(LT) Suvalkija and Dzūkija – Participant Research: reflection of Rob Marsden
Lithuania: Culture and Politics – Observations and Comparisons
As a theatre practitioner in the UK and Senior Lecturer in Drama Practice at Staffordshire University, I was interested in using the Lithuanian Study Trip to explore the artistic policy of the practitioners and companies working in the country and how these may have been formed by the political spheres of influence in operation pre and post Soviet Occupation.
So what is the building based cultural offer and who are the artists?
The Soviet system of Cultural Centres (CCs) are still in operation in post 1990 Soviet state and at a visit to the Cultural Centre of Birštonas we met its director Zigmas Vileikis who described the situation that each artist is commissioned by the CCs for 500 Euros per month; thus becoming a state-paid artist. Each Centre is given 1million Lithuanian Litas per year. It is interesting to note that the CCs hold the key to the cultural life in the town. In Birstonas, located in Southern Lithuania, the 3,000 inhabitants are closely connected to the state run CC which echoes a Soviet ideology by becoming a ‘member’ of the CC to gain access the building. Any cultural events ran outside of the venue itself are often managed by the CCs, such as their annual Jazz Festival. In a similar guise, the pre-1990 Houses (or Palaces) of Culture were state funded in most sizable towns and cities and was the sole creative offer for the town where “the artists were required to create art which would be comprehensible for “the people” (Dovydaitytė: 2008:3)[i] and became the Church’s substitute.
The demographic of small towns such as Birstonas is aging, with the young generation moving away from what they feel is a parochial society. Therefore, it is difficult for the CC to generate interest in possible new work or curate a new cultural offer which may attract younger audiences and participants. This became apparent with the “Birštonas Green Park” project. In 2009, none of the local population attended the inaugural event, although 300 attended the following years project. Frustrations were echoed by Sigita Kasparaite, the then director of the Vilnius Arts Centre, who spoke of her concerns that the Directors of the CCs have been in place over a number of years and the difficulties to generate new ways of working and developing new art forms were often limited. Vileikis had been in place for 32 years, for example, bridging pre and post Soviet occupation and stated through the conversation that it took him “30 years” to get the population of Birstonas to “enjoy, appreciate and understand jazz”[ii]; which begs the question of whether energy had been misplaced to continue to offer this art form.
Vilenikis also stated that there was “little pressure” placed upon him to either create or alter the existing artistic policy; although he had sole responsibility of setting the programme and there was little in the way of an artistic “team” to help shape the cultural offer, unlike in many UK creative institutions where regularly funded by public monies or privately. I reserve judgment on whether this was a diplomatic answer for our overseas ears or not! Dovydaityte again:
If in the West an idea of cultural animation was based on liberating education and rising self-awareness through cultural practice, in the East cultural work was the State’s attempt to control people’s leisure and private life by means of cultural practice. (2008:4)
Yet, Dovydaityte misses the point when stating that the Houses of Cultures were “abandoned” (2008:5) post 1990. In terms of identity – yes; but in terms of its operation, funding and ‘feel’ – maybe not.
Vileikis stated that there is a small practice of independent artists working in Lithuania but they work for little or more specifically, little guarantee of income. Few of the external CC projects were led by freelance artists and if there were, artists bid for government funding directly for capital and were supported “in kind” by the CCs in terms of space, support and marketing but there was no financial offer in terms of match funding.
So who are some of these “independent artists”?
Aukse Petruliene works within the medium of Silicone and Silicone Theatre (Silikono Teatras[iii]). Using silicone puppets these then get pressed between two plates and filmed from above. This is then accompanied by music. All themes introduced through the work are social themes and Petruliene is interested in working in non-theatre spaces and to use her work as an “antidote against societies problems”. She realised a need to work together with spectators on making their own puppets, filming and presenting them. We saw an animated piece on Romas Kalanta (1972) , a man who set himself on fire in protest of Soviet rule, and to use animation to explore this contentious issue. She works with museums and the pupils who come into those museums. It was also interesting to learn that in Poland the Museum work is very formal and based on traditional learning process as opposed to much of the more creative work that takes place within UK museums to varying degrees of success.
Petruliene is keen to use humour in her work that can involve and excite people rather than looking at more serious approaches. She stated that “imagination and subjective thinking creates art, not knowledge”[iv] which resonated with my current practice of encouraging impulsive imaginative working.
Our second artist was Jurate Kazakeviciute, a Lithuanian artist who exhibits internationally. Her background is in fine art and looking at issues surrounding feminism, “femininity and women in social surroundings…. And breaking social stereotypes”[v]. With an interest in surrealism (and female surrealists), she showed us many objects she had created which involves soft sculpture.. Her art again is social . For example, ‘Messengers’ (2010) is a collection of angels with limbs missing, commenting on the marginalisation of people with disabilities within Lithuania.
What is striking to a UK observer is that the artists would love to sell their works, yet the market is poor and doesn’t exists. Often artists have to take other work as teachers, gallery or school owners to make a living whilst practising their craft. On an anecdotal evidence based, it is interesting to observe that the independent artists interested in using their art in social settings were not formally connected to the CCs.
On a final policy note, there are grants from the state (Ministry of Culture) for these independent artists – albeit on an individual level. In the UK there are Arts Council grants for individuals and organisations on a rolling basis (Grants for the Arts as an example[vi]). The Lithuanian system consists of fifty grants available per year (salary and material) for all independent artists working across Lithuania including dancers, visual artists and actors. In relation to my practice as a theatre director, in Lithuania, actors are employed full time for theatre companies and are affiliated to organisations (a form of regional repertory theatre but state owned such as Kaunas State Drama Theatre). This agreement is set by the Ministry of Culture. Therefore it is difficult for a collective of freelance actors, directors and designers to bid for project funding- a theme which is becoming apparent in Lithuanian cultural practice including cultural animation [vii]
Senior Lecturer in Drama Practice, Staffordshire University and Freelance Theatre Director.
[ii] In conversation Wednesday 22nd June 2011.
[iv] In conversation Thursday 23rd June 2011.
[v] In conversation Thursday 23rd June 2011
[vii] The Lithuanian term for what is described in the UK as “community arts”/