About the Project

“Opportunities for communication and interaction” – Interview with Lena Prents and Johanna M. Keller

Lena Prents and Johanna M. Keller, © Goethe-Institut/ Dima Belush
Lena Prents and Johanna M. Keller, © Goethe-Institut/ Dima Belush

The head of project and the concept and curatorial supervisor are looking back on their experiences with the project Going Public. On the Possibility of a Public Statement.

The project “Going Public – On the Difficulty of a Public Statement”, which you started up for the Goethe-Institut, brings together various partner institutions as well as freelance curators from Belarus, Kaliningrad, Lithuania and Germany. How would you characterize the various political, cultural and urban contexts of the locations involved with regard to public art?

In Lithuania, a great many projects have been carried out in the public space since its independence in 1990, officially culminating in 2009, the year Vilnius was European Capital of Culture. At the outset, small groups started up and carried out artistic projects geared toward getting a discussion going about what to do with the architectural legacy of the Soviet era, about the potential use of vacant public buildings, and about urban history and collective identities. As public interest in specific discussions increased, politicians and market-oriented organizations also began paying attention to contemporary art. The debates increasingly shifted toward large-scale politically prestigious projects like the idea of building a Guggenheim Museum in Vilnius.

Against this backdrop, it is understandable that Lithuanian artists’ initiatives and curators feel a certain resignation about local developments in public art. This goes chiefly for the capital, but also for Klaipėda, the country’s third biggest city, located 300 km west of Vilnius. There, too, initiatives have emerged in the public space by and large within the framework of city marketing, serving above all to make Klaipėda more appealing to tourists. Given its peripheral location on the Baltic Sea coast, Klaipėda has a hard time holding its own against the capital – just as Kaliningrad has a hard time getting out from under the shadow of Moscow.

The National Centre for Contemporary Arts in Kaliningrad (NCCA) carries out a great many projects in public space. The municipal government’s past hostility towards public art has given way to a certain acceptance and support, especially in view of the prominent foreign sponsors of the projects. At the same time, the NCCA wants to engage in critical and substantive exchange with initiatives and groups active in the public sphere. The NCCA’s interest in the Going Public project was above all a reflection of the work done so far and a desire for collegial exchange.

Now, it is not infrequently stressed that public art can’t be discussed without touching on theories of democracy (e.g. Oliver Marchart). In Belarus, there was a brief three-year period regarded as being reform – and democracy-oriented, from its declaration of independence in 1991 to the election of Alexander Lukashenko to the presidency in 1994. 18 years of authoritarian rule since then have had a lasting impact on the country, including its art scene. A conservative, traditional conception of art still reigns supreme at state art institutions and in academic art education. The infrastructure of non-commercial and alternative art venues has been destroyed and any attempts to rebuild it are consistently thwarted. Nonetheless, even under these conditions, initiatives are emerging that aspire to and engage in independent action, experimentation and reflection on their own practice. They engender other public spheres and have a powerful knock-on effect. There is a huge need in Belarus for opportunities to produce and present contemporary art projects showing that there is an alternative to the dogmatic official take on art. One of the few noteworthy public art projects there is the Goethe-Institut’s Арт Город. Raum für Raum.

How would you describe the context in which the various participants are working? What are their discursive points of reference, and which local and international public spheres are they reaching or trying to reach?

What is particularly difficult and yet exciting about the situation in post-Soviet countries is that the emergence of public art and the art-historical discussion thereof are taking place at the same time. In view of the completely altered political and social situation, there are hardly any pre-1989 experiences to go by in constructing a public sphere. It wasn’t till after 1989 that serious theoretical reflection could address the nature and role of public spheres. Public art has developed in the post-Soviet world out of the logic of local contexts and local, in some cases historically conditioned, artistic practices. The present contexts vary considerably. One common denominator, which is so to speak backwards-looking, is the Soviet past, with all the resultant negative and positive experiences that continue to affect these societies and art scenes. The other present-day denominator is highly committed and enthusiastic work in the field of contemporary art – both at local and international level – despite all the infrastructural difficulties, shortfalls and red tape, against the socio-political odds and all the sobering assessments. The curators and artists in Klaipėda, Kaliningrad and Minsk are well aware that their cities are perceived from the outside as marginal, insignificant or politically handicapped (as in the case of Belarus). And yet they are not striving to refute clichés or react to expectations, but sticking close to local conditions, potentialities and needs. And they are on the go outside their own context, grappling with confines and constraints, seeking out new networks and allies.

Western concepts of the public sphere are quite well known, including the writings of Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Habermas, Nancy Fraser, Rosalyn Deutsche and Chantal Mouffe. The decision as to how to approach these concepts in each particular context, what people find inspiring in them, what they seek to build on, and what they choose to focus on, is based on structural characteristics of each location. The NCCA in Kaliningrad, for example, is working closely together with social researcher Anna Karpenko, whose field research has proved meaningful for local artistic practice and the theoretical discussion thereof. One concept we’ve found quite fecund is that of “fluid public spheres” elaborated by cultural scientist Almira Ousmanova, a professor at the European Humanities University (EHU) of Belarus, which was shut down in 2005 and subsequently reopened in Lithuanian exile.

What role did the parameters of “near” and “far” (as between Vilnius and Minsk, Kaliningrad and Moscow or Klaipėda and Kaliningrad) play for your programming in concrete and in figurative terms?

The distances you mention can be easily bridged once the players in these art scenes come together. They have shared experiences as well as a shared language (Russian); those who didn’t know one another personally before at least got an idea of one another through publications, participation in exhibitions and from hearsay.

What does vary is their rapport with Western Europe and Germany. The Lithuanian artists are well known both in the participating countries, including Kaliningrad, and internationally. The art scene from Kaliningrad, on the other hand, is known above all in northern Germany and in the coastal cities in the Baltic region: in Poland, Sweden, Denmark. Belarus makes headlines in Western media with its day-to-day politics. The country is viewed almost exclusively through a political prism. Accordingly, artistic work that is about the political situation in the country – or that can be so interpreted – gets most of the attention.

Johanna, you’ve been directing the Goethe-Institut in Lithuania since the beginning of 2010 and living in Vilnius ever since: what forms of cooperation and what dividing lines can be made out on cultural, political and economic levels between Lithuania, Belarus and Kaliningrad?

Historically speaking, the region is closely intertwined, above all through the Grand Duchy of Lithuania that emerged in the 14th century. Both culturally and linguistically, there has been a great deal of exchange in the region that is now Belarus, Lithuania and Kaliningrad. A vector and symbol of that exchange is the Memel River, which still constitutes a key landmark for all these countries. The river, which for a long time connected people all the way from its source south of Minsk to its mouth at the Curonian Lagoon south of Klaipėda, now forms the external border not only of the European Union, but also of the NATO and Schengen areas.

With Going Public we sought to overcome these divisions and encourage supra-regional exchange on artistic concepts. That’s how a network was formed, one that can certainly be used beyond the confines of the project as well. The conditions in the participating countries vary considerably, but the geographic distances between them are insignificant: from Vilnius to Minsk is a mere 190 km, from Klaipėda to Kaliningrad only 130 km.

Politically and economically, Lithuania has very close ties to its neighbors, especially Belarus. Bands that are banned in Belarus can play to their public in Vilnius; Belarusian human rights journalists who cannot work in their own country anymore find refuge in Lithuania; EHU university has been operating in Lithuanian exile since 2005. Cultural exchange needs ties like these.

What are the similarities and differences between these three locations in daily life there?

Belarus, Lithuania and Greater Kaliningrad are post-Socialist areas – the same goes for Leipzig, where we held the closing conference for the project.

Upon its accession to the European Union in 2004, the political framework for Lithuania changed profoundly; many socio political issues now seem to be resolved for the time being. There is a good cultural infrastructure, adequate funding options and significant exchange going on at many levels.

As for Greater Kaliningrad, the fact that it hasn’t got a single art academy already makes things difficult there. The NCCA has no exhibition venues as yet and runs on a shoestring budget. The visa requirements for neighboring countries make travelling more difficult for artists from Kaliningrad or Belarus. Minsk, the capital of Belarus, does have large public spaces, but they are subject to authoritarian regimentation and ultimately remain “lonely”, as one of the participating artists put it.

In spite of these differences, all the participating art institutions and artists, from Leipzig to Minsk, clearly face the same question all the time: How does one reach the public, and how does one create opportunities for communication and interaction?

Lena, you’ve been teaching at EHU since 2006. How would you assess the networking and the ties between Lithuania and Belarus? What role does an “outsourced” public sphere, as tried out by EHU, play in terms of influence in its own country? Is an EHU degree recognized in Belarus? Do the students go back to Belarus, or do many of them work or continue their studies abroad?

Close professional and private contacts have developed between the cultural scientists, media scholars, philosophers and urbanists at EHU and their Lithuanian colleagues. The curator and art critic Laima Kreivytė from Vilnius once said EHU looms large in Lithuania’s cultural landscape. It makes direct contributions as well as indirect contributions through international contacts and projects that are important for the development of Lithuanian and Belarusian academia. So that substantially relativizes the view of Belarus as “the other”, foreign culture.

EHU has a veiled, creeping influence inside Belarus. The university doesn’t officially exist there, but its faculty members are consulted in the media (though not in those close to the president) for their expertise, they publish a lot and initiate discussion events and projects that are rare and unusual for the Belarusian context. EHU enjoys a reputation as a modern, critical/contemplative and undogmatic educational establishment. That goes hand in hand with high expectations in society, even heavy demands on EHU members – teachers and students alike. EHU graduates operate in the area of tension between these expectations and hopes, on the one hand, and the university’s illegitimate status in Belarus (where its degrees are not recognized), on the other.

In the course of the project, what have you learned about conceptions of the public sphere, about the role of art in the public sphere or public discourse? What strategies have you hit upon to visualize and generate public spheres?

One key question for Belarus is how one can do any work at all in the field of contemporary art, whilst constantly manoeuvring between censorship and self-censorship, between possible reprisals and one’s own artistic aspirations. Unfortunately, how hard this decision actually is became clearer than necessary in the course of the project when one artist was arrested with his assistants during an intervention in the city centre. But the criminal charge of disturbing the public peace and obstructing an officer in the performance of his duties has since been dismissed by the court, and the artistic intervention and the whole project immediately became a subject of widespread discussion in Minsk.

In the course of the project, it showed what different connotations certain concepts can have. In the Western context, concepts like “presence”, “public” and “visibility” generally carry positive connotations. However, that does not necessarily apply to contexts that are differently politically constituted, if it is to be feared that a potential public could have grave con-sequences – all the more so as the impact of the interventions can only be foreseen to a limited extent.

Also particularly exciting here was the commentary on the situation by participating artists in neighboring countries, which was possible thanks to mutual artist-in-residence programs. In each case, their artistic approaches were closely related to their respective location and its historical context.

Most of the artists involved in the Going Public project were mainly interested in creating opportunities for interaction and negotiation. So along similar lines to the strategies of the geheimagentur from Germany, artistic projects here can create situations of short-term solidarity, which makes unusual alliances possible. The artists become questioners, bringing issues to light that can only be resolved together.

Vera Lauf
conducted this interview. She is the head of the project „Well connected – Kuratorisches Handeln im 21. Jahrhundert“ at the Academy of Visual Arts Leipzig since 2010.

The interview was published in 2013 in the publication „Well Connected – On Curatorial Processes. Producing Publics. Presence as a Strategic Tool?“.
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