An art biennial in a pandemic? How Latvia’s RIBOCA2 embraced Covid-19 as its co-curator

An art biennial in a pandemic? How Latvia’s RIBOCA2 embraced Covid-19 as its co-curator

The second edition of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (RIBOCA2) was already planned as a reflection on apocalyptic themes — then a global pandemic struck. How did the international art event adapt to a world of closed borders and social distancing?

3 September 2020

“The UK is now on the ‘orange list’,” read an email from the Riga Biennial organisers. In essence, we were now personae non gratae in Latvia; visitors from countries on this list — or, even worse, on the dreaded “red list” — would now have to undergo 14 days of quarantine upon arrival. Not an ideal development two days before we were due to take an Air Baltic flight to Riga. But, we were reassured, this would not be the case for us, thanks to a “special policy for travelling art professionals” that would allow us to bypass this requirement by simply taking a Covid-19 test.

The Biennial’s title — and suddenly it all blossoms prompts a reflection on what beauty might be born of the precarity of this era.

Bar the experience of a fellow journalist, whose US passport somewhat bemused the border guards, clearing immigration was uneventful. After checking in to our accommodation — the charming Neiburgs boutique hotel in the Old Town — we were duly delivered to a testing site across the river, where a woman in hazmat sat me down on a swivel desk chair and proceeded to introduce me to parts of my nostrils I never knew existed. When we received an all-Latvian email bearing the thankfully recognisable “negatīvs” verdict, I wondered how the organisers would have responded had the test results been otherwise. It seemed the RIBOCA2 team had cleared a major hurdle: succeeding against the odds to get international media to the event. Though the generous private funding behind the Biennial (a combination of funds from the Riga Biennial Foundation, founded by Agniya Mirgorodskaya, and other private donors and sponsors), doubtless had a strong bearing on making the near-impossible possible, together with the support of the Riga City Council and Latvian Ministry of Culture, their resolve in the face of numerous setbacks (if a global pandemic can really be called a “setback”) was impressive.

Tomás Saraceno's Aerocene. Image: Elise Morton

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“I believe the end of the world has already happened,” says Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel, chief curator of RIBOCA2, in her opening address on 20 August. Lamarche-Vadel is introducing a Biennial surely quite different from what she had envisioned some months ago. Originally due to open in May and run for five months, the Riga Biennial will now only open for the final weeks of its intended run.

Although Lamarche-Vadel’s words speak to our current, somewhat apocalyptic context, the Biennial seemed to have been conceived with the end of the world already in mind. With its original curatorial theme of “re-enchantment”, RIBOCA2 was always intended to be a reflection on an impending cataclysm, the need to rethink our relationships with other beings (be they animals, or even extra-terrestrials), and the consequent imperative to make room for alternative voices and visions. Such an undertaking was evidenced from the off by the diversity of RIBOCA2’s “participants”. This inclusive term, according to Executive Director Anastasia Blokhina, recognises that not all showing at the Biennial would necessarily define themselves as artists. These include Dr Vija Eniņa, expert in medicinal plants, who dropped sage, lavender, and chamomile seeds throughout the site; and Erika “Aya” Eiffel, an advocate for object sexuality most famous for “marrying” the Eiffel Tower in 2007. She also granted a number of her “companions” a trip to Riga, including a Japanese longbow.

Bottles of sanitiser are an unusual occurrence at art biennials. Image: Elise Morton

In spring 2020, the awaited theoretical cataclysm arrived, in a stunning example of life imitating art. Blokhina describes how, after stopping preparation for RIBOCA2 in March, the team came to the realisation that RIBOCA2 “had to happen this year”, not in spite of the dramatic context, but rather because of the unique possibilities of this uncertain time. The Biennial’s title — and suddenly it all blossoms — prompts a reflection on what beauty might be born of the precarity of this era.

The Covid-19 pandemic was to form a central part in proceedings, both practically and creatively. Lamarche-Vadel’s introduction is taking place on the Biennial’s principal site: the partially abandoned industrial port of Andrejsala. The port, too, with its polluted environment and toxic soils, echoes the curator’s apocalyptic language and the infection that she says “has brought us to our knees”. Out of this pollution, she notes, Andrejsala has birthed new ecosystems; in working within the confines of our new reality and “accepting the limit of our power”, she hopes this site might, in turn, birth “modest, humble ideas for new futures”.

Bridget Polk’s Balancing Rocks and Rubble (detail)

Rather than feigning a return to normality, absence and the strain of adaptation are laid bare at RIBOCA2, where, in the words of the chief curator, we are witness to “many ghosts and many silences”. In Oliver Beer’s Simply Rights/ Unattained Goals, meant to showcase the acoustic quality of items belonging to three women in the artist’s family and those of a local Riga inhabitant, three out of four sets of plinths stand empty in the mammoth exhibition space. In DER HINTERGRUND SEI ICH, TIERE IM EIGENEN ANDEREN ZUSAMMENHANG MIT ARCHITEKTUR by Heinz Frank, who sadly died less than a week after the show’s opening, photocopies act as substitutes for original architectural drawings. This is, Lamarche-Vadel admits when guiding us through the exhibition, an “unusual proposition for an international biennial”, but a necessary reality. The only object remaining from Dominika Olszowy’s Yawn of a Sleepy Heart installation is a single stained glass window, with the rest being exhibited in Warsaw. In the exhibition guide, these unrealised plans are not omitted, but the text is simply struck through — and therefore still visible to the reader.

Daina Taimiņa’s Dreams and Memories

A surprising by-product of these adaptations was the furthering of RIBOCA2’s original mission to create space for alternative voices, by introducing community participation into the artistic concepts of numerous works. Ugo Rondinone’s neon artwork lifetime could not be transported from Switzerland, but a new version was produced in pine by a group of Riga artists. Paweł Althamer’s Draftsmen’s Congress public art project moved online, and has been populated via online contributions with a far further reach than would have been the case if participation had been limited to exhibition visitors.

These changes to the works are indicative of what participant Anastasia Sosunova (exhibiting her outdoor installation project Habitaball) described as “accepting the empty places in the exhibition which were created by these obstacles and cancellations”. The Lithuanian artist says she “was impressed by the way [the team] managed to re-organise, embracing the time, limitations, and impossibilities while staying sensitive”, emphasising that artists were invited and encouraged by organisers to “share their impressions and thoughts during lockdown”. Fellow Lithuanian artist Augustas Serapinas, who faced his own set of problems even pre-Covid when his snowmen-centred project was thwarted by an unusually mild winter in the Baltics, also says that the organisers were supportive of artists in the midst of great challenges (he commends the RIBOCA team for paying all artists their agreed fees, despite the Biennal’s shortened running time). “This was a sign of commitment, and a signal to the local art world,” he told me.

Oliver Beer’s Household Gods (Grandmother)

In more practical terms, the coronavirus has also made its mark on the experience of the Biennial for visitors. We are welcomed to the venue by multiple hand washing stations, along with signs encouraging social distancing and bottles of sanitiser dotted around the space, particularly for works that require the use of headphones. Some of the public programme for masterclasses and talks co-curated by Sofia Lemos has moved online, while popular Italian restaurant Casa Nostra, who conceived a special RIBOCA menu, had to shelve its plan to seat guests at long communal tables. No such qualms about social distancing were in evidence at the opening party, however. When asked to put a sticker over my phone camera my first thought was “Wow, how wild is this party going to be?… this might be the closest I’ll ever get to Berghain”; a little way into the party — lively but rather more family-friendly than I imagine Berghain to be — I was told by an organiser that this was so that “the municipality doesn’t shut us down”, not for debauchery but for flouting social distancing rules.

Edith Dekyndt’s Visitation Zone

With RIBOCA2 only open for the final weeks of its planned run, the Biennial will live on as a feature film, shot during the course of the event. Directed by local filmmaker Dāvis Sīmanis, the movie has elicited support and bemusement from participants, for many of whom it is an exciting but unorthodox concept. “The film adds to the whole exhibition and could give it new reach,” says Serapinas, “it’s an unusual response to these unusual times.” German artist Katrin Hornek, participating with her clay-based installation A Land Mass to Come, is intrigued: “I would like to see the film before having an opinion about it. I am very curious about the outcome since I can’t think of a plot myself that could work.”

In her admission during a guided tour that “Covid is my co-curator, whom I have to acknowledge”, the Biennial’s chief curator speaks to a common thread running throughout the event: accepting and learning from the global agony in which we find ourselves. Building on its premonition of 2020’s end times-esque feel, RIBOCA2 might just have got to the heart of what an “apocalypse” really is. It is not just about the end of the world; after all, the original word in Ancient Greek, apokálypsis, refers to a “revelation” or an “unveiling”. Rather than taking the pandemic as a sign of Armageddon and giving up the artistic ghost, the Biennial has — imperfectly, but admirably — resolved to adapt, reinvent itself, and seek the new possibilities and visions that might be “unveiled” by this crisis.

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