Geluniene & Carroll

Public space in the Soviet realm was held together by a conviction it was collective. The force field of publicness operated between two poles: official control and civic acquiescence. The potency to act collectively delivered millions to imprisonment or death. By contrast, the impotency to act collectively was exemplified by the charade of political parades. Despite the failure of a massive collective experiment, public space remains a puzzle to be solved. It presents a challenge: how to be a person (one) living among others (many). Spinoza, during a time of religious persecution in the Netherlands, came to the view that it was only in the collective that the individual has existence and apart from the collective the freedom of the individual is inconceivable. Yet how can personal agency and publicness merge to build a constituency that values dignity and solidarity in the contemporary Lithuanian context?

Šančiai, a name given by the French army in the 19th century and more specifically, Lower (Žemieji) Šančiai, is a unique elderate of Kaunas. Today it is home to 21,000 people. Between WW1 and WW2 and during the Soviets, the neighbourhood was known for its multiple industries and army barracks which were built by the Russian Tsar in the 19th century. After the collapse and economic crisis of the Soviet Union in 1990, factories and barracks were closed and became derelict until recently with an emerging pattern of poverty causing high migration, and affluence affecting privatisation and gentrification.

We, Geluniene & Carroll, are artists who in 2008 initiated and started leading a cycle of ongoing projects called ‘Friendly Zone’. We live in Šančiai for 20 and 8 years respectively in the wooden family home built by the great grandfather in 1928. Our work in this neighbourhood began as a conscious turn from the artificial institutional borders between art and society towards the lived lives and place of Šančiai community. In 2011 we developed a local inquiry to see if culture can re-connect with publicness through a tactic of opening private space out into a public space. The process was informal but structured with a schedule for work, conversations as well as sharing space and meals.

Our own house at Kranto 18 street served as the research base. An open call for participants was published in advance and external facilitators from Ireland, an art group ‘Vagabond Reviews’ was invited. Investigative journeys through local streets helped the team [1] to gather narratives from local residents and workers. During four days the team listened, divided up into smaller groups, and gathered pieces of information. The knowledge gathered was mapped together to interpret the lived lives and pulse of the place. At the end a public reception was organised to display the collected narratives. In the house and garden various installations and artefacts were arranged: a hand-drawn map that marked places that evoked emotions; video interviews with local people who spoke about what makes their culture and community unique; mythical installations, photographic documentation, projections in the garden on the wood sheds. What resulted from the artistic research process was an opportunity to anchor on location and gather knowledge of the neighbourhood.

Making a public space became the starting point for our next artistic action more than 18 months later in June 2013 [2]. (The time lapse illustrates the fact that so much of the work remains below the surface: a sort of loitering with intent). This time we moved out of our private space into the most public thoroughfare in the area and set up a tent on the main street of the neighbourhood ‒ Juozapavičiaus Avenue. For this occasion a white inflatable architectural form was commissioned with a banner above the doorway signalling an intention: «Friendly Zone». It gave us the potential to pop up in-between public and private interests. We had to negotiate with the neighbours of small business outlets e.g. hairdresser, tailor, tenants, etc. During three days the house became a space for testing creative ideas about the community, engaging publics about their understanding of values and becoming a platform for dialogue, discussions, performances and exhibitions. “Friendly Zone” also became a temporary Lower Šančiai cultural house where local people were invited to show and tell what they treasure and consider distinctive about this place. The inflatable house awoke curiosity in the community and so gave a new possibility to gather deeper knowledge and narratives about local culture and identity. The project resulted in a re-invigorated temporary public space, which uplifted the community spirit.

In 2014, we continued to work with a core team [3] by identifying a shared interest in the forgotten and abandoned 19th century military site. This site is a danger and hazardous to local users. Children use its broken down buildings and illegally dumped materials as a playground. Therefore, during the summer we inflated the “Friendly Zone” house three times in the wasteland as an act of agency and occupation of public space. The team stayed on‒location, observed flows of people and used various forms of investigation. Its collective manifestation was expressed through individual art performances and interventions which responded to the site, its narratives and physical features e.g. pollution, nature, historic usage, etc.

We held conversations and exchanged with the local community about the future of that place. The goal of the project was to activate local community awareness and agency in articulating the problems and the potencies of the site. We attracted local people to start conversations, involved the community members of the nearby social housing complex and collected their visions of the territory.

At this stage of the “Friendly Zone” cycle we reached the boundary of the short‒term funded projects. Something more sustainable was required to continue nurturing community to voice concerns and act for the growth and development of all people in their neighbourhood. After months of planning and meetings with the broader civil society network of groups and individuals living in the neighbourhood we got consensus to establish a legal association “Žemųjų Šančių bendruomenė”. The goals of the association are community development, self-organisation, civil society and local democracy.

Art and culture linked to political change can, as Grant Kester remarked at the end of “The One and the Many” “grasp the complex imbrications of the local and the global, of individual consciousness and collective action”. He advises to “practice our way through complexity so we can “learn” and “unlearn” the “ways in which people respond to, and resolve, the struggles they confront in everyday life” (“The One and the Many” 2011, pp. 226-227). The conversation continues. And still the enigma of community mobilisation remains.


Notes:

[1] Art and Culture project “Friendly Zone #3”. Creative team: Viktorija Rusinaitė, Gediminas Banaitis, Jūratė Jarulytė, Veronika Urbonaitė-Barkauskienė, Maryja Šupa, Justina Padvarskaitė and Monika Žaltauskaitė Grašienė. The project was part funded by the Culture Ministry of Lithuania and the Embassy of Ireland in Lithuania through the Department of Foreign Affairs of Ireland Cultural Grant-in-Aid.

[2] Art and Culture project “Friendly Zone #4”. International team: Jeanne van Heeswijk (Netherlands), Mary Jane Jacob (USA), Susanne Bosch (Germany), Fiona Woods, Niall Crowley, Ailbhe Murphy, Ciaran Smyth, Niall O’Baoill, John Mulloy (Ireland), Fernando Marques Penteado (Brazil) Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas (Lithuania). Žemieji Šančiai team: Auksė Petrulienė, Darius Petrulis, Jūratė Jarulytė, Monika Žaltauskaitė Grašienė, Kotryna Valiukevičiūtė, Arnoldas Stramskas, Viktorija Rusinaitė, Dionizas Bajarūnas and Gediminas Banaitis (Lithuania). The project was part funded by the Lithuanian Culture Counsel, Kaunas Municipality, Culture Ireland and Creative Europe.

[3] Art and Culture project “Friendly Zone #5”. Creative team: Monika Žaltauskaitė Grašienė, Kotryna Valiukevičiūtė, Arnoldas Stramskas, Darius Petrulis, Auksė Petrulienė, Arvydas Liorančas, Viktorija Rusinaitė and Dionizas Bajarūnas. The project was part funded by the Lithuanian Culture Counsel, Kaunas Municipality, Vytautas Magnus University and Lithuanian Science Counsel.

References:
G. H. Kester (2011) The One and the Many Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context. Duke University Press.