“eeKūlgrinda: a free-fall through sky, swamps, and multiple realities”
An annual experimental engineering camp that takes place in the rural Lithuanian town of Kartena
Weronika Trojańska 22/09/2016
Photo: Weronika Trojańska
Driving down the A11 highway through Palanga County, six kilometers east of the Lithuanian rural town of Kartena, on the southern side of the road an aerodrome airfield suddenly looms into view. Surrounded by the forest from all sides, this run-down airport is best remembered through the glorious history of post-war aviation. Built during the Cold War by the Soviet Air Force, it was primarily an emergency wartime airfield. It featured a 2500 m airstrip with two large aircraft parking lots – the western and eastern parking areas. On the north side of the highway, about 700 m south of the eastern parking lot, two hangars were built. The smaller of the two, the wooden one, was (and still is) used by DOSAAF gliders and light motorized aircraft. In Soviet times, when aeronautic sports were generously supported (as they were considered an important part of the so-called “space race”), the club had a membership of 150 active pilots. For many of them, the desire to soar into the skies gave them the illusion of freedom.
This setting of a not-yet-abandoned airport and swampy secret waterways became both a frame of mind and a location for “eeKūlgrinda” – an annual “experimental engineering camp”. “It is similar in vibe to a spaceship, a zeppelin that supposedly legitimatizes activities outside of the common discourse,” says Lithuanian artist Robertas Narkus, the originator and operator – the man behind the idea – of “eeK”.
The camp’s name was inspired by the peculiar underwater stony roads found in the proximity of the camp, a bit further off of the A11 highway, between two lakes – Lukstas and Parsezeris. Kūlgrindas (from the LithuanianSamogitian word kūlis, meaning “stone”, and grinda – “pavement”; and grįsti, meaning “to rake, pull together”) are undetectable from the surface, and were usually only known by the locals. These tracks, now an attraction for tourists and history lovers, used to provide safe shortcuts between villages, hill-forts, and other defensive structures. Wading through the swampy and stony surfaces which have carried loads for many centuries is quite the exceptional experience, and a difficult one to predict.
As one can read on its website, “eeKūlgrinda” invites people to engage with the rural environment and technology. “Experimental engineering is engineering beyond functionality, manifesting as thinking in practice; it is engineering that, through the merging of art, philosophy and technology, seeks to invent new forms of expression”. However, everything I had ever heard about “eeKūlgrinda” falls outside of colloquially known categories. “That’s because there are different perspectives to it. Now, looking back, it was a big mix,” described one of the participants. “EeKūlgrinda” is “at least as much a production space with non-explicit agency, as it is a survival camp”; it is a “free-form creative gathering of young artists with no particular goal in mind, but it has a creative and warm atmosphere”, added others. It’s a “survival game” in which artists and practitioners are provided with super-fast Wi-Fi, a latte macchiato coffee machine, and other geeky gadgets. It “operates as a residency program oriented in the development of a particular project,” and it is an “open retreat site, free from any obligations”.
The swampy surroundings of Kartena became, for two unluckily and horribly rainy weeks of August, a working habitat for practitioners from different creative fields: artists, programmers, philosophers, writers, intellectuals, and hackers. All with impressive stories to tell. “Since the weather wasn’t exactly on our side, a lot of work happened in the airplane hangar,” related Lukas Heistinger, a young artist from Austria. “I had never thought much about aviation, but the pilots sharing the space with us made a huge impression on me,” he adds. Heistinger also told me the story behind the faces of the pilots that decorated the 10 Lithuanian litas banknote, before the Euro was introduced. In 1933, these two pilots attempted to set the record for a non-stop flight from New York City to Kaunas, in a Bellanca CH-300 Pacemaker airplane named “Lituanica”. After successfully crossing the Atlantic Ocean, they crashed near Soldin, in Germany, only 636 km short of their final destination. Most likely, the catastrophe came about due to bad weather conditions and engine problems, which then probably led to an emergency landing. However, there’s a conspiracy theory that the Lituanica was mistaken for a spy plane and shot down because it had flown too close to a concentration camp. Not all parts of the plane were returned to the Lithuanian government.
“The basic idea was to create the first part of a virtual reality project about death”, is how Heistinger describes his initial project, “and the simulation of dying and the afterlife, set up as a multi-level game machine for mobile phones”. During his stay at “eeK”, Heistinger focused on testing different technologies necessary for realizing this project, together with other artists who were there. These first test levels were filmed, and then later installed on VR glasses inside the old airplane hangar and in the surrounding forest. “When Robertas and I first went into the forest behind the airport to figure out where to set up the installation that I wanted to realize, we took along the VR glasses – just to take some photos. Obviously, the glasses weren’t connected to anything. Feeling hilariously silly about standing in the forest and posing for photos with VR glasses on, we suddenly realized that this is the perfect example of a pataphysical experiment, and it became a piece in itself.”
After all, it’s probably not just mere coincidence that all of the stories, relationships and projects related to “eeKūlgrinda” that I had a chance to learn about, remind me of the plot of a Spy-Fi movie. Both include futuristic weapons, gadgets and vehicles, and both emphasize high-tech equipment mixed with the glamour and adventure of fictionalized spy craft. Which, in the case of the “experimental engineering camp”, took the symbolically physical form of a disused inflatable advertising balloon which was just spread out on the grass, and upon which participants organized discussions and projections. “Even if it looked like a party, everyone did their part to contribute to the whole bubble of eeKūlgrinda,” says Valdemaras Manomaitis, one of the contributing artists.
“EeK begins as an accident, an anomaly in a forgotten periphery that literally fulfills the scenario of a sci-fi novel,” says Narkus. “It was never really clear who was there to participate and produce, and who was the audience. The roles kept swiftly changing,” recalls Heistinger. The contributions made during the stay in the province of Kartena represent something different than what we understood as virtual reality – almost as if it had been split in two. Projects varied from flying drones chasing people through swamps, to an augmented reality airport created next to the aerodrome that could be seen in a smartphone app, to 3D renderings, videos shot with 360cam, and even attempts at bioengineeringexperiments involving the growing of tobacco plants exposed to ultraviolet light. Some of the participants were sculpted by Manomaitis who, using a single DSLR camera, later transformed the images into 3D models. This medium is called photogrammetry, and it is a close and intimate one, especially when working with a human portrait. “It requires a lot of soft light, and a camera with specific features, which we did not have at all at that time. So the models came out noisy, looking like sculptures of eroded stone,” explained the artist. “I liked the aesthetic of that, and for now, I like to think of them as digital color paintings on the gray canvas of the software”.
Without any formal directions or the structure of an artistic residency program, or, for that matter, a specific project to be realized, “eeKūlgrinda” appears, at least to me, as a hybrid – an environment for generating new thoughts and realizing unexpected ideas through collaboration and mutual support. It’s a “weird free-fall through sky, swamps, and multiple realities. EeKūlgrinda assembles all of the worst possible clichés in terms of communal trans-disciplinary gathering practices, and juices them together into some kind of surrogate that participants consume and metabolize together – in order to sober up somewhere else”, describes Robertas Narkus.
“All together, it is a perfect place for a great boost of creative energy, as well as for gathering ideas and connections for the upcoming cold season”...“Not much to say, really. It’s just been great, and in words…I don’t know how to describe it...” concluded some of the other participating artists.