Krišs Salmanis, Wake Me Up When It’s Over, 2022, mixed media, dimensions variable. From Survival Kit 13. Photo: Ēriks Božis.

Krišs Salmanis, Wake Me Up When It’s Over, 2022, mixed media, dimensions variable. From Survival Kit 13. Photo: Ēriks Božis.

Survival Kit 13

Riga Stock Exchange Bank Building

“The Little Bird Must be Caught,” this year’s Survival Kit 13 festival, put a spotlight on the urgent question of how neoliberal politics birth new authoritarian forms. Survival Kit is an ambitious, international-facing annual exhibition staged by the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art. This year, the invited curator, iLiana Fokianaki, framed the show with the term “authoritarian statism,” borrowed from Greek-French political theorist Nicos Poulantzas. Planned in the shadow of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the exhibition faced the challenge of talking about the relationship between art and politics—a long-standing focus of Fokianaki’s curatorial practice. Taking a poetic approach, she gently guided the viewer through some forty-four works by thirty-two artists addressing repression and censorship as well as resistance and whistleblowing. Voices—singing or speaking—and other sounds provided the show’s constant undercurrent, pointing to the presence and strength of the language of noise and the noise of language. Latvian culture is deeply instilled with the power of song, and the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s was ushered in here by sound and music. Popular music played a huge role at that time, as did the annual Latvian Song and Dance Festival. Artists were at the forefront, too; for example, members of the group Nebijušu Sajūtu Restaurācijas Darbnīca (Workshop for the Restoration of Unfelt Feelings), which also participated in this exhibition.

The title “The Little Bird Must be Caught” came from the work of Latvian poet Ojārs Vācietis (1933–1983), who lived and worked in the Soviet Union. Vācietis’s words underline the importance of those freedoms that most of us in the Western world used to take for granted, yet have recently come to see as very fragile. At the entrance to the exhibition, sited in a former Bourse Bank building in the Old Town of Riga, Krišs Salmanis’s Wake Me Up When It’s Over, 2022, featured a gently undulating veil moving in slow waves on the floor. The motor that moves it creates a repetitive mechanical sound that contrasts with the fragile visual presence of the textile. This work set the mood for the whole show, with its antinomies of texture and atmosphere. Perhaps this was the point: The world cannot be seen from a shared vantage point anymore. And yet art still has its ability to address complicated matters despite the loss of common ground. 

Andrius Arutiunian’s sound installation Arizona Club, 2022, told the story of forty children, orphaned by the Armenian Genocide, who formed a marching band, Arba Lijoch, and were adopted in 1924 by the future emperor of Ethiopia, Ras Tafari, later known as Haile Selassie I. The soft, touching sound of Ethio-jazz, which evolved out of the Armenian influence on Ethiopian music, filled the space. Presented with three remolded brass instruments on the floor, Arutiunian’s sound piece provided a space beyond visual language, even beyond origin and identity—a space for imagination.

A horizontal line of black-and-white photographs collected from various local archives ran through the whole exhibition as a reminder of the national awakening in Latvia in the late 1980s and early ’90s. They showed crowds in Riga’s Old Town and the barricades that then filled the city. These pictures seemed particularly symbolic today, in the context of the nearby war. One might speak of an intentional message of nationalism, but I’d like to recall political scientist Benedict Anderson’s assertion that nationalism has a positive side: uniting communities, enabling mutual support when it’s needed. Perhaps this idea is of more relevance right now than ever.