Riga Photomonth: Interview with Arnis Balčus
This month, May 2023, is a time of many cultural awakenings in the city, and one of the latest art offerings is Riga Photomonth, an international art & photography festival that takes place in the capital of Latvia since 2014.
Riga Photomonth responds to current events that affect us locally and globally and explores new ways to talk about photography. The festival’s public programme includes exhibitions, performances, public art activities, artist talks, discussions, and screenings. This year, it is running from May 1 until May 31, and explores how artificial intelligence (AI) visually defines Latvia’s identity.
“As part of the project, three artificial intelligence image generators were involved, but rather than focusing on their technological capabilities, I was more interested in the ideas, stereotypes, prejudices, and ideologies that their human inventors imparted to them,” says project curator Arnis Balčus.
Photomonth will take place in a pop-up gallery specially created for this event, where 31 exhibitions will be held throughout the month of May, so every day the audience will be introduced to a different topic that reveals Latvian society, culture, environment, and values. See the list of exhibitions here.
We wanted to ask Arnis Balčus, the Director & Curator of the project, a couple of questions to get to know the Festival better. On the 25th of May, this month’s RLT gallery evening, we will see an AI exhibition on the topic of “Politics”. Read about it, and more, below!
What inspired you to explore the theme of Latvia through the lens of artificial intelligence, and what do you hope to achieve with this project?
At the end of last year, I lost my innocence with AI as it became popular with photography and image generators, more and more people in my bubble were playing with it. It was clear that it was going to be the thing of the moment and it would be a sin not to use it, because soon it will be a daily thing. In recent years, Photomonth has tended to react to the current, the new, the unusual; we are the place to look for innovation and surprises, rather than boiling old soup for a kuro year. But what is important here is not only the technology - that we are documenting artificial intelligence in its infancy - but also the content - that this project invites us to look critically at ourselves from the outside.
Involving AI image generators in an art exhibition is a novel concept. Could you tell us more about the three generators you used, and how you selected them for the project?
I chose image generators whose aesthetics are closer to documentary photography and therefore to my view of the world. Because in this case, the boundary between me as a curator and me as the artist of this project is not clearly defined.
How did the human inventors impart their ideas, stereotypes, prejudices, and ideologies to the AI generators, and how did this influence the images produced?
On the one hand, they reflect the average American's view and knowledge of Latvia, as data on them is scarce and in many cases needs to be mentioned or revised. Basically, Latvia appears in these images produced by image generators either as a historical open-air museum, where everyone walks around in national costumes and lives in thatched-roof log buildings, or as a post-Soviet periphery where poverty and a Slavic aesthetic prevail. On the other hand, we ourselves are responsible for the fact that there is little data about us, because state legislation has made our history - the images in museums and archives - a commercial object that is not freely available to us unless you open your wallet. But through these stereotypes and exaggerations, the harsh reality is mirrored: the glue of public policy, however, basically reduces culture to one event - the Song Festival - while in science and economics we are last in Europe. So, in the end, the image of a pasty-faced man dancing in a shithole is not so far from the truth, unfortunately.
With all artists being AI, what kind of aesthetic or conceptual differences can we expect to see in the exhibitions compared to those created by human artists?
They are more blunt and direct than Latvian photographers, who don't like to focus on socio-political issues, but when they do, they mostly want to make something beautiful, to speak through flowers, so to speak. These ones are slapping you in the face, it's a joy to watch! In that sense, they are my companions, but they "photograph" much better than I do, without a doubt.
The project involves 31 exhibitions that reveal different aspects of Latvian society, culture, environment, and values. Could you give us a sneak peek of some of the most exciting and thought-provoking exhibitions we can expect to see?
The most boring was "Latvian Nature", the most interesting - "People", "Countryside", "Education", "Science", "Art", "Leisure". "Latvian Politics", which will be shown on 25 May. On 31 May, there will be "Latvia's Future", which I warmly recommend to everyone. I'm glad that people often laugh at these exhibitions; I think that laughter and joy are rare emotions in Latvian art.
Involving sociologists, philosophers, and other professionals in the project seems to suggest a desire to provoke discussion and debate about the themes explored in the exhibitions. What kind of conversations do you hope to stimulate, and why do you think these are important?
It helps to frame the project, gives it an extra dimension and a reason to meet. It's cool that every tour is different, it's an invaluable face-to-face experience.
The project focuses on exploring Latvian identity through the lens of AI, but how do you think this theme resonates with global audiences, and what do you hope people from other countries can learn from the project?
I think it resonates as minimally as anything from Latvia, this is no exception. Nobody else is very interested in what is happening here, whatever it is. Well, the fact that there are no living authors at the photo festival resonates. But the subject is only interesting to ourselves or to those who are interested in Latvia - friends abroad, tourists.
As a curator, what are some of the biggest challenges you faced in organizing an exhibition with all AI-generated images, and how did you overcome these challenges?
I think of a situation where I've put on another exhibition, it's 2 p.m. and I have to open the doors, and I realise that I've put on the wrong exhibition. That scares me. The challenge is not to get wasted at my openings, because I have to get up early to set up another exhibition. At the moment I'm coping with that challenge very well.
With the Riga Photomonth project being a departure from more traditional forms of photography, how do you see the role of photography evolving in the future, both in Latvia and globally?
Traditional forms are not going away, rather commercial photography will suffer because AI will put many people out of work. There is now talk that AI-generated photographs cannot be called photographs, or at least should be identified as AI-generated. This is certainly a challenge for journalism, but in art, as they say, anything goes. And this is an art project if we are talking about this year's Photomonth. Fundamentally, I don't think it's going to be any different from any photography now - there's going to be a lot of shit made with AI, and occasionally something meaningful. The fact that something is made with AI won't be a big deal any time soon, so it will be content, motivation and context that will matter, as usual.
The Riga Photomonth project has been running for several years now, and each edition seems to explore new themes and concepts. What motivates you to continue pushing the boundaries of photography and visual art, and what drives your artistic vision?
I try not to repeat myself too much and, as banal as it may sound, to set new challenges every time.
Will there be something special for visitors on 25 May (RLT gallery evening)?
At 18.30 - a guided tour with social psychologist Ivars Austers at an exhibition on Latvian politics. It will be an intellectual, emotional experience, come!
(* Ivars Austers is a professor of social psychology at the University of Latvia, specialising in research methods, social identity, values, decision-making and economic behaviour.)