Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More
1st Riga Biennial of Contemporary Art (RIBOCA1)
02.06. – 28.10.2018
Chief curator: Katerina Gregos
Associate curator: Solvej Ovesen
Assistant curator: Ioli Tzanetaki
Curators of Public Programme: Kolektīvs - Zane Zajančkauska
& Ilze Kalnbērziņa Praz
ASI* (The Agency of Singular Investigations) | Alexis Blake | Alexis Destoop | Adrián Villar Rojas |Andrejs Strokins* | Andris Eglītis* | Annaïk-Lou Pitteloud | Anne Duk Hee Jordan | Ariane Loze* | Aslan Gaisumov | Augustas Serapinas* | Clemens von Wedemeyer* | Diana Lelonek | Diāna Tamane* | Emilija Škarnulytė | Erik Kessels* | Ēriks Apaļais | Eve Kiiler | Femke Herregraven* | Fernando Sánchez Castillo | Han Hoogerbrugge | Hannah Anbert* | Hans Rosenström* | Henrike Naumann* | IC-98 | Ieva Balode | Ieva Epnere* | Indrė Šerpytytė* | Ivar Veermäe | Jacob Kirkegaard | James Beckett | Jani Ruscica | Johanna Gustafsson-Fürst | Johannes Heldén & Håkan Jonson | Jonas Mekas | Julian Charrière | Julian Rosefeldt | Julijonas Urbonas | Karel Koplimets* | Katarzyna Przezwańska | Katrīna Neiburga | Kerstin Hamilton* | Kristaps Epners* | Kustaa Saksi | Liina Siib* | Lynn Hershman Leeson | Maarten Vanden Eynde* | Marco Montiel-Soto | Marge Monko* | Marina Pinsky* | Marisa Benjamim | Mark Dion* | Maryam Jafri | Melanie Bonajo | Michael Landy* | Michael Sailstorfer* | Minna Rainio & Mark Roberts | Nabil Boutros | Nedko Solakov* | Nicolas Kozakis & Raoul Vaneigem | Nikos Navridis* | Oswaldo Maciá* | Orbita | Paulis Liepa | Petra Bauer & Rebecka Katz-Thor* | Robert Kuśmirowski* | Sandra Kosorotova* | Sasha Huber & Petri Saarikko* | Saskia Holmkvist* | Sissel Tolaas* | Sputnik photos* | Stelios Faitakis* | Stine-Marie Jacobsen* | Sven Johne | Taus Makhacheva* | Teemu Korpela* | Tilman Wendland* | Tobias Zielony* | Trevor Paglen | Valio Tchenkov* | Vladimir Svetlov | Viron Erol Vert* | Jevgeni Zolotko* | Žilvinas Landzbergas*
*An asterisk denotes a new commission
The 1st Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (RIBOCA1), with the title Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, featured 104 artists and took place in 7 venues around the city of Riga and 1 venue in Jurmala from 2 June until 28 October 2018.
During the biennial 141 works - including 49 new commissions - were shown in seven different venues across Riga and one in Jurmala. There were also 10 public sculptures and site-specific interventions in various locations around the city. Many of the participating artists presented more than one work, appearing in several of the venues, thus providing an opportunity for visitors to gain a more in-depth insight into their practice.
Change is a constant and imperceptible process. Nothing remains the same and yet it often feels as if things are fixed, solid certainties. Change operates in strange ways. "Ta panta rhei" (everything flows), the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus pointed out, meaning that: everything is constantly changing, from the smallest organic particle to the whole universe. According to him, every seemingly stable object is ultimately a figment of one’s imagination; only change itself is real, being constant and in eternal flux, like the continuous flow of the river, which always renews itself and only appears to remain the same over time. Until recently – and excluding those rarer radical moments of personal, social or political transformation – change has appeared to creep up on us slowly. But then it sometimes happens that one day we ‘wake up’ and experience a sudden break in consciousness. It abruptly dawns on us that our world has changed beyond recognition. We feel as if we have been thrust into the future, unwittingly. In recent years, and particularly since the advent of the technological revolution, it seems that even the Heraclitan constant flow of things has turned into a torrent. Our world seems to be ever accelerating. As James Gleick argues in Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything: “We have reached the epoch of the nanosecond. This is the heyday of speed”. The 1st Riga Biennial will reflect on the phenomenon of change – how it is anticipated, experienced, grasped, assimilated and dealt with at this time of accelerated transitions and the increasing speeding up of our lives.
The title, Everything Was Forever, Until it Was No More, is borrowed from Alexei Yurchak’s book of the same name. Yurchak discusses the collapse of the Soviet Union and one particular characteristic that defined it: the sense that although the Soviet system was felt to be permanent and immutable, its demise was at the same time perceived as completely natural. The shock of being thrust into a new order came only later. The title of his book suggests the slippery nature of change, that what may seem eternal can suddenly come to an end. He calls this a case of ‘fast-forwarded history’. The title of Yurchak’s book resonates across the entire post-Soviet sphere, the Baltic States included, but it can also be seen as a potent metaphor for our own era. Unlike the book, the Biennial does not focus on Post-Soviet change (which has been the subject of many exhibitions post-1989), but will instead explore the multiple dimensions of change that we experience in the present day. Although the post-Soviet history of the Baltic States will not be ignored, it forms only a part of this broader narrative whole.
Globally, we seem to be at a watershed, propelled forward at great speed by technological change. New practices of daily life seem to occur in a flash - like the rapid consolidation of the internet and smartphones in our lives, for example - and radical ideas quickly become mainstream. More and more of us, old and young, are struggling to keep up with the incessant, overwhelming flow of information and increasing acceleration of our lives and work – though we might not admit it for fear of being left behind.
Facilitated by technology, these changes seem natural at first. They are introduced as novelties, but quickly become necessities in the capitalist sense and their effects are both too profound and too fast for us to really grasp or adapt to without great stress and anxiety. We tend to forget that we are still animals, and that although we are better equipped than most species for dealing with change we too struggle to adapt. The condition of constant acceleration has become normalised in most areas of life, and differs from place to place, city to city and country to country, and it is perhaps because of this normalization that few of us seem able to question or resist it. In our hubris we tend to forget that evolution, which allows for adaptation to new conditions, has been an extremely slow process. Consider this simple timeline: life on Earth appeared 4 billion years ago; homo sapiens appeared 70,000 years ago (new research suggests 300,000 years) and life has continued to evolve on the planet at a very slow pace until the financial and agricultural revolution at the beginning of the 1600s. Only since the industrial revolution did things start changing dramatically as humanity was propelled by the steam age into modernity. The technological revolution that began with the industrial revolution and has culminated in the digital revolution is – like the whole history of Homo sapiens – but a flash of lighting in the long night sky of humanity.
The last 700 years have also seen important changes in the apprehension of time, as E.P. Thomson described in his seminal book Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism. Thomson has had a huge impact on our modern understanding of time as something that should always be put to use, of time-discipline and of time-as-currency (‘time is money’). This has led to the loosening of the demarcation between work and life. Just as the appearance of the watch regulated the new rhythms of industrial life and modernity – as a newfound ‘need’ which capitalism harnessed to propel its advance – so the smartphone and other devices are turning human beings increasingly into nodes in a network of capitalist production and are engineering a new human nature.
The pace of acceleration since the industrial revolution seems exponential. In less than 300 years we have had to adapt to habitats, practices and amenities that bear no resemblance to those which our ancestors experienced for thousands of years. During this period, the world has been dominated by humanism – not to mention homo-centrism. In years to come, natural selection may cede to artificial intelligence and scientific intervention. The seeming mastery of man over the planet in the age of the so-called ‘Anthropocene’ means that the world is likely to change beyond recognition during this century. As Jan Zalasiewicz et al have stated in ‘The New World of the Anthropocene’: “The Anthropocene represents a new phase in the history of the Earth, when natural forces and human forces became intertwined, so that the fate of one determines the fate of the other. Geologically, this is a remarkable episode in the history of the planet.”
The world we now know and understand may no longer exist in the near future. Although the speed of change fuelled by science and technology is remarkable, it often passes unnoticed, as the most profound structural changes happen almost imperceptibly, and quickly become the norm. We have entered a period of instability when many of our cherished assumptions and certainties are being thrown in the air. Every day, expectations and predictions – political and otherwise – are turned on their heads.
Geopolitically, the Riga Biennial could be thought of in terms of a regional equation of Baltic–Nordic–Post-Soviet dynamics, which are worth exploring further. If one draws a line vertically through Latvia, one would be looking at a map where the new tensions of the Eurasian East–West divide are being played out, with Russia acting as a geopolitical game-changer at the beginning of the second post-Soviet generation. The historical entanglements and conflicts between Latvia and Sweden, Russia, Poland and Germany also cannot be ignored. The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in what has been called a ‘new regional geography’, especially in the Baltics and this region has become the locus of political and economic restructuring, identity renegotiation, and global reintegration. But these remain fragile and contested geographies nonetheless.
The existential and identity crisis that Europe is currently facing, and the new geopolitical realities at its Eastern borders, are a testimony to the fact that the consolidation of the ‘post-historical world’ of liberal democracies is not a given, and that this postwar phenomenon is actually an exception. This is particularly apparent if one looks beyond the Western world. At the moment Europe is struggling to hold on to ideas of transnationalism, while nationalism and exclusionary identity politics – rooted in specific place and space – are returning with a vengeance. Globalisation’s rising economic inequality has started to shake its foundations. According to Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi:
“With the dissolving of the internationalist vision, everybody belongs to a clan – ethnic or virtual – and everybody is preparing to protect themselves against the coming invasion. After the abandonment of the universalist horizon of enlightened modernity, conflicting subjectivities are now kept together by a faith in belonging”.
2016, the year the Riga Biennial was founded, was often called ‘the year of the political earthquake’. While that may be an overstatement, it is clear that we are on the cusp of a new world order and the trend of neo-conservatism that has gripped many countries seems set to continue. Regarding Europe, Timothy Garton Ash called this year ‘1989 in reverse’. The election of President Trump, Brexit, the resurrection of nationalism and other totally unexpected radical developments have resulted in a kind of psychopolitics. Philosopher Lieven de Cauter calls this, more poetically, ‘political melancholy’.
The world is facing major challenges for which – despite the unprecedented knowledge and information we have at our disposal – we are unprepared. There is climate change; the transition from a material-based to knowledge-based economy and ‘cognitive’ capitalism; increasing automation which will make humans redundant and transform the labour market; rapidly changing demographics; and finally ‘transhumanism’ – the belief that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations by means of science and technology. The latter may seem farfetched, but it becomes a far more plausible reality when we consider the rapid developments in the fields of genetic engineering, medicine, bio- and nanotechnology.
As Yuval Noah Harari argued in his book, Homo Deus, for thousands of years history was full of technological, economic, social and political upheavals and yet one thing remained constant: humanity itself’. This fact no longer seems to be a given: “In the 21st century, the [...] big project of humankind will be to acquire for us divine powers of creation and destruction and upgrade Homo Sapiens into Homo Deus”. This thought is daunting. The fact that ‘we are rushing so fast into the great unknown’ has engendered anxiety, insecurity and a feeling of disconnect from our senses and emotions. This is different from the anxiety and insecurity of our parents and grandparents, who experienced war and deprivation as well as their fair share of the full shock of modernity. They had to endure extraordinary challenges and had to activate often-radical survival modes, whereas what we, in our constantly networked, overworked, over-stimulated world, are experiencing on a daily basis seems merely ordinary (and by comparison we are more privileged than previous generations, despite recurring economic crises). At the same time, we are less able to make sense of the present, while certainly lacking the survival skills of our predecessors. It feels as if humanity as a whole is on automatic pilot, not pausing to think about the causes and consequences of our actions.
Whereas many recent Biennials and large-scale exhibitions have been retrospective – anachronistic, even – harking back to lost political and social utopias, the 1st edition of the Riga Biennial sets its eyes firmly on the present and the near future of the human condition as we approach the second quarter of the twenty-first century. It explores the shifts that have been taking place in the region, but also contextualises these within a broader picture as the world is now decidedly interconnected. The Biennial is regional in its geopolitical focus, but global in its examination of the issues that concern us all. From the personal to the political and social, to the philosophical and the existential, the Biennial aims to probe how contemporary artists are responding to some of the major challenges of the day, how they register change, and how they imagine the future. Riga and Latvia seem to be the perfect place to do this, as they have often experienced pivotal change. While now part of Europe and having experienced the transition to capitalism, following the Soviet occupation, the city maintains its own rhythm and identity and is far from being or becoming yet another high-performance metropolitan hub. It maintains a human scale and livable pace, and its inhabitants – like Latvians generally – have a close relationship with nature. Riga’s atmosphere and its history allow us to re-focus on important values such as slowness and de-acceleration, and to pause to reflect upon our changing present and consider alternative ways of being and acting. The Biennial highlights artists from the Baltic and Nordic region as well as including international artists who will reflect on the multiple parameters of change, taking the temperature of the human condition at this moment. The exhibition focuses on several pressing issues, unfolding over several chapters: from the ‘great acceleration’ most of us experience today in urban centres and mega-cities, the transformation of social life and work, the end of privacy and ‘post-truth’, to the impact of rapid advancements in science and technology and the negotiation of constant crises – of ecology, capitalism, democracy. Many of these changes have radically altered the way we experience the world and have undermined - or overridden - all of our senses except vision. The final chapter, curated by Solvej Helweg Ovesen – will thus refocus on the sensorium – the sum of the human organism’s perceptive tools – creating moments that trigger the senses that have been marginalised, allowing for a much-needed deceleration of perception. The 1st Riga Biennial aims to paint a political, personal and existential portrait of the unprecedented times we live in and to relate the tectonic shifts that are taking place in the public as well as private realm. Whether one defines the current era as the ‘Anthropocene’, the ‘Capitalocene’ or the ‘Chthulucene’, it is certain that we have entered an era of epochal shifts. This is at once both exciting and frightening. The artists in the Riga Biennial are examining these changes and our attempts to cope with them, summoning ghosts from the future and recalling prophets from the past. - K.G.
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