Vaguely Baltic, Nearly Sisters: By Way of “New East,” “New North,” and “New (Queer) Beyond”

New York–based curator Zane Onckule (born 1982, Latvia), curator of the thesis exhibition Balticana as part of the The Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College program that was on view at the Hessel Museum of Art in the spring of 2019, here reflects upon geopolitical, cultural, and (visual) identity/ies across the present-day Baltics.

GolfClayderman, Exotic Fishes, 2018. Photo documentation from the fashion show by Riga based collective GolfClayderman (Margrieta Dreiblate and Aksels Bruks) titled Exotic Fishes. Located at the Riga Central Station with a Police station behind, this performative show with models wearing garments out of fabrics sourced from the sea-trash concluded with a group’s journey to the Gulf of Riga to committ for a prayer for the Batic Sea as one of the most threatened marine ecosystems on the planet.

Vaguely Baltic(s)

Understanding and framing the region of the Baltics are problematic tasks in themselves. Quoting curator and writer Valentinas Klimašauskas: “The Baltics as a psycho-geographical term is a phenomenon in its lack of direction and definition. This incoherence can apply to politics, economics, infrastructure and mentalities. You can and can’t be Baltic simultaneously, but also you can be more or less Baltic(s).”1“ORIGINALFASSUNG ISSUE #37: Baltxploitation,” General Public website, April 3, 2006,

As a geopolitical term used to describe the northeastern region of Europe containing Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all of which are located along the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, “the Baltics” is not conventionally used in the contexts of culture, national identity, or language. Nor does it comprise a political union. Rather, the three countries comprising it engage in what can be described as intergovernmental and parliamentary cooperation.

As an (un)clearly demarcated (cultural) territory, the Baltics also functions across the arts, from the perspective of the Global West, as an opaque realm. Since the 1990s and well into the 2010s, this opaqueness, frequently addressed through and supported by metaphors such as fog2The notion of fog originated in an essay by Arunas Sverdiolas. See Sverdiolas, “The Sieve and the Honeycomb: Features of Contemporary Lithuanian Time and Space,” in Baltic Postcolonialism, ed. Violeta Kelertas (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2006), 244–45. Referring to systematic changes after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sverdiolas describes the situation as follows: “Therefore, these new (to us) things constitute a weightless medium—a shapeless fog does not allow us to orient ourselves according to named landmarks that are at least relatively stable, does not allow us to establish identities and differences. There can be no consideration of archaeology or genealogy in a fog, as here there are no layers, no relation to a legacy or an inheritance.” and mood,3In her review of “oO,” the Lithuanian Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale, Claire Bishop inquires whether it was enough for curators to create “moods rather than arguments.” This question followed her seeing/navigating through a nonlinear exhibition curated by Raimundas Malašauskas that, aside from an actual display, had no clear path to approach it, many guides, and a few empty, action-less rooms that only came to life in special events that this critic missed. Bishop otherwise perceived the exhibition as “an unforgettably atmospheric non-pavilion” or “an obfuscating haze of fictions without any core or substance.” Claire Bishop, “Now You See It,” Artforum 52, no. 1 (September 2013): 319. has been used to designate a certain cultural, intellectual, and more widely dispersed condition of unclarity, simultaneity, and (post-)postmodernity across the Baltics. Even though this inertia and the tendency shared by colleagues from the region to decidedly accept and occupy a position of the Other4Here, “Other” speaks to the West’s unspoken request of the Baltics that it not be an “Other,” i.e., that it conform to Western models, and at the same time, that it be an “Other” and fight against cultural imperialism. Subsequently, this leads to new trauma, to the feeling of being backward, subaltern, and still “Other-ed.” (never, though, as part of the Third World) might be overplayed, the region does still appear to an extent wild and exotic: hermetic, distanced, and problematically patriotic. In light of the resurgence of the transnational and supranational economic, political, social, and cultural processes—from the naïve, pastiche-like treatment of the “National” throughout Centennial celebrations in the Baltics5Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania declared independence in 1918. to the far-right patriotisms haunting Poland and Germany (widespread across present-day Europe and the world at large)—this essay is an attempt to imagine, depict, and narrate three simultaneous avenues of (self-)presentation that currently prevail across the Baltics: the “New North,” the “New East,” and the “New (Queer) Beyond.” 

Whereas “vaguely”6“Vaguely” here is an expression borrowed from the New York–based collective CFGNY (Concept Foreign Garments New York, whose bootleg name is Cute Fucking Gay New York). Founded in 2016 by Tin Nguyen (born in the United States to a Vietnamese family) and Daniel Chew (born in the United States to a Burmese-Chinese family), CFGNY explores the intersections of fashion, race, identity, and sexuality, and contentiously returns to the term “vaguely Asian,” which carries an understanding of race as a specific cultural experience combined with an understanding of what it feels like to be perceived as Asian. CFGNY website, July 20, 2019, in the title denotes a selective take on both collective and individual imaginaries (at times interchanging and overlapping, and at times barely touching), the “sisters” part is supported by visuals that should be viewed not only in terms of their original meanings and contexts but also in a more speculative pan-Baltic way to show how immanently relational as well as unattached to any singular position the region is.

See Baltic, NWIND (Free magazine about creative business and culture in Northern Europe, distributed in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and available online), cover photograph: Linas Masiokas, Model: Ieva Palionytė, April-May, 2016.
See Baltic, NWIND (Free magazine about creative business and culture in Northern Europe, distributed in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and available online), cover photograph: Linas Masiokas, Model: Ieva Palionytė, April-May, 2016.

New North

“As the creative psyche of this seashore is discernibly feminine, and the regional moniker unfamiliar at large, The Baltic Sisters, with its allusion to a familial bond, is a pretty fair marker for the creative force that lies within,” states the editorial team (Giedrė Stabingytė, Andrius Skalandis, Denis Bondar) of the Vilnius-based magazine N WIND

A free publication that has been distributed across the region since 2014, N WINDis a platform for “exchanges of creative Northern energy”7See within geopolitical strategy, business, and visual expression, transforming it into what is understood as the “New North.” 

As a concept that originated in the Baltics, the “New North,” or “New Nor8dic,”There are numerous other organizations and groupings of states, regions, and nationalities across the world that are self-united, or ascribed to the category of “New North” or “New Nordic.” This essay examines the North-iness/Nordic-ness of the Baltics, in particular. is the willful embodiment of shared thinking and values across the realms of culture, business, and behavior. For example, the New North sensibility is less about a distinguishable aesthetic, and more about a certain Northern breeze in which non-colors (black, white, and gray) reign, standing for peacefulness and quiet wisdom. All in all, the idea of the New North sells the subtle, the quiet, the peaceful.

The cover image of the magazine’s April–May 2016 issue helps to illustrate and contextualize these values in a way that is in sync with the aforementioned quote. A single post-production photograph by Linas Masiokas capturing fresh-faced Lithuanian model Ieva Palionytė in three different poses, unmistakably conjures the three contemporary New North “Baltic sisters.” While the metaphor of the Baltic sisters is not exclusive to the New North, it does resonate with its stance especially closely.

To understand this claim, one should know that in Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, the term “Baltic sisters”9In some sources, the “Baltic sisters” include Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and Poland, corresponding to the area around the Baltic Sea. Subsequently, there are “Baltic Sea sisters,” or eight Finno-Ugric, Baltic, Scandinavian sisters of the North. Russia (present through the Kaliningrad region) is never part of the group. is commonly used and readily understood. Dating back to the Nation-Woman or Nation-Mother allegory popular throughout Europe during the first part of the nineteenth century, the term was first used in the early 1920s, just after the three “sisters” were formed as three independent republics (each of which was founded in 1918). Further into the twentieth century, in 1940, when the three republics joined the new Soviet Union, whose ideological and artistic propaganda based on Marxist–Leninist ideology was used to promote the Communist Party line, they became “little sisters” to the Soviet “sisters” already being exploited. By the end of the twentieth century, and speculatively, with the exhaustion of each of the individual Soviet sisters (as well as of the Soviet regime itself, which was decomposing), the term “Baltic sisters” reentered the spotlight, now as part of the so-called third awakening (ca. 1987–91), and largely in relation to the Baltic Way10The Baltic Way was a peaceful political demonstration that took place on August 23, 1989, when approximately 2 million people joined hands, forming a 600-kilometer-long human chain through the Baltic countries, demonstrating unity in their efforts toward freedom. and Singing Revolution.11The “Singing Revolution” is a phrase coined by Estonian activist and artist Heinz Valk a week after the spontaneous mass night-singing demonstrations at the Tallinn Song Festival on June 10 and 11, 1988. It grounded the bloodless velvet revolutions that took place between 1987 and 1991 and led to restoration of Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian independence.

N WIND’s use of the term “Baltic sisters” raises questions about the relationship between national identity and gender identity. Framed within the call for a certain geopolitical, cultural, and creative unity, this decidedly feminine anthropomorphism invites readers to reflect on gender identity in the same way they do national identity.12For more on this subject, see Audronė Žukauskaitė, “Vanishing Identities in Contemporary Lithuanian Art,” Filosofija. Sociologija, nos. 3–4 (2006): 37–41.

A Latvian, Estonian and Lithuanian (from the left Lara Reznicova, Tiina Liivak, Aksana Naujokienė) wearing national costumes at the Soviet Union Industry and Trade Exhibition in London, 1968. Photo: from the private collection of A. Naujokienė and the book by Karolina Jakaite “The Cold War Capsule: Lithuanian design in London in 1968” (LAPAS publishing house, 2019).

If in the 1990s, attempts to restore the traditional values of nation, homeland, and family to the nation state/s prevented female emancipation across the post-Soviet realm, perhaps the current Baltic sisters could be seen as new (social) subjects who, responding to the gaze directed at them, at once enact, perform, and play out their supposedly fragile/vulnerable femininity—more so, or even especially, given the current socioeconomic, political, and ecological crises that surround the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth-century male-built nation-state concept, particularly across Europe. 

Furthermore, the idea of the North is attractive in the Baltics largely because it was once the “imagined North.” The Baltics dreamt of being Northern, that is until particular historical and sociopolitical circumstances actually made it possible to become Northern. The resolution of this longing was vividly expressed on January 8, 2017, when upon learning of the United Nations’ decision to classify the Baltic states as Northern European countries, Artis Pabriks, the Latvian member of the European Parliament and former foreign and defense minister, tweeted, “This is where we belong.”13The “original” North as the more successful formation shares ties with the Baltics, whose small and open economies are the beneficiaries of direct Nordic investment, leading to direct dependency on it. The Baltic and Nordic people don’t have historical complexes about one another, and their politicians regularly cooperate, network, and share seats in various international organizations, such as the Nordic-Baltic seats in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Both are shareholders in the Nordic Investment Bank and members of the Nordic Battlegroup. Differences are nonetheless evident, particularly in terms of standard of living, welfare protections, consensus democracy, Euroscepticism, gender equality, minority rights, and views on geopolitical threats.

Whether as the New North, or “near North,” or “nearly North,” the classification functions as a promise that carries with it certain notions of reinvention and rebirth. The stance of the New North also embodies a coping mechanism based on healing processes and tactics developed in attempting to move away from the trans-generational traumatic past14Trans-generational trauma is defined as the transfer of trauma from first-generation trauma survivors to second and later generations. In the post-Soviet Baltics, this type of trauma has influenced the beliefs, values, and cultural identity of large groups of citizens. My thanks to artist and art therapist Julia Volonts for bringing this term to my attention. For more on this topic, see writings by Bessel Van Der Kolk, D. W. Winnicott, Murray Bowen, Mark Wolynn, Esther Rashkin, Jacek Debiec, and Regina Marie Sullivan, among other family counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists. usually associated with life under Soviet Union rule. 

While the New North has never existed before, it is understood that the Baltic mentality is a natural part of Nordic thinking and therefore should be treated as integral to it. Sentiment and nostalgia are absent from this relatively untapped territory. Seen as an attempt to mechanically scratch off the complicated past, this operation works and speaks to the demographic made up of the thirty-to-forty-year-old individuals who constitute the last generation born under the Soviet regime and currently occupy leading positions in the fields of creative commerce and science—design, advertising, architecture, fashion, sustainability, etc.—across neoliberal capital markets.15While to my knowledge there is no survey or statistics-based research to support this claim, a cursory view of the individuals or groups behind contemporary cultural activities, creative businesses, and even environmental/architectural entities evidences it.

The New North, therefore, strives for a qualitatively different future and introduces the behavior, thinking, and argumentation rooted less in “modernist poetic devices,”16Benedikts Kalnačs, 20th Century Baltic Drama: Postcolonial Narratives, Decolonial Options(Bielefeld: Aisthesis Verlag, 2016), 30. such as irony, the grotesque, ambiguity, and subjectivity, that accompany it. The defense mechanisms in the realms of language and speech were practiced among individuals during the Soviet period as a form of silent resistance wherever and whenever an actual action was simply not possible; while now, facing and embracing other realities, Baltic society/ies (at least partly and among those of active working age) appear to invest themselves in more constructive, pragmatic and capital-generating discussions and actions.

The emergence of the New North also cements and supports the need for further discussion of various perspectives internal to the Western art world—or in this case, the Eurocentric art world—leaving open the question of where its claimed center is to be found. As more directly, in its relation to the global art world, the New North reflects on shared aspects of the “poor” Baltics and “rich” Scandinavia, and on being assigned to a position in the margins of that world, which further contributes to the understanding of the (self-)provincialization of being situated at the periphery.17For more on the overlooked “Northern” semi-peripheral perspective in the art world as opposite to the more known “Southern” perspective, see Anne Ring Petersen, “Global Art History: A View from the North,” Journal of Aesthetics & Culture 7, no. 1 (2015). My thanks to Alise Tīfentāle for bringing this text to my attention.

New East

Referring to what is currently being observed and theorized, stylized, and monetized as the new aesthetics of the “New East,”18The Guardian was one of the first media outlets to promote the New East through its now-defunct New East Network (NEN), launched in 2014. the Baltics joins in talks about Otherness that are projected onto a place that is not actually a place (post-Soviet realm), and onto a political map (again, post-Soviet realm) that is no longer relevant, to contribute to the massive and visually aggressive penetration of the so-called post-Soviet aesthetics connecting East and West in a way that politics never did. 

By the end of 2017, the New East had become a phenomenon that was hard to ignore. According to Metahaven, an Amsterdam-based research and design studio, the idea of a New East borrows from a Western understanding of the vast landmass east of Europe, a unit that embodies versatile orientalist tropes, such as “risk, fate, wastelands, ruins, rawness, residual and unkept extra space, an unprocessed past, visceral experience, delirium, repositories of the imagination.”19Anastasia Fedorova, “The New Aesthetic” in PSYOP: An Anthology, ed. Karen Archey (Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 2018), 45.

While the “New North” is understood as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania’s new position within the geopolitical/socioeconomical and aesthetic entity known as (Europe’s) North, the “New East” covers a much larger political map, one that includes Eastern Europe, Russia, the Balkans and Central Asia. 

With its opacity and categorical complexities, the New East is a rich field for inquiry, drawing parallels and links with and within the once-Soviet republics.20Since 2016, the 25th anniversary of the dismantling of the Soviet Union, it has been successfully argued that the “post-Soviet” period is over. As Kirill Kobrin writes: “The personalities and processes of the previous period are no longer relevant. The old post-Soviet project, once relevant back in 1991, is over. It has achieved its aims. The post-Soviet project began with a public gesture of rejection of Soviet ideology. It ended when it drowned in the pseudo-ideological swamp of conservatism.” Kobrin, “The Death of the Post-Soviet Project in Russia,” openDemocracy website, October 19, 2016, The New East takes distinct past social and political conditions—those prevailing across alternative, unofficial (nonconformist) scenes before 1989—and finds their continuation in the present through the younger (than Jesus) generation coming of age within the era of ever-changing paradigms and world views. Across the fields of visual and mass culture, art, design, music, and street-meets-high-fashion, the New East has become a code of a global subculture way beyond the once-post-Soviet area itself.

Tommy Cash, Little Molly, screenshot from music video, 2018. (Song produced by felicita, A.G. Cook & Tommy Cash, Directed by Tommy Cash & Anna-Lisa Himma. Art direction & Styling by Anna-Lisa Himma, Cinematographer: CJ Kask, VFX: Denis Strahhov, Denhov Visulas, Gaffer: Sven-Erik Mändmaa, Edit: Tommy Cash, Sven-Erik Mändmaa, Grade: Jevgeni Bystrov, Casting manager/Styling assistant: Greta Liht, Hair stylist: Ellu Arula, Hair stylist assistant: Jaanika Eigo, Hanneloore Raid, MUA: Anni Hallik, Sigrit Villido 
Tommy Cash, Little Molly, screenshot from music video, 2018. (Song produced by felicita, A.G. Cook & Tommy Cash, Directed by Tommy Cash & Anna-Lisa Himma. Art direction & Styling by Anna-Lisa Himma, Cinematographer: CJ Kask, VFX: Denis Strahhov, Denhov Visulas, Gaffer: Sven-Erik Mändmaa, Edit: Tommy Cash, Sven-Erik Mändmaa, Grade: Jevgeni Bystrov, Casting manager/Styling assistant: Greta Liht, Hair stylist: Ellu Arula, Hair stylist assistant: Jaanika Eigo, Hanneloore Raid, MUA: Anni Hallik, Sigrit Villido

With its acclaimed deadpan humor, irony, and jokes—at times supported by a darker tone and an underdog mentality and cynicism, amid layers of contradictions and cross-cultural codes—the New East resonates widely and visibly, while largely functioning as a void, a container, or a foil, with numerous absences serving as its momentum. At once tangible and intangible, rude and emotional, it speaks to a known or unknown, or imagined, past.

Estonian-born Tomas Tammemets (born 1991), aka Tommy Cash,21My thanks to Anton Ginzburg for our conversation about the New East and for bringing Tommy Cash to my attention. also known by the self-assigned moniker Kanye East, and as the inventor of the sinister-meets-sexy post-Soviet rap, is a cult personality in the making and a fitting example here. Thoroughly exploiting the New East, and crafting his stage persona by adopting the specific Slavic-Russian accent,22Tommy Cash is of mixed background, and his first language is Estonian. he aims as much to grow his already ample social-media presence as simply to “delight in his own absurdity.”23Whitney Wei, “Meet ‘Kanye East,’ the Estonian Rapper Who Spoofs American Pop Culture, Vogue website, January 24, 2018,

With only a vague memory of the transformative ’90s, Cash and other millennials went through childhood sandwiched between the ruins of the Soviet era and the new stagnant conservatism. However distant it may seem to their generation, the Soviet collapse, and the trauma-meets-nostalgia associated with it, continues to be experienced through the memories and stories told by or picked up from earlier generations—or absorbed from visual culture, or their grandparents’ decor.

It is not surprising, therefore, that while finding their place in an increasingly digital and global world, New East millennials not only consume culture, but also ever increasingly drive and direct it. This generation is the market and force for the reverberations and aftereffects of the post-Soviet signs that increasingly turn up in television, music, fashion, and mass culture, and framing our post-post-Soviet present anew.

Cash’s song lyrics, music videos, interviews, and garments, which he designs, are riddles and full of double meanings: Soviet imagery, at times enriched with a more specific aesthetic and the codes of Baltic-ness, insider jokes within insider jokes (i.e., meta jokes), and lots and lots of irony. With a claim to be there for a reason, and following recurrent references to the Chilean surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, Cash’s work functions as an outer layer—or a mask that, though it can do little to change the inner structure, is celebrated as surface itself. 

If in earlier works (music videos such as “Euroz Dollaz Yeniz” [2014], “Leave Me Alone” [2014], and “Surf” [2017]), Cash has more aggressively and straightforwardly exploited aspects of a certain “Eastern European chav” or—more accurately—gopnik,24“Chav” is an epithet used in the United Kingdom to describe a particular kind of antisocial youth dressed in a tracksuit, while “gopnik” refers to a member of the marginalized working classes across Eastern Europe, notorious for antisocial behavior, substance abuse, and quality-of-life crimes, as well as for wearing tracksuits. See Olaf Jablonski, “Chavs and Gopniks Comparing Subcultures,” Medium website, February 25, [2019], driving a BMW through poor suburban areas and engaging in what are highly sexualized, choreographed acts alongside numerous extras and dancers, then in more recent works, beyond built-in shock value, he shows a more distinct interest in addressing, or playing on, undercurrents such as gender, body image25On May 2, 2019, Tommy Cash and Rick Owens: The Pure and the Damned, an exhibition curated by Kati Ilves, opened at the Art Museum of Estonia (KUMU) in Tallinn. Exploring the desire to populate, blend in with, and mock America’s popular culture with well-crafted imagery of the post-post-Soviet imagery, this project is a take on a distorted body image and supports Tommy Cash’s non-binary approach, apparent throughout his oeuvre, which stands in a dialogue with the post-apocalypse chic by American Rick Owens. and race. 

Toying around with post-Soviet-era materials (its ephemera, other artworks, and goods from everyday life) reveals internal and external misuse in an approach whereby the object/picture/symbol is simply reduced to its face value, and the context or content has been highly dismissed or misinterpreted. Theorists and curators from the region refer to this as “almost colonial,” for exoticism is the key factor making Cash and his peers globally visible and viable in the context of the (West’s) ever-present desire for the new. While curious, likable, and ready-to-appropriate, this “new” remains to an extent, ungraspable.26My thanks to Kati Ilves for providing information about Tommy Cash’s practice. Ilves, email correspondence with author, June 5–15, 2019.

One last note: this very outsider gaze can be seen as among the problems of the New East. The exceptionally West-orientated New East would not have appeared or been able to maintain and disseminate its values without the West radiating an ongoing fascination with crumbling communist monoliths. Moreover, the New East echoes the prevailing view and criticism of the (self-)understanding of the East (i.e., the former East) as “repressive infantilization of the societies that have liberated themselves from the Soviet is the post-Soviet condition.”27Boris Buden, “Art and Theory of Post-1989 Central and Eastern Europe: A Critical Anthology,” (C-MAP roundtable, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 28, 2018),

And yet at the end of the day, what stands at the forefront of researching, writing, and promoting the concept of the New East can be recapped by quoting Anastasiia Fedorova of the Calvert Journal: “Paradoxically, the post-Soviet aesthetic can act as a gateway that allows these youths to admit, analyze and ultimately rid themselves of this outsider gaze. This is the last frontier between the centre and periphery. And as everyone knows, the centre cannot hold.”28Anastasiia Fedorova, “Post-Soviet Fashion: Identity, History and the Trend that Changed the Industry,” Calvert Journal website, February 23, 2018, My thanks to freelance writer and curator Anastasiia Fedorova for providing information on issues surrounding the New East. Fedorova, email correspondence and Skype communications with author, May–June 2019.

New (Queer) Beyond

Identity politics are relevant in considering the transition, fluidity, and movement involved in breaking away from established binary ways of thinking to occupy a queer-ed point of view, one that draws attention to the political and cultural walls as both physical and mental. Relative to body, gender, and status within social and transcultural parameters, this last segment, self-coined as “New (Queer) Beyond,” intends to support observations on deconstruction of established identity/ies, and of the normative, by establishing new rules and a disinterest in culturalism, essentialism, and ethno(pluralism). 

Whereas the New North and New East deal with certain vague-ish notions of the identity of and identification/s across the Baltics—and dip into the history/ies and trauma/s, the experienced and imaginative—the “Queer” from “New (Queer) Beyond” is embraced mostly for being a signifier outside the binary world view: that which is otherwise known as The East/The West/The North, Soviet/post-Soviet, poor/rich, center/periphery. 

Rooted in politics, “queer” speaks to emotional labor and self-care, mental health, and importantly, the power to define oneself, to be specific and demanding toward details, and to be in charge of one’s reality. While queerness is usually at odds with a fixed place, it is nonetheless about creating safe spaces, as much for individuals—queer or not—as for the cultures they represent or come from. At first it appears problematic to draw any/a link between the Baltics and queer culture,29For example, in 2015, Latvia became the first country in the territory of the former Soviet Union to host EuroPride, which together with the first queer-themed contemporary art exhibition, Slash: In Between the Normative and the Fantasy, which opened June 18, 2015, at kim? Contemporary Art Centre in Riga, drew a lot of attention and an aggressive response from the general public, the media, and local politicians. It is noteworthy that kim? Contemporary Art Centre was asked to eliminate any reference to the Culture Ministry of Latvia—an otherwise regular supporter of the Centre’s activities—as the project supposedly went against the “family values” promoted and supported by culture minister Dace Melbārde’s party Nacionālā apvienība “Visu Latvijai!”—”Tēvzemei un Brīvībai/LNNK” (“For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK”). but the region does share an unexpected affinity with what “queer” stands for.

Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė, YGRG14X: reading with a single hand V, 2018. Installation and performance at Cell Project Space, London, UK. Video, handmade carpet, Conipur Pro clay dust, handmade curtain, chroma sand. Dimensions variable. Performers pictured: Jaana-Kristiina Alakoski, Elin Gonzalez and Javier Marquerie Thomas. Image courtesy Cell Project Space and the artists. Photo by the artists.
Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė, SULK III, 2019. Installation and performance at Kaleidoscope Manifesto, Lafayette Anticipations in Paris. In collaboration with Albane Gayet, Luki von der Gracht, Elena Marija, Christelle Owona Nisin, Ottolinger, Bianca Tanchay, D’Heygere, Dodomundo, International Flavors and Fragrances Inc. and Air / Aroma. Photo courtesy of © Martin Argyroglo / Lafayette Anticipations, Paris.

In what has been a time of rapidly changing social and transcultural parameters, and in advocating for liberation from fixed binary constructs, the postcolonial Baltic body is particularly in sync with queer values—notably in its struggle for self-empowerment and a (political) voice, and the right and occasion to “outloud,” or name itself, in (new) ways it desires. 

For example, “Naming is a recurrent issue.”30Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė, email correspondence with author, June 1–8, 2019. Dorota Gawęda (born 1986) and Eglė Kulbokaitė (born 1987) of the queer collective Young Girl Reading Group (YGRG) point out that prominent Western curators and members of the media have decidedly avoided pronouncing their names. Blaming the difficulty of language, Westerners have instead addressed the artists as “Young Girl Reading Group,” or “YGRG”—as opposed to by their names, which are, respectively, Polish and Lithuanian. From the very beginning of their collaborative practice, the duo have been specific in articulating YGRG as a project of an artist collective—not of individuals.

Established in 2013 in Berlin and named after Tiqqun’s seminal text Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl,31Tiqqun (Collective), and Ariana Reines. 2012. Preliminary materials for a theory of the young-girl. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e). this performative entity developed from the duo’s formulation of a paradigmatically centered identity, and their interest in the spheres of identity politics, self-determination, and economy of presence. Theirs is an ongoing and serial project that “examines the relationships between reading, affect, distraction, togetherness and dis-unity, bodily and virtual presence, live action and documentation.”32Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė, email correspondence with author, June 1–8, 2019.

The outlouding of words is at the center of their practice, which began as a queer-enthusiast book club and expanded to include performative installations in which they stage and investigate the act of reading as not only an intimate experience, but also an experience that has the potential to become public performance. The art venues that host the collective are often turned into settings in which materials with varying connotations and histories—tiles, curtains, carpets, light sources, dirt or clay, fragrance—are combined, breaking down boundaries between the intimate and the public, and becoming the site for readings of YGRG’s manifesto.33Other readings that have been co-presented—read by using iPhones most of the time—throughout the course of their practice have been by authors such as Paul B. Preciado, Nina Powers, Ursula K. Le Guin, Richard Sennett and Donna Haraway. See Federico Sargentone, Young Girl Reading Group,” Kaleidoscope, November 27, 2018,

Linked to their manifesto, their avoidance of their personal names could be seen as either an attempt to please/comfort audiences in contexts where the idea of YGRG is considered catchy or cool, or as a form of discrimination and “an embarrassing/ly public display of US-American imperialism within the art world.”34Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė, email correspondence with author, June 1–8, 2019.

Arguably, since YGRG is the name they have given themselves, it could equally be seen as their own creative/subversive/conciliatory move for grappling with the issue of a language barrier; by providing an English alternative, they and their work are more accessible to the global, neoliberal art scene. 

What to make of this? Are these readings, therefore, contradictory? While subjective and personal, they do indicate a wider problem associated with location and with societies on the margins of the art world’s central axis. The situation also reveals the ways in which the contemporary art world eradicates an identification with Otherness—since we all participate in what is supposedly a single and united global art market. This market has unwritten rules that apply to everyone, regardless of their background, race, gender, or abilities, and which, upon closer inspection, reveal hidden layers of historically well-rehearsed hierarchies.

What the singular case of YGRG shows is that sometimes taking an uncomfortable position (pose/es of their performances) to read, or write down words in the space, sometimes on one another, can complicate the relations of the readers/viewers/observers and the conception of the text itself, acting as a stimulus to move further into an area that questions identities, breaks down historical constructs, and builds a new type of body. A body that resists being called or referred to as “difficult”.

VOLGA Vintage, look-book photoshoot, 2019. photo: Asya Belova, Style Sergey Hatanzeysky. Self described as “MADE IN USSR / BORN IN LATVIA / AVAILABLE WORLDWIDE”, VOLGA Vintage is an iconic 90s and early 2000s vintage clothes inspired online marketplace (a brainchild of Riga based stylist Sergey Hatanzeyskyand) and a growing community for Riga youth who is increasingly attracted to the Soviet/post-Soviet aesthetics that in reality never existed.
Hilda Vīka-Eglīte (Latvian, b.1897-d.1963), title unknown, watercolor, ca 1940.


In the place of a conclusion, this text articulates an outloud-ed wish to deal with the Baltics in a way that is beyond the “North,” the “East,” the “Queer,” in a way that incorporates ’em all.

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