Screening Series Part 2: From Matter to Data: Ecology of Infrastructures

From Matter to Data: Ecology of Infrastructures presents a selection of 15 films and video works that will be made available in three parts from July 29 till September 9. In this second selection, available to watch from August 12 to August 26, artists reflect on the intersections between historic Soviet architecture and newly built infrastructures.

Specters of Socialist Architecture

Behind the Iron Curtain, the Soviet Union engineered its own version of the modern individual. As social anthropologist Caroline Humphrey has written, “…the fantasy of the socialist infrastructure acquired an overdetermining quality in the Soviet Union in conjunction with the grand industrialization and collectivization programs of the mid-twentieth century”. Wide scale urbanization was one of the most common practices of transformation, leading to the homogenization of socialist everyday life. Urban architecture played a crucial role in this process. The idea of using a residential area for ideological goals was notably prevalent during the Khrushchev era, when the intensive union-wide apartment building program began. As architectural historian Florian Urban points out, political, ideological, social, economic and even technological aspects of architecture were standardized across the Soviet Union in the 1950s and the 1960s. With the advent of large panel prefabricated blockhouse building technology, the housing projects were gradually carried out in every republic of the USSR, and thus, the urban unification of Soviet everyday life influenced large populations.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the socialist housing projects no longer performed their primary ideological function. While some still accommodate millions of people, others  rest in a desolate state. Some have sought to change their profile to adapt to capitalist realities. Stripped of its ideological frame, the specter of socialist architecture nevertheless retains its influence on the geographic, social and cultural landscape of post-socialist life. With the shift to a capitalist system, concepts like development and gentrification have entered the vocabularies of urban development. Today, these hybrid views towards architecture entangle political contexts, ecological consciousness, and the economic progress of the region. The video artworks in this section focus on Soviet architectural infrastructure and its impact on the environment, as well as envisioning its potential future.

A Place (Playground) by Krassimir Terziev

Still from Krassimir Terziev’s A Place (Playground). Courtesy of the artist.

Just as standard residential buildings were designed to synchronize the daily lives of the New Soviet individual, so were the playgrounds and leisure parks that were built next to these apartment buildings. A Place (Playground) (2004) by Krassimir Terziev focuses on one of the playgrounds situated in a typical working-class neighborhood, built in 1983 in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. The environment recorded on video is characteristic of a concoction of preplanned hillocks that are cut across by canals and ponds which are linked by curved footbridges. Terziev highlights the architectural ensemble characteristic of prop-like tanks, rockets, military airplanes and canons—all arranged as if on a battlefield. The metal items painted in the same colors—yellow, red and blue—were manufactured from the materials used in the production of military equipment. Importantly, the film turns to the environment as metaphor, as it documents everyday activities in a space packed with residents who are unaware of the changing ideologies behind their urban surroundings, as communist ideology gradually gives way to capitalist consumerism.

Pirimze by Sophia Tabatadze

Still from Sophia Tabatadze’s Pirimze. Courtesy of the artist.

Sophia Tabatadze’s creative documentary Pirimze (2015) is another retrospective research study of the socialist architecture vis-a-vis its gradual environmental alterations. This film focuses on social and visual changes affecting Pirimze, a six-floor building  from the Soviet era, once built in Tbilisi to house repair and maintenance services. Tabatadze chooses to narrate the story from the perspective of the building, giving it a character, but also subtly emphasizing the social importance of non-human infrastructural objects in the changing ecosystem of the city. The theme unfolds into a broader picture that reveals the socio-political changes that have happened in Georgia in the recent decades.

As Pirimze emphasizes, the imposed homogeneity of the Soviet everyday was by no means a given phenomenon but rather an aspiration for Soviet architectural projects.  Different nations in the USSR had different cultural and political histories. For some time, the repressive mechanisms and everyday practices functioned as if these differences were non-existent, or at least completely insignificant. But these differences became more notable, until eventually, and inevitably, they came to the fore in the 1980s. It was at this time that  architecture ceased to play its prescribed role. The breakdown of the function of Soviet urban infrastructure is particularly visible when looking at the specters of Soviet architectural projects.

Four Edges of Pyramiden by Ieva Epnere

Still from Ieva Epnere’s Four Edges of Pyramiden. Courtesy of the artist.

Ieva Epnere in Four Edges of Pyramiden (2015) focuses on one of these specters. The ex-Soviet mining town Pyramiden, built on the archipelago of Svalbard, stopped functioning in the late 1980s and was finally deserted in 1998, leaving behind a number of empty residential buildings, an abandoned library, and a desolate cultural center that all together form a ghostly memory of life from the socialist past. Svalbard, historically known as no-man’s land, was used for mining natural resources during the Soviet era. As a result, the natural environment of the area has been  altered. After the Soviet Union collapsed however, Svalbard—one of the northernmost places in the world’—has metamorphosed again and become a destination for researchers, escapists and adventurous passersby. In this film, Ieva Epnere performatively presents four human stories about the present state of this spectral place that both implicitly and explicitly reveal previously forgotten non-human worlds.

Concrete and Unclear by fantastic little splash

Still from fantastic little splash’s Concrete and Unclear. Courtesy of the artist.

fantastic little splash, a collective of investigative artists from Ukraine continues to trace the connection between the past and the present as seen through the architectural structures erected in the Soviet times. Concrete and Unclear (2018) is a documentary short film devoted to the Hotel “Parus” in Dnipro, Ukraine. Hotel “Parus”, which was meant to be a grand symbol of Dnipropetrovsk,the homeland of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, never opened— its construction was halted on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union. This unfinished building became one of the symbols of the city and started to function as a matrix for a spectrum of the present concerns. The hotel symbolizes the impossibility of Soviet claims, the domination of private capital, and the pro-Ukrainian mood of the inhabitants of the eastern city. Hotel “Parus” has become a space of imagination that opposes reality and at the same time reproduces it.

Client’s Day by Flo Kasearu

Still from Flo Kasearu’s Client’s Day. Courtesy of the artist.

Flo Kasearu’s Client’s day (2020), the most recent video through which we encounter the specters of the socialist architecture, demonstrates the potential of the ruins of a prefabricated panel block house, located on the fringe of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, just minutes away from the sea. The film reveals the process of gentrification as it reaches the city. It also reflects on the role played by artists within this process, as they are usually the first ones to arrive to previously derelict areas, only to be later ousted  as the spaces acquire higher market value and become too expensive to rent. In this video, the real estate broker speaks about the future as present, ignoring the actual present and the artists who are there at the moment, since they are often seen as temporary residents. Another issue the video tackles is the tension between erecting new buildings and rehabilitating old ones. The 1980s panel block architecture depicted in the video used to be considered ugly. However, as the video ironically points out, it may become more and more appealing as gentrification continues and views on the sustainable development of cities change.

This film program is organized by Inga Lāce and Lukas Brasiskis in collaboration with the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art, Lithuanian Culture Institute and Lithuanian Cultural Attaché in New York, Consulate General of Estonia in New York, Polish Cultural Institute New York, and Consulate General of the Slovak Republic in New York. The third screening “Past’s Futures: Anthropocene or Capitalocene?” will be available from August 26 to September 9, 2020. You can read about the first screening here.

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