An interview with the artistic director of Kaunas biennial Virginija Vitkienė. Tfranslated from Lithuanian by Agnė Augulevičiūtė
www.kamane.lt, 2013-04-08
Structure of Kaunas biennial of 2013 “Unitext”

Kaunas biennial is a contemporary art event which has developed from rather local textile exhibitions since 1997 and takes place every two years. Gradually these exhibitions with their artists expanded not only geographically but also structurally (in 2005). Soon it became too difficult to name this event as it used to be because of the extent and variety of projects.

So far the art of textile in Kaunas biennial was the prime mark of the whole event. However, various contemporary art practices were started to be implemented: community-directed social projects, such as “Friendly Zone” (from 2007) and “Hemispheres” (2009-2011 m.). Kaunas biennial 2011 was exclusive for its interdisciplinary art projects: visual artists collaborated with contemporary dance artists and performers.

Kaunas biennial can be distinguished not only for the variety of art it presents every two years, but also for its institutional independence. About the event’s development, organization, management, structure and the forthcoming festival an art critic Dovilė Stirbytė speaks to the artistic director of Kaunas biennial Virginija Vitkienė.

How are the concepts of Kaunas biennial born? What does inspire you?

I have been involved in Kaunas biennial organizational process since 2005. Of course, we have been collecting various literature, related to international exhibition strategies, and visiting world-famous biennials. However, ideas for our festival usually come from the very context of the event. They develop very naturally while communicating with colleagues and artists. For example, the idea for the residential program, which was realized in 2009, came during the biennial’s opening week events in 2007. We received a bigger sponsorship for the event which was due to be in 2007, and therefore, a lot of artists had an opportunity to come and install the exhibitions by themselves. Together they had supper and spend their leisure time. They confirmed that it was their best time during the whole event. “This is a real biennial”, cheerfully claimed artists, “this is what we do after the exhibitions: communicate, share each other’s ideas, experience, and get to know much more about each other’s works..”. Then we asked aloud - why shouldn’t we prepare the next biennial in a residential format? The participants of this discussion enthusiastically agreed to invite the artists to live and create together, at the same time shaping the biennial’s image, process and the results.

One of Kaunas biennial’s goals and strategies is that every biennial has to change and be different, therefore, we don’t even think about some similarities between the biennials. On the contrary, we seek for diversity. After each biennial we share our impressions, discuss what has already been done, what experiences we had. We also share each other’s impressions of what has been seen in the international exhibitions, such as Venice, Berlin and other biennials. Moreover, we discuss what has attracted us as spectators most. We always try to think about our audience. We care about our visitors and artists. We want to appreciate and support everyone properly: those who have already achieved a lot, older and young generation artists.

Every Kaunas biennial not only changes its concept but also its structure. What makes this event so dynamic? Which biennial, concerning this aspect, was the most complicated? Why?

Perhaps the most complicated biennial was in 2009 which required quite many human resources. Artists had a dream that they will come here, live and work together at the same place, and as a result, their dreams became true... Meanwhile, we, as organizers, had to work with all these 50 artists who were from different countries. 29 projects, which were oriented to the audience and public places, needed almost everything: transport, various materials, translators in the streets, etc. The hardest aspect was related to the very simple human practices which occurred to the artists: various domestic problems, treatment services. We were very delighted to have for the first time such a huge volunteer team. We gathered all the volunteers for a meeting earlier than we planned only by intuition, thinking that the artists will need more assistants. During our first meeting, there were 90 people. Such amount of volunteers reminded the opening of an exhibition. Of course, not everyone was involved in the biennial’s realization, however, 30 of them actively volunteered the whole month. It was indeed a very good experience for the young people and us too.

You opened the biennial with empty halls. What was the reaction of visitors?

Of course, we slightly shocked our audience. Maybe because of that it was also the most criticized biennial. Even though the critics were dissatisfied and worried about the empty halls where the artists were working, other people were very pleased and happy to join the whole process, watch those artists working and talking to the visitors. Those courageous and curious visitors regularly used to come back and watch how the exhibition itself changed. They also used to bring their children to various educational workshops. In 2011, we didn’t prepare any special educational programs dedicated to families. As a result, a lot of people, who attended such programs two years ago, used to call many times asking why the educational program was excluded. In short, families missed the educational program. This year in our biennial we are having such educational programs again.

Attitude towards textile remains quite stereotypical: it is just thread, needles, sewing, tapestry, etc. However, if we look into Lithuanian contemporary textile, it can be reasonably considered as conceptual art. Here, the concept of an art work is the most important, whereas the form is needed only for the art work’s realization (this could be seen in most of Kaunas biennial exhibited works). Therefore, it seems that such distribution of art is not necessary. Actually, it even negatively affects and misleads both artists and art consumers… Even in 2005, there was some hesitation about the so far existing title of Kaunas biennial. Such hesitation was expressed during the round-table discussion “The development of Kaunas biennial”, so, it is clear that this title issue has been the core of your doubts for quite a long time. Could you comment on this dilemma about the event’s title?

In autumn 2005, there was a round-table discussion with the artists from abroad who participated in the event. They were not textile artists but they used textile as one of their material. For the first time artists publicly raised an important question about the festival’s title: why do we call this event textile biennial if it represents contemporary art? From that time we have considered and made some corrections to the festival’s title. In 2007, from Kaunas textile biennial we changed into Kaunas art biennial Textile, whereas in 2009, we shortened to Kaunas biennial Textile. From 2011, a thematic subtitle was added which became the main focus, concept and the whole content of each biennial event. For example, REWIND – PLAY – FORWARD. Kaunas biennial exhibitions deviated from the applied textile art long time ago. Textile is now perceived as a tool full of connotations; a material or technique which helps to reveal relevant topics of contemporary art. The organizers of Kaunas biennial are also very interested in new technologies and media, how they interact with each other. For example, in one of the exhibitions (2011), there were smart textile technologies presented. Individual experiments and “idea labs” have been realized. The “idea labs” could be explained as creative mind factories where people fantasize about future technologies which are going to change both human’s mode of life and the whole existence. I think that textile as a structured, relationship based media will remain as part of biennial’s identity, though not necessarily its form or title.

In Kaunas Biennial UNITEXT (2013), textile as media will symbolically thrive, melt and merge together with other work forms of expression. It will appear alongside with other works. During the exhibitions, a strong break from form to content should be highlighted. It will be important to deviate from the material and technological aspect, and indulge in the work itself. Not the material aspects but the work of art and its universal language will be highlighted.

We believe that neither artists nor the visitors are disappointed about the event’s changes in its strategies and visual presentation (including the title). As we can see, the number of biennial’s participants and visitors is growing every year. For us, as organizers of this event, it is very important to create the event that reflects everyday actualities and at the same time stimulates our thinking. We do not follow the contemporary biennial format, which is run in Liverpool, Berlin or Manifesta’s biennials established by the national and transnational policy framework, because we understand our limits that exist today. Since our event is project-based, it is natural that each “shot” is directed to a specific target; the artillery, which stands for the event’s mission and its organizers, has quite an occupied conceptual platform.

Usually biennials are organized by art institutions, which have all the necessary resources: finances, human resources. Meanwhile, Kaunas biennial is not institutionalized, has no permanent work place, and works on the volunteering basis. The event functions because of a few people’s initiative, which brings together not only directly related artists, curators and Lithuania’s art lovers, but also massive groups of guests from other countries.During the biennial, the departments of M.K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art (where every two years the biennial’s exhibitions are located for almost four months) are visited by a massive amount of people. Nevertheless, the event still does not have its place in the city’s and Lithuanian cultural policy. Therefore, the question is, what ways have you already tried to draw the politicians’ attention? What problems did you encounter in the past and at present?

We certainly drew both the state’s and the municipality’s attention and received considerable financial and moral support. Moreover, Kaunas biennial is also considered to be a successful and positively accepted event. The biggest achievement was in 2007, when after ten years of work we were included in a continuous international events list of the Ministry of Culture. This inclusion guarantees a smaller or larger grant (before this, all the applications for the Cultural Support Fund were sent together with other projects). Since Kaunas biennial has been included into this list, it has also become one of the major events of Kaunas City Municipality. As a matter of fact, this inclusion contributes to some our event’s financial stability, and, bearing in mind our minimum budget, which is about 150 000 litas, we can set up expositions, plan catalogues, informational distribution, advertising costs and work transportation expenses. Unfortunately, there is no money left for the artists’ fees (except for our personally invited guests and those who are fully funded by their state funds). Artists, in that sense, are in a rather worse position than, for example, the musicians. If someone offered the musicians to come on their own without any financial support, to bring their instrument and pay for the entrance fee, they would not only stay surprised but also would not consider that at all. Unfortunately, at the moment musical projects get double bigger grants than the visual art projects. The musical projects, which ticket prices exceed the average income that people usually have (one festival’s concert usually cost from50 to 150 litas – author’s note), whereas visual art projects, even with special programs, are almost free (3-6 litas for the ticket - author’s note).Here, on the national level, this price difference should be changed. Ticket prices in both Europe and the United States museums are quite high (without any discounts, it would cost about 40-60 litas - author’s note). However, even though the prices are not very low, the museums always have a lot of visitors. For example, in Berlin’s exhibition, we had to wait in a queue for more than two hours. Of course, the museum has to raise its visitor from the earliest age in order to have one permanently.

We are juridical unit and a public institution but not institutionalized. This means that we do not have any tangible assets, we cannot rent an office or warehouses and we do not have permanent work places because we are funded every two years. Therefore, for the second year (for the biennial’s preparation – author’s note) we have been working on a voluntary basis. Maybe one of the biggest shortages of this kind of funding (every two years) is that we cannot hire external mentors who would form the main biennial’s program. Kaunas biennial hires coordinators and mentors who are responsible for different exhibitions, satellite events and particular program parts. Meanwhile, the biennial’s board members generate the event’s direction, strategies and topics. During the implementation phase, we try to invite not only those people whom we have already successfully cooperated with but also the new ones. It is quite difficult to hire (about four months) public relations specialists, educators, and the program’s coordinators for a temporary time who must be newly instructed. Very often those people, who used to work in the biennial, either already have new work places, have gone to study, volunteer or work abroad.

In accordance with the program of continuous events, we are funded by similar or smaller amounts of money just like the projects in big institutions (museums, centers) regardless our different resource opportunities. Unlike the museums, which have regular employees, we always need to hire technical staff and the whole equipment. This reduces our budged even more. However, I do not want to look here somehow pessimistic. We are very happy with our event’s natural growth, development and its strength from the visibility point of view. We are very pleased with everything, even with our mistakes from which we learn. Because of this enthusiastic initiative, Kaunas biennial has reached the highest evaluation not only from the local or foreign visitors but also from the Europe Commission (the 8th biennial was named as a representative model of audience expansion in 2011, Europe). This is a true success story. Everything is possible when you love your work and believe in what you are doing.

My answer for the question if and how we have tried to catch the politicians’ attention would be this: twice (2007 and 2011) we have applied to Kaunas City Municipality so that to make it our partial founder and also to impose two work places. However, these two intentions ended without any result: they were unable to give additional work place or provide available rooms. Concerning these aspects, we did not apply to the Ministry of Culture. In my opinion, this event is Kaunas city’s business card. Maybe one day our politicians will think the same.

In 2011 Kaunas biennial, there were very famous textile artists: Lia Cook, Reiko Sudo, etc. Moreover, there was a famous work collection by Lozana and smart textile projects presented, which showed the connection between textile and new technologies. There was also an ETN (European Textile Network) textile conference where Kaunas biennial was widely communicated by the media and other communicative channels. During the conference, Kaunas biennial was defined as the main center of textile culture in Europe. Therefore, it seems that you are highly recognized in the world of textile. Is anything left for the expansion?

Textile art, as a separate specialization, has not been lectured in almost all art academies in Europe. An exception could be applied to post-Soviet and Scandinavian countries. However, in these countries, the program is reoriented into textile design. There are not many artists who were graduated as textile artists. Basically, all the artists, who are active and participate in the exhibitions, have already exhibited their works in Kaunas biennial, and it would be unlikely to discover some new names. Therefore, we need to expand the field of artists by opening the doors to various art forms and specializations.

When we visit the worldwide exhibitions and observe various international examples, we can see that many famous artists, such as Christian Boltanski, Anette Messager, Louise Bourgeois, Jannis Kounellis, Maurizio Catalano, Yinka Shonibare, Yayoi Kusama or Magdalena Abakanowicz, choose textile as an expression in their installations, sculptures, photography or even video. Even young artists use this material because it is accessible, not expensive and even mobile when forming sculptural compositions or transforming spaces. For us, the most interesting aspect is how the textile materials are used. Therefore, we are open to all kinds of artists who are interested in textile as a material which provides particular connotations. We also invite artists to participate in our event who do not work with textile. In this way, textile works, are presented in a wider context.

When we asked Patricia Piccinini (Australia) to participate in Kaunas biennial 2013, she looked through our events’ content and agreed because she “finds her works very tactile”. Piccinini emphasized this tactile aspect because she noticed it in our previous exhibitions. This artist creates surreal, hyper realistic, anthropomorphic and semi zoomorphic sculptures from silicon, fiberglass, skin, hair and textile materials. In order to create those half-animal half-human features, the artist implants into a silicon multilayered skin human and animal hair which could be considered as textile or ritually philosophical material.

In Kaunas biennial 2011, the synthesis of contemporary dance and visual arts was presented. This new biennial’s program was realized by Kaunas dance theater “Aura” (artistic director Birutė Letukaitė). How did this collaboration happen? Did it work?

This integrated project was perfectly accomplished thanks to the great European Union funding. This was a very successful event. We destroyed some boundaries and differences not only in visual art, but we also had many successful interdisciplinary experiments. Artists collaborated not only with choreographers but also with IT specialists, musicians, video artists.

This cooperation was initiated by Kaunas dance theater “Aura” and its artistic director Birutė Letukaitė. She is THE artist who is always surrounded by many ideas. She wanted to break the dance stereotypes by using visual artists. The main goal was to broaden the audiences. During the conference in Brussels, where the main focus was on the audience development, I presented this collaboration aspect. Art events should be responsive to the need of the society and more open to different social groups.

The artistic director of Kaunas dance theatre “Aura” claimed that she constantly visits various exhibitions, spectacles and dance performances, whereas painters somehow go only to the visual art events which usually correspond to what they are doing. For example, painters visit those exhibitions which are related painters, textile artists – related to textile artists, while none of them visit dance performances. That is why Birutė Letukaitė expressed her desire to unite our audiences. As a result of this collaboration, 1 video film and 6 dance performances were created which were always performed during the exhibition. During the collaboration, there were 5 performances and one video film made which were shown during the event. The live performances were shown 43 times. The most important thing is that all of them were performed not on stage or at the theatre, but where the exhibitions were set. There were many art admirers, who probably for the first time came to see dance performances, and there were dance admirers who came to the museum and saw a lot of very interesting art works. Of course, perhaps more obvious results will be seen in the upcoming biennial. Maybe we will carry out a survey in order to find out whether the viewer, who came to see a dance performance, also became interested in visual arts. If we compared the number of visitors, we could clearly see that the audience was obviously bigger. Therefore, we can say that this collaboration was definitely successful in any possible way. We trusted our partners who were fully responsible for this program: they made all the contracts with the artists, paid all the expenses. We only stroke our hands and did our work. This could be an excellent example of a successful collaboration that could also be included in any textbook.

In autumn, not only Kaunas biennial is opened but also such projects as the photo art festival “Kaunas Photo”, Kaunas international film festival, etc. Are you planning to work with any of these events which are happening in parallel with the biennial?

We have had some offers from both the film and “Kaunas Photo” festivals. We are very open but from our experience, we know that such collaborations and works should be started very early. We want to be equal partners. We would not like to have some simplified collaboration where, for example, we would have one of our exhibitions in Kaunas photo gallery. We appreciate such partnerships (as we know Kaunas city lacks of exposition halls) and always work together with the city’s museum, “Meno parkas” and “Balta” galleries. However, we want to discuss the collaboration strategy very carefully before we can make it happen (we worked one year with “Aura”). Maybe in 2015, we could prepare with each festival (film and photography) a different program. It could be, for example, a short film about a particular artist or a special exhibition organized by a group of artists. I imagine that both authors/collaborators (from the biennial and the other festival) would participate in the whole product’s development. As a result, one united project would be presented which at some point would motivate both artists from different fields. We are really open for such offers but as I have already mentioned, it takes time to realize them. We don’t accept any offers for the upcoming biennial, but we will be proposing ourselves and waiting for various initiatives for the next biennial in 2015.

This year the upcoming Kaunas biennial is named UNITEXT. What does it mean?

So far, the word “Unitext” has not been used in the art world. If we think about the new biennial’s idea, we interpret this word as universal art language. There are many eloquent art works which are understood without any textual explanations. In spring 2012, after the “invention” of this term, I checked if there are any equivalents on the Internet. At that time “Google” search suggested three positions with the word “unitext”. Today after one year the same program gives 211.000 positions with the same term, the biennial’s positions are the highest. In the language of information technology programming, the “unitext” was started to be used not very long time ago and only in some systems. It means deciphering different linguistic codes. In computer terminology, unitext is one of unicode parameters, which unifies codes of different languages, linguistic signs or unknown words. For example, it can make the most similar symbol in any other system or country. This allows the word to remain as much similar as it can be rather than depicting small squares as for an unknown symbol. Basically, I was very delighted with this kind of explanation, thanks to a reliable IT specialist, because this meaning is very close to the concept of the exhibition, which is to exhibit the works which reveal the overall experience and are open to people’s perception. In other words, works which function as text-themselves. In our previous biennial, we hung on the walls many textual explanations; visual works were conveyed through some additional narration. It was really interesting and successful. However, this year we asked the artists to propose such works which do not require some explanatory text. We imagined how the next biennial’s exposition and the whole picture should look like. We thought some installations with various perceptual and visual elements could be used. Also, additional scents, sounds or other stimulating factors should be integrated, which could be perceived through senses, and as a matter of fact, each person could be able to understand them. This is how we came up with the term which will be uncovered throughout the event.

A contest has already been held for a new program of young artists which will be shown in Kaunas biennial 2013. As a result, 17 projects have been selected. The young artists’ program is the core event of the upcoming biennial where the young artists will collaborate with the young specialists of public relations, art management, and art critics.  What is the purpose of this project? What is the vision of this program? What do you expect? What kind of conditions will you propose for the young artists?

The aim of the program is to create a platform for the young artists who will have an opportunity to participate in the international event, start their professional career, and exhibit their works next to famous world artists. We trust both the young artists and the young specialists very much because they are very courageous people who are not afraid to experiment and make breakthroughs. They can deeply understand the topic, ignore, criticize or oppose to it. I think that the young artists’ program will make the whole event dynamic. I believe in this project very much.

We will create equal conditions for the young artists: we will pay partial fee and try to satisfy all their technical requirements. In this team, we also included young and ambitious art critics, PR (Public Relations) specialists, and project coordinators. They are going to spread all the information related to the program: making interviews, sending important messages about the whole creative process, ideas and the results. It is a deliberate investment into the future of young artists.

Could you briefly introduce with structure of the upcoming Kaunas biennial?

In addition to our discussions about the biennial’s title, we have a five-pointed-star symbol, which has been used in our logo since 2007.

One part of the star stands for a competitive exhibition, where we have received 447 applications from 65 different countries. 18 installations and 4 video films have been selected.

The second part of the star – invited artists – is the most expensive part of the program. We always need to count how many artists we could invite. Not all the technical needs of invited artists can be satisfied. Sometimes after long negotiations we have to refuse the project and its realization. The status of invited artists is different because we invite them, and if we do so, it means that their idea and theme is most appropriate. Therefore, we need to pay for transportation and accommodation, pay at least minimal fee, etc. This year, we will have 5 projects in this program: Gao Yuan from Taiwan (last biennial’s winner – author’s note), a very famous Australian artist Patricia Piccinini whose personal exhibition probably for the first time will be displayed in Lithuania and other neighbouring countries, Monika Žaltauskaitė-Grašienė and Bronė Neverdauskienė (Lithuania).

The third wing stands for the young artists’ program which has already been discussed. The program consists of young team and an independent mechanism for its implementation.

The fourth corner is for satellite exhibitions which, in some ways, are born not from the inside of the biennial but from our partners’ initiative. This year we will have many personal and group exhibitions which will be shown in various Kaunas city galleries. We offered to some artists, who took part in the competition, to participate in this program in order to discover themselves and show more of their works. By the way, in the competitive program, we cannot accept a lot of Lithuanian artists because of the international correctness.

The last part stands for the educational program, which plays the role of rhizome. It is like a network which brings all the links together and delivers the viewers in a most preferable form considering one’s interests. Educational programs will be targeted to people of different age groups. There will be lectures designed for young people and adults, various meetings with the biennial’s artists, especially during the first week of the event. Some artists will arrive and present their works, make performances; some events will be even held separately. Furthermore, special educational programs for the young students will be organized in the museum and its branches: we will invite them to come in groups from various schools. On weekends, we will provide a broad educational program for families with preschool children. Thus, on Saturdays and Sundays we will be waiting for the families. This program is likely to be different every weekend. Therefore, every time the visitors come, they can expect new tasks. We will also try to involve our young artists into this educational program.

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