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The 12th Kaunas Biennial: a journey full of unexpected discoveries

Kaunas Biennial, the largest event of contemporary art in Kaunas, is approaching the finish line. The exhibition AFTER LEAVING | BEFORE ARRIVING by thirty international artists has been presented in different museums, galleries and public spaces of the city. The twelfth Kaunas Biennial will we welcoming its visitors until September 29. Its works and artists are presented by the guides of the exhibition Ugnė Pavlovaitė and Eglė Urmanavičiūtė.

You are guides. Why have you found this profession appealing? Why it still is?
Eglė:I have discovered myself as a guide unexpectedly when working at the museum and I liked it. I like people and their unique ways to see the world. Every time, when waiting for an excursion, I don’t know what kind of company I will welcome. The first couple of minutes are spent trying to sense their mood, tempo, I ask myself whether it is possible to joke with this company and how should I do it, whether I need a formal, or on the contrary, honest and open communication. Being a guide is first and foremost about communication. And about secrets. When I am getting ready for an excursion, I try to tell as much about the backstage as possible, tell about the importance of the process. Otherwise, it would only be pointing a finger at objects.

Ugnė: I am new in this field. I think that a guide must be completely flexible, tolerant and very emphatic towards the group. I must also know how to quickly adapt to unforeseen circumstances, so for me as an art manager risk anticipation and management is a great challenge. Every time, when I prepare my texts, I always think that people will definitely not enjoy dry information, so I try to find something new, sprinkling my existing knowledge with interesting facts about an artist or the work. This way of exploring things brings something not only to me, but people in the tour as well.

You know this year’s edition of Kaunas Biennial like no one other. You contributed to the installation of exhibition, you meet the visitors at the infopoint and guided the tours. What is the most fascinating and challenging when working on a contemporary art festival of such a scale?
Eglė: What fascinates me the most is that you don’t know what the tomorrow will bring. It was very evident during the period of installation and preparation work: you wake up in the morning and think: “Well, so what it is going to be like today?”It is the most interesting yet the most challenging. There were situations when you do not even now where to start, which fire to extinguish first. During a period of such intensity, I think it is very natural.Ugnė: What has fascinated me the most during the entire process is not only the challenges which have been plenty, especially during the preparation period, but communication with people, establishing contacts with participants and curators of Kaunas Biennial. Establishing a network which is one of the most important aspects to form our organisation and a part of our everyday routine.

Ugnė, you have experience working in the foreign art organisations. What differences and similarities you notice the most?
One of the greatest differences is the size of the team and involvement of stakeholders into the joint activities. The team of EVA International is very small but their work is very accurate and coordinated. Maybe in case of a smaller team each member has a chance to establish a closer connection, as opposed to a big team. I was also surprised by the solidarity of organisations in Limerick working to implement this art project. There are definitely many similarities between Kaunas Biennial and EVA International since both organisations strive to ensure the promotion of professional contemporary art in the city, the process is also similar. I am glad about new experiences and opportunities provided which I can implement in my native city Kaunas. Both experiences have been very rewarding and interesting.

Eglė, you are a guide in the teams of both Kaunas Biennial and Ekskursas. What are the similarities and differences? How has Kaunas Biennial caught your attention?
The difference is that the context of the Biennial is much wider, and we visit several works. During Ekskursas tours, we focus on one object and go as deep as possible into the context of this one object. The main aim of Ekskursas is to get to know and explore the city, poke your nose where you would not usually come or on the contrary, have a look at an unusual place. Well, and in Kaunas Biennial, you want to create a narrative and a mood, to draw people to this year’s topic not only by saying the titles, but also creating a light feeling of levitation. During the tours of Kaunas Biennial, I consciously try not to instruct too much before seeing some works, but first allowing them to see, to think and see what they want, and later we discuss it. Therefore, I have come up with a little rule: not to interrupt and be in charge but rather to set the mood. I don’t know if I am more of a guide or a friend, but maybe rather more of an entourage. (laughs)

What are you looking forward to the most when the tour approaches?
Eglė: People to show around! It is an important condition for a good excursion! And then I look forward to those first looks and reactions that allow me to understand and feel what people have come here this time and what is the general mood of people. If this happens within the first couple of minutes, I know that everything is going to be fine.

Ugnė: I agree with Eglė, we are looking forward to the visitors so much. It sometimes happens that friends and neighbours meet unexpectedly during the tours; these are really pleasant coincidences. Whether you anticipate it or not, I feel a bit nervous before each tour. It encourages you to assess your preparation accurately and motivates to deepen your knowledge. I try to discover possible interpretations, look at the text from the visitor’s perspective and highlight the essential things. It is very important for me to become acquainted with the concept of contemporary art and Biennial. I am also looking forward to the evaluation of guests who usually express it through genuine smiles or a discussion about their experience. The most pleasant thing is when people return to visit the exhibition one more time.

Kaunas Biennial offers three thematic tours around the exhibition in Kaunas Railway Station, Kaunas Picture Gallery and other objects. Two of them are guided by you. How could you describe both all of them and which aspects in them are the most important?
Ugnė: The 2 Steps (2 žingsniai) tour is very Lithuanian. It is, one could say, some sort of identification of one’s identity in the global context of today. Pursuits full of personal painful experiences and suffering. What I’ve notice so far, one of the most prominent motifs of the excursion I could define is the endless journey through the unpleasant events of the past that bring suffering and the constant feeling of anticipation. A very sensitive topic in 2 Steps is migration. Looking at the constant changes and globalisation, the journey of the Lithuanian nation is questioned.

One of the most interesting aspects is the end of the excursion, when we reveal what does the name of the excursion mean, where can two steps bring you and how far apart one from another we are. The brightest yet perhaps the least noticeable work that is very important when speaking about the personal experience is Alberto Garutti’s stones set into the floor. What I admire the most is the sensitive and meaningful phrase of the artist and the idea to spread it all around the world. Just like us, the Lithuanian nation, which is currently spread around the entire globe. This is the key motif of this tour.

Eglė: When we have just been developing the topics and discussing the upcoming guides, I simply “stole” the Railway Station saying that it’s mine! I like it very much both as a building and an urban object. It fascinates me how many emotions do the stations absorb: I still find it fascinating and mysterious that trains are never late: they simply depart on time. It is a fantastic thing.

Kaunas Railway Station is very rich in terms of the diversity of topics. Wherever you go, you find history. This year’s topic of Kaunas Biennial AFTER LEAVING | BEFORE ARRIVING is closely related to the anticipation and the feeling of weightlessness, when you are not in one place, but not in the other one as well. Therefore, the railway station is a perfect way to develop this topic. For example, once we enter the waiting hall, we hear weird noises. This is one of my most favourite works: Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa’s Songs of Extinct Birds Previously Unknown to Science, But Recovered By Spiritism, 1. It is fun to watch people’s reactions to those sounds: some turn around suspiciously to see from where these sounds come from, others do not even notice that there is some sort of alien object at the station. During one tour, one person even responded them by mimicking a song usual for our birds, a charming dialogue ensued. The topic of extinct birds is a bit related to the topic of anticipation: you are at the waiting hall and listen to those who have not been able to wait for your arrival. All objects at the Railway Station are more or less related to waiting, solitude, scars. However, one should not think that all those works are woeful. On the contrary, they are meditative. The name 99 Metres (99 metrai) is symbolic in terms of the physical distance. It is the shortest tour, but in terms of ideas and experiences, we cross the horizon. Therefore, we invite you to make your own 99 metres. I should also mention that this tour is full of sarcasm and criticism, so fans of this genre really like it.

How does one properly prepare to go on a tour?
Eglė: Get a good night’s sleep, eat and wear comfortable shoes. I think this is a set for good mood. I would not recommend joining it while angry, because it first of all interferes with the joy of knowledge. The most important thing is to come open-minded, without any preparation, research and analysis. Let’s allows ourselves the joy to discover, be surprised and later maybe get more knowledge.

Ugnė: Not to surround ourselves with some stereotypes or stay in the clutches of the knowledge we have heard before. To be ready for a wholesome journey, discoveries and adventures.

How to choose an excursion?
Eglė: I would suggest making a blind choice: the best thing is for you not to know anything. We have prepared the descriptions, but they are very cryptic. Of course, it is more difficult for people who want to know in advance what they are going to get, but I would suggest making a choice intuitively.

What does the journey mean personally for you?
Eglė: This can be answered from a very practical or philosophical perspective. In any case, the journey means some sort of shift, physical or the ideological one. To discover and be surprised. This is what I like the most and the most likely probability of these things can be found in journeys.

Ugnė: To me, the journey is dynamics and some sort of change. Maybe it is a small one, or maybe drastic and as a unique change in everything.

The 12thKaunas Biennial AFTER LEAVING | BEFORE ARRIVING explores the journey as a metaphor of a city with a complex past and a thriving cultural identity.
Curators: Elisabeth Del Prete, Daniel Milnes, Lýdia Pribišová, Neringa Stoškutė, Alessandra Troncone.
Three thematic tours of Kaunas Biennial 99 Metres, 2 Steps and 30 Lights (30 šviesų) as well as an exhibition of works by 30 international artists is available in Kaunas until 29 September.

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