Greatly Exaggerated, Saved For Later
Confused notes on the Survival Kit 11
It all started in 2009 amid the raging economic crisis, which crippled Latvia perhaps the worst in Europe, when the Survival Kit art festival was created here as the reaction and way to come up with new strategies of life in the unfolding catastrophic world.
What made Survival Kit distinctive and worth of cherishing was its aura of Latvia's art community hidden gem — despite its international selection of artists and claims of being "the biggest contemporary art event in the Baltics, attracting more than 10 000 visitors every year", it always felt especially our very own. A form of commemoration maybe for the swiftly shrinking Riga, a prolonged ritual of proud death. Its distinctive move was to host the exhibitions in abandoned Riga's historic buildings. How many of those that once hosted the festival got renovated and returned to being used? The minority, of course. However, all of them got that burst of creative life for a short time, like an electricity strike from the resuscitator: it is indeed better to rise for a swift moment than to decompose for eternity.
Hence, when talking about Survival Kit, for me at least, it was always not so much the individual projects that mattered, but the way they worked together with the environment and spirit of the architecture they were placed in. There where scents of mould and dampness in the rooms, echoes in the empty hallways, dust dancing in the slightly faded sunlight penetrating the old window-glass. People would walk carefully, as if not to break some hidden rotten plank, the floor would often squeak under their feet — and all of that would have as much value as the artworks themselves. It was Latvian arte povera, great contemplation on the nature of Baltic ethos, its poverty, asceticism, melancholy, and yet power to be reborn — no wonder it was usually hosted in September, the month which metaphorical load is beyond obvious.
And because of all of the above, it is sad to admit that this Survival Kit edition seems the weakest in many years — the whole thing tends to be excessively political at the moment when we face the events of metaphysical scale. There are darkness and pest over the land of Egypt, yet the talks are only about that the pharaoh's men being mean.
Contradicting its title Being Safe is Scary, this year's Survival Kit feels wholeheartedly safe and there is nothing scary about that. Even the building chosen to host the show feels like a fortress enclosing the visitors from the slyness of the streets, a house with a well-like courtyard making one feel himself in the protected castle of some sort. It is comfortable to the point of oblivion, full of small stories that fail to form the claimed bigger picture of persecution and persecuted.
The curatorial text is blossoming with common tropes such as "transform the suppositions that undergird such discourse [of wars, nationalist agendas, racism, and inequality]… to practices of love, intimacy, sharing, commonality, mutual support" — basically saying that the exhibition aims to change bad things to good things. How did we come to this after such events like, for example, Survival Kit 9, which offered a remarkable study of dark ecology in contemporary art, perhaps among the first in Eastern Europe?
I guess that the problem is in the choice of this year's curator. For the first time, the festival was curated by the invited specialist, Katia Krupennikova, a woman of indeed powerful biography, who exchanged manager position at Shell to being the V-A-C foundation-allied curator. However, in this particular case, the festival that used to criticise "patronising and often arrogant centre-periphery relationship between the old and the new Europe" for some reason decided to invite the person who has no connection to the country whatsoever and trusted her to create the exhibition that was always about locality and resistance to such global tendencies she now represents.
Ask yourself, why do we need them to tell our stories?
Therefore, no wonder that the curator who does not know or feel or live in this land would come up with an exhibition like this one — a universal message, universal themes, in theory, directed at everyone, but in practice reaching no one except few globally-minded citizens. No doubt, the refugee crisis is serious. Yes, populists are coming to power and there are marginalised minorities. Art should react to these problems, but doesn't it already do so in each and every major show in the world? This is cultural colonisation at if finest: the international expert somehow decides that there is one agenda that should be important for each and everyone despite their location and context. Still, we leave this decision and its heavy burden to the conscience of the organisation committee. Just to sum up: Survival Kit 11 is a beautiful piece of political propaganda for some reason hidden under the fine wedding veil of relevant contemporary art.
But what about the content of the exhibition? The location dictates its own rules, and here every project is much more isolated than ever before. The building is made of narrow corridors, many stairs and small rooms which often host just one or two projects. Thus, this year it is much less a collective organism than before, now it's a hotel maybe, a communal flat for artworks. Somehow the videos seem to prevail upon all other medias this year. Walking through the collection of dilapidated cinema rooms in the final working hours of the show indeed make one feel the whole building is possessed by spectres. The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of the house.
The range of artists is the feast of contrasts. On one hand, there is Martta Tuomaala's "FinnCycling-Soumi-Perkele! Vol.2", a long rant on the problems of modern Finland, which include patriarchy, raging capitalism and overall inequality — living anywhere outside of Nordic countries means one would happily exchange places with Tuomaala and smile with relief. On the other, there is a series of prints by Muhammad Ali, works that are as innocent as they are tempted. Innocent with formalities of the art world, its do's and don'ts, temped with the real fear of a refugee, like waking up one day and discovering that everything in the world now has sharp teeth and its jaws are open to devour you. Then, some projects escape clear critical and emotional characterisation: Anna Dasović's "So, on behalf of my country and from the bottom of my heart" is one of those. It is a mixed-media installation focusing on the genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bill Clinton and Aleksander Vučić came there in 2015 during the tragedy's anniversary, but the whole commemoration event turned into a protest. Clinton's speech is given there with correction marks, words crossed out or changed to represent the sentiments of those affected by the tragedy. We are used to banalities and correctness of the official and the intervention into their words strike the mind — how couldn't we see that they speak of nothing and their condolences are worth perfect zero? How, if they were so nice, so peaceful, they came to reconcile, didn't they?
Earlier I noted that the artworks put together don't create bigger narrative like in the previous years, and that the whole scenography of the show resembles a hotel for art or communal flat. Indeed, even the public events programme for the Survival Kit 11 is entitled Kommunalka/Community, contemplating on the duality of the Soviet-era communal flats, kommunalkas, places where homo homini lupus est, and the community as something inclusive and positive. This is the core of what Survival Kit 11 appeared to me: the whole festival balances between those two definitions, and the chemistry between its artworks is of the elements that are simultaneously aggressively isolated from each other and lending gentle, almost unseen helping hands from one to another, forming ties that are not strong ship ropes but rather phantom threads, singing not in the confident choir but timid polyphony — not the thing we need right now, but the thing our memories of which might help us someday later.