Riga

Evita Vasiljeva, Impulse (J or Imp), 2020, twelve-channel sound, green lights, twelve movement sensors, electromagnetic microphones, contact microphones. Installation view. From Survival Kit 11.

Evita Vasiljeva, Impulse (J or Imp), 2020, twelve-channel sound, green lights, twelve movement sensors, electromagnetic microphones, contact microphones. Installation view. From Survival Kit 11.

Survival Kit 11

Tērbatas 75

Founded as a DIY initiative in 2009 in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, Survival Kit stages a group exhibition every year, always politically minded and accompanied by a range of public events, often sited in nonart venues. Affected by the pandemic yet not postponed (thanks in part to Latvia’s low number of Covid-19 cases at the time), this year’s festival borrowed its title, “Being Safe Is Scary,” from an installation by Turkish artist Banu Cennetoğlu, whose work was not in the show. Organized by the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art and curated by Katia Krupennikova, Survival Kit 11 explored double standards of safety and security, not only in current politics—think of the ways that anxieties about marginalized groups are being weaponized almost everywhere—but also in everyday personal life. In the Baltics, the idea of “safety” is particularly fraught, given the frequent end-of-the-world scenarios in the region’s history: the two world wars, the (“liberating”) Soviet occupation, and the “protection” offered by the local mafia to young independent businesses in the 1990s, not to mention the current fearsome statistics showing Latvia leading Europe in its rate of domestic violence against women.

Sparsely spread across the four floors of the building temporarily housing the Museum of Literature and Music—a former fish cannery built in 1903—the exhibition gathered works by twenty-nine artists and collaborators, mixing adaptations of preexisting pieces with several new commissions. Muhammad Ali produced his pocket-passport-format drawings I am just a number, 2016, during a three-month journey to Sweden after he fled the war in Syria. In his new country, he was registered as the number 20. Pilvi Takala’s single-channel video installation The Stroker, 2019, unfolds as an intervention in an East London coworking office, with the artist impersonating a wellness consultant attempting to give (oftentimes discomfiting) “touching services” to her colleagues. James Bridle’s full-scale silhouette of a contemporary military drone, Drone shadow, 2012–, was executed in temporary road-marking tape on the brick deck of the venue’s inner courtyard. Its playful central placement and baby-like size evoked parallel associations with activities outlined in the festival’s manual for the kids’ playroom.

Nearly as prominent as the artworks were the empty rooms, abandoned corners, and dead-end zones occasionally marked with BEWARE signs in the bright yellow that has defined the festival’s visual identity from the beginning. I couldn’t tell whether these were straightforward hazard warnings or if they were a curatorial gesture reminding viewers of the show’s theme. Evita Vasilijeva’s site-specific walk-through piece Impulse (J or lmp), 2020, which the quarantining artist installed over the course of several nights during her forced solitude, seemed to find a countervailing certainty. Rooted in Vasilijeva’s haunting childhood memories of multiple robberies of her family’s apartment, the work operated in complete darkness. Through a microphone system, the room gave out a humming noise resembling that of a computer-server room. A few steps into the space, sensors placed on a tight vertical-grid structure (spread across the perimeter of the entire room, these preexisting built-in struts once held the museum’s bookshelves) read visitors’ movements to gradually light up sections of the installation in bright green—similar to the signage marking an emergency exit. The state of high alert this piece evoked fed back to the exhibition as a whole, inducing an experience of fear and empathy.