Friday, 21 July 2017

Foods of the Baltic: Kvass/Gira, Pelmeni, Cepelinai (Zeppelin), Pelēkie zirņi ar speķi (Grey Peas with Speck), and Beaver Stew

A quick compendium of notable foods consumed on a brief working trip to Lithuania and Latvia. Alright, let's be practical, chances are that the 5 people who still read this blog will probably never ever go to Lithuania or Latvia but yet I will say - IF YOU EVER DO, then these following foods are very much recommended.


Fermented Black Ryebread Cocktail


Gira/Kvass from Forto Dvaras (Kaunas Old Town, Lithuania)


Gira/Kvass from Zalias Ratas (Kaunas, Lithuania)

You may be wondering why would you drink this fermented non-alcoholic drink when you could drink a fermented alcoholic drink (BEER?) but the simple answer is that: it is super delicious. Like liquid bread candy. Like summery caramel raisin juice. As strangely and inexplicably addictive as Club Mate.

I had become really excited to try the Kvass after watching Life of Boris aka KVASSMAN demonstrate how to make it and all I can say is that... its indeed probably the best drink you can get in Lithuania and Latvia.

In the case of Latvia, if you are travelling in Riga... IT IS EVEN WORTH GOING TO RIGA AIRPORT 2 HOURS EARLY TO LEISURELY DRINK MORE KVASS AT THE LIDO. (There are Lidos all over Riga but having reached the airport means you can actually sit back in the Lido (the "Wetherspoons" of Latvia) and relax with your Kvass.


Tiny Slavic Ravioli


XL Pelmeni in the morning

"What food is still available at this hour?" I asked a waitress at 11pm in Riga. She said, "well at this house there is only the McDonalds, Kebabs, or.... Pelmeni?" - with the Pelmeni being the only true 'local' option. So at almost midnight in Riga, I found myself at XL PELMENI, a curious buffet style fast food dumpling house with tacky plastic cave wall features, easy wipe-clean tables bolted to the floor, and an interesting mix of clientele. From families with young children, to young men wolfing down huge mountains of cheese dumplings, middle aged couples eating dumplings along with a bottle of wine, and old men nursing their beers alone in the corner with a tiny dill covered salad. Its young staff loitered around bored and uneasy, wearing generic hats and aprons.


I was very confused as nothing was in English, but it appears that you simply pick up a series of tiny bowls on plastic trays and fill up your bowls with what looks like tiny white geometric tchotchkes, filled with rather delicious mystery meats (there were labels, but I couldn't read them).


The Pelmeni is basically a very tiny ravoli made with a thin skin of white unleavened dough, very similar to the wonton or jiaozi or gyoza or mandu or pierogi or varenyky depending on where you're from. Garnish with white creamy substance (sour cream? kefir? yoghurt? mayonez??? help what is going on?) and let the dill rain from heaven. Unfortunately I did not take a picture of the pelmeni but you can see some of them in the top of this menu... that's what it looks like inside the pot!


Lithuanian Potato Meat Blimp Sailing straight into your Mouth


Named after the zeppelin airships, this is actually nothing like its floating namesake, and more like a dense bullet of pure plastinated potato. Sometimes served with a side of magic fat gravy. They mash the potato, then boil it into this ultra dense format with a thick layer of potato covering a delicious meat filling.

On a side note, in some strange ways it is reminiscent of the format of the traditional Hokchew (Foochow Chinese) ball if you replaced fish and flour with POTATO.


If they give you an option to have a half portion, restrain yourself and order the half portion because they are basically SOLID POTATO BLIMPS and the average human adult can only realstically consume one of these zeppelins at a time. (For your reference a "debbieportion" is actually 1/2 OF AVERAGE LITHUANIAN ZEPPELIN)


Most Latvian Food according to random young Latvian boy at Lido

"What is your most Latvian food???" I asked the young server at the Lido.
He pointed to a mountain of peas. "Peas are very Latvian."
So here is an unfeasibly huge plate of Grey Peas that I ate at a Lido in Riga Old Town.


They're not very grey actually.

BONUS: "Food from the Nobleman's Table"


Menu at Zalias Ratas (Kaunas, Lithuania)

Often in the menus you will see the mention of "food from the peasant's table" vs "food from the nobleman's table"
All the potato-based foods I have listed above are typically classed as 'peasant food', although today there's hardly any real distinction between the two. For the most part, eating out (and eating well) in Lithuania seems exceedingly affordable.


Menu at Restaurant Lokys (Vilnius, Lithuania)


In Vilnius, I decided to go to one of these "Nobleman's Restaurant" to try Beaver Stew. Apparently beaver was historically quite commonly eaten by noblemen who went hunting; more than a hundred thousand beavers live in the Lithuanian forest and Lithuania and Latvia are probably the two countries in the world with the biggest numbers of Eurasian Beavers. (FYI: Beavers are actually completely vegetarian and their big teeth are only used to eat twigs and bark)


Lokys means "bear" so there are huge wooden bears everywhere in Restaurant Lokys. In case one cannot travel all the way to Lithuania to eat Lithuanian Beaver Stew but still wishes to cook a Beaver (assuming one has already caught a beaver???) here is a recipe for Beaver that I found in the Kaunas Town Hall:


Gero apetito / Labu apetīti!

Thursday, 20 July 2017

A Visit to Geola: General Optics Laboratory - Pulsed Laser Holography


When I was in Canberra as artist-in-residence with the Australian War Memorial I managed to see some really amazing holograms (with many thanks to the Australian War Memorial for arranging this and National Gallery of Australia for allowing me to see their collections!). Thus I began hatching a crazy plan to make some holograms, which led me to travel to Vilnius to visit Geola ("General Optics Laboratory"), a company which has been producing analogue holography as well as developing a really interesting technique of digital holography using pulsed lasers. Geola's pioneering holography techniques had also been mentioned by a number of Australian fine art holographers such as Paula Dawson.

(It is always worth noting that for a moment in time, the hologram had really seemed poised to be the successor to the photograph, with many fine art holography programmes developed in universities around the world including in Australia and UK between the 1970s and 1990s - even the RCA used to have a holography department)

Untitled Untitled Untitled

Margaret Benyon's Totem (1979)
National Gallery of Australia - Accession No: NGA 2009.46
Materials & Technique: photographs, reflection hologram, ink, gouache, feather on paper
Dimensions: printed image 25.4 h x 20.3 w cm / Produced in Australia
Notice how the hologram actually remains a secret if the work is not lit or viewed from the right direction.


Hologram made by Andrea Wise to test conservation techniques for holographic plates
Canberra, April 2017

I think what interested me most was how Geola had interpreted the method of digital holography into holopixels. One of the senior conservators at the National Gallery of Australia, Andrea Wise (who also had a passion for understanding how holography worked), told me of a useful way of thinking about holograms: if you break a corner off a hologram, that corner itself will already contain the data of the entire image. The concept of the holopixel then makes this fragment-whole relationship evidently clear: each holopixel is a separate element but each of the holopixels contains ALL of the image data at the same time - they are optical elements that when properly illuminated and viewed from different angles, will be perceived as a specific colour dot. When we view all the colour dots as a whole, it becomes interpreted by the eye and brain as an image that changes when viewed from different angles. (Viewing it with two eyes completes the illusion of our perception of the image as a three-dimensional scene).

Although the underlying physics is well-known and widely understood by scientists and students of science alike, the hologram somehow remains largely misunderstood by the average layman. Since the hologram exists as a physical photographic plate, it is sometimes confused as an extension of photography, although a hologram is not at all like a photograph because a photograph is an image but the hologram is a lens. Furthermore, today the word “hologram” is very loosely used to describe so many optical illusions (eg: pepper’s ghost, rear projection, volumetric projection, lenticular prints, virtual reality) to the point that most people may may not know what a hologram really is. When I tried to talk about my plans for the project to other friends, quite often a friend might say "Oh! Holograms! I've seen/made some before!" only for us to discover later on that what they thought was a hologram was not actually a hologram...

Even American electrical engineering professor Emmeth Leith, the co-inventor of three-dimensional holography, described his holograms as a “grin without a cheshire cat”. Over the years, three-dimensionality and then imagery was successively compromised, largely leaving only movement and colour behind. Technical limitations in holographic image production as well as certain cultural and commercial conditions have led to the overall flattening of the holographic image on both physical and symbolic level, resulting in total collapse of the holographic image to the image plane – to the point that today we mainly see the hologram in flattened embossed forms, in small particles...

Google Image Search: "Holographic"

As hologram retailers struggled to build a consumer market they began aligning themselves with science museums and technology centres to try to capture national audiences on a mass consumption level. Ultimately this distanced the hologram further and further away from being a medium for narrative. Despite having a premature demise in a commercial sense, the hologram still entered cultural consciousness as a medium designed for future mass consumption, in its general disappearance from the public eye it transformed into a staple of science fiction films and the imagination. But it is not just in people's imagination that the hologram has been changing. Holographic techniques have also been continuously developing! You might be surprised to know that today you can produce holograms from moving images, and that they can be in full colour today!


On an unexpectedly normal and ordinary street on the other side of the world, sits the rather nondescript office of the lab called Geola.


It used to be that analogue holography had to be on in labs which were completely free of vibrations - so the labs would involve huge concrete tables and had to be far away from civilisation and all the vibrations from cars and noises. But Geola has devised a pulsed laser system which has no such vibration problems! (Cars are running on the roads outside! You can walk in the room with the printer inside it!)


This was a room that had to be seen in person.


Despite its similarity to a photo plate, a hologram is nothing at all like a photo, and there's also no way for me to adequately represent it in photo alone.



This is the printer. The holopixels in this digital holograph are recorded onto photosensitive media using two pulsed laser beams - one is spatially modulated by using LCD display and focused into a 1.6mm x 1.6mm square acts as the object beam, another laser beam acts as the reference beam. The modulation is done such that the object beam at the point of interference with the reference beam contains the same information that would have come to this point from a real object (except that here we might be using film footage or 3D rendered scenes as the source). The reference beam interferes with the modulated object beam, recording the hologram of the image on the photosensitive media.


After exposure the holographic photoplate is processed using a conventional photographic process.


After chemical processing the photoplate is dried and then the holographic photoemulsion is protected by lamination of black self-adhesive film and acrylic sheet using a standard cold lamination machine.


Real 3D Scene shot from a drone


Virtual 3D Scene (as evidenced by designer who forgot to connect trees to ground)

See the video documentation here:

Thank you to Ramunas for showing me around Geola!

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Kaunas: Ninth Fort Museum


Due to the recent closure of Vilnius Airport for the reconstruction of its runway, I was forced to travel to Vilnius via Kaunas, and I also decided to make it a little more interesting by returning to London via Riga. And since I was already going to travel so far, I decided to make a plan to see the museums in each place.

Kaunas: Ninth Fort Museum
Vilnius: A Visit to Geola
Vilnius: Museum of Genocide Victims in former KGB Building
Riga: Museum of the Occupation of Latvia
& an obligatory food tour of the Baltics!

So how does one get to the Ninth Fort? From Kaunas Old Town, you can take bus 23, which runs along "K. Donelaičio g." which is one of the major streets in the old town. A single ride on the bus costs 80 euro cents which you pay to the driver directly, and it takes around 20 minutes to get to the stop "9-ojo forto muziejus". (Bus 23 also takes you back to Kaunas Old Town - just make sure that you're on the 23 bound for "Domeikava" when going to the Ninth Fort and the 23 bound for "Rokai" when you're returning to "Kaunas centras").

A small note on how to read road names in Lithuania: A lot of the roads are named after historically prominent Lithuanians - cultural luminaries, poets, writers, pioneers of industry, revolutionary thinkers, etc. However they all have very long names, so they shorten the first name to just the initial (very wisely, for brevity's sake). For example, Kristijonas Donelaitis lends his name to K. Donelaičio g. - and the g stands for gatvė (street).


From the bus stop you walk through the suburban neighbourhood and take a small dirt path that leads to an underpass that brings you to the front doors of the museum.


For 3 euros (adult) or 1.50 euros (student) you get a ticket to see all of the Ninth Fort museum and also walk into the fort itself. The building of the museum is also a monument, with stained glass memorials and sculptures built into the building.






The museum does not shy away from showing very graphic images of death. I was not sure if I should reproduce this images here on my own blog here, but I think that we can't afford to shy away from the truth of the brutality that was senselessly inflicted by humans upon other humans - the images of Soviet atrocities and the Nazi genocide are in this exposition to remind us of why we cannot tolerate racism or fascism within society - we must not forget that it has been used to justify such horrific crimes against humanity.


I noticed a word that was frequently used in the exhibition text - "exposed".


Another example here - "exposured".

It initially seemed an unusual choice of word. I know it must be because an exhibition is so commonly translated to "exposition" in Lithuania, but when I'm looking at the photos, I think about the exposure as it relates to photography and the exposed photo plate that captures the image, allowing it to be preserved and reproduced; I also think of the action of "exposing" a utterly hideous crime against humanity that the Nazis tried to cover up in this very site.



On the other end of the museum, there's a section telling the story of Romas Kalanta, a high school student who publicly committed suicide by setting himself on fire in protest of the Soviet regime in Lithuania (in 1972), triggering the largest post-war riots in the 1970s and becoming a symbol of Lithuanian anti-russification resistance.


He left a note which said "Dėl mano mirties kaltinkite tik santvarką" (Blame only the regime for my death).


Remains of Romas Kalanta's clothes from the self-immolation site



When you get to the end of the exposition, the eagle-eyed staff will come over and open the door for you. "PLEASE TO CONTINUE TO FORT!" said the lady and I was abruptly turfed out of the building and into the open grass (and funny enough, I heard her noisily locking the door behind me).


In the distance, the massive monument stands next to the fort itself.



Erected in 1984, the monument is 105 feet (32 m) high. The mass burial place of the victims of the massacres carried out in the fort is a grass field, marked by a simple yet frankly worded memorial written in several languages. It reads, "This is the place where Nazis and their assistants killed more than 30,000 Jews from Lithuania and other European countries

The memorial was erected in memory of victims of Nazi massacres. From 1941 until 1944 more than 50,000 people of different nations (amongst them more than 30,000 Jewish poles, lithuanians, and germans), inhabitants of Kaunas, prisoners of the Kaunas Ghetto and 20,000 other Lithuanian people and foreigners were killed at this spot. The Nazis also tried to evade responsibility by covering up the true number of murders by forcing Jewish prisoners (imprisoned at the Ninth Fort) to excavate and burn the corpses. This unreal 32-metre tall memorial was designed by sculptor A. Ambraziunas and constructed in 1984 over the mass burial site.


A short distance away there are many different memorial plaques arranged around the monument.






I walked down a slope into the beautiful grassy hill that gently covered the Ninth Fort.



Funny enough, there were these lookout bunkers embedded into the landscape - so strikingly similar to the image I was working on at the moment for my holograms.





This is what it looks like from the inside of the bunker.



The next building in the fort has an unimaginably gruesome history. Not only had the Nazi killed so many Jews and Soviet Prisoners-of-war, they also cruelly imprisoned some of the Jews here and forced them to excavate the bodies from the mass murders and then burn the corpses in order to cover up the extent of Nazi war crimes (the Nazis having already come to the conclusion at some point that they would lose the war and would be asked to take responsibility for all the murders). Those who refused were killed.


On 25 December 1943, a number of prisoners escaped from the fort and the escapees were forced to go into hiding for years in extreme conditions until after the war ended - before they could finally manage to testify to the war crimes tribunal to expose the Nazi's cover-up operation.










There's part of a room on Chiune "Sempo" Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who was at the time of the outbreak of war (in 1940) the Vice Consul for the Japanese Empire in Lithuania. Immediately after the outbreak of war several thousand Jewish refugees came to the Japanese Consulate to ask for a Japanese visa that would allow them to obtain Japanese transit visas. He sent a cable to his superiors to ask if he could do so, and although he was specifically ordered not to do so, he wrote them anyway, and singlehandedly saved 5500+ Jewish refugees from German-occupied Western Poland and Soviet-occupied Eastern Poland as well as many residents of Lithuania by issuing them visas so they could escape the Nazis by obtaining a Japanese visa. As this was a time before computers, as the consul he had to HANDWRITE every single visa!


The threat to the Jewish refugees became so urgent that he apparently wrote nothing but visas for over 20 hours a day - and it got to the point that he even went to the station and simply threw the blank visa papers into the windows of leaving trains at Kaunas Train Station - so they could escape as soon as possible with the needed papers (even then, some did not manage to leave in time and were captured and killed by the Nazis).





A pile of eye glasses and a pile of emptied cartridges is all that remains.


Here is the word "exposed" again.



How surreal that such a beautiful landscape completely conceals within itself such a traumatic history; the only visible sign left being the huge man-made concrete sculpture that erupts from the earth.