Room for a Critic: A Conversation

Audrius Pocius: Tell me about “Room for a Critic.”

Augustas Serapinas: My chair might break during our conversation … maybe it’ll hold.

AP: What circumstances have led us to this here-and-now?

AS: “Room for a Critic” surfaced from observing the environment. You stroll around in new places, and then something catches your eye. I was attracted to one space in particular: a fenced-in area in the center of Vilnius―highly guarded, no one climbs over its fence―they are deterred by an alarm system and security. However, upon arrival, you’ll notice that it is well-preserved. Nothing is rifled or vandalized, and you can find traces of people who used to work there. Instantly, the space caught my interest. I wanted to do something in the space, so I created a kind of a platform―not a ‘work’ or ‘object’ but something that could become the basis for other happenings. For example, it has become the basis for this conversation―it’s already working. I have never tried anything like this, but I’m always trying different modes and methods, then I observe how they unfold. In this case, I was interested in how a certain space affects the perception of a text.

AP: So, is this work dedicated to The Lottery Project?

AS: Yes, but I thought about installing “Room for a Critic” beforehand, and I intend to expand and inject it later into other spaces. When Jacquelyn Davis invited me to participate, her project appeared to be an opportunity to test out the idea to see how it works―The Lottery Project and its framework seemed suitable. However, I am not the best person to follow a certain topic. Usually, I come through the ‘back door.’ Don’t get me wrong. I’m not ignorant, but this is not my usual course of action. This is why, at the time when “Room for a Critic” was ‘in progress,’ it was not my concern to criticize or stress the importance of certain problems nor to ironize the concealment of the space. Rather, I was interested in how a space could direct a course of thinking. I imagined how someone might begin to understand the space if one found it—by chance. It would be counterintuitive to bring people to the space and then talk about certain problems; instead, I want to leave it undefined to see how the space functions autonomously as well as what it can offer for the aleatory passer-by.

AP: What did you have in mind when you named the project “Room for a Critic?” Should the title be perceived as a contained invitation?

AS: Perhaps. “Room for a Critic” is an invitation to think and reflect. More importantly: to search for diverse forms of ‘thinking,’ to practice them in different forms―as an act, relationship, space. For example, I find this stance lacking in our (Lithuanian) public projects and contexts. Art in public spaces often ends up being decorative; for me, it seems paradoxical because it usually does not encourage dialogue. On the other hand, I didn’t dwell upon the problems of public art or how to change them. I followed my intuition; now, I find these thoughts contained in the room retrospectively. In the light of this, I find myself to be an observer.

AP: It might sound flamboyant, but I like to think of a work as prophecy―how it relates to the field of culture, how it shifts relations within the field or comments upon the flux or stasis of a culture. In Lithuania, we have a short-lived tradition of critical art writing which was able to foresee the now―historical perspectives of processes in contemporary art and interpreting them as social phenomena. In the nineties, this process of critique was crucial in order to keep up with changes in the local art scene, as well as in society. But this is no longer the case―one is able to see a ‘gap’ between acting and writing. Perhaps, the latter is unable to keep up with accelerated rhythms of, for instance, Instagram, or maybe the origin of this uncertainty stems from inside language itself, but there are few who commit to writing. From this perspective, do you find “Room for a Critic” to be an antagonistic space?

AS: I would not call myself an active reader―even if texts affect me. Of course, I am always curious to find something new to read, but, firstly, I am an artist: I make art. Text is important, as long as it concerns this process. Similarly, I think about writing: you will write when you see a work worthy of attention. They feed off one another―the critique from the artwork, and artwork from critique. I am not in alignment with the discussion on ‘the end of critique’―maybe it’s a phase for a small country? There should be more critical art writing; I think that the reason why there’s so little of it in Lithuania is because dialogic culture is absent. Critique is received as very personal here. Also, personal ambitions affect the process of writing itself―it’s counterproductive.

“Room for a Critic” appears on the border between the artwork and critique. This space functions―but not as a mode of critique. I see it as a gesture and invitation to reflect upon problems which aren’t yet defined. I have a glimpse of how this reflection works, even if it’s complicated. I see reflection as soil for possibility―for things to emerge in a utopian way. I believe this is how “Room for a Critic” functions: no one will come by, nothing will happen, and it will still function in the mode of just being there.

AP: So this room is a kind of utopia―content with its utopian mode of being? I wonder if the fate of a fulfilled utopia would become totalitarian.

AS: It might. Here in Lithuania, we still remember our ‘Soviet heritage’―by that, I mean a mental state and ways of dealing with problems. We are considering anew; it is a long process. If one takes into account the current geopolitical situation in Russia, we are doing well. Maybe, if a utopia is to be realized as a social structure, it is inevitable for it to degenerate―in order to maintain the impossible, power structures must be absolute.

AP: I thought that absence is visible in this room. How important is this absence to you as a component of your work?

AS: I could’ve left everything in the room as it was. But I brushed up everything, brought water, swept the floor with a soggy rag; this is my utopia washed in absurdity. I performed these actions for the sake of some theoretical possibility. It’s easy to get perplexed.

AP: Hmm … that chair of yours looks even more wobbly now.

AS: Because I’m trying to remain sincere.

room 4 critic
Image: Augustas Serapinas

AP: Similarly utopian, an artist’s name could also become authoritarian. It seems that the critique articulated by the The Lottery Project is directed towards the economy of the art world, which is, among other things, based on Jackson’s narrative. Do you think that an artist’s refusal to share his name could function as a form of critique? Is it possible to function as an artist without submitting to forms of control that emerge from exchange value produced by one’s name?

AS: The Lottery Project is also a utopian system, and it may as well function like one. But I don’t think it’s possible to turn away from one’s name―especially as an artist. One would find herself on the other side of the fence, outcrying things for no one to hear. In my view, the art world is a closed circle―it is capitalized, one must play within its system. Try to oppose it, and it will either suck you in, make you part of it, or it will leave you behind and ignore you―because you’re too small. People who want to change something, for better or worse, on the contrary, should invest in their name, take root in the art world as it is, become recognizable in order to gain a voice capable of being heard. Then one is simultaneously enabled to use their ideas, work with others and shape the art world.

AP: So, in your work, despite inevitable commodification, your name may function as a channel of communication? A framework for relationships to unfold without the author’s name becoming authoritarian?

AS: I’ve noticed that within my practice, I am interested in communication between people―especially, how the nature of personal relationships intercept established order. We, for example, are friends. Now: imagine that you are a shoemaker. I come to you, and you give me a discount. Because we’re friends, neighbors maybe―we might sip tea or drink booze in the evening, talk a bit … you wouldn’t want to take my money. But you would accept payment from others. In fact, you will charge fifteen euros for glueing a new rubber sole (in winter, the sole requires a different pattern to avoid slippage). I am astounded how relations can be converted into value; they can be manipulated. For instance, when something is done out of good faith, it disturbs people―especially when taken out of context. If I washed a car for someone in a parking lot out of the blue, I’d be misunderstood. It could be perceived that I want something in return.

AP: Maybe they would do their best to appear grateful, but secretly, they might wish that their car was still dirty.

AS: I like to experiment with issues such as these, and I usually attract weird, inadequate responses. I see potential in human relationships; I enjoy observing how they work. The same goes for this space―how it serves as pretext for this conversation. I contemplate how something secret can be shared with others; this also applies to “Room for a Critic.”

I will now recall a story that I enjoy. I have a friend from Iraqi Kurdistan. He told me how refugees from the Middle East, Asia and Africa flee to Turkey and settle in Istanbul. Then, after a while, they move farther: Italy, Greece or even farther … but as part of their migration, they stop for a while in Turkey. There were many refugees; transit was constant. Over time, an entire infrastructure developed. Refugees knew places where they could spend the night or find food―or where they could briefly work. This infrastructure was a well-kept secret―underground, passed on by word-of-mouth. It functioned like this for quite some time, until someone printed instructions on paper. It was only a matter of time until someone threw away or misplaced the instructions. When they did, the police managed to acquire the transit information in one ready-made package. Everything appeared to be fine while information moved from person to person, word-of-mouth, but the information went sour once it was transcribed onto paper.

I often contemplate these types of relations in connection to my practice. How do you share something that you do? How to present or talk about it? One might say: if it’s a secret, lips must remain shut. But secrets don’t work this way―they are meant to be shared in order to be kept; it’s a paradox. And this is what makes secrets interesting. I try to be conscious of how I share my secrets. It’s an integral part of my practice, as the secrecy of spaces I inhabit with my work gains significance only upon sharing with others.

AP: So what will happen to this room―when our conversation is labeled an interview and transcribed into text?

AS: If the room is thoroughly described and its location is revealed in this text, it would violate the space―maybe devour it completely. As I said: secrets should be shared with precision. But in this case, on the contrary, the text is nurtured within this room and is infected by it rather than defined by it. This way it helps animate the space and generate new meaning. I envision the room as a platform for further happenings to emerge. The text “Room for a Critic” may become a continuation of “Room for a Critic”―a kind of mediation for people not physically present here. It should stimulate the imagination, call out thoughts and summon reflections; as a by-product, the room is activated. This transition of a space via various mediums, transforming and changing every instant, is crucial.

AP: Come to think of it, a tree leaf has been stuck in your hair. I’m not sure that it’s OK I told you this―since what you speak out loud is not as important as what you keep quiet … but anyway.

AS:: It found me all by itself―ha! You have a point. I was thinking about it for a while … modes of sharing require balance―to be actively introverted.

AP: While listening to your story about the fate of the refugees’ infrastructure, I remembered that you participated in “eeKūlgrinda,” a camp of experimental engineering, near a candle factory, organized by artist Robertas Narkus. Historically, in Lithuania, Kūlgrinda signified a hidden path used for peasants to evacuate settlements in case of an enemy attack or for defensive military maneuvers. Locations of these paths were also delivered from person to person and kept discreet―analogically similar to paths used by refugees in the Middle East. If they were to be discovered, entire communities would be at risk … both are cases where maintaining capital of specific knowledge and sharing it responsibly are crucial in order to maintain the stability of everyday life. While in this camp, did you dwell upon this parallel? Maybe you produced certain works there?

AS: Vitality is one of the more important gains related to one’s ability to manipulate and share information―especially if this dialogic process is perceived as creative activity. One is always obliged to create new definitions, approaches to problems, world views … this process is a matter of provoking and being provoked … maybe a kind of mobility of meaning, constituted by this tension is common for both―Kūlgrinda and refugees. Maybe this is why I don’t have a favorite bar that I frequent.

In “eeKūlgrinda,” I built a bath house and slept in a greenhouse. When we arrived to the camp, Auridas Gajauskas and I couldn’t find a place to sleep. Then we found two mattresses in a greenhouse―one surrounded by tomatoes, the other by cucumbers. When we suggested to Robertas that we could accommodate the place, he was pleased. These decisions became my contribution to “eeKūlgrinda.” I lived there whilst listening to its inner logic. Actually, this is an approach I fancy in most of my work. I am reflected within the context that I work in, but I also try to remain relaxed when it is needed. This same attitude also applies to “Room for a Critic.”

AP: Do you mean that by practicing your everyday life, you enjoy a certain freedom from your work?

AS: Of course, I am free―only supervised by my ego. I’m not well-versed in psychology, but curiously, I find inspiration stemming from this discipline. This is why I am interested in spaces: every single one reveals peculiar themes and should be treated differently. Spaces are not only to be encompassed but also nourished.

Image: Augustas Serapinas