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<nettime> Hacking Public Spaces in Vilnius, an interview [u]
Geert Lovink [c] on Wed, 22 Jun 2005 10:23:34 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Hacking Public Spaces in Vilnius, an interview [u]


Hacking Public Spaces in Vilnius
Politics of a new media space inside the Lietuva (soviet) cinema

Interview with Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas
By Geert Lovink

Ever since I met Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas in 1999, two contemporary artists
from Lithuania, they have been in search for an art space where they could
establish a media lab, host talks and exhibit new media related art works. In
August 2004 their organization, Vilma, hosted the RAM 6 workshop in Vilnius--yet
another example which showed how well organized they were, and how desperate in
need of their own infrastructure to do critical and innovative projects. This
spring, Nomeda and Gediminas suddenly saw a chance--and grabbed it. They occupied
the huge voyer of the privatized Lietuva cinema, over which a controversy had
arisen. In May 2005 Nomeda and Gediminas were in Amsterdam briefly for the opening
of the Populism show at the Stedelijk Museum, a moment we used to catch up and
prepare for the following interview, which was done through email over the past few
weeks. The situation of their exciting projects is changing on a daily basis and
we'll hope to keep you informed. In the meanwhile, if you would like to support
them, for instance by sending them taping which they could screen, please contact
them. Email plus URLs can be found below.

GL:Hi, how are you? It's been an exciting few months for you. Tell us all about the
space. How does it look inside? And what's happening inside, for instance last
week?

NU & GU:To tell all about the space, we should make a short story long and
introduce you to the context. Since independence in 1991 Lithuani a has been caught
in an insane period of privatization, property development and demolition. Like a
Wild West land-grab or a gold rush, speculators and real estate tycoons have joined
forces with corrupt municipal bureaucrats to redevelop the country at a mad pace.
Profit has been their only motive. Public space, landmark buildings, cultural life,
and public opinion have been the principal victims. Their method is simple: tell
the population that economic development is good for everyone. Convince them that
Capital is King. Remind the public that making Lithuania look like the pale shade
of a Western European city is the best way to scrub the Soviet past: and make the
country attractive to even more investment and development.

During Soviet times, cinema played an important role in public cultural life. Large
movie theatres were built in central locations around Lithuanian cities. The
theatres filled a crucial role as places for public meetings and gatherings. After
independence, as Soviet structures rapidly crumbled in a wholesale fashion, the
cinemas caught the attention of the real estate market. In a short time, private
enterprise managed to take over and destroy almost every cinema in Vilnius, turning
them into apartments and supermarkets.

More than 15 cinema theatres disappeared including such urban landmarks as Ausra
(Dawn), Zvaigzde (Star), Spalis (October), Pionierius (Pioneer), Pergale (Victory),
Tevyne (Motherland), Kronika (Newsreel), Aidas (Echo), Planeta (Planet), Neris,
Vingis, Lazdynai, Vilnius, Maskva (Moscow), and LIETUVA (Lithuania). In poor
replacement, andmirroring the tragedy of cities all over the world, two 2
multiplexcinema monsters were constructed: the suburban Coca Cola Plaza andexurban
Akropolis Cinemas. The latter, that is part of Lithuania's largest shopping mall,
is representative of the 'mallification' ofLithuania. With the multiplexes came
multiplex Hollywood movies: so the demolition of cinematic space encoded a
demolition of independent film programming. Now, in 2005, there is only one cinema
standing: LIETUVA. And a battle has emerged to save it. Cinema Lietuva was built in
1965 and, significantly, is the largest cinema in Lithuania with over 1000 seats
and a screen size of 200 square meters, offering an ideal image size.It is the home
of the Vilnius Film Festival and as such has played animportant role in the
imaginative life of a whole generation of Vilnius people. The title of the
enterprise "Lietuva" (Lithuania) is alsoan important signifier of national
identity, as its name never bore anySoviet overtones (i.e. it wasn't called the
Cinema of the SovietRepublic of Lithuania). To say to somebody "let's meet at
Lietuva" really meant something during Soviet occupation. In 2002, the Vilnius
Municipal authorities quietly sold the cinema toprivate property developers; with a
caveat that it had to operate as a cinema for a three-year period. That term is
ending on 1 July 2005 and a protest to save the cinema has begun. In March 2005 we
infiltrated the former ticket office of the countrylargest cinema, staging the
'pro-test lab', which is the embodiment of VILMA =96 Vilnius Interdisciplinary Lab
for Media Arts. Pro-test lab is constructed as a spatial device to register the
scenario of protest and generate an action. The logic of the spatial device
refers to theBrothers Lumiere early model of the cinema camera that performed a=
twofold function both recording and projecting the action. Pro-test lab is
generating and archiving all available forms of protest against the situation of
the Cinema Lietuva focusing on the discourse of publicspace vs. corporate
privatization. The protest is aimed at reclaimingthe now privatized space.

Pro-test lab is testing the understanding of possible and/or impossible forms of
protest. It is inviting participation in, and facilitating,protest from groups
which as yet are unidentified and are searching for ways of making their opinions
heard: and the particular activity thatwould best support their protest. Pro-test
lab is actively advertising itself as a space in which anti-establishment, or at
least anti-hegemonic, opinion can flourish. The officers of the pro-test lab, and
the technical support structure, will help give form to theseopinions. Pro-test lab
will help develop a protest scenario. It is aproduction house of protest.

The space of the former ticket office is build as separate segment oflarger
architectural set rendered in grayish stucco. We have got access to such relatively
big space (250 square meters), thanks to the fashion of queuing, largely rehearsed
in former times. Even after the 1997 renovation the space preserved the charm of
amodernist glass pavilion that encloses the ground floor of the wholebuilding,
facing to the larger square of one of a main streets in=  a city. Two glass walls
construct the showcase that faces the streetunfolding the space to the passers-by
and introducing the characterthat rather resemble the lounge than a white cube or
a black box. The white sealing of a space is sliced with strict stripes of
neonlights. Three white concrete columns supporting the the right of notation
boards collecting on their surface signaturesof support and immediate reactions
of a visitors.

Following the genesis of VILMA, as referring to the former sovietfactory of
recording devices the architecture of the space is hasreappearing construction
element of a box, that is used for packagingand transportation of recording
devices. The space of the Pro-test lab maps and enfolds several architectural and
programming aspects, thatare suggested as a number of overlapping zones.

The pro-test lab is fitted with LIETUVA TV, a public access television studio
called similar to the national television. LIETUVA TV is ameta-zone that maps new
visibilities, and documents and archives theprotest. LIETUVA TV develops its own
format of a so called Talk Showwhich creates the media space merging geography of
the city andcinematic references that challenge contemporary politics in real time
debates, moderated by Rytis Juodeika, a film critic and theorist. 'Modeling Zone'
is a space for thinking and workshops that architecture student club is staging to
invite participants interested to modelsituations: to produce and project visions
of [the] future city. TheModeling Zone is for the construction/development of new
housing models and for privatization role-playing games to be played. ASK
(theArchitecture Students' Club) has developed a daily street game merging Monopoly
board-game strategies with local municipality characteristics in a game show "VIP
Turgus" that refers to VP market mall chain-=96the owner of the cinema.

THE 'Zone of Wishes' is a lounge space for discussions, chatting andbrainstorming
in which visitors can exercise their desires. It is ameeting place for a number of
citizens' movements (for their weeklyor daily meetings) and a drop-in spot for
anyone concerned with the general community lack of awareness about "what's going
on". Zone of Wishes generates and rehearses the weekly public actions or
politicalpetitions.

AViZa (oat) is an alternative kitchen space improvised by young people gathered on
a mailing-list to cook the discussions and discuss thesecrets of cooking. AViZa
invites cultural institutes and agencies topresent national cuisines and share
their views on city development. The Polyphonic protest program has been developed
by Co:LAB UK , anintern student collective from Dartington College (UK) that
suggestedto do a bar space as the socializing element every Thursday, offeringtea,
soup and more. As the sign says: "cast your ballot (a sum not = less than 2
litas) in the box and in return you will get beer, wine orwater". The special
sound and visual program is developed for eachevent.

Inside the space of the lab in front of the entrance there is an architectural
appendix =96 an additional space of something like 20square meters separated by a
glass wall, that forms a perfect greenhouse. It is filled with plants and
lightened with vegetation lights making the area into a playground to rehearse the
deejay in the role of the gardener. This is a zone of a radio station in
development.

The Reading Room zone is a space which archives and navigates theprotest scenario.
It contains a footnote library of disobedience andrebellion, collected according
the suggestion or donation based on agood will and collaborative spirit of
citizens. It gathers all kinds of documents mapping the development of resistance
to privatization andgentrification, including some audiovisual documents, web
links, collection of news, papers, magazines and books. Reading Room prepares for a
screening program of political forms that uses format of films. To bring all the
activities together we use an Internet forum. To date, this list has been joined by
over 150 people, including architecturestudents, green party activists, vegans,
anarchists, musicians, students from TV and cinema school, animators, film world
people,theater students, social democrat party, community leaders, casualpassers by
and regular hangout goers.

The four larger scale TV monitors installed in the lab space broadcast daily the
production of Lietuvos TV. Two larger screens are for theevent projections.
Collaboration with local open source communityfacilitates the lab with streaming
accessed from http://www.vilma.cc/LIETUVA

Now back to your question. What happened, for instance, last week? Wehad an action
"America will help us", which staggered protest labfans with contradictory facets.
Referring to the hope of Lithuanians thatthere is a upper will out there, that can
rescuer, this myth was reinforced by American Voice radio propaganda during the
post warresistance keeping Lithuanian for the next 20 years in forest to beatthe
resistance record. On the facade of the cinema the huge banner with black and
white layout featuring the words of the President of the= United States George W.
Bush, that from now on, any enemy of LIETUVA is an enemy of the United States, he
stated during a visit to Vilnius on November 23 2002. So the initiators of the
action masterly planted the cinema in a place of a country calling everyone who is
for LIETUVA,join the action seducing with a popcorn, cola and much more.
Togetherwith the United States, let's save LIETUVA from the enemy! Peoplegathered
were supplied with masks of the US president to see the world through the eyes of
George Bush. Dean Reed, the red Elvis supported the background of the action with
his songs performed by a laptop. Forlocal context of radical thought which hardly
accepts leftist discourse due a connotation to Stalinist repressions such turn of a
pro-test lab activity was mind blowing. 


GL: What are your feelings about Soviet modernism? Did you find thebuilding ugly
when you grew up? And now? It is true that the currentelite would like to knock
down the building and replace it with yetanother multiplex?

N&G: When we grew up we thought it was great! Absolutely great architecture that
brought the urban spirit into the city. It developed the idea of public space,
shattering the patriarchal values of sovietstate and rural Lithuanian life. It
looked western, more Scandinavianmaybe, as the scale of such developments in
Lithuania was different=66rom Palast der Republik in Berlin. Indeed it was
contradicting thebaroque architecture and always stood up for something, that
encroaches on the very fundamental values. It carried a strong claim for chang= e
and the same time for disintegration of the old. When we were kids the cinema was
big, new and nice, it had a touch of progressive architecture that brought feelings
of openness, of the so-called warming up epoch. Nowadays, despite the grayish and
worn out exteriorsurfaces it remains a strong landmark. It is a document that
testifies the desire for public space. From our point it is the best cinematheater
in the country.

Politicians only think about making profits. They look at the cultureas at the
milking cow, and the same way they treat public space. Newliberals with real estate
tycoons meet the expectation of both formercommunists and former nationalists to
erase traces of the soviet pastas they did it with the soviet monuments. In a place
of a cinema theyplan to build huge penthouse with a shopping center on a ground
floor. They were not even thinking about building multiplex, as at the moment is
not as profitable as speculation with a real estate.

GL: Your search for a contemporary arts building with media labfacilities has been
going for a long time. I remember when we met forthe first time, in Kiasma during
Temp Lab, late 1999, you were negotiating with a rich person about some gallery
space near the central square of Vilnius. Speculation with real estate must be
pretty intense. On the other hand, one would think that there are a lot of=
abandoned buildings, like everywhere in Eastern Europe. Or is this aWestern
misconception?

N&G: Well Vilnius is not the case. Space is rather controlled. Youcannot find any
of abandoned space here. Every corner is privatized as there is a lot of Russian
money washed here through the real estatebusiness. We are squatting the privatized
space now. We call for reclaiming public space and demand for justice, for the
right distribution.

During the last years we tried to negotiate with new rich and see if its possible
employ their energies into the economy of such new mediaplace. But it was not
possible as they would think in the conservative terms, like they would be still
only understand the gallery model and would not find enough creative
imagination how to challenge it.

GL: What's the cultural politics like in Lithuania? I heard that theSoros
structures were dismantled and that this scene will move intonewly establish
contemporary arts museum. Still, there is little interms of infrastructure, in
particular in the field of new media.

N&G: Today, all attention goes to the cultural heritage and restoration. Former
communist joined their desires with conservativesto rebuild the old royal castle.
It seems like the energies of sovietfactory builders suspended during last years of
privatization as there was no industry development, now get released into the
retrospectives. On the other hand they continue to exercise former soviet
experience of national spectacle supporting facade culture. Classical music and=
theater production, even big national song festivals get all the political
attention and support. Another problem that understanding of efficiency in culture
or public space is reduced to the monetary level. Indeed, after a few years of
lurking in the National Museum the Soros structure came onto the surface in a new
embodiment of State Galleryfor Modern Art. Seems like the same model is implemented
in at least a few of post soviet countries. Its just really sad that in Lithuania
in particular the Soros foundation eliminated support for new media initiatives and
practices. This is maybe due to their loyalty to national handicrafts and
traditional visual culture? Who knows.

There is a visible distrust of the independent organizations or NGO at large in the
cultural politics. A large illiteracy about the civilsociety and civil institutes,
like NGO for instance. Only governmental and private enterprises are legitimate.
Therefore most of the NGO's are established by governmental structures just to
imitate civil societyand through that to pump public money.

The absence of facility in a new media scene probably has certain logic in a lack
of awareness of what is this culture and low education level at large. The
distribution of public funds is run or headed by old boys network. It is different
generation, and not only because of age. Onthe other hand new media culture is
not considered as representative, therefore all resources go for representation.

GL: The Populism show, which opened in Amsterdam early May, has played a central
role in process that led to opening of the space inside thecinema. How come? This
is an example of 'global art' that plays outlocally? Do you know of other such
examples?

N&G: We are carrying out the idea of a laboratory since a while, probably since a
Ground Control project 1997. Since then it went through the different stages being
transformed from the artist exchange into television program, then research base
for individual projects and international series of workshops. And each time
looking and searching for the economies grounded in the local specificity.

We employed the invitation of the Populism show to launch the Pro-test Lab
project. And we developed the proposal from the piece limitedwithin the
institutional framework into the structure that goes farbeyond that, which is
the embodiment of media lab that works with local identity and protest agenda.
Our interest is how to transgress the art ghetto borders of the encapsulating the
work and the practice in thetrap of the illustration. It shows that its still
possible to play with the "international" card here. Locally we still
have strong heritage of a "big brother", just in this case Moscow is
substituted by Brussels. So the international projects are playing role of an
external censorthat has all legitimate powers to let things happen.
Institutionalworld support because they think its international , its successful
and competitive. It has another side as well, as people do not want to be
sold, and let their voice to be privatized and exported to the west or the big
show. Therefore we had to be very careful not to turn into the same tycoons as we
have in art market.

GL: As in many other places, Vilnius suffers from a brain drain ofyoung people
and professionals that move to Western Europe, Germany,the UK, the US, to earn a
living. Could the cinema space project beread as an attempt to stem this constant
flow of 'dissident' youngpeople out of the country?

N&G: yes, indeed. We could make the following statement: invest intothe Pro-test
lab and we won't bother you with immigration:) It would be a great and yet
impossible mission indeed. It would not be fair if the cinema space project would
take away the chance people take going topick up strawberries in Norway or work
on construction sites in London. On the other hand, people leave because they are
not satisfied with the reduced scenario they are offered through the recent
developments in=

Lithuania. Mallification of the whole country reminds us of the samerepressive
experience they had during soviet times. Therefore they are looking for
countries, cities and situations that cab offer just moreinteresting cultural
life in all respects than that. On the other hand there is a certain social
and intellectual upheaval occurring recently and visible activity and presence in
the discussions. It means that not only economic factors are effective. Pro-test
lab is already acknowledged as contributing to this discourse, encouraging further=
developments.

So what we try to do instead of being annoyed if London or NY havebetter offers,
we try to have some fun while researching local situations of
transformation, reflecting this process and finallyencouraging people to
construct the future models.

GL: You are soon entering a crucial phase of the project. I suppose you want to
keep the space and build a sustainable model for it. How canpeople outside
Lithuania support you? Would you like to organize screenings and even host
exhibitions over the next weeks and months?

N&G: We starting from screenings and small scale events like workshops, as
education is most important. We would like to collaborate withcreative agencies
and develop system of hosting and producing international workshops that would
sustain the search and developmentof new media practices. We see VILMA as
alternative education andproduction center. And through that we would also build
identity forVILMA and the system of plug-ins including television, radio,
libraryand experimental production including such practices as urban agriculture
for instance. Everyone who is interested are welcome tojoin and propose the
support or collaboration.

We try to invest into the local context, translating some of seminalwriters'
writings on new media as well as encouraging local thinkers to write on media
culture at large. Only some of it comes in English, aswe cannot cope with
translations. The most crucial would be translation support and editing of
English. Then we would be needing someone joining voluntary with critical
awareness, that could enjoy working in hard conditions helping to build the self
sustained structure. Also we ask for support building media library: films, DVDs,
CDRoms, web links and texts.

And at last but not the least we need international support letterdirected to
Parliament, Prime minister, Minister of culture, and Mayor of Vilnius to support
our activity and preserve the space for independent cinema and new media practice
in Vilnius. The only in thecountry.

--

Email of Pro-test lab: info {AT} vilma.cc.

Relevant URLs:

http://www.vilma.cc/LIETUVA
http://www.vilma.cc
http://www.baltictimes.com/art.php?art_id=3D12887

RAM 6: http://www.vilma.cc/en_index.php?mid=3D76&nid=3D89


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