I met Ms. Kotryna Žemaitytė, Executive Director of Kaunas Biennial, at a cosy café, just outside her office. While there are so many meetings and preparations going on behind the scenes of the approaching 12thedition of Kaunas Biennial, we talked about freedom, dynamics and challenges of the upcoming projects.
First of all, let us speak about the very beginning: how was your interest in art born? Maybe there is some story about the first visit to an exhibition or a museum fresh in your mind?
There is no special story about why I became interested in art. But I guess it lies in my angry teen years. I have always had problems with focusing on things: if people telling me things were not passionate about the subject, I would simply cease to listen. This is when I have discovered that art is a tool to get to know the world in a more interesting way. My enrolment to the Art History and Criticism study programme stemmed from my liking to both art and history. To me, history has always seemed as the mother of all sciences, associated to wisdom and ability to learn from the mistakes of the past. But I have never been one of those people who knew what they want to do since their early childhood. Definitely not. At that time, the studies of Art History and Criticism sounded as a delicious cocktail of two of my favourite things: art and history. During my studies, I gained a lot of valuable knowledge and understood that I believe in art that analyses social problems and that it must reflect the current affairs. My studies helped me to understand that I don’t like “art for the sake of art”, that I appreciate socially active and sensitive art, irrespective of its field: visual and performative arts, fine arts, theatre of cinema. The important thing is for it to reflect the contemporary people, their problems, and for it to be properly communicated for as wide audience as possible.
You described history very beautifully: as the mother of sciences and the source of wisdom. How would you briefly describe what art is?
In my opinion, art is one of the ways to perceive the world and find out about the things you would probably not find interesting. To elaborate, for me art is telling a story that provides an opportunity to discover another place and time, another character and understand the Other.
As a resident of Kaunas, what is your connection with the city? Have you lived there all your life?
Yes, I am truly a Kaunasian, my parents and grandparents are also from Kaunas. It is weird, but I discovered the connection with the city only after running away from it. It helped me understand what unique and interesting the history of our city and the entire country is. How much we can tell the others, and how much others can learn from us. I think that we live in a special moment, when Kaunas is still a hidden treasure full of interesting, fun and sometimes painful stories. Unfortunately, we are not ready for all of them.
What experiences brought you to Kaunas Biennial? Do you remember your first visit in Kaunas Biennial?
My road to the Biennial was as I have imagined it to be. After finishing my BA studies, I found myself in an existential crisis facing the unknown: how would my life enfold? So, I dropped everything and became a volunteer in the 10thKaunas Biennial. We installed the main exhibition in Kaunas Central Post Office. The building had then already been abandoned for four years. The premises were dirty, unmanaged, full of clutter. First of all, I helped with the physical tasks: washing windows, floor, walls. Then, of course, installation works started, and later the exhibitions were opened. Together with other colleagues, we sold tickets, worked as guides. After the 10thBiennial, I worked as a project manager in Kaunas City Chamber Theatre. Until one late spring evening, I got a message from Ms. Virginija Vitkienė, manager of Kaunas Biennial, asking me to come back. Even though I like theatre very much, I could not resist such an offer. And then, everything happened very fast.
How does the day of Kotryna, executive director of Kaunas Biennial look like? You have already mentioned that this work is different from that of most of the people: there is no routine, on the contrary. So how does it work?
Being in the office for the biennial team is a luxury (laughs). Only last year, I have travelled by plane more than ever before. Currently our work is to travel, communicate with people, generate and connect ideas, inspire others, discuss things, compromise and find ways to implement everything. An ordinary work day includes meetings with various very different and very interesting people. Truth to be told, currently we enjoy having an opportunity to spend the entire day in the office replying to emails. (smiles)
The work is very dynamic, and time spent in the office is simply a luxury. How does your free time and time at home looks like? Are those completely different spaces, where home is related to complete tranquillity, or maybe creative chaos bringing energy and productivity?
Two things follow me in life all the time: freedom and tranquillity. It seems that this is what I have: tranquillity at home and freedom at work.
What was your greatest Biennial-related challenge?
A festival, event or any other initiative is implemented not by one person, but an entire group of them. And when you deal with a group, there is a variety of opinions, disputes and compromises. This is probably the greatest challenge: understanding that people and their relationship are a very fragile thing, constant striving to implement something together, trying to keep faith in your teammates along the way. Later, when it seems you work this relationship out, a new participant appears in the discussion: the audience.
It sounds like a lot of work with yourself and constant growth. What do you find valuable in this process?
Maybe it will sound trite, but there is nothing more pleasant than seeing inspired spectators who have found something new, and who are learning about critical thinking and tolerance. New people who joined the activities of Kaunas Biennial and discovered themselves in new situations. I think that art has the power to make the world better and even though the surveys show that only one tenth of the population is interested in art, it is pleasant to know that in your hands, there is a possibility to bring more quality into the world at least for them.
What do you personally anticipate from the upcoming Kaunas Biennial?
I am very much looking forward to meeting the future volunteers of Kaunas Biennial who bring new approaches to our team, as well as to the interaction with the audience. It is one thing to prepare a festival, admire ideas and works, but it is completely different to introduce your works to the audience. I am looking forward to the visitors and their reactions!
What would you single out? Advice the audience to focus on?
What would I want to say to all the people? That art is not a realistic painting, beautiful sculpture or a dramatic role played by an actor. Art is ideas, stories, things we tell about our feelings and experiences. And if we cannot understand that story immediately, I think it is worth asking for creators around us to elaborate on it. Questions are the key to knowledge. I think that in our society, we ask questions not enough and too modestly.
Well, and never feeling stupid for asking. This is the worst that can happen to the institution of art or any other field: communicating with your audience as if you are one step above.