• Survival Kit 10, Riga 2019

    Survival Kit 10, Riga 2019

Conference reports Beyond spatial and cultural boundaries in Riga

Expressions such as “geographical imaginaries” and “utopic worlds” are used to lead people to dream about distant lands, very different from Latvian society and its cultural scene. Based on these premises, the role of the Survival Kit Festival is to bring these imaginaries close to contemporary society in Riga, leading to a transformation of the conception of geographical and mental borders.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2019:3, pp 41-42
Published on balticworlds.com on december 30, 2019

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Annual contemporary art event in the Baltics: Survival Kit, Riga, May 2019.

“We express generalizations born of our unfamiliarity with those places that are not our own. Thus, in some cases, geographical imaginaries may produce stereotypes and uninformed judgments about the lives and environments of others. But in other cases, they may be ways of imagining utopic worlds that we can compare with our own surroundings in the hope of building a future”.

These are the words of Anželsa Miralda, one of the curators of the artwork’s exposition “Survival Kit 10” Festival, held in Riga in September 2018 and then once again in May 2019. Expressions such as “geographical imaginaries” and “utopic worlds” are used to lead people to dream about distant lands, very different from Latvian society and its cultural scene. Based on these premises, the role of the Survival Kit Festival is to bring these imaginaries close to contemporary society in Riga, leading to a transformation of the conception of geographical and mental borders.

The outlands as a state of mind

The importance of the “outlands” is the real focus of the manifestation, and this is also way one have chosen to host the expositions in unique places. Indeed, the locations selected for the first and second part of the event were, respectively, the Riga Circus and the abandoned building of the faculty of Physics, Mathematics and Optometry of the University of Latvia. Both locations are in remote parts of the city, away from the center, in which the main institutions are located and where normal activities take place. This choice follows the purpose of requalifying and promoting peripheral areas in order to broaden the artistic influence in the city. The second part of the Festival is located in an area called “Pārdaugava”, on the west bank of the Daugava, a river in Riga. This area, partially detached from the chaotic city center can be regarded metaphorically as an outland, according to the Survival Kit 10.1 Festival Catalogue. The event, known as the largest contemporary art festival in the Baltic states, presented the artworks of 34 artists involved in re-addressing burning issues such as identities, culture and borders. The global and local nature of the festival made it a unique “window” on the works of artists from all over the world and their responses to socially critical situations. Indeed, each year, the festival has attempted to draw attention to contemporary problems of interest to the city of Riga, such as the complex identity of individuals and the widespread racism and closure of contemporary society.

 

The festival, founded in 2009, attracts more than 10,000 visitors every year, always discussing new themes and societal issues from different cultural perspectives by several artistic tools.The success of the festival belongs to much to three women – Solvita Krese, Inga Lāce and Àngels Miralda – who are part of a larger team at the Latvian Institute of Contemporary Art. However, what makes the festival and the Institute itself unique, is also the flexibility of its shape and the particularity of its existence. Indeed, the Institute is not a traditional cultural space like a museum or art venue, but a fluid project that always changes locations and themes. In this regard, Inga Lāce, in an interview with the curator of the exhibition, asserts the specificity of the role of the institute in Latvian cultural society:

“We are not a museum and we don’t actually have a museum of contemporary art. We are merely trying to raise those issues that are topical in society”.

The festival encourages artists to question the traditional division of geopolitical and cultural space into center and periphery and to shed light on the complex construction of identity. The Survival Kit 10 Festival is indeed a place of critical discussion of standard definitions, not only of geopolitical borders, but also of identity borders. As stated on the festival’s website: “Geography and migration are taken up as core themes in the hope of revealing the complexities embedded within different local communities”. The event highlights the difficult themes of ethnic conflicts and divisions from all over the world and use Latvian society, in between the Russian and the European world, as a lens for the global challenges.

Doors that divide and connect

When entering the building that hosts the festival, the vivid atmosphere of the past permeates the walls, windows and furniture. Everything would lead the visitor to believe that nothing had really changed from the closure of the building as the university of sciences. But suddenly, when approaching the numerous doors and spaces, the particularity of the place is revealed. From videos, to songs, from all kinds of radio and media installations, the festival reveals its incredible artistic and intellectual potentiality. Undoubtedly, each door of the building represents a transition into a different world and a different way of thinking. The name of each artist is displayed at the respective entrance to the room’s, just next to the university room’s name. Suddenly, the visitor is personally involved in understanding the individuality of the artists and their perception of the issue presented. The local Russophone association of poets Orbita presents an installation called “Poetry Happening”, as something that cannot be immediately understood because, while still outside the exhibition room, one hears someone reading a poem.

However, when entering the room, the voice is interrupted and is replaced by the noise of a disturbing interference. In fact, as the main message of the installation is displayed, the visitor is not permitted to easily access the world of poetry and the artist’s creation. In this way the exhibition locates itself in the festival as an outland that is an inaccessible place, though, as expressed in the Catalogue, “it is not a foreign land, separated from ours by a visible or invisible borderline, but rather a place to which the observer has no direct access”. The poets display the difficulty of understanding contemporary poetry as opposed to an easy pop culture that requires little effort. The individuality and unicity of human agency and creativity is also displayed by the work of Andrejs Strokins and Deniss Hanovs, an independent photographer and a cultural researcher and professor. “Nye riba, nye myaso” is the title of their installation, which played with this Russian expression “neither flesh, nor meat” with the aim of supporting the concept of the heterogeneity of the Russian culture and language in a Latvian environment. The work introduced the idea of the hybridity of people and spaces taking as an example the city of Riga and its mutable spaces, in between the Soviet past and the modern Latvian state. The concept explores the feeling of disorientation of the inhabitants “suddenly finding themselves behind a topographic looking glass [..] affected by urban schizophrenia”. This urban confusion, engendered by the introduction of new activities and the process of globalization that is affecting the city’s development, is also part of an identity confusion that oscillates between a past comprising a Soviet identity and a present comprising a Latvian one.

Beyond borders, bridging time and space

The reality of the festival and its role for the city is described by the curator Inga Lāce, who underlines the importance of it in a nation in which there is no diversity and narratives of division are largely widespread in society. The purpose of the festival is also to escape ethnic categorization and discrimination. Indeed, as Lace affirmed: “When you say that there are two communities, then you are already creating these boxes and you are pitting one against the other”.

 

The festival precisely aims to go beyond the definitions of borders and communities. Surely, people in the society are highly separated from each other, but “if you could somehow imagine that one community uses different languages […] and different times, perhaps it would become an issue and politicians would polarize society less”, as stated again by the curator. Changing perspectives is a central idea that is to be found in the exhibitions, objects and sounds of the festival. One photographic exhibition described the story of the artist Diāna Tamane’s mother, who was accused of smuggling two pots of flowers when crossing the border between Latvia and Russia. Actually, her mother had not intended to break the law but simply wanted to take the flowers to her husband’s grave, which had become part of Russian territory after 1945. This image of cross-border practices in the name of family ties and affection may be one of the symbols that most perfectly suits the spirit of the festival.

 

To conclude, in a society in which ethnic boundaries are still evident and work as lines that separate individuals, the festival places itself as a solution, as a different perspective, a bridge among cultures and as a survival kit.≈

 

 

  • by Michela Romano

    MA in Interdisciplinary research and studies on Eastern Europe, University of Bologna. Research focus: Russophone identities, Baltic cultures and minority issues.

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