The Coincidences of Robertas Narkus

An interview with Lithuanian artist Robertas Narkus

Zane Ozola

Robertas Narkus (b.1983, Vilnius) describes his art practice as a “management of circumstances in the economy of coincidences”. Robertas holds an MFA degree from the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam, he founded the Institute of Pataphysics in Vilnius, he has performed the performance piece Where are My Flip-flops at the contemporary art festival Survival K(n)it in Riga, and now, he has a show at the XII Baltic Triennial of International Art.

In his works, Robertas combines the ordinary and the absurd, revealing imaginary and paradoxical layers of the symbolic capital that we call “the real”. Pataphysics, the philosophical science of the particular and coincidental, has been a strong influence on his views and methods in the arts. We met Robertas and asked coincidental questions on the “management of circumstances in the  economy of coincidences”.

Inside Floyd. XII Baltic Triennial of International Art

Robertas: So... This is coming up... [inflates a huge green balloon]. The piece Inside Floyd has signs of being a possible/hypothetical restaurant. And in this restaurant, Fanta is being boiled, so it is Fanta Boiling in the turbulence pool... Well, there is also a strange story about the inventing of Fanta, which happened in the 1940s, during WW2 when the Germans had nationalized the Coca Cola factories... But they had nothing with which to produce Coke, and they had to come up with some kind of cool drink, so they produced what we know now as Fanta. One of the officers went up to the group of marketing people and said, “Hey, use your fantasy to come up with a name”. And they responded, “Okay, let’s call it Fanta”. This is TNRLRNT, a version of a virtual reality solution. TNRLRNT is a myriad, a spinning fractal inspired by Concrete poetry. And the other piece, this chained inflating mattress, is Quest for Comfort, which comes up four times an hour…

All these works are a kind of physical manifestation of the ephemeral practice that I call “the management of circumstances”. It started some years ago, initiated like a self-improvement program – an experiment on determinism that I called, for myself, The 12 and a Half Chance program; it was a sequence of events that happened throughout the year. Basically, I started to question how I make decisions... It is a management of circumstances in the economy of coincidences.

Is this a kind of a mantra for your practice?

Yes, yes, but I'd rather not stick to it; I am now brave enough to say that I am an artist. It also takes some kind of courage, but I question how the role of an artist can be defined. So, this management of circumstances, or this 12 and a Half Chance project, brought me to a totally different direction and way of dealing. For example, I was opening a shoe store in Helsinki, Chance Nr. 5, which was part of 12 and a Half Chance. Then I opened the Institute of Pataphysics, which was founded in a similar way.

Does the Institute of Pataphysics serve as a framework for your work?

It is hard to call it a framework; not really – it has a complicated relationship with pataphysics in general. The Institute itself is kind of an enfant terrible in terms of pataphysical institutions. There is a huge tradition of pataphysics in terms of the way that it is approached. And sometimes, I see it also as a kind of celebration of this past, of this heritage. There are a lot of museum traditions that sometimes make it into some kind of a fetishization of the absurd.

How do you understand pataphysics?

I dropped that. We started with philosophical research and searched for ways of how to re-approach pataphysics, or even how to define our relationship with it. There is a certain problem with pataphysics - people who know a bit about it sometimes already have a precise imagination of what it is, and then they start to identify you with it. No, I am not a pataphysicist in the traditional sense. I find it, rather, as being a kind of lubricant for legitimizing certain activities that I do. Now I am in a silent pataphysics mode – not really trying to make any conclusions, rather, just developing projects. TNRLRNT and all these objects... they are also related to and derived from these ideas. And this is where pataphysics steps in, in a sense.

This virtual reality version was developed in the context of a program called Visionary; it's an artist placement program. The Institute subsidizes artists who work in high tech companies, but not exclusively. We started working with Gluk Media, a company that develops virtual reality solutions, and this is one of the solutions – a demo version that happened during that collaboration. In the Visionary program, artists come to work with an open assignment. There is no obligation to do anything; they can just make a kind of audit of creative processes. And in a way, it is also orientated towards the development of a new product, one that could also be a hypothetical product. It is also a way for the artist to learn things, or for the company to find something new. In the Visionary program we are also planning to create a network of artists who work in similar ways; we have one artist working at a virtual reality company, another one working in genetics, and then we will create a kind of club that will be, possibly, a way in which to crystallize new ways of thinking about many things. And perhaps we will make some kind of an environment... maybe one for new products, maybe not; maybe something else.

What is your intention in working with companies or in developing products? What is the product that you are after?

I have no destination; we are just creating problems and then we create solutions. The Visionary program started with the Institute of Pataphysics, and in a way, it goes against the notion of pataphysics as being something useless. We are, in a sense, commercializing pataphysics, which is totally against pataphysics; but it is not as if we are actually commercializing it.

Inside Floyd. XII Baltic Triennial of International Art

Are you trying to elevate the pataphysical principle of coincidence to the next level? Towards more paradoxical ways of expressing it in the arts?

I stopped worrying about that, about contextualizing it. At first, I was trying to find a way to define my work, and to actually defend myself against pataphysics. I don’t care anymore; it can be pataphysics, or anything. I am not fetishizing the coincidence. It is just one of many factors... Now I am more aware of what I want to do in my work, and what is actually possible. And every time I try not to desperately program the process of creation, it works out. I’m not striving to achieve anything; it is instead a process of happening. In addition, these pieces happened instead. It is a process, a series of controlled coincidences.

Pataphysics and the management of coincidences might remind one of a certain kind of meaninglessness or randomness that, in the end, would mean that “anything goes”. Do you think that “anything goes”? Or where else could the trick be?

No, I am not interested only in chance... There is a certain precision. These pieces are, perhaps, coincidences... However, I am not working with coincidences; it is just one process of things happening.

Is it all some kind of a joke?

No; I don’t know. It is fun, perhaps.

Is pataphysics a way to escape some kind of institutionalization of the arts, of creativity, of the mind? What is your motivation?

No. I am heavily institutionalized at the moment. I am just curious. I am not against institutions. I had all these practices, 12 and a Half Chances, for example, which was totally happening (in as much as it was possible); I did not care about institutions or anything. Things were happening anyway. And then, at a certain moment, I became interested in how to proceed in exhibition spaces. I was after the solutions that would show me how to speak about these things without telling stories. All of these objects are telling something, but without a strict narrative. That is how this ended up being in institutions. It is normal; there is nothing wrong, everyone is doing their job.

How important is freedom in your creative practice?

I just do what I want to do. That is freedom, the formula of freedom. I don’t do things that I don’t want to do. I don’t question. Art can function in many ways. For me, art is a way of experimenting with reality, or dealing with reality without boundaries. In science you have physical laws, etc., but in art you just move forward – you can create your own laws, more radical inventions. In this way, freedom is there, at the core.

However, in some sense, I think that the term creativity has itself become a ridiculous slogan. “Be creative” – what does that mean? In a way, it has been fetishized. “Be creative”... Which company’s slogan is that?

Art is always a kind of lifestyle... Done by one who is capable of risking to live through what they are up to doing. In that sense, it is important to live in different modes, and to show that there are many possible different ways of being. However, it is not about erasing what is life and what is art; no. I am conscious about it, and I am also surprised of how I live, everyday. I am just trying to be surprised.

I your life a manifestation of the ideas behind your works?

It goes both ways. It is, instead, an interaction. When I create problems, I have to find solutions for these problems, and then suddenly, these reasons for action become real... In a way, I am developing multiple directions simultaneously. There is no finished work or something like that; all of these things are kind of like progressing series.

Do you feel the urge to explain your works?

These works, in a way, are supposed to function without my presence. But I am also glad to talk about them. I see the artist’s role in a broader sense – as an agent who has certain functions in a society. In a way, artists are these mediators capable of “should be” or “could be”... No artist is obliged to do anything. But it is possible to promote certain ideas that deal with progress. I mean, it is an old idea; it is an avant-garde idea in which the artist is actually in the avant-garde of culture, creating fantasies of the future. A scientist then tries out the ideas, and an industrialist proceeds by applying these ideas into broader use.

Fanta Boiling. XII Baltic Triennial of International Art

Can everyone be an artist today?

What is an artist... I don’t know what an artist is. The art of doing something?... No, it's a totally different thing. We are reaching some of the boundaries of the current dominating logic. And where else, other than in art, would you wold look for a prognosis of the future?

Where is reality born?

Just in front of us. But we have to be more conscious about the imaginary solutions that we are actually counting on, and which regulate the ways we live. There is a lot of fear in every step, and people think that they are risking something by doing something or dropping their ideas or changing their minds. But reality is much more of a game, and it is worth it to ask – “What's the worst that can happen?” What's the worst that can happen?

I hear an urging to challenge some laws.

Yes, the law is nothing more than a common agreement. The political system, in a sense, is not up to beat, and I think we are approaching a certain shift in understanding... The law is an imaginary solution, a Western invention of ways to do our living. It is just a set of rules for a certain game.

Are the laws coincidental?

Laws define how we behave, and there can be other ways. If you could mix pataphysics and the law… New laws are still being invented. Every day you have to invent a new law for how to deal with something, and the question is, where is the limit of justification?

Performance work DVD (2013–2014), also known as ‘the flying belly piece’

Are you a rebel?

A rebel? Well, not exactly a rebel.. What is a rebel? I am not rebelling; I am actually totally living in the “now”. And I am acting, applying... I don’t like to use the term “neo-liberal logic”, but I am, again, not certain about anything. I can have, or form, very opposite political orientations and opinions.

To what extent can curators influence your work?

Hardly at all. There is always a solution, and there is always a work that is here and now. I am glad that sometimes it resonates with issues that curators find interesting. But it is not as if I work in order to realize the curators' view, per se. Curators are interesting characters. For me, a curator is a producer. As a producer, you have a certain idea of the overall image of actual ideas. If a curator is able to articulate what is important today, and formulate the questions, that is great. A curator creates opportunities.

Do you feel the need to be socially active, or politically responsible?

I am not an activist at all, but I believe that artists are able to convince others about something, to negotiate opinions, and to show the point of actual problems – their relationship to society, and what is important and what is not. I don’t think an artist is supposed to be anything. You don’t go up to a stone and say, “Hey, why aren't you something different”? An artist is not obliged to be anything. But artists – as personalities or characters with a higher level of empathy, or having a certain understanding of the world – they sometimes have political opinions. And the other question is: Are they supposed to manifest these positions? And it is always a question of form as well, in the way that it is executed. Sometimes activism gets stuck somewhere within itself, and without an actual outcome; it is just a kind of noise. But, this is only a style that I can question.

The Race 

Do you think artist should be sincere?

I have thought about sincerity a lot, and not about a lack of sincerity. I am interested in forms of sincerity, and sincerity as a chemical process, or the sincerity of “what is it?”. Sincerity is deep shit; it is not easy to reach it. It is always behind layers of something else.

Your musical, The Race, however ironic and sharp, is a statement that touches upon aspects of capitalist reality and over-protective political issues.

The Race is a piece from the experimental engineering camp, and it was actually created while being very sincerely integrated in the local milieu; and all of the infrastructure of the camp also worked towards it, thanks to the very supportive attitude of the local people. And all of these relationships cannot be built without sincere intentions. But generally, I don’t think I am concerned about my being sincere. It is, instead, maybe about longing to be sincere. Maybe there is also some kind of a melancholy, a sadness... But I am also celebrating it, and in that way, it also becomes very ironic.

Is it all some kind of a joke?

Of course it is [laughs].