Mixing art with business

  • 2012-10-03
  • Interview by Jekaterina Kolbina

I met Agnese Bule in Jurmala, while strolling through Jomas Street during one of those rare sunny days this summer. I spent a lot of time exploring her quite unusual souvenir stall, full of paper notebooks, cups, magnets, and postcards featuring a Latvian or a group of Latvians in different life situations and states of mood. They included, for example, a Latvian on a Tree, a Latvian in a Barrel, a Latvian Mushroom-Picker, Latvian in Dill, and Latvian – a Wave, the latter one was attributed to the New Wave music festival which was then taking place in Jurmala. Agnese is the author of an art and social project called Latvian Dream, which originally started as an attempt to tell her fellow students from abroad more about Latvia and its traditions, and later transformed into a business for selling such unusual souvenirs. But before that, Latvian Dream works were exhibited in all major Latvian cities, as well as in Sweden, Norway, Germany and Slovenia. She is a Latvian artist born in 1972, having received her Master degree from the Art Academy of Latvia Visual Communication department. Agnese also received the Annual Design Award 2010 for the Latvian Dream paper work series, as well as a number of other awards in Latvia. Currently she works in Jurmala as manager of the Jurmala Artists House. She met with TBT to tell more about Latvian Dream as an art project, and business.

I know that you were studying abroad for some time. Where was this?
I won a scholarship from the Fiore Verde Foundation and went to study for one year in Portland, USA. It was a little bit of art, more English, photography, video, drawings, something like that.

When did you start Latvian Dream?
I started it as some separate works about Latvia, and at one point I understood that it is the Latvian Dream. I started it in the U.S., because everyone was asking me these usual questions: “Where is Latvia? What are Latvians? Are they a nation?” I already had some separate video works which I put together, and called it “Discover Latvia.” The movie tells about people of the small but strong in spirit nation who find their shelter in the shadows of huge trees, eat mushrooms and cover themselves with ears. And what is interesting, some students also believed this myth. And one year later I made the first Latvian Dream exhibition. 

Why did you think that you could make a business out of it?
It is like a dream for an artist to earn a living from his or her own artwork, so that it wouldn’t be necessary to work in, say, an advertising business helping to sell more and more alcohol or whatever. But, unfortunately or not, so far it has been difficult for me.

So you say it is difficult to make a business of art here in Latvia?
I would say ‘yes,’ and also it depends on art. Latvia is a small nation and getting even smaller, and this also matters, because the Latvian dream is kind of attributed to Latvians, but not only. I also understood that it is very volatile to do business in Latvia, with all these tax changes which businessmen have to adjust too much to. One thing is to persuade some shops to sell your products. But for those who agree, they also have difficulties, some of them even disappear. It is also difficult because people in Latvia don’t really spend money on art. So I can’t say that I am earning a lot of money from this project, but as you see, I am still alive.

What really differentiates Latvian Dream from other art businesses? And why do you believe that it will eventually be successful?
One thing is that it is very different visually, and if this visual appearance speaks to someone, the meaning is offered. For tourists who are looking for unusual souvenirs or souvenirs with additional meaning, Latvian Dream is a very good alternative. I also think that this type of business is not supposed to make profits fast; its purpose is more about making the underlying idea work and accepted by people. So if money comes, it is good, but I don’t concentrate on that. I believe that in art things work a little bit differently. Producers of the usual souvenirs just put a Latvian flag on them and put them in the shops, earning money and are happy with that. I have a different idea behind this, which works not as fast. 

What is the main idea of Latvian Dream? What is important to understand about it, and what are you trying to explore with it now?
That is a hard question. It actually changes a bit from time to time, just like any dream. One point is that I can introduce different things about the nation. On the one hand, it seems from the outside perspective that Latvians are putting themselves into a very regular box; you see how the Latvian institutions work, and everything is clear, very organized and very polished. But I am trying to show the picture from the inside. I am working with situations which happen regularly in our lives. For example, for the New Wave [festival] in Jurmala I drew a set of pictures with Latvians on the Same Wave, Latvians under the Wave and so on. For Jurmala I have a special souvenir line: a Latvian in a Swim Suit, a Latvian in amber, Beach Latvian, a Latvian in a Pine Tree. For every election I make a representation from the Latvian Dream point of view. I also play with the language.

For every exhibition, if it is possible, I make a new myth. For example the last exhibition was in Dienas Centrs Abelzieds in Riga, and there I made a Latvian in Apple Blossom. There are also short, idiomatic terms; for example, I have a picture with a Latvian on a Green Branch (uz zala zara), which in Latvian means a good situation in life, prosperity, etc. I also see it as a test for every person to look at things differently. I have one Latvian in Butter, which refers to the Latvian expression “sviesta.” Usually it means that something is wrong. But when you say “I am in butter” it might also be good, because it is not margarine or vegetable shortening mix, which is much worse! Latvians also say “deli” (“board”) when all things go bad. But you can always say, well, the board is better than laminate or plastic, for example. Latvians never actually thought that this butter or board might be very good, compared to something else. So I think it is a very good checking of humor and acceptance of one’s life situation.   

What do you think people like the most about Latvian Dream artwork?
During the past years I have been selling Latvian Dream products in Jurmala on Jomas Street, but not this year, so I haven’t heard [of it] myself a lot recently. Generally, people react differently.  Some with humor, but some say they do not understand why, in my works, Latvians are living in the trees and hiding in barrels. But I cannot really blame myself or my work for their feelings. There are very different metaphors and levels in the project; for example, a tree might be some sort of paradise tree, where a big nation lives, and every barrel, on the other hand, is a system or bureaucracy, created by the state, which creates boundaries for people.

There is an opinion that it is difficult to have good artists in such a small country like Latvia. What do you think about that?
I think we definitely have a lot of good artists, perhaps even too many artists overall. You know, every fourth person on the planet is Chinese, and in Latvia every fourth [person] is an artist. There are so many art education institutions in Latvia, but a lot of people with this education are not working in art. On the other hand, there are also good artists who did not study in the Art Academy. It is easier now to be an artist because art is not so narrowly defined anymore.

Do you think current Latvian artists have enough places to exhibit their work?    
Here, at Jurmala Artists House, artists don’t pay anything to exhibit their works, so it is a good possibility. Maybe in Riga it is harder to find a place. But as you see, museums and galleries are not actually the places people are attending very often, so art comes in supermarkets hoping to have someone looking at it. But if you are a good artist and have something to say, you will definitely find your own way. As well, nowadays, there are so many international artistic competitions and exhibitions, and art is not so much connected with exhibition space, but is mostly consumed digitally.