An area of 13 thousand sq. m. in Šančiai was military territory from mid 19th century to 1993. As soon as the last Russian soldier left the soil of independent Lithuania soil, the area became no mans land – shabby, desolate and even dangerous to people trying to step in. A site specific land reclamation project has been led here by Vita Gelūnienė and Ed Carroll for a few years now. Last year, when FRIENDLY ZONE / CABBAGE FIELD ('Draugiška zona / Kopūstų laukas') was included into the programme of Kaunas Biennial, we sat with Ed Carroll down to talk about the project and how he, after spending many years in Ireland, found his new home in Šančiai about 9 years ago. By the way, as of September'16, the 'Kopūstų laukas' is more popular than ever and a contest for architectural decisions has just been announced.
Would you tell us a little bit about what you did in Ireland before relocating?
My background is working as a curator. When I worked in Ireland, I was called a programmer, meaning you program different actions. My specialty was working in the context of community, working with people and the place.
Did you find the communities in Ireland and Lithuania drastically different? Did you have to rethink your strategies?
When you’re a foreigner coming in, it takes a long time to even get a sense of the place. Europe is a bit of a patchwork quilt. All these countries are very different. When you come to Central Eastern European countries that have their own history and identity, it might be very, very surprising, a bit like landing on Mars. It takes time to understand the idiosyncracies, in good ways and in bad ways.
What were the most interesting differences for you as a newcomer?
The most obvious difference is that 60 000 people left Lithuania to come to Ireland, and I left Ireland to come to Lithuania. There wasn’t such a big movement of people since 1910-1915, when about 10 000 litvaks came to inhabit Cork and Dublin.
It takes courage to move. It also takes courage for the place that you go to welcome you. I was very welcomed in Kaunas.
In terms of the difference of working with my context, it’s like the language books are different, and the way of operating is different. People aren’t different, actually, not so different. The institutional frame is, and the way the private sphere works, too. In Ireland, we didn’t have this oppression of Soviet Union so our public space was more open, maybe, whereas the public space here is more cautious. That’s a big difference.
The way communities organize themselves is quite different, too. In Ireland, we have a history of non-governmental organizations at community level – that’s not such a big tradition here. Social work here is mostly institutional. If you look at youth work, it’s either church-based or institution-based?
Does social work act better if it’s not institution-based?
I’m not sure, it’s just different. I’m always interested when children choose themselves to do something rather when it’s chose for them. Similarly workgroups working at grassroots level, it’s always interesting how people mobilize themselves to act rather than working because they are instituted.
I like this association of forts, I think it’s the Fourth Fort, this was a group of local people who saw the forts in ruin and they took over and started renovating them. They really cared for them. It’s not even ‘Do it yourself’, because that implies a very individualistic approach, but ‘Do it together’, as in people working together. One should find ways for people to work together.
Friendly Zone #6. Cabbage Field, 2015. Photo by Remis Ščerbauskas
We recently read an article stating that people in Lithuania are afraid to approach art. It’s something you go look at in galleries. What you are doing in Šančiai is making art more accessible. Will museums and galleries become irrelevant?
Everybody is an artist. Every time somebody posts something on Facebook or downloads a piece of music or sings a song or dances, they are involved in the process of being creative.
We have a problem in terms of culture today which is that the participation in the infrastructure of culture is getting smaller and smaller. The most recent European report says this. It involves theatres and visual arts, except cinema. Cinema experiences a slight growth. Nothing that you do from the supplier’s side, in galleries or theatres, can change that. What you need to do is to work on the other side, to find what drives and motivates people. I don’t see ourselves in terms of Šančiai working against institutions, I see ourselves building new channels for people to become makers and producers of culture. A little bit like growing media. You tune into a channel to hear something broadcast – in that sense our work in Šančiai is like growing a channel, trying to find a way to be useful for people to communicate and to be creative and imaginative.
Yes, there is a problem with institutions, but I have never really worked at an institution. Their problems aren’t my problems. I really do think we owe it to the contemporary time to find new ways to broadcast and make new forms of art. That’s the job of people like ourselves who are artists and try to do work that opens up new territories. Without saying we’re the best, the biggest or the greatest. You have the inner ear where you like the sound, and you have to go after that sound. We try to tune what we do to see whether it allows something creative, something to smack you in the garb or really captures you. It’s not always easy to get that right critical moment. I certainly think in the Cabbage Field during the summer we had one of those special moments. It doesn’t come every day of the week. We wouldn’t be able to reproduce it again. But when it was there, it was magic. It was magic in the sense of something where by art and culture became something ordinary, rather than special, that it had to be only for Sundays.
Friendly Zone #6. Cabbage Field, 2015. Photo by Remis Ščerbauskas
Did you need to convince the local community to come and join you? Or was it a rather natural process of befriending each other?
When we started – we’ve been working there for second year now – first of all, people couldn’t get any idea of what we were doing, because it was all rubbish. We had to deal with the very ordinary job of cleaning everything out. We took over the old vegetable storage facilities that were built during tsar times. Interestingly, they were used by the tsar army, then by the German army, the Soviet army, the German army and the Soviet army again. You have very few places in Europe that bear such a fascinating history. I find this double tsunami very interesting.
And then, in the time when the last Soviet soldier left, from 1993, there was literally 15-20 years of nothing. Just dumping, the woodpeckers who would come at night and get 100 bricks. Just a non-space that had been highly industrious and became a rubbish dump. A site people felt was hopeless. The neighbours didn’t even want to look at it. We just started cleaning it and we just talked to people. At the beginning they didn’t believe it was possible. They thought we were going to make a private space of it. “Privati valda”, you know. The idea that we were not doing something for ourselves but doing this project for some other reason already created a suspicion. Maybe we were a sect? God knows!
The fact that we lived in this area helped a lot. We already knew lots of people and we got to know even more of them. There were little things that showed me the perception changed.
First of all, in the early weeks, we were sent over some people that had to do social work because they were unemployed. They would help us for 4 hours a day. There was this guy called Rafaelis who was a really special character for me. Unfortunately, he died quite suddenly a few weeks after working with us. Rafaelis would come and say “this is terrible, this is awful”, and use all those Russian swearwords. And then he became one of our big supporters. He’d come back and help us even after he finished the designated hours of work.
Bit by bit, there was a change and people were curious. The neighbours, particularly. All of them had lots of stories about the place, and we began to pick those up. We recorded a lot of stories. In some ways, we sort of felt that we discovered a black box from an airplane. ‘Kopūstų laukas’ was like a black box for the identity of Kaunas that we still have to work out and decode. It tells so many amazing stories about what makes Lithuania, Kaunas and Šančiai special. By ‘special’ I mean a unique fingerprint in this area presenting its identity. It’s not an identity that’s fixed in some sort of folk museum but an identity that still has to articulate and broadcast itself. It has to grow away to talk about itself.
Would you imagine, and would you like to, other neighbourhoods of Kaunas being inspired by Šančiai and creating community art projects?
I haven’t thought about this at all. I am inspired by other characters all the time. For example, a Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko who works in the area of ventilating things in public spaces that people don’t want to talk about. I mean big characters. Vita Gelūnienė and Ed Carroll aren’t in that league of inspiration.
Anyway, there are a lot of people doing all sorts of projects already. They don’t need to be inspired by us. I would like to mention Jekaterina Lavrinec in Vilnius or Psilikono teatras in Kaunas – of course, there are a lot of other initiatives. What I would like is that all the community projects would sail together rather than be on their own. The type of projects that we are involved in need the others in order to create an ecology, so that it becomes natural.
Do you see a lot of potential for that in Lithuania?
Of course. In terms of dead spaces that haven’t yet been privatized there’s this potential here that you would never be able to do in, for example, Ireland.
There was this graffiti artist that we invited to the cabbage warehouses and 5 police cars came to arrest him one afternoon, and took his brushes for 7 days. We had been working there for the whole summer and no one ever came to ask if we had a permission or something. When you’re not doing art, you can do a lot of things. When you start doing art, then you get into trouble.
You speak Lithuanian. Was it a necessity to learn the language because of the cultural climate in Šančiai?
Working with people on a daily basis was a great language school, really. It was the best summer academy – the one in ‘Kopūstų laukas’. If you really want to learn the language, you have to go work in a bar or in a shop, to interact with human beings. I don’t have a very big circle of foreign friends here in Kaunas, maybe just one – most of the people I meet are Lithuanian.
Is there something particular you miss from Ireland that you can’t find here in Lithuania?
I can only think of all the things I have here in Lithuania that I wouldn’t have in Ireland. I believe I was too old to miss Ireland when I left.
If you could put anything Kaunas-related on a postcard, what would that be?
Probably the Napoleon’s hill in Autumn. It’s quite beautiful looking from the Šančiai side.