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Detachment from what? Network Architecture Lab’s [Kazys Varnelis and Leigha Dennis] exhibition ‘Detachment’ at the Contemporary Art Centre

Network Architecture Lab’s [Kazys Varnelis and Leigha Dennis] exhibition Detachment at the Contemporary Art Centre. Photo: Kazys Varnelis

The exhibitions displayed at the Contemporary Art Centre (June 17th – August 14th 2016) have evoked intrigue. Each of them dictated a different lens of understanding, which has taken some effort to open up the vast and problematic relations woven between them, in their entirety. They have all seemed quite closely related to the context of the institution in which they exhibited. For greater reflection, I have chosen to discuss the exhibition Detachment by Network Architecture Lab – Kazys Varnelis and Leigha Dennis. The motives will unfold in a brief moment.

Let’s begin with the sequence of the experience. Scarcely approaching CAC’s Main Hall through the corridor, a large metal structure lures a slowly awakening interest. As you are drawn closer, curiosity slightly fades and attractive focus is gradually being replaced by a contemplative, analytic and interpretive one. Increasingly, the space starts to seem emptier, whilst the pipe-furniture structure appears more primitive and brutal. Symptomatically, a simple indulging attention, tempted by first impressions, involuntarily keeps seeking for “something catchy”, and finds it within a structure that forms a horizontal rectangle – especially at the point where two sides of a curved line meet and form this geometrical shape. Its hum makes a hollow resonating sound, much louder than anywhere else. You stop here and listen for a symphony of ventilated air, flowing through soft metal sheets. Many of the nuances of the atmospheric sound become evident: its tone, dynamics, loudness, abstract rhythms and texture. From this very moment, even having left the epicentre of encircling auditory experience, awareness of background sounds constantly remains present and important. Out of this passive background a vivid nuance of meaning will arise, from time to time. It will lead you towards certain strand of thought when choosing a perspective of the observing gaze, while analysing an arrangement of photographs and their composition, while reflecting on different elements of content.

Once this relationship is developed, questions arise and certain circumstances start witnessing a broader context and conceptual idea. With the structure of the installation humming behind me, next to the “arch” leading to the aforementioned rectangular space, I read a description. Essentially, the issue here is a direct interdependence between the humming sound and the electronic devices surrounding it: the more there are, the richer the sound. The focus shifts towards other exhibition viewers, especially – their backpacks in which their mobile phones or laptops are most likely placed. I begin imagining the structure of the installation expanding and taking over the whole city, humming with an orchestra of visible and hidden technology. However, it is not the physical experience of the hum that guides my thought trajectory, but rather a certain sort of undefined ambivalence hiding within it. It seems potentially expressing something universal, touching upon an archetypal quintessence of sound, whilst slowly gaining characteristics of a more tangible category.

The title of the installation may come as a surprise. From what has been said so far, one would hardly guess it to be titled Perkūnas (meaning Thunder, after Lithuanian ancient God). In the context of the project’s vocabulary, a name seems artificially mythological, excessively story-oriented, literary, and somewhat ideological. Given that Kazys Varnelis is a significant figure of exile, sentiments of national identity could be easily recognised here. However, when considering the object’s nature, function and installation as a metaphor for a multi-faceted field of meanings, another insight that contextualises the name came to mind: we could associate the title with the logic which grounds the entitling of, let’s say, space satellites. The exhibition speaks about regulations, structural regimes, meta-level blocks, visible and invisible forces. Thus, the hints that one could elaborate from this regulatory, policing, perhaps even militaristic context, are doubtlessly inextricable from ideology, the myths that form it, the technocracy that is pertaining to it, and the right to negotiate spheres of influence that are declared through it. Following this interpretation, Perkūnas sounds highly Lithuanian – thus, thunderously ambitious.

The leverage of power here is not just a political topic. It is an aesthetic issue as well, and, if you like, a psychoanalytical one too. The ceiling of the main CAC hall is usually somewhat snuffy, with its emphatically commonplace grey floor. What catches the eye is not even the physical untidiness, but a consciously ignorant attitude when treating them as elements of interior. If the installation’s structure could be compared to the stylishly brutal exterior of the Centre Pompidou, such approach towards the interior of the main exhibition hall during several of the CAC’s most recent exhibitions could certainly be considered a form of even more radical, naturalistic brutalism. Of course, this conclusion arises only by drawing parallels between given approach and the common concept of the white cube. Hereby, it is definitely expected to stand for a conscious aesthetic strategy. Otherwise, it would simply speak of a completely unjustifiable negligence. Assumptions for such expectations may appear as quite plausible: CAC’s exterior architecture sometimes turns reminiscent of a heavy monument or, at other times, a lime-encrusted pool signified with a white flag raised over its roof. When entering CAC’s yard, the path is barred by rusty metal structures – a sharply shaped elements of Soviet décor, as relevant as ever. Through the windows of the CAC’s South Hall, the yard radiates a restrained, anti-decorative constructivist severity. From an urbanistic perspective, the city centre, where the building is situated, is full of actual and historical tensions that drive and intervene the pulse of city life. Thus, when you’re standing in the corner of an exhibition hall and looking at the tectonic evolvents of these problematic invisible volumes gradually forming in your mind, you’re slowly overwhelmed by an embarrassing feeling of getting more and more squeezed into that corner. You’re witnessing the revival of dissonances between the context of the location and the content ‘on display’. You get so accustomed to these multiple mismatches to such an extent, that the venue itself more and more often appears as repugnant and seems to artificially – aggressively – indulging it. In an almost perverse way.

When looking from the same distant angle, the horizontal perspective of the feet holding up the twisted, whipsnake-like pipe structure becomes apparent. The feet are rested on the floor with black rubber tips the way, that reminds leaning on asphalt with a crutch or an umbrella, or the way a microphone, photo or video camera tripods are rested on a parquet stage or studio floor. Thus you’re prompted to contemplate not only the texture, its tactility and symbolism, but also the entire framework, the shell, the skeleton. Recently, discussions surrounding the CAC’s artistic practices have involved the topic of skeletal and muscular economy. I remember also a discovery that surprised me: the origin of this fashionable vocabulary, whether consciously or not, replicates Biblical motifs (see Ez. 37; The Valley of Dry Bones). This revelation came to me whilst exploring poetic allusions by English poet Thomas Stearns Eliot – a much more classical context than one might expect. Bones and skeleton, metal sheets and leather, wind and breath – in a consistent rhyme all may appear genuinely related. However, a vast variety of contexts and allusions are certainly possible here.

These thoughts find their reflection also in the navigational rebus that lies within the description of the photography series Detachment photographs. It claims that the photos are on display in the hall’s south-western corner. And I’m suspecting an intentional inaccuracy here. In fact, they are exhibited in the south-eastern corner of the hall. This area could be considered as situated in south-west only in relation to the entire southern wall of the CAC (which two other exhibition halls also share). However, it is precisely because of this rebus my experience of space became similar to those experienced by millions of people who turn to Mecca or Jerusalem every day, regardless of the latitude of their physical being, or the ones who, for one reason or another, daily assess their geographical location according to cardinal directions (East, South, North, West). It is astonishing how a sudden relief comes by releasing your mind, trapped in a tight corner – suddenly vast spaces and trajectories unfold towards all directions of the world in your imagination, surpassing the limitations of given specific circumstances. On the other hand, the accuracy and specificity required to practice such navigational skills could also be used to solve other types of rebuses. By observing the astronomy-related objects and landscapes sinking in distant horizons in the Detachment photographs series, I began guessing, what time of day the photos were taken, from which geographical direction they were captured and what sort of intrigue could be obtained by articulating the relationship between the exposition of the photographs and that of the presumable position of the photographer, bearing in mind the geographical directions. However, this naive and playful discovery is followed by another complex thematic field, related to the keyword of a cipher. The topicality becomes more and more evident when encountering a smallness and powerlessness of residential houses, when they’re confronting panoramic observing gaze and monumental neighbourhood of astronomic satellites. It is strongly (though speechlessly and in somewhat indirect way) supported by a photographic image of a black telephone in a call-box under the sunlight and electricity cable, that cuts sidelong the perspective of the horizon. It goes without saying that a cipher which involves coordinates in certain contexts is related to tactical instrumentation of aforementioned policing and regulatory practices. Thus a concern doesn’t simply falls out of the blue. It may even befall as deja vu: when your professional occupation as an art critic is bound up with processes of interpretation and mediation of meaning, you eventually get more conscious concerning the shadow of mere possibility, that your insights are vulnerable under the threat of simplifications: even the most complex topicalities, elegantly resolved by the most sensible and virtuoso-alike dialectics, may potentially be formalised into basic opinions, direct instructions, and as a worst dystopian nightmare – turned into ciphers and codes. Even the experience of slightest probability of this scenario often throws a traumatic shadow. In a similar way, functionalised coding mechanisms may intervene into subtle, authentic, intuitive and autonomic spheres of human activity. “Sanctuary of Contemporary Art” is also prone to the acts of unscrupulous dethroning in order to make it perform other functions: social and political commentary, conceptual mail, reconnaissance experiment, and perhaps even strategic mapping. A traumatic shadow of this realisation is also thrown by the fact that you are never certain of your own role in this pre-determined game – neither as a passive perceiver, nor as an active interpreter.

Having in mind a given polysemous context, I hope I’ll avoid charges that I’m escalating the voice of social paranoia. I’m simply following the narrative of social critique that, to my mind, is inherent in the logic of the Detachement exhibition itself. Even more obvious arguments supporting such reflections do not linger long to appear. 10 metal Pleasure boxes can be found beside both entrances to the hall. They’re allusive of post boxes. However a small screen is installed in each of them and it shows the view captured by surveillance cameras in other exhibition spaces of CAC. You place your smartphone into a holder in the box, lock it with a key, hanging nearby, and leave it for a while to record the video. Then you return to the box, unlock it, take your phone out of it and enjoy the recording. You also start realising the unconscious effect, made on you by observation screens near the very entrance to the CAC, next to the ticket office. Normally, you may expect them to be hidden in a more distant, enclosed area of security guard’s booth. Again – a detail that perfectly matches the brutalist interior of the CAC’s foyer. A reversed perspective in the form of the Pleasure box returns, first of all, as an instinctive revanchist reaction. It is depersonalised and redirected towards the exhibition’s visitors with the greed of a privileged gaze. It is the moment when the structure humming behind you appears as literally echoing the concept’s description, which talks about the fact that the information, hidden in our electrical devices, is available for an outreach of surveillance technologies. It’s astonishing how this objectified gaze that you start projecting on every visitor of the exhibition, localises him or her as ultimately distinguished and potentially conceivable for such objectifying cognition to a much greater extent than you can ever imagine. It also forces you to think about the effect of ontological stupor after radical elimination of the curtain of privacy. Therefore Michel Foucault analyses the problematics of the panopticon by drawing a parallel with rudeness of social effects caused by plague: isolated zones for the rejected, objectified mechanisms of their individualisation. From this perspective, the hollow rustle of metal sheets consents with the exposition that opens up in front of the hidden, but nevertheless, all-seeing eye of the camera. To tell the truth, you don’t really know what is actually happening and what does it imply in the end. Anxiety, fuelled by entropy, gradually sneaks in. Beware arriving at this point whilst hiding a single untamed reproach of conscience…

 Network Architecture Lab’s [Kazys Varnelis and Leigha Dennis] exhibition Detachment at the Contemporary Art Centre

Ironically, the screen in the tiny little box in which I placed my own smartphone with a recording video-camera, was showing a real-time view from an exhibition by the Post Ars group. I brought home a footage of a static view captured from the edge of the ceiling. Most of the time it was an empty space – a single brief appearance of a couple gives some life to it towards the end of the recording. What a disappointment: this made me an impression, that I’ve sneeked into a zone, which was much more reminiscent of some anonymous bureau than a private chamber, a caretaker’s chair in a museum hall rather than a seat in a security guard’s booth. However, I certainly didn’t miss the chance to take a look at the screens in other boxes and sketch out a few other hypothetical scenarios. The aspect of continuity in circulation that was hanging in the air also deserves attention. It reveals how, in a scopophilic chain, the design of the objects and their inner structure accumulate and quell the energy that sheds a savour of this fetish. That’s how it streams the rafts of circulation that were inherent here.

And then, the photo series Manwatching follow on the northern wall of the exhibition hall. It’s accompanied by a display of a book Manwatching: A Field Guide to Human Behaviour by a zoologist Desmund Morris — the exhibition’s final knockout. The concept of an artwork appears to be a non-linear, but highly convincing illustration of behaviourist discourse. It eloquently reveals a complex, multi-layered variety of parallels between the behaviour of people and animals on various levels of their existence. The main focus is on humans here, thus the implied foundation of zoological behaviour has its effect. Strangely, the effect is purportedly the opposite of what one could expect in the frame of a classical behaviourist context: it arouses a wish to think about the existence of people and even animals rather than their behaviour, defined in a determinist’s way. This is probably because such a definition only indicates the consequences, pointed towards one or another direction by pure reasoning…

From these perspectives Network Architecture Lab’s show Detachment, exhibited in parallel with The Score by artist-group Post Ars and Dunes by Antanas Gerlikas, clearly outshines its neighbours. It must be said, that The Score bears a retrospective character and is highly important from the viewpoint of local contemporary art history. It unfolds plenty of archival artistic documents and is orchestrated by invoking a conceptual wit. Meanwhile Antanas Gerlikas’ Dunes is without any doubt a significant project by an artist of a younger generation. Having in mind the relation between scale and content, perhaps it may be considered as marking a certain quality shift, not only in his own creative work, but in this sense also represents certain tendencies that part of his generation seem to undergo. To sum it up in a simplified way, Dunes approaches the quintessence of various kinds of materiality, elaborates on the questions of craftsmanship, the notion of an instrument, unfolds the sensitivity towards the tonality of space, colour and architecture. By interpreting directly, texts that accompany the exhibition, seek to address the deepest intentions and most subtle experiences, grounding an abstract narrative of the exhibition and its substantial paradigmatic field.

However, it seems that in both cases a conscious dialectical awareness towards neighbouring exhibitions may be grasped. If we are inclined to see art as something inseparable from social and institutional responsibility, the nearby humming metal structure starts smothering its neighbouring sights as a fierce counterpoint, shaking the institutional structure that contains it. What is this noise, described as a detachment, all about? The banality of evil? The powerlessness of anonymous, multi-layered, hollow, depersonalized instance? Theatrical cosmic indifference? The historically infixed crisis of representation of man and discreditation of his dignified civilised existence? Or perhaps something diametrically inverted? The dichotomy, dualism and binary oppositions themselves? Seemingly, this is how it might be possible to articulate something thinkable as evidence, or at least an artefact that raises questions about archived instructions, models, imitations, schemes and designs, on one hand, and objects and processes of coded illusionism covered by false decorative intentionality, on the other. At the same time, perhaps this is how it is possible to express doubt concerning the impossibility of directly pointing out the ivory tower in a privileged way, covered by a curtain of secret, where the ontological balance of Themis’ is drifting dangerously in the amorphous territory reminiscent of the Zone in Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. There is a danger, however, that such gesture itself may potentially turn into betrayal: that’s the condition of horrible stupor in the dense air of the Zone, and its repulsive effects. And then, an internalised rigorous position of ultimate point, that favours this tone of discourse, that is inherent to it, and that is described by it – way too pathetic, ranging through directed faceless systems of coordinates. As if you were floating in an alienated vacuum and had a predestined post-existential love affair with a laboratory flask. It is obvious that such optics of symbolic vision only occur in the complicated relations between meanings derived from its rudiments. It comes with no surprise, that these relations obey the logic of effective and consistent neutralisation, although they do offer one more chance to give voice to a critical (and, of course, ambiguous) reflection. To put it simply, “…we are sensible people, after all”.

Network Architecture Lab’s [Kazys Varnelis and Leigha Dennis] exhibition Detachment at the Contemporary Art Centre. Photo: Edgaras Gerasimovčius

Network Architecture Lab’s [Kazys Varnelis and Leigha Dennis] exhibition Detachment at the Contemporary Art Centre. Photo: Edgaras Gerasimovčius

Network Architecture Lab’s [Kazys Varnelis and Leigha Dennis] exhibition Detachment at the Contemporary Art Centre. Photo: Edgaras Gerasimovčius

Network Architecture Lab’s [Kazys Varnelis and Leigha Dennis] exhibition Detachment at the Contemporary Art Centre. Photo: Edgaras Gerasimovčius

Network Architecture Lab’s [Kazys Varnelis and Leigha Dennis] exhibition Detachment at the Contemporary Art Centre. Photo: Edgaras Gerasimovčius

Network Architecture Lab’s [Kazys Varnelis and Leigha Dennis] exhibition Detachment at the Contemporary Art Centre. Photo: Edgaras Gerasimovčius