Vilnius Thoughts: How half of my project happened in Four Days

Despite the fact that I keep updating this blog, I still haven’t caught up to my current situation on my research. It’s frustrating and exciting at the same time, because there is just so much that has happened, and so much still to do. I’ve been in Russia for just about three weeks now, which means I have about three weeks left to go. More importantly, though, three weeks ago I spent four days in Vilnius, Lithuania, and conducted a huge part of my research there, which is what I want to share here.

The goal of my project was to compare two sites in Vilnius and St. Petersburg, and investigate their connection, significance, and legacy in relation to the era of unofficial art during the Soviet Union. (I keep finding new ways to summarize my project, and it keeps coming out differently!) I had established several contacts in Vilnius before going in order to conduct as many interviews as possible while I was there. More importantly, I wanted to capture as much footage as possible of Vilnius and the Vilnius site: the Fluxus Ministerija.

When I arrived in Vilnius on Friday night, I spent the evening with friends reacquainting myself with my surroundings. Saturday morning, however, I almost immediately took to the streets to investigate my site and what I had in store. I spent the better part of the morning walking around the city, and strolled up to the Fluxus Ministerija around 4:00 in the afternoon, to find a concert of a Finnish Gospel choir happening outside. I had yet to get in touch with my contacts upon my arrival, because I hadn’t yet a cell phone, so I enjoyed the concert, observing the people. As luck would have it, however, one my contacts was standing right in front of me. A girl approached me to greet me, and when I explained the project I was conducting, she responded, “our director is right here, maybe you want to talk to him?” That random connection led to an interview that I set up for the following day.

I returned to the Ministerija later that evening to investigate what other events may be going on and to shoot some B-Roll footage. In working on our film projects for the St. Petersburg program, we’ve been taught so much already about documentary filming, yet there is still so much to know. B-Roll footage is neat, though, because it includes all the visuals that go along with interviews, and really helps establish the space of the film. For me, B-Roll footage is just as important as interview material, because my film is about the importance of the space. That evening, I caught not only an outdoor public dance lesson, but also a rehearsal for a concert that was happening the next day. I snagged a couple of walking interviews that evening that resulted in some great material about youth culture at Fluxus Ministerija. The first interview was with a young guy named Vilius, who said that he comes to Fluxus to attend dance classes and to share his photography. He told me that it is a space for artists, because everybody is an artist to some degree, even if not professionally.

The second interview actually led to a much bigger piece of my project. A young gentleman, not much older than me, approached me and asked what I was filming. At the time, I was filming some random concert-rehearsal material from the back of the concert venue. Ignorantly, I asked him if he would be interested in giving me an interview, and he obliged. In his interview, he emphasized the importance of space for creativity, and, despite the fact that Fluxus Ministerija is a temporary project, having a space where young artists can create and share their work for free is really important in preserving the cultural identity of a community. Upon learning his name, Gediminas, I found that he was actually, himself, a fairly well-established musician, and that the concert the next day was happening for his birthday! I got his blessing to film more of the rehearsal, and even the actual concert the following day.

The following day, I had planned to interview Edgaras, the manager of the Ministerija, and we met at around 4:00 PM. Unfortunately, it was at this time that I got first hand experience at technical difficulties. The interview started just fine, we established a space on the helicopter landing pad of the old hospital where Fluxus Ministerija is established, and he was giving me some amazing material, telling me about how a building is just four walls and a roof, it doesn’t mean anything or have any value without the people inside it. About twenty minutes in, however, an angry beeping noise came from the camera, and the battery died. And, of course, as luck would have it, my extra battery was in my friends’ apartment, and my outlet converter was in America. I panicked briefly, but Edgaras, the easy-going fellow that he is, said it was not a problem, and we made plans to pick up the rest of the interview the following day.

I finished my evening by attending two more events at the Fluxus Ministerija. The first was a short black-box theater production of a show that, as far as I know, had no title. Now, any group can perform a black-box show, but I was struck by the casual nature of the group, and the fact that they were able to come together for rehearsals and create such a piece of art for only donations from the audience, which consisted of maybe twenty people. It seems to me that outside universities, it is very hard for groups to perform because there is so little free space. With institutions like Fluxus Ministerija, it offers young people space to showcase their creations. It really is important for people to have space to create.

The following day was, quite literally, filled with interviews. My first one, however, was scheduled for only 2:00 in the afternoon. This interview was conducted with the wife of a well-known Lithuanian-American artist named Vytautas Ignas. His paintings, woodcuts, and linocuts are iconic for many Lithuanian Americans, and some of them even hang in the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington DC. They lived together for a good portion of their lives in a cottage in Connecticut not far from my family’s summerhouse, so I went to visit her under the pretense of seeing her for the first time in several years. About a half an hour into my interview, I pulled out the camera, and just let it roll as I asked her some questions about her husband’s experience as an artist creating somewhat nationally charged art outside the Soviet Union. She offered some great anecdotes, one particularly striking one about an exhibition of his that almost didn’t happen during the 1980s, when he was afraid to display his work in Lithuania. The story echoed so much of my pre-research, that I was glad to get just a glimpse on camera.

The next interview was supposed to be with a Lithuanian art scholar named Elona Lubyte, who works as a curator for the National Art Gallery and as a professor in the Art Academy. I met her in the evening just as she finished watching a day of honors theses defenses, which, as anyone might imagine, meant that she was hardly in a great mood. She refused an interview, because she thought that my topic was too loose and very disconnected. I understood that I may have been undereducated, but I felt taken aback because she would hardly give me the time of day. After a 20 minute, multi-language discussion about why my work was inadequate compared to the honors theses she had been paneling for, she finally warmed up a bit. Although she didn’t give me an interview, she did give me a book called “Quiet Modernism in Lithuania” which will hopefully give me at least some background information for my project, and then she took me out for coffee, where we had a great conversation about other things. At first I was offended that she wouldn’t give the interview, but as my project takes a clearer form, I can see that it would have been difficult to commit to my wishes earlier. She ended up being a great resource, and invited me to e-mail her if I had questions later on.

Later that evening, I met with a family friend for dinner. Rasa Razgaitiene works in the Vilnius City Council with Edgaras. She also is one of the co-directors of the Jonas Mekas Visual Art Gallery, Jonas Mekas being a prominent Fluxus Artist. At dinner, the topic of my research was bound to come up, and I took the opportunity to get some video footage. I set the camera up next to me on the tripod and let it roll as we talked about all sorts of things, including the importance of Fluxus to the Lithuanian identity and the Guggenheim project that was taking place in Vilnius, and why it fell through. She really believes that there is a lot of Vilnius Culture that remains hidden, and it takes the people’s own organization to bring it out to the open. Unfortunately, while older people are still in power, there is little opportunity for artists to emerge, and it is up to institutions like Fluxus Ministerija to give young artists a space to create. After my dinner with her, I went back to Fluxus Ministerija to wrap up my interview with Edgaras. By the end of the night, I was exhausted, and overwhelmed by the fact that I had filled several tapes with interview material.

On Tuesday, the day I left for St. Petersburg, I had very little time to spend on the project. I had completed all the interviews I needed, so I spent some time visiting the works of Lithuanian nonconformist and soviet-era art in the National Gallery. Had I had more time, I might have spent a few hours conducting real research in the Gallery’s reading room, yet, I found myself in a frenzy getting to the train station on-time, less than four full days in Vilnius suddenly behind me.

My time in Vilnius was phenomenal for several reasons. First of all, it had been just under a year since I left the city after having lived there for a year. The weather and the atmosphere were nearly identical, so much so that it felt as if I had never left. Secondly, I was able to manage my time and piece together a lot of video material that will play a huge part in the creation of my video project.

Although the trip was a great success, I learned a lot as well, the hard way. First of all, of course, was to charge the camera before a day out with it. Never again will I try to conduct an interview on half battery life. Second was something that I expected, but wasn’t sure how to deal with: Eastern Europeans are scared to death of official paperwork. Because of that, I ended up getting verbal consent for the use of this footage, rather than written consent. I spent such a long time preparing my participant consent forms in three languages, only to find that interviewees were scared to death of signing their rights away! I suppose I don’t really blame them, but it made my project just a bit more difficult. Thirdly, I learned that it truly pays to be over-prepared for interviews. Considering I felt like an informed visitor when at the Zimmerli museum a few days before, meeting with Elona Lubyte proved to me that no matter how much I think I know, I haven’t yet written a dissertation on this sort of thing, so as far as experts are concerned, I know nothing. I truly have to go into every interview from here on out with prepared questions that try to draw out statements that I want to hear. If I do enough research, I should know what the subject would say, and I just need to find a way to get them to say it.

I have my work cut out for me, with transcribing, translating and subtitling these interviews. My time in Russia is quickly filling up with interviews as well. That, however, is a story for another blog post.

Keep track of the rest of my adventures on my personal blog at monikawithak.blogspot.com!

Comments

  1. Hi Monika! Fascinating post! The Fluxus sounds like such an amazing space for young artists, and you painted an excellent picture of the energy and ambition captured there. I thought your comments on the divide between the older, established artistic community and the young emerging community were very insightful. As more and more young artists were born at the very end of the Soviet Union’s existence, did you find that this was a source of tension between the two artistic communities?