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Daniel Milnes

Daniel Milnes: The Viewer of an Exhibition Needs to Be Open, Brave and Confident

The 12th Kaunas Biennial, one of the biggest cultural and art events in Lithuania, returns at the beginning of June. This year, the Biennial AFTER LEAVING | BEFORE ARRIVING presents several novelties to visitors: for the first time it will be held in summer and will be based on the principle of co-curation.

One of the five curators, Daniel Milnes, is an assistant curator at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum in Berlin. ‘I see the Kaunas Biennial as a chance to enrich the cultural ecology of the city, inspire and integrate local artists and the public, and acquaint them with other ways of thinking,’ says Milnes.

During the interview, Milne shares his own experiences and thoughts about the upcoming event.

You have already curated several international exhibitions. How did you discover curatorship? After all, your first studies were related to languages.

My early studies focused on German and Russian literature and linguistics. During these years, I discovered a number of great writers and thinkers but never truly felt comfortable in the role of literature scholar. Although so much can be said with the written word, I nonetheless felt that there was a reality beyond the page that deserved more attention, a medium that could speak more universally without being constrained by the abstraction of language. It was at this time that I started to explore the visual arts more, beginning with the classical modern period, and working forward towards the contemporary. I decided to take the practical skills acquired in my first studies and use my proficiency in foreign languages to take up a degree in art history, dividing the time between Freiburg, Germany,and Saint Petersburg, Russia. Afterwards, I was fortunate enough to be offered a traineeship at the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, where I began to learn how to translate theoretical and historical approaches into different formats, including publications, public programming and, of course, exhibitions. Since then, I have been using each curatorial project as a chance to redefine my approach to understanding and mediating art, actively seeking different models of exhibition making, and always speaking with as many artists as possible to produce relevant projects.

This year’s Kaunas Biennial will be based on the principle of co-curating, and your team will consist of five people. What do you think of curating with others? How can it enhance the exhibition itself?

When creating a project that should address a wide audience, it is essential to think about a topic from more than one perspective. Of course, this is not an easy process: uniting multiple opinions to form a coherent experience for the viewer, without seeking the safe and often uninspiring ground of consensus, is a difficult task. I find respectful dispute to be a very productive space and these fruitful moments of debate are difficult to simulate as a lone curator. But, above all, collective curating offers an intellectual support network and fosters solidarity within a field that can at times seem unnecessarily focused on individual achievementand the unhealthy connotations of competition this brings with it.

As I understand it, this is the first time you’re curating a biennial of contemporary art. What drew you to Kaunas, Lithuania?

I was lucky enough to be invited on a research trip to Vilnius by the Lithuanian Culture Institute. This trip included attending the opening of the 2018 edition of the Baltic Triennial, as well as studio visits with some of the most exciting Lithuanian artists. I was very inspired by my experiences in Lithuania, and upon my return, I made time to undertake further research on the history and culture of the country. I am always interested in alternative stories and locations. This led me to look at other cities in Lithuania, including Kaunas. During this research, I discovered the open call for the 12thKaunas Biennial and decided to submit an application. I was very fortunate to be entrusted with the role of co-curator together with four wonderful colleagues from across Europe.

This is also the first time when the biennial will begin in the summer, while many are on holiday, traveling. Do you think this year’s exhibition will promote cultural tourism?

Although we designed the exhibition with a local audience in mind, there is, of course, plenty to discover for people from other cities and countries. It would be great if the exhibition could encourage people to travel to Kaunas and learn more about the city. The accompanying publication will act as a kind of guidebook for the city as well as a tool for understanding the art on display. We have even placed one work of art by Christian Jankowski on the motorway leading into Kaunas, so visitors will ‘enter the exhibition’ during the journey to Kaunas.

In your opinion, what are the criteria that the visitor/viewer of a contemporary art exhibit should be able to understand in order to be able to analyse and reflect on the works of art?

I think a viewer of an exhibition needs to be open, brave, and confident. There is no specific toolkit needed to understand art, but unfortunately decades of grand historical narratives have resulted in a public perception of art as something that is perhaps distant, elite, and, at worst, irrelevant. Simultaneously, the market value of art has contributed to the perception that it should be ‘beautiful’ and serve to please. I would encourage people to lower their expectations of art and artists, and to trust their instincts. Do not try too hard to find ‘the truth’ or something intellectual when looking at art; just try and accept it for what it is and ask yourself how it corresponds to your experience of the world around you. If the visitor allows their thoughts to grow from here, they should hopefully discover greater ideas. And if they do not like a piece of art, this is also fine. Disagreeing with an artist’s point of view is also a healthy way of assessing one’s attitude toward the world. If a visitor is open to the challenge of negative emotion as well as positive emotion, then they can begin to unravel the full potential of an exhibition.

Let’s talk about the very concept of a biennial. Is it not the case that society is much more accepting of short-term initiatives rather than works that are intended to stay in the public space for the long run (after the biennial ends)?

Any permanent gesture inflicted on public space should be considered very carefully. How does this intervention affect the perception of the urban environment? What does it contribute to the lives of those who will encounter it over the coming years? It is important to be mindful of these implications and to develop a sensibility for local concerns and attitudes before simply making a mark on an unfamiliar landscape. If this sensitivity to place is not observed, then there will be justified criticism from local residents. But art extends beyond the material: I see the Kaunas Biennial as a chance to enrich the cultural ecology of the city, inspire and integrate local artists and the public, and introduce them to other ways of thinking. Perhaps it is the social aspects of an ephemeral event such as the Kaunas Biennial that have greater potential to incite change, rather than the installation of physical works. This is certainly something that I hope we achieve with the forthcoming exhibition.

The metaphor of travel and the search for identity in the biennial’s works from various historical contexts seem to provide the viewer with the opportunity to reflect on the constant transformations of personality, or city or country identity. Would you agree?

Of course. The Kaunas Biennial will not speak solely of migration and shifting borders, but also of internal transition, considering the radical socio-political shifts that can happen within a single country or city, and in the mentality of its people.

As a curatorial team we were very touched by the recent history of Kaunas, a city which bears the marks of many powerful and dark forces of the European history. After grasping sovereignty and emerging from the ruins of the World War I as the Lithuanian capital, Kaunas and its people were subjected to the Soviet andNazi Germany occupation , and, later, a period of intense reinvention after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They witnessed demographic shifts due to the deportation and execution of Jews and other ethnic groups, as well as Lithuanians too. The optimistic urbanisation of the interwar period was swiftly replaced by an aggressive dislocation from rural tradition in the interests of an industrialising, foreign imperial agenda. The collapse of Communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union offered new opportunities but little in terms of support during a phase of re-orientation in an alien socio-economic structure.

Lithuania, particularly its cultural scene, has a fantastic energy and vibrancy, but of course, all of these experiences of the past inevitably continue to shape the present moment and raise some key questions. What does it mean to be Lithuanian, or specifically Kaunasian, during and after these many transformations? To what extent should this history be considered when designing the future? How should Kaunas and Lithuania position itself on the European stage the scenery of which is ever-shifting in a disorienting and often sinister manner? These are just some of the questions we hope to try and pick apart with the metaphor of travel.

The 12th Kaunas Biennial will be organised in various locations in Kaunas, including the Kaunas Railway Station. How were the exhibition spaces chosen? What were the deciding factors?

The Kaunas Biennial team had already arranged Kaunas Railway Station as a venue for the exhibition in advance, alongside the lower exhibition space of the Kaunas Picture Gallery. These two locations became the points of departure for the curators’ thinking about how to shape the exhibition as a whole. It was clear from the start that we wanted to engage with the history of Kaunas, and there were a number of charged sites around these two locations that were important for the narrative we want to tell: Kaunas Old Cemetery (also known as Ramybės Park), the complex housing the Vytautas the Great War Museum and the M. K. Čiurlionis Museum of Art, as well as other examples of interwar architecture, such as the Kaunas Artists’ House. Each of these locations tells a very rich and specific story that we hope to articulate with the works on display. For some venues we have chosen existing works of art that resonate with the site, but we have also invited artists whose interests match up to locations to produce new projects.

The exhibition will be attended not only by artists from different European countries, but also by creators from South and Central America and the Caucasus region. What do you think this geographic diversity will bring to the biennial and its visitors?

My answers so far have addressed very specifically the Lithuanian context. Although a number of works deal directly with the history of Kaunas and Lithuania, we also looked for parallel situations in other parts of the world. Of course, the most direct comparisons can be seen in other former Soviet countries, particularly the Baltic States. However, there is also a (post-)communist narrative in Cuba, for example, and a work about the current socio-economic situation on the island by artist Adrian Melis will be placed in dialogue with pieces that address the post-Soviet situation in Eastern Europe. Another strong binding element in the exhibition narrative is the tradition of modernist design: the radical use of geometric forms in architecture and applied arts that was prevalent in Kaunas during the interwar period and beyond as an expression of progressive Lithuanian identity can also be found in other cultures, particularly in Latin America. By framing these international works within very specific historical locations in Kaunas, we hope to open up an awareness of how the history of the city resonates with wider global movements. In doing so, perhaps we can encourage empathy and understanding for different cultures and cultivate a feeling of solidarity rather than difference.

Travelling can provide a variety of experiences, discoveries, adventures, or deep reflections. What are the discoveries, ideas, and reflections that can be expected from the theme of AFTER LEAVING| BEFORE ARRIVING?

I think  AFTER LEAVING| BEFORE ARRIVING will offer a spectrum of emotions: there will be moments of dynamism, action, and spectacle, but also moments to stop and think, for meditative introspection, for a re-evaluation of the world and one’s place within it. Like on all journeys, there will sometimes be a raincloud on the horizon, sometimes there will be sunshine, positive and negative encounters, but at the end of it, there will hopefully be rich memories. I hope that the visitor will look back on AFTER LEAVING| BEFORE ARRIVINGand learn from it as they do from an exciting vacation. 

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