For the past five years, I have been involved in a leviathan of art production far away from our native shores. In late 2017 I gave an academic paper on my work to a conference in Pécs in Hungary organised by the European Union about public art and socially enfranchised artistic co-production. In the audience were the curators from Kaunas 2022, who upon hearing about my previous works invited me to come to Kaunas in Lithuania to give the same paper to their Modernism for the Future Conference in the lead up to their inauguration as the Capital of Culture for Europe in 2022. In early 2019 the curatorial team then sent another invite, one in which they commissioned me to make a film interpreting their city’s unusual architectural heritage. This has been the biggest commission I have ever received and startlingly this has come not from home, but from a fellow European country. The project presented a number of challenges. Firstly, I had never heard of Kaunas Interwar Modernism, and ethically I felt very unsure about telling the story of such a heritage from the disadvantage of not being Lithuanian.
When I was approached by the curatorial team of Kaunas 2022, who tasked me to make a piece of art-film that would interpret their architectural heritage of Interwar Modernism, Kaunas has a complicated history, and the citizens had had a quite ambivalent relationship to their architectural heritage. I felt that the only way to truly deliver on a project like this was through collaboration with the city’s artists and citizens. So, through the team I approached Sandra Bernotaite, an accomplished writer based in Kaunas, about the possibility of working with amateur writers who would site specifically tell me the stories of the architecture from the position of the building's providence. From this relationship over fifty short stories were sent to me from these emerging writers. They presented me with histories untold, imagined or forgotten; of the protagonists who once occupied the modernist structures and the unheard of or censored narrative of the hidden city.
When I consider how my practice manifests, I am often thinking of for whom my practice is for? What is my role with dealing within the responsibility of the source material, how can the methodology and the context can shape a project and push into often a different experience of visual culture? I am also quite interested in how visual art can seem like a foreign language to the public and how I can activate them, seduce them, enfranchise them into the co-creation of an artwork or disarm them within the encounter of the work. The comprehension of my role and the urgency with which I feel I am forever interrogating it is routed in my upbringing in a working-class background. Access to art for this community is often at a remove and, historically, my community is not represented within the structure of our industry. Yet when I think back on how I did access visual art it was often through popular culture means, through tv, through the radio or through free access to municipal buildings etc. It is of paramount importance to me now that when I realise a work into the public space or undertake an artistic process it can be accessed through a quotidian of mechanisms.
Kaunas became the capital of Lithuania from 1919-1939. From the fall of the Romanov empire in 1918, Lithuania was established but it did not have its capital Vilnius. In the space of twenty years the country built a capital out of what had been a small town, with all the infrastructure of a great European city. Civic works, Funicular railways, schools of medicine, water reservoirs and a street of world embassies were established. The city was known as the “Petit Paris” of the East. It was a bustling multicultural metropolis. Jazz bands from New York came to play in its sophisticated and exclusive clubs, there were transgender and gender non-conforming artists, a bustling university of engineering, sciences, arts and architectural excellence, Kaunas was a hubbub of activity, a city on the rise. That all came to a crashing end when the Nazis invaded in 1939. Unfortunately, the Jewish population of the city, primarily who were the architects, merchants, artists, and academic class were rounded up and exterminated in the Holocaust. Then five years later in 1944 the soviets invaded and the city began a further occupation by the USSR followed by a brutality inflicted on its citizens up until the fall of communism and the country’s eventual independence in 1991. During occupation anyone who was critical of the soviet regime, or who posed a threat to the status quo was rounded up and sent on trains to Siberia, most dying in gulags, they became the disappeared. The soviets mass moved in citizens from all over the USSR into the city and began a concerted effort to stamp out Lithuanian identity, from the language, from art, music, folklore, film etc. Anything that was a threat to the new regime was erased. So, when Lithuania started to embark on an ideological reinvention by joining the EU in 2003 it pointed its philosophical antenna to the west, Joining the free market and embracing western values and the neoliberalism of that definition. The buildings became a symbol of trauma and often they were knocked down or haphazardly modernised. By the time I was invited to join the “Modernism for the Future” project by curators Viltė Migonytė Petrulienė and architectural historian Vaidas Petrulis a lot of these buildings were under threat of demolition or falling into major disrepair. The curators expressed to me the urgency to get the citizens to fall back in love with their city, before it was lost to demolition and dust.
So, I set about working with hundreds of the city's future guardians, school children and young people to get them to imagine creative ways and performative happenings in how they could become the architecture. I ran numerous stop-motion and experimental performance workshops. At around the beginning of this skill sharing phases of the project the pandemic had hit and suddenly I had to critically adapt to a new way of imagining the project. I had to direct films from my home in Tipperary, performing animation workshops on my kitchen floor to hundreds of school children and their collaborating families, with the aid of my own family via zoom. But from these workshops the performative costumes of wearable buildings created by the children became the inspiration for the costumes worn by the Aura dance company and performed Live to an audience of over 2.7 million people at the opening of the European Capital of Culture in January of this year. The kernels of creative moments in these workshops became viral in a different way, and became the kind of visual cultural virus that manifested in so many other unexpected outcomes.
In another workshop I asked my collaborating citizens “What is the one piece of tv that everyone in Lithuania loves, that unites all classes of society and captures the countries imagination?” I was told it was the Great British Bake Off. Instantly I had the idea to work with the citizens to make edible modernist cakes inspired by their favourite building. Those tasty creations captured the county’s imagination with one of the cakes, inspired by Ciurlionis Museum getting into the Guinness book of records, because of its size. The cakes ultimately became the props or chapter points within the film along with a whole host of delicately constructed objects that form a part of the animated objects or plot devices in the movie.
As I have mentioned earlier, it has been through popular culture that I experienced visual art. In the 1980’s RTE had a long series of presentation of experimental films put on at children’s tv hour. In 1986 as a six-year-old I saw the films of Stella Aristakesova, Jan Svanmajker, Jiří Trnka, Ester Krumbachová, Vlasta Pospíšilová, Ladislas Starevich, and Hermína Týrlová these were Czeck, Lithuania, and Russian film makers who used the surrealism of stop-motion animation to pivot around the oppressive propaganda restrictions of Cold War film making and the risks that as artists they were taking to make sophisticated and subliminal commentary on the claustrophobic nature of being artists in these highly precarious periods of time. What was at stake for these filmmakers and artists was not just lack of funding but a potential life-limiting trip to a forced labour camp in Siberia. This style of film making has been a one I have gravitated to for nearly fifteen years in my early film work, partly it was the illusion making but alongside it it was the context of making film within a socio-political context; Using the laborious process of stop frame animation to create what appears to be effortless illusion and simultaneously using slapstick humour and surrealism to talk about political oppression and otherness.
When I was considering how to weave the stories created by the volunteer writers into a script and ultimately a screenplay I looked to Italiano Calvino for inspiration. In his Invisible Cities, the story of Marco Polo’s journey to Kubla Khan. The structure is a story within a story a city within a city within a city, a journey from west to east. I used that exact same style to fuse over twenty-five short stories into the tapestry of the film to make an experimental non-verbal piece of art cinema. The only sound is the sounds of the three composers interpretations of the architectural sites and scenes and the foley sounds. The Foley is how the sound effects of every single movement are added in post-production. Nothing was recorded in the initial shoot, no field recordings etc and the vast majority of the sounds were made in collaboration with the brilliant Foley artist Dominyka Adomaityte who physically made the sound of people touching, walking, brushing past or even eating the architecture. It's a somatic voice of the buildings and interiors, the main protagonist of a film with no spoken word. So, when I was invited to make the foley for my Klostės in Prague in the very sound studio that Svanmajker made his sound effects for his animations I felt that the whole project had come full circle. Time had folded, just like the title of the film Folds or Klostės in Lithuania was a deliberate choice. The film is monochrome so you could not identify the precise time period of the film and there is at times of folding of time, time looped or reversed in the construction of a laborious stop frame process.
As I write this blog post our co-created, collaborative art Film is currently touring the world to film festivals. Tonight, it is getting its US Premier at the Newport Beach Film Festival in California and simultaneously its Argentinian premiere in Cordoba. But in another lovely folding of time and serendipity, the film is getting a further TV Premier in Lithuania on the 2nd of November, visual culture broadcast to the masses and hopefully inspiring generations to cherish the unique architectural, artistic and film heritage for generations to come.
Find out more about the Klostės project at www.klostes.com.
The film is available to stream on the IFI's online platform.
Listen to Aideen Barry discuss the project on the Modernism for the Future podcast.