I met with Gediminas Urbonas on a chilly, autumn day in the comfort of his MIT corner office. Although born and trained in Lithuania, the artist is now an associate professor in the Art, Culture and Technology program. Our meeting was informative, as he provided me with much of the background story behind his path from his early days working together with Dziugas Katinas in the artistic group Zalias Lapas, to his later venture in self-organization with an artist-run center called Jutempus, to his eventual co-founding of Urbonas Studio, together with his wife Nomeda, which is engaged in interdisciplinary research and artistic projects.
At the age of 11, Gediminas began studying at the Ciurlionas Art School, an elite school where students are trained in music, dance and painting. The artist commented that before you could specialize, you had to be trained in every aspect of art taught at the school. So his artistic training was multi-disciplinary to begin with. While still students, together with Dziugas Katinas, along with other artists who participated, he co-founded Zalias Lapas, or Green Leaf, which the artist described as a “residency” – meaning that it was a time that the artists experimented with different media and ideas, and learned as they went along. As he described it, they would start with an idea, for example, “let’s make fire music,” and then they would go about figuring out how to do it, finding what they needed, and essentially make it happen. The group was in fact given their name by journalists, who identified an environmental element to their projects. Admittedly, the group formed in the period immediately following the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster, when the environment was a great concern, especially in the Soviet Union. Gediminas confirmed what Dziugas had also told me – that this was a time, during this transition period in Lithuanian history, when anything was possible. For their first huge public performance, The Way, in 1990, they staged a massive spectacle in the center of Vilnius, and were able to do so simply because they had the support of one person who let them do it. According to Gediminas, they asked for what they needed and were given it, regardless of how strange it might have seemed at the time.
In terms of artistic influences, Gediminas told me that there was a range of ways that they gained access to information. The library of the Art Academy, for example, had a subscription to Art in America, and if you were clever, you could talk your way into the room where it was kept. The father of Raminta Jurenaite, an art historian and instructor at the Academy, was a prominent communist party member, and consequently, Raminta was able to travel abroad. She brought back books on contemporary art, about Fluxus or the Viennese Actionists, for example. Also, Dziugas’s father was friends with a musician who happened to be friends with Ilya Kabakov, so there was a connection with Russian nonconformist artists as well.
After Lithuania became independent, the artists started to think about how they could survive and sustain their practice under the new capitalist system. They realized that they would have to support themselves, and self-organize. For them, this gave them the opportunity to have complete freedom, as opposed to being controlled by the government-administered art system in the Soviet Union. The artists had the opportunity to use the former Culture House of Railway Workers as their residence, and it was then that they established Jutempus, an artist-run platform for experimental art, in 1992. Later, in 1994, they registered Jutempus as an NGO. For a while, Jutempus, the Contemporary Art Center and the Soros Center for Contemporary Art were operating as more or less equals on the contemporary art scene in Lithuania, thus their artist-run initiative was in fact quite successful.
Later, Gediminas began working with his wife, Nomeda Urbonas, and the two operate as an artistic team under the heading of Urbonas Studio. One of their first projects was Ruta Remake, a research-based project in which they examined the roles of women in the Soviet Union through the mass media. Conducting interviews with women intellectuals, they created an archive or database of their voices, which the viewer then interacts with and is then able to use to create their own arrangement of sounds and voices. Their project examines the construction of women as “victim” in Soviet society, and prefigures women’s or gender studies in Lithuania. As the artists maintained, their knowledge and conclusions were drawn from practice, not theory.
One of their more recent projects took place in Turku, Finland, in response to a call for site-specific projects for the Turku archipelago. In recent years, owing to the demilitarization of the area following the Cold War, the micro-climate of the island began to change. With fewer people on the islands there were fewer mouths to feed. With fewer sheep to graze, even the underwater plant life was affected. So Gediminas and Nomeda sought to utilize existing structures on the island to revitalize it. Part of the plan was to invite soldiers back to the island to become shepherds. And then, with the milk from the sheep they would make cheese in the former bunkers, which were the perfect temperature for ripening cheese. The project was called Uto-pia and it is an example of one of their social and environmental projects that utilizes existing structures to expand and enhance what is already there from within.
Both Gediminas and Nomeda played an important role in the development of contemporary art and theory in Lithuania. It not surprising that their practice not only successfully navigated, but bridged a gap between East and West, which is how the artists now – based in Boston but returning home to Lithuania now and then – exists themselves.