Conversation between Inga Lāce and Heidi Ballet
Thank you for being willing to talk about ecology in the Baltics. In the past years, I have ended up working quite a bit in the Baltics, I curated one of the exhibitions for the 2019 Tallinn Photomonth Biennial, and also curated a group show called The Morality Reflex at CAC Vilnius in 2016. Both have been great experiences for me and a chance to do a lot of research locally.
I saw the exhibition you curated for the Tallinn Photomonth and the research on the environmental protests at the end of the 1980s immediately caught my attention because I had started to look at a similar thread in Latvia. Events like the Baltic Way and the series of events of the Singing Revolution, which took place between 1987 and 1991 leading to the restoration of independence for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have been widely recognised and talked about locally and internationally. The environmentalist movement, however, that preceded and in many ways overlapped with the independence movement and could mobilise incredibly large groups of people, is not so widely analysed. You might know that the term Singing Revolution was introduced by an Estonian artist and activist, Heinz Valk, after one of the spontaneous mass evening singing demonstrations at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds. But first, how did you get interested in those processes in Estonia and what did you find out?
Actually, I didn’t know that an artist introduced the term Singing Revolution! Well, my projects have mostly centred around ecology since 2017; these days I am most interested in the societal dynamics and the psychology the climate crisis brings forth; for example, the fact that the fear arising from the impending climate catastrophe leads to a tendency to focus on self-protection, and for the less well-off to vote for right-leaning parties that propagate the closing of borders, a dynamic that Bruno Latour has pointed out. When I started working on the exhibition in Tallinn and tried to understand the place that ecology occupies in Estonia, I was struck by the fact that forests are oftentimes portrayed as implicitly intertwined with Estonian national identity by organisations like the Estonian board of tourism. I was curious to understand whether Estonians have historically been imprinted with more ecological awareness. I was told about the protests that took place at the end of the 1980s, the so-called Phosphorite War in 1987. In these protests, the Estonians reacted against plans to build a phosphorite mine in the Virumaa region, after the plans became public on TV in February 1987. The protests had a massive number of participants and resulted in the Estonian government halting their plans. It was researcher Linda Kaljundi at Tallinn University who helped me place the protests in the larger political situation in the Eastern Bloc at the time. She recommended I read Jane Dawson’s book ‘Eco Nationalism’ in which Dawson compares anti-nuclear movements in several countries in the USSR at the end of the 1980s, with the thesis that they were driven more by a desire for greater independence than by ecological concerns. The right to protest had just been granted thanks to perestroika and glasnost, and a protest based on ecological reasoning is in principle apolitical, so it was a relatively safe way to gather and criticise the government. Most of the ecological movements became inactive soon after independence, Dawson notes. I found it super interesting since I had never thought about how ecological activism is shaped by its specific political context. What was the starting point of the research that you are currently undertaking and what you are focusing on?
My interest in ecology also traverses several projects. The most recent one was an embodied research project “Performing the Fringe” I did together with curator Jussi Koitela and artists in the fringe areas between the city and the non-city where the urban areas transition into forests or the countryside in Stockholm, Pori and Vilnius. During this project we were taking walks to see, hear and feel those areas, and were meeting with people who live there as well as researchers. We tried to untangle the relationship between ecology and economy, the urban and rural, the human and non-human, and to understand the rise of ecological consciousness in each of those places historically. During discussions in Vilnius, one of those turning points appeared to be the activities of the Lithuanian Green Movement, which is an umbrella union of environmental clubs, groups and individuals established in 1988. In Kaunas, a green club “Atgaja” (Revival) was formed in 1987 resisting the plans of the USSR Ministry of Energy to operate oil wells in the Baltics off the shores of the Curonian Spit. In response, a campaign on the topic of Baltic Sea ecology was organised jointly with organisations in Latvia and Estonia, too. Following this campaign, they began to celebrate Baltic Sea Day on the first weekend of September, something I was familiar with only from the Latvian perspective. In Latvia the environmental movement was led by the Environment Protection Club, established also in 1987. They protested against many of the infrastructural projects like river dams or even the construction of the metro in Riga. In the case of the metro the eco-nationalism sparked because even though the protests were against the destruction of the urban environment, it was also directed against immigrants from other Soviet countries who would come to work on the project.
Yes, you point to a very interesting point about the protests, the fact that there was also a certain resistance against migrants. I found the same to be true for the 1987 anti-phosphorite protests in Estonia. There was a xenophobia also very particular to the situation. In Estonia, for example, the country had experienced a large influx of workers from other parts of the USSR because the area in the very east of Estonia, that borders with Russia, had been developed into a powerhouse for the whole north-western region of the Soviet Union. Under this plan they had managed to triple the production of electricity in the region between 1938 and 1950, but they also started the exploitation of oil shale, a type of extraction that is extremely polluting and is causing the biggest environmental challenge in Estonia today. The announcement of the plans for the phosphorite mine of course sparked fear of a new influx of migrants. Speaking of eco-nationalism, there is also another use of the term eco-nationalism, namely the nationalistic ideal of self-reliance, that a country depends solely on its own energy resources. In Estonia today one of the problems comes from the fact that Estonia is pretty self-reliant right now and abandoning the very polluting extraction of shale oil would mean Estonia would be forced to depend on the energy sources of other countries.
Thinking about the politics of energy and dependence on other countries, one of the recent discussions from the region is the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which is a new gas pipeline (almost completed) for exports by Gazprom. It has increased tension between Russia, the US, and Europe significantly because it links Russia and Germany directly via the Baltic seabed and it would ensure Russia’s dominance of energy supplies to Europe. The fact that it would also be ecologically harmful is almost never discussed, as the focus is mostly on the geopolitical aspects. The pipeline project presents itself as an environmentally friendly way to decrease carbon emissions from oil and coal, by using ‘cleaner’ natural gas, but as the writer and filmmaker Oleksiy Radinsky mentions in a recent essay, the structural, long-term dependency on fossil fuels would be extended and would prevent the transition to a carbon-free economy, which is needed for the Earth’s biosphere as soon as possible. This summer, Lithuanian curator Lukas Brasiskis invited me to work with her and contemporary artists from the post-socialist region on an online screening programme, currently hosted by post.moma.org platform of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. We started our conversation focusing on eco-critical practices and having the previously mentioned questions in mind, we are further directing our attention towards questions of how environmental impacts are closely related to modes of energy production and transport involving both the systems for supplying energy and the pollution created by emissions. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a lot of the socialist infrastructures are still in use or have just been decommissioned. One of the videos, ‘Energy Island’ (2017) by Emilija Skarnulyte, for instance, focuses on the Ignalina nuclear plant in Lithuania, slowly being decommissioned, and substituted with a new energy structure – a sea carrier “Independence” designed as a floating liquefied natural gas storage and regasification unit.
That sounds like a really interesting project! I found it really interesting in my research to look at what happened during the Soviet era in relation to environmental planning and energy. One of the things that I learned is that Stalin initiated a large ecological campaign in 1948, called the Great Plan For The Transformation of Nature. This plan aligns with what ecologists today would probably recommend to fight erosion. It involved a massive tree planting campaign, in which 5.7 million hectares of forest would be planted and a planting system of rotating crops. The plan was set up after 1946, when nearly a million people died as a consequence of a drought and was one of the largest projects ever to restore the natural environment. Unfortunately, the plan was abandoned after Stalin’s death in 1953 and criticised for misguided planning but the methods that were used were in fact quite advanced. Stalin’s ecological planning, which was essentially very utilitarian towards nature, obviously had mixed effects. In Estonia, for example, one good effect is that the hectares of forest doubled during the Soviet occupation, but Stalin’s plan also caused large-scale environmental damage, for example, in Central Asia, where he diverted two rivers, which would eventually lead to the drying up of the Aral Sea, once the fourth-largest lake in the world.
As you mentioned forest and identity earlier, did you find instances where the forest, or nature, could be considered a space of identity and resistance, and in which ways?
Throughout my research, I tried to find a link between the identification with forests and ecological concerns, but it wasn’t that straightforward. They seem to be two different things. There is in fact a complication with the forest identification in the sense that the sentiment seems to be imported by the Germans during their factual colonisation of the Baltic area. Julian Rosenfeldt made a work called ‘My home is a dark and cloud-hung land’ in 2011 about the romantic identification with forests in German culture. In Estonia there is an amazing treasure of folklore linked to forests, with anthropomorphism and trees being personified, but I couldn’t find any proof that Estonians are better equipped to deal with the climate crisis since they are closer to nature. Someone told me that it’s common that the Estonian nationalist party shows up at a protest against the cutting of a forest, but their programme is not more green than that of similar parties in other countries. One phenomenon that I found extremely interesting in all this, is the existence of the Forest Brothers, the armed guerilla resistance against the USSR occupation across the Baltic borders that hid in the forest. The fact that they were generally considered heroes and represented the people supports somehow evidence of an identification, but it is again very implicit. I unfortunately never got into this part of research, but I am curious to know whether the art in Eastern Bloc countries at the end of the 1980s incorporated ecological themes. Do you know?
In Latvia, the idea of “pollution” of nature in the works of artists from that period was often associated with the political “pollution” of the imperial Soviet power, of a different language. This is another instance where nationalism comes in disguised as ecological concern. Even before the Environmental Movement there was the eponymous exhibition “Nature. Environment. Human” in 1984, where environmental and social ecologies were addressed as entangled, with 80 artists participating. In her book about the artist Andris Breže, art historian Santa Hirša analyses his works from the 1980s from the ecological perspective, mentioning that his large scale installation “Trip into the Greenery” (1984) previously read as a critique of consumerism also includes a critique of urbanisation using the notion of “greenery” as a potentially control and ideology-free zone. In general, however, as you mention the case for Estonia, too, the whole Latvian identity is based on its closeness to nature and forests, but then surprisingly, there are rarely forms of explicit ecocriticism in art. I am thus looking with interest to the youngest generation of artists where I see ideas of eco-feminism appearing, as in the practice of Linda Bolsakova. And also, the younger generation are again protesting, after a significant break in environmental activism, the most recent case was against cutting trees in the Marsa parks in Riga, as well as saving the allotment gardens. However, nowadays ecological activism is also connected to ideas of “green living” that have become fashionable, which is manifested in biking in the city, healthy lifestyles, etc.
This is interesting, and also one of my main worries, that even if there is a lot of attention on the ecological crisis right now, and pressure from groups like Extinction Rebellion, that ecological concerns will remain limited to being incorporated as a ‘lifestyle’, like a trendy layer or veneer. There is no real power to push for powerful people, or nation states, to take responsibility, which is really necessary if we want to extend the window of human life on earth. As you mentioned earlier, the communication around the gas pipe, the Norwegian state oil company Equinor is also proudly communicating that their oil extraction activities produce zero emissions, but meanwhile they are drilling in the Arctic Circle, knowing full well that a leak there would cause disproportionate ecological damage. Greenpeace together with some Norwegian NGO’s ran a court case in 2017 against the Norwegian State for giving out licences to drill above the Arctic Circle, but unfortunately, they lost. There is no institution that can hold Equinor or the Norwegian state accountable for their actions, in the same way that no one can stop Trump from withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. The ecological problem today is in the first place a problem of unchecked power that gives powerful people and world leaders the right to colonise future generations. So, I am always looking for art that is essentially about this power question, that then automatically also encompasses class and race. After lots of research, in the end I worked in the Tallinn Photomonth with Edith Karlson, since her work always incorporates power relations, often between humans and animals. The work Short Story that she made for the exhibition features a transparent suit that represents corporate power, next to the skeleton of a dead seal that she found on the coast of the Baltic Sea.
IL: It is interesting and important to end the conversation with the Baltic Sea as it was one of the connecting points of the environmental movements across the Baltics at the end of the 1980s. The “Prayer for the Baltic Sea” started in the 1980s as a massive annual coast-long gathering of people, often performative, with posters, costumes and concerts and it still takes place today. Despite this, the question of pollution becomes only more acute, as it has one of the world’s biggest marine “dead zones” – areas where the sea’s oxygen has been used up by seabed bacteria, which is caused by agricultural and urban waste, to which the dead seal is a silent witness.