When the shops in the center of Riga emptied out in the wake of the economic crisis, the artists were given free reign over the spaces – the result was an art festival.

Features Survival Kit festival in Riga art against crisis

When the shops in the center of Riga emptied out in the wake of the economic crisis, the artists were given free reign over the spaces – the result was an art festival.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds pages 32-33, BW 4, December 2011,
Published on balticworlds.com on January 16, 2012

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The unprepossessing courtyard behind the multiple-family apartment block in Gertrudes Iela (Gertrudes Street) in the center of Riga does not immediately suggest that this was the site of the preparations for the third annual Survival Kit festival, which took place this September.

Originally established under the rubric “Do It Yourself” in the summer of 2009, this year’s ambitious art festival has international participation. “Do It Yourself” was, however, not only the title of the first festival, but in this its third year it is also something that must be taken literally as soon as you enter the former school building in which the “surviving” will take place this time around. For most of the artists must set up the classrooms assigned to them with their own hands. And as you walk through the building, you have trouble believing that up until two years ago this was a school, given that the building fabric is in such a terrible state: wires hanging down, holes in the ceilings and walls — this school has certainly seen better days.

“We hadn’t really planned a festival at all. We were simply thinking about what we could do in view of the crisis, which hit Latvia hard. Then we invited artists to liven up the shops that stood empty everywhere, and sort of make them into exhibition rooms”, says Solvita Krese, head of the LCCA and head curator of Survival Kit, talking about the festival’s beginnings. This year everything is taking place under one roof for the first time. We chose a school as the festival’s site to show that it is about learning and the future.

“It’s difficult to get people interested in cultural projects, or even to find funding for them, in times when people fear for their livelihood”, says Elina Cire, the press officer.

This is surely another reason why, in its first two years, Survival Kit concentrated first and foremost on the creative use of city space, and on establishing a very participatory character. The curators, who are almost all women, must first of all create a social foundation and an acceptance for contemporary art on which they can base their work. Elina Cire tells me that they had originally hoped that the shop owners would be happy about the short-term use of their shops. Yet they met with neither interest nor enthusiasm. “They held the key out to us and said, ‘Give me 100 lats a month, or maybe 10, and you have the shop!’”

Given this situation, Latvian video-artist Katrina Neiburga, who is participating again this year, opened a soup kitchen, with poet Agnes Krivade the first year, with the slogan “Artists Cooking for You”. “Of course, many people came from the culture scene, but people also came in from the street — taxi drivers, people out shopping, and so on”, she tells me, adding: “That was not an artistic project in the true sense. It was super entertainment, as perfect as it could be. But no one seemed to have the energy to continue with this.”

What began two years ago with a people’s kitchen, hairdressing salon, plant exchange, and independent art book publishing house is today compelling enough that international artists, such as Munich native Hito Steyerl, and Melanie Gilligan (UK/CAN), accept the invitation to participate with their video work in the third iteration of the festival.

Steyerl is showing her film “After the Crash”, in which she tracks the recycling path common to aircraft wreckage and DVDs, and in doing so also addresses globalization. And Melanie Gilligan is showing parts of her project “Crisis in the Credit System”, which obviously calls to mind a highly topical subject. And so Survival Kit is already looking into the future.

The Survival Kit, with its “headline”, thus offers a glimpse of the future.

It is striking that outside the festival as well, many art projects without institutional support have arisen. One example is the VEF, which uses the site of the largest Latvian telecommunications manufacturer of the Soviet era, Valsts Elektrotehniska Fabrika (VEF) as a studio building and has filled it with an exhibition space, café, bar, and silkscreen workshop.

For the last several weeks there has also been, in the central Skola Iela (School Street), a new cultural center, with a stage and exhibition space, home to concerts and parties.

It would appear that the young art scene, independent of institutions, is already taking the future into its own hands. Surprisingly, Riga lacks a museum for contemporary art. And no one knows whether or when there will ever be one. For now, the women of LCCA will probably have to continue working in an office in Alberta Iela where both the library for contemporary art and an exhibition space are housed. And a Survival Kit therefore still seems necessary.

“I have noticed that most artists work with the past and do not look to the future very much. With Survival Kit we are trying to encourage them to do that”, says Solvita Krese. This effort is only partially successful, however. Some artists, such as Krists Pudzens (Latvia), have interpreted the festival theme literally — he sends out mechanical monsters to climb to the top of the school’s roof — which, however, they fail to do. The collage film of Dutch artist Marjolijn Dijkman also takes the title literally. Together with her personal view of the future, the most striking and at the same time trashy utopian film scenes of recent decades are served up to the spectator as science-fiction spectacles, and in the process they leave an extremely ironic aftertaste.

Artists such as the Berlin-based Eleonore de Montesquiou (Estonia, France, Germany) and Katrina Neiburga (Latvia) walk at the border of the documentary film genre through the old press building of Riga, which functioned as the Latvian center of censorship in Soviet times (Neiburga), or the Radiotehnica building, an old hi-fi factory also important in the USSR (Montesquoiu). Both choose an anthropological approach to history, which will certainly be relevant for future prospects, and ask what influences the communist society, as well as its breakdown, had on people’s lives.

Alongside the festival there are lectures on, topics including gentrification, “art and science”, and also hysteria (Hanne Loreck, HfBK Hamburg), which provide a theoretical perspective to help illuminate all of the festival’s topics.

On the whole it quickly becomes clear that what matters here is the struggle for survival rather than contemporary discourse. Therefore, what people are looking for is a proximity to the everyday life of Riga, and the festival itself poses sociopolitical questions rather than using art to tackle the intrinsic problems. There are many reasons for this, but it seems certain that contemporary art in Latvia does not have it easy, and not only for financial reasons. “Many artists are still afraid to express their true opinions, because they fear this will end their careers. The Soviet system is embedded deeply in all of us”, Elina Cire explains.

And, about her work as curator and head of the Latvian contemporary art center, Solvita Krese says: “What we are doing here would be evaluated for instance in Germany as very critical, or as a total counter-position. Here we are among the principal figures on the stage of the fine arts, the ones who are already established.” She goes on to complain that there is nothing available for contemporary art. The missing contemporary art museum is only one problem among many. As LCCA they would therefore be looking explicitly for practicable answers. “We are not interested so much in the object for itself, nor in a market orientation. We want to make people think, and to inspire them.”

Despite all the problems, the organizers are looking cautiously toward the future, hoping to establish the festival as a biennial by 2014, when Riga will be the cultural capital of Europe. The organizers will always find it important to encourage international participation, but nevertheless will work on topics that are relevant to Latvia and the whole Baltic region. It will be fascinating to see whether political topics will gain relevance. After all, the twenty years since Latvia’s independence should be enough for some artists to risk dealing with the Soviet past by means of an approach that is not necessarily judgmental but rather carefully descriptive in a storytelling style (as Katrina Neiburga and Eleonere de Montesquiou did). We will also have to wait and see how much interest the new government has in promoting culture, and what influence political developments will have on contemporary art. It is certain that this young scene has immense motivation and vibrant energy. So, looking back at the three years of Survival Kit and what has already been achieved, we now wait with anticipation, and even see the biennial festival sparkling in the future. ≈

LCCA = The Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art
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