Creative in St Petersburg

A heady mix of positive action, unseasonably warm weather, widely different ideas of what creativity in the city might be, but also some feelings of frustration accompanied last Friday’s seminar in St Petersburg on Arts for the City.

The seminar, held in the Finnish Institute’s airy space, was asking about similarities and differences in the institutional environments of grassroots urban culture projects in Helsinki and St Petersburg, and about the goals and mechanisms for organizing them. Some of these similarities and differences are, I think, captured to an extent in the built heritage of these two beautiful Baltic Sea cities, with their historical affinities but vastly divergent scales.

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The wider project, steered by Alexandra Nenko and supported by several cultural exchange networks, brings together citizens, artists and researchers to make the city more liveable.

In just a short visit and having lost even the rudimentary Russian I once had, there was a lot to take in in just a couple of days. My own short presentation or statement wanted to highlight the stark contrasts between temporary and more permanent presence in the cityscape (a problem for the activist) but also the multiple roles that all those involved necessarily play in making the city (a source of optimism).

Put another way, and inspired by the work of political philosopher William Connolly, particularly his 2013 book,  The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Systems, Neoliberal Fantasies and Democratic Activism, I suggested that even short-term activities and encounters, between artists and researchers, or between activists and bureacrats, build up new, more sustainable, ways of inhabiting our cities.

The key Helsinki partner was Yhteismaa, fun-producing, administration-challenging powerhouse of urban activisim. Pasi Mäenpää, reseracher on activism brought a Finnish perspective onto the rise of activism, something he sees as fundamentally spurred on by opportunities for online organising.

The next day we got to see just how enlivening a short-term event can be.

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At the public library on Zanevskyi Prospekt, all kinds of examples of urban commoning flourished in the sunshine. There were master classes in crafts, a street kitchen offering salmon soup Finnish style, eagerly prepared by local residents with a Finnish chef (differences of opinion on spicing principles were happily overcome), a book and plant exchange and many hours of terrific togetherness. (More here, in Russian).

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Locals are understandably preoccupied with the problems of overcoming a highly regulated urban environment with its myriad administrative organs. And yet, as the presentations at the seminar made abundantly clear, many people have long been engaged in enlivening the city and much is happening at many scales. In addition to the Arts 4 the City pages, see the Centre for Independent Social Research. Lilia Voronkova’s seminar presentation was a fabulous lesson in what can be gained when research and artistic creativity merge in a power point presentation!

One local challenge has to do with the character of St Petersburg as an unparalleled outdoor museum, one celebrating nothing less than vast empire. The grass in this city, then, is not for sitting and playing on, but for admiring. Including in the parks, it would seem.

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Another problem, one that struck a more familiar chord with a former London resident, was traffic. A city of straight, long roads, though not originally built for the motorcar, St Petersburg roads positively invite high speeds. Chicanes, underpasses and all the rest of the twentieth century’s innovations to keep motorised traffic moving, were in evidence near the library too. As a crow flies, the route from the metro would have been short indeed. As a St Petersburg pedestrian advances, it took the best part of 15 minutes. The grocery shop across the road was equally inaccessible, cut off from us as it was by six lanes of traffic with fences to deter any would-be jaywalkers.

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Looking forward to more cooperation and exchanges!

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