Workshop for the Restoration of Unfelt Feelings (Book Review)

Workshop for the Restoration of Unfelt Feelings. Juris Boiko and Hardijs Lediņš Nebijušu Sajūtu Restaurēšanas Darbnīca. Juris Boiko and Hardijs Lediņš. Ieva Astahovska, Mara Žeikare, eds. Riga (Latvia: Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art, 2016), 480 pp.

For quite some time, all that was available to the researcher of contemporary art related to the Latvian experimental music group Workshop for the Restoration of Unfelt Feelings/Nebijušu Sajūtu Restaurēšanas Darbnīca (NSRD), were a few lines here and there, scattered across catalogues, essays and random texts. Mysterious references to Binocular Dances and Walks to Bolderāja captivated those who wanted to know more. For these reasons, this long-awaited anthology on NSRD and its two founders, the writer, musician, and visual artist Juris Boiko (1954-2002) and musician, architect, and multi-media artist Hardijs Lediņš (1955-2004), recently published by the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art, is indeed a welcome addition to the library of contemporary art history. For the first time, this substantial tome outlines the main philosophies, texts, and artworks of the group, which was active in Latvia mainly in the 1980s, but whose activities continued and were also revisited after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Latvia’s regaining of independence. NSRD produced the first multi-media art in Latvia and was among the first to create participatory art works in the country. Their unique combination of music, architectural theory, and philosophy makes them among the most important contemporary artists in Latvia, and their work offers an original contribution to global avant-garde art.

NSRD’s long and complicated moniker gives some indication of the complexity of the artists, artwork and philosophy behind those words. The group appeared at a complex time in Latvia’s history, as theybegan their activity in September 1982, when Lediņš and Boiko recorded some of their first songs with the Latvian rock group the Yellow Postmen (Dzeltenie pastnieki). While music was part of their origin, they are not simply, nor only, a musical group. In this monograph, NSRD is described as a “thinking space” developed by its two founders, and their activity ranged from architectural theory, music, philosophy and the visual arts. In fact, one could draw parallels between NSRD and the Slovenian collective NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst). However, while NSK comprised a number of different artistic groups, including the music group Laibach and the visual art group IRWIN, NSRD, authored primarily by Lediņš and Boiko, contained an entire range of activities, from artistic performances and conceptual art, to music and theory.

Given the multifarious nature of NSRD’s activity, the book is aptly divided into several discrete sections, each relating to a different aspect of the group’s work. Following an introductory timeline of its activities, from just prior to its inception and leading up to the present day, the editors have gathered texts, photographs and other materials on the group’s work, focusing on their most significant projects: the Walks to Bolderāja, Binocular Dances and their theory of “Approximate Art”, with each section color-coded for ease of use. These sections are perhaps the greatest contribution of the publication, in that they bring this archival material to light for the first time, in translation, and to international audiences who would otherwise be unable to access the material. The sheer volume of images and texts brings the completely ephemeral and nearly lost activity of NSRD from the 1980s to light.

The nature of NSRD’s activities has made it difficult to capture for study. For example, their Walks to Bolderāja were a series of participatory walks from Riga to the suburb of Bolderāja (a distance of about 10 miles) along the railway tracks. The walks bear similarities to the performances by Moscow-based Collective Actions in the 1970s, in that they were meant to be introspective, contemplative group activities, with the one difference that the participants walked to the suburb, as opposed to taking the train. Likewise, the Binocular Dances, which were among NSRD’s most popular performances, were meditative, participatory artworks in which the audience took part simply by blinking their eyes or performing “eye exercises” by moving their eyes around. These two series of works were among the first participatory artworks in Latvia; however, they were not as rigorously documented as those of Collective Actions, making it difficult to reconstruct their history.

The archival sections of the book comprise roughly more than half of its pages, with the remainder consisting of essays written by the leading contemporary art historians and art theorists in Latvia: Māra Traumane, Ilmārs Šlāpins, Jānis Taurens, Jānis Lejnieks, Pēteris Bankovskis and Liāna Langa. Each essay takes as its focus a different aspect of NSRD’s work, contextualizing it within the theories and practices of the avant-garde, contemporary experimental music, Zen Buddhism, architecture, and the visual arts. For example, art historian Jānis Taurens’s text “Webern, Kenzo Tange and Postmodernism” places Lediņš’s work in the context of that of the Japanese architect’s; art critic Pēteris Bankovskis explores NSRD’s work in a visual art context in his article “NSRD in the Visual Arts and Culture Landscape in the 1980s,” and, in a conversation between art historian Māra Traumane and Latvian musicologist Boriss Avramecs, “The Musical Avant-Garde in 1970s Riga,” the two explore the musical context of NSRD’s work.

The final section is dedicated to original texts by Lediņš, with one by Boiko and the transcription of a conversation between Lediņš and several of his contemporaries. These texts are perhaps the most illuminating, as they reveal the intellectual context in which the artists were working—the authors, texts and ideas to which they referred and from which they were developing their own approaches to art and architecture. For example, in his essay “Avant-Garde is not Avant-Garde” (originally published in 1987), Lediņš mentions Charles Jencks’s 1977 monograph, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, and artists such as John Cage, Samuel Beckett, Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor, among others. He then critiques his compatriots in Latvia for positioning themselves only in relation to the “West,” and for their simplistic view, thinking everything produced there either good or bad. Indeed, NSRD forged their own path, contributing a number of unique ideas and approaches. Their Binocular Dances, for example, was one of their most popular series of performances, combining Eastern meditation, new wave, communication theory, and even participatory art avant la lettre. The Binocular Dances “can be performed by all who have eyelids” and are situated somewhere between art and medicine. They exist both as instructions and as a performance, and can be performed individually in a group, or at a gathering. Likewise, the group’s concept of “Approximate Art” refers to their blurring of the boundaries between music, video, performance, text, literature, and aimed at creating a new form of artistic expression, one that sought to escape the labels and boundaries that can be so limiting to artists.

The volume was published, as most texts by the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art, as a bilingual edition, in both Latvian and English, making the work of NSRD internationally accessible. It is from the perspective of a Westerner, though one who has done considerable research within the context of contemporary Latvian art, that I have considered this volume. What can this publication offer to art historians and scholars outside of Latvia?

In his essay “Webern, Kenzo Tange and Postmodernism,” Janis Taurens, art historian from the University of Latvia, Department of Modern and Contemporary History of Western Europe and America, writes:

“Of course, we can say that small nations’ searches for parallels and analogues—despite thus submitting to the discourse of art theory and the history of large nations—is a way to make their art recognizable and understandable, a way to get themselves included in the art world’s canon. Seen from a different point of view… we can say that the bottled-up isolation of the Soviet era led to a desire for everything located outside the walls of that bottle. No matter whether it was modernism or postmodernism, the trends from “out there” were the target of intellectuals’ yearnings, the objects of their imitations; any philosophy that was not Marxism-Leninism was like a ray of truth.” (356)

While both parts of this statement bear some degree of truth, I would take a more nuanced view of the situation. It is important to remember that artists and intellectuals living behind the Iron Curtain—despite measures on the part of the authorities to prevent information from the “bourgeois West” from getting in—never stopped seeing themselves as part of the creative traditions witnessed in Western Europe and North America. For many of these artists, reading about John Cage or looking for information about Stockhausen or Fluxus was not appealing simply because it was an attractive jewel glistening outside of the murky and restrictive “bottle.” It appealed because, in discovering links and parallels with work that existed outside of the Soviet Union, these artists were bolstered to continue their own experimental avant-garde activity. Knowledge of these similarities made the artists feel as if they were not alone—not trapped in the bottle as it were.

Likewise, the tendency for contemporary art historians to articulate parallels between art movements, artworks, tendencies and trends, is not simply an attempt to make the art of the small Latvian nation familiar. For artists working in Soviet Latvia, experimental artists in Western Europe and North America were their peers, and they learned from them, digested what they had to offer, and developed their own work in parallel to theirs. Consequently, it makes sense for art historians, in contextualizing the work of NSRD, to do so in light of the work of these artists’ contemporaries abroad.

Thus it was illuminating yet not surprising to read of the impact of Cage and Stockhausen on the NSRD artists, not to mention the texts by Charles Jencks, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. It is widely known that Cage himself travelled extensively in Eastern Europe and his philosophies and approaches to art making had a profound impact on artists in the region. Lediņš was actually trained as an architect, and his approach to architecture was very much at odds with the local Soviet approach to contemporary architecture and urban planning. Much in the same way that Polish architect Oskar Hansen’s work rarely saw the light of day in Poland in the 1970s and 1980s, beyond being exhibited at international exhibitions (to demonstrate the progressive approach of architecture in the People’s Republic of Poland), Lediņš’s ideas remained theoretical—nothing more than lines on a page—rather than being made manifest in actual constructions. In Poland, Hansen went on to influence a generation of performance artists, most notably Zofia Kulik and Przemysław Kwiek (working together as KwieKulik). Similarly, in Latvia, Lediņš’ influence was perhaps more widely felt in the visual arts.

Given the artists’ significant writings on, and work in the context of, postmodernism, it would have been useful if one of the contextual essays had dealt explicitly with the question of postmodernism and its meaning for and relation to contemporary Latvian art (visual, architecture, music, etc.). Instead, the definition of postmodernism in Latvia is implied, and perhaps understood as being equivalent to its meaning and significance in Western Europe and North America. However, as Raoul Eshelman and others have argued, for countries where hegemonic political structures survived until the end of the 1980s, postmodernism was experienced much differently. For this reason, the absence of a text contextualizing and interpreting Lediņš’s numerous texts and statements on postmodernism in the Latvian context is regrettable.

While this publication no doubt serves as a necessary first step in what should be a continuing line of research and writing on NSRD, I had been hoping for more complex analyses of the group’s activity within both the Latvian and the wider international artistic context. Consequently, the section of collected essays was, despite the esteem and knowledge of the authors, perhaps the most disappointing part of the publication. For while the essays draw the appropriate parallels between NSRD and other artists, movements and theorists in both Latvia and abroad, they do not go far enough in discussing the influence and significance of NSRD on Latvian contemporary art as a whole, or the individual artists and practitioners discussed therein, not to mention analyzing what makes the work of NSRD distinct from that of their contemporaries. For example, Mara Traumane’s essay, “NSRD: Points of Reference in International Art and Theory” astutely and appropriately makes reference to the work of NSRD in the context of the Slovenian collective OHO, active at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, as well as Collective Actions. However, much more could have been made of these comparisons, since while there are formal similarities between their work, the philosophical and artistic attitudes, aims and approaches of each were quite different. For example, perhaps because of the nature of life in Moscow in the 1970s, Collective Actions was an exclusive, closed and hermetic group both in terms of accessto their work (who was invited to participate) and its content. NSRD, by contrast, was much more open and inclusive, with their work focusing on everyday actions that anyone could do, such as walking or eye blinking. While the origins of NSRD lay in music, OHO’s work was based more on literary concerns, the group’s actions emerging from concrete poetry and underpinned by the concept of “Reism”, the treatment of words as objects in and of themselves. A more probing article might have teased out some of these differences in order to reveal the unique contributions of NSRD.

Furthermore, beyond the international context, it would have been interesting to learn more about how NSRD’s activity fit in with the local scene. For example, what, if any, was the influence of artists such as Andris Grīnbergs and his happenings in the 1970s on NSRD in the 1980s?; what were the relations between Lediņš and Boiko and contemporary painters such as Bruno Vasiļevskis and Miervaldis Polis, who also worked in performance?; and how did the generation that came after NSRD, working in the immediate post-Soviet period of the 1990s, interpret and contextualize the work of NSRD, if it did at all? Did the artists belonging to NSRD and their Binocular Dances and Walks to Bolderāja have any impact on subsequent generations of artists in Latvia? Furthermore, when Taurens states that “evidence of the fact that they [Boiko and Lediņš] remained outside the canon of literary history is provided, for example, by Guntis Berelis’ short history of Latvian literature—the names of Juris Boiko and Hardijs Lediņš are not mentioned, and we can thus say that a significant chapter of our literary history has not yet been written” (352), one wonders whether anything has changed since the publication of that 1999 text by Berelis. Are Boiko and Lediņš, and NSRD for that matter, taught in courses at the Latvian Academy of Art, the University of Latvia, or the Latvian Academy of Music?

In some ways the publication raises more questions than it answers, though to be fair, as the first substantial text on the group, it can’t of course be expected to accomplish everything. Overall this is an important publication that fills a considerable research gap, not only in relation to contemporary Latvian art, but to contemporary art in general. Its rich collection of archival materials and translated primary source texts makes the volume an invaluable resource for the scholar of contemporary art history. NSRD has intrigued me for years, and it is my hope that this text of this unique group of artists will now capture the attention of scholars worldwide.