Curatorial statement

Survival Kit 13 – The Little Bird (Must be Caught) Roaming Free

The time between the theme for Survival Kit 13 was submitted, and these lines being written, is only a few months, but it feels as if a completely new world has emerged since, due to the war Russia launched against Ukraine in February 2022. The theme of this curatorial aims to address the urgencies surrounding freedom of speech and the different authoritarianisms that have sprung up during this last decade in world politics, as they are related to the main considerations of this festival poses in regard to our survival. But how can you address art and survival in the middle of war and destruction? Many will question whether art is necessary or important at this very moment of crisis. The answer as we have seen in so many wars, crises, and turmoil in the past can only be: it absolutely is.

For years, I have been interested in the way power formations have been influencing and transforming geopolitics, national identity, and cultural and anthropological histories and how that is reflected in artistic practice. This last decade, I observed a new form of power appearing in the West and beyond. Inspired by Greek-French political theorist Nicos Poulantzas, I coined the term “narcissistic authoritarian statism” trying to describe the authoritarian figures that have emerged in the last period. Poulantzas in the 1970s, had described a form of governance and type of state he called “authoritarian statism”. He configured the state as a social relation and a variable—not a passive tool or neutral actor, but a “relationship of forces” and pointed out that by the late 1970s, features of the political order previously considered exceptional and temporary (in times of dictatorship, for example) were becoming increasingly normalized. Thus, he termed this process an “authoritarian statism” of the capitalist state, demonstrated through “state control over every sphere of socioeconomic life, combined with a radical decline of institutions of political democracy and with draconian and multiform curtailment of so called ‘formal’ liberties”.

I understand narcissistic authoritarian statism as a neoliberal structure of power that merges old components of the nation-state with contemporary forms of corporate transnationalism, both defined by a narcissistic leadership. These narcissistic figures, are brought to power with the help of multinationals that work with globalized, neoliberal versions of the “nation-state”: a melange of old components of the state with contemporary forms of corporate transnationalism. Today, more than ever before, narcissistic authoritarian statism is an epidemic. We see such political figures across the globe: Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Viktor Orbán, Jair Bolsonaro, Tayip Erdoğan, Vladimir Putin, to name a few. Gone are now the authoritarian regimes of dictatorships, but new authoritarian figures seem to be validated through – often compromised – elections. In the theatre of geopolitics, this type of power has become unbearably loud, so much so that it many times drowns out other political sounds. Accelerating alternative truths, the concept of freedom of speech turning into the spreading of false facts and misinformation, characterize narcissistic authoritarian statism. Repression and denigration of minorities, racist and hate speech are all present in the public realm in the name of being free to utter what you want. However, with Putin’s invasion in Ukraine, it was made crystal clear how narcissistic authoritarian statism’s loudness can go beyond simply silencing others to their annihilation. In the perimeter of this war, and in a country that together with others in the region has been bearing the brunt of its aftermaths, our coping mechanisms for survival become an art.

This exhibition looks at the cultural practices that position themselves against various types of authoritarianisms and repressions. The little bird must be caught takes as its point of departure the cultural imprint of the USSR in Latvia to address contemporary questions pertaining to art and its relationship to democracy. The exhibition title The little bird must be caught, refers directly to the silencing of those that defy authoritarian power and is inspired by the homonymous title of a poem by Latvian poet Ojārs Vācietis, known and loved in the country not only for his literary talent, but also for his courage in discussing the political conditions of his time. His work addressed the oppression of authoritarianism, but also spoke about global social issues from his native Latvia. Written during the late stages of the Soviet Union in the late seventies, the poem warns of the dangers of letting the little bird free to sing, hatch its eggs, and continue being. It is an ironic allegory in favor of free speech and against authoritarianism and repression. The poem reads as an urgent and timely statement in a global reality where free speech and self-determination are threatened by far-right politics, nationalism, and authoritarianism. Ojārs Vācietis, a once celebrated artist of the USSR, disenchanted and disgruntled, criticized the authoritarian regime of his time in a variety of poetic forms, for instance, by using allegories based on animals, of which he was very fond. I had the privilege to get acquainted with his work during my first research visit to Latvia. An English edition of a selection of his poems was gifted to me by the museum dedicated to his work. That small book of poems has accompanied me ever since and marked the beginning of the concept for this year’s Survival Kit. We are extremely grateful to be able to have in the exhibition the works of Valdis Villerušs, that accompanied that very English edition of Vācietis’s poems, as well as clips from seminal documentarist Ansis Epners showcasing Vācietis himself.

We chose for Survival Kit 13 to be held this year in the historical center of Riga, on the very Old Town square where key events in the emancipation of the Latvian nation took place: the backdrop for the marches and demonstrations for what became known as the Singing Revolution (in Latvian: Dziesmotā revolūcija). During the second half of the 1980s as Mikhail Gorbachev introduced glasnost and perestroika, rolling back restrictions to freedom in the Soviet Union, aversion to the Soviet regime had grown into a transnational wave of defiance throughout the Baltic countries.

In 1986, it became known to the Latvian public that the USSR was planning to build another hydroelectric power plant on Latvia's largest river, the Daugava, and a metro in Riga. Both of these projects would have destroyed Latvia's landscape and ecology, as well as its cultural and historical heritage. The public reacted immediately, and the Environmental Protection Club was founded on February 28, 1987, starting protests against the plans. Shortly after the human rights group Helsinki-86 organized people to place flowers at the Freedom Monument (Latvia's symbol of independence, erected in 1935). The period of 1987–1991 was defined by a stunning array of acts of resilience and resistance throughout the region. It was this peaceful four-year-long uprising that would lead to the restoration of independence of the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania from the Soviet Union, marking the end of the Cold War.

This is widely cited as the beginning of the National Awakening and by 1988 the third Latvian National Awakening was brewing. Images that we borrowed from the Museum of Barricades of 1991 during those events and are re-produced here are also part of historically framing the exhibition and provide glimpses of the spirit of the time. In 1989, a widely publicized, performative, peaceful collective act known as The Baltic Way marks the beginning of freedom. On August 23, 1989, two million people held hands to form a human chain over 600 kilometers long linking three capital cities – Tallinn in Estonia, Riga in Latvia, and Vilnius in Lithuania. This peaceful political demonstration became known around the world.

Latvia is furthermore famous for the thousands of "dainas” – traditional folk songs – also inspiring and informing the exhibition, specifically one of its folk dance festivals held during Soviet times. Many mark the Latvian Song and Dance Festival of 1985 as the first event where the demand for Latvia’s independence was made clear, as during the festival, choirs requested and performed the song “Gaismas pils”, associated with national identity, which had been excluded from that year's programme, although previously it had been performed also in Soviet Song festivals.

These historical events in the Latvian Song and Dance Festival of 1985, where music was used as a peaceful way to demonstrate and declare a political desire, and the overall richness of the events in the region’s struggle for independence, inspire this exhibition to look into the role of the sonic, sound, silence, and vocal through artistic practices that discuss subject matters that pertain to democracy, freedom of speech, self-determination, and resilience. They highlight how collective action and music can become peaceful avenues through which to demonstrate and declare self-determination as well as the political desire for independence. All are pivotal examples for this exhibition, inspiring us to look for the role of the sonic in artistic practices that discuss such subject matters.

The contributions in this exhibition – the texts in the catalogue, artworks displayed, or voices that will be heard during the extremely rich public program – create an embodied experience of how sound, music, voice, the sonic, and utterance have played a role throughout human history in defining, marking, contouring, and characterizing under-recognized collective moments of emancipation. Either by reactions against repression, authoritarianism, the relationship of sound to freedom of speech, or the power of the voice and the role of the sonic in resistance, revolution, and dissent all resonate in the works gathered here. The practices presented show the role of art in historical and contemporary modes of resistance and whistleblowing, with an emphasis on singing, music, and the sonic, as well as silence and gestures, as forms of protest.

The exhibition opens with the installation of Sabīne Šnē on the idea of Nature or Mother Earth as a living entity that produces sound caused by the destruction of the environment. Inspired by the annihilation of war, which has been fiercely occupying his mind, artist Krišs Salmanis attempts to capture the sound of exhaustion, despair, and shock that war brings not only to those who experience it but also those who witness it. Through a series of banners and a sculptural and sound installation, Tabita Rezaire discusses the politics and imaginaries of identity versus constructions of power and their relationship to race, sexuality, spirituality, technology, and capital, vis-à-vis the legacies of counter-power offered by cosmologies around the world, where sound is thought to be the fundamental impetus for creation.

Works like those by Susan Philipsz discuss legends and histories and the eternal questions surrounding bonds and affiliations that can be broken over conflict, alluding to conflicts around the world today. Through the use of her own voice, Kapwani Kiwanga discusses questions of identity and its discontents in relationship to kin and migration, as well as the shared legacies in the struggle for social justice brought to the forefront through the sonic and, in particular, jazz music from the US. Erica Scourti discusses alienation and healing through the use of her voice in an exercise that grounded the artist to the new realities of Covid-19 during last year’s lockdowns, whereas Laure Prouvost’s sound recordings of her voice and her sign paintings highlight the multidinous readings of language and words, as well as their infinite power.

Through his film, Raed Yassin brings to the fore the potentials of collectivizing a very personal, almost secretive act – humming. Although it is a human habit usually acted in solitude, the film allows us to imagine it as a collective act, a longing for togetherness; the film was made during the pandemic when gathering was more difficult.

Similarly, Vera Chotzoglou has been secretly recording and filming the sounds of the pandemic, that frozen time, where social groups such as queer and LGBTQI+ activists, were immobilized by lockdowns, unable to find safe spaces to gather. Dora García discusses specific social groups through her ongoing project The Hearing Voices Café, which gathers the power of the vocal in defining, identifying, and forming our sense of self, belonging, and identity.

A large part of the exhibition is dedicated in highlighting the role of the artwork as speaking truth to power, as witness or as whistleblower. Forensic Architecture’s investigations discuss the war between Russia and Ukraine in two examples from 2014 and today, revealing the mechanisms of lies in Putin’s authoritarian statism, while Mykola Ridnyi’s film on the 2014 Crimea crisis is an honest and gut-wrenching revelation of the complexities of war, the resilience as well as confusion of the Ukrainian population of the Donbass. Almagul Menlibayeva addresses the violence perpetrated by the state in her native Kazakhsthan, reminding us how little they have been discussed in public, while Indrė Šerpytytė’s film, which premieres for this exhibition in a new revisited version, is a lyrical ode to the military manifestations of the state, discussing the power of bodies together, masculinity, and traditional ideas on statecraft and nationbuilding.

Moving from the past to the present at a rhythmic tempo, Sammy Baloji’s installation unveils the continuous line of appropriation, violence, and plunder of the African continent by white Europe through extraction and religion alike. Andrius Arutiunian tracks the stories of music underlying in sinister politics and unveils the violent, deceitful, and narcissistic structures of the state through occupation, nation building, and migration. Sanja Iveković’s works – some of them historical pieces produced during the rule of Tito in Yugoslavia – bring to the fore repression, silencing, and state violence, as well as the role of women at the receiving end of such measures. Marina Naprushkina re-appropriates the famous words of Zoe Leonard's 1992 poem on the presidential election in the US, by addressing the repression that defines the politics in today’s Belarus. In a more gregarious and sarcastic spirit celebrating liberation, the seminal Latvian duo Juris Boiko and Hardijs Lediņš bid a satirical farewell to the empire and its repressions with a long-term collective musical action from 1991. Similarly, Ahmet Öğüt uses traditional forms of protest inspired by musical festivals through marching on wooden stilts – a tradition Latvia shares with other places on the globe, such as Bangladesh – to protest the lack of food caused by conflict, repressive governments, and embargos. Both Anton Vidokle and Kristaps Epners discuss a little presented subject in relation to state terror and repression: repressed and forbidden languages: Vidokle alludes to the mythologies of the region of Kurdistan and Epners looks for the histories of cultural and religious practices in Latvia and the history of persecution against a specific splinter of the Orthodox Church. Other works, such as the Rojava Film Commune’s film, which is an epic reference to the histories of the region through music, narrated to highlight kinship and collective desire for self-determination, or Wu Tsang’s nostalgic and delicate portrait of theorist and philosopher Fred Moten, remind us that often it is the sonic, singing and music, that gives us a new common purpose, as it is a form of a shared language.

In her new monumental piece on the condition of whiteness, Candice Breitz discusses the construction of specific modes of addressing, etiquette, and language through cliches and representations of what white can be or how white is perceived in mainstream heteronormative culture, highlighting questions of power and how it is channeled and transmitted through the vocal. Maryam Tafakory, on the other hand, discusses the power and resistance through silent gestures in authoritarian regimes and the use of touch as a form of defiance, as it is represented in Iranian popular culture, in tandem with another Iveković piece from a seminal performance on the powerful presence of silenced bodies. Rufina Bazlova follows this logic by highlighting collective handiwork and stitching as a form of protest but also of salvaging and recuperating spoken testimonies on current arrests and repression in her native Belarus.

Since the global pandemic, with one of its aftermaths being a complete change of our sonic landscapes, many of us have reconsidered the importance of sound in our lives. When the world’s slowing down meant also a new-found, soothing but numbing silence, when we could only depend on sound to keep in contact with our loved ones, we thought of the sonic anew. Simultaneously, these last two years made clear that even in times of a global health crisis, injustices cannot be silenced, as demonstrated by the global movement of Black Lives Matter, which filled the streets, ears, and the minds with songs and slogans about freedom, equality, and social justice; the global manifestations of a revived environmental movement, which made us listen beyond the human-centered perspective of the world; and the recent solidarity marches for the people of Ukraine in anti-war demonstrations throughout the world. At least on the surface, to have the freedom of utterance is a revered principle in liberal democracies. It is indeed a cause to fight for, but we cannot ignore the misuse of freedom of speech by corporate, patriarchal, racist, white supremacist, and nationalist powers. And that begs the question, freedom of speech, yes, but for whom? This is a question that this exhibition hopes to untangle by positioning these works of art as collective, emancipatory, and liberating sonic examples that stand against the exclusionary notion of freedom of speech propagated by narcissistic authoritarian statism.

This makes the importance of our sonic landscapes ever so clear, in how they open portals to the acoustic mappings of histories and shared futures – testimonies of resistance, empowerment, and liberation, predictions and premonitions or simply recordings of repressive and abusive mechanisms of power. As theorist Hypatia Vourloumis writes in her text for this catalogue, “the sonic interrupts and disrupts”: dominant narratives, injustices, silences, and repressions. As people concerned with the way society functions, as lovers of a plurality of voices and a multitude of sounds, we have to ask: what space do you or I allow for the sonic to disrupt and interrupt? And are we willing to really listen to one another? The exhibition space lends itself to such considerations, but we hope that this score of the sonic will be carried out of this building, spilling out in the public sphere and echoing in the streets of Riga and beyond. The little bird must roam free.

The Curator of Survival Kit 13

iLiana Fokianaki

Read more