Expanding the Perception of Space. An interview with Vladas Suncovas

August 22, 2022
Author Viktorija Šiaulytė

Viktorija Šiaulytė: It would be interesting to start our conversation with your personal archive ‘Catalogue of Principles for the Creation of Spaces’, where you collect different examples of spaces created by artists, but not only that. What exactly do you call this archive?

Vladas Suncovas: Actually, I haven’t talked about it with anybody much yet; the working title is ‘Spaces Created by Artists’.

VŠ: Those who have worked with you know that your creative process is usually driven by creating almost an atlas containing different visualisations and drawings. I take it for granted that such a catalogue exists in your studio. What kind of tool is it, and how did you start collecting this archive?

From the exhibition ‘Vibrant Tensegrity’, 2013.

VS: I have always had a tendency to be a free-thinking taxonomist, creatively and rather subjectively classifying the surrounding elements. I had been working differently with space; but, never having studied architecture or urban planning, I was asking myself how I could work with it and classify it. I started analysing instances of cultural phenomena or artistic work that interested me where spaces were not created by an architect or an urban planner, in order to find the answer for myself. I thought: Is there anything in common between drawings, poetry, architecture, jokes … or even graveyards, where there is also a very interesting treatment of space? All these spaces are creative, but usually not created by architects.

It’s like a catalogue for me. When I start a new project, I ask myself if, in a certain case, the most suitable thing would be some physical construction, or perhaps a good story and a video, or something else. Now there are hundreds of different categories.

VŠ: I find it very interesting that you as an artist name those spaces in very different registers. With my art history education, I would perhaps not allow myself to do that. Your catalogue encompasses categories such as poetry, bodies, genetics, dioramas, fountain … Sometimes these are very tangible objects, and sometimes abstract fields of knowledge.

VS: These are not areas of my work, but definitions of how artists work with space, categories that I have articulated. I can now send you a story where I analyse space with a text and a drawing in the format of a joke.

The Balcony of Rasa Antanavičiūtė, 2020.

This is an example of where I sometimes work creatively with space in the form of a text or a drawing, where the object does not necessarily have to be made. One can simply speculate. An archive itself is also one of the categories; it is also a certain kind of spatial practice.

For example, take my archive of balcony railing designs in Vilnius. Ground-floor balconies in residential suburbs are often enclosed by railings, and in different neighbourhoods these offer different patterns and stories. One can even register a kind of code language. I will send a sample of designs from Šeškinė.

Railings in Šeškinė, 2020.

People themselves produced these grills, they welded them in their garages. It was often not a product from a catalogue, but a do-it-yourself principle. People would weld them themselves, often from the cheapest materials, such as reinforcing pins. I started to categorise, photograph and draw these different patterns, and give them names, which reflected what was depicted in the pattern. In a way, people create a sense of safety with these balconies, and adapt them according to their personal aesthetic preferences. You wouldn’t think it, but there are hundreds of these patterns. Sometimes they overlap, you can find same designs in Žirmūnai as in Šeškinė or Lazdynai, but there are a lot of differences.

One of the categories of spaces created by artists is an archive. So this is my archive, which I collect and sometimes use for different projects. I have a few archives that I collect in parallel, for my own needs. They expand my own creative language; it is a kind of urban folklore, categorised rather freely. I am interested in how people create safe spaces with scarce and limited means. Even a functional element like a railing, which is produced from left-over reinforcements for houses, because of material and financial limitations, demands certain artistic decisions and the aestheticisation of the environment. You can create a pleasant environment with the scarcest means, even in an unsafe neighbourhood.

Herbalist Altana, 2020. Photograph: Laurynas Skeisgiela.

VŠ: Such spatial creations are probably already historical phenomena in contemporary Lithuania. Is the possibility to see the aesthetic value of these creations enabled by historical distance? I am also now thinking about your other project ‘Rolling through Utopias’ (2021), where you use historical drawings and diagrams of urban planning project aesthetics, giving them a new form.

Rolling through Utopias, 2021. Photograph: Aistė Marija Stankevičiūtė.

VS: The theme ‘Movement in the City’ was proposed by an urban space theatre festival. I was looking at what a city is, and what a future utopian city could be. I was interested in utopian urban plans that were never carried out and remained as ideas. I wanted to find a form to introduce the audience to utopian urban planning, and I found it interesting to convey these ideas while interpreting them as a mini-golf course design. Utopias are also one of the categories in my catalogue. I tend to tie them together, mix them with each other, and reinterpret them. Some architects may be inspired by unrealised utopian ideas to build something new, but these ideas can also inspire an artist to create a design for a mini-golf course.

VŠ: You say you like to respond to a commission or a problem. Have you developed a methodology that you use?

VS: I try to delve into what is expected of me, what I am interested in, and where I can challenge myself. I like to solve problems. Commissions are often like solving problems, but also creative problems that I articulate for myself.

Spatial deisgn for the exhibition ‘Meno celės’, 2019. Photograph: Laurynas Skeisgiela.

Spatial design for the exhibition ‘Videogramos’, 2020. Photograph: Lukas Mykolaitis.

VŠ: You inspired me to look again at the book A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein, which was published in 1977. I know it has been an important tool for you. Christopher Alexander is known by many architectural historians as one of the first, being both a mathematician and an architect, to use computation for urban models already in the 1960s. I think A Pattern Language presents space as a network of information, and offers examples of how one can work with that creatively. What attracted you as an artist to this approach?

VS: I am not attracted to the rather esoteric aspect of the research, a certain techno-optimism that existed at the time, saying that one can classify and solve everything with the help of computation. Judging by the joke I sent you, it should be obvious that I am not a practitioner of the techno-optimism of those times. It always comes back, for example, now in parametric design. I see this book as a very useful toolbox, which looks at certain spatial elements that one usually does not think about while creating a space. There are hundreds of details that can influence human well-being in different spaces. They call such categories ‘space under the stairs’, or ‘a child’s den’. Children like to spend time under stairs of a certain height, creating a space to play in. Architects should also pay attention when they design a house, in order to see that it includes such spaces, because children like them. It is an unconventional approach to space, down to the tiniest details, even though these categories are not analysed in depth. Everything is interrelated. Perhaps the goals defined by architects and urban planners are not the main ones, because the everyday aspects entail so many more micro-elements.

VŠ: I see these propositions as an invitation to distinguish certain spatial relations which are not always materially tangible.

VS: Yes, if we think about space not only as physical, but also social, psychological, or always caught between these categories. All of us produce space. The fact that people put railings on their balconies, or furnish them in certain ways, was not preconceived; it emerged because of certain social phenomena. When people plant little gardens underneath the balconies, they create well-being; we feel a certain way in such spaces. I liked it that A Pattern Language did not marginalise such examples as unimportant. All these things create our sense of well-being too.

VŠ: Curiously, we have been discussing the intersection between the production of space and everyday life here, but your own work, be it stage design or installations, functions perhaps not necessarily always in a gallery’s white cube or a theatre’s black box; however, it is often a very specific cultural space where you present your works.

Stage design for ‘Brilijant Advenčers’, 2021. Photograph: Dainius Putinas.

Spatial design for the exhibition ‘Kaunas–Vilnius: Moving Mountains’, 2022. Photograph: Laurynas Skeisgiela.

From the drama performance ‘Trijulis aukštyn kojom’, LNDT, 2018. Video: Dmitrij Matvejev.

Even though I catalogue and am interested in the surrounding environment, I am interested in reinterpreting it rather than imitating it. Every time I create a stage design, I aim to create an abstract space that will not be recognized, such as, let’s say, a 19th-century interior, because of a certain kind of window, door, carpet, and so on. I seek the elements to enable action and thought, but not to enclose in a specific place. Many stage designers create perfect designs that refer to a specific time, space or feeling. I am more interested in creating objects that can exist on their own, outside the theatre as well.

Coming back to the example of balconies, where people can create their own micro-worlds, even with repetitive patterns, or plant gardens, make patterned railings or lay a carpet, the aim of an exhibition or a theatre performance is also to transport a person to a closed, safe space, the world of ideas and feelings, but not to a specific recognisable place. I see something in common in this way: it is a kind of enclosure, but also an opening and teleportation device at the same time.

Regarding the question how I create these spaces, there are often a lot of restrictions and specifications about what it is possible to do in a certain space, what kind of budget there is, or what kind of play, exhibition or commission it is. Almost a computational way of thinking is turned on, while trying to find a compromise to satisfy everybody, including myself. It is a creative but difficult process. I did not think earlier that this would be what my creative work would look like: I thought I would be a free artist who did anything I could think of; I would sit alone in my studio and accumulate works to be sold. With time, I understood that I liked collaborating with different people and solving problems through art. It’s also an artistic practice; only it has a lot of other kinds of nuances.

VŠ: A significant part of your practice engages with deployable structures. In terms of the principles of the production of space, how did you become interested in these structures?

Scissors Project, 2017.

I have always liked being challenged. It also interested me because of its functionality. We travel so much, transport has an ever-growing influence on our lives, the possibilities for architectural adaptation are also being developed. In the last couple of years, we have seen how sudden and unexpected global events entirely changed our perception of space, and we all need to rethink very suddenly how we move in our everyday life. In a few weeks, the whole world had to rethink it. It is rather a symptomatic phenomenon that everything changes very fast. Perhaps we also need everchanging architecture too, architecture that can adapt? Theatre and art spaces let such experiments in first. In theatre, you need to set up the scenery, perform, and then collect and transport everything to another city in a day. The potential of deployable structures is also very important to the military industry, space research and emergency shelters. I do not have access to these industries; but I use these structures in my practice.

VŠ: You have carried out a few works where you use deployable structures. What is most important to you? What does the creative process look like? I can imagine one needs a good knowledge of engineering, and the process of sourcing materials should also be very interesting.

VS: My breakthrough was when I created a deployable dome in 2017, which I transported on a bike throughout Copenhagen and organised experiments with: exhibitions, readings, performances and installations, in different parts of the city, collaborating with different artists. So I became confident that such a structure could be functional and adaptable. Not only would people from the art world come: if we had an exhibition close to some housing, the local residents would come along. When they saw how the structure was unfolded, they would immediately start to speculate how it could otherwise be used. In an art space, an exhibition or theatre, everybody expects special effects and miracles; but when that happens in a public space, a different kind of conversation ensues. I was very interested in the adaptation possibilities of such structures, rather than mere exhibiting. However, my installation Spines and Rails was rather a creative exploration of how architecture could move and have its own choreography.

Production of Scissors Pavilion. Video: Vebjørn Guttormsgaard Møllberg.

Spines and Rails, MMLAB, 2020. Video: Elena Kairytė.

VŠ: Your deployable structures, as well as as the installation Spines and Rails, allude in a way to the architectural and artistic avant-garde of the 1970s, the lightweight tensile structures of the architect Frei Otto, or even Aleksandra Kašuba. You once said that the innovation of such structures at the time was determined by the new materials science and scientific inventions. When you work today technically with these structures, where does this breakthrough and popularity come from, why is this kind of architecture topical even after fifty years?

VS: I would name as a current breakthrough, which I would like to follow, the accessibility of information. Also, access to electromechanical elements. We can combine architecture with electromechanical and hydraulic elements, and it is not as expensive financially as before; these are not the projects only of the privileged or of research laboratories. Sitting somewhere in the middle of nowhere, one can ship all kinds of inexpensive sensors, pistons and micro-controllers, and build something that would have been seen as an unbelievable miracle twenty years ago. The accessibility of materials and information pushes me forward. If you don’t know how to solve some technical issue, you can easily find solutions and materials. It is even hard not to suffocate, as there is so much information available: research institutes and laboratories share open-source information, and you can interpret the inventions of the best minds from a year or two ago, or which were published a month ago. When working with deployable structures, I read a lot of MA and PhD theses by engineers or architects from all over the world, and explore how they created similar structures. Now I can generate deployable structures quite fast. I have a language, in the same way that sculptors learn how to cast bronze. I can see a structure and see how it can unfold, how it can become a kinetic, transforming structure.

VŠ: You have noted yourself that these deployable structures have connotations of the arms industry and space architecture: perhaps that is why they fit perfectly the ‘Lithuanian Space Agency’ pavilion by Julijonas Urbonas at the Venice Architecture Biennale. What kind of influence does the critique of the techno-optimism of such structures, and the military-industrial complex, have on your creative process?

VS: In the case of the Venice Biennale, it was a joint collaborative process, together with architects and Julijonas Urbonas. In a way, it was like creating stage design as well, when you have to analyse the play, the director’s vision. Concerning what you are talking about … I am very interested in functional structures, and this aesthetic emerges naturally. I am not trying to imitate that deterrence and coldness. There is a reason why such aesthetics are prevalent in the military industry. Sometimes I create a structure that looks completely cosmic, like something straight out of NASA … However, these are just very functional elements and materials, because these industries need very functional and approved materials. When you use them, you even need to put an extra effort into making them not look so cold, to soften them. However, that’s not my intention.

Sketches for a 3D scanner for the Lithuanian Space Agency, 2021.

3D scanner for the Lithuanian Space Agency, in collaboration with Julijonas Urbonas, 2021.

VŠ: I did not mean specifically that your work looks ‘cold’. Many items of everyday technology, even a smartphone, are partly military technology, they surround us everywhere.

VS: There are many examples, such as of Buckminster Fuller and others, who flirted with both the arms industry and the hippie, environmental movements at the same time. What is functional finds its place everywhere.

VŠ: Do you have a goal or a vision of what you would like to carry out next, if you say you have already mastered the language? What are you interested in now?

VS: Part of me is crazy about all these technological nuances that enable me to create. But I am also thinking more and more about art in public spaces which has an enduring value. I recently read Tim Gill’s book Urban Playground. He analyses how urban spaces could be more child-friendly. His main thesis is that when we create child-friendly spaces in the city, we create a positive outcome for everybody, not only for children. The city becomes safer, a more ecological and friendlier space.

VŠ: You mentioned the example of a den under the stairs as something that would not perhaps have been defined as architecture some time ago. Are there aspects or elements of urban space that are also unnoticed today in your opinion?

VS: I would like to abstain from talking about specific but unrealised future projects, but in general I want to create elements that are not one-dimensional and mono-functional. We need certain elements in the city: we need curbstones and benches. However, it is the same with stage design that does not refer to a specific place but expands the perception of space; it is important for me to create public spaces that could open up possibilities of what could take place, rather than defining a singular purpose. We can achieve that with minimal means. I am interested in working with urban planners and architects; we discuss how different elements can do that.

I am also interested in the boundary between where a game starts and where it ends, where rest starts and where it ends. Of course, we need a very clear boundary to where a car should go, because you do not want to put a playground there; but perhaps we should not enclose playfulness behind a fence, and identify a specific group of people it is meant for. I remember how in Copenhagen I used to cycle past a very strange playground. Its function seemed very unclear: it was not clear whether it was meant for children or for dogs. I did not see a single person there. After a couple of years, I found out that this playground was for senior citizens. It is quite obvious that they did not want to be identified as senile, and go there to exercise. That’s segregation, rather than integration. Definition and control are not always needed. There is a category ‘Senior Citizens in the City’ in A Pattern Language as well where one is advised what to pay attention to when creating spaces. The Šiaurės Miestelis area in Vilnius seems to have been created for young families with children, where both adults each drive a car, and have to go to hardware stores quite often. On the other hand, Šeškinė seems perfect for senior citizens: it is full of greenery, gardens, benches and avenues. How can we create spaces that are inclusive of everybody, or at least most people?

VŠ: It is partly a question of feminist architecture theory. Cities are often still built from the perspective of a male subject from a certain time; they are still often not adapted for wheelchairs, for parents, or for people with disabilities.

VS: I am not an expert in this field, but my thinking is partly formed by reading feminist architectural criticism. It should be part of the education of anybody who creates public spaces.

VŠ: To finish, would you like to draw attention to any other work?

VS: One of the recent ones is the chair A Day Off (lt. Laisvadienis). Do you know this Lithuanian chair?

The original chair design by Liucija Zaveckienė.

VŠ: I recognise the form, but I don’t know the story behind it.

VS: It is one of the most popular chairs in Lithuania, and probably one of the most undervalued. You can find them in many places; various institutions are full of them; some people sell them for a euro or two. The chair was designed by Liucija Zaveckienė in 1985. She designed many other chairs that are now collector’s items, but this one was probably mass-produced. I interpreted it as a resource, and wanted to combine processes of Modernist industrial production, by which a lot of the same elements are produced very fast and in huge quantities, and processes in contemporary parametric design and production, namely possibilities for 3D printing, where all the elements can be different and adaptable, thus in a way freeing the creative process. I created a new design for this chair: by taking apart the old model, you can make a new one, adding additional joints, extending it, and freeing it. So I called it A Day Off. It is as if the chair sits down after a hard week’s work … It is being shown in the exhibition ‘The Invisibles. Historic Furniture from a Contemporary Design Perspective’ at the Museum of Applied Art and Design.

A Day Off, 2022. Photograph: Gintarė Grigėnaitė.

VŠ: I think this work also reveals another aspect of your practice: perhaps it is not very obvious, but I think the human body has a significance in the objects that you create, such as, for example, 90s Simulator among others.

VS: There are a lot of instances of architecture, urban planning and stage design that function as a statement, or which are created to be in an image or as a symbol of power. However, there is a reason why I am interested in phenomena such as balcony railings: something that shelters, protects, comforts. I always think how comfortable or user-friendly it is. Architecture has always had a relationship with human proportions too. Deployable or tensegrity structures are also closely related to the construction of our bodies. That relation interests me deeply, I try to adapt and learn from discoveries and research in bioengineering. Robotics adopt movements, human beings have also always built and created spaces by learning from the natural world.

Cosy Modern Family Home, 2022.