Collecting Experiences. A Conversation with the Curator Liutauras Pšibilskis

psibilskis

Liutauras Pšibilskis. Photo: Marija Misevičiūtė

Lolita Jablonskienė: We have known each other for a long time, since the memorable period in the 1990s which brought great changes to Lithuania. However, you left Lithuania at the end of the decade: you studied in London, collaborated with international art journals, and organised contemporary art projects in different institutions across Europe as a freelance curator. Today, this mobility by a curator or artist does not surprise us, but back then you were one of the first to set out on a career abroad. What kind of time was that? What experiences and projects were important to you as a creator? What did it mean to become a freelance curator?

Liutauras Pšibilskis: Thank you, Lolita, for this question. It’s interesting to think about it. I don’t often think of the past. I don’t create retrospective narratives of my life. I always simply go forward …

In the Nineties I was curious and not constrained by family or institutional barriers, therefore I started to travel, to see(k), to inquire quite naturally. In this way, by accumulating knowledge and processing the tendencies from all my experiences, I was able to start creating ‘my own self’. I didn’t see any rules in Lithuania that I wanted to follow: the occupiers’ rules were non-existent, but there were no new standards either. That was a great time for radical individualism. I was able to construct my experiences and my views by observing society from outside: by observing the habits and customs of foreign lands, by consuming cultures that were newly open to me.

It also helped me find my roots, to see my country from outside, as well as to understand the relativity of constructing that ‘own self’. My MA in London in the late Nineties contributed greatly to my contemplations on place, identity and (in)dependence. Both consciously and unconsciously, I started my professional path without tying myself to any institution, by being in a transitional, non-institutional and cross-border space.

Our profession is supportive of this state. It still is, in large part, as it has been before, without a national frame: the world of art is international, as though we are all talking the same outsider language. Of course, views change, and so now I find that living locally and creating local projects in a small Manhattan district interests me most.

I understand clearly that I have been in a privileged position: many people cannot choose to ‘collect experiences’, due to stereotypes relating to their race or gender, due to war, violence or poverty. They cannot form their personality by getting acquainted with the wide spectra of our world, they have to make do with a very limited existence. Although, in a way, the window of opportunity through which we experience reality is particularly narrow to almost all of us.

The first project I organised outside Lithuania was in Sweden, across three kunsthalles near Stockholm. I presented a group of artists from Lithuania: by forming a narrative on ways reality can be changed. I called the exhibition ‘Change of Rules’, putting an emphasis on the ‘tools’ needed for change, discussing the possible ‘frames’, as well as our enacted ‘roles’ in this activity. I regarded existence at the time as if it was a performance, which opens up the constant shift of our being.

That exhibition was important in raising certain philosophical ideas that are relevant to me to this day. Becoming an editor of Siksi, the Nordic art review journal, as well as being a correspondent for Artforum magazine in Scandinavia, has also been very important to me. Thanks to this, I travelled a lot, and described my encounters, presenting artists, exhibitions and insitutions, to readers. That gave me new oportunities to see and learn a lot, without becoming, at least completely, dependent on one particular place.

LJ: We have renewed our acquaintance and have started to collaborate in the 21st century, firstly in the sphere of avant-garde cinema, through Jonas Mekas’ work and the Fluxus heritage. We made a presentation together of Jonas Mekas’ work in the Lithuanian pavillion at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005, and at the exhibition ‘Jonas Mekas/Fluxus Wall’ at the Bozar art centre in Brussels in 2013. In 2015, you curated the exhibition ‘The World According to Fluxus’ at the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius. How did you get involved with avant-garde cinema and with Fluxus? Having gathered all this information, having communicated and collaborated with artists of those times, as well as with contemporary artists I believe, what other projects have you curated since? How have your investigations into avant-garde cinema and Fluxus, and your acquaintance with that world, affected your later curatorial practice?

LP: Yes, those were interesting projects, and it was great to collaborate with you: thank you for the excellent partnership. I think Fluxus attracted me mostly due to the movement’s tendency to experiment, due to its declaration to break the rules and not to conform. Fluxus refused to become ‘an establishment’, it has remained an eternal child, and I really can, and have always been able to, relate to this position. It is rather paradoxical that art history, institutions and the art market have turned such a non-conformist movement into something of value: that has rarely happened throughout the history of art.

I work as a curator by thinking in a similar way, that is, by formulating ideas that are not meant for the conforming art market. For me, the most interesting projects are ones where there are ‘odd’ people, ‘odd’ places. I don’t seek mainstream communication or acknowledgement. I look for something unfamiliar, and not yet seen. Perhaps because of this, the most valuable projects to me are not necessarily the most hierarchically important ones.

I came into contact with some original Fluxus pieces at Jonas Mekas’ home. He generously opened his papers for me and, in this way he initiated new projects involving works in his possession. At the same time, I got to know quite a few artists living in New York. That was a great experience, and a lesson in art history: I studied Fluxus by actually meeting and talking with individuals who had formed the movement, who showed me works. It was the greatest live school of art history. For this reason, these works have never ceased to affect my perception of reality: until today, to me, the movement has been a direct expression of a lively and ever-flowing stream of ideas.

LJ: You’ve been living and working in New York for more than ten years, haven’t you? What does it mean to be a freelance curator in New York? There must be a huge and a diverse art scene, more like a vast field. In Europe you collaborated mostly with stable institutions, like museums and kunsthalles, but recently in New York you have been using very different spaces, which seem to host art projects temporarily. Projects like ‘The Other Door’ and ‘Energies and Shadows’, which you have curated or co-curated, have drawn my attention. What are the advantages of such a curatorial practice, or what sort of philosophy lies behind it?

LP: Yes, that’s true. I search for unusual situations to present my projects with. The project ‘The Other Door’ took place at the studio of the artist Marianne Vitale in Lower Manhattan, and ‘Energies and Shadows’ in a temporary space in the South Street Seaport district. Of course, I occasionally encounter New York art institutions, for example by giving a lecture at MoMA, and of course I follow what’s happening there, but my interests are not related to the ‘establishment’. For me, it is much more interesting to observe not-yet-popular innovations and move(ment)s, to promote the emergence of still intangible and unexpected trends. Small mobile spaces and their bureaucracy-free organisation are the best soil for such actions.

Nevertheless, in recent years, maybe even in the last decade, the biggest New York institutions have been catching up on it: they often initiate innovation, and present the most relevant cultural trends too. These institutions aren’t so rigid, they strive to stay lively, to attract a wider and a more diverse crowd. Although often, but not always, that leads to populist programming, which, I think, is rather characteristic of America in general. In art, as in pop culture, an event or exhibition is regarded as a success according to the number of visitors or the amount of money it attracts.

In my practice, I construct non-commercial and non-populist experiences. I collaborate with artists who are interesting to me, not because of their prominence, but because of the integrality and unpredictability of their thinking. Sometimes they happen to be quite famous, such as the video artist Michel Auder or the famous fashion designers and conceptual artists Eckhaus Latta or threeASFOUR, although they are recognised mainly because of their nonconformist ideas. Working with them is extremely pleasant, as it gives me a feeling of improvement; this extraordinary opportunity has definitely given me pleasure.

LJ: The last decade in Lithuania has undoubtedly been marked by an increase in the authority of private collections and the influence of private collectors. We know that the US government does not support its culture and arts financially (although there must be some local municipal programmes or grants?). You have curated projects in Art Basel Miami Beach and in the context of the NADA art fair. You have collaborated with private art collectors interested in Fluxus and contemporary art. Does curatorial practice have any specific qualities or challenges in this field of private interests and the related art market, especially in the USA, where private and corporate patronage influence both the biggest art institutions and the small non-profit spaces?

LP: Yes, I have worked in commercial situations, and have consulted art collectors and galleries. In this environment, the place of art in society is understood in a different, and in a particular, way. Art is often evaluated in terms of the market, of monetised worth, and to me that world is dull: that’s most likely due to my non-commercial experience and education in visual culture and art criticism.

To me art is a sphere for contemplation, for forming a community and political activity, and that often conflicts with commercial aims. After encountering the processes of commercial structures, I consciously decided not to enter that world again. Of course, I don’t avoid contact with the art market, but it doesn’t influence my work directly. Maybe that’s why I started to collaborate with non-commercial institutions such as the LMCC (Lower Manhattan Cultural Council), the Emily Harvey Foundation, and the Performa biennial in New York.

LJ: I can well remember RoseLee Goldberg, the renowned performance researcher and curator, visiting Jonas Mekas’ exhibition at the opening of the 51st Venice Biennale. It was surprising to know that her family originated from Lithuania. Goldberg is also the founder of the performance art platform Performa in New York. From what I know, you have collaborated with the Performa biennial on several occasions. What is the structure of this event, and what projects have you curated in these biennials?

LP: Performa’s structure is very open. The organisers work with many different institutions, artists and curators from all over New York. In my opinion, RoseLee’s main goal is to create a viable and influential event to propel the city and integrate performance art into the most manifold cultural contexts. I think because of Performa, performance has become an inherent part of the visual art context. Today, no biennial or museum, or even commercial gallery, can dispense with performance art.

Having clear concepts and having gathered a group of interesting artists, I myself have curated partly independent projects within Performa’s framework. RoseLee even joked that I curated my own biennials within hers. The events I organised took place in the Emily Harvey Foundation and the Storefront for Art and Architecture in SoHo, in the Red Egg nightclub, and on the city’s streets. I suggested ‘Roulette’ and ‘Ginger Island Project’ as the topics, and invited different artists to cooperate, and so, for example, ‘classic’ Fluxus artists had an unexpected encounter with contemporary club or stage artists such as Mykki Blanco and DJ Japanster, while the filmmaker Jonas Mekas or the surrealist Salvador Dali encountered contemporary artists such as Mai Ueda and Lola Schnabel. As I mentioned before, I regard the visual culture of different times as a contemporary phenomenon which we are consuming at present. In this way, each and every new or historical piece becomes equally important in today’s discourse; it contributes towards creating a general contemporary narrative, as well as the formation of artistic experience.

LJ: A couple of years ago you participated in the International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP) in New York. You had a studio and carried out the project ‘Pure Reason’, based on research into Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I have asked you quite a few times before whether it was the project of a curator, an artist, or something entirely different? Did you at the ISCP actually ‘put on’ the identity of an artist, or did you try to find a yet untitled and open creative identity? What were the strategy and the philosophy behind this project? And, of course, what were the results?

LP: Yes, I was invited to ISCP for a few years. Of course, I was extremely glad to have the opportunity. Generally, I cannot see a clear distinction between the thoughts and actions of an artist and those of an independent curator. Some things I did at ISCP definitely erased the line between the specificities of the range of professions of the given space. One project followed another, and in them all my activities were based on the idea of deskilling. I was trying to see the sphere of professional art as a professional field in general, interesting to analyse. According to the logic of contemporary art, this analysis, and the related activities, became an art event themselves. A painter, a performance or an installation artist, a photographer, a conceptual ‘phrase’ artist: the project gave me a chance to take on many different creative roles. At the same time, in parallel, I translated Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason into the emoji language. I compared abstract and visual ways of thinking, that is, I compared one of the most complicated philosophical texts with today’s tendency to oversimplify. By the end of my residency I had gathered a full stack of sampled roles, and so I assembled them into a catalogue of the artist’s experiences.

Out of all, the most exciting projects for me were those based on cooperation: a public conversation in my studio with the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera about the role of a female artist, that has evolved in the existing environment of social constructs, or the performance-installation Give Up the Ghost (2016), created together with the burlesque dancer and internet personality Misc Allaneous DomTop. I invited him to come to my studio wearing a singing partner’s costume (that’s one of his characters) and to be my assistant for a day. So, I created a strange junction between presentation on the Internet, the births and deaths of internet celebrities, and the reflections of it all in our everyday lives. I’m planning to collaborate with Misc Allaneous DomTop again this autumn.

LJ: Does the hybridity that defines much of your curatorial practice have a theoretical or a personal archaeology, certain origins or outset points? What is the overall relationship between curatorial and artistic actions and the theory and history of art for you?

LP: Since my very first projects I have raised questions about the relativity of our social agreements and social constructs. That was supported by my visual culture studies at Goldsmiths University in London. The focus of these studies was postcolonial philosophy, as well as gender studies. Both these disciplines deconstruct the traditional models of the perception of reality. Perhaps, looking at it from a distance, the deconstructionist ideas were already accumulating in me due to my personal qualities: being gay, I understand, among other things, the relativity of the traditional norms of a person’s sexual identity. What’s more, growing up in Vilnius let me experience the strange and grim Soviet reality. That, thanks to all of us, has magically disappeared, and has turned into something open and fascinating, today’s Lithuania. Prior to forming my views by reading philosophy, I tend to rely on my own experiences: theory always follows afterwards, by helping to bring out those views, as well as other interests.

My curatorial work in New York is mainly based on my friendships with artists, on following today’s cultural and political conditions, and on trends and innovations. I regard the latter as philosophical categories that reveal a lot about the societies we live in. I find it interesting to work according to my intuition, to risk, and to try and foresee ways of thinking that might only flourish later. For example, the designers Eckhaus Latta will soon be opening an extensive exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and I have previously presented them in a visual art context. I worked with Michael Quantelbaum Jr before he became the pop and contemporary art celebrity Mykki Blanco … The thought and the expression of visual art are really fragile. They can convey the nuances of fluctuating reality and its perception. I like observing these waves and moving with them.

LJ: Can you tell us more about the ideas behind kunsthalle.us, The House of Culture, and especially about your newly founded space OCD/C? In the latter’s website, we read: “OCDChinatown is a clubhouse for performance, sound, word, film, fashion, and most of all kunst. It is a set, a screen, an informal testing ground for new work; it’s a house of prayer, a museum, a workshop.”

LP: Yes, I have founded a couple of institutions, some of which exist simply as concepts and websites. I wanted to found institutions that New York’s art scene was clearly lacking, so certain ideas were borrowed from non-commercial European institutions that have long-lasting traditions, such as kunsthalles or cultural houses.

In Chinatown, which has recently become one of the most vibrant new creative districts in New York, I set up a space called OCD Chinatown. Here, ‘OCD’ means Ongoing Creative Development, but the abbreviation is most widely known to mean Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. This psychological condition is diagnosed rather often amongst people working in the creative sphere. In this space, I choose to present phenomena that usually go beyond the edge of the narrow frame of conventional visual art, thus drawing the attention to the wider scope of processes in visual culture. I only present individuals and groups of artists that are interesting and important to me personally. I’m currently working with unconventional artistic practices and certain activities of sexual minorities and women. I consciously refuse to present any heterosexual white males, for they have dominated all public spheres for a couple of thousand years, and even today they still own almost ninety per cent of the art market. I believe everything a human does is consciously or unconsciously political: in culture, in economics, and in personal relationships. Because I work in the field of contemporary visual culture, I regard this as a given positive.

LJ: Has the place, its ideas and activities, been concerned with the political commotion happening in the USA, and particularly in New York, these days? What is the art community’s overall reaction to the creeping shadow of conservatism? Does it bother you on a personal level?

 LP: Like most liberal or leftist-thinking people (which is almost all of New York and the other main metropolises), New York’s artistic community  have been greatly distressed by the USA’s latest administrative actions. You can feel an organised worry, a resistance and anger rising: let’s hope it contributes to a fundamental democratic values-based renewal of this country.

Comparing Lithuania’s experience with that of the USA is not easy, firstly, because the political terms mean different things in each place: the leftist point of view in America is ‘progressive’, while in the Lithuanian context it has merged with the negativity of totalitarianism and the occupations of the past. In the States, a large part of youth supported the Democratic Party’s candidate Bernie Sanders in the last presidential election: he was pointing out the values of socialist ideas, and was encouraging their implementation in the governance of the USA. His socialist thinking is completely different from the ‘socialism’ that comes from Russia. In Sanders’s thinking, it signifies the strengthening of community, as well as a struggle against radical capitalist individualism and inhumaneness. This position is more similar to Sweden’s political path.

On the contrary, the politics of the current US president and his administration are similar to the Soviet Union’s. He’s a totalitarian thinker, who disrespects minorities, foreign cultures, free thinkers and even free speech in general. The way he’s been fighting the independent media is shocking. His politics are contrary to the free expression that has been cherished by the creative community, and which is undoubtedly essential to any creative activity. Of course, we cannot directly compare the USSR and the USA: the latter is a democratic country, and I believe that the totalitarian voices will be swept away in the next election.

Without a doubt, these political themes have been very important in my work: they’re unavoidable in the stressed-out New York City. A video piece I showed a couple of months ago, Michel Auder’s film Trumped, was a dark meditation on the first few months of the Trump administration. Even politically uncharged works become political in today’s context, and so their intrinsic liberalism resists the current policies of the White House.

LJ: As my last question, I want to put to you something slightly unexpected. Have you, as a freelance curator, ever encountered any failures in your practice? I hope you can look at it philosophically …

LP: It might sound a bit clichéd, but I don’t think about ‘unsuccessful projects’ or failures, because I don’t know how success or failure are measured. Each project is a success to me, as it expresses the continuity of my thinking. Therefore, concepts such as ‘incoherence’ or ‘being lost’ might come across as being very productive to me. I value every experience, even unnoticed ones. Of course, projects that I wanted to carry out but which for some reasons I did not could perhaps be called ‘failures’. At the same time, I think that if something didn’t happen, it didn’t happen, there’s nothing regrettable there. Life goes on, everything changes and mutates, but nothing disappears.

LJ: Thank you for the interview.

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November 7, 2018
Published in Interview from Lithuania
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