The founding director and the commissioner of Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (RIBOCA). Coming from St. Petersburg she has traveled the world, learned many languages, studied political sciences and art business. After making a decision to start something on her own in the non-profit sector, she developed the concept of a biennial and found herself in Latvia. A few years ago she moved to Riga and the first edi-tion of RIBOCA was opened on May 2018. The exhibition was curated by Greek-born and Belgium-based Katerina Gregos, with works by 114 international artists, which attracted more than 50 thousand visitors. The course is set and RIBOCA2 is already approaching.
How did art find its way into your life?
I don’t come from a background related to arts and I must say that it found me without me being conscious of it. I’ve always been drawn to everything that would give me something on top of everyday life and would provide me with a sort of extra layer of our mundane reality – be it philosophical texts or Renaissance paintings, or some unconventional theatre performance. Culture in the broad sense of the word was something that I felt I needed. It was almost existential for me and it manifested in different forms. I am very fond of theatre and even after discovering it worldwide I’m still quite conservative in this view. I firmly believe that there’s nothing comparable to Russian drama theatre – for me it’s a sign of excellence.
I come from St. Petersburg and it’s such an amazing place that I had the feeling I was growing up with this notion that culture is all around you. The Hermitage was almost next door to where I lived and I would very often go there and spend long hours contemplating and learning along the way. I would revisit my favourite Rembrandt room all the time, and after years of doing that it became a sort of necessity. I just feel like I’m getting a full experience of life through art. I think related to this is my fascination with languages, which offer a translation or an extra dimension to the world around us. By learning a new language, you expand your view on different cultures. Language carries everything that culture of a certain country is about and you expand your world view to another level. I found learning languages a fundamental tool for me.
You have a degree in linguistics.
True. First I took up Italian, as I was blown away by the beauty of cities like Florence and Venice very early on, and yes I know I’m not unique in that. I was 16 or so and I felt that I somehow wanted to get closer to this culture and everything that I saw on my first trip to Italy. Later on I turned to everything Spanish and gained BA in Hispanic studies. I guess I just realized that it’s more practical. Those were five years of extensive studies and I was fortunate enough to be among almost the last generation that had the chance to learn from the professors that belonged to the old school of Russian academics and were extremely knowledgeable. I don’t think that the world produces these kinds of people anymore. They were like walking encyclopedias and it’s a whole different experience when you have someone, like a younger teacher, who would just direct you towards this or that book, for example, or one of these professors who carried it all in his or her head and would give you so much with their own expertise. And of course it wasn’t just a language, it was the history, literature, and art throughout all periods starting Antiquity. For me it was a very valuable yet not so easy time in my life and it gave me an important base that I carry along with me till this point. I had to read so many books that I would never have done otherwise, and that sticks.
So you speak five languages?
Yes, Spanish, French, English, Russian and Lithuanian as being my mother-tongue. Its actually an important part of me that I’m half Lithuanian and because of that I think I’ve always felt that I’m somewhere in between and back in Russia I sometimes felt like an outsider. We would speak Lithuanian at home and for me and my younger sister it was like a secret language because no one would understand what we were talking about; to them it sounded imaginary. I remember being looked at because of that and felt like a dinosaur. In a good way, though! I enjoyed the feeling of being different, not really belonging. And, yes, I thing being able to speak as many languages as you can, is like a superpower. So, as I was very much drawn to getting to know different cultures and had this nomadic personality, a big part of me always knew that there would come a moment when I would leave St. Petersburg to explore new territories.
And that’s how you ended up in London?
Exactly! And somehow it felt very right, though I didn’t see it as leaving forever. I also didn’t expect myself to stay there for eight long years. Time in London provided me with the opportunity to see everything I knew, kind of zoomed out, and my view of the world changed entirely. It was quite unimaginable being back in St. Petersburg after that expe rience. It shifts your mind and you learn to think in a more global way. You detach yourself from a specific culture and start seeing everything in universal terms. And even though you cherish your own culture you can’t look beyond it. The London environment sets in your head that you have to be everywhere at once, and there are of course downsides to this because by being everywhere you’re also nowhere at all. And you often find yourself feeling lonely.
That’s also where you entered the art world and graduated from Sotheby's Institute of Art.
It was the department of business and I did try to fit in with the commercial part of the art world. I was looking at what I could do and it’s very common to start with working in an art gallery, so I did. They focused on the secondary market and would have a program of shows by contemporary artists that happened only once in a while. When I was analyzing my experience there, and later in Christie’s Russian Department, I understood that the thing that I enjoyed the most was actually meeting the artists and being involved in the process of making an exhibition. This first- hand experience, you know. I was surrounded by a thriving London art world and saw many great shows in different formats at the time, also biennials. Later on, I just thought that there was nothing better than that. It was all very intuitive, but I knew that I had to move forward in another direction, not only in the type of institution, but the type of art as well – one that is less of a commodity but more abstract. I enjoy conceptual art very much, the fluidity and works that do not necessarily have a physical form. The more tangible the art is, the more fascinated I am.
Was leaving London also one of the turning points in your decision to move to Riga and work on your own ideas?
Yes, I spent over a year in New York after London. I already had a strong desire to do the biennial back then – an idea that was still shaping in my head, but I didn’t have a clear vision where it would be. From a huge, overwhelming, and hectic city, without realizing it fully, I guess, I was looking for something opposite. The opposite of feeling like I’m nowhere. I wanted to find a place where I could be grounded and focused. Continuing my fascination with different cultures, I was extremely interested in the Baltic region and I knew that I would love to do something here. Later on I found Latvia as being in between the cultures that I’m a part of – Lithuanian and Russian. It could have easily been Vilnius, for example, and I was looking into that. But knowing it so well and having a very personal relationship and strong associations with Lithuania held me back, and I wanted to explore a place that I knew less about. It was early Spring in 2016 when I came to Riga, and even before that it was quite clear to me that in terms of contemporary art it wasn’t really “out there”, if we’re looking globally. I didn’t know much about it, so I think I can say that I had a fresh eye on what was here. It was very intuitive. With being more impartial to the place and being more of an outsider to the place, in my view, was a beneficial position to be in – to be free from pre-existing attachments. Like a neutral ground. I cannot say that I was blown away by Riga as I was with, for example, Florence, but this city is actually a very intriguing place – it’s so uneven and so different. After my first visit it left more questions than answers, but I remember that after landing here on a flight from New York I somehow felt at peace. There are some cities you visit and you get it, you know – there’s this medieval centre and so on and you can leave, but Riga has many faces. It’s more raw rather than beautified. And I hate how these days all cities are unified; you cross the border and nothing changes, everything’s the same. For me, Riga still hasn’t lost its character and I knew that all the curators and artists would see it as well. Now I can happily say I was right and I’m glad that I followed my intuition. The further we went with the process of organizing the first edition of the biennial, the more convinced I’ve become that I’ve made the right decision. I do travel a lot, but Riga for me has become the place to return to and put my thoughts in order; to decelerate, which was actually one of the main themes of RIBOCA1 exhibition.
Let’s talk about the birth of RIBOCA. How did the idea of an art biennial in Riga come to life?
I was very fortunate to get a yes from Anastasia Blokhina – the Executive Director of Riga biennial. I knew 100 percent at that moment that I would see myself doing this with her. Anastasia is a doer, an engine – she’s productive, energetic; I’m more contemplative, intuitive – a strategic thinker. So the first thing I did after visiting Riga was to call her. After that it all really started to materialize in my head, and it wasn’t long after we both moved here, driven by this still vague idea. It wasn’t easy at all – everything was new, so we spent the first six months just exploring the city together, meeting people, looking at potential venues, trying to put ourselves in the shoes of our future visitors and figuring out how we were going to do this. There were a few things we knew for certain – as we felt daring and ambitious we wanted it to be a big show. We did know that we would need a curator with a name, so there’s more of a chance to join the international art world. There are not so many ways to raise your profile, as there are so many biennials out there. At that point we were really focusing on the question, why would somebody drop everything and come to Riga to visit our biennial and how would it be different and of course interesting for the local public as well? We had no idea. At the same time, we were already looking at curators that had caught our eye. The first biennial of any kind is an amazing chance for any curator out there to do something significant. I think that’s also the reason why most of the cu- rators we approached were very interested. When there’s no heritage you need to follow, you can really be the flagman.
But it wasn’t only about the curator?
Yes, setting a foundation and figuring out what we were doing it for was the main thing. To understand what is it was all about and why it should happen. For me personally it wasn’t so much about a first-year edition, but more about answering these questions, because it’s a big step and you have to understand that it becomes your life, requiring full dedication. I think my prime reason for doing this is my absolute belief that artists are these people that can really change things. They stand above ordinary life. So I feel like I’m doing this for art’s sake. I actually want to emphasize that when I’m being asked why Riga – I have to reply in full honesty that it could have easily been anywhere else. It just happened that I found myself here, but I believe in artists and I want to witness them creating something extraordinary. And it shouldn’t be determined by the place you are on the map or where are you coming from. We could have been on the moon, you know. So I truly loved the process of learning about Riga together with all of RIBOCA1 artists – more than hundred people from all over the world. And this biennial is really about witnessing the creativity of artists in order to do something meaningful first of all for the local community and its international recognition. It even appeared to me very clearly that during RIBOCA1 I saw people of very different ages and backgrounds experiencing the artworks first hand. For the biennial to be meaningful it has to make sense to those who live here, so I hope that we’re on the right course.
Wouldn’t you say that the local viewer wasn’t yet prepared for an event of this scale, considering the fact that we cannot deny the huge lack
of education in contemporary art the local institutions are also struggling with?
We understood very early on that explaining and educating would have to be a huge part of our program. We worked with schools and different initiatives, we had a team of art mediators giving tours in the exhibition on a daily basis. But I must say that we could have had many more visitors than we had if people here were accustomed to contemporary art and had been prepared for it. It’s a problem of course, and I see that infrastructure-wise there are a lot of things missing, for example, a museum of current art, something fundamental, like Kunsthalle or CAC and MO Museum in Vilnius. Though I have to say that a lot is being done by the existing institutions and NGOs. Kim? Contemporary Art Centre and Latvian Centre for Contemporary Arts, Arterritory.com and Neputns Publishing House are putting a lot of effort and succeeding to raise the public. Of course it is a process that takes time. The main weakness here as I see it is that everyone is somehow standing alone and are not really talking to each other and collaborating. It’s not very productive. Much more could have been done if they communicated more, but I don’t know if RIBOCA is the player that would make them do that. We have to realize that in the end we’re all having the same audience. If efforts could be combined, we would definitely achieve more. It’s not a competition we’re in.
An ability to engage with the local art scene and the city itself was also one of the main qualities you were looking for in the curator of the first edition of RIBOCA.
Yes, exactly, and now I can say that it was really a jackpot to appoint Katerina Gregos as the curator for RIBOCA1. Her biggest asset is the ungraspable energy, willingness, never-ending enthusiasm and her ambition. She did invest 150 percent of herself into fulfilling this together with us. Katerina’s personality and her attitude was a huge driving force behind the whole process and hopefully the success of the biennial. And the experience she had, was of course crucial for us as well, because we were able to learn from her advice and she was very generous with sharing it along with her contacts. She was more than a curator really, and that was the idea. As I said previously, the first biennial is more than just doing this year’s edition. It’s almost like landing at a point zero. We were lucky enough to have a person that cared and was very engaged. Her priorities were set in a way that the artist came first, so we really did agree on fundamentals. She had a huge respect from all the artists she invited, from us and everyone who knew her, bringing the right kind of energy to the place. Also, her concept Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More was very timely and relevant to Riga. It captured it as a place for deceleration. A place where things regain their meaning. With her concept she reemphasized fundamental points that make Riga an important and a very fascinating place, capturing the nerve and the emotion of the time we live in. We all aim to slow down the speed and free ourselves from the anxieties to reflect on where we stand. It’s not very unique, but very relevant to nowadays.
How did the show take its form?
I think selecting the right venues was a big part of the success of the exhibition. With eight extremely interesting locations like the building of the former Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia, Kristaps Morbergs apartment, and hangars in Andrejsala, we were able to show different faces of Riga. They were also very well connected with the themes the curators and the artists discussed. Finding them to fit Katerina’s ideas was a big success for our team who listened very carefully, but were also creative and persistent, and implemented the ideas. Also, with working on more than 40 new commissions it was the collective effort of everyone on the team who were beyond dedicated; it was never a nine-to-five job and often very difficult. But the spirit and the care that was put in was what made it so special, and I think it was definitely seen by those who visited the biennial. Also the production and the high quality of it not only during the opening but throughout the five months was something that was pointed out by many of our international quests that have been to biennials all over the world. These are some of the things that I take the most pride of from our first edition. The quality and care is something that we will be holding onto and not compromise in the future editions to come, and I believe that it will make us stand out regardless of who would step in as the curator.
What can you share about the curator of RIBOCA2, who I know has already been appointed?
Yes, it’s the amazing French curator Rebecca LamarcheVadel and we are more than excited! We will announce her name along with the concept of RIBOCA2 during this year’s Venice Biennial. I can also say that the RIBOCA2 exhibition will definitely be slightly smaller in scale, regarding the number of venues and artists. After RIBOCA1 we felt that it wouldn’t suffer in quality if there were fewer venues and would be more digestible for the visitors. We will not look at the numbers, but will focus on making a meaningful and stunning exhibition. I would say that the next biennial will be 360 degrees different than the first, and it was a deliberate act. It will be a visiting experience unlike the one of RIBOCA1, appealing more to the emotions rather than to rechannel and the strict knowledge of things. Personally, I couldn’t be more excited about the artist list that I am now!
How about the program for 2019?
The inter-biennial year’s program is curated by Kaspars Vanags and is still taking shape. He was behind one of the greatest, if not the greatest, shows I’ve seen in a past few years took place in Riga and it was the exhibition, “You’ve Got 1243 Unread Messages” at the Latvian National Museum of Art and I’m extremely happy to have him on board as a new member of our team. Coming back to what’s important for us as a foundation is that we keep on working, while developing the next biennial and between these two we’re going to be having microRIBOCA. It will consist of events mostly made for the local audience and will focus on urban Riga. On top of that I would like to highlight one particular part of the program that will take place this October. We’re going to host the so-called Zeldin’s Conversations. Theodore Zeldin is an Oxford scholar and one of the major thinkers and philosophers of our day. He’s an author of many books and sociological studies, and RIBOCA will bring one of his most well known projects to Riga. Conversations take place in a speed-dating format where complete strangers sit in front of each other and are offered a menu with specific questions and topics that maybe they never thought about. I think the biggest value in this is the fact that you will not only be prompted to answer unconventional questions, but also discuss them with an individual that might be very different from you, or a person you would not otherwise speak to. The kinds of experiences that shift your everyday life are the one’s that matter, so I believe that means that we’re doing something meaningful.