Activism by artists is a fascinating subject, one could even say unusual, when we think about it. If activism by artists is presented as a problem, it implies a level of doubt about the activism or the artists. The latter concern is proposed by the team behind the Riga Photography Biennial, in a well-organised and thought-provoking symposium ‘Manifestations of (In)Activism in the Latest Baltic Art’ (6 April 2019). As is highlighted in the description of the symposium, the focus is politically oriented ‘active’ art that ‘has been much more common in Western countries than in the Baltics’. The subject matter is indeed relevant. However, we should exercise caution, because an artist can be politically active as a professional, using creative means of expression, or as a citizen, for instance, by participating in a citizen task force, or attending party political meetings. Artists often present politically charged ideas in their work in several diverse ways, and not just as the most common manifestation of political action. I shall revisit this idea towards the end of my article. The emphasis on activism can be deceptive in another way, as if artistic expression that is not overtly political has no influence and effects no change. Is an artist who enriches human experience not active?
Therefore, in this article, I propose to view the Biennial’s symposium and exhibitions in the context of art’s potential to be critical, because this framework will make it possible to achieve a better understanding of the type of activism referred to in the Biennial. Broadly speaking, in the presentations by participants in the symposium, the emphasis was on how critical and incisive artists from the Baltic States permit themselves to be, and the level of socially sensitive subjects they tackle. Likewise, exhibitions put on during the Biennial (the solo exhibitions ‘Joyful Businessmen Throwing Papers and Having Fun in the Office’ by Annija Muižule, ‘P’ by Vika Eksta, and the group show ‘(UN)NATURAL BODIES’ by young Polish artists) present views that contend for critical sharpness in relation to the unusualness and socio-political significance of the represented themes.
The adjective ‘critical’ does not have a good reputation, because it is associated with something negative: receiving criticism implies that the work is useless. At the same time, the already widespread term ‘critical thinking’ can lead us completely astray, considering that thinking by default is nothing other than critical. Thinking is a process of the consciousness, which thematises, problematises and analyses, and forms new understandings. When I think, I am being critical; and moreover, rather positively inclined and (pro)active. Even if the message of an artwork is sharp and rebuttal, it does not imply that the work is not proactive or directed towards positive change. The relationship between an artwork and thinking is yet another consideration that demands caution on hearing that artists from the Baltics are inactive, because art encourages, enables or forces one to think. How well a work of art achieves this is a completely different matter.
Emphasising the relationship between thinking and an artwork not only enables us to perceive art as predominantly active, but also allows us to discern different types of activism. A work of art may thematise an everyday story, which invites us to reflect on our own reality and that of other people. A work of art may stimulate a sensual experience that is otherwise not available (although art always does this), which at first seemingly requires no thinking at all. This type of artwork is often characterised as contemplative and intended for an aesthetically pleasing observation, and its authors are often reproached for a lack of criticism. But the Biennial also offered a lot of aesthetically pleasing work; thus, the emphasis on socially and politically responsible activism does not imply having to reject the contemplative observation of art. In Vika Eksta’s photography, her sleeping partner is depicted using pictorial methods and an attractive colour composition. The work of young Polish artists explores contemporary body issues, ranging from the actualisation of the trans identity and visions of human liberation from the burden of the physical body in a digitalised future to a very moving work featuring ceramic animal forms portrayed by blind people, and an abstract focus on space actualised through the bark of a walnut tree.
If art generally is critical and thought-provoking in a wider sense, then the question has to be asked, in what way do the organisers of the Biennial and its participants actualise the critical stance of Baltic artists with an emphasis on (in)activism, and what do the aforementioned characteristics of such (in)activism allow us to understand? In the symposium, activism or its absence, and therefore criticism in art or its absence, was thematised in a very specific way. In her introductory presentation, the Estonian researcher Airi Triisberg reviewed several examples of artistic expression, which she considered to be examples of activism. One such example was a demonstration in Tallinn against far-right politics, where artists took part by lending their skills in the design of banners. During refugee demonstrations in Helsinki in 2017, the artist Riika Theresa Innanen replaced the partition dividing representatives of opposing views with fragments of cloth suspended from ropes, and participants could write their thoughts about the situation on each piece; thus, instead of segregating and dividing, the ‘partition’ helped to promote understanding.
Triisberg is recognised in Estonia as a proponent of politically and socially responsible critical art worker. She is one of the editors and contributors to the book Art Workers: Material Conditions and Labour Struggles in Contemporary Art Practice. The book is set in a Marxist framework, and emphasises the radical nature of various positions represented by it, and begins by examining the material conditions of artistic practice and life, and aims to work towards drastically changing these conditions. Together with the book’s co-authors, Triisberg notes that the profession of an artist is still not considered real work; it means an unstable income and a lack of security. By referring to artists as workers, similar to any other socially important profession, the focus changes from the conventional understanding of the artists’ place in society.
Triisberg demonstrates adeptly how, according to Estonian legislation and the health care system, conditions for artists resemble those of nuns. In 2011, the newspaper Postimees examined the problematic lack of health insurance for nuns in the Pühtitsa Convent. As nuns have no income, they also pay no tax. Triisberg believes that the government of Estonia solved this problem in a technocratic way, by excluding nuns from public taxation law, and allocating a yearly contribution towards their health insurance. Like nuns, artists are also a peculiar group that do not fit neatly into the common political landscape of taxation and health care. Triisberg traces this problem back to the 19th century, when the profession of an artist separated from serving religion and the aristocracy, and entered the conditions of the free labour market, thus ostensibly opening up opportunities to create ‘art for art’s sake autonomously, and following artistic vision and inspiration’. Subsequently, social constructs emerged about the artist as a person selflessly dedicated to creative practice, although this idea originally took root in the Renaissance, and in completely different conditions of material existence.
The short digression into Triisberg’s writing allows for a better understanding of the context that shaped the symposium’s speeches about art and activism by artists. Essentially, it is art, embedded in a refined or less well-defined politically social and theorising vision. The symposium’s thematised artist-activist is informed about the most important movements in art theory in the late 20th and early 21st centuries with political and social issues at heart. Subsequently, from this knowledge arises the type of criticism and activism conveyed by the artist and his work, which focuses primarily on uncomfortable themes that could be likened to ‘unpopular decisions’ in Latvian politics. These are vitally important issues in society that are either not perceived as such, or it is not beneficial to view them as problematic. Whether a certain artistic practice successfully thematises a significant social problem and the relevance of that problem, is a subject for further discussion.
Mētra Saberova was the most discomfortingly active artist at the symposium. Her practice already embraces body art performances, such as sterilisation, the artificial reconstruction of a hymen, and full breast tattooing in solid black. In this way, she thematises the choice in a democratic society not to have children, and to have a sex life different to traditional models. The reconstruction of a hymen, or hymenoplasty, which is intended to fulfil the traditional requirement for a woman to be a virgin before marriage, is a bleak symbol of the restraints on women’s control of their own bodies; whereas by fully tattooing her breasts solid black, Saberova states clearly that they are her own property, and not an item of public sexual desire. Thus, the viewer is challenged to think using shock as a method. Does the radical practice of the artist imply that she wishes every woman not to want to have children? No. Rather, it is a call for a lifestyle that is not condemned by society, for control over one’s body, and the opportunity to decide when to live alone and when to start a family.
The challenge to conventional views about the gender roles of humans as bodily beings posed by a trans person is yet another ‘unpopular theme’, addressed by the artist Joanna Berg in the exhibition ‘(UN)NATURAL BODIES’. Is this work an invitation to demolish ‘traditional’ gender roles? No. It actualises the diversity that already exists in our society, where certain expressions have been shunted into some invisible zone as marginal. Trans people constitute a small part of society, a minority with the same rights as everyone else to enjoy the benefits of a democratic society, and the established status quo is seemingly challenged only when they are situated in the known unknown zone of shadows. Just like homosexuals, trans people, as a small, socially unrecognised and unaccepted group, could be mistreated, for example, as a loaded subject for the purposes of political propaganda, as is demonstrated by strategies employed in the information war led by Russia. Also, ‘P’ by Vika Eksta destabilises conventional views, by using a man as an ‘object’ of intimate observation: her partner, who does not have a body fashioned in a gym, and has been photographed while asleep, fragile and vulnerable. This portrayal is not the most typical in terms of depicting real men, but it is rather usual in depictions of women.
These artists and their work are undeniably engaged in promoting thinking and change; however, this is not the difference that sets activism as announced by the symposium and the Biennial aside from many other works of art. The political orientation of art will pose another difficulty, considering that quite a few political commentaries can be found, for example, in theatre. The focus of the symposium is contemporary visual art, predominantly photography, although its description references art in general. Thus, a slightly odd situation emerges whereby the organisers of the symposium have to tread between their desire to talk about the type of art, of which they claim there is not a lot in the Baltics, and the discovery that ‘moderate, even timid’ activist art does exist. I think this problem arises because there is, in fact, rather a lot of art in the Baltics that stimulates thinking about politically and socially charged themes.
The difference could then be interpreted as the uncomfortableness of the position and the challenge to the understanding of normal. We often feel uncomfortable simply because something we considered normal is being challenged. The work by Annija Muižule presented as large-scale prints and a book is a critical enquiry into one such seemingly innocent normal occurrence, the Shutterstock image bank. Shutterstock and other commercial image banks not only sell images, but also determine our presumptions about normal and acceptable visual culture, and the behaviour of the protagonists depicted. In Muižule’s work, several images and descriptions of them emphasise happy jubilation in various clichéd situations: a sunset by the sea, with a work team, in the gym, in a spicy erotic situation, etc, revealing themselves as grotesque and unpleasant. What is wrong with a joyful gallop along the beach together with a loved one, or a happy businessman striking a successful deal? Well, such behaviour and preconceptions are packaged like oatmeal in visually slightly different but basically the same packaging, and the image bank’s creators and viewers have no space left for creative improvisation or expression. Joy can be experienced and expressed in many ways! However, Muižule’s work is more interesting than this, because the grotesque descriptions can be read like strange lines of poetry and situations imagined and improvised according to our own interpretation.
Nonetheless, even if we establish that activism or its absence in art as actualised by the Biennial relates to the uncomfortableness of the position and the challenge to the understanding of what is normal, the backwardness of activist art in Baltics is hard to capture. Themes that are discomforting in the Baltics are no longer so in Western Europe, but this does not suggest that there is a greater number of challenging artworks in the West, where artists devote themselves to answers caused by society’s ignorance. This discomfort zone makes certain expressions in art simultaneously more enticing and unattractive, potentially valuable and hard, not just on an individual level, but also on a societal level.
 Krikortz, E., Triisberg, A., Henriksson, M. (Eds.). Art Workers: Material Conditions and Labour Struggles in Contemporary Art Practice. Berlin, Helsinki, Stockholm, Tallinn. 2015.
 Triisberg, A. Unwaged Labour and Social Security: A Feminist Perspective// Krikortz E. et al, p. 92.
 Ibid, p. 93.