installed in the storehouse the film “Bridges of St. Petersburg” is a montage loop of the many bridges across the Neva, mixing classic film footage with present material fusing past and present representations of key emblems of the City of Petersburg.

Just as the opening bridges of the Neva have become a symbol seen on anything from vodka bottles to mugs, the area is saturated with marine and naval symbols (anchors, tridents, nymphs tritons), monuments to Russian Naval glory, memorials in honour of soldiers fallen for their country.

Eran Tsafrir continues to subvert this tradition in the creation of another memorial in his installation “Out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou hearest my voice.”

Based around the Kursk disaster of August 2000, this elegy to the lost sailors marks a less glorious moment in naval history: A submarine disaster veiled in secrecy in which 118 Russian submariners died.

Exploring transience in life and notions of human bravery and sacrifice using a fusion of photography, metal, paper, and sound the installation incorporates the names of the sailors lining the walls alongside biblical texts of the story of Jonah and the whale.

The reference to drowning and submarine life and death was also continued in the film of Hilary Powell entitled “Submergency” (a video piece installed on a monitor enclosed by sandbags).

The film features a lone naked figure moving in and out of a radar screen: tracking and surveillance technology undermining the freedom of the open sea. This is echoed in the soundtrack composed from sonic radar emissions, undersea exploration acoustics, and waves of haunting siren-like music.

Moving back through history to the age of sail led to a piece that plays with the idea of ships into bottles and bottles into ships and the creation of a prototype raft form from collected plastic bottles.

It functioned as a sketch but encapsulated a key preoccupation of the artist and site responsive work in general: recycling and history or the recycling of history.

Researching boat form throughout the ages led to the Chinese “junk.” As the term originated in maritime lingo (in reference to old ropes) this word is apt, as the raw materials were literally junk: discarded bottles.

Just as these are waste from a system, the sail vessels of old also constitute the “fallout’ of history…junk bottles containing images of sailing ships that have also past their “usefulness” in mainstream, military marine operations.

The canal storehouse in which these works were situated has also past its usefulness in terms of its original function or value but this does not mean that new value cannot be placed on it, that it cannot be recycled and transformed into a site of cultural significance.

The co-curator, Viktor has his own agenda for Kronstadt’s development as a cultural satellite of St. Petersburg.

Aside from Kronstadt residents, visitors (primarily journalists) to the show travelled across the gulf on two buses -imported into an area where speeches were given, anniversary books awarded. We became part of a process we did not understand and would soon be leaving.

But perhaps not – the plans for the area continue with proposals for further international artistic residencies and shows: Works in progress.

Kronstadt possesses a history rich in dramatic events. The aim of this project was the development of another kind of event, the beginning of a new perception in the potential of the derelict through artistic intervention.

This temporary, almost improvised event began this transformative process. Creating an intermediary dynamic space, it can be seen as a turning point of spatial perception, exposing the possibility of the invention of new histories, for a site tired of its past. The future may not be all navy blue, although the color appears on the abandoned buildings of this island fort.