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postcards from the zone
Out of disused military spaces parched by the sharp air of Latvia, a group of sound artists and scientists look to forge a new acoustic space of dreams. Guided by Derek Holzer, these digital interventionists are using an
Borderlands of the Bloc
The fall of the Soviet Union ruptured the coordinates of the Eastern Bloc. During the uncertain 90s, the atmosphere hovered in-between a postapocalyptic imaginarium and the ravages of neoliberalism. Halfforgotten army enclaves gathered particle dust, awaiting obsolescence as remnants of the Cold War; formerly secretive zones became objects of intrigue. In Latvia, artists and scientists moved quickly, for it took borderline surreal interventions to resuscitate the past and its tension from obscurity. Through the work of artists in the military compound of Karosta, and scientists and artists at the RT-32 radio telescope, abandoned military bases became villages once again, and a former KGB eavesdropping dish that dotted the horizon with its invasive radiowaves is now center to both scientific and aesthetic protocols. Latvia, perched on the Baltic Sea, with Estonia to the north, Russia to the east and Belarus and Lithuania to the south, has spent one hundred years under a turbulent array of regimes. Germany, Sweden, Poland and Lithuania have all held their hand over this quadrant of Eastern Europe; the clandestine resonance lives on in the mythical image of the region’s artists. Eastern Europe (or so the generalization goes) is the land of Net-art and politicized new media, in part because hybrid forms of the technology arts were faced with an early hurdle: isolation and the dustbin of history. The difficulty of global travel, often lacking passports and without coveted EU membership, forced the hand of the creative class to pursue their efforts locally, with the establishment of artist-run centers and enclaves. Yet most inspiring were the varied uses of the Net throughout the 90s to reach out and touch, if not confront, the dotcom assumptions of their Western counterparts. Although recent commentaries dispel much of this utopian narrative—the demise of the flowering 90s, but isn’t that everywhere the case?—it is true that, at least in the Western mind, Latvia is an autonomous magnet of the electronic arts, with conferences and international-level events puncturing the various pockets of the Baltic region—the West came to the East. The physical character of the landscape and the comparative economic poverty of the area continues to haunt its expressions and impress those who expend their energies via microphones and videocameras, code and thought, sound and image.

abandoned KGB telescope array to encode their own brand of subversive telemetries. tobias c. van Veen reports in from under the radar.


Ruins, Oeterotopias and Other Jetstream Dreams
“Now, all stands in ruins,” writes sound-artist Derek Holster of the Kara Osta (“War Bay”) submarine hideout, penning the blog that marks his stay in Karosta over New Year’s 2001-2002 with video-artist Sara Kolster. “Barracks, offices, workrooms, libraries, docks, training grounds, swimming pools, all stand empty, strewn with debris, ankle-deep with snowmelt, sabotaged by departing militaries or half-demolished by Latvian workmen. Walking through this place which was the end-point of the Soviet war-machine, I am reminded of the war fever of my own former home country, the US. On the verge of economic disaster at home, on the verge of military atrocity abroad, I wonder if anyone there would find a lesson in this place or not. What if, instead of finding old Soviet army songbooks, painted slogans from Lenin, USSR rubles and scraps of 8mm propaganda films, we found Big Mac wrappers, Pepsi cans, Magnavox televisions and People magazines? Would the resonance of such a place, after the USA has gone the way of the USSR and dissolved into a collage of economically unstable territories, still be the same? I think so...” Given the circumstances, where else would one find Derek Holzer, renegade open-source sound-artist, co-organizer of the IMPACT festival in Utrecht, Netherlands, and ex-pat American (for various political tendencies)? Holster is drawn to these places like Hunter S. Thompson to Las Vegas, to scour the earth for fragile dreams. With binaural microphones in hand, Holzer documents abstract field recordings to shape complex interplays of frequencies using improvisational patches built in the opensource modular software Pure Data (PD). His conviction to DIY, noncorporate methodology is extensive, from open-source software to outsider projects. Holzer’s work appears on respected labels—Sirr Records, Nexsound (with Oloolo) and–with many of his environment-influenced soundworks providing audio for video-art projects by Kolster and Bas van Koolwijk. Unlike the wide-angle studies of Touch artist Chris Watson, Holzer often delimits his radius to the microscopic, focusing on the sounds of found objects when reprocessed and patch-improvised—around Karosta, it was unearthing unidentified bones that prompted his return with Kolster. In the use of historical and haunted objects, Holzer operates on a psychogeographic as well as sonic level. With projects utilizing handheld PD, as to produce psychoacoustic adventures for mobile users such as the PanDev Psycho Navigational Device developed with Kolster, Marc Boon and, Holzer extends sound beyond the experiential authenticity prized by the field recordist and into the realm of imagistic dreams. Visions are perhaps somewhat de rigeur in this part of the world. Karosta “K@2” art center founders Carl Bjorsmark and Kristine Briede whirlpooled the area while filming a documentary of liminal spaces, Borderlands, in the 90s (a longterm, uncompleted project). Briede, co64 KAROSTA

founder of Latvian capital Riga’s RIXC new media and culture center, and Bjorksmark, an ex-Swede, extended the city’s network to Karosta. Despite a perennial lack of funds, in 2003 they persisted in dreaming the next stage, a “Campus Karosta” slated for opening in fall 2005. Skip to Western Latvia: imagine the scene in 1994 when, with the Soviet retreat, a group of scientists occupied and repaired the freshly abandoned (yet sabotaged) RT-32 radio antenna. Come the new century, and suddenly this once-sealed military zone, like Karosta, became rejuvenated towards the pursuits of creative, rather than destructive, ends. Since 2000, the 32-meter dish has been managed by ViRAC (Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Centre) with RIXC’s Acoustic Space Re.Lab. The 2003 gathering of art and science bore two audio releases. The RT-32 Acoustic Space Lab Open Source Sampler CD features reworks from Kim Cascone, Stephan Mathieu, Holzer, reMI, Zina Kaye and Cornucopia (among others). Produced with open-source recordings from RT-32, disseminated on the Net for sampling to artists worldwide, this uncanny collection surveys the the static of stars as well as the curious artifacts of satellite and cellphone transmissions. The Acoustic Space Lab DVD, which details the construction and design, history and uses of the telescope, includes archives of the symposium and events as well as experimental video. A triangle connects the topography of Latvia: K@2 in Karosta, a suburban district in the city of Liepaja on the west coast; RT-32 in western Irbene and RIXC in northern Riga. While Riga’s new media scene may have fractured along with the 90s technoculture networks, Mara Traumane writes that “In a strange way, the tie to the physical space, the geographic point, has generated a visionarism, characteristic of a whole chain of initiatives of the mature Riga ex-network.” This ex-network is international and broad: Holzer is one of the partners of Acoustic Space, which includes XChange radio-art networkers RadioQualia (UK/AU), Projekt Atol (Ljubljana) and L’audible (Sydney).

Ground Control calling Object Karosta
Dreamtime, somnabulent space, a time of repression and recollection, fits the esoteric explorations suitable for audio encounters. Holzer writes of finding an evocative nuclear submarine tank on the December 29th, 2002: “The single most astonishing structure left standing is the submarine tank. Twenty meters or so wide, and easily over a hundred meters long, this concrete tube was used to repair the Soviet submersible fleet and to protect it from aerial surveillance at the same time…it was covered in snow, filled with greenish ice and quite dangerous due to large holes in the slippery walkway. In the summer, local children play there when not chased off by drunken security guards. The acoustics inside are sublime, spacious but resonant, unlike any other building I have been in…I hope to capture some of this atmosphere by introducing new sounds into it.”

Unfortunately this was not to be; one can only imagine these potential sounds given the precision of recordings titled “” As Holzer recounts in early January 2004: “My final trip to “The Zone,” during which acoustic research into the old submarine tubes would have taken place, was intercepted immediately by camouflage-clad security guards. They informed us that we were in a “border zone” and that we had to leave immediately…unfortunately, the only thing that got across was that we were there to “record sounds from the nature.” Their superior informed them via radio that “there is no nature in Karosta” and they showed us the exit.” The recordings that do exist from this “nature,” archived online at, are spectral and imbued with all the driftwork of time, even at their miniscule level; an atomic if not molecular invocation of temporality as it sweeps across all of the histories and implications of Karosta, the different stories to be told crisscrossing their contrasting effects. These recordings demonstrate Holzer’s merger of his pirate radio aesthetics (running a free radio station during the 2000 Prague demonstrations) with his psychoacoustics. As he writes, “My lasting impressions of being involved in large-scale political movements are pretty mixed, but I still believe it is impossible to make art which is unaffected by politics. To think otherwise would be completely naïve. Or North American. So I started to look at the smallest aspects of our world, instead of the most global, and to investigate them in ways which made sense to me, without being didactic or dogmatic. Although in the end it is still ‘me’ who turns on the mic or makes the selection, I think that field recording is a way to share some of the “resonances” of places in the world that many others will never go to.” That many others won’t go is provocative of Holzer’s challenge to a commonplace acoustic tourism presented as authentic experience, or worse, artistic innovation. Although the thunderous processes of Francisco Lopez echo in contrast to Holzer’s miniaturistic approach, both upset a listener complacent to the digestible swaths of ambient or the cabals of metronomic predictability (the latter characterized by Holzer’s well-known critique of Ableton Live and other commercial, pre-packaged software). Immersive yet alienating, Holzer gestures sonically from Brecht (slapping about the audience) to a punk DIY ethos (“after getting bored of drugs and punk rock,” Holzer never finished his Bachelor’s in English Literature and Creative Writing at Portland State University, Oregon, USA, leaving the US for good after 2000). Digging into Karosta came about through a pinpoint into the unconscious of the (social) landscape. Holzer describes the genesis eloquently: “The Karosta Project started from this point, and from a pile of bones I found on the beach. To look at them offered so many possibilties: dead human, dead animal, war martyr, pogrom victim, drowned refugee, slaughtered cow...I couldn’t decide, and instead of using “scientific” methods, Sara Kolster and I thought to work intuitively by making small samples of the

place where these were found, along with the bones themselves and many other objects from the same places, and let all the individual voices come through. The project became more of a catalog of Karosta than an investigation of the bones, but that is where the process took us.” Holzer himself provides a reality-frame in which to envision Karosta and our narrative of Latvia, buried in political histories, under occupying forces for so long that it, at times, is even foreign to itself (“I saw plenty of “expats” in Prague. They were the scum of the earth. North American or western European kids with no direction and money to burn up in one of the last cheap but civilized places left”), and invested in the connections that only “real life” can provide—and a critical real life at that, one dedicated as much to open source as to aesthetic intervention. Holzer’s two maxims are “that art is a social process” and “a continual process.” The two are embodied in the term “hacker culture,” a moniker with broader resonance in Europe than North America. Beyond the phone phreakers or script kiddie, hacking is a cultural ethos akin to squatting and repurposing; in Holzer’s words, to “use every facet of the free software world as a political tool” but also to learn how to build and create one’s own tools. Karosta and the ViRAC dish dream, in this sense, of becoming an open source geography, and they prod even the armchair reader to reinvigorate one’s local landscape with energies, that, despite mythical cloaking, run rampant in the Baltic. What the West can learn from the East is how to reality hack. And there are ways, writes Holzer, to begin right at home, back in the domain of electroniculture: “This is probably the biggest reason I use Pure Data. It is a product of hacker culture, or even of zen, where there are no presets. It opens to a big white “nothing” which doesn’t presuppose that you will do anything with it. There is no imperative to make a song with beats, or any song whatsoever, or even sound. You could also make image, run part of your webserver or even transform one type of data into another. It only works by you bringing something of yourself into it, instead of deciding ahead of time what the outcome will be. Yes, it is challenging, even difficult at first. But it is a language like any other. I can’t speak Portuguese very well right now, but if I practice and learn new words every day, soon I will speak like a child and later I will be able to make poems. It goes like that. Sometimes I wonder whether this quest for instant gratification (in software as with life) simply produces more garbage in the world. Fast-food software makes for fast-food culture.” And like wide-eyed children of a new universe, we tear through the McWorld and seek out the Zones… For more information, see,,, — Mara Traumane:


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