12/02/2016

On Compulsory Global Friendliness: An Interview with Gintarė Matulaitytė

by Kęstutis Šapoka

On December 25th 2015 www.echogonewrong.com homepage featured a post which announced that the Magazine ceases to exist in its current form as its editor Gintarė Matulaitytė is fired from her position.
In relation to the fact that during the last several years Echo Gone Wrong became one of the most important platforms covering the contemporary art scene not only in Lithuania but in the whole Baltic region as well, I invited its ex-editor Gintarė to talk about her work, Magazine’s mission and the whole context of the dismissal from her position. We will also touch upon the situation of art criticism and critical thought both in Lithuania and the Baltic region.

Kęstutis Šapoka: I had an ambiguous feeling when during the Christmas time in one of our culture weekly newspapers I saw that our community of critics—or, rather a certain part of it— was engaged in an energetic but also rather overzealous flattery directed toward each other, because at the same time I found out that EGW is restructured because of its critical stance. But let us begin from the very beginning. Could you tell us how EGW was established and how you found yourself in the position of its editor?

Gintarė Matulaitytė: EGW was launched in 2011 by an Artnews.lt editor Neringa Černiauskaitė and PE “Artnews.lt” director Boris Symulevič. I met them in 2010 when, as part of my studies, I was doing my internship at the Vilnius National Art Gallery. I guess they recommended me, because during one of the openings I was approached by Neringa who gave me her card and offered to meet. There was no predetermined plan regarding my duties. In a way I was given the freedom to come up with ideas, and while I was thinking about how to utilise this freedom, I was introduced with the administrative system of Artnews.lt and assigned as an administrator of some of its rubrics. Later I was also assigned to manage kitafotografija.lt project, but, to be honest, I was not very excited about working with a single area of art. A year later as an Erasmus student I left for Oslo to work in one of the contemporary art galleries—and this was the time when EGW was launched.

Initially its scope was not limited to Baltic region—it was intended to cover the news of the Scandinavian art world as well. In order to be able to apply for Scandinavian funds, business partners were found in this region. However funding application was not successful. It was rather unclear what the purpose of this partnership was, and during the first half of 2012, at the time when I started working with EGW, these Scandinavian connections were finally abandoned. Perhaps, if the Magazine would have taken this direction, it would have had plenty of material to work with because at that time, due to the new opportunities offered by Scandinavian funds, Baltic-Scandinavian projects began to emerge like mushrooms after the rain. However I began to see that relations with our closer neighbours—Latvians and Estonians—promised to be more meaningful because of all the things we had in common.

Despite the fact that I was invited to work with EGW after its establishment, all the contacts and networks were the result of my own initiative and work I have done during my regular visits to Riga, Talinn, Tartu and other cities. Finally, the result of my work with EGW was that in my art history dissertation I chose to expand the geographic boundaries of my research and cover all three Baltic countries.

K. Š.: As far as I remember, the project Artnews.lt was began in 2008 as an independent virtual space for dissemination of information on conceptual art projects as well as art criticism. It is important that the platform was open to the young art critics who could express themselves freely despite a well established subordination. As I understand, by the time you started working with the Magazine, Artnews.lt already had an established format? This was the time when an idea to orient toward the West was born, and, if I’m not mistaken, EGW was in a way an English version of Artnews.lt?

G.M.: The independence of a magazine depends on two things: the independence of its editor and the amount of freedom given—or, rather, left unrestricted—by the financing sources and owners. Did Artnews.lt have an already established format at that time? Perhaps, because its structure did not change at least from the beginning of 2010. The only thing that did change was the coming and going of rubrics. One of the critical—and thus more valuable—rubrics was kriticzeski sabotaž [critical sabotage], however its last entry dates back to 2011.

EGW was never an English version of Artnews.lt. First of all, as soon as I began working with EGW it became clear that there is no point of merely translating the content of Artnews.lt—the majority of these texts would have been completely obscure and irrelevant to the international audience. You would not even need an editor if the Magazine were merely an English version of another publication. A translator and administrator would have sufficed.

K. Š.: As far as I know, for the Baltic region EGW had to become a sort of a “window” to the West, but the latter perhaps had no interest in us, even if we presented ourselves in English? However, during the last year, I noticed an opposite tendency—the Magazine acquired more significance, and the interactions between the critical thought of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania became more prominent.

G. M.: Whether or not we are interesting to the West perhaps depends on what kind of West and what kind of interest we have in mind. Sometimes I think that we are not interesting to ourselves to begin with. By this I mean that it might seem that things are not worthy of attention because they are happening right here, next door, and they are not contributing to any global tendencies. This is what I would call a provincial thinking. A provincial thinks that she needs to catch up with something—usually the West—without questioning why and how exactly she is supposed to align herself to it.

Perhaps, on an international scale Lithuania or Latvia are not as interesting by themselves, and we are only interesting as a region, as Baltic States. Indeed, as it is well put in the article “The Baltic States – How Many?”, not too long ago, writing separate histories for each of the Baltic States was still considered meaningless—the only thing that differs is just names while the cultural and historic backgrounds remain more or less the same. Has it become more meaningful today? In politics and other spheres international interests are usually common throughout all the three countries. However, these coutries often consider themselves as independent units relating to each other with a competitiveness and suspicion. Perhaps, it is because of ignorance, especially when it comes to the younger generation. Only after a couple of years of work in this region have I noticed that Riga and Tallinn became increasingly frequent targets of business and leisure trips among my acquaintances.

The word “interesting” implies the presence of some sort of an interest. West might have all sorts of interests in Baltic States, however the question is what are our interests in the West?

When I took my position of an editor, it seemed that the aim of the Magazine was to become a platform that allowed for the Baltic culture to participate in an anglophonic discourse, thus becoming heard and represented. But in order to represent themselves, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia had to first understand what they are to each other—this is where English language served as the means of communication. At the same time, English language also provided a distance necessary for a critical reflection while writing about oneself to the other, while imagining a foreign addressee who also uses English as a foreign language. Another important aspect is the neighbours’ perspective. It is both homey (because it recognises similar problems) and alien which allows the neighbour to formulate the things she notices without being restrained by her national commitments. As this international dialogue gradually began to intensify, the strict division by countries became meaningless, so all the texts on a homepage of the Magazine became intermixed.

Therefore, the problem of a double locality—i.e., when we duplicate the same local content in English language—was overcome. Indeed, EGW became linked with a particular place, region, and its identity even more than some of the culture press in the regional languages.

K. Š.: I would like to return to the issue of you being fired from your position as an editor. What were the official arguments and what do you think are the real causes?

G. M.: Officially the reasons of my dismissal were formulated as follows: the “direction” and “position” of the Magazine were “inappropriate.” Even though during the firing procedure I was addressed on the behalf of an Artnews.lt editor Neringa Černiauskaitė, she did not participate in the discussions and did not present any arguments herself. I was explained that the arworld circle is small and everyone is dependent on each other, therefore we should all get along in a “friendly” way—we publish a text on some exhibition in a certain gallery, and they give us something in return. However it is rather unclear how this model is supposed to contribute to the quality of the content of the Magazine. A magazine that uses this principle of exchange economy should address its readers with a disclaimer: “Dear readers, the intention of this magazine is not to help you to understand the processes of an art world, it is rather intended for an artworld itself—i.e., for all the artists, curators, galleries, and other institutions—so that they could blow a smoke in your face.”

As far as an editorial work was concerned, our positions were indeed differing. For example, when I was planning to present EGW in the Art Academy of Latvia, the Artnews.lt editor addressed me with a blunt request not to take an “antagonistic position” with respect to the main art institutions of Lithuania.

K. Š.: Recently I myself noticed that Artnews.lt more and more tends to avoid to perform a function of critique; it looks like it was controlled by the invisible hand of a censor, as if it was overtaken by an excessive timidity, which means that the website is gradually turning into a collection of sponsored content, as well as some peculiar and very specific “essayism.” By saying “specific” I do not mean essayism as such, but rather some crafty textual manipulations and simulations, a certain nomenclative pseudo-poetic abracadabra—basically a form of conformism which in a way resembles “critique” but in actuality is devoid of any position or even meaning. This is exactly what I meant when in one of my texts on critique I wrote that lately Artnews.lt tends to be taken over by conformist tendencies. Is your dismissal and a consequential restructuring of EGW related to the “care” of the new financial sponsors and “guidance” of certain institutions?

G. M.: Here it is necessary to clarify what is meant by “financial sponsors.” From the very beginning the financing sources of Artnews.lt were governmental funds, however during my dismissal procedure it was mentioned that Public Establishment (PE) “Artnews.lt” (together with its projects Artnews.lt, Artbooks.lt, kitafotografija.lt, and EGW) is now co-owned by Lewben Art Foundation. It is an art foundation established in 2012 as a social project by “Lewben Group” the goal of which is the promotion of Lithuanian cultural heritage and contemporary art. “Lewben Group” provides its services in property management, tax, law, and finance consultancy. In 2006 this international company established its branch in the Baltic States with an aim to provide its management and trust services for companies.

As an editor of EGW I was not informed about this, and I did not know about an emergence of any kind of new interests. The news that Lewben acquired Artnews.lt reached me in 2013 as a rumour which was eventually denied within the organisation. When I enquired about our links with Lewben, I was told that they are the sponsors of certain PE “Artnews.lt projects, but EGW was not one of them. I knew that the editor of Artnews.lt and the director of PE “Artnews.lt” were regularly meeting with the representatives of Lewben, but I was never invited to participate at any of those meetings. Once I offered my presence hoping that I could represent the Magazine myself, however I was told that my presence was not necessary. All of that gave an impression that the functioning of EGW was not among the priorities in the plans of Lewben-Artnews.lt. In any case, this had no effect on my work as an editor.

However your remark regarding the disappearance of the function of critique on the Artnews.lt website is spot on. In my view, that, and the fact of Lewben’s involvement in the activity of Artnews.lt are related. However, differently from the usual chain of events when a sponsor dictates the direction, it seems that Artnews.lt magazine, and primarily its editor, chose the direction that simply was parallel to that of Lewben. It is not clear what role did Lewben play in my dismissal. What is clear is that when the information is withheld from a project manager, the conflict, even if a passive one, is bound to happen.

Perhaps, it is not that important whom to contribute with, the important thing is the network which would ensure a certain dependence and, accordingly, all the corresponding regalias. It should not be too surprising that one aspires for this dependence, because it is an essential condition of hierarchy. And such direction was decided not by N. Černiauskaitė as an editor, but by N. Černiauskaitė as an artist.

K. Š.: You mean that N. Černiauskaitė began a parallel career of an artist which eventually interfered with the critical functions and mission of Artnews.lt?

G. M.: As a coleague editor, I must say that the editor of Artnews.lt has put herself in a position which is favourable for the conflict of private and public interests. Being an artist-editor implies an obvious risk to be biased with regards to the gallery that represents you, or impartial with regards to the artists and curators who happen to be your friends and colleagues.

It is a much wider problem, and this particular case in only an illustration. Many people are used to (by their own will or because they were forced by circumstances) to pursue different jobs and take different positions at the same time. In the art world it is almost like a rule. Perhaps, nobody will be surprised to find out that an artist writes texts, publishes books, lectures, and makes public addresses. In order to explain the emergence of such complexity of different roles of an artist, a researcher Lina Michelkevičė invokes the notion of “expansion of linguistic formats.”1 Even though in her text the emergence of these artist-roles is associated exclusively with the production and distribution of artistic research, in reality when the production and distribution of artistic research is intermixed with the representation of artist’s interests in general, it becomes a way to establish oneself both in art discourse and in art history.

K. Š.: I agree that this case illustrates much wider tendencies in our systems of art and critique. I recall that several years ago, after a publication of a text critical toward one of our biggest art institutions, we witnessed a swift retaliatory reaction by an employee of another major Lithuanian art institution. It was unclear whether she was representing the interests of her institution or whether she was expressing her personal position when she pressingly insisted that if you want this Magazine to survive, you should better “think about where it is heading” by publishing such texts. I remember it was funny at the time, but it seems that the joke turned out to be on you?

G. M.: I should clarify: her question was what do I want to achieve by publishing to an international audience an English text that appeals to such local problems. Shortly another comment appeared, and this time it was written in a more moderate tone—it even offered to arrange a public discussion on this topic at the Gallery, thus remaining “in our own kitchen,” so to speak. They were unable to see why an international audience would be interested in our local problems. If locally everyone were already used to those rare occasions of critique, then it acquired a totally different significance once it became available internationally. This gesture was regarded as a deliberate intent to damage the image of Lithuanian institution in the eyes of an anglophonic world. I think it comes from the habit to represent ourselves to the foreign countries as super-progressive and non-problematic (“no problem”) people, thereby demonstrating a nice facade.

The aforementioned comment shows how everyone without exceptions are busy maintaining this illusion. And the fact that it is possible to have a situation when the institutional discontent with magazine’s bad work at institutional representation can affect the work of a magazine shows that cultural media is not, or, in this case, should not be an exception. Actually, this comment did not decide anything, it rather demonstrated the approach toward cultural media and critique. However as far as Artnews.lt is concerned, such an approach is apparently a norm, because I was told about “ruined relationships” with institutions and how these relationships will need to be restored after my dismissal.

K. Š.: Did you notice any similar tendencies in Latvia and Estonia?

G. M.: The same problems exist there as well. Indeed, as far as I experienced during my editorial work, the inability to accept criticism is a common thing in the art systems of all three Baltic States, and perhaps it is one of our most accurate common definitive traits. There is simply no space left for critical thought within this art community of tightly bound “friends.” We often claim that an art circle in Lithuania (Latvia, or Estonia) is extremely small, but in my view this by no means should be a reason to justify this sort of interrelation that renders critical thinking impossible; quite the contrary—it is a chance for a much deeper reflection and evaluation to emerge. Friendliness as such is not an obstacle for critical reflection, it is the professional or institutional nature of this friendliness that is an obstacle. It means that we all end up jointly representing the institutions and maintaining their images. In such an atmosphere critique is regarded not as a positive and useful thing but as a force that threatens to destroy this fragile structure.

Notwithstanding, if this kind of interrelation between various institutions does not seem feasible because its grounds and its aims are too abstract and their networks are too complex, then it would be much easier to understand that institutions or projects financed by the same person or source will end up being obliged towards each other.2

Even if there is no deliberate intention to limit the variety of opinions, the situation when a single person, organisation or union (even an unofficial one) owns several projects or institutions, surely does not contribute to the development of critical voices.

Here we might talk about a kind of censorship when certain opinions, instead of being removed from circulation by censors, are not even expressed by writers; it is the conditions that prevent these opinions from being formulated. Thus in my opinion, instead of talking about a crisis of critique, we should be talking about a crisis of critics. They themselves also happen to be curators, art agents, and managers at the same time, and due to these obligations they impoverish themselves as critics.

Editors are complaining that nobody writes and nobody reads. Why would anyone read these texts if they are written not because you have something important to say, but because “you have to”? Not only readers but writers themselves are sick of these texts about artists who themselves, in their turn, are tired “from words, or, rather, from all those textual and analytic explanations and analyses.”3 When critical thought is constantly looking for compromises, it turns into this specific “essayism” that you mentioned. Critique becomes acceptable only if it gives the reader an impression of meaning or even an aesthetic experience. If critique does not perform this function, it becomes unwelcome. It can be nostalgic, irritated, and sad, as long as these are its “themes.” Preferably, all that should be recognised as the themes of an artwork as well, but to be critically disillusioned with an artwork is a no-no. Such nostalgic criticism is more attractive because it gives an opportunity of self-identification for those who are smitten with the feelings of unfulfillment and meaninglessness; a reader is offered something to identify with—yes, this is exactly how I feel. However if critique attempts to break away from this melancholy, if it faces the causes of its discontent, it immediately gets accused of antagonism and unjustified grumbling.4

K. Š.: I surely would agree that during the last couple of years contemporary art system and its critique experience a deep crisis. They are busy forming a space of paradoxical “obligatory global friendliness and prosperity” which “elegantly” eliminates any manifestations of critical and independent thinking. We are left only with a small circle of self-praising “homies.” It is a shame that after being a platform for an independent thought for several years, Artnews.lt turned into another space for empty simulations and indulgence towards power. I would say that by restructuring EGW, Artnews.lt also destroyed itself morally. And it all happened at the time when the need for spaces for critical thought is the most pressing. Paradoxically, this gesture actually only confirms the insights of the critique that the system avoids and loathes so badly…

The conversation has been published in Lithuanian in the culture weekly “Literatūra ir menas”, 2016/#6 (12 Feb).

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  1. Michelkevičė, L. (2015) “Lingual Discourses in Artistic Research and the Roles of the Talking Artist” In Acta Academiae Artium Vilnensis: Artistic Research: Theory and Practice, Issue 79, p. 61-76
  2. As far as the situation with the neighbouring countries is concerned, it might be worth to recall the 4th Artishok Biennial (2014) at the Mūkusala Art Salon, Riga. Its aim was to bring our attention to the lack of critical throught. Mūkusala Art Salon which has been established as space where the collections are stored and exhibited, is owned by Latvian businessman and collectioner Janis Zuzans. According to the idea of its curators, 10 original artworks were presented at the Biennial, and 10 different critical texts were written about each artwork. However, as requested by the owner of the gallery, Biennial added 10 more artworks to the exposition. Part of the resulted 100 texts were published in Artterritory.com magazine which is sponsored by the “Mākslas platforma” which in turn is funded by SIA “Alfor”, Latvia’s largest gambling machine retailers owned by Janis Zuzans.
  3. Gambickaitė, Danutė (2016) “Svajonių džinai ant parodų rūmų grindinio” (“Wish-Fulfilling Genies on the Ground of the Gallery”). In: Artnews.lt [Online]. Retrieved from: http://www.artnews.lt/svajoniu-dzinai-ant-parodu-rumu-grindinio-33136. (Date accessed 13 Jan 2016).
  4. Čiučelis, Tomas (2015) “The State of Critique in the Times of Acceleration.” In: Echo Gone Wrong [Online]. Retrieved from: http://www.echogonewrong.com/tribune/the-state-of-critique-in-the-times-of-acceleration (Date accessed 14 Jan 2016).

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