The Baltic Notebooks of Anthony Blunt
Survival Kit, Riga
Page 2 of 2
Even though the problems related to public space and urban change were addressed more through implication than they were through direct content, Survival Kit exhibited two remarkable projects which examined the intersection that exists between difference and precarious living conditions in neo-liberal cities. The concept of a survival kit was maybe most directly epitomized by Boris Mitic’s documentary Pretty Dyana, which described the life of the Roma in Belgrade, who make a living by transforming Citroёn Dyana cars into recycling vehicles with which they collect cardboard, bottles and scrap metal. These DIY vehicles are important tools that belong to an informal economy and form the main survival strategy for the protagonists of the film who are socially, economically and physically relegated to the margins of the city (and society). But as is evident from the film, the re-built Dyana cars are also objects of affection and pride which make their owners visible within the city space, even though this visibility may also expose them to police repressions and racism. The question of how difference is performed in public space also forms the focus of Alexander Vaindorf’s three-channel video installation Detour. One Particular Sunday. Portraying Ukrainian migrant workers in Rome, Vaindorf underlines the fact that the neo-liberal economy is largely based on precarious service jobs that in Europe are increasingly performed by (undocumented) migrants who can be exploited without limits because of their non-legal status. From this perspective, it is revealing that the numerous clandestine activities documented by the women interviewed in the video (such as shoplifting, informal economies, sex-work) are often perceived as almost liberatory in comparison to the low-paid housekeeping jobs that can keep them incarcerated in Italian homes for 6 days of the week. The primary focus of the video, however, is on alternative uses of public space. Similar to the Philippine domestica’s working in Hong Kong, the Ukrainian house-workers depicted in the film often gather in public spaces on Sundays and holidays, their only days off. Having no personal space of their own, they take over particular sites such as squares and staircases in front of office buildings in Hong Kong, or public parks in the case of Rome, and engage in activities such as potlatch meals, hair dressing, chatting, dancing, etc.
A further artwork addressing the notion of precarious work in relation to the experience of migration, 3 Images of Life and Time by Minna Hint, approaches the problem from the perspective of the artist. One of the episodes in 3 Images features a self-portrait of the author which was filmed when she was working as a dishwasher and cleaner in London. As Minna Hint explains in the video, it is not just existential necessity that motivates her choice to become an economic migrant; it is a strategy which also guarantees her survival specifically as an artist. By confining herself to a temporary regime of dull routine, she hopes to gain an equally long period of artistic freedom in exchange. The search for ways to survive as an artist formed a recurring motif in the exhibition at large, including experiments such as a second-hand fashion shop opened by the design group Zafte, and a temporary bookshop curated by Egija Inzule and Maja Wismer, which engendered discussions about the possibilities of small-scale publishing.
Although framed by global realities, in its essence, Survival Kit was a very local exhibition, and should be appreciated as such, especially considering the general reluctance to deal with socio-political issues that is characteristic to the contemporary art scene in Latvia in general. Yet, as much as the body of new works produced specifically in the framework of Survival Kit was impressive, it also formed the most problematic part of the project, since the majority of artists simply chose to ignore the challenge to engage with the problems proposed by the curatorial team. Therefore, the central question – what can an artist do in a situation like this? – remained largely unanswered. Nevertheless, the difficulty of that question found some response in a number of works which problematized the limits of artistic means in the context of current socioeconomic realities. Combining wry humour with a sharp social commentary, the installation Lesson No 13 by Krišs Zilgalvis made reference to the mass protests prompted by the economic crisis that took place in Riga on January 13; Ivars Grāvlejs offered an ironic “anarchist” solution by exhibiting the letter he sent to the police explaining why he had shoplifted three potatoes and a piece of cheese (and been caught); Aigars Bikse challenged the prevalent attitude of anti-communism in his installation Idealist. A Two-Minute Cycle of Historical Justice, in which an inflatable figure of Lenin was placed in front of a government building (the former site of an actual Lenin monument). It is, of course, easy to assume that it is this resentment against communism, which is so characteristic of most post-socialist countries, which should be held responsible for the absence of idealism within the Survival Kit exhibition. But even though the question regarding the political agency of the artist remains a complicated one, the possibilities for collective action deserve to be considered.