Contemporary Art Festival Survival Kit

Solvita Krese. 2012
Photo from the private archive of Solvita Krese
Līga Marcinkeviča: As the curator, could you please describe the idea behind Survival Kit. How has it developed over the four previous festivals, and how is it likely to transform in the future?

Solvita Krese:
One has to reflect over a bit of history then. The Survival Kit idea was born in 2008 – at a time when Latvia hit an economic crisis. Everyone was quite confused, and a “revision-of-values” type situation developed. This was most visibly illustrated in the city centre by a succession of empty spaces in areas which quite recently had been the main shopping zone, and we thought we had to react to this in some way. This also corresponded with the particular character of the art centre (CAC – Contemporary Art Centre – L. M.), because one of the areas of our activity, parallel to the research process, is – to react to current events and to look at how art can comment on, or investigate, the things going on around us. In the first Survival Kit, artists created their works in empty shop premises. We invited them to create works with minimal resources, using a DIY (Do It Yourself) strategy, as well as various collaborative practices. That’s how the first Survival Kit came into being, and included exhibition format works, process works and creative laboratories.

The idea that it could be a festival only came about afterwards, as the event received a lot of support and many people – both professionals as well as people with no connection with art – said that it had been a positive impulse, and that it would be worth continuing.

L.M.: So the first Survival Kit came into being as a critique of consumerism, showing that art and artists were able to react the most promptly, filling the gaps that had appeared?

Even without criticising consumerism, by offering instead alternative strategies for the situation in which we found ourselves at the time and confirming that artists are like a vanguard or an ideological avant-garde, unafraid of presenting extraordinary ideas, which a pragmatic and rationally thinking person may not be capable of. It was an event directed at being an inspiration and a search for alternative strategies – how to survive in a situation where you feel that the ground is falling away from under your feet. In exceptional, critical situations, artists have good ideas on how to deal with them. Somehow they manage to do this with a greater charm or elegance.

L.M.: Or they’re aware of the fact that in order to live, there’s no other option but to live! But what remains in your memory as the most valuable thing from the first Survival Kit?

It seems to me that the first Survival Kit developed as a spontaneous but at the same time a well thought out idea. The fact that it developed into a festival, to my mind, proves that it was the appropriate format. Strategically the festival also coincided with the development of the Rīga 2014 programme, and Survival Kit will continue as a festival until 2014, continuing to have the same name.

We will try to research how this “survival kit” is changing, as the problems that existed in 2010 obviously aren’t current any more for us today, but there’s a range of other things which we find important when thinking about how we can live harmoniously in the present-day world. The choice of sites for festival events has purposely been different each time, so that we can see how the particular site in the city gets transformed.

L.M.: It’s like a kind of social and anthropological research. Would you call Survival Kit a social project?

Not really, but it is, let’s say, a sort of social mapping. We’re not trying to solve any social problems with Survival Kit, rather we are commenting on the process. Well, yes, as well as offering ideas through the creative practices of artists. Of course, you can see a social component there, but I don’t think that this is the primary thing, rather a step in the direction of social activism.

L.M.: Where do you yourself find a point of connection with the survival theme? Why do you find it interesting? Why does the “survival” idea seem relevant for you as a curator? The Survival Kit concept of “survival strategies in today’s world” is quite dramatic.

The idea of survival is interesting. For example, this year – downshifting. Two opposing views clash here. Firstly, whether downshifting isn’t just a new trendy lifestyle feature dreamed up in the Western world, a sort of lifestyle magazine theme.

L.M.: I think that it’s currently mainstream.

Yes! But the second thing – placing it in juxtaposition with our reality. A lot of people are asking why we have to talk about some kind of downshifting, since we’ve been living in a kind of downshifting for ages, that we cannot shift any further.

L.M.: But maybe we should be talking here of the idea and problem of “awareness”, instead of trying “not to exist” or “not live” during a period of crisis. Nobody has banned the possibility of communicating with nature, or those close to you, or self-education and doing things that provide pleasure, using the resources that are available. Of course, on the condition that you haven’t been denied freedom or the possibility of choice. Isn’t the “survival” idea an artificially created construct developed by the media or “Western agents”?

Well, as I previously outlined, the “survival” idea historically developed as a response to a crisis situation, and we continue to try to go on, perhaps not back to where we were, but to search for new ideas and truly reassess our previously-held values. And that survival, from the way I feel, I’d say is an awareness of the “here and now”, the fact that you register your feelings. In 2008 there was confusion, in 2009 the first Survival Kit took place, but in 2008 we worked on it and thought about it. And it was a time when there was overwhelming panic, when all financial flows had decreased and you had to devise a way of cobbling something together with limited resources, so that you wouldn’t lose the standard of living to which you were accustomed. Today it’s already completely different. And what is it, what’s that “here and now”?

Usually the Survival Kit themes develop in regular discussions with people whose opinion is important to me. In thinking about the festival that took place this year, I tried to test what the theme really was that we were talking about, and at that time it seemed to me that there was some kind of new wave of being overworked, that the “rat race” had speeded up again, but people have changed – they no longer think that it’s great and that that’s a normal situation. The view has become more popular that maybe it’s worth taking a break and really thinking about things which are important to you, maybe not choosing a career and prosperity as the greatest goal, but to return to the basics, or the things which are important to you personally. And this year the thread of themes in the media space, as well as what I personally felt as important, was downshifting.

L.M.: So, as a curator, you worked not according to any specific demand from society, but reacting to the mood of society.

Yes, or shall we say – to what was in the air, or the litmus paper of society’s current mood.

L.M.: The first Survival Kit provided a sort of positive charge, offering new strategies and hope that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, whereas this is like a step back with the idea – “I hear you”. I’d like to know how you’ll be developing Survival Kit in the future. Don’t you see a risk in deciding on a main theme, which in this case is “survival in today’s world”, and stretching the event over a number of years? Isn’t there a risk that the form and content might begin to stagnate?

That’s why the last Survival Kit will take place in 2014. After that we will continue the tradition of big events, which will have already gained recognition and found a place on the world map, but we’ll continue it in a different form. And it’s clear that Survival Kit in 2014 will be more of an event with futuristic visions and, I hope, the most positive... No, I can’t tell you too much about what will take place in 2014.

L.M.: Forgive me, my comment won’t be about Survival Kit. I am excited by the recently heard rhetoric and mood of representatives of various cultural institutions – everybody is talking about 2014, BUT nobody is talking ANY MORE about the fact that there’ll also be a 2013, as we are currently only in 2012. Couldn’t there be a kind of apocalyptic scenario, that the waiting for THIS, something great in 2014, isn’t fulfilled, because it could transpire that some artist or institution unfortunately hasn’t survived in 2013 or is disappointed in what we call “being active on the art scene”, and may have left the country. Well, what else is current for us?

Well, there’s still the end of the world, but it looks like it’s been cancelled.

L.M.: However, let’s try to clarify how we’re all going to get through the next year – 2013. Well, with a kind of “brighten up” survival kit.

I really can’t tell you now what we’ll be doing, as we are currently in that phase when we talk, talk and talk...

L.M.: Right, but let’s return again to the previous festivals. Which are the most important components that best describe your idea? For example, how significant is the exhibition, and what significance do you attach to the educational programmes? Why have you chosen a broken up festival structure?

I’m among those people in the arts who feel that art requires comment. I am interested in art that speaks out and communicates. It’s good if the art process is placed in a discursive environment and there’s a range of supplementary events around it that as if explain and help you to understand what was meant, or even the complete opposite – completely confuse you. The main thing is the exhibition, but the rest of the events are like footnotes or explanations which add to the exhibition and provide some sort of clarity as to why we are doing things, for example, the discussion about downshifting, or other events.

L.M.: Which work or works of art at this year’s festival, in your opinion, most accurately or most effectively revealed your idea to the viewer?

I can’t name just the one work, it’s more that they are conglomerations of various works with communication between them.

L.M.: When preparing a project, are you thinking of the audience? Is your imagined and real exhibition visitor two different audiences? And how has the audience changed over these last four years?

In preparing an exhibition, I think about the sector of the audience that I know. I assume that this viewer has been following things and is informed about how we work, and what we’ve done. But I must admit that the audience has changed drastically, as at the opening, whilst going through the halls, I understood that there were few people that I knew among those who had come. The audience is continually widening. The “White Nights” events have helped a lot. Very many young people, and also a great many who have no connection with the artistic scene. They are the ones who have been attracted by issues covered by the “survival kit” theme.

L.M.: In thinking about and shaping the concept for the next event, does this new and unknown viewer scare you? Or will you continue to develop the event for the “well acquainted friend”?

I really like the fact that a new audience is developing and that the spectrum of the audience is broadening. The thing that scares me is that I might not know how to address this sector of the audience.

L.M.: But I must say that the way the new viewer perceives the format of this contemporary art festival exhibition is also of significance. Couldn’t the endless renovation aesthetic create, putting it mildly, a strange impression about contemporary art?

The Cēsis Art Festival position on music and visual art, as well as the other branches of art which are represented at their event, is: to achieve excellence, finished and proven works. We, on the other hand, strive to position ourselves as a laboratory. That’s why there is this short time-limit, this “survival kit” as an overarching theme, and all of this in communication makes one think of a laboratory type event, in which you may encounter excellence as well as complete experiments, and that’s the way it usually is. Of course, the venues as well. Up till now, they’ve always been post-industrial spaces which we quickly adapted to the needs of an exhibition. We’ll do that until 2014, reacting to where and what these empty spaces in the city are like, charting how the city is developing and changing. To discover niches crying out for some clarifying commentary to be added. For example, the Tobacco Factory which has been discussed as being a creative industry neighbourhood for more than a year now, but has somehow got a little bogged down. It seems that it needs a bit of testing as to whether it is a good place for such activities.

And returning to the viewer – even viewers who are not associated with the art world are becoming more experienced with us. We don’t have so many professional exhibition spaces and museums.

L.M.: That’s exactly what scares me, because Latvia’s cultural space has this imbalance of values and criteria. If or when a museum eventuates, then it will get even harder to get the viewer accustomed to visiting it. It’s hard to get them used to going to a factory, but it’ll be even harder to get them used to going to a museum, because museums also have an entry fee, and it’s doubtful whether educational programmes and discussions in a liberal atmosphere will save this.

Another question. How does financing from European funds influence the idea and contents of Survival Kit?

We had financing from European funds for the third Survival Kit. We haven’t had it for the others. It’s hard to tell. You mean this in a sort of inferential sense?

L.M.: Yes, because the structure for all the events is very similar – exhibition, conference, educational programme, and maybe some kind of social activity as well.

We didn’t have a conference. But next year we were just thinking about putting the educational programmes into a two day symposium. However, I cannot agree, as every exhibition held, even in the small CAC Office gallery, has some accompanying educational event. At least one. So I wouldn’t say that this has any connection with European funds. It’s a global trend, for instance, last week I was in Helsinki for the Art and Mediation conference, while tomorrow I’m flying to Budapest, where I’ll be speaking about alternative educational forms or art mediation (communication, education and explanation). Undeniably, currently there are more conferences about mediation than about art itself. That’s the way it is. It’s a global trend, but does this have any connection with European funds? It’s hard to tell. More likely it’s a sign of the times.

Material prepared by Līga Marcinkeviča and Elīna Dūce
Translator into English: Uldis Brūns
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