Curatorial & Biographical Conversation Approaching the 8th Inter-format Symposium on Rites and Terrabytes in Nida Art Colony

March 14, 2018
Author Vytautas Michelkevičius
Published in Detour
Performance A Play for the Parallels by Lina Lapelytė during 7th Inter-format Symposium, 2017. Photo by Andrej Vasilenko

Performance A Play for the Parallels by Lina Lapelytė during 7th Inter-format Symposium, 2017. Photo by Andrej Vasilenko

Nida Art Colony of Vilnius Academy of Arts together with Inter-PAGAN network organises 8th Inter-format Symposium which is curated this year by a group of artists, curators and researchers: Andrew Gryf Paterson (SCO/FI/LV), Vytautas Michelkevičius (LT), Jurij Dobriakov (LT) and Jogintė Bučinskaitė (LT). Around 50 participants (artists, philosophers, scientists, ritualists, musicians and other kinds of practitioners) will gather to reflect on the Symposium’s issues and to exchange knowledge and experiences during performances, lectures, screenings, discussions, rituals, etc. Before the deadline  for contributions and production residencies is over on the 15th of March, curatorial team discusses their interests, biographical influences,  expands upon the keywords and topics of the Symposium and reveals the list of invited speakers.

Vytautas Michelkevičius (VM): Why is it Rites and Terrabytes under Nida’s midsummer sun this year? How does the title describe the framework we are inviting to gather in Nida in June 20-24th? What is hidden under the poetic sounding of it? How is it critical to/about the contemporary situation of rites, reconstructions and gatherings?

Andrew Gryf Paterson (AGP): The title of the symposium, coined by Vytautas & Joginte, in my imagination emerged from various configurations of emerging pasts, presents and futures. It is a mix of several ‘grounded’ things into a curious catch-phrase, maybe for a set of actions, to quote Jurij, “where we increasingly feel or desire a connection with rituals and practices of old despite living in a profoundly mediated ‘post-contemporary’ world. In other words, to reconcile the imagined universes of archaic rites and the ubiquitous terabytes of digital information, we need some firm rooting and grounding (terra), whether in our surviving local indigenous culture or in some newly engineered indigeneity.” The fact that we chose to make the Symposium at a time of year when, in the Baltics at least, there are still popular and commonly referred to rites, the collecting plants and herbs that are put under pillows, the jumping of the bonfire, or singing of particular songs, is already a rich starting point as reference. Rites are situated. To a particular time, and people often want to be in a particular place. We are caught in this tension.

Jogintė Bučinskaitė (JB): I think the title Rites & Terrabytes is an apt description of the present-day situation, when the physically and temporally ungraspable vastness of experiences and customs could be contained within a dozen terabyte-sized hard drives. This is what is actually happening today, speaking not about the digitisation of heritage, but rather the principles and methods that for some reason we replicate in the 21st century. We gather in virtual environments in a tribe-like manner, repeat the same actions with the ever-evolving tools, and turn our new habits into a kind of rites. Curiously, we seem to be doing it unconsciously, based on subliminal archetypes, and the moment we catch ourselves doing this, very straightforward formations emerge as we engage in social archeology, try to substantiate our actions, and bring them closer to the authentic origin. It is interesting to think about such nostalgic contemporary states and the compatibility of seemingly contradictory phenomena. It looks like the Symposium’s title also lives a double life and perfectly reflects the very dual contemporary experiences. In written form it expresses a reference to cultural progress and one set of meanings. When uttered verbally, it suggests an entirely different set, perhaps more familiar to our ear today, or vice versa. Thus, rites can become rights, while terabytes transform into a sort of soil (terra) bites, only through which we can probably still find some connection with the past, as everything else is wrapped in a thick shroud of interpretations.

Jurij Dobriakov (JD): Personally I am interested in how social media, for example, influences the way the adherents of the various “ancient religions” communicate their beliefs, practices, and ideologies. Although one would think that such close-knit, often quite reserved communities primarily practice their faith and lifestyle “in nature”, in reality it seems that a lot of ideological exchange happens online – via social networks, websites etc. The same channels are also used for outreach: for instance, one can see numerous announcements for events and workshops dedicated to all kinds of archaic crafts and rites (e. g. ritual chanting, weaving, and so on) on Facebook. At the same time, however, I am wary of exploitative terms like “digital shamanism”, “neotribalism” and such, which suggest that there is some form of neopaganism that is “native” to the Internet and the digital. So I am curious to find out, through participants’ contributions and discussions, what might be an organic and productive relationship between the omnipresent digital technology and various traditional beliefs, practices, and lifestyles.

VM: The symposium gathers artists, thinkers and practitioners around midsummer. I am still trying to find my personal relations to Lithuanian version of it – Rasos. I have visited quite a few events which were directed by Lithuanian ‘ancient ritual group’ Kūlgrinda. When I was younger I was going to bigger gatherings in Kernave, but when you actually try to think about the background of this festivity and what it has meant for agricultural society, it becomes difficult to stay sincere and enjoy its reconstructive character with almost no connections to the present, besides the fact that for contemporary crowds it is also magic to stay outside and party up to midnight with natural light. What kind of feeling and thoughts you have about it?

JD: Vytautas, did you have a chance to visit some of the smaller-scale, community-centered events like the annual Romuva youth camp (a gathering for people interested in the “ancient Baltic religion” led by the key members of Kūlgrinda), for instance? I wonder what might be the difference between the situations of a participant and a spectator (in the case of more public events such as seasonal celebrations and rites). Maybe Jogintė can tell more about that. I myself got interested in this whole “pagan scene” primarily through music – I discovered folk-rock and folk-inspired ambient in my mid-twenties, then gradually moved to less obvious expressions of the “archaic spirit” such as post-industrial, drone and dark ambient music. It somehow seemed to sound more “authentic” (not in the historical sense) than anything I had been listening to until then. The best places to experience that were events like the late summer open air festival Mėnuo Juodaragis (Blackhorn Moon) and some other concerts and gatherings organised by practically the same circle of fellow-minded underground activists (many of them actually ex-metalheads who got interested in traditional ethnic culture). However, I would also see some people there who were clearly more concerned with meticulous reconstruction of ancient Baltic rites and mythology than music as such (members of Kūlgrinda among them), and I realized it would be much more challenging for me to find a personal connection with that community, as it seemed almost too literal and at times dogmatic, too reconstructive and less imaginative. Later I found out many of the younger visitors of Mėnuo Juodaragis (even electronic musicians) had at some point been involved with Romuva and Kūlgrinda, but dropped out when it started becoming more ideologically rigid. Of course, an additional challenge in finding my own relationship with Lithuanian traditional culture is that I am not ethnically Lithuanian and have no ancestral roots in the region. My parents come from completely different places, so I was not growing up with Lithuanian ethnic culture as a given, and in fact properly discovered it quite late. On one hand, that gives me the advantage of not being uncritically attached to it and a possibility of looking at it “from the outside”, on the other, this circumstance also prevents me from genuinely identifying with this culture and its material and immaterial elements (such as rituals). I suppose it is much easier for most ethnic Lithuanians of my age, even if they did not grow up in an “ethnically minded” family. In any case, I feel an attraction to the local mythological culture (or my own idealised version of it), but the essential question for me is how I should practice it organically, not as some cultural prosthesis.

VM: Yes, I have also visited more community based smaller celebration of Rasos (for example in Merkine organised by local ethnocultural youth club Kukumbalis) where everybody is involved in making, building and preparing traditional ‘ritual’ sculptures and other elements which are later used during festivity. Of course, these experiences are more ‘authentic’, participatory and sincere, however still more of reconstruction than adaption and merge with the contemporary life. For example, during my student times, we had a group of friends who used to go for hiking during that night, and we met the sunrise with a bonfire and informal chats.

JB: My relationship with the celebration of traditional archaic festivals is based first and foremost on simply being in nature. From my childhood days to late adolescence I would spend the whole summer in the countryside, where I would have to do the chores that today seem to belong to ages long gone. When my mother would repeat the names of the plants in a blooming summer meadow, I did not understand at the time that all of them were, in a sense, archived in Lithuanian folk songs and primeval experiences, and I continued them very naturally and intimately. Perhaps this is why in my teenage years I began to seek answers and explanations for those things’ inmost relevance to me. I wanted to somehow verbalize and share this feeling, to find fellow-minded peers. I began attending a folklore club, brought together a folk rock band, and went to the annual Romuva youth camps (dedicated to the ancient Baltic religion), which at the time attracted a great deal of people my age. So far I have not missed a single camp for 12 years, as I feel a duty to go there at least for one day to participate in the rites of Žolinė (Assumption Day in the Christian calendar). It has become a very personal ritual, which I could hardly explain in terms different than that of habitat and origin. Even if I don’t completely subscribe to the terminology of native land or “Motherland”, I believe in a certain spirit of the place which has reared you or explained something to you. I do not really believe in staged celebration with props, although I understand and accept its function in today’s world. Still, I think that to remain sincere you have to feel genuine concern while at the same time be somewhat sceptical about participating in such mass festivities. There is nothing wrong with simply standing under a tree on Midsummer Eve.

AGP: I offer a different perspective, coming originally from outside the Nordic-Baltic region, and so the festivity of midsummer is something I gained later in life, from my late 20s onwards. In Scotland, the traditional ‘Celtic’ pagan dates that most are familiar with are Beltane (30th April) and Samhuinn (31st October, of which Halloween traditions are based), marking the traditional start and end of the agricultural or growing season. Awareness of the autumnal events as a festivity, particularly harvest and Halloween traditions was something I gained from childhood. However, Beltane I gained a later awareness due to the Beltane Fire Society in Edinburgh which since 1988 has organised a neo-pagan re-interpretative performance of the union of the May Queen with the Green Man–the end of winter and start of summer–including many archetypes inspired by traditional pre-Christian belief-systems of Scotland and the British Isles. I attended from 1994-1999 when I still lived in Scotland, at a time when techno sound-systems and club culture, ‘reclaim-the-streets’, anti-globalisation and environmental-activism also emerged as part of the subcultural scenes of central Scotland. These aspects could be seen interwoven in the Beltane Fire Festival at that time, and there was the charm of going to a techno-club after the ceremony, and then returning for sunrise. Over the past decade, the festival has become an increasingly popular event, now all ticketed, with all the features of a formal large-scale gathering. Only when I moved to Finland, and then started to visit Latvia, was I given new meaning and significance to the peak time of summer solstice. These fellows here VM & JD then invited me to Mėnuo Juodaragis a few times.. Far away from my childhood growing up among farmlands, and far from the techno-rave culture of central Scotland..

VM: What is contemporary/progressive nationalism in a positive sense to all of you? We live now in the year full of exaggerated celebration of Baltic countries and Finland Centenaries but there are quite a bit of differences here. And Baltic countries have completely different relation to it because 50 years (half of it) they were occupied. When we notice massive celebrations, it is obvious that people need some material and entertaining elements to realise the importance of the independent state which unfortunately is still mostly conceived as nation state. The freedom of work and thought, living together in specific geographic area and paying taxes to one government can make us independent?

JD: For me nationalism can only be positive if the “nation” is understood in the civic rather than ethnic sense. And even then it is quite slippery, as I believe that inherently no nation or state is superior to others, so it only makes sense to speak about one’s personal climatic, political, and cultural preferences. I would replace the words “nationalism” or “patriotism” with “localism”, as I believe that everyone should first and foremost invest (mentally, not just economically) in the place they live in, though simultaneously being deeply interested in the rest of the world, and then the overall international climate will be much more healthy.

AGP: Contemporary and positive nationalism is a complex, and for some an oxymoron. In my opinion the positive can only be defined as civic nationalism. If I give the example of Scottish nationalism in the contemporary context, all who live and work there contributing to what makes society, are included within the national imaginary. Inclusiveness, then, would ideally be the basis of celebration. Scotland, with a multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic and multi-faith historical background, can hardly claim a reductionist identity which is only cultural or ethnically-defined nationalism. I would like to celebrate hybrid and nested identities that can include many communal belongings at once, or promote interdependence.

JB: I agree with Jurij and Andrew. I think the notion of nationalism has been historically discredited, and could hardly have many positive connotations today. It seems that the circumstances and time prompt certain changes in the vocabulary that cannot be ignored, hence this word, present even in the names of institutions, increasingly signals an isolationist mentality to me. I am not saying that we should not preserve our ethnic or national heritage, or discard institutional representation of a certain country or nation, but the communication principles must change to give more space to conscious self-reflection on where we live when the place is undergoing transformation, and what constructs our identity.

VM: This year’s Symposium with it’s participant list covers a variety of topics. Which ones and why did you bring into the programme? My personal wish is to be a bit speculative, invent and try out scenarios of being pagan in the future, which most of the time is about being pagan in the present as well (like Špela Petrič or Anthropocene Cookbook or more ‘indigenous’ and cosy spatial reconsiderations by Žilvinas Landzbergas).

JD: One particular concern is that at this particular moment the whole “traditionalist” revival, at least in Lithuania, seems to exist on a peculiar scale between two apparent opposites – the conservative isolationist search for an “essence” of the local ethnic culture (the so-called “Lithuanian” cultural code, something that is in some way “ingrained” in all members of an ethnic population and awaits cultivation) at one end of the spectrum and the eclectic commercialisation of archaic ethnic symbols as a part of the contemporary urban lifestyle – i. e. the aforementioned traditional singing and crafts workshops for urban professionals and office workers, using ethnic iconography in new design trends, sampling folk songs in popular electronic dance music, and various esoteric practices like Baltic yoga, ritual chanting as meditation, etc. – at the other. What I miss in both of these extremes is a critical and globally contextual approach to traditional ways of knowing and doing – that is, the adherents of both streams (who can intermingle quite often) seem to treat the latter as essentially unproblematic and effectively exploit them for their own ideological or economic purposes. The difference is that in the first case this exploitation shuts off the local culture from the world (in an attempt of radical purification), while in the second the local culture gets mixed with other “spiritual” influences in a very new age manner. This prompts a question: how should one engage with the local traditional culture in ways that are profoundly non-exploitative, inclusive, yet at the same time self-reflective and non-syncretic (i. e. non-eclectic)?

JB: Since myself and Jurij are largely responsible for an overview of the practices prevalent in Lithuania, he has accurately described the field of our concerns, so I can only add a few more. How does one pass the tradition on in a way that is heartfelt and not merely staged? Could the agrarian culture, which has developed differently in different cultures, have an influence on it? How important are the ethnic origins of tradition today, and how will it change in the 22nd century? Can the sense of one’s roots become universal, timeless and deterritorialized, but at the same time resist vague mysticism and contemporary lifestyle trends? What is perceived as “true” and “pure” in the present-day reality of cultural convergence, and which of our contemporary practices will the future generations consider folklore?

VM: What is indigeneity of everyday life? How does it connect with sustainability and migrant epistemologies? Again, I would add my own position. Despite my frequent travels, I am quite rooted in this region and I don’t think to be routed outwards like many neighbours do. Of course, I sometimes think that I would like to have some extraordinary situation (mild weather, only kind and nice people, balance between work and thought during 8 hours working day) but most of it sounds very utopian. I am worried how it is possible to actualise and contemporarize (to include into contemporary lifestyle, culture and art) traditional culture and an ancestors-like relation to nature besides reconstruction and idolisation?

JD: As a big part of my extended family has been moving across vast (currently post-Soviet) territories over the last century, I have an instinctive aversion for migration (not to be mixed with travelling, which I enjoy). I am one of the few members of my kin to actually have an opportunity to establish a meaningful, reflective, and sustainable relationship with the place I live in (several preceding generations, including my parents, did not have much choice, as they were just sent around to do their assigned jobs, like most people in the Soviet Union, and as a result do not feel much connection with their places of residence). So for me everyday indigeneity is something that I have to construct very painstakingly in order to be truly rooted in this particular place (Vilnius, Lithuania, the Baltics). I think I have managed quite well so far. It would be interesting to hear from the others (as all of us now find ourselves situated in the same region, but with different backgrounds) if they also had or still have to construct this “rootedness”, or it just came as a given.

JB: In Lithuanian translation, the term “indigeneity” sounds quite moderate and even noble, so to speak. In its English usage, however, it seems to have somewhat different (colonial) connotations. So in trying to define this everyday indigeneity, I feel the urge to emphasize language and the cultural package adopted along with it. Yet the specifics of contemporary communication, command of several languages and the ability to easily switch between them is gradually making that assumption obsolete. Thus I would like to think of indigeneity as a universal human category, something that is common to everybody regardless of nationality or citizenship. And we all have such indigenous rudiments – from instincts to our relationship with nature.

VM: My rootedness is quite natural since I am living where I grew up (Vilnius) but I still have immediate and live connection with a village where I spend my summers and holidays as a kid. My family still receives quite a few food products from there and keep the urban-agrarian GIY (Grow It Yourself ~ DIY) culture. Three out of four my grandparents are from the same place, so I feel quite connected to it, but it is more as a ‘return to the roots’ site than everyday situation. My indigeneity of everyday is expressed through my local neighbourhood of Vilnius city where I have spent 70% of my life and I still enjoy that most of my destinations are within walking distance. And also the proximity of airport (10 min by public transport) which gives me the opportunity to travel a lot.

AGP: Out of the four of us, I guess I am the one most unrooted and spread around in everyday life. Migrant ways of being and understanding are both inherited and developed through one’s own choices. Let’s carry on the biographical example.. Despite having one parent (my dad) with a longer multi-generational history in Glasgow, I have somehow followed or been attracted to the influence of my most exotic grandparent on my mum’s side who was exiled from Eastern Poland in 1939, with Polish-Russian-Ruthenian heritage. I can say, with some seriousness I am 4th generation migrant. In a few years I will reach a temporal marker whereby half of my life is lived somewhere else than where I grew up, in outside the Central Belt of Scotland. I appreciate Jurij’s efforts and attention to develop roots. Can we consider indigeneity as something we create only over one lifetime, one community, one cultural space, one territory? The trans-locality I mentioned as part of my everyday, one facilitated via network culture and hyper-mobility, has certainly disturbed the capacity to understand indigeneity appropriately, but has also made it more of a necessity to try and imagine the influence and role of ancestors in one’s life, regardless of how unrooted, and imagine further, beyond, in the case of future generations.

VM: All of us brought specific questions, keywords and participants to the programme which will be enriched from  proposals of the open call. Could you expand your contributions a bit?

AGP: I have been motivated by this question: How can Northern European indigenous traditions–life ways of thinking and doing–relate to natureculture in the era of climate change/breakdown, the anthropocene, capitalocene, and/or what Donna Haraway has called the Chthulucene, the era of unknown horrors-to-come? I am interested in connecting Indigenous /paganist ways of doing and thinking to the current contemporary context of climate breakdown, post-/anthropocenic influence, and how new ways of relating to/engaging natureculture. I don’t believe it is possible to go backwards, to old ways, the nature’s seasons in the North may never again be as regular to allow us to celebrate foraging or agricultural celebrations of old.. The concept of pure water is murky with nano-plastics. It is going to be necessary to develop new literacies and pedagogies to help people imagine where to go from this. The example of ‘Seeing Wetiko’ campaign from The Rules collective in the USA is an interesting example of finding ways to seed an indigenous concept as a meme to assist social and cultural change. How do you think learning about indigenous or traditional knowledge is going to shake our imaginations of the present and the future?

VM: From my side I have together with AGP invited Zane Cerpina & Ståhl Stenslie with their project Anthropocene Cookbook that they could cover the food and catering issue in contemporary everyday life and speculate a bit what we will eat (what kind of indigenous materials) foraged from our nearby surroundings: insects, plastic microparts, etc… I have also invited artist and biology scientist dr. Špela Petrič to do research and model our contemporary relation to constructed “indigenous” nature in Nida. I am worried how to stay ‘pagan’ with immediate connection to nature and local resources in post-internet world. Therefore these keywords like “indigenous futures”, “pagan anthropocene”, “eco-sex”, “seasonal sensibility”,  cyber-paganism represent my worries and concerns in this topic.

JD: Recently I have been increasingly interested in a peculiar kind of Lithuanian contemporary “post-industrial electric folk” music, which unlike reconstructed folklore or modern post-folk music does not involve direct “quoting” of motifs from folk songs and instrumental melodies, and instead creates an “archaic” atmosphere through myth-like lyrical imagery, dark and often melancholic sonic textures, and a strong commitment to the local natural as well as urban environment. Therefore I have been in contact with two Lithuanian projects, Sala (Audrius Šimkūnas) and Skeldos (Vytenis Eitminavičius), and they will hopefully produce interesting site-specific sound pieces and performances after a pre-symposium production residency in Nida. The Polish experimental folk-inspired band Księżyc, represented by Robert Niziński, was also a suggestion I brought up for the network of partners involved in the organisational work leading up to the Symposium, so I expect some of the band’s members to perform live during the event, as they have never played in Lithuania before. In general, I am thinking a lot about the fact that folklore is always a product of a particular epoch, and thus 21st century should have its own “folk” music that uses a contemporary sonic vocabulary, while at the same time being rooted in the local cultural and natural setting.

JB: Having been observing this field and taking part in it in a number of ways over quite a few years, me and Jurij were looking for a critical point of departure and commentary on the issues we are concerned with. Last summer we visited the Indigenous Culture Institute’s seminar “Indigenous Culture in the 20th Century: Continuity, Density, Flow”, where we heard relevant comments by the philosopher Dr. Jurga Jonutytė. So at the Symposium Jurga will be speaking about the changing notions of tradition as well as the differences between the concepts of local culture and the increasingly popular “indigenous culture”, craving for “archaic” identities in the post-identity age, earlier (e. g. 90s’) “conversions” to paganism, and the connection with eco ideas.

The director of the Vilnius University Confucius Institute and Professor of Indian and Buddhist Studies Dr. Audrius Beinorius seems to be the most appropriate person to not only overview the local Lithuanian practices, but also compare them with the processes of modernization and commercialization of tradition elsewhere in the world, particularly in India.

AGP: My contribution to the Inter-Format Symposium is largely my role as main facilitator of the contributions of the Inter-PAGAN network funded by Nordic Culture Point. These are regional and international partners based on a familiar network, with the exception of our Polish partners, Księżyc, a collective of artists and ethno-musicologists from Warszawa, who as mentioned above were the tip of JD. Lauska, a Latvian NGO based in Riga who both publish and research ethno-music, will be heavily involved in their own midsummer event in Vidzeme, Latvia, but promise to share remote and live connections to their countryside event. The rest of the network come from the interdisciplinary, ecological and post-media arts, who have a critical perspective of material and local context in contemporary art and cultural production. Scottish Sculpture Workshop have invited curator & PhD candidate Naomi Pearce, who has an interest in forensic feminist methodology (where ‘every contact leaves a trace’), to investigate Aberdeenshire and Nida landscapes. Lilli Tölp of Green Root Lab (Pärnu) and Mari Keski-Korsu (Pixelache) bring performance art  and healing practices–Movement and sauna whisking respectively–with a focus on natural materials and traditional Finno-Ugric relations to trees. Mikko Lipiäinen brings telematic connections from Pixelache festival and lived experience in South Brazil to our event which a critical indigenous and post-colonial awareness. Interdisciplinary art group SERDE will engage with youth in rural Kurzeme, Latvia, around the topic of traditional ‘power symbols’ in everyday life. Meanwhile, Kristin Bergaust, artist-professor from Oslo, and Kira O’Reilly, performance artist and lecturer from Helsinki, contribute their own research or practice, as well as hopefully assist our reflections on pedagogy and engaging a younger generation of practitioners. It is an interesting and curious mix, and I look forward to learn more during the symposium.

Additionally there are two guests invited from beyond the network whom I am intrigued by, and I hope will be able to shed light on the breaking and reforming of archetypes, particularly that are gendered and or natureculture orientated. Writer and curator Kristen Sollee has written about female power and how historically women have been oppressed with the label of witchery (book “Witches, Sluts and Feminists”, 2017). Dougald Hine, on the other hand is an social activist and editor of The Dark Mountain project, co-author of the “Uncivilisation Manifesto” (2009) that has encouraged many writers who no longer believe the narratives of civilisation that have been told to them. There are good reasons to be sceptical of the mythopoetics told about the past, as well as progress in the present, and the futures that may emerge.

Photography: Andrej Vasilenko