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Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art

Being Safe is Scary


Being Safe is Scary takes its title from a site-specific piece created in 2017 at the Fridericianum Museum in Kassel, Germany, by artist Banu Cennetoğlu for documenta 14. By both repositioning original letters and adding newly cast copies, Cennetoğlu altered the name on the building’s facade so that it read ‘BEINGSAFEISSCARY’. The phrase comes from graffiti on a wall of the National Technical University of Athens, noticed by Cennetoğlu around the time of the signing of the EU-Turkey refugee deal in March 2016. Violating international law on refugee protection, the contract forced every irregular entrant to Greece to be handed over to Turkey, causing reception facilities and temporary camps on the Greek islands to be turned into detention centres. 

By taking this heavily charged title, Survival Kit 11 connects itself to the contemporary discourse on security and political violence. The notion of safety is charged with many different and contradictory political, social, economic, and psychological meanings. The idea of safety is typically associated with feelings of fear, anxiety, and insecurity, and these tend to be explained and justified by some imminent danger, enemy or threat. Safety and security are central to today’s political imagination. They are used to provide rationales for wars, nationalist agendas, racism, inequality, and other reactionary attitudes and policies.

Paradoxically, it is usually the most precarious and marginalized members of society that are classified as a threat. Those stigmatised due to their sexual identity, race, class, religion, or gender are viewed as threatening and dangerous elements. The figure of the migrant, utilized in populist discourse and reactionary movements, is one of the key phobic objects of our time. Refugees fleeing war zones are seen as barbarian invaders. Deteriorating economic conditions and competitive pressures feed this anxiety. In addition, people who organize protests and resistance against the status quo are often viewed as security threats to the state. If these are the “threat,” the question that must be asked is, who is the endangered subject that needs to be protected? And what are the other (the real) threats and dangers that are covered over and pacified by this construction of social dangers?

The politics of safety has many destabilizing and noxious effects: it legitimizes and normalizes extensive surveillance and self-surveillance, aggression, hatred, and insularity. Over the past twenty years surveillance has steadily infiltrated everyday life through, for example, the ubiquitous use of the Internet, social networks, and health tracking devices, as well as CCTV cameras in cities and new facial recognition technology. technology. One of the major aspects of the safety question, especially in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008, and in the current crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemics concerns economic anxiety.. The politics of fear feeds upon precarity. Whole systems of domination are built upon the fierce illusion of protection, encouraging brutal competition and enforcing both financial and moral indebtedness.

 

Being Safe is Scary looks at the meaning of safety from an insurgent angle. It attempts to critically examine the blockages that inhibit individual and social capacities, posing the question: how much violence is embedded into the discourse of safety? The exhibition aims to explore how it might be possible to transform the suppositions that undergird this discourse, reconnecting safety to practices of love, intimacy, sharing, commonality, mutual support, attention, care for each other and for the environment, and social alliances.


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Safety as Care


I’m writing this introduction in the knowledge that the world as I knew it no longer exists. As Survival Kit 11 opens, I imagine our guests arriving at the venue with good amounts of sanitising liquid in their bags, and face masks in their pockets or covering their faces. I imagine them carefully keeping two metres distance from each other and eagerly following the guidelines laid out by our hosts.

On our side, we have applied all possible measures to make our visitors feel safe. We have set a maximum number of visitors per building and per square metre; we are not using headphones for the video works, so that indirect contact with others can be avoided; and we have carefully prepared enough handouts so that each visitor can have a personal copy. We cancelled the opening party and completely rebuilt our discursive and performance programmes, redirecting them towards the local context and the local communities that are now in need of support. We accepted the fact that participating artists might not be able to travel to Riga to install their works or see the fruits of their labour, and similarly that guests might not be able to come from abroad to see the show. According to the rules of the times, we have done our best to provide a basic level of safety for those who are still able to visit Survival Kit 11. However, the question persists: what does it mean to be safe? 


The ideas behind this show had been evolving in my mind for some eight years, inspired by daily experiences, encounters, art works, books, news and personal stories, before they were destined to come together in an exhibition in Riga under the title Being Safe is Scary. I finalised the conceptual framework over the end of 2019 and at the very beginning of 2020, when COVID-19 had not yet entered my everyday existence. The list of artists for this exhibition was finalised just days before borders around the world were closed. 

Inspired by reflections on the problematics of safety as we knew it before the recent pandemic, Survival Kit 11: Being Safe is Scary touches upon issues that have become only more worthy of consideration during the current crisis. The questions it poses are more important than ever: What are the bases of safety? Why is safety sometimes scary? Why is it that the implementation of safety measures sometimes evokes feelings of pressure, anxiety, fear, insecurity, uncertainty?

Reports and statistics on the physical, social, economic and political impacts of the pandemic and the measures it has necessitated around the world have laid bare how one’s citizenship, age, class, gender, and medical history affect one’s life. The public health strategies implemented in various nation states have differed wildly and have not always protected the most vulnerable members of society. The crisis has provided an excuse for surveillance and tracking technologies to be developed and implemented in a rush, in a panic, without allowing for sensible consideration of or reflection on the potential futures that will be dictated by their use.

The advice to “stay at home” only takes into consideration those who have a home, and even one’s home is not by definition a safe place for everyone. Many women and children have been forced to stay in situations of increasing domestic violence and abuse. Mental illness has accelerated as many have lost family members and friends, as well as jobs, income, hobbies, routines, certainty for the future—the ground under their feet. Those who have remained employed might have been sentenced to negotiating family and work pressures or forced into long hours of exhausting and mentally draining online life. Children have been pushed into online education and deprived of social contact. Many have missed out on the touch and hugs of a caring presence (and many of these are those most in need due to their health or age). Many people with health issues unrelated to the pandemic have not received timely treatment due to the overloading of medical personnel and hospital capacities. Thousands of refugees, including children, remain indefinitely detained at the borders of the European Union. 

Meanwhile, the system of global capital cannot wait. It relies on constant economic activity and ever-accelerating consumption. Independent entrepreneurs and small businesses felt the economic consequences first. In most Western European countries, these sectors have received scarce financial support, while in the rest of the world they have been brought to the brink of misery. The service industry has almost gone bankrupt and has had no choice but to re-open as soon as possible. The cultural sector has panicked, as many museums and venues are dependent on visitor numbers and ticket sales: programmes have been reduced, personnel fired, numerous online activities created. Even sports classes have gone digital. 

Shopping malls have reopened their doors to find long lines of passionate consumers in front of them. Public and international transport and tourism have had no choice but to go on, operating as normally as possible for the summer season. These are just few examples, but they show that in times of crisis capital doesn’t believe in tears. There was no time for reflection, for making careful choices for the future. 

In the last half a year, on a daily basis, each of us has been ultimately aware of our presence in space and our spatial relations with each another. The meaning of a practice of care has changed from “being with” to “supporting from afar”. Coming together, being together, breathing together, holding each other, visiting friends and family: none of this is necessarily safe anymore. 

The future of global capitalism is not bright: it has arrived brutally and unexpectedly, taking the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world. To meet it with courage, what we need now is not to paper over the cracks, which are only becoming wider with time. What we need are systematic structural changes and for our dominant modes of politics, the bases of economy, and our priorities to be rethought in the interests of evenly distributed social support and security. The situation has changed and there is no return, thus the issues raised in the current exhibition persist for conscious redefinitions.



I would like to thank Banu Cennetoğlu for her kind permission to appropriate her work and embody my inspiration in it for the title of this show. I’m grateful to the director and founder of the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art, Solvita Krese, and the Centre’s curator, Inga Lāce, for inviting me to curate Survival Kit 11 and for their kind support as curatorial advisers and as the artistic minds behind the public programme of the festival. 


I would further like to thank the all the artists and other participants in Survival Kit 11; the production team, Margarita Ogolceva and Agnese Pundina; PR manager Paula Jansone, the technical, editorial, and graphic design teams for their brilliance. I would also like to thank all of the volunteers, hosts and cleaning personnel for their kind help and care.