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PAF to Massia

RIGA – LONG READ Michael Holland shares his experience of a haven in the coastal forests of south-west Estonia.

Sometime in the dreamworld, a time just before the Brexit vote, a time when people still partied all night and danced together in a room with no fear, no masks. A foreign time, well it seems foreign to me right now as I look back. There was a moment, a long weekend actually, when many things were realised all at once. These things are somehow still being realised although at the time I wasn’t aware they would have such a lasting impact.

For one, I wasn’t totally convinced about Brexit, I wasn’t sure it was a good idea, or a bad idea, at that time, I was questioning everything. When I went to the Performing Arts Forum (PAF) that weekend, I was still questioning Brexit, meeting all those people there near Paris at PAF – all of us learning together, thinking as a group about the “philosophy of sound”. I realised things that I’d not thought about before. I considered things I’d not even considered in my life. It made me sure about one thing, the union of people across Europe was definitely a good thing, and because of this I was sure I was voting to remain inside the EU. There was an epiphany of sorts when reading (as a group) one morning a passage from a book, I remember the exact passage and I remember the people in the room and how the cushions felt, how this made me feel in that room – free to speak.

Running that reading group that morning was Kodwo Eshun (more brilliant than the sun), he knew how to listen, how to make people feel comfortable, it wasn’t just him that made me feel so comfortable and so welcomed that morning in that foreign country. It was the place itself and all the people in that place. We ate together at breakfast and had meaningful conversations about music and sound. We even collaborated and found time to make music together with Lola and Indigo, we even made some kind of performance one night in one huge dark room.

The waves of inspiration from PAF are still being felt and the connections with people I met there are still reappearing occasionally to remind me of this beautiful place and beautiful moment. This takes me to a more recent journey to Massia and how that is connected to the place PAF created in my mind. Organising the PAF event was one wonderful human (Lendl), I’d met him once before for a curry in my absolute favourite place to eat in Manchester – This’n That. At the recommendation of a friend we were put together. He’d invited me to join this event at PAF and then just recently when he realised I was geographically close to Massia, he’d also connected me with those wonderful people there.

Trusting in these memories and connections I set off again on a journey towards this place, Massiaru, an artist residency of sorts, a place where people can grow, collect, create, write, think, be. I’d had a wonderful trip so far, cycling from Skulte, a town near Saulkrasti near Riga, Latvia. I’d been to see friends on the way, at Salacgriva, and we had picked mushrooms and peas, cooked a fantastic meal together and just had a very good afternoon and evening catching up before I set off on this laden bicycle towards Massia, stopping along the way, by the sea, to collect mushrooms, just to swim and to eat. Not forgetting to take a few photographs on the way.

In my mind Massia wasn’t in Estonia, it was in Romania. But actually, physically it was in Estonia. I’d heard about this place when visiting PAF, Jan (Ritsema) who founded and ran PAF had recently sold shares in PAF to its members, freeing up a decent amount of cash to invest in another place, and he’d decided that the PAF model was good and he wanted another huge space to run, by itself, in a way, using the energy of caretakers and artists who needed space to practice, space to grow and collect themselves. And when I came to Massia, I realised very quickly that this was no ordinary empty school. There were no locks on the doors, so the place must be pretty safe. There are herbs drying everywhere you look, why, I’m not sure but to me it was a good start.

I find the kitchen and make myself some tea, I find some large studio monitors and a little mixer, I made myself a sound studio in a room downstairs, all within a few hours, I felt quite settled. I met one person in the kitchen, I forget his name but he explained it all to me, the place, what was ok. I felt at home. I wandered the corridors, organised my bedding for the night, found a room downstairs. Marvelled at the herbs, looked at books and then started to make music. I met another person, a girl, a sound artist from Germany. People were spaced out, not 2 metres apart, but through the many many rooms. There’s potential space everywhere, you could work continuously in this space, I could live here, I thought.

The kitchen becomes the focus of the house; in the evening, people huddle a little closer, there’s still lots of space but people come together to cook and drink tea, chat, figure each other out. There’s herbs all around in the kitchen, it feels ancient. The knowledge here is dried and available to be discovered. Benefits are collected together and preserved, there is no money, well, you need a little for food. There’s always potatoes in the garden so if you have the energy and are willing to share it. You’ll never go hungry here.

The quietness of the kitchen becomes a little busier around 6 or 7 pm and you can easily find a space in one of the two kitchens to cook something as you wish. This isn’t the kind of house where people stay up partying, somehow the focus is on work, people are quietly writing theses or steadily working on projects. Things aren’t rushed here. In the evening I think that people do desire a little chat, either to cook together or just to share a little moment before heading off to sleep in one of the many many rooms.

What I realised pretty quickly about the Baltic states and what attracts me to this part of the world is the space, the sheer lack of people, the emptiness, to me this is huge potential. Massia feels as though it has limitless potential. Massia has a huge amount of realised potential and stored energy already. But if you make a trip there you will see that, with the right attitude and enough patience, you can realise some of your own potential.

Why I’m writing this is not to encourage people to visit Massia, or PAF but more to let people know that these utopias of discovery and learning do exist. Even in these times of dystopia and near collapse. People, artists, writers are still living, still creating and building ideas for a better future. Consider that things sometimes need to break beyond repair in order for a new, better, anti-fragile reality to be built. If I was given the chance to choose where to be in the coming apocalypse, somewhere like Massia or PAF with a good library of books and a heap of excellent music around me, would definitely be a pretty good option. PAF somehow feels more like a writer’s paradise. Massia is more rural, surrounded by forest, warmth, food and near to the Baltic Sea, Massia is a kind of unique location, far enough away from everything to be difficult to get to but near enough to make the journey very worthwhile.

Now although I don’t recommend a mass exodus to Massia or PAF, that would upset the natural environment there. It’s beauty is partly because not so many people know about it or maybe not so many people have the time to discover it. I want to draw attention mostly to the fact that places like this can exist and due to the kindness and like-mindedness of the members of these kinds of communities. These places can become very special, beautiful and nourishing environments for certain types of people, but they are not for everyone. Some people find them too isolated and remote; those same people might struggle with doing ‘nothing’. In Massia you find yourself not doing nothing incidentally, however hard you might try, you’ll also find yourself doing something out of the ordinary. I suppose that’s what Massia is, out of the ordinary. Massia is somehow organic, its space has been converted, and is still being converted into a living potential. I will be returning hopefully in the spring, to help plant the garden, at least this is my plan, restrictions allowing.

I recommend keeping your eyes open for places like PAF or Massia or maybe just keep your eyes open for likeminded souls and get together, plant some trees or work on the allotment, even just drink tea, slowly. Work on a creative project, find your own space where you feel safe to read and to listen. To create. The important thing is to know about these seeds of ideas already growing, it gives you the confidence to start to germinate your own seed somewhere wherever you are.


Love to all the friends I met at PAF and to those people who know what I’m talking about. Love also to the people who don’t yet know but are intrigued and excited to find out for themselves. Ana I know spent time there at PAF I know she would love Massia. Lendl Barcelos is majorly responsible in this story for setting the ball in motion once again and also for organising the Philosophy of Sound weekend! Love to Kit Turner, who put me in contact with Lendl and made sure that we met. This small thing that she did is still affecting my path in life and in a very positive way, so thankyou Kit. Sepideh for making me so so welcome at Massia, thankyou I will come back soon.

Written by Michael Holland

Pictures courtesy of Michael Holland and Massia.

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