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A conversation with iLiana Fokianaki on her curatorial proposal for Survival Kit 13.

  • Aug 29 2022
  • iLiana Fokianaki
    is a curator, researcher, and theorist based in Athens and Rotterdam. Fokianaki’s curatorial interests focus around the manifold manifestations of power and the ways in which they can be examined via contemporary culture, looking specifically at the influence of geopolitics, national identity, and cultural and anthropological histories. In the last three years, through “The Bureau of Care”, the research platform she founded and that received the European Cultural Foundation’s solidarity grant in 2020, Fokianaki is looking into the concept of care and how its politics and ethics are related to environmental and social justice.

Founded in 2009 as a reaction towards the global economic crisis, Survival Kit is one of the largest contemporary art events in the Baltic. Every year, the festival is dedicated to a new and significant social topic which calls for various survival strategies within the constantly shifting world of today Arriving at its 13th edition under the curatorship of iLiana Fokianaki and entitled "The little bird must be caught", Survival Kit looks at cultural practices which position themselves against various forms of authoritarianism and oppressions. The title addresses the narcissistic reasons behind the global upsurge of conflicts while giving space to those silenced by authoritarian powers. In this exchange, iLiana Fokianaki shares her visions on survival, refusal, and the necessary shifts in art for social renewal.

In the past pandemic years, survival has become the most compelling and diffuse mission for humans and non-humans. What is this year’s focus of the festival, iLiana?

Survival Kit started as a local response to the global financial crisis back in 2009. Since then, many urgent issues have gathered under the general theme of “survival”. I was invited to submit a proposal in September 2021, and when I landed in Latvia in October, a third and very severe lockdown had just been announced. I somehow managed to visit the 12th edition of the festival. At that moment, questions that related to how silence and silencing have affected our everyday life were prominent for me in relation to the pandemic, and I was very much inspired by the complicated past of the country as one of the Soviet states that liberated itself with the collapse of the USSR. Little did I know that being inspired by the silencing of those times would be a very poignant and urgent question after Putin waged war in Ukraine.  This year, calling for the consideration of various survival strategies in the face of the threat of authoritarianism and oppression in Europe and the world may be more urgent than ever. 

In these moments of crisis, many voices are heard and some are oppressed. How did sonic landscapes become a source of inspiration for the festival? Are they a path to redistributing knowledge and forms of resistance and solidarity? 

Initially, I was preoccupied with the newfound silence that the global pandemic caused. It was both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, we were walking in streets with zero traffic and noise pollution, and in the centers of the cities you could hear birds singing for the first time, but on the other hand, the loneliness that so many felt was defined by a deafening, eerie, and depressing silence. All these things were true for those of us who were already in privileged situations: In our safe homes, with heating, food, and access to functioning health care systems. Those who were disenfranchised and not part of what loosely can be described as the West were even more unheard: Countries that did not belong to the rich (European) North and the West at large were silently witnessing thousands of deaths of their citizens even after vaccines were made available to the West. In some cases, they are still witnessing thousands of deaths. There are hundreds of thousands of people who have died without access to proper healthcare, silent victims not only of Covid-19 but of social injustice. Class disparity and accumulation of wealth, as well as the careless face of the contemporary nation-state were made all the more clear. In other words, this silence provoked new thoughts that led to wider questions related to silence, silencing, repression, and authoritarianism, all of which have been part of my research and interests for some years, but I was now seeing them under a new light. My 2018 essays on narcissistic authoritarian statism, which referenced Putin and other authoritarian figures, turned into flesh in the ugliest way through the war in Ukraine. It is very different to discuss repression, silencing, and authoritarianism in a country that feels the war breathing down its neck. Latvians and generally the countries that neighbor Ukraine and Russia feel the threat and effects of this conflict much more closely than the rest of us.

Dora García, The Hearing Voices Cafe Paper (most recent issue) The Hearing Voices Cafe (at the Colomboscope Festival, Colombo) Sri Lanka, 2022.
Courtesy the artist
Photo: Lojithan Ram

Humans keep causing their own extinction and keep irreparably destroying ecosystems and cultures. Historically, survival is the requisite of the oppressor, but not the oppressed. In light of these two premises of capitalism, aren’t we all entitled to survive in the same way?

I would name what you are calling a redistribution of extinction. I agree completely that this is what would be fair. Of course, survival as an idea is a concept that we cannot discuss outside of concepts such as class, geopolitics, and other privileges – or non-privileges. So, what is a secured survival, say, for a European for the next decade is not a guaranteed survival for someone currently residing in the Sahara. Having said that, at this very moment, I am writing these responses while massive wildfires are raging in Greece. Among the affected areas are important Natura 2000 zones, such as the Dadia Forest, where 92 species of birds of prey have found refuge from all over Europe due to climate change over these last decades and are now threatened to go fully extinct. So, we are witnessing an ecological catastrophe of massive magnitude unfolding in real time, and it certainly shifts the way you think, work, and, overall, operate in the world. 

The climate catastrophe is already irreversibly looming upon us. I would be curious to know what comes after the bare state of surviving? 

I feel this question assumes there is an after. This catastrophe will not disappear, even if we completely dismantle the fossil fuel industry tomorrow. So, I am not hopeful, because the premise with which we begin is that our life in the coming decades is going to be very difficult. What is at stake today, however, is the possibility for meaningful survival. But what the scientific facts tell us is that predatory capitalism has already done its damage, and it will be very difficult to survive this. It makes me think: Predatory birds, predatory capitalism; predators cannot escape extinction…

Laure Prouvost, This Voice Is A Pink Cloud, Sound Installation, 2014.
Copyright and courtesy the artist

How does Survival Kit articulate a critical discourse on authoritarianism and oppression? 

This edition of Survival Kit looks at the relationship between art and democracy through the scope of art, and attempts to make us think of questions that relate to the sonic and its relationship to power structures and state violence. Angles linked to authoritarianism and freedom of speech are prominent, such as whistleblowing and art as testimony of state violence. Many of the works, of course, are directed towards the war in Ukraine, because this was – and still is – the urgent subject matter for all of us, but even more so for the people of Riga and Latvia who are hosting this event. Central Europe has a different relationship to Russia since the Second World War. The geopolitics in the region have also defined today’s politics of the countries in the area: Let us not forget that the Baltic countries liberated themselves from the USSR only 30 years ago, so the memories are still very fresh. But to link this with your previous questions, of course inquiries on ecology and our future survival are also there, but are mainly discussed through, for instance, the weaponization of nature for state propaganda and repression. 

Can you tell us more about the selected participants of the festival and how they will engage with the topic of this year?

I would prefer that you come and see. We are extremely lucky to have an incredible group of thinkers and artists trusting us with their practices for both the exhibition and the public program. Participating artists are: Forensic Architecture, Andrius Arutiunian, Sammy Baloji, Rufina Bazlova, Candice Breitz, Juris Boiko and Hardijs Lediņš, Vera Chotzoglou, Sanja Ivekovic, Kapwani Kiwanga, Chrysanthi Koumianaki, Rojava Film Commune, Ansis Epners, Kristaps Epners, Dora García, Almagul Menlibayeva, Marina Naprushkina, Ahmet Öğüt, Antonis Pittas, Susan Philipsz, Laure Prouvost, Tabita Rezaire, Mykola Ridnyi, Krišs Salmanis, Erica Scourti, Indrė Šerpytytė, Sabīne Šne, Maryam Tafakory, Wu Tsang, Raed Yassin, Valdis Villerušs, and Anton Vidokle. The little bird must be caught is the title of the exhibition and is inspired by a poem by Ojārs Vācietis, a Latvian poet who, through his work, resisted silencing and authoritarianism. The poem, although written in the 1970s, is eerily contemporary. Thinking through his words, this exhibition focuses on how sound, music, voice, the sonic, utterance, have played a role throughout human history in defining, marking, contouring, and characterizing historical moments of emancipation: Actions against repression and authoritarianism, the relationship of sound to freedom of speech, the power of the voice, and the role of the sonic in resistance, revolution, and self-determination. The works presented discuss, consider, and address the role of art in historical and contemporary modes of self-determination, resistance with an emphasis on music and the sonic as forms of peaceful protest, declarative gestures, and collective performativity. So there are several sub-themes that emerge in the exhibition that discuss questions pertaining to art, democracy, authoritarianism, repression, and silencing. For instance, Forensic Architecture’s investigations highlight the role of art as the whistleblower. In the cases of Rufina Baslova or Mykola Ridnyi, the artist becomes the recorder of oral testimonies. 

Russian Attack on the Kyiv TV Tower, video still, 2022.
Courtesy and copyright Forensic Architecture and Center for Spatial Technologies

What do these inquiries aim to connect to?

In the aftermath of the global pandemic, our sonic landscapes changed, making us feel the role of sound when the world’s slowing down meant a newfound, numbing silence. Simultaneously, it made clear that even in times of health crisis, injustice cannot be silenced, as demonstrated by the global movement of Black Lives Matter that filled streets, ears, and minds with slogans about freedom, equality, and social justice; the global manifestations of a revived environmental movement that made us listen beyond the human-centric perspective of the world; and the recent solidarity marches for the people of Ukraine in anti-war demonstrations the world over. 

The skills to survive in environments ruled by economic scarcity have mostly been the romanticized attributes of artists: Dropping out, living autonomously in the wild, the list is long. How would you repopulate the field of arts with infrastructures and models that go beyond survival and its romanticism-inducing scarcity? 

It’s difficult to answer this question. The skills to survive in financial precarity are different for an artist than they are for a factory worker with five children waiting to be fed at home. When you choose a profession that is by default extremely precarious and uncertain, it means that you either come from a background that secures your livelihood through other ways, or assists you to be able to survive and be a cultural worker (usually underpaid or not paid at all in the beginning), or that you live in a state that allows, in any way possible, your creativity. The latter, very much part of the remnants of social democracy, is now a reality for only a few countries of the Global North. What we can do is to first break the preconceptions that a) cultural workers need poverty in order to be inspired, and b) that cultural workers are not workers but hobbyists who do not need to work. To acknowledge this also requires accepting that we do have privileges in our precarity, and that this precarity needs to be discussed: Self-exploitation and free labor, underpaid positions, being burnt out, et cetera. 

The question is, rather, asking about different models and tools of survival, insisting that there is a need to synthesize how we look at today’s working class, since we can see people struggling to be part of the art system, despite coming from poverty. That’s how the art system can distribute its infrastructure in order to be tentacular and accessible to everyone. Can we look at that possibility?

I think we do not look at the working class enough, if I am being frank. My impression is that a large part of the contemporary art world is quite detached from the working class and social injustices at large. If we look at the average salary of a curatorial assistant in the majority of European museums, it is a low salary, somehow implying that young curators do not need the money to survive, therefore implying that these positions are for those who do not think of a salary as a means of survival. This is the paradox with the art world: That, in theory, it is interested in justice, class struggle, and so on, but in practice it is brutally indifferent to providing the means for survival.  So this is why an art magazine for the arts of the working class is quite an interesting idea, putting forward all these questions. Predatory capitalism is a model that seems to have been convenient for many institutions that hold power (big museums and so on), not the root of the art system. 

Rufina Bazlova, Maria Kalesnikava, Seizure of Power Case, back, 2022. Copyright and Courtesy the artist

But allow us to look, then, into the allyships that the so-called art system needs to articulate, beyond rhetoric, in order to rethink its own structures and “leave no one behind”.

I think it is impossible to “leave no one behind”, to really think with a Butlerian thinking hat, complete inclusion is something that is almost impossible to reach, even in civic society and its struggles, let alone in the powerful institutions of the art world where allyships are defined by profit, visibility, capital et cetera. But, to offer a counter-theory here, the impossibility of “leaving no one behind” is also impossible lately, because there are many that wish to be left behind; that refuse to have a spot in a change that is full of compromises. It is this right of refusal, or the right to be misunderstood (Saidiya Hartman speaks about it in Scenes of Subjection): It can be used as a form of resistance to predatory capitalism, after which the contemporary art world is based: a very extractivist model of survivalist production, making it very difficult to form allyships that are lasting, honest, and meaningful and not corroded by cutthroat competition. But there are many examples that show us that these allyships do exist. I know of many art and curatorial collectives that have withstood time, WhW being one of them, for instance. And to give a recent example, ruangrupa. I feel that their curation of documenta15 has proven to be such an example, in celebrating generosity and comradeship; demonstrating all that collective and collaborative practices can offer. Although it was sabotaged from the get-go by conservative and white suprematist voices in Germany, it will be a historical documenta. 

Potentially yes, not only as an example, but in practice, cutting the documenta foundation’s and German imperialism’s throats.

I am not sure they will be able to do that, but they certainly offer a mirror of how racism and white supremacy are still alive and kicking. The curatorial proposal of ruangrupa is extremely successful in that it makes crystal clear that non-predatory or competitive collective practice can replace the current art system. The documenta foundation, thankfully, has not managed to take that away from this curatorial team to the delight of every visitor I know.

Will you work in Riga like that?

Well, I am not a collective, I am but one person, but I have had the pleasure and luck to work with fantastic women for this edition of Survival Kit. I have always been aware that I am a parachuting guest in this festival, and exactly because I am discussing issues that pertain to sensitive histories of Latvia, I always seek the approval of the locals. This year, Survival Kit is hosted in a building that oversees the square in the Old Riga neighborhood, where the “barricades” took place during the struggle for independence. Historically, it is an extremely loaded space, and the perfect locus for where the exhibition begins. It is a much anticipated festival in the Baltics. I am invited as a curator from the outside, but it is not a parachuting project of an external institution. Rather, it organically grows within the walls of the city, since it is initiated by the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art (LCCA). Apart from the director of LCCA, Solvita Krese, and the curator Inga Lace, who have been valuable interlocutors and extremely generous with their time and thoughts, I am very careful to listen to the knowledge and experiences of the local agents and adapt my curatorial vision to them. I feel one should do that, because otherwise, what is the point? In terms of the local versus global, the exhibition is inspired by a local poet so as to discuss global issues of repression and authoritarianism,  always through the local perspective. Thus, the local demands are always connected to global questions, and I try to underline these synapses without claiming I could understand what it is to speak from Riga. But as Trinh T. Minh-ha says, I aim to “speak nearby,” since the Baltics and the Balkans have a lot in common: political history and repression, but also other, more pleasant things, like our customs and foods. 

Questions were formulated by Dalia Maini.


Banner: Sammy Baloji, Tales of the Copper Cross Garden, Installation, 2017.
Photo:Sébastien Laval



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