Unsettle and Redistribute:
Alise Upitis in Conversation with Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas
Disidentification [is] a removal from the naturalness of a place, the opening up of a subject space where anyone can be counted since it is the space where those of no account are counted, where a connection is made between having a part and having no part.
Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas’ work examines the contested field of economic, social, and political conditions in the post-socialist countries of the Former East, as well as more recently the Former West—the West that during the cold war defined itself as other than communist—and both regions’ transformations after 1989. To affect this, the artists have, among several other actions, staged pigeon races, fashioned floriated camouflage, employed Transactional Analysis, interviewed literary theorists, produced TV shows, conducted workshops and gone to court.
But their art practice does not enlighten. It does not obliterate blindness or impart greater knowledge to those who lack it. To enlighten, it would have to perpetuate the binary between those who possess knowledge and those who do not, those alert to their conditions and those unaware of the ideological apparatus in which their life is held, those who have freedom and those for whom “if only freedom is granted, enlightenment is almost sure to follow.”  Their proliferating artistic tactics simultaneously interrupt and produce a series of archives that split open the representational hierarchies of specific forms (media, disciplines) and subjects (viewers, participants). It is because their practice does not enlighten that it is able to unsettle and redistribute how divisions and identifications of realities—between public and private, Soviet and post-Soviet, communism and capitalism, the seeable and the sayable—are produced and dispatched.
On 17 July 2012, I spoke with Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas about the public sphere, the Lithuanian language, Socialist Realism, the geographical motivations of their work, and the politics of the archive.
Alise Upitis: I would like to begin with how your work investigates the process by which the public can be constituted within both local and international economies marked by increasing privatization. Your project Pro-Test Lab (2005–present) claimed the site of Cinema Lietuva, the last cinema in Vilnius to be privatized, as a public locus for exploring heterogeneous possibilities of sustained protest by various groups—architects, designers, anti-global activists, artists and those simply seeking a space for public discussion and action. The vast project’s goals were achieved through various modes: the Internet, fashion, public access television, workshops and physical space itself. However, more recently I see a movement in your practice towards less tangible and more complex spaces of public/private contestation, spaces that challenge the notion of property itself. I am thinking of Villa Lithuania (2007), your project for the 52nd Venice Biennale, which takes as its starting point the politics of reconstituting the still Russian-occupied Lithuanian Consulate in Rome. One aspect of the work invokes the geo-political role of air through your staging of a pigeon race across national borders. Your current project at Modern Art Oxford, River Runs (2012), also seems relevant. For this you create a river laboratory/playground to explore how water as a public good operates in defining our sense of belonging, on both an individual and a collective scale. Can you speak more about these recent works and how they ask where and how a public sphere, or perhaps more accurately “publicness,” can be constituted today, and the role of artistic interventions in its production?
Gediminas Urbonas: River Runs, consisting of a suite of “jellyfish lilies” and a floating dock to facilitate river swimming, is in development as we speak. During our residency at Modern Art Oxford we researched river cultures—cultures that situate either life or research at, with, for and on the river—and this research has informed our designs. In part, this project draws its inspiration from the Charles River Project (1972) conceived by György Kepes at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, which invoked environmental citizenship in the context of the inhumane scale of industrial and urban damage wrought in Boston and other American cities during 1950s and 60s. Kepes saw the potential of art to mitigate that damage. Today, we are exposed to ecological catastrophe and the collapse of ecosystems, so for the River Runs project it is essential to model situations for survival in the hypothetical Water Age.
When articulating our relationship to citizenship (and audience) though our work, we often deploy the notion of the model. Models help us to situate projects in the territory between the virtual and the real. As reality (and virtuality) are both under continuous colonization from representations of politics, model-thinking can provide a kind of temporary publicness, as you say. Pro-Test Lab as a model of protest also helped us think about the aspects of public space you are trying to grasp. Through the project, we insisted not only on the reclamation of public space, but on the vocabulary that defines public space. We pursued this from 2005 to 2012, in appeals and petitions—to UNESCO, the British Embassy, the shareholders of the company that was developing the site, as well as the municipality, national government and parliament—aiming at the inclusion of the term “public space” in various legislative and normative documents that define our surroundings. Through this process we became involved in several lawsuits; you might say that we appropriated the court process as a form. As part of one case linked to Pro-Test Lab, we spearheaded the re-translation of a crucial public policy document known as the Aarhus Convention, which defines public participation in decision-making regarding heritage sites and conservation. In the post-Soviet context, with a fairly recent history of extensive public participation, such documents and international conventions defining public participation are extremely important.
Nomeda Urbonas: In its original form, the Arhus Convention calls for public participation in all territorial planning decisions. But because of the limited way “environment” was translated in the Lithuanian version, the Vilnius municipal administration was able bypass public participation in many important planning decisions (including the site of Pro-Test Lab, the Cinema Lietuva). As part of the court proceedings, we lobbied for and then commissioned a new, more accurate translation.
GU: With the new translation, we were able to argue that public participation concerns the environment, not only in cities but in all aspects of ecology, culture and so on. These court cases made it clear that Pro-Test Lab is not just about public space, but about language and translation as well.
Another thing that came about during the Pro-Test Lab campaign was a cluster of communities coexisting in free disagreement, each of them making a claim on the public interest. It was a process of learning how to self-organize and self-educate. This is also an interesting point from a Lefebvrian perspective, when he speaks about those who are professional and those who are amateurs.  When we went to court against the Ministry of Culture we had no lawyer to represent us, and none of us had the juridical literacy to be able to proceed in a proficient way and defend ourselves. Knowing how long court cases take, one of the members, a psychologist and music teacher, decided to start a law degree. He managed to graduate in the meantime, and we won the case. In this sense, the process itself made the person transform. For him, art had a very direct effect. It was a very empowering experience. There is one level of discussion you can engage in using performative artistic forms, speaking, or using the media as a public intellectual, but there is a totally different level of articulation being practiced and exercised at the juridical level, where legislative and normative documents are constructed and issued.
AU: An aspect of your practice I find very interesting is the use of verbal expression. I am thinking your work Transaction (2000–2005), which uses the psychoanalytic/therapeutic form Transactional Analysis to explore relationships between media, memory, politics and trauma within current Lithuanian culture. Ruta-Remake (2002–2005) also comes to mind, for which you interviewed women in post-Soviet Lithuania as a means of accessing connections between sound, voice and the politics of identity. These projects seem to have important linkages to the unique status of Lithuanian as a language and the relation it has to Lithuanian identity. That is, Lithuanian is considered the oldest living Indo-European language and was purely oral until the sixteenth century. As I understand it, language, not ethnicity, today forms the most important principle for the classification of nationality in the Baltic Republics—in other words, Lithuanians are people who speak Lithuanian. Moreover, during the Soviet occupation and still today, knowing but not speaking Russian is a political act. Is there a relationship between your work and how Lithuanian as a spoken language functions? Perhaps even an attempt in your work to create a new aesthetic language?
NU: You make a rather obvious and important observation, but I have to say we haven’t thought about this relationship before!
GU: Lithuanian was forbidden during Russian imperial colonization during the nineteenth century, which motivated various forms of resistance. Lithuanian at that time was spoken mostly in the countryside. The intellectuals of the Romantic period, who standardized the Lithuanian that people speak today, found this language only spoken there, in the singing tradition. It was very archaic. It did not survive in the cities. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, Lithuanian books were published in Cyrillic, and Lithuanian as a written language was forbidden. And of course the idea of language being tied to victory and struggle also remained throughout the twentieth century during all the occupations—the German occupation, the Soviet occupation. Relationship to the Lithuanian language is also part of the post-colonial discourse. Transaction’s starting point was the voice, the sound of which is constructed in relation to a certain regime of governmentality; it is something that is socially constructed. At the same time, it is something that is your own, an expression of your inner voice. In that respect we were interested in women’s voices, and we were working with the methodologies of anthropology, collecting oral histories. In a way, we can say it is similar to constructing a very subjective type of language, one of memories and histories.
AU: This is then oppositional to the normative…
GU: Yes. Working with a voice archive, we were involved with people who did not necessarily understand the language. First of all, we were working with different language groups, and then in concert with different generations—for example, a young generation of Lithuanian women, some of whom had never heard or listened to the samples and materials we collected. They had very little experience or exposure, only through their mothers or grandmothers. In Ruta-Remake, we spent months working with these language sounds and remixing them. We conducted a series of workshops in Germany with sound artists, designers and DJs who had no understanding of the language being spoken. Even if, as in the first case, you have a group of people who understand the language, it was a different generation, so many meanings and contexts were not familiar. The choices they made in filtering, editing and mixing the sound were based primarily on the sounds’ formal qualities. Working with the German group in particular, we explored how sound creates meaning through repetitions and recitations, and we came to call this phenomenon “sound-words.”
NU: This worked as a kind of conceptual platform, these sound-words that are very archaic—sound words that are specific to the Lithuanian singing tradition.
GU: In Latvia and Lithuania, and also, I think, some islands in Polynesia, you find very archaic songs, where the sound-words resonate with each other to produce meaning. The sounds are from people standing in front of each other, signing to each other, their voices meeting. This creates not only interesting sounds but new meanings, comparable with avant-garde poetry or even musique concrète. For us it was an important moment in searching for a new kind of aesthetic of language. We were thinking about how this archive would be interpreted, based not on the semantics of language or the message, but on the quality of the sound. We were trying to go very deep into the sound of the female voice, this territory in between social construction and inner subjectivity. There was a process of filtering, cutting and stripping the language and literal meaning from the voice. With Ruta-Remake, there is a distribution of sound through speakers, and different voices distributed through different channels. Based on one’s position in the space, one can construct new meaning through the process of listening.
AU: Many artists working in a post-Soviet context engage with what can be characterized as nostalgia through the appropriation of symbols of Socialist Realism. You, however, avoid this sort of appropriation. Do you see a problem with nostalgia? Both trauma and nostalgia can be considered expressions of memory whose key characteristic is the experience of repetition, one of a wound and one of longing.
GU: This is an interesting question. Many artists from Eastern Europe make special projections according to requests that come from the Western market, and they are becoming victims of those projections. Let me explain. There is a certain desire in the West…
NU: In the former West!
GU: …and in the art market to see this reproduction of nostalgia as a form of coping with the past. These artists respond to this expectation as a condition of inclusion in the global art market. But it is the West itself that is nostalgic. The nostalgia of these artists is performed very cynically. But what is interesting is something you are suggesting in your question: even if you are a cynical performer, if you perform and repeat this performance, you make the nostalgia, you produce it as such. A simple example: consider art that is meant to offer ways of coping with the past, tapping into nostalgia as a territory. In one way or another, this shapes the relationship to the past, and to trauma. Nostalgia as such is not operative outside of the context where people need to find a form to cope with that past.
You asked why we are not tapping into this territory. It is because for us it is more vital to investigate what production could be interesting for people who lived through trauma and who live through nostalgia. Instead of lamenting nostalgia, we are more interested in creating work that is informed in terms of the narrative of this history of trauma, and the experience of transformation: how one can cope with historical trauma. If you look at the work of Transaction or Pro-Test Lab, both deal with the past and history, but at the same time I would not say they are lamenting the past, they are searching for a free experiment that manages to transform the past.
AU: My next question is: why the archive? That is, at each new site you reconfigure the space, you utilize particular material that is created at the site or related to the particular history of that site. This certainly seems to be the case in Transaction. More recently it was manifest in your involvement with bringing Disobedience Archive to MIT, a continually changing video archive that elucidates historical and contemporary linkages between art practices and acts of political resistance. Why do you recreate and proliferate the archive, and how might that relate to the way you situate your work historically and culturally?
GU: Not only individuals but sometimes entire nations’ histories are strongly dependent on who has control over the archives. For us it is interesting to create separate archives free from the possession of any regime of governmentality, from any institution, from history that is administrated and reproduced by certain regimes. In the projects you refer to, we recompose, reinterpret, retranslate a subjective reading of this situation and build our own archive. In Transaction, our goal was not only to tap into this question of how the images, histories and lives of Lithuanian women were constructed, reproduced and manipulated. We wanted to investigate how we could take possession of that authority, that institution, and in its place develop various subjective interpretations. With Disobedience Archive—and also in Pro-Test Lab—there is the recognition of translation and the acknowledgement that archives are not fixed. Also, looking at our work with MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies archive and the work that came out of that, it becomes evident that these archival documents come into the light only through interpretation. If you think about Disobedience Archive and Pro-Test Lab, they require interpretation, they require reanimation—and moreover re-education in the given moment as new politics and new situations develop. As the archive is re-performed and re-animated, it takes on new meaning. That re-performance and re-animation also produces a new layer in the archive. It creates this new epistemological field around that specific notion, that specific concept.
AU: Would you say that this re-activation requires heterogeneous media and the participation of diverse audiences? Looking towards the history of art itself, one can discuss an idea of audience as well as an idea of medium: one could say there have been two dominant modes of thinking about art, one more of an activated, socially engaged practice, and the other a history of art concerned with formal media delineations. Does the re-activation of the archive demand, as a condition, the reactivation of both this subject/audience, and object/medium?
GU: Certainly. Probably a good example is Transaction and the drama triangle—borrowed from Transactional Analysis—between female experts that come from different fields. This was not a homogeneous group, but from literature, musicology, semiotics, philosophy, gender theory, psychiatry, psychology, &c. There are three roles in the drama triangle, as well as the orientation of different disciplines.  I think without these diverse participants our archival practice is not possible, and I would also say it is part of how we deal with the past. It is for us a way of decolonization. That is why it requires so many actors. We cannot rely on one field of knowledge or discipline. There are different forms of culture, as well as different fields that influence that culture.
AU: I have one last question that deals with how your practice has changed over time. A lot of your work has dealt with the context of Lithuania, and Vilnius in particular. Do you see a change of content or method itself, since more recently you’ve spent much of the year in North America teaching at MIT? I am thinking in particular of your relationship to an institution with extensive Cold War involvement, a beneficiary of enormous military funds to fuel its research.
NU: We have always been interested in how ideology shapes culture, and if we look at the Cold War games it is clear how advanced forms of culture, specifically new media, were used to inform and camouflage technological and military advancements. Understanding how modernization was shaped by technological research and the Cold War games on this side of the former Iron Curtain gives us a new perspective from which to evaluate cultural development in the post-Soviet context. In Cambridge we are exposed to an entirely different experience, shaped by dislocation and detachment. We are situated in a research university that has infrastructure and tools allowing us to sense and investigate from a distance, which after years of being in the center of action provides a necessary balance. So for us dislocation has a positive meaning.
GU: I think our practice retains continuity, continuing to investigate modernization and its relations to avant-garde. MIT in particular, not just the United States, is where the technologies of the Cold War made the biggest impact on modernization, for the culture, and those were military developments. So we speak about cybernetics and game theory but also about systems theory and other aspects—all of these are Cold War concepts. It is very important for us to see the other side, after the Soviet experience, and to experience this place physically. And also to be much closer to its own archives, as well as the people who are still alive, to see works that were not widely published and not familiar in Eastern Europe that are examples of the era. We are interested in how certain ideologies and certain military research fueled the avant-garde and certain forms of emerging, alternative and experimental culture. So in that sense we are exploring the connection between the avant-garde and commissioned forms of culture, or culture that is representative of a certain state ideology. It is very interesting for us to be on both sides.
 Immanuel Kant, ‘Was ist Aufklärung?’ in Michel Foucault, The Politics of Truth (Semiotext(e), 1997), 9.
 In Henri Lefebvre’s words: “The quasi-logical presupposition of an identity between mental space (the space of the [professional] philosophers and epistemologists) and real space [of the subject or amateur] creates an abyss between the mental sphere on one side and the physical and social spheres on the other. … If they still see the abyss at all, the professional philosophers avert their gaze. No matter how relevant, the problem of knowledge and the ‘theory of knowledge’ have been abandoned in favor of a reductionistic return to an absolute—or supposedly absolute—knowledge, namely the knowledge of the history of philosophy and the history of science. Such a knowledge can only be conceived of as separate from both ideology and non-knowledge (i.e. from lived experience). Although any separation of that kind is in fact impossible, to evoke one poses no threat to—and indeed tends to reinforce—a banal ‘consensus’.” Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London: Blackwell, 1991), 6.
 In Transactional Analysis, the three roles in a drama triangle are the victim, the persecutor, and the rescuer. Stephen Karpman, “Fairy Tales and Script Drama Analysis,” Transactional Analysis Bulletin 7.26 (1968): 39-43. In Transaction, these roles were held alternately by “women,” “film,” and “psychiatrists.”
Alise Upitis holds an A.B., summa cum laude, from Smith College and a PhD from the MIT Department of Architecture. In 2009-10 she was Visiting Scholar in the Archive of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, and is currently Assistant Curator at the MIT List Visual Arts Center. Her research concerns postwar treatments of abnormality and computational technologies in architecture, art and design, and the place of research and knowledge production in contemporary art. She has recently authored for Intellectual Birdhouse: Artistic Practice as Research (Walther-Konig), N52 (MIT ACT), and A Second Modernism (SA+P Press).
Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas were both born in Lithuania and completed their masters degrees at the Vilnius Art Academy in 1994. They have worked in joint artistic practice since 1997. They currently live and work in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Image caption: Structures for unusual swimming methods: Jellyfish Lilies and Floatable Platform. Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas with Tracey Warr and Giacomo Costagnola. River Runs, 2012. Image courtesy of the artists.