Category Archives: RIBOCA

RIBOCA. A moment to reflect on our age of technoscience

Previously: RIBOCA review. A disturbingly tangible Anthropocene.

Second part in my overview of Everything was forever until it was no more, the first edition of Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (aka RIBOCA) which closed a couple of months ago.

Sasha Huber + Petri Saarikko, Dziedināšana Remedies, 2018

The artists invited by curator Katerina Gregos investigate change. In particular, how change, because of its relentless speed and much proclaimed inevitability, seems to escape robust critical scrutiny. Some of the main sub-themes of the biennial looked at issues as vast as our flawed relationship to other living species, the negotiation of collective historical memory in post-Soviet regions or the impact of unseen technologies on landscapes and society. I only had a couple of hours to visit the exhibitions but even as was reading the catalogue on the way back home, i had to admit that it was a lot to take in for a sole event.

Kerstin Hamilton, A World Made by Science, 2018

Still, RIBOCA turned out to be one of the highlights of 2018 for me. I discovered new artists, new perspective on Baltic states, was intellectually stimulated and eavesdropped on heated discussions about the private Russian funding of the biennial (only a few years after the annexation of the Crimea had put strain on the relationships between Russia and formerly Soviet Baltic states.) I also admired the way each exhibition, no matter how wide-ranging its focus, anchored itself firmly in the historical and architectural context of Riga.

Here are some of the most exciting works (for me):

Nabil Boutros, Ovine Conditions (Celebrities), 2014

Nabil Boutros, Ovine Conditions (Celebrities), 2014

Nabil Boutros, Ovine Conditions (Celebrities), 2014

Nabil Boutros, Ovine Conditions (Celebrities), 2014. Exhibition view. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

We tend to regard individual animals, especially the ones we turn into food and consumer goods, as mutually interchangeable within a herd. All cows become the same, as do pigs and sheep. We rarely consider their sentience: what they think and feel or the nature of their inner world. To us they are mindless animals. Something similar happen to human animals once they are part of a crowd: they are said to adopt a ‘herd mentality’.

As Nabil Boutros‘s portraits demonstrate sheep, like human beings, regain their individual character when separated from the flock. He photographed sheep, lambs and rams, as if they had commissioned these portraits themselves. Each animal’s distinct features and individuality then becomes apparent.

It becomes impossible, in front of these portraits, not to ascribe psychological features of human beings to the individual animals. They appear confident or insecure, modest or cheeky, anxious, surprised, inquisitive, thoughtful, upset, arrogant, withdrawn, excited, seductive, etc.

Erik Kessels, The Human Zoo, 2018. The Former Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

Erik Kessels, The Human Zoo, 2018. The Former Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

Erik Kessels, The Human Zoo, 2018. The Former Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

Erik Kessels, The Human Zoo, 2018. The Former Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

The Zoological Collection of the Museum of the University of Latvia features the usual skeletons, taxidermied bodies, pinned down insects and other animal remains for us humans to gawk and marvel at. Erik Kessels believes that human animals are often as strange and exotic as the ones in zoological displays. To prove his point, he placed found photos inside the exhibition cases, pairing them with the original artifacts in associative and often comical ways. Both male and female individuals of our species are caught preening, mating, eating and performing other rituals.

The odd juxtapositions force us to have a more introspective look at our own species and the deep connections we share with other animals.

Maarten Vanden Eynde, Pinpointing Progress, 2018. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

Titled Pinpointing Progress, Maarten Vanden Eynde’s sculpture is an homage to the Town Musicians of Bremen, a sculpture based on the story of the Brothers Grimm, in the centre of Riga.

The artist stacked on top of one another technological products that used to be manufactured in Riga and exported all over the USSR and beyond. The objects become smaller and smaller as they reach the top of the sculpture. A bus, car, moped, bike, computer, radio, telephone, camera and a transistor. Pinned on a needle, as if they were insects in a natural history museum.

Progress comes with the promise that we are moving forward, towards a better situation. The faster we get there, it is suggested, the better it is. New inventions swiftly follow one another, often shrinking in size, with nano-technology the ultimate goal. Nanotechnology will potentially have implications on a macro scale. And because we won’t be able to perceive its impact with our unaided human sense, we will have to believe the new forms of progress nanotechnology bring. In this context, information and faith in progress replace material goods as the most valuable resources in capitalist society.

Vanden Eynde’s sculpture wasn’t the only work in the biennial that questioned our age of technoscience…

Lynn Hershman-Leeson, Genetically modified cat from The Infinity Engine, 2010

Lynn Hershman-Leeson, Infinity Engine, 2011-2018. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

Lynn Hershman-Leeson, Infinity Engine, 2011-2018

Infinity Engine explores the societal and ethical challenges of DNA programming and all the applications it enables, from the production of transgenic organisms to 3D bioprinting of human organs.

In collaboration with reknown scientists, Hershman-Leeson created a functional replica of a genetics lab, complete with printed scaffolds of human noses and ears and scientific equipment.

The installation was fascinating and i wish i had had a full afternoon to explore its informative content. One of the rooms was wallpapered in images of hybrid crops, animals and interiors of biomedical engineering labs across the world. Another room allowed visitors to read files of legal documents related to genetic engineering. The most curious was the speculative ‘capture room’, devised in collaboration with biohacker and molecular biologist Dr. Josiah P. Zaynor, in which facial-recognition software captures the images of the visitors, attempts to deduce information about the person’s genetic makeup and adds the data to an evolving composite archetype.

The project points to the possible implications of this kind of genetic research: on the one hand, the astonishing medical breakthroughs; on the other, the new forms of governmental and corporate surveillance it enables. The work also invites us to ponder upon uncomfortable questions: How do these scientific practices challenge our understanding of human identity and life? Who owns the engineered human body parts when human cells and tissue are turned into commodities? How might bio-engineering affect human evolution in a planet that is increasingly uninhabitable?

Stelios Faitakis, The New Religion, 2018. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

Stelios Faitakis, The New Religion, 2018. Photo: Stelios Faitakis

Stelios Faitakis, The New Religion (detail), 2018. At the Former Biological Faculty

Stelios Faitakis created a spectacular site-specific mural for the lobby of the former Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia.

His work follows the style of Byzantine painting and specifically the iconostases of Orthodox churches – the icon-covered panels that separate the nave from the sanctuary. The figure that dominates the New Religion is the scientist. In his biblical epic the artist raises questions about the central role that techno-scientific progress plays within the value system of Western society.

Faitakis vision of techno-religion is a dark one. Its mural depict scientists signing contracts with pharmaceutical companies, observing a gigantic nuclear mushroom cloud or working calmly next to a rabbit with its skull open.

Kerstin Hamilton, The Science Question in Feminism, 2018

Kerstin Hamilton‘s The Science Question in Feminism paid homage to female physicists, chemists and biologists from the Baltic and Nordic region in a series of photomontages that subtly highlighting gender inequality in science. Latvian chemist Lidija Liepina, for example, helped create the first Russian gas mask while she was still a student. Latvian biologist and botanist Magda Staudinger was acknowledged as the collaborator of her husband when he won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

The works are inserted inside single vitrines and spread all over the Former Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia. If you don’t pay attention you might even think they are relics from the glory days of the institution.

While scientific results can arguably be regarded as factual and objective, there is little doubt that the complex structures that surround the scientific knowledge production are socially constructed. These structures have rarely been favourable to women, who systematically have been excluded from formal and informal scientific networks.

Danilo Correale, Mr. Bojangles…….may also enjoy, 2014-15

Mr. Bojangles…….may also enjoy was a 52 weeklong project where the artist tried to comprehend the ability of the Amazon algorithm to get to know the ideological viewpoint of its customers. Over the course of one year Danilo Correale bought books Amazon suggested to him, starting from a text by Judith Butler. Once the book arrived he ripped off one page and returned the now-damaged book to Amazon. He then proceeded to buy the first book in the list suggested by Amazon, using the refund granted by the e-commerce giant.

In every image, next to the book, lays the page that the artist cut out in order to create a new publication of 52 pages: a symbolic representation of the algorithm that modelled the choices for Mr. Bojangles (Correale’s username on Amazon) and aims to make each and everyone of us a nicely predictable customer.

Robert Kusmirowski, IGRA, 2018. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

Robert Kusmirowski, IGRA, 2018. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

Robert Kusmirowski, IGRA, 2018. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

Robert Kusmirowski, IGRA, 2018. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

I didn’t see this one but i’m a fan of Robert Kuśmirowski

His astonishing talent consists in turning discarded materials into time capsules that give the illusion of decay and bygone times. The title of the work commissioned especially for the Former Bolschevichka Textile Factory in Riga, IGRA, means ‘plays’ in Polish, and refers to phrases such as ‘playing with death’ and ‘playing with fire’, while simultaneously providing an anagram of ‘Riga’.

IGRA consists of a large machine for producing vodka, referencing the illegal production of moonshine at hidden locations in the forest. The work is constructed from equipment found by the artist: ladles, pipes and piping systems. The last tank of the installation contains 40 litres of vodka, which drips into a glass throughout the duration of the exhibition, creating the illusion of a working vodka distillery.

More works from RIBOCA:

Sputnik Photos, Lost Territories Archive, 2018

Sputnik Photos, Lost Territories Archive, 2018

Sputnik Photos, Lost Territories Archive, 2018. Residence of Kristaps Morbergs. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

Kerstin Hamilton, Zero Point Energy, 2018

Kerstin Hamilton, Zero Point Energy, 2018. Installation view. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

Kerstin Hamilton, Zero Point Energy, 2018

Sven Johne, Anomalies of the early 21st century/Some case studies, 2015. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

Johanna Gustafsson-Fürst, The Week Has Eight Days, 2018

Femke Herregraven, Malleable Regress, 2016-2018

Alexis Destoop, Phantom Sun, 2016. Photo: Dirk Pauwels

RIBOCA review: A disturbingly tangible Anthropocene

In 2006, Alexei Yurchak published Everything was forever until it was no more. The beautifully-titled book examined the political, social and cultural conditions that lead to the collapse of the Soviet state. The anthropologist argued that everyone knew the system was failing, but because no one could imagine any alternative to the status quo, politicians and citizens maintained the charade of a functioning society.

Sven Johne, A Sense of Warmth, 2015

Katrīna Neiburga, Pickled Long Cucumbers, 2017

Everything was forever until it was no more is also the title of the first Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (aka RIBOCA) which closed a couple of months ago. I didn’t know about the biennial until i found myself in the Latvian capital for the always excellent RIXC Art and Science Festival (there’s still time to send your proposals for the upcoming edition of the conference and exhibition.) There were leaflets advertising the biennial at the hotel, i picked up one to read during my last breakfast in town and almost dropped my tea mug over another guest when i read that Katerina Gregos was the curator of the event. Gregos is an art historian and, to my eyes, the most perceptive and politically-minded curator we have in Europe.

Under her guidance, RIBOCA investigated the phenomenon of change – how it may seem inevitable (especially in these relentlessly accelerating times) and yet manages to take us by surprise. The works and artists Gregos selected investigated capitalism, technological revolutions, migration, Europe’s existential crisis, post-Soviet history in the Baltic states and our foolish destruction of the environment. I had only 3 hours to visit the biennial and could only run through two of the exhibition venues before i had to leave for the airport. These were probably the most exciting 3 hours i spent in 2018.

I’ll try and give an overview of what i saw at the biennial over a couple of blog posts. Today’s story is looking specifically at the works that make the Anthropocene disturbingly palpable. As befits an event that aimed to engage with the space of the city of Riga, many of the artworks that delved into our uncertain future on this planet were housed inside an abandoned biology faculty. Invading disused buildings is one of the tropes of contemporary art exhibitions but the ploy worked liked a charm as art pieces that examined the many paths to the demise of humanity cohabited with a once grandiose entrance, musty corridors and desolate labs.

Here are some of the RIBOCA works that embodied in the most distressing way the many threats and dimensions of the Anthropocene:

Jacob Kirkegaard, MELT, 2016

Jacob Kirkegaard traveled to Greenland in 2013 and 2015 to record different stages of ice melting.

The ice sheet in Greenland contain about 8% of the Earth’s fresh water. Particularly vulnerable to climate change, the ice is melting at an accelerating rate not seen for more than 350 years.

The alarming phenomenon is causing a rise in the sea level, which directly threatens populations who live in or near coastal areas. It causes other secondary effects, such as changes in the global ocean circulation patterns and in the patterns of rainfall.

Kirkegaard’s MELT sound installation features recordings of different stages of ice melting, moving from violent sounds of ice caps grinding against each other, to trickling sequences and flows of water. MELT traces how water moves through different aggregate phases, from solid to liquid, changing the combination of molecules. You can get an idea of what it sounds like in this video interview with the artist.

MELT dramatizes and makes perceptible a phenomenon that affects each of us but that remains too often distant and abstract.

IC-98 and Kustaa Saksi, A World in Waiting (78°14’08.4″N 15°29’28.7″E), 2017. Former Biological Faculty. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

IC-98 and Kustaa Saksi’s millefleurs tapestry (a pattern of thousands of flowers) is another work that reminds us, in a visually seducing yet disquieting manner, that the Arctic is one of the fastest warming areas on the planet.

The tapestry transports us into a dark future, when sea levels have risen and the human race is long gone, but the consequences of its past actions are everywhere. The scene is set at the current location of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (the coordinates of which are in the title of the work.) The seeds that had been sent from around the world in the early 21st Century have sprouted in the warmer climate of the future. Svalbard is no longer covered with glaciers and frozen tundra but with lush meadows.

The carpet itself will not escape degradation. In the future, it might rot. The artists consulted with climate scientists and the people responsible for the seed program to identify the plants that would be viable in 2,000 years time. Some of the seeds of these plants have then been woven into the fabric of the tapestry, literally waiting for their time to sprout.

“Culture and nature are completely intertwined and even if humans disappear, nature will still be shaped by man, by humans, for millennia to come”, the artists told TL mag. “In a way, the Svalbard Seed Vault is a strong symbol of that. But what happens when those seeds start to have their own lives? Which kind of flora would be dominant from Svalbard in 2,000 years?”

Michael Sailstorfer, Antiherbst, 2012-2013

Michael Sailstorfer, Antiherbst, 2012-2013

Michael Sailstorfer demonstrated in the most poetic way the absurdity of using technology and human efforts to counter a natural processes.

In October 2012, the artist selected a lone tree alongside a dyke of the Rhine, in the Ruhr area, one of the most heavily industrial regions of Europe. Once the first leaves began to fall in early autumn, he and his team collected them, preserved them, painted them and then re-attached them to the tree using a fine wire and a mechanical cherry-picker. This painstaking task continued until mid-November, by which time the tree had shed all of its foliage and the leaves had all been reattached.

The entire operation was documented on film. The footage of Anti-Herbst (Anti-Autumn) was then edited to exclude images containing people or machinery. The artificial transformation would look normal unless other trees in the background didn’t reveal that something is odd in the landscape.

“The goal of the project was to reverse a natural process simply by using human power or effort; to use human labour to artificially revert the tree to the way it looked four weeks earlier – green, in summer,” the artist told Frieze. “In the Ruhr area, it’s really hard to say what’s nature and what’s artificial. Of course, today anyone can walk outside of a city and enter a forest, but even there nothing is truly ‘natural’.”

At the end of the project, the team spent 3 days taking down all the leaves again.

Katarzyna Przezwanska, Early Polishness, 2017

Katarzyna Przezwanska, Early Polishness, 2017

Katarzyna Przezwanska works in Warsaw. A few hundred million years ago, that area of Poland was located closer to the equator and covered by a lush tropical forest and inhabited by dinosaurs and other animals.

The artist collaborated with scientists and geologists to create a model of today’s Warsaw terrain from 200 million years ago.

After the mass extinction that ended the Triassic geologic period depicted in her model, life recovered during the Jurassic and the Earth became repopulated with the most diverse range of organisms that ever existed. These organisms then died and gave way to the mineral resources that can now be unearthed in the area: lignite and natural gas, and a major offshore oilfield in the Baltic Sea; large reserves of sulphur and other mineral resources include bauxite, barite, gypsum, limestone and silver; and rich deposits of salt. In so far as present-day Poland is rooted in its mineral economy, these resources are what remain of prehistoric ‘Polishness’.

Her hand-made diorama puts our short-sighted view on everything from energy to politics into the challenging perspective of deep time. It’s this tendency to disregard the long-term consequences of our decisions that have led us to cause tragic and unstoppable damages to the environment.

Julian Charrière, Tropisme, 2015. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

Julian Charrière, Tropisme, 2015. Photo: Andrejs Strokins

After the Triassic and the Jurassic came the Cretaceous period. Julian Charrière placed a plant known to have existed during the Cretaceous period inside a hermetically sealed, glass vitrine. The plant has been shock-frozen at –196˚ centigrade by being dipped in liquid nitrogen and then kept refrigerated at –20˚C. As long as this plant from 65 million years ago is kept in this artificial environment and cared for by humans, its appearance will be protected from the forces of entropy and decay, serving as a bridge between distant past and uncertain future. The “living fossil” hovers between life and death, distant past and future. Its fragility echoes our reliance on non-sustainable resources and our arrogant attempts to dominate the environment, at the cost of disturbing its natural order.

Jani Ruscica, Ring Tone (en plein air), 2018

Jani Ruscica fleshed out the direct and unplanned effect of technology on other living species. His video Ring Tone (en plein air) depicts a digital recreation of a lyrebird. This Australian bird is famous for its capacity to render with great fidelity the songs of other birds but also noises made by animals such as koalas and dingoes. In fact, the lyrebird’s ability to imitate almost any sound, including man-made mechanical sounds, has made it quite popular on youtube.

Ruscica created a CGI animation that combines field recordings and special effects. In order to recreate the bird in CGI, the artist studied YouTube and nature documentary clips of lyrebirds. As with many bird species, the movements of the lyrebird can be quite robotic, somewhat unnatural almost, and the CGI, being a digital recreation of the species, only reinforces this feeling.

Oswaldo Maciá, The Opera of Cross-Pollination, 2018

Oswaldo Maciá, The Opera of Cross-Pollination, 2018. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

Oswaldo Maciá’s The Opera of Cross-pollination is an immersive installation that echoes Silent Spring, an environmental science book written by Rachel Carson in 1962 about the catastrophic environmental impact of pesticides.

The Opera of Cross-pollination bombards your senses with intense colour, subtle audio and defused aroma to remind us that the ecological drama unfolds in ways that often escape our senses.

Julian Rosefeldt, In the Land of Drought, 2016

Julian Rosefeldt, In the Land of Drought, 2016

Julian Rosefeldt, In the Land of Drought, 2016. Installation view at RIBOCA. Photo: Vladimir Svetlov

The scenes in Julian Rosefeldt‘s In the Land of Drought feature scientists in white lab suits investigating the bleak remnants of civilization in an undefined, post-humanity future.

Shot using a drone in an abandoned film sets close to the Moroccan Atlas Mountains, the images give the viewer a feeling of alienation but at the same time, a sense of thrill, enigma and suspense.

Jevgeni Zolotko, The Sacrifice, 2018 (installation view). Photo Andrejs Strokins

I didn’t see Jevgeni Zolotko‘s The Sacrifice but since we are so intent on treating sentient beings as disposable objects, i feel like i need to mention the work. The artist installed a gray trailer outside the Art center Zuzeum. The trailer, normally used for carrying livestock, evokes the ones in which Latvians were transported to Siberia during mass deportations under Stalin. Disturbing banging noises can be heard as you go near the trailer, but it is unclear whether animals or humans are trapped inside. The ambiguity evokes the cruelty with which humans treat anyone they regard as “Other”, whether this other is another animal species or human being who has different beliefs or ethnic background.

Sven Johne, A Sense of Warmth, 2015

“I’m not going to make it. I’m a loser. Not good enough. I’m cold. Exhausted. Thirty-three years old, fucked by life.” These are the first words of Mindy, the protagonist in Sven Johne’s video A Sense of Warmth. Mindy, who remains unseen throughout the video, recounts her alleged escape from the digital working environment and her new life on a deserted island. A Sense of Warmth catapults the viewer into a paradise, a life without exploitation, war, ecological destruction; in short, a life without capitalism.