A laboratory of meanings and feelings

Daiga Rudzāte, Sergej Timofejev, Una Meistere


A conversation with the team behind the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (RIBOCA)

The Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (RIBOCA3) returns this summer in a renewed format presenting parallel projects including a magazine launch, multiple shows from curator René Block, and culminating in the main biennial project curated by SUPERFLEX – There Is an Elephant in the Room.

RIBOCA3 was previously set to take place from 15 July – 2 October 2022 under the title Exercises in Respect, but the organisation made the decision to cancel the event due to the devastating Russian invasion of Ukraine. spoke with the team behind the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art: Agniya Mirgorodskaya, Commissioner; Anastasia Blokhina, Founding Director; and Inese Dābola, Executive Director.

In April of 2022, RIBOCA published the following statement: “In times like these, to envision working towards an exhibition that was supposed to be a vast celebration of art, respect and togetherness feels inconceivable whilst heinous crimes are still being committed in Ukraine. We strongly condemn the Russian attack on Ukraine and are united with everyone who calls for an immediate end of the war”. And so the biennial was postponed until the summer of 2023. Almost a year has passed, but the war is still raging on, and its end is still beyond the event horizon… Did the RIBOCA team ever wish to postpone the biennial to an even further date? How do you feel about an art festival unfolding upon a background of still-ongoing bloodshed?

Inese Dābola: Since 24 February 2022, the day Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it was no longer possible to keep on the way we used to. The old world crumbled with each missile strike, and it was clear that nothing would be the same anymore. Having discussed it with our curators, on the next day we announced that we would be halting our preparations for the biennial and instead pouring all our resources into helping people seeking asylum from war in Latvia. Together with our partners and friends, we began working on the Common Ground centre, which helped not only the people forced to leave their homes because of the war, but us as well, letting our minds stay clear and sane. It’s hard to imagine that more than a year has passed; over this year the centre has turned into an organisation of its own, having held more than a hundred events and seen more than 20 000 visitors.

In May of 2022 we were invited to speak at the Venice Biennale for a conference on art in times of crisis. I flew in for my talk, staying for only a day and a half, but I felt extremely strange: I’m in Venice, everyone is drinking Aperol, having conversations, and it seems like the war is somewhere very far away and not related to anything here at all. And then I found myself at Manifesta in Kosovo, where the war had ended many years ago but one could still feel its apparent presence – not merely its consequences. Local institutions were working with this subject matter, with their audiences and the international community, and through their own context they were making sense of their trauma.

I think that you can’t be working with contemporary art and the subtle meanings it holds if you exist outside the context and don’t meet the challenge of the present moment. The war is perhaps seen differently in Latvia than in Italy or Germany, but it doesn’t change the crux of the matter: blood is being spilled and you can’t stand idly by, pretending like nothing is happening and living your life as usual. Instead, you’re helping, talking to people, looking for money and supplies, spreading the word on what’s going on, and listening.

Our new exhibition will be completely different from what we’ve planned previously, but it will be congruent with the spirit of the times and will be raising many questions. This won’t be an art festival with a dramatic opening, but rather a laboratory of meanings and feelings that are reacting to different processes.

Our new exhibition will be completely different from what we’ve planned previously, but it will be congruent with the spirit of the times and will be raising many questions.

The theme of the third edition of RIBOCA, proposed by its curator René Block, was Exercises in Respect. During the past year, the SUPERFLEX art collective has joined RIBOCA3 as curators. Has it changed the subtitle of the biennial? Is it still Exercises in Respect? What has SUPERFLEX brought to it?

Agniya Mirgorodskaya: SUPERFLEX was invited by RIBOCA and René Block at the moment when the concept of Exercises in Respect was fading away with the brutal war unfolding a few hundred kilometres away. We had a feeling that we needed to do everything differently – step up, tackle difficult questions, discuss uncomfortable topics, stop pretending and posing, and call for openness, sincerity and solidarity in these difficult times in order to be able to get through it all together. There Is an Elephant in the Room is the new title of the exhibition. It is a phrase that serves as a reminder of the things that go unsaid but which must be addressed. It implies that a topic cannot be brought up because of fear of friction. But we should not be afraid of friction – we should embrace it. Through art and public programming, the biennial will present an opportunity for friction and highlight the complex social relations that already exist in the city. Taking the idea of a biennial literally, There Is an Elephant in the Room will utilise a two-year structure. Over these two years, there will be between 5 and 25 artworks presented. These will be primarily situated in public spaces and will engage local residents by putting focus on the city and establishing an artistic infrastructure in an urban space. These works will be accompanied by a public programme featuring workshops, talks and live acts with the overall aim of fostering debate and making space for a plurality of perspectives. SUPERFLEX will create the setting for these conversations: a large LED artwork, There Is an Elephant in the Room, will be placed inside a transparent building that will host the talks and discussions. This room will function as a centre for RIBOCA3 and a site for assembly.

We want to create a platform for discussion where no questions are considered inappropriate – where we invite everyone involved to put their elephants on the table and contribute to the discussion. We are very happy and inspired to be working together with SUPERFLEX especially this year, when the collective is celebrating its 30th birthday.

We want to create a platform for discussion where no questions are considered inappropriate – where we invite everyone involved to put their elephants on the table and contribute to the discussion.

With the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the question of RIBOCA’s financing has become more acute. The participating artists, and the community in general, obviously want more transparency in this issue. What is going to be the source of financial support for the third edition of the biennial? Are you being supported by the Latvian State or Riga City Council?

Agniya Mirgorodskaya: For the past seven years, ever since its inception, RIBOCA was supported in large by my family money. However, from the beginning we were also very focused on working with different sources of support, both public and private.

For RIBOCA1 in 2018, we were supported by the Danish Arts Foundation, Flanders State of Art, Frame Finland, IASPIS (The Swedish Arts Grants Committee), IFA (Germany), the Cultural Endowment of Estonia, the Mondriaan Fund, the Arts Promotion Centre Finland, the Oslo National Academy of Arts, the U.S. Embassy in Riga, Acción Cultural Española, and VKKF (SCCF). For RIBOCA2 in 2020, we were supported by the National Film Centre of Latvia, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, the Federal Chancellery of Austria, Frame Finland, the Institut Français, the Italian Council, the Mondriaan Fund, OCA (Office for Contemporary Art Norway), Phileas, Pro Helvetia, the Wallonie-Bruxelles International Foundation, IFA Germany, the Lithuanian Council for Culture, the VV Foundation, Dansk Kulturinstitut, VKKF (SCCF), as well as the Austrian, Lithuanian, Estonian, Swiss and Norwegian Embassies in Riga and the Baltic Culture Fund (in partnership with Temnikova & Kasela Gallery (EST) and Rupert (LT).

For the edition in 2022, we have secured support from the Federal Chancellery of Austria, Frame Finland, the Boris Lurie Art Foundation, the Henry Moore Foundation, the Danish Arts Council, the SAHA Foundation, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, the Mondriaan Fund, Phileas, IASPIS, IFA Germany, and the Cultural Endowment of Estonia. In 2023 we have ongoing funding from Phileas and the Danish Art Institute. Currently RIBOCA is also maintaining two Creative Europe projects – the Perennial Biennial (a consortium of five biennials in Europe – the Berlin Biennial, the Liverpool Biennial, the Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts, the Bergen Assembly, and RIBOCA) and the ERASMUS+ project “RIBOCA Repository of Knowledge”.

After the war had started, we refused any funding from Russia despite my father’s business not being under sanctions. During the past year we have rearranged the whole structure.

After the war had started, we refused any funding from Russia despite my father’s business not being under sanctions. During the past year we have rearranged the whole structure. My husband, Robert William Pokora, and I have established the Just a Moment Foundation in the USA, which will serve as the main funding body for RIBOCA and other projects in the art field. The foundation’s main source of funding is a dedicated endowment structure in which income comes from the real estate and investments that are the main focus of my husband’s work; this will support the artistic initiatives, securing their longevity and allowing for long-term planning. We will also keep fundraising all over the world.

Notes by René Block

Has there been any change in the list of participants for RIBOCA3 since the 20 January 2022 announcement? Have there been any changes in the selection of works from these participants?

Agniya Mirgorodskaya: It was very important for us to document the Exercises in Respect exhibition, which really only exists in René Block’s head. When we decided to change the format, we reached out to all our artists with a choice to either publish the sketches they already had, or to use their page for statements about the war. Krista and Reinis Dzudzilo, for example, did exactly that, creating a subtle collage using family photos; Anika Kars gave her page to the Records of War organisation documenting and archiving the testimonies of people who’ve suffered from the war in Ukraine. Of course, there were artists who didn’t want to participate; we were ready to accept this since, in our opinion, it’s a personal choice for each creator – a choice we highly respect. The magazine comes out today, and with it we’re drawing a line under the Exercises in Respect project.

The new main project for the biennial There Is an Elephant in the Room is an exhibition with a different list of artists – around 25 participants. Both in its artistic practice and in its curation work for this biennial, SUPERFLEX is focused on art as infrastructure, so it was important for the collective to weave some sort of binding thread connecting this biennial to previous exhibitions that would show the evolution of the artistic process. So the There Is an Elephant in the Room list has names from Exercises in Respect, as well as some names familiar from the first and second RIBOCA editions. Then an exhibition at Kunsthalle Møen44* (Denmark) will bring together artists from Latvia, Finland, Denmark and Sweden. All of them were initially invited to participate in Exercises in Respect. Also, in August René Block will present in Riga a show called Fragment as part of the biennial, in which we will see both new and old names.

The theme of RIBOCA2 was the search for alternate scenarios for humanity, an attempt to look at our collective future with optimism. However, the implementation of this idea was compromised by the pandemic and the global quarantine. The biennial took place regardless, both as an exhibit and a film. But today, global developments no longer seem to resonate with any sort of optimism. How do you feel when you look towards the future now?

Anastasia Blokhina: First of all, we are looking forward to a future where this senseless, bloody war is over. This is what’s most important. Culture, art and education are the values we and other like-minded people hold dear; it’s the foundation we can and must use to build a future for us and our children. When the war had just begun, I had a Zoom conference with other European biennial directors. We quickly discussed the questions around some shared project, and then a heavy silence fell. Then we began to share our thoughts and feelings; we all came to realise that every single one of us felt hopeless and powerless. As people who had dedicated their lives to working with artists and subtle meanings – who had lived in a world that fostered equality, care and respect – we felt that we had failed. Everything we had ever done seemed worthless as the world splintered along one axis, became more aggressive and subsumed under the rhetoric of hate and division. This was very hard to deal with. But we still think that we can’t give up. These times are no one's but ours, and no one but us can change them. So as long as it’s possible and people still need it, we will continue making projects, working with audiences, showing and telling about the world through the eyes of artists, talking about meanings and principles, and calling for peace and mutual respect.

Culture, art and education are the values we and other like-minded people hold dear; it’s the foundation we can and must use to build a future for us and our children.

Holding the biennial in Riga was a choice partly due to the city’s location. How did this geographic perception change in our new political reality?

Anastasia Blokhina: Riga and Latvia have historically been territories of clashes between cultures – a territory of resistance whose people, despite everything, have managed to preserve their own culture, a culture they praise and cherish. Latvia has unequivocally supported Ukraine since day one, and together with the other Baltic states, holds a strong and active stance – which often differs from the positions of other EU partners. At the same time, Latvia has accepted many Russian opposition journalists, while Lithuania – many of Russia’s structural opposition. The fact that Riga houses both a lot of Ukrainian refugees and Russian opposition journalists only adds to our audience and allows us to work with many different meanings and stories. Riga has been, and still is, one of the most important cities in the region, and the current situation only highlights that.

The current political situation makes our work even more prescient, and our team’s combination of openness, strength and courage enables us to not be distracted by topics dictated by populism and just keep doing our own work.

The current political situation makes our work even more prescient, and our team’s combination of openness, strength and courage enables us to not be distracted by topics dictated by populism and just keep doing our own work.

Can the biennial format itself – a grandiose exhibition that takes place every two years – keep up with a rapidly and dramatically changing world?

Anastasia Blokhina: The beauty of the biennial format is in its mutability: every couple of years you’re working with a new curator, a new team, a new theme. Of course, first the pandemic, and then the war, have shown us that it’s often difficult for this format to react to the challenges of a rapidly changing world. Despite this, if we exclude Venice, the trend for exhibitions has lately been tending towards smaller-scale events that are more local, or built around special public and educational programmes more focused on regional specifics. Our position is obviously more advantageous – we are a young organisation with a different financing structure, and we have a wider field in which to experiment than a lot of our colleagues. However, the necessity for a change – dictated by the pandemic, the war and other global crises – is apparent. Contemporary art institutions must be keen on reacting sensitively to the needs of both their viewers and artistic ideas, so it’s quite possible that we’ll see a lot of new formats in the near future – starting with our own biennial.

We’re working on these issues a lot with our colleagues from the International Biennial Association. For example, currently there’s a lot of discussion around the responsibility the institutions owe to artists – the protection of their rights – and it’s amazing to see how the focus is shifting towards the artists themselves and their well-being.

How do you see the role of RIBOCA in today’s world, locally and internationally, and what is the main goal of the institution?

Agniya Mirgorodskaya: For us, it was always very important to encourage and instigate collaborations between Baltic and international artists and curators, as well as to work with the audience in the region. For example: Katerina Gregos curated the solo show of Ēriks Apaļais after their collaboration at RIBOCA1; Andris Eglītis and Katrīna Neiburga were invited to make a commission in Berlin by Solvej Ovesen; Lina Lapelyte and Rebecca Lamarche Vadel worked together on Lina’s solo show at Lafayette Anticipations; and Evita Vasiljeva is the artist in residence at René Block’s Kunsthalle on the island of Møn in Denmark. We would be very happy to have increasingly more of these connections and collaborations in the future.

For us, it was always very important to encourage and instigate collaborations between Baltic and international artists and curators, as well as to work with the audience in the region.

But of course, regionally, the role of RIBOCA is what it has always been – we are the largest event in the region, we work with different audiences, and we are not focused on the professional community but try to extend our outreach to everyone. And, of course, we are very focused on education, such as through our project “RIBOCA Repository of Knowledge”, supported by the Erasmus + programme; and last year we created 20 learning kits by different artists – you can learn kinetics and physics with Valdis Celms, or lichen grammar with Aiste Ambrazeviciute, or law and politics with Stine Marie Jacobsen. All of the learning kits are available for free on our website (translated into Latvian, Russian, Ukrainian, Finnish and Lithuanian) and can be used both by teachers in classrooms and parents at home. 
Internationally, we are also very focused on collaborative work and experience exchange – after successfully completing the first Perennial Biennial project that lasted five years, we have applied with some new partners for continuation of research and collaboration between European biennials. We work a lot with the International Biennial Association as well, exploring new formats, responsible production, creating industry best practice guidelines, and many more questions.

Do you plan to invite artists from Ukraine to RIBOCA3?

Inese Dābola: Boris Mikhailov is already participating in the exhibition on Møn island, the Fragment exhibition will also have Ukrainian artists, and as for the main There Is an Elephant in the Room project, we’re still at the negotiation stage and hope to invite one or two Ukrainian artists to make a new commission and work with our urban space.

What is the role of the artists of the Baltic region in the fabric of the upcoming biennial?

Inese Dābola: Our main goal is to create infrastructure and opportunities for artists from the region; their participation in international projects is also very important to us, as we’ve already seen in Berlin, Paris, Athens and other cities. International collaboration will remain a focus for us also in the future.

This year four Baltic artists – Māris Subačs, Evelīna Deičmane, Evita Vasiļjeva and Dace Džeriņa – are participating in the Møen Kunsthalle exhibition that will become an important milestone in the institution’s history. The Intermezzo exhibition opens the renewed Kunsthalle 44Møen, which now also houses a residence at which Evita Vasiļjeva is the first artist to participate in, as well as a special hall for performances and concerts. Dace Džeriņa's film, commissioned by the Riga biennial, will also be shown in Riga as part of the Fragment exhibition. The main project will also include names from Baltic countries, and we’re hoping for the region’s active participation in the public programme, which will be the most important element of There Is an Elephant in the Room.

It is no secret that the biennial has had strong opposition from the local art scene since the very beginning. It was highly appreciated abroad, but it’s still a stranger within the local art community. How will you handle this issue in the future, and – from your point of view – what could have been done better previously?

Inese Dābola: When SUPERFLEX suggested its concept for RIBOCA3, There Is an Elephant in the Room, my first thought was that (at least for some people in our city) the biennial itself is that elephant. Why don't we address it? Again and again. Since 2016, when RIBOCA first began, there was a lot of suspicion. Why would one do a project like this on such a large scale? Some called us a Russian project. Which might hurt, but I can understand why this attitude was there. But that was seven years ago. Seven. Since then, we have produced more than 200 artworks, and I don't know how many public events and talks we have held. Since 24 Feb 2022, there were those who publicly stated that RIBOCA should stop its existence. This was all happening while we were trying to help – in any possible way – those who were coming to Riga, as well as restructuring the Biennial foundation and taking all needed actions. What saddens me is that in spite of international recognition, there was not much activity outside our organisation to help save this project. Should we become more like a city-project instead of being mostly privately funded? Perhaps there are other suggestions?

It is important to critically address any new projects and initiatives, but it’s just as important to keep an open mind and judge from actions and not from one’s assumptions. I’m tremendously grateful to Agniya that she agreed to start this project in Riga, and not in any other Baltic country or elsewhere. This wasn't always an easy project to pursue, but there have been so many amazing moments. It's not just a project for us, although it’s a great part of our lives. All of us have grown during this process. So many artists have become our close friends – even a family.

It is important to critically address any new projects and initiatives, but it’s just as important to keep an open mind and judge from actions and not from one’s assumptions.

Could you tell us more about the upcoming exhibition at the Kunsthalle Møen44 ?

Anastasia Blokhina: This exhibition was always planned to happen in 2023, with RIBOCA3 happening in 2022. This is the way René likes to work: he always explores different regions, finds connections and new names, and creates new concepts out of it. So this year, René invited 13 Latvian and Nordic artists to participate in the exhibition at Kunsthal 44Møen, located on the island of Møn, a UNESCO-declared biosphere reserve just off the coast of south-eastern Denmark where Block lives and works part-time. This is a very special place, full of powerful nature and important memories: Joseph Beuys, as well as many other artists, used to spend summers here.

For the exhibition, artists from Latvia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Ukraine will gather on the island to think, reflect and tell stories – some new, some that had been interrupted. For example, Evita Vasiļjeva, who had originally planned to install her concrete reversed benches on Andrejsala in Riga, will now turn pre-existing Danish benches upside down. Dace Džeriņa’s gentle and poetic film about a decaying manor in Kurzeme, Latvia, commissioned for the original concept of RIBOCA3, will now serve as a connecting link between the exhibitions in Denmark and Riga. Jason Dodge, from the island of Møn, will create an abstract installation using floor surfaces. Bjørn Nørgaard's container will take a proud place in front of the Kunsthal, creating a platform for conversation and exchange between industry and nature, locals and tourists, and people and other species. Humorous drawings by Māris Subačs, framed into a wall installation, will serve as a reminder that one can discuss serious things in a playful manner.

The 2023 season is an important milestone for 44Møen. After one year of construction work, 44Møen is reopening with new facilities: Klanghallen for concerts, installations and events; Studio 44Møen for visiting artists and schools; and the Residency for shorter and longer stays for artists and guests.

Bjørnstjerne Christiansen (SUPERFLEX), Agniya Mirgorodskaya, Anastasia Blokhina, René Block, Inese Dābola


*Kunsthal 44Møen is an international exhibition space located on the island of Møn, in southern Denmark. The kunsthalle was established in 2008 by German curator and collector René Block in close collaboration with a group of friends with tight ties to the island: Danish artist Bjørn Nørgaard and Danish experimental composer and Fluxus artist Henning Christiansen.
Since its foundation, Kunsthal 44Møen has been presenting an ambitious exhibition programme featuring both emerging and well-established artists from Denmark and abroad.

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