Chants of pleasure and wonder

Helmuts Caune

Interview with the chief curator of RIBOCA2 Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel


A degree in art history from Sorbonne. Seven years as a curator of Palais de Tokyo. Three years as an experimental curator in Berlin. Personal exhibitions with Tino Sehgal, Marguerite Humeau, Ed Atkins, David Douard among others. The notorious collective exhibition “The Edge of the World” (Le bord des mondes) in 2015. Projects in MoMa and Stedelijk. Such a list of achievements would make almost any curator proud, which is why it's even more impressive that Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel is, as of now, only 32 years old. On top of everything aforementioned, she has now become the chief curator of the 2nd edition of Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (RIBOCA) that will happen next year.

The curatorial concept that Lamarche-Vadel has proposed for the RIBOCA2 revolves around the word “re-enchantment”. In a world whose collective consciousness seems to be bent on ruminations over its inevitable demise, catastrophe, apocalypse etc., the concept for the biennial proposes seeking new ways to reinvent ourselves and our relationship with the world and nature, so we might again become enchanted with it (and with ourselves). Of course, that may also mean radically changing the way we see ourselves in relation to nature and the world.

When the curator's identity and the curatorial concept were announced in spring, Lamarche-Vadel answered a few questions to Arterritory in written form. She and the team of RIBOCA still hold almost all of the details about the venue or artist list of the 2nd edition “close to the chest”. Nevetheless, when she was available in Riga this summer, it felt obvious that we need also a face-to-face interview. Perhaps not the last one.

Announcement of RIBOCA2 in Venice. Photo by Ivan Erofeev. Courtesy of RIBOCA

At some point during your adolescence, you changed your field of studies from politics to art. Why did that happen?

When I was around 15, 16 years old, I had already started to work in the art world, in different internships and so on. But at that point I was very interested in international relationships and I wanted to work around and engage with the big geopolitical questions of our time. I come from a French and German family and we always had these questions, the ones of forced migration, mixed cultural heritages, and ultimately cooperation between nations and individuals at the core of our identity. The Sorbonne University is very strong in political sciences and history, and my study there was leading me towards a political career. Yet at the same time I was always nurturing my interest for arts. When I started studying back in 2007, the government was imposing incredibly severe reforms that would make education less affordable. So there were massive protests at the university, and my classes were cancelled for several months. During that time, my friends and I formed something of a creative association, like a group of “friends for the arts”. We started to put together events – as we felt really disempowered and bored. You know, we were around 20 years old and the state was in a total paralysis, especially the university. Starting to work with artists and putting together shows was one of our responses to this moment of paralysis, it was a way to build a community and promote debate and encounters, but also joy. So we started to do that without any money, making exhibitions in the forests, or in clubs for just one night. So the political studies I was doing and the art world were already mixed up at this early stage, and at some point I just realised that my interest for international relationships and geopolitics was actually an interest in how to put together a moment of truce between different world views, how to encounter and support different perspectives. And I realised that this question was for me far more interesting and fruitful to work within the art field than from the political side. So I decided to move towards the art and to study art history. But I never stopped nurturing interest for all these fields, I believe they can have a dialogue, and actually gain so much from it.

To what extent would you say that your family background also influenced this transition?

I think my background was crucial, because I grew up with artists – my mother is an artist, and my dad who passed away when I was very young, was an art critic. So I grew up in an atmosphere of meeting and celebration and project making at home from an early stage. When I was 6 or 7, I was already writing and putting together theatre plays, writing poems and novels, and I was very much encouraged to develop this creative side, to embrace it.

After you finished university, you had two, I believe, very different experiences of artistic practice in Berlin and in Paris. How would you compare them?

At the time when I finished studies, Paris was really terrible in terms of possibilities to make a space for yourself and to experiment. We didn't have this fascination for the youth that you could find in, for instance, the UK, where the young were shining, where youth is celebrated and everybody’s waiting for the new perspective, the new talent that would emerge from the younger generation. By comparison, Paris was very conservative at the time, the city was very expensive, the underground scenes had been very much destroyed by oppressive politics and by a lack of dynamics, young people were flying away to London, Brussels, New-York or Berlin if they had the chance. We had no space for alternative views and experiments. So, in 2009, I decided to leave for Berlin. Most contemporary debates were happening there, around crucial philosophical trends such as speculative realism, or new materialism – which inspired artists and theoreticians a lot. It was a generation I grew up with. In Berlin, I found an incredible place for a laboratory. I started to put together shows in project spaces with an experimental approach, and it was quite critical; often after putting together a show another group would put together a show a month later that would be kind of contradictory, and some debate would arise. The themes of the shows I worked on where around the questions of the absence, dystopia, chance, the notion of progress… My first show there was called “Straight into the unknown” – this attraction for uncertainty and doubt never left me. This time was an important time for growing up and for trying out formats and propositions in terms of exhibition making, doing shows in former swimming pools in Berlin, in the kitchen of a restaurant in Athens, in apartments and gym training rooms in Paris, in palaces in Miami... But Berlin was really at that moment the central place for this to happen, and it was gathering artists from all over the planet – so an incredibly dense mix of cultures, references, sensitivities. I also started to work on very big institutional projects as well, such as Based in Berlin, an exhibition spanning the Hamburger Bahnhof, KW [KW Institute for Contemporary Art], Berlinische Galerie, funded by the city to map out the young generation of international artists living and working in Berlin. This was a million euro project with a huge potential and I was a curatorial assistant back then. When I look back at the names that were presented then, most of them now have works that are very well recognized and have made significant careers. Berlin developed my interest for diversity, complexity and contradictions. Because the city was really welcoming this; it was not one singular worldview that was to be found there.

But then you went back to Paris

Yes. When I was 25, I got called by Palais de Tokyo, which was about to re-open after the building was renovated and expanded to 22,000m2, and the president invited me to take the position of curator. At this moment I was less than enchanted by the prospect, because I had no plans to come back to Paris. But I was offered a position that could allow me to make a change, regarding the representation of young artists, regarding building an institution supporting a new, younger scene, and I felt it was kind of a duty to accept. If I wanted to be intellectually honest with what I was believing in, I had to go and to take on the position to make a change. So I did that. I became one of the five curators.

I suppose you were the youngest?

Yes. It was a real challenge to adapt to working in an institution, leaving behind the very DIY practice for more planed, organized, secured and much better financed projects - but the team welcomed my experience that I had formed over three years in Berlin. And the teams of Palais were amazing, with such a great spirit and lust for challenges. And also, I have to say that France itself changed very much during the last years, I believe the terrorists attacks have been playing a huge role in changing the minds, of us being more aware of the fragility, fugacity, impermanence of life. Things changed a lot since then in terms of the city's ideology and mentality, the sensitivity has transformed, the shock has been huge, and my feeling is that we cured it with the desire to celebrate, to gather, to enjoy, but it also made us more humble and open.

Announcement of RIBOCA2 in Venice. Photo by Ivan Erofeev. Courtesy of RIBOCA


It’s incredible, foreigners are moving in, artists are being drawn to Paris again – which didn’t happen since the beginning of the XXth century... The music scene, the artistic scene, the philosophical, the fashion scene are thriving. You have new spaces all around the city, the territory of the city itself is expanding a lot to the suburbs where so much is happening. It’s kind of a rebirth.

But there are also a lot of reactionary forces to be sure.

Of course, and it is a very serious threat, but what is amazing is the balance between these conservative reactionary voices and, on the other side, very strong resistance that is put together by artists, and now we have clusters of very strong art spaces and studios. Also, the music scene is very active and the writing scene is thriving; I think it’s very interesting time there right now.

But for you now, it means that your tenure in Palais de Tokyo are over.

I left it, yes.

For good?

Yes. I did seven years in the Palais de Tokyo, and I felt I had done what I had to do there. I made shows like Le Bord des Mondes (“The edge of the worlds”) that were really important in my history of exhibition making, worked with Tino Sehgal and Tomas Saraceno’s on their most challenging and ambitious exhibitions ever, presented and promoted the work of much younger artists back then such as Ed Atkins, Marguerite Humeau, Julian Charrière, Jeremy Shaw, David Douard amongst many others... I had the chance to do everything I wanted to do, to push the challenge very very far, but at a certain point it is important to give your place to somebody else and let another voice come in.

Why did you accept the opportunity to curate RIBOCA?

First, I was very honoured to be given this opportunity. After staying in one place for seven years, always working within the same building, I felt like the Baltics presented an incredible chance to push my approach to exhibition making within a context that I feel is much more relevant today. Nowadays all the norms and perspectives established by modernity are, thank God, being challenged. And the idea of centers and margins is being challenged. We slowly come to realize that there is no center, there is no margin. There is just a big network of things, beings, elements. And I want to put my energy and my presence here, I want to be closer to histories that are less advertised, that are less centralized, that are non-Western European histories. So that's why I accepted. It was challenging enough. It was also very important for me to be able to work on the theme of reenchantment, how to reconsider our perspectives outside of the discourse of the apocalypse. How, in a moment of huge global upheavals, can we manage to redraw our relationships, our attention, the care we offer to others, may they be human or non-human. This is very much inspired by the history of Latvia – which has gone through many rebirths through its history and which has also always maintained incredibly strong bounds with cosmic and non-human rhythms. Our future can only be in the reassessment of our way of being human, and I believe this can be achieved in a very positive way. I also strongly believe that artists are the best alternative guides we have to imagine what these other futures could be – they are the ones who can propose another mental ecology.

And the curatorial concept is your proposition of which you are the sole author?

Yes. Well, yes and no, because you are never the sole author of any idea. It would be very hard to name all those who inspired me to write this proposition, as this proposition is the result of years of research and encounters, but I should actually start a list. I owe something to every artist I worked with, I owe a lot to authors and philosophers like Vinciane Despret, Bruno Latour, Anna Tsing, Timothy Morton, Michel Serres, Donna Haraway, Nelson Goodman… The list could go on, I should do it. I also owe a lot to all the non-humans I shared my life with, they very honestly taught me so much, from the spiders we collaborated with with Tomas Saraceno to the horses I was surrounded with when I was a child. Their skills, their sensitivity, their way of being present and resonating with the world can only be inspiring.

I should also mention places that inspired this proposal, so maybe I’m actually not the sole author of the curatorial concept, which is an entanglement of histories and meetings.

But are there artists that you knew you would invite to join you in this even before formulated the concept?

Yes, I've been working on these themes for years, which revolve around the end of modernity, around what kind of new system can we put together, or what kind of new models we want to have, and how to choose between alternatives without violent means. And all of the artists I've been working with thus far are in some manner questioning this. These are the questions of new ecologies, including the question of mental ecology, that are really interesting to me. When I proposed this theme for the biennial, that of re-enchantement and the reaction to collapse of the existing systems, it definitely makes sense that artists I've already worked with would join me in this adventure. And also, I am very faithful to the artists I work with. It is crucial to me to support them, as they are extended family. My friends are artists, I've always been around artists, my husband is an artist, I am just surrounded by them, they are very present in my life. And the ones I work with usually become very good friends. But this being said, there are many ways of being an artist, and I like to be surrounded by people who are challenging conventions – whatever field they evolve in.

Are there any aspects in this concept that are new and unique in comparison with your previous practice and topics you have curated?

The idea of “re-enchantment” is something that I have never really worked on properly. Working around myths is something that I find to be an interesting response to the “apocalypse”, “armaggedon” and other tropes that fall under the current state of affairs, but this is a fairly new domain of enquiry. Of course, what also is very new is the work in the Baltic countries. For me it is absolutely crucial that every artist invited to the biennial, whether they're from the Baltics or from elsewhere, works with the story of Riga, or with something that happened in Riga or in the Baltics and really puts together the figures and wires between the global perspective and the local one. As Michel Serres tells, we belong as much to the laws of our nation as to the planetary laws of physics. Another example: Marguerite Humeau, with whom I have worked before, is now making a project that asks whether global warming could be responsible for the development of spirituality amongst animals. She's doing a study that really nobody had thought about. The idea would be roughly that animals now may be conscious of their own extinction. They sense the mass extinction that's already unfolding, they see their peers dying, and so they would develop rituals and beliefs in higher forces that would actually be sacred to them. Humeau collaborates with specialists in animal behaviour, and together they have observed rituals in many species, such as burial rituals with the elephants. There are also witnesses to the practice of suicide among dolphins, and other very interesting behaviours that only humans from our self-centered perspective were thought to be capable of. And as she's coming here, she's meeting different specialists in animal behaviour from Latvia or the Baltics. She just met a Latvian professor who's a specialist on animals in rivers, and currents and fluids exchanged between the river ecosystem and the forces coming from outside. It's always these entanglements that are interesting to me. But also I believe that every show has it own story, and now, looking at every venue, the story starts to unfold, scenarios are starting to be built. And this is not like anything I've ever done before.

Announcement of RIBOCA2 in Venice. Photo by Ivan Erofeev. Courtesy of RIBOCA

Is the map of venues complete?

The dreamed one is complete, yes. The reality kicks in now, and we have to start the conversations and see what can be done.

How has been your interaction with the local art scene so far?

It's very fresh. I've been having studio visits and conversations, and will meet more artists in the coming months. This interaction is one of learning, I'm here to see what themes have been occupying artists' minds now, because they really are the translators of the pulse of the time. And, as far as I can see, I think there are three main fights that are represented. One is the question of identity, of post-Soviet times, another one is the that of the queer – what it is to be out of the norm? Mostly women artists are working in this field. And another one is science fiction. Oh, and maybe actually the 4th field would be artists who are working directly on ecological questions and are engaged in much more technological art, those that are closer to researchers. These are the fields I find very represented. And I've also been to the Art Academy to look at the situation there, to discuss with some teachers, see the production and try to capture the current scene and current mood of the young artists.

What have been biggest surprises you have encountered? That you did not expect.

Well, I try to never expect anything. But what has, If I may say so, enchanted me, is the diversity of the art scene here, the diversity of the discourse, which I find extremely exciting, because it shows that there is debate, it shows that there is life. It shows that the life here is vibrant, that there is no agreement on what topics are the most important. In some areas or some cities at times you find very uniformed practices. But not here. And what I've been trying to do is pay homage to this diversity.

More and more cities around the world are having some sort of art biennials. Why is this format so viable? If you believe it is viable, of course.

I don't know if the huge increase in the number of biennials indicates that it's viable. I would rather say that the reason it is not viable is precisely the format. I think the idea of a biennial as such is good. It starts from the question – how can we create a moment where different artists and the public gather in the same time and space, how can we put together a common history, how can we put together a community, and engage in a dialogue of visions and experiences with the history of the city. That is something extremely exciting. Now, what has become very paradoxical is that many biennials seem to be about the same. Anywhere you go in the world, you have very similar venues, you have very similar artists, a very predictable format. And it seems very weird, because you would think that each biennial should be very distinguished in a sense that it should really be mirroring the particular city, the here and now, but we have once again managed to find the security of a fixed format. Which is exactly what I want to or try to not do here. Which means finding venues that are very challenging, which means going out of comfortable territories. I'm not saying we'll manage that, but I'm trying. I want to embrace the best that the biennial format has to offer, which is creating a very unique time and space both for the artist and the visitor. An experience that is very singular, that can’t be reproduced anywhere else, an experience that can’t become a product.

Challenging venues, unique list of artists. Any other ways RIBOCA could avoid this biennial stagnation?

One of the core missions of our biennial is that we are trying to bring together people from different disciplines. I have met many people who are definitely creators, but don't call themselves artists, and who are very active in their own fields – be it science, biology or spirituality – and whose practice is just as inspiring as an artistic practice. So I'm meeting them, and I'm working to integrate them within the biennial, which means that the biennial will try to expand the idea of what an artwork is. And I think, in a sense, it's quite challenging, because it's really a call for opening up the territory of the art, and thinking about what makes a work of art, where does it start, where does it stop, who is to say how and when a work of art happens. This questions is after Duchamp 1912’s visionary interrogation; “Can we make a work of art that is not of art?”. Such processes and creations are not belonging to “Outsider Art,” which, by the way, is a term I really hate. Outsider Art is, again, a term we have invented to describe the center and the periphery, the margins, the supposed sain and educated academic artists and the ill or self-taught artists. This word and idea is very violent and says a lot about the violence of our thinking and way of designing the world, and our-selves. But art does not need to be limited just to the academic art world. This also applies when we think about what kinds of audiences we want to visit the biennial, and what kind of communities are linked to it. I hope we’ll managed to bring together wider audiences and wider communities, as I really deeply believe that art and the renewed perspectives it offers concerns all of us, humans.

A major part of critique towards the previous edition of RIBOCA was that it was sort of, let's say, occupying – or at least intruding – in its nature. Because the founders are foreign, the money is foreign, and it is a big, major event coming from outside into the local scene, intervening into local processes, the local climate and balance. How would you respond to such criticism and are you taking it into account?

What I hear in this criticism is the reality of the history of Latvia, and a response of many citizens' past experience of the presence of foreigners and of forces that they would not necessarily know or welcome. I understand this fear and it is not a surprise to me that these questions are being asked, and I think they are legitimate and justified. Now, regarding what I can do as a curator, is to really embrace what is happening here, and it means embracing the city and working within a network, a community of all of those who are actually making the city happen every day. So there is a very big emphasis on collaboration with other arts institutions, and informing them about our activities, and trying to be together. But there is also the idea that the biennial goes into the city to support what is already there. For example, I'm now meeting chefs from different restaurants in Riga, and asking them to imagine the flavour of re-enchantment. The list of restaurants goes from very affordable ones to rather expensive ones, but this is the idea of working with people who are making the city happen every day. What I'm putting together is more like a platform for collaboration. A biennial where we can have very different forces, very different activists – because I believe that chefs are as much activists as artists, for they are just trying to put together moments and forms, and shapes that are transforming us. We can make a platform where we counter fragility with solidarity. And that's my response to this fear of occupation and this criticism of occupation. All the artists invited, from Latvia, the Baltics and abroad, are also putting all of their effort in proposing works that could simply not exist anywhere else, because they result from collaborations with local communities, human and non human, or because they are inspired by the history of Latvia, or by the very special way of living to be found here. Again, this project is about entanglements and collaborations, but also about resilience; how can we look differently at what is just here and give it a new dignity, an enchanted presence, how do we care. I think the presence of foreigners and strangers can also be linked to collaboration, cooperation, meeting, mutual learning and inter-dependance, it can be about love. It is not always about colonization and occupation. Let the audience decide. After the Biennale I would like to present Baltic artists in France and wherever I work, because this story is not being written just for the duration of the biennial, it is a long story unfolding. And I see my role as just being someone who wants to put together beautiful encounters, and try to work, with my tools that are exhibitions, on imagining alternative and desirable futures for us all, also beyond the question of nationality.

Do you believe this perception of “us here” and someone “other” who arrive can be dismantled? Or is it something that's rooted too deep, and whatever you do, however deep you engage with the local community, you will still remain foreign to a certain extent?

I think that our times are calling for a much-renewed perspective not only on what we call local and foreign, but also on what we imagine to be our territory. Today, the whole earth, ecosystems and the biosphere are endangered, we are about to witness the 6th extinction, we breathe 2.5 particular matters, we drink micro-plastics, we witness global climate change… These realities have no national borders, they don’t care about nations, they are our global condition. Our territory, to quote Bruno Latour, is widely endangered, and our territory is the Earth. It’s about all of us here, we share a common fate that is our entanglement with beings and with matter, and it makes it very complicated to speak about “us here” and “others”, we belong to something wider that we have to acknowledge, and that the Biennale is addressing. The Biennale speaks about recognizing a greater assembly of voices and beings, in all of their diversity and complexity, in all of their distance and yet high familiarity. Artists can have a voice that is calling towards that, which is something that is urgently needed, and I dare to think that every actor in the city can also be a part of this. Now, if people want to embrace it or not is very much their decision. These are liberal democratic propositions. So, we'll see. We'll see in May.

We'll see in May. Pray tell, can you name a specific example you have encountered while working here that could serve as a tool or a narrative for making a new enchantement possible? Something you can share?

Yes, of course! I've been to the Līgo this summer, the Midsummer celebration. And I saw this moment of a real enchantment between humans and cosmic rhythms, with flowers, with plants and fire, and this was really surprising, because something like that had been very foreign to me, we don't have such strong bonds with nature in France, except for the wine – at least not where I grew up. I had never lived such moment of celebration between humans and the Earth, I’m more familiar with agriculture, so the use and at times abuse of earth resources – very productivist bounds and interests. And this was a truly enchanting moment in the sense that... By enchanting I mean... Etymologically “being enchanted” is about hearing a voice that fills you with a sense of pleasure, a sense of magic, a sense of wonder. And when I say “re-enchantment”, when I use this term, what I'm trying to ask is – what kind of new voices can we hear to be filled with pleasure, desire, wonder. And I felt like during Līgo there was this moment of listening to such voices. To other rhythms. So it was a very moving, very interesting moment that has to do with the identity and with these rituals I have now been a part of. I am very modest about being able to share a foreign experience, but it was quite a strong moment for me. This is the first example that came to my mind, but there have been many others. But perhaps I shouldn't spoil it for you yet.

Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel. Photo by Kristīne Madjare. Courtesy of RIBOCA 2019

Thank you very much, Rebecca!

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