Exhibition as a medium: an attempt to contact Lithuanian media art
Lithuanian media art is an odd object for reflection and research. Seemingly having just been here, today it rather exists in reminiscences or in some netherworld. Surely, Lithuanian contemporary artists continue to use digital and other kinds of technology in their works and theorists discuss images and other cultural formats in the context of media theory, yet the notion of “media art” itself seems to have lost currency and gone out of use in Lithuania. This is due partly to a failed attempt to import a Western and Scandinavian version of media culture and art, and partly to the inertia of the artists and the audience, flaws of the state funding mechanism, and absence of infrastructure. All of these problems and the ambiguous situation of media art in Lithuania are vividly reflected in the participating artists’ responses to certain key questions, presented in this catalogue.
Yet there is something about this unfinished, limbo-like state that still troubles me. There was a strong upsurge of the media art and culture discourse around 2003–2008, but just a few years later it was practically gone from the public sphere and decomposed into the individual practices of a handful of artists, and even the latter were not so eager to associate themselves specifically with the media art scene at that point. Thus it can be argued that this scene existed only ephemerally and did not acquire a long-term, continuous shape. Yet at the same time it is obvious that there were some rudiments which looked quite promising for a while. Therefore, even though media art is not a relevant and vibrant collective reality in Lithuania today, it is still interesting to look back on its development in the last 10–15 years and contact it through a group show – a kind of retrospective of past futuristic utopias – as if through a medium (a psychic). In other words, try to invoke the very spirit of Lithuanian media art. The anniversary edition of the media art and music festival Centras seems to be an appropriate occasion for that.
The point of departure can be set roughly at 2002–2003, when I personally discovered media art and digital culture and became involved in its processes – at that time still in Klaipėda, where only a few people who got together in an informal collective called miglos_lab were into such things. In 2003, together with some of those people, I participated in the 3rd edition of Centras festival, and the most notable “rite of initiation” was my participation (initiated by the same people from miglos_lab) in the 2004 media art workshops RAM5 ar RIXC in Riga and RAM6 at the Contemporary Art Centre (CAC) in Vilnius, which were organized by perhaps the best known promoters of media art in Lithuania Gediminas and Nomeda Urbonas among other people. These events featured many prominent international media artists, activists and theorists, and to many presently active art and culture figures of my generation it was precisely the point at which media culture “began” for them personally (although even at that time one could notice that some of the foreigners’ ideas and practices appeared too politicized or almost esoterically shamanistic). Of course, before that there was the legendary 1997 Ground Control show at the CAC, initiated by the same Urbonas couple, as well as some other initiatives (e. g. the virtual Institutio Media initiative (www.o-o.lt) established in 1998 by Mindaugas Gapševičius together with Kęstutis Andrašiūnas and Darius Mikšys), but this is the history of another generation.
Then followed the Pro-test Lab at the former Lietuva cinema, brought about by the Urbonas duo and fellow-minded activists, as well as their attempts to establish the VILMA interdisciplinary media art lab, the online media culture journal balsas.cc, an offshoot of VILMA, edited by Vytautas Michelkevičius, and the latter’s other initiative – 3xpozicija, a collective platform for media art and communication projects, which was active mostly in the field of post-photography (photography in the expanded field). There were also mostly sound art related events organized in Vilnius and Kaunas by Andrius Rugys (PB8), Tautvydas Bajarkevičius and others, the still active Enter media art festival in Šiauliai, and a few more short-lived initiatives. Today virtually all of them are history, although their organizers are still active in various artistic and cultural contexts. It’s just that in the local context media art has dissolved in the broader ocean of contemporary art since roughly 2009–2010, and does not seem to exist as a separate autonomous field anymore.
To be sure, certain manifestations of media art that resemble the processes which had been trying to penetrate Lithuania from the West and the North in 2000–2008 are still occasionally brought here by expatriate Lithuanian artists and theorists including Mindaugas Gapševičius, Ignas Krunglevičius and Žilvinas Lilas. Yet it seems that these phenomena remain somewhat marginalized in the Lithuanian context and do not trigger much enthusiasm. One can also look around beyond Lithuania: for instance, the aforementioned RIXC centre for media culture in Riga continues to actively, successfully and productively cultivate the discourse of “art + communication” and its various offshoots, maintaining close ties with partners abroad. In Lithuania such networks have failed to take root, except that some of the prominent members of this international community of artists and curators who had taken part in the 2004 RAM conferences (e. g. Andrew Paterson and Jodi Rose) still periodically collaborate with various local institutions (VAA Nida Art Colony, Lithuanian Interdisciplinary Artists’ Association) and individual facilitators.
The “imported” notion of media art I keep mentioning was strongly based on the ideas of political/social activism, alternative copyright systems, collaborative practices and so on. Naturally, technology was and remains one of the key elements in this notion, yet it was far from techno-formalism – technical skills were a means rather than an end. However, it seems that in Lithuania it is the aesthetic content (present to some extent even in minimalist post-conceptual art) rather than the technological, social and especially political context of art that has always been prioritized. Perhaps that is why we don’t have anything similar to such continuous platforms like RIXC, and most of the alternatives to the dominant contemporary art discourse exhaust and devour themselves or mutate into something else sooner or later.
The Remediation exhibition is an attempt to at least briefly bring that notion of media art back into the view (if only as a ghost) and reflect on what has happened to Lithuanian media art and in which forms it has existed or still exists today. Its content, albeit somewhat retrospective (the exhibition features both new, previously unshown and somewhat forgotten earlier works and documents), does not claim to be exhaustive or perfectly coherent, and neither does it attempt to provide any definitive answers. Instead, it is a dotted-line subjective research which on the one hand reflects the curator’s personal experience of the Lithuanian media art field and on the other presents a kind of fragmentary chronological cross-section. Particularly important and revealing are the aforementioned artists’ textual accounts of their firsthand experiences of working with media art. The technological level of the featured works is uneven, yet this allows the viewer to have a better sense of how rapidly the means and ideas related to what we call “the new media” at one point or other become obsolete. The exhibition could have had more participants, yet, as mentioned in the beginning of this text, some of the artists who are personally relevant to me have grown distant from this field, and probably refrain from contacting spirits through mediums.