A Washing Machine of Fragmented Remembrances


Rosana Lukauskaitė

An interview with world-renowned artist Liam Gillick on the occasion of his performance with Anton Vidokle for the Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art

This week, on 23 July, the main programme of the Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art as part of the Vilnius 700th Anniversary celebrations kicks off with a series of performances by some of the world’s leading contemporary artists. One of the highlights of the first Vilnius Biennial programme is the premiere of the performance A Guiding Light Part 2 by acclaimed artists Liam Gillick and Anton Vidokle, an artist with Lithuanian roots, film director and founder of e-flux magazine.

The Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art takes place between 23 July and 6 August, with Gillick and Vidokle’s performance premiering in one of the more unusual contexts of the Biennial – the turntable of the Lithuanian Railways train repair depot (Švitrigailos st. 39, Vilnius). The artists’ performance, A Guiding Light Part 2 will be shown just once, on Monday 24 July at 8:30 pm Admission is free and open to all. Be sure not to miss it.

In anticipation of the premiere of the two artists’ exceptional performance, we talked to Liam about the confluence of the Lithuanian roots of his co-creator, Anton, complex identities, cultural reflections, and the transformative power of memory, which is the basis for their collaboration and for their upcoming performance at the Biennial.

Liam Gillick and Anton Vidokle. A Guiding Light, 2010 DV video converted to HD. From the personal archive of the artist

Rosana Lukauskaitė: Your connection to Lithuania, while perhaps more indirect, is through your collaborator Anton Vidokle, whose ancestors are from this country. Could you delve deeper into this connection and its impact on your newest piece? How have Vidokle’s Lithuanian roots influenced your shared project or your understanding of Lithuanian culture and history?

Liam Gillick: The re-emergence of Lithuania as an independent country, which occurred when I was in my mid-twenties, was an exciting time and drove me to learn more about different cultures. The events of the early 1990s influenced both our work but came from different directions. Anton was born in Russia and moved to America in his early teenage years. I was born near London and moved to the US in the 90s. Our numerous discussions have always returned to the enormous changes and revolutions that occurred in Eastern Europe. As a young artist, I was enthralled by these changes. As soon as possible I did exhibitions in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia, believing that this was the dawn of a new cultural era. However, Western Europeans seemed to maintain a certain mental border. I recall having a solo exhibition in Łódź, Poland in the mid-90s, expecting my German colleagues to attend due to the proximity, but none did.

Anton and I have always deeply discussed topics like nationalism, citizenship, and the dichotomy between independence and nationalism. Anton’s background is a mix of Lithuanian, and Ukrainian heritage, a common combination in areas dominated by a particular culture. He also has Jewish roots whereas my family fought out the old battles between Protestant and Catholic. Our conversations often veer towards the melancholy, acknowledging the hardships endured by many. Anton maintains networks of connections with the critical discourse in many regions, while I follow the works of Lithuanian artists, and am always intrigued by their perspectives. I probably still approach the conversation from a British standpoint, striving to understand the changes, while Anton contributes the perspective of someone who grew up in the Soviet Union. Our discussions, ongoing and far from concluded, revolve around the continued potential for cultural growth, development, and reframing.

Farbe ist Programm, Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn, 2022, Photo: Simon Vogel

RL: Your answer reminds me of one line by American poet T. S. Eliot: ‘Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch’ (I am not Russian at all; I come from Lithuania, I am a real German.) It’s as if this interesting mixture of identities has always been very common in this region.

LG: I’ve always been drawn to people with multifaceted backgrounds. Established Western European nations, barring a few, are relatively new in terms of political structure, like Germany and Italy. Being of Irish and Scottish descent but raised in England, I’ve experienced this duality firsthand. Many of my colleagues share this aspect of complex identities: Philippe Parreno, born in Algeria yet French, Rirkrit Tiravanija, a Thai artist born in Argentina, and Jorge Pardo, Cuban by birth but raised in Chicago. And Anton of course. We try to navigate the ambiguous space between identities. No one ‘owns’ a country. Dangerous contemporary debates stem from questions about who belongs, who is excluded and who is the rightful owner of an imagined cultural heritage. Anton and I constantly delve into these issues, discussing where we stand and what our positions are. We recognise that the world still grapples with the legacy of colonialism, imperialism, and dominant forces shaping our present situation. Both Anton and I, in part due to our age, probably would be identified as internationalist European socialists, believing in a Pan-European camaraderie. However, we acknowledge this is a vulnerable and often failed pursuit as empires repeatedly restructure themselves. A big issue is political corruption. Political complexities and fragmentation are challenging for older generations who grew up believing in the dream of a unifying progressive consensus. This belief is increasingly difficult to maintain as it guarantees nothing. The ideal is that artists should remain outside all systems. While not guaranteed, the artist’s role in society is potentially distinct, neither assuring change nor inertia, but often serving to highlight or amplify issues. But is that enough?

As an artist, every invitation or context you choose to involve yourself in requires careful thought about its implications. The Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art is special due to its potential for encountering new people and perspectives. It exemplifies the shifting and evolving nature of the art world, which is not an enclosed bubble, but a porous entity, constantly changing and subject to new influences. This ongoing dynamism, which alters people’s perceptions of us too, of course, is a positive aspect of our times. Art can be elusive, subtly highlighting overlooked aspects and includes people who find the art context productive but engage in discourse and theory rather than producing traditional works. This ability to shift, appear, and point to unseen things is a crucial aspect of being an artist for me.

Liam Gillick. Filtered Time 2023, Pergamonmuseum, Berlin. From the personal archive of the artist

RL: Given your rich background in criticism and writing, how would you say these experiences have shaped your approach to your artistic practice? As a critic, how do you negotiate the interplay between self-criticism and creativity when it comes to your own productions?

LG: Balancing writing and making physical artworks can be challenging, as both processes stimulate different areas of the brain. Creating art requires a blend of intuition and intelligence, while writing, for me, is a more natural process tied to speech. Since I’m left-handed, the transition to typing was a breakthrough for me, liberating my thoughts. Currently, I am struggling with this balance. Usually, having a context, such as a specific event or place, aids my creative process, like in the case of the Lithuanian project. Writing, however, can be less defined. I often don’t fully realise my thoughts until they emerge through my writing. Therefore, these two processes differ significantly and continually stimulate an internal dialogue.

Location of A Guiding Light Part 2. Photo: Andrej Vasilenko

RL: Your body of work consistently demonstrates a thoughtful critique of systems, whether they be societal, architectural, or related to the art world itself. As you prepare for your upcoming performance at the Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art, how does this foundational perspective shape your approach to A Guiding Light Part 2? Do you intend to challenge, deconstruct, or reimagine any particular systems through this piece?

LG: The project we’re undertaking is, in a sense, a memory machine. Our intent is not to provide a traditional documentary account of time but to stimulate the brain to recall past songs and moments. Unlike the commemorative films about significant events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, our work will not follow a predictable trajectory with clear outcomes. The success of the performance isn’t guaranteed and you won’t hear all of it clearly; just like in real-life events. Our goal is to challenge the oversimplification of history, particularly about the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and South America. I believe many historical events were infused with fear, something often ignored in retrospective views. This is where music’s power comes in, it has historically been a rallying point in fearful times, providing a form of resistance and unity, as seen in the American Civil Rights Movement. During an anti-apartheid march in London in 1985, Jesse Jackson encouraged us all to sit on the ground and sing together, it was a simple act of resistance that kept the police away for a while. This powerful unity was simultaneously imbued with fear, creating a confusing dynamic of strength and vulnerability. Our project utilises the railway as a symbol of industrialisation, labour dignity, communication, and empire. As a physical structure, it is also a touch frightening, representing the fear of failure or being crushed. Our work’s critical element lies in the combination of these disparate elements, which is characteristic of my work. While Anton focuses more on cinematic and philosophical aspects, I find interest in the juxtaposition of physical structures and critical discourse that don’t entirely align. This disconnect intrigues me, highlighting the disparity between a symbolic physical object and the discourse surrounding it.

Liam Gillick. The hopes and dreams of the workers as they wandered home from the bar, 2005, La Pista 500, Pinacoteca Agnelli, November 2022. Photo: Andrea Guermani

RL: You mentioned the differences between how Anton and you work. Can you share the backstory of your artistic collaboration with Anton Vidokle? What catalysed this unique alliance and how did your shared creative journey commence?

LG: Anton and I first connected through e-flux, a hub for progressive art and discourse that attracted me. We often found ourselves in spirited conversations, discussing our dissatisfaction with certain elements of the art world and our desire to facilitate new conditions for the upcoming generation of hybrid artists. Our partnership solidified in 2006 in Berlin with the United Nations Plaza project, designed as a forum for artists, theorists and anyone else who turned up. During this time, we conceived the idea of a journal to swiftly publish and distribute new ideas within our network, much like historical artists’ forums. Our collaboration has been intermittent, but meaningful. In 2010, we made A Guiding Light, a film which blended reality and fiction to discuss anxieties and uncertainties in the art world. While our paths have diverged slightly with Anton’s growing interest in film, we remain united in our belief in the potential of art. We are both committed to preserving a sense of possibility, encapsulated in our work which often serves as a beacon, reaching outwards and inviting others in. Our collaborations are less about clarity and more about championing the uncertain, often overlooked aspects of creativity.

RL: You have maintained a long-standing professional relationship with Neringa Bumblienė, the artistic director of the Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art. Was this relationship a key factor in your decision, alongside Anton Vidokle, to present your latest piece in Lithuania?

LM: This intellectual exploration is paired with practical collaboration, best shown by my working relationship with Neringa, whom I met in France ten years ago. I like the way she is involved in the integration of theory and action, focusing not just on the discourse surrounding regional and political history, but also on tangible networks and connections. In this project, we are united in the overlap of theoretical speculation and the belief in the necessity of physical action. This doing and theorising form the backbone of the collaborations in Vilnius.

Liam Gillick, Open Cinema, 2012 e-flux, New York. Photo: Adam Curtis

RL: Could you walk us through the initial spark of inspiration and the overarching story behind your upcoming performance A Guiding Light Part 2 which is scheduled to premiere at the Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art?

LG: The first discussions about a work for the Biennial began between Neringa and myself. We quickly involved Anton, who had strong feelings about a project in Vilnius. A few years ago I had proposed a project for Denver, US that involved creating large-scale models of famous Eastern European TV towers. This intrigued Anton, who had already been thinking about the Vilnius TV Tower. We liked the rotating restaurant of the TV tower as a potential setting for a work, but thought of displacing this concept elsewhere so we could control the conditions of production, like a film set. I initially envisioned using a basketball court, which had the perfect dimensions to simulate the tower’s rotating restaurant. We could have an audience watch as things revolved, but we ran into technical difficulties. We ultimately decided on the Vilnius railway turntable, it is a ‘ready-made’ that rotates, analogous to the tower and resonates with cinematic aesthetics. In terms of conceptual depth, both Anton and I share a romantic affinity for music and images. This combined with my Irish background led us to the idea of music that incites or symbolises rebellion. Anton was particularly drawn to the music that marked the transition in Eastern Europe. Songs or music with historical context or symbolism can be incredibly powerful, triggering collective memory and complex feelings. I began compiling a list of songs from my lifetime, each carrying a different ambiguity and connection, from folklore to pop music. However, we didn’t want it to just be a playlist of these songs. We wanted to maintain a genuine connection to their significance.

As a student, I developed an interest in 60s conceptual art, which had lost its prominence in Britain and the US by the 80s. I was particularly inspired by an Ian Murray work in the form of a record as artwork. In The Top Song (1970) the artist tried to play drums along to the opening few seconds of the top 100 songs from the previous ten years. This idea of utilising fragments, not the entire song, influenced my approach. When you start to recognise a tune, it triggers a memory. By leaving enough space between each fragment, it allows the audience to clear their minds, much like tuning a radio. We’ve assembled a band that rotates through these musical fragments, originating from various regions such as Eastern Europe, Ireland, the US, Mexico, and Chile. These are pieces of music that defined our lifetime, but they are never played in their entirety, they exist as fragments. This approach reminds me of my youth when I’d sit in bed tuning a shortwave radio to stations across Eastern Europe, often propaganda. You’d catch fragments of music before moving on to nonsense about industrial production targets or internationalist youth events. In this work, we’re essentially creating a ‘memory machine’, a washing machine of fragmented remembrances. There’s a sense of melancholy to the project because it’s incomplete. It signifies that sentimental ideas of autonomy are complex. Over the last 30 years, some people have turned from progressive advocates for resistance against Soviet control to right-wing nationalists. Each song of liberation or resistance also has a complicated side, potentially linked to violence, religious prejudice, or extreme nationalism. We’re not trying to teach anyone anything, rather, we’re playing fragments through time, like tuning a large radio. We aim to reach out towards these pieces of the past, in all their complexity.

RL: How do you hope the audience will interact with or be affected by A Guiding Light Part 2?

LG: Based on my positive experience from my 2017 show at the CAC in Vilnius, I anticipate the attendees at this event to be receptive. I met many vibrant, intelligent young people there, including artists, writers, and thinkers. However, I have no specific expectations. People don’t need to have any specific reactions or strong feelings; their participation itself is valuable. I view this as an event where everyone is part of the same experience, contributing in their unique way. It is not being performed to people, the attendees are part of an exchange.

United Nations Plaza Building, Berlin with Liam Gillick, unitednationsplaza Logo, 2006

RL: In one of your interviews you said ‘Every day I want to decide if I want to be an artist again […] Every day I come to a clean table and I think about what kind of artist do I want to be today. That is not a creative thing, it’s a kind of melancholy, it’s a kind of nihilism. There’s a lot of defeatism in art. Art is more for me about delusion and distraction than it is about creativity or inspiration.’ Could you elaborate more on how this perspective influences your daily approach to your work and the eventual manifestation of your pieces?

LG: The statement I made about art isn’t universal, but I believe it holds more truth than many superficial perspectives. The artist has replaced the 19th-century poet as society’s ideal persona – an outsider, unbuyable, producing simultaneously everything and nothing. This idea has been increasingly claimed by gatekeepers and institutions, boxing art into an ‘ideal condition’. Simultaneously, there’s a growing belief that art uniquely addresses issues like climate change or the migrant crisis. However, historically, art often reflected a chaotic, negative, or incomprehensible perspective, especially after events like World War I and II. In my view, art often originates from a sense of dissatisfaction with reality. This isn’t heroic or macho, but inherent, and even visible in children’s attempts to make things and their intuitive frustration when trying to rearrange the world. While some argue that artists alone can address complex ideas, it’s crucial to recognise that their approach often involves a negative or reactive perspective. For instance, while architects persist in proposing open spaces for exchange, artists are more sensitive to the complexities of subjectivity. This dichotomy might contribute to the romanticised image of artists that has permeated society, even influencing the lifestyles and aesthetic choices of individuals like tech entrepreneurs. This fascination could fade, however, or the aspirational image of the artist could revert back to that of a hopeless poet, bringing us full circle.

The Work Life Effect Structure A, 2021. The Work Life Effect, Gwangju Museum of Art, Gwangju, Korea, 2021, Photo: Duyun Kim

RL: How do you perceive the evolution and trajectory of the performance art genre over the years? As we stand on the cusp of an era where technology and artistry are increasingly intertwined, how do you foresee the future of performance art? How do you imagine the advent of new technologies like AI, virtual reality, and others might influence, challenge, or potentially enhance the landscape of performance art?

LG: I don’t view performance and art as separate entities. In fact, my collaboration with Anton epitomises this intertwinement. Performance has faced its own challenges, like the phase in the 80s marked by repetitive fluxus-inspired performances and endurance tests: people buried under the ground or someone wearing a bow tie, playing a violin with a fish or walking very slowly in the room while shouting and so on – where the code of performance had become a parody. However, performance and media have changed, even becoming central to the programme of the Museum of Modern Art in New York which traditionally focused on painting and sculpture. Today, artists tend not to confine themselves to single disciplines; it’s common to create a painting one day and perform the next. This fluidity, while freeing, does pose a challenge. In the past, performance artists could make bold, anti-establishment claims, like being against objectification, ownership, or capitalism. Today, as boundaries blur, such statements become more challenging, although the scope for innovative performances remains vast. The belief that anything is possible with minimal resources is crucial. My projects with Anton often utilise existing structures, enhancing the unpredictability and spontaneity of an event. Performance art still provides a platform for traditionally marginalised groups, particularly in regions with oppressive regimes. It can be elusive, temporary and impossible to pin down. Therefore, despite its evolution, performance art maintains its political potency and continues to challenge the traditional art world.

Title image: Liam Gillick. Photo from the personal archive of the artist

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