The Baltic Notebooks of Anthony Blunt
Survival Kit, Riga
The bright side of the current crisis in mobility and rather annoying side-effect of the global financial crisis is the very simple fact that it encourages local interaction. For a person living in Tallinn, for example, it often means that travelling by airplane includes a stop-over in Helsinki or Riga, which, then again, is –seeing as you are there already, also a good opportunity to have a look at some exhibitions or to drink a cup of coffee with colleagues. At the same time, the Survival Kit exhibition that was opened in Riga in early September also seemed to be making use of the positive side of the current financial crisis by turning abandoned commercial spaces in the heart of Riga city centre into temporary exhibition spaces – as no one else was using them anyway. Occupying the physical ruins of liberal capitalism, Survival Kit set out to search for forms of agency in the dramatic economic situation that the world, and particularly Latvia, is currently placed in.
Organised by the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art and curated by Solvita Krese, Survival Kit was a one-week program of various exhibitions, performances, lectures and discussions, most of which were staged in vacant commercial spaces in Riga city centre. In the aftermath of the gigantic real estate boom and all-encompassing politics of neo-liberal urban development, this gesture formed a significant part of the curatorial strategy. Taking advantage of the gaps that the current economic recession has produced, Survival Kit set out to create an arena for the non-commercial use of public space, encouraging cultural and social interaction in the very place where it has become virtually impossible as a result of the growth of gentrification, commercialization and privatization. However, as much as the attempt to reclaim urban space, if only for a brief moment, is a sympathetic one, it also deserves some critical interrogation.
First of all, despite the curator’s intention to test out alternative uses of urban space, the takeover of vacant commercial sites remained rather formal. In most cases, the newly inhabited venues were organized into conventional gallery spaces where the capitalist model of consumption wasn’t actually subverted. Moreover, the recent history of gentrification in Riga includes other examples of places where cultural initiatives have been allowed to occupy commercial spaces for the duration of the current period of economic inactivity, such as the case of Andrejsala. From that perspective, the temporary invasion of commercially oriented urban space remained purely symbolic, while it can hardly be stated that the Survival Kit project made an actual attempt to re-appropriate public space on its own terms.
However, in the (Baltic) context, where a resistance to dominant neo-liberal processes has largely been absent, Survival Kit managed to create at least an illusion that this situation might change. The epicentre of that fata morgana was Katrina Neiburga’s project Lotusland, a temporary soup kitchen where various cultural workers prepared a free meal for visitors each evening. The soup kitchen on Blaumana Street was transformed into a crowded meeting point which attracted a broad cross- section of the communtiy – apart from those related to the art scene, numerous random passers-by would drop in for dinner, even though it is questionable if the frequent critique of elitism that has often been applied to such kinds of projects (take Rikrit Tiravanija’s cooking events, for example) can really be suspended. Coinciding with the book launch of the Latvian translation of Relational Aesthetics, the soup kitchen formed one of those micro-utopias that Nicolas Bourriaud has advocated in his writings. There was self-organisation, participation, social interaction, public diversity – all the elements necessary to form the basis for the development of alternative ways for urban living – and even though the dinner would often slowly develop into a small party later that night, spilling out onto the adjacent street, the police, surprisingly enough, never intervened. All in all, Lotusland was one of the few projects realized in the framework of Survival Kit that aimed to create a social space, but as has generally been noted as regards artworks which employ the strategy of relational aesthetics, it was not really engaged with engendering social change.