Kaunas Biennial Celebrates Its 10th Edition

Q&A with the artistic director of the Kaunas Biennial - Dr. Virginija Vitkienė


The Kaunas Biennial, the biggest contemporary art festival in the Baltic States, starts its 10th edition on the 18th of September with the exhibition “Threads: Fantasmagoria About Distance”. Curated by the well-known art theorist and curator Nicolas Bourriaud, it will present works by such artists as Liam Gillick (USA), Walead Beshty (UK), Saadane Afif (FR/DE), Roberto Cabot (BR), Pakui Hardware (Neringa Černiauskaitė and Ugniaus Gelguda, LT/USA), Lothar Hempel (DE), Julijonas Urbonas (LT), Katja Novitskova (EE), Arnas Anskaitis (LT), Carsten Höller (SE), Bronė Sofija Gideikaitė (LT), Amalia Ulman (AR/UK/ESP), Katie Paterson (UK), Attila Csorgo (HU), Kelley Walker (USA) and Darius Žiūra (LT).

For this celebratory season, the organisers of the Biennial chose to focus on the topic of contemporary communication, and have therefore directed the programme towards the provocation of live encounters and networking. This year the festival will present over 80 contemporary artists from the world round, and it will focus on collaborations between visual and sound artists. The programme of the festival will spread out to the main galleries, as well as into public and industrial spaces. For more about the Biennial’s programme, see:

This is the 10th anniversary of the Kaunas Biennial. How has the biennial changed since its 1st edition?

The anniversary programme was given a lot of thought – we discussed the structure and the relationship with the event’s past and future. The first biennial was organised in Kaunas in 1997, on the private initiative of several artists. Its subsequent development, challenges, successes and uncertainties had a meaning and a reason. As an event of contemporary art, the Biennial is consistently expanding the courses of its activities towards the exploration of sociability and local context. It is creating a vision of a city open to culture, encourages initiatives of young artists and increases the visibility of their practices, aims to inoculate habits and demands of consumption of culture through the creation and implementation of educational programs for children and adolescents. The first editions of the biennial (1997 – 2003) were implemented only because of strong enthusiasm and volunteering, and almost without any sort of a budget. Artists used to send their portfolios (which were selected by Lithuanian art critics) and participated in the biennial with their own financial resources. Everybody who visited the biennial felt its energy and potential to become one of the most significant contemporary textile events in Europe. In 2005 and 2007, curatorial exhibitions were added to the programme, and the board of the biennial decided to change the title and direction of the event – it became open to all forms of visual arts and interdisciplinary projects. Though it still has some links to textiles because of the city's legacy and the event's history, now it is unquestionably a true contemporary art festival.  

Lothar Hempel. ACID AND IRON, 2011. Images are courtesy of the artist and Anton Kern Gallery, New York. © Lothar Hempel

The Biennial’s central exhibition, “Threads: Fantasmagoria about Distance”, has been curated by Nicolas Bourriaud. What should everybody know about him and his approach to curating?

Nicolas Bourriaud is one of the most unique curators and theorists in the world. He has been acting in the field of art as an observer and an analyst. Artworks raise a lot of questions for him, and he keeps looking for answers by choosing several pieces from the entirety of images and assembling them into a new mosaic of an exhibition. Nicolas Bourriaud often states that when he has questions – he curates an exhibition; when he has answers – he writes a book. When somebody asked him whether an exhibition gives him those answers, his response was – “never”. His analytical approach is the engine of curating; he does not imply any conditions to the artists. He cooperates with them during the whole process instead. “I would compare an exhibition to an opera, in which the curator writes the libretto and the music is provided by the artists”, – he says. According to N. Bourriaud, the curator should not dominate in any exhibition. A certain balance must be maintained. “Only artists contextualise and visualise ideas. It is they, and not the curator, who make art,” – says N. Bourriaud.

Luminoacoustics (Bojan Gagić ir Miodrag Gladović, Croatia). LIGHTUNE.G. Presented by LAB852

And in terms of this exhibition in Kaunas – what was Bourriaud’s idea behind “Threads: Fantasmagoria about Distance”?

The curator took the opportunity to create a relatively small display in Kaunas, one that can be mentally covered in a few hours. By concentrating the works in a single venue thick with stories of communication – and disruptions thereof – Bourriaud builds his own phantasmagoria. The term has been borrowed from the 17th-century phenomenon describing theatrical shows presented in mysterious environments and based on projected images, as well as from manipulations of scientific discoveries and human imagination in order to maximise the audience's emotions. Similarly, according to the curator, contemporary artists combining invention with social reality, and illusion with fact, are very similar to the phantasmagorists of the past.

According to the curator, “the exhibition strives both to approach the form of fantasmagoria and address the way today’s artists include the notion of distance in their works. In a globalized and digitalized world, how does art deal with transportation, with real time communication? What is the current shape of presence/absence dialectics? How do artists present absent realities?”

Attila Csorgo. CLOCK – WORK, 2011-2015

What are the answers to these questions posed by the artists?

We will have the answers shortly, once the exhibition opens. I could mention some of the strategies: erasing distance; leveling; a combination of catastrophe and beauty; the smell of the Solar system and clocks; showing the time of its planets; online broadcasts from different corners of the world; and instructions on showing the work when the artist is not present.

The exhibition will present works by well-known artists such as Liam Gillick. What we can expect to see in his presentation?

One of the strategies I have just mentioned, but let’s keep it  a secret for a while.

FRIENDLY ZONE #6. CABBAGE FIELD. A site specific land reclamation project led by Vita Gelūnienė and Ed Carroll 

The exhibition will occupy five floors of the Kaunas Central Post Office building. Could you tell us more about this venue, and the way in which the exhibition will use its layout?

The building of the Kaunas Central Post Office (which has been standing empty for the past few years  – how symbolic in the aspect of change/rupture!) will host the main exhibition. The Central Post Office, one of the most beautiful and iconic pearls of modernist architecture in Kaunas, seems to have found a mystical channel through which to beckon a powerful exhibition exploring such a topic. The place relates to distances not only through the trajectories of sent letters, but also through the manipulative aspect of phantasmagorias – during the Soviet regime, the top floors of the building were occupied by a radio interference laboratory, a place which controlled communication and the only spot in the city where one could make a phone call that would get through the Iron Curtain.

The exhibition “Threads: Fantasmagoria about Distance”, even without the context of the Kaunas Biennial, describes constant online communication. One message covers the next, and layers of thousands of texts are created. Similarly, the architecture of the post office will be used in the sense that visitors will wander throughout the floors, finding these notional threads as they go.    

Could you tell us more about Lewben Art Foundation’s exhibition, “Networked Encounters Offline”? How does it resonates with the Biennale’s main focus?

The exhibition “Networked Encounters Offline” – from our the partner, the Lewben Art Foundation, and curated by Francesca Ferrarini – explores the [im]possibility of post-internet (offline) communication. The foundation presents the works of prominent artists – Cheng, Gabriele De Santis, Nick Darmstaedter, Mohammed Namou, Deimantas Narkevičius and Simon Denny – and enters into an excellent discussion with the theme of the Biennial. Their collection fully complements the main concept of the Biennial “Networked” – offline communication. One of the artworks from the foundation’s collection will be shown at the main exhibition as well.

Katja Novitskova, Pattern of Activation (on Mars), 2014

What are three other program highlights that you would recommend everyone see?

This year the programme of the Kaunas Biennial will be reinforced by the community art project “Friendly Zone #6: Cabbage Field”, which has been defined by its leaders, Vita Gelūnienė and Ed Carrol, as a site-specific land reclamation project. The artists have deeply rooted themselves into a post-industrial neighbourhood of Kaunas where they engage in archaeology – they literally dig into the soil of decrepit former sauerkraut warehouses within the territory of abandoned military barracks, and rally the local residents to help them build a community centre in this desolate and run-down plot of land. Such an artistic practice does not follow the usually solemn “artist-artwork-viewer” chain of relationships, but rather stands for the idea that our culture is made by us and our environment. The initiatives of the Šančiai community have been coherently complemented by another newly-discovered space – the former “Drobė” factory in the same neighbourhood. Incredible spaces open up opportunities for both interior and exterior interventions. Here the members of the Konsortium group – Lars Breuer, Sebastian Freytag and Guido Münch (Germany) – create site-specific projects of space transformation; they will paint the façades in the old factory's territory. 

The performance “Hairy Hairy Mouth”, coproduced by the “Psilicone Theatre” (Auksė Petrulienė, Darius Petrulis) and the CHUI music trio (Toni Starešinić, Vojkan Jocić, Janko Novoselić / Croatia) will definitely be an intriguing show for lovers of performance and live music; it will also be an opportunity to travel in time – this we can promise.