Latent Stories from behind the Scenes in Cities
Asta Visminaite, Art Critic
Vilnius COOP: Gaps, Fictions and Practices
The X Baltic Triennial of International Art
25.09.–22.11.2009. Vilnius
I can still remember clearly, as a child, impatiently waiting for the October parade, when the main city street blossomed with flags, and tribunes emerged for the very important people. They used to wave to the passing-by crowds with red carnation flowers and in the hands of the children, who had lined the pavement, you could spot dozens of balloons. Once you stepped into the city, you couldn’t not have noticed the signs of a festival: the city was clean and colourful. Meanwhile, if on a day of a festival you were to have walked a few steps away from the main streets, you could have found an everyday reality: in the yards, neighbouring housewives from communal flats drying out freshly washed laundry, children playing in the fountains that had been built but never used, and men in heated discussion with their mates by the soda-water machines. To be the European Capital of Culture is a festival as well. A festival lasting all year long. Maybe there is a difference in the political and economic system, but both local people and visitors alike are invited to view the city as the site of a festival. Again the everyday life and everyday environment disappear from view, invisible and unnoticed against the festive mood, or commercially unattractive places are pushed behind the scenes of the city. But in most cases, the unofficial image of the city offers much more interesting and meaningful features.
Indre Klimaite un Isabella Roozendaal. Research on revival of altered culture. Images from "A Guide to Vilnius and Kaunas' Canteens". 2009
As the year of the European Capital of Culture has arrived in Vilnius and the city is receiving a great deal of attention, a project curated by Ūla Tornau (Lithuania) and Vera Lauf (Germany) called Vilnius COOP: Gaps, Fictions and Practices, which is a part of the X Baltic Triennial of International Art, suggests an escape from the usual perception of the city to the rarely noticed, forgotten or undiscovered facets of urban structures. The project focuses on unusual ideas and strategies of space production that come from the individual or collective ways of dealing with social, economic and cultural changes. In the concept of the project the gaps are defined as an outwardly empty space in the predominant discourse (based on the definition of sociologist Chantal Mouffe). Spaces eliminated from the social or economic context provide a good opportunity for creativity or experimenting, and most often bring about the rise of interesting and unexpected solutions. The curators invited more than twenty international and local artists, sociologists and theorists to explore little known city textures or social structures, and to present the results of their artistic or scholarly research during an exhibition in Vilnius (25 September–22 October, 2009).

The project started to develop five years ago from an observation of the urban processes and transformations in the cityscape, as well as from the research of possible gaps in the structure of a city. Over the 15 years of independence, the cityscape of Lithuanian cities has been changing under the conditions of a liberal capitalist market: real estate was privatized and people were trying to shut out from their memory, deliberately or not, buildings representing Soviet ideology. Public spaces that previously belonged to everyone were reclaimed by private owners and thus members of society had to learn to differentiate between public and private property, and adopt their habits to the new system. A place representing a space in the city – a gap – and a location reflecting the changes in socio-economic life was purposely chosen for the exhibition of the Vilnius COOP project: it is being presented in the partly abandoned building of a former health centre located in the middle of the central street of Vilnius. Designed by Polish functionalist architects (Stanislaw Muzinski and Jerzy Soltan) and built at the initiative of the local community in 1938, this building was originally planned as a social security centre and medical facility, but during the last 15 years it has undergone privatization and attempts to be rebuilt. Thus in the formerly public space of the health centre the curators have made an attempt to create a platform for discussions about multilayered spaces, cultures and gaps of the city, everyday life in it and the research based on all of these.
Indre Klimaite un Isabella Roozendaal. Research on revival of altered culture. Images from "A Guide to Vilnius and Kaunas' Canteens". 2009
The nearby Soviet-era building of a former cinema, Pergalė (‘Victory’), with a very similar history to the health centre building, can be named as the reason for beginning the Vilnius COOP project. Standing derelict in the centre of Vilnius for the last decade, it provided an opportunity for its space to be used for the needs of local communities. Various forms of community events took place in it, such as dance evenings for people over 30, a market for illegal music records, and independent music concerts. In the Vilnius COOP exhibition the physical and social transformations of this building are explored in the photographs of Vidmantas Ilčiukas and Rasa Juškevičiūtė (Lithuania). Changes during the period of 2003–2006 can be traced in the photographs of Ilčiukas – the bombastic Soviet architecture and its damaged exterior in some way protests against the bright and shiny advertisement hoardings, or colourful flags. A collection of the portraits of those attending dance evenings for the over 30s can be found in the photos of Juškevičiūtė. These pictures record members of the community dressed up and ready for a good evening. After several functional conversions and after years of being a shelter for different communities, recently the building of the cinema Pergalė finally ended up as an American-style casino. Usage of the building by the network of community members was possible only because it didn’t have a clear owner, and in the post-Soviet way of thinking was neglected as a Soviet building. Meanwhile the observations of Ilčiukas and Juškevičiūtė captured a social life that can’t be found there anymore.

Returning to the topic of the exhibition venue, it should be pointed out that the building of the health centre in a peculiar way becomes an art object itself. Not many changes had been made to the interior of lobby hall since the Soviet period, therefore it plays with your imagination and invites you to imagine what life would have looked like when the building was functioning, and what hopes were cherished by the community that commissioned it. After entering a lobby hall, the visitor faces the installation An Architektur (Germany), which presents international practices of communal spaces around the world. Founded in 2002, the 10th issue of the journal An Architektur: Production and Use of the Built Environment, a critical analysis on spatial relations, brings together historical and contemporary projects that deal with communal spaces – the installation of An Architektur displays several case studies. The illustrations of social utopias, protests, social or political experiments show a diversity of communal needs, aims, their identities and the contexts of their origin. In an English version of the 10th issue (first published in 2007 in New York) reprinted specially for the Vilnius COOP project, examples from the Lithuanian context are included, such as – for post-Soviet society – the well known images of a privatized communal flat, cooperatively built holiday houses at the Lithuanian seaside or the building of the Vilnius COOP exhibition.
Former social security offices at 27 Gediminas Prospect. Photo: Alise Tīfentāle
A little bit nostalgic, but one of the most thoroughly conducted studies of Vilnius COOP is a project Revival of Lithuanian Canteen Culture by Indrė Klimaitė (in collaboration with historians, writers and photographer Isabella Roozendaal). In 2008 Klimaitė started seeking out, visited and documented the culture of canteens in cities. Established during the Soviet period, a wide network of public canteens has left an influence not just on Lithuanian gastronomic culture, but has formed social habits as well. After the change in the political and economic situation, the canteen culture was simply kept on in a silence. But the results of Klimaitė’s research proved that visitors to canteens still include various social groups. From the commercial point of view canteens were not attractive for investors, and so many of the authentic Soviet interiors have been left untouched up to now. Informal rules for these spaces have been kept for decades as well, as the same staff is still working there. Klimaitė is not just researching the historical authenticity of canteens, but her main attention is mostly directed towards the contemporary social processes happening within them. As part of the Vilnius COOP project Klimaitė presented a short publication (a canteen guide with around 50 canteens included), a series of photographs made by artist Roozendaal and daily lunch excursions. This research is highly valuable as a strategy for reminding us about forgotten places and as a strategy suggesting the formation of new kinds of habits.

Several more artworks reflecting features of the urban environment and suggesting new ways of their utilization can be seen in exhibition. For example, artist Žilvinas Landzbergas (Lithuania/Holland) created an object 5 min of Air Time (2007), which points to the kiosk culture which was to be found all over Lithuania for the last two decades. According to the artist, the kiosk was the most common architectural structure in the cityscape, and formed an economic-social institution, gathering around it different social groups and offering a variety of services. Recently the popularity of the kiosk phenomena has decreased, but Landzbergas gives the kiosk one last chance to be in the hall of fame. The installation by Landzbergas is complemented by Nighthawk, a project by Elva Olafsdottir (Iceland) that offers a space for trading – visitors are invited to bring along their own music records to swap them with the ones at the venue, or simply to create a musical atmosphere in the lobby by playing their own music. So, the visitor is provided an opportunity to be on air and at the same time the former tradition of an illegal music market is reconstructed.

Žilvinas Landzbergas. 5 min Air Time. 2007

Elva Olafsdottir. Nighthawk. Installation. 2008
One more strategy promoted for the informal sector in the public sphere of Vilnius is suggested by the group Urbikon (Germany) – and that is COMBO – shopping cart series. Following intermixed post-Soviet and capitalistic structures in Lithuanian life and witnessing the consequences of the financial crisis, Urbikon makes the prediction that soon there will be a sharp rise of one-man private enterprises in the public spaces of the city. Hence Urbikon has created mobile service units for these single-handed businesses, consisting of re-used and modified shopping carts: there is a cooker (fully equipped with gas supplies for cooking, water supplies for washing dishes, tables attached and etc.), a sleeper (a baby’s cradle) and a lounger (chair). The public space as a field of social interaction, negotiation and the exchange of services could be enhanced by the exploitation of these mobile units.

In comparison with the Lithuanian context of informal urban studies and research, several experiences and narratives from foreign cities are presented in the exhibition. A film installation Metropolis: Report from China (2006), by artists Maya Schwiezer and Clemens Von Wedemeyer (Germany), documents a trip to Shanghai and Beijing. In this multilayered artwork, direct comparison is made between contemporary modern totalitarianism in densely populated cities with the film Metropolis (1926), by Fritz Lang. The installation presents building sites of skyscrapers, tells stories of workers and shows interviews with architects. The belief in architectural and urban utopias is counter-pointed against the everyday life of simple workers.

Research done during Vilnius COOP and presented at the exhibition is being specified and analyzed together with the audience during the accompanying events: discussions, presentations of artistic projects or similar practices, and film screenings. After the exhibition, a catalogue will be published, containing the results of research. Even though this exhibition is not very visual, it is undoubtedly important as an attempt to actualize unnoticed urban processes and to create a new discourse for the perception of the city.

I would like to finish this article with a topic articulated in the work of Mirjam Wirz (Switzerland), who presented her latest issue of the Flash Institute newspaper Potemkin City (2009) in the exhibition. For one month the artist lived in Minsk and published a paper presenting this city through the eyes of an alien. She calls Minsk Potemkin City – a term that refers to the fake settlement erected at the direction of Russian minister Grigory Potyomkin to fool Empress Catherine II during her visit to Crimea in 1787. Hence, in whatever city you were to be or are living, try to see it not as Potemkin City, but step away behind the scenes, behind the fence – you might find there some invisible and unexpected, but very intriguing features of our everyday spaces.

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