DiMe excursion to St. Petersburg

Our project, Digital Youth in Media City, had the opportunity to visit our colleagues in St. Petersburg to discuss our current research cases: sticker artists, urban circus, graffiti and PokémonGo. Three days of exchanging empirical findings was accompanied by great cultural findings.

Workshops on cases of urban digitality, subcultures and community

We had fruitful workshops on conceptual themes and empirical findings emerging from our research cases in both Helsinki and St.Petersburg. How to document and visualize ”hidden”, sometimes illegal, youth subcultures? Interesting questions on ethics of ethnographic ”edgework” (Lyng 1990) were raised. We pondered whether legal boundaries are in contradiction with ethical and moral research ethics? Should research ethics always abide to legal boundaries? Not necessarily, we thought: they play in different realms of society and boundaries of legality may leave important phenomena hidden.

Sense of community and belonging are key themes that emerged from fieldwork in Helsinki and St. Petersburg. Urban circus and hippie subculture in Helsinki is much about belonging to a certain subculture and perhaps a place to find oneself as a young adult in the city. Also sticker artists in St. Petersburg belong to a wider but invisible and situational community in the city. The visuality of stickers create a fleeting community, where it becomes visible in one moment but then quickly disappears. The city becomes a familiar place through the artists’ act of ”collecting spaces” by putting their self-crafted stickers in new places.  

Nearly all of our case studies seem to contain some sort of stratification of gender and age. Perhaps the most visible form of this is seen in graffiti masculinity in the Helsinki metro, where questions of gender are omnipresent but not necessarily spoken out. This seems to echo in sticker artists’ communities as well as in “circus hippie” circles.

There is a constant negotiation of who belongs to which community between urban subcultures and inside them. This theme of community brings us back to our initial research question: surveillance and control in the media city and how young people perceive this.

We came to the conclusion that we need to define belonging. There seem to be forms of digital belonging, elusive social networks and more non-binding forms of belonging. These subcultures may find their connection to the city through this domestication of urban space, making the city their own. This can be seen as being an active urban inhabitant which makes it a question of citizenship. Subcultures try to change their environment through their own art (sticker artists, graffiti artists, circus art). It is a certain enacted and performative belonging that takes a material form in urban spaces.

Nadezda Vasileva and Yana Krupets presenting on how they have studied everyday metro life in St. Petersburg. “Shadowing” is one they have found useful. Photo: Patrik Rastenberger.

Working in an international research collaboration

As researchers, we are extremely privileged to be able to work in an international research project with our Russian colleagues from the Higher School of Economics of St. Petersburg. What comes to practicalities in carrying out this joint effort to research global trends with local specificities, meeting each other to discuss in both cities is vital. Mostly, we have done field work separately in our own cities, so sharing empirical findings to discover similarities and differences in how digitality is present in urban subcultures’ use of urban spaces is extremely interesting.

Global trends of digitality in urban space are visible in young people’s everyday lives, but with interesting local specificities. For example PokémonGo in Helsinki and St. Petersburg seem to portray different forms of community and enacting locality. Both in St. Petersburg and in Helsinki, players seem to be concerned about neighborhood borders within which they play the game. Players create online neighborhood communities in social media dedicated specifically to the game. Young Russian players tell about their interest in understanding the algorithms of the game and trying to “break the code” of the game. In contrast, players in Helsinki mention that the game gives them motivation to move around the neighborhood and the city combining their outdoor activities (walking, jogging, walking their dog) with playing the game.

Presentation preparations. Photo: Patrik Rastenberger

St. Petersburg metro impressions

As media/metro researchers, we spent a lot of time in the metro. The St. Petersburg metro is known to be one of the world’s most beautiful metro systems. Built in the 1950’s during the Soviet Era, the metro environment was intended to serve as “palaces for the people”. The metro stations were visioned to offer an elevated experience in the midst of everyday urban life with the use of the finest materials and decorations. The metro stations also served in passing on values of socialist Soviet Union. The stations are themed along the great achievements of the state: science and technology, naval success and the cultural revolution to name a few.

 Decorations on the walls tell about admirable professions: a doctor, teacher and farmer. Photo: Patrik Rastenberger

Our colleagues offered us a fantastic metro tour with a knowledgeable local guide, who in turn tested our knowledge on Soviet history and ideology: “How would you explain communism in one sentence?”. “It is to give the possibility to choose your vocation based on passion and interest, not on necessity”, he poetically corrected our vague attempts of definition.

A trip to St.Petersburg is not complete without posing with Lenin. Photo is taken in the Kirovsky Zavod station. Photo: Patrik Rastenberger

Some of the stations are as deep as 86 meters below ground due to difficult terrain but also because of the Cold War. Most of the metro stations in St. Petersburg doubled as bomb shelters, and many of the old subway stations have big blast doors and air filters that would have protected the people from an upcoming attack. A sense of threat is still communicated in today’s metro stations with numerous security cameras and guards at the entrances and escalators. Read our researcher Arseniy Svynarenko’s blog text on control and surveillance in the St.Petersburg metro.

 

 Photo on the left: Standing between a station’s blast doors. In case of a city-wide alarm for the most serious type of emergency, the blast doors close in 20 minutes giving residents time to gather in the tunnels.

St. Petersburg urban findings

From the metro to above the ground. We visited a historical and refurbished island, New Holland which was built in 1719 as a naval port and belonged to the Russian Admiralty for their various uses. After the Russian Revolution, the 18th-century buildings of New Holland Island fell into neglect and served as military barracks and warehouses.

After some failed attempts to develop the island in the early 2000’s (which included designs by Norman Foster), the island finally opened to the public in 2011. It opened as a recreational urban space and cultural venue. Today you can come and spend a day at the old red brick prison which is now a hipster haven for street food and design shops. The island also has a park to take a stroll in or to take your children to play in the playground and some residential building are building up.

Although New Holland is an impressive product of cultural and business collaboration, questions of accessibility and right to the city arose as we learned that the space is privately owned, making it highly securitized with lots of rules (no food, no dogs, no smoking…). As we wandered around the island as a group and took photos, we soon noticed that we were followed by an armed security guard and a civilian guard, making us feel that we were slowly and silently “escorted” off the island. Opening historical urban spaces to citizens is an admirable act but as these spaces are “made open”, there is a simultaneous act of commodifying these spaces (Georgiou, 2013) in a way that may deepen the divide between privileged citizens and the have-nots. A nice space of relaxment for some, but I would imagine that urban riff-raff folk wouldn’t make it past the security check at the entrance. City for whom?   

Not a moment passed, when there wasn’t a guard close by. Photo from the Street Art Museum. Photo: Patrik Rastenberger

We also visited another, this time edgier, urban renewal project: the Street Art Museum. The space is a 70 year old factory that passed on from father to son. Back in 1945, the factory manufactured insulators for the country’s electricity network, which was destroyed during World War II. Later, the factory produced “decorative paper laminated plastics”, used as decorative surfaces on kitchen tabletops for instance. The factory owner’s son didn’t envision himself as a factory owner in the locally diminishing industrial sector but instead used the space to paint graffiti in with his friends. In 2012, the factory was registered as a cultural institution and in 2014 it hosted its first exhibition.Today, you’ll find a wide variety of art from huge murals covering walls to mixed-media installations. The current themed exhibition was “Brighter Days Are Coming” to mark the 100-year anniversary of Russia’s October Revolution. Icons and imagery from the Soviet past were interestingly very present in the exhibition.  

Street Art Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo: Patrik Rastenberger

Our visit to the museum coincided with the opening of the Circuit exhibition by 10 Danish contemporary artists. We idly wandered around the truly cosmopolitan space sipping Russian champagne from paper cups, happy about our colleagues’ fantastically hosted excursion.

Typical media researchers… “Pics or it didn’t happen”. At the Street Art Museum. Photo: Patrik Rastenberger

Writer: Annaliina Niitamo, PhD Candidate and research assistant of DiMe project

References:

Goergiou, Myria. 2013. Media and the City: Cosmopolitanism and Difference.

Lyng, Stephen. 1990. Edgework: A social psychological analysis of voluntary risk taking.

 

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