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Kęstutis Kuizinas

“We are not the aliens we used to be”. An interview with Kęstutis Kuizinas 0

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Since the establishment of the Contemporary Art Centre (CAC) in 1992, curator Kęstutis Kuizinas has navigated the interdisciplinary institution to become one of the most visible art organizations in the Baltic region, with 2400 square meters of exhibition space. The historical building, representing soviet modernist architecture, was inaugurated in 1968 as the Art Exhibition Palace and was run as a branch of the Lithuanian Museum of Art until 1988. Since 1992, the CAC has been an independent institution, principally funded by the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture. Located in the heart of Vilnius, the Contemporary Art Centre has been deeply committed to developing a broad range of Lithuanian and international exhibitions, and  hosts approximately six large-scale projects every year. It has also become the home of the Baltic Triennial of International Art, one of the major contemporary festival exhibitions in Northern Europe. But the ambitious institution hasn’t stopped there. In 2001, 2007 and 2011, the Contemporary Art Centre was the commissioning institution of the Lithuanian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale; in 2009 it presented a Frieze Project in London; and in 2012, an environmental art object – “Black Pillow”, by the Lithuanian artists Audrius Bučas and Valdas Ozarinskas – was displayed at the Liverpool Biennial. The first version of the black inflatable artwork was produced in 2010, for the “Formalism” exhibition at the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius, and during the summer of 2012, it filled the entire courtyard of the 19th century Old Brewery in Cēsis, Latvia, the home of the annual Cēsis Art Festival, which has invited Kęstutis Kuizinas to curate an exhibition for this year’s edition. 

Whilst visiting Vilnius, the editorial team of – Anna Iltnere, Elīna Zuzāne and Sergej Timofejev – had the opportunity to sit down with Kęstutis Kuizinas, the director of one of the largest venues for contemporary art in the Baltic States, to discuss his future at the CAC, the responsibilities of running such a significant art space, as well as his plans for the Cēsis Art Festival, which will take place from June 28 until July 20, 2013.

Contemporary Art Centre (CAC), Vilnius

Maybe you can start by telling us what you have planned for Latvia, for the Cēsis Art Festival 2013, this summer?

I have been to the Cēsis Art Festival already three times, but then I gave a much smaller contribution. I was taking part in talks and moderating a discussion, but each time I went there, I had a very good experience. I enjoy the place. It’s a beautiful town. With its castle, the narrow streets and architecture, Cēsis has a little bit of a fairy-tale atmosphere. So when I received an invitation to do a larger scale exhibition there, I was very enthusiastic and I thought, why not? This year the exhibition will be based on summertime readings. The theme refers back to my very first impressions of this atmospheric town. I wanted to do something with storytelling, which is why I have been looking for good storytellers. So far, I have selected fifteen artists from Lithuania, Latvia and some other countries.

Artists or writers? What do you mean by storytelling?

Storytelling… Usually in the newspapers or the internet portals you have these lists of recommendations – what to read during the summer. I thought that this time, I would like to work with artists who are good storytellers with their art. This way, the whole exhibition will work as a list of recommendations, or links, for further reading.

There, however, will be no direct, conventional or traditional way of storytelling. First of all, it will be a contemporary art exhibition, in which the majority of works will be installations, films and drawings. In the courtyard of the brewery, where the “Black Pillow” stood last year, there will now be an artwork by Donatas Jankauskas. It’s a sculptural installation. When you look at Donatas Jankauskas’ sculptures, it’s always difficult to say if there is a narrative, but in fact, there is. His sculptures and installations work like that. Maybe it’s too early to announce yet, but in the brewery you will see a big sculpture of Tony Soprano. The artist has taken a scene from the TV show – one in which Tony Soprano has come out in the morning to fetch his newspaper from the lawn. There will also be figures from  “Planet of the Apes” and other things. As I already said, first of all, this will be an exhibition of contemporary art, but the works that I’m looking for have this capacity of a good narrative, good stories. They have the potential of storytelling. 

What do you expect from the visitor? Should he or she already know all of these stories, all of these references, to be somehow involved?

People who are exposed to music and contemporary art don’t necessarily have to be loaded with all of these concepts. As I started working on the Cēsis Art Festival, I realised that Cēsis is a nice place, especially in the summertime, when it attracts many holidaymakers. The city almost has a resort-like feeling. That’s when I thought, why shouldn’t we play an open game and propose something entertaining? Great storytelling is what people normally plan for the summer. I thought that this should be a more entertaining exhibition. Even when I was doing the research, visiting the city and looking at the spaces, people were very surprised to see that this show is going to be less serious than it has been before. I took it as a very positive response, and I hope that we are going to have fun – all of us.

Isn’t it also new for you?

No, I’ve been dealing with stories before. I love stories. Whenever I have questions about what’s happening with contemporary art, I hardly spend my time analysing the contents of art magazines; mostly I like to read fiction. But, of course, I travel, I meet people, I talk to people and I see the exhibitions. That’s how, in one way or another, I am informed, but it’s not the usual route one would take.

The exhibitions here at the Contemporary Art Centre are known to be almost too conceptual, so it seems that people do need to read about them beforehand.

It’s not necessary that they should read about the exhibition or the project, but it’s good if they are reading in general. (Laughs) There, however, is no general rule or recipe that would deal with this. I think it depends on the project and on the institution in which the artwork is presented. Sometimes it’s inevitable that you need to provide some background information, but sometimes it’s not appropriate and it doesn’t work with certain projects.

At the moment, we have an exhibition by Gintaras Didžiapetris. There is not much information on this project, but we have done this on purpose. The artist wanted to keep the exhibition as open as possible for the viewer’s own imagination and interpretation. Even the doors of the exhibition hall are fully open and the usual banner on the façade of the building, which has been advertising the shows since the very beginning of the CAC, is gone. We had this banner for almost 20 years, but Gintaras thought that the house should have some rest. I liked it a lot. The same applies to the exhibition. Of course, it’s much more exciting when you have a guided tour, or when someone is there to explain the artworks to you, but there are other ways of informing people. It shouldn’t necessarily be this straightforward way – in the format of a label or an exhibition text.

But, generally speaking, of course some background information on contemporary art is needed. Could you imagine Documenta without the beautiful guidebook? (Laughs) I think you need to know the basic information, but without the interpretations, as then your imagination can start working.

Gintaras Didziapetris. Color and Device. Exhibition at the Contemporary Art Centre (CAC) main hall in April, 2013. Photo: Marta Ivanova

But how do you know that the audience has received the message?

(Laughs) Of course, you don’t know that immediately, but in the long-term perspective, you always come back to those issues. You try to trace your own projects in order to find out whether there has been any discussion afterwards. According to that information, you try to correlate your relationship to the audience. Maybe at some point, you realise that you need to improve it. At one point, we decided that the CAC doesn’t need one more exhibition space on the ground floor; instead, we needed to focus on communicating with our audience. That’s how we established the reading room/library, which also serves as a meeting room. It’s a place for talks. But the realisation only came later.

How do you, as a centre for contemporary art, educate your audience? How do you work with the audience?

We do some things in terms of educational programs. Gintaras Didžiapetris' exhibition is an exaggeration. Of course, with every exhibition you can book a guided tour.

It seems that in that case, the audience would need to reach out to you, whereas shouldn’t it be the other way around?

When we started this discussion, we didn’t say that we would not provide any information about the projects. It’s just that now we have some kind of an extreme. 

But do you usually provide information?

Usually, you would have a press release or a reception. Sometimes you would see expanded labels with descriptions; but, as I said, you always have to find the right balance. I also support the attitude that we have with this exhibition. Everything doesn’t have to be done very flat, very primitive, and very straightforward. Of course, it’s not an easy show. It’s not even easy for me, but I like it. I like the way it has been presented. 

If everything doesn’t need to be done “very flat and primitive”, what other ways of communication are you looking into?

Oh, you're asking about the new ways? (Laughs) The curatorial team meets every Tuesday and each time, depending on the project, we try to find something specific. We are, however, already an established institution and have our own ways of working – our standards – so it’s not that every day we create something new. (Laughs)

But is it important how many people come here?

Of course! We are a state-supported institution. The money comes from the Ministry of Culture. We have to do all of the reports and present the numbers. One of the criteria for evaluating our activities is the number of tickets sold – but not the total number of visitors, because the free visitors don’t count. So, of course, we care about it, but we don’t overdo it. Normally, when you plan the program for the year, you can already anticipate at least one, or a couple of projects, which will be more popular than the others. Otherwise, if you want to show just hard-core conceptual art, you may loose a part of your audience. The exhibition that we had just before this one was by the Lithuanian artist Donatas Jankauskas, who will also be showing in Cēsis the monkeys from the film “Planet of the Apes”.  That was an extremely popular exhibition. It was a very spectacular show.

Donatas Jankauskas. Sunday. Sculpture installation at the Contemporary Art Centre (CAC) main hall in February, 2013. This summer the same works will travel to Cēsis.

Will there also be artists from Belarus in Cēsis?

Why do you ask that? (Laughs

I saw you book, “Opening the Door? Belarusian Art Today” (2010).

It’s funny. I was recently in Minsk, doing some lectures. I was talking about my experience with the Venice Biennale pavilion – its success story. The Venice issue is very painful there. They are still fighting with it. They haven’t yet found the right solution for a way to participate. Anyway, during my visit we held curatorial master classes for people who want to become curators. 15 students had been selected to participate; they were presenting their projects and we were discussing them, talking and sharing our experiences. In the end, however, I realised that once again, I am doing a project in Belarus. Even when I am invited to do a talk abroad, I am not talking about Lithuanian art anymore; I am talking about the art in Belarus. I am almost acting like a Belarusian ambassador. (Laughs) That’s good, because it’s our neighbourhood. I remember in the early 1990s, when we had just started doing exhibitions here, the Nordic countries were very keen in supporting us because they also saw us as part of the same neighbourhood. A similar story is now happening with Belarus. We are taking over there our previous experiences, and I think it has worked very well.

What is happening now within the contemporary art scene of Belarus?

It’s something similar to what we had here, in the beginning of the 1990s. The students there are in very good spirits, but the conditions necessary for getting a proper education are not there. Most of them are either studying in the Humanitarian University of Belarus, or in the Academy of Arts. We sometimes refer to our Academy as being conservative, but it’s much stricter there. The quality of those master classes/seminars, however, were pretty close to what we have here, in Vilnius, where I am teaching curatorial studies for the master’s degree program. I was really positively impressed with the Belarusian students, and I think it makes sense to collaborate as much as possible – to help Belarusians have at least the impression that they are not desperately isolated from the rest of the world.

Getting back to your question about Cēsis… When I was going to Minsk, I had in mind that I might find one or two Belarusian artists, but it didn’t work out. There is one artist who has already shown in Vilnius. He is a good storyteller, but somehow, it doesn't fit with the context. As I already explained, the exhibition will mostly include Latvian and Lithuanian artists, and then there will also be artists from various other countries – Mexico, Argentina, Russia, Moldova, Portugal, Switzerland, etc. I would say that this year, Cēsis will be more international. It is just a wish, but I really want to expand the exhibition beyond its usual boundaries. The brewery is a nice space, but it is very difficult to work with. Cēsis, however, as a location for a bigger project – for a regular project – has very big potential. I hope I can show both this potential and the possibilities for the future.

How many exhibitions here, in the Contemporary Art Centre, do you curate yourself? Or do you co-curate all of them?

There is no proportional rule. I try as much as I can to do at least one project per year – one in which I would be involved as a curator. Curating is an integral part of my activities, but I also have to run an institution. Making the exhibition program for the year is also curating. Our building is big, and we usually have not just one exhibition going on, but at least two or three shows simultaneously on view. So, you also have to think about what happens on this horizontal level – what the audience will find when they come here; what are the connections between the exhibitions, how do they work together. 

How important is it for a curator to have his own space? 

First of all, I don’t have my own space. I am just in charge of a space. But I understand the question. I would say it’s important for a country or for a city, even for a community, to have its own space as a platform for manifestations, for the presentation of ideas and  discussions. For a curator, of course, it’s good to have it, but it’s not completely necessary. Seldom do you have these situations. You can compare it to the Venice Biennale. The Baltic countries don’t have their own space there. These new countries always have to find a space, and so far, we are surviving pretty well. Al least, if I talk about my own country, that is the case. Three out of our seven times at the Biennale, we have received a special mention by the jury. We have been distinguished in that context without even having our own space. I would say it’s more important to have a willingness to do something. Good energy is also very important.

Of course, it’s good that you can work with some ideas in a continuous way – when you can do not just one single appearance, but plan things and think about feedback in terms of a slightly longer perspective. 

What is more interesting for you, personally – to create something in a space which you already know quite well, or to work on a project like Cēsis, which is something completely different and new?

Well… (Laughs) Of course, it’s easier to work with a space which you know like your own home. It’s easier to work when you already have your own technical team and you know the parameters of the space. But it’s more exciting when you get to travel, when you have new challenges to solve. Both ways are good. I really like travelling, but I am always looking forward to the flight back home. I am kind of a home-ish person.

The CAC cinema hall

What is the role of contemporary art within Lithuanian society? Maybe you could give us some perspective? 

I can say that it has been changing, and I am happy to notice that it’s changing towards the good. At the very beginning of our activities, when this institution had just been established, I remember – and I am telling this story already as a joke now – that a group of American curators came here on their way back from Moscow. I was showing them this building, which at that time was called the Vilnius Palace of Art Exhibitions, and I told them that soon, it would be renamed the Contemporary Art Centre. I also had to explain to them that we don’t have any contemporary art yet, but we are going to have it soon. (Laughs) They liked this approach. 

I would say that, at the moment, we do have contemporary art in the country, but the first years of the CAC were devoted to legitimizing  the language of contemporary art. We had many discussions and many fights, especially with the Artists’ Union, which was a power structure at that time. Even though those things are not completely over, they don’t play such an important role today. The artists who took part in our first exhibition, which was called “Good Evils”, were students from the Academy of Arts. Out of the fifteen artists represented at that exhibition, three have received national awards, which is the highest possible nomination in our country. I don’t think we even dreamed about that at the beginning of the 1990s.

Of course, you cannot be naïve and expect too much, because it has only been 20 years, but at least we have had an institution that has helped artists present their ideas and that has accelerated the evolution of contemporary art in the country. We have already had some results because of that, but a much larger acceptance is needed if you are talking about the politics in this country. Maybe we are not the aliens that we used to be at the beginning, but people still like to keep some distance. Nowadays, people are traveling more, so they see more and they have more ideas. They have seen new museums being built in the world – which I would say has very emblematic meaning to the economies of those countries. So, it’s not the stereotypical view of contemporary art that we used to have.

People used to think that contemporary art was nothing serious, that it was just a game for youngsters. Once, I even heard that the CAC should be moved to the outskirts of the city – because this building is too good for this kind of a purpose. People used to see it as something temporal, as a fashion that has come from the West, and hoped that the real art trends would return. Of course, they never returned.

So they let you stay?

From the very beginning we tried as much as possible to be very international; so, there were people – both local and international – who always supported us. But today, as I said, it’s no longer an issue. I am quite openly looking for a new institution to start, or to take over. But, of course, every year you find another reason why you should stay for one more year. It is like an artwork. You always see it as slightly unfinished; you see that there are parts that you could do a little bit better – just one more touch, one more brush stroke or something.

Yet you also feel that you could leave.

Yes. I feel pretty confident that the institution won’t return to the eighties without me. Whoever will take over will continue its course. That’s fine. Generally speaking, the situation in the country is quite OK, and contemporary art already has a certain reputation.

Do you really mean in the whole country, or just in Vilnius? 

The whole country. Lithuania is not like Latvia – it’s not super-centralised. Riga is such a big city, but in Lithuania, cities always go up and down, depending on the people who are leading the institutions. For example, Klaipeda is now very active, but Kaunas is less so. I have a good friend, Nicolas Bourriaud, whom I know from the time that he established the Palais de Tokyo. We were always meeting in different places and having discussions, but each time we parted, I said that next time – we should meet in Vilnius. The thing about the CAC is that, because of the geography, many people never visit it, but they have heard something about it. So I was telling Nicolas and Jerome Sans that they should definitely come and visit. Half a year ago Nicolas finally came here, but he had been invited by Klaipeda, to do a talk there. He was just passing by. (Laughs) Sorry, but he was not exactly my guest. That’s the answer to your question.

But is contemporary art still regarded as something a little bit elitist, or has the audience become wider in the last ten years?

I would say that contemporary art everywhere is a little bit elitist. On I was just reading an interview with [the creative director Bo Nilsson, from] Artipelag, in which he said that the age of the general audience for their art space is 50+. It’s because of the nature, and the location, and so on – so in that case, you can hardly say that it’s elitist. You can hardly use that word in our case as well, because we mostly attract a young audience. Of course, we've already existed for 20 years and we have been doing this with a specific idea and direction in mind, without having to compromise too much.

Compromise with whom? 

Compromise with our own problems. At some point, many art institutions show contemporary art and then they show something that you would hardly imagine a contemporary art institution doing – they show very traditional art. Our message was, more or less, clear, and that’s why we have managed to create a good reputation as an international art institution. During these 20 years, three new generations of artists have appeared on the stage, and each artist has brought his own audience.

But did you have a role model those 20 years ago? Where did you get the idea that you need to go straight to contemporary art?

It didn’t happen in one day. Everything happened step by step. I always felt that I was too soft and made too many compromises. That’s funny, because when I talk to people from the outside, they call me stubborn, but maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle. When I see other stories, the other institutions in the nearest neighbourhoods – for example, Poland and Latvia – I would say that there were not as many organizations really acting like contemporary art institutions. But, of course, it took time to do these things. It took time to create our own network. That’s why when we started, we started with the students. We had to work together with the artists since we didn’t have any other institutions to support us. So it was almost like going straight to the artists’ studios. We started from point zero. And development was simultaneous for the institution, for the curatorial team and for the artists. 

Kęstutis Kuizinas

Would you like to lead a gallery one day?

If you mean a private gallery, then probably not – because a gallerist is, first of all, a dealer, someone who sells art. I have had those ideas, but I’m not really sure if that’s for me.

Who is the audience for contemporary art here in Lithuania? 

We deal with all possible audiences. How else could it be? But don’t forget that we are also an interdisciplinary institution. That’s how we create our audience. Besides our main activities, which are, of course, contemporary art exhibitions, we collaborate with a fashion festival, we do music festivals and we just started doing some cinema hall activities. Now that’s something that lights my fire. When I mentioned that I am looking around for new job possibilities, I would still like to continue working with the cinema. I want to have one of the best art-house cinemas in town. There are a few of them in Vilnius, but we have a fantastic location. It’s also a cinema hall within a contemporary art centre, so that gives it yet another meaning. At the moment, we are still testing the ground, looking for a profile, but I’m sure it has a good future. 

Is it important that you have your own team? The architects who created the cinema hall, Audrius Bučas and Valdas Ozarinskas, also did “Black Pillow”. 

The team has been changing a lot. Someone asked me – How have I survived so many years in this position? It has taken so much time and so much energy. That’s when I always joke and say that I like to refresh the blood. (Laughs) There are three shifts of curators who have changed during this time, and people are naturally migrating – moving in and out. At one point, we were very international. Even the staff meetings where held in English.

The team is very important. It’s crucial. It’s not just a formal thing when I say that everybody participates in making an institution. I am very happy that nowadays, we have more possibilities to travel. It’s not only me who is travelling. Now we have the opposite problem – now it’s hard to follow along with who is in and who is out of the country. (Laughs) But everyone brings something new to the table. We are always discussing ideas. We are always trying to figure out – What’s next? I would say that I’m very proud of it, because our institution has generated and educated many people who have “left the building” and are now contributing to the international contemporary art scene. It has been like a school. I’m not only talking about the curators, but also about the designers. People who have worked here for three or four years are immediately picked up by commercial enterprises. 

Doesn’t that annoy you?

We are abused in that case, but that’s normal.

If you were to leave the Contemporary Art Centre, what would be the job that would tempt you to do that? What would be the challenge?

(Laughs) Well, I have to be frank – I like things of scale. (Laughs) And I like things with a certain impact. It would have to be something that, as I often times say, makes your engine run, something that burns your fire. Only in that way can you create an impact. I am not a person who just follows or observes a situation. I would rather actively participate and influence the course of things. So, of course, it depends on the country, but I’m kind of reluctant to leave Lithuania. I’m quite home-ish. That’s my problem. Slightly.

You could open a Contemporary Art Centre in Belarus.

Maybe. I could psychologically cope with moving to one of the neighbouring countries. But why Belarus? It could be Latvia as well.