Why did you decide to bind your life with art?
Neringa: I grew up surrounded by culture as my father was a writer, and together with my mother and three sisters we were dragged into diverse cultural events, and our house was always full of other writers, painters, actors or directors. I went to an art school, but I didn’t even consider becoming an artist, I thought I could do art history and theory at most. Yet here I am, working on several ‘fronts’ at the same time – being an artist, running a project space, writing for art magazines and editing one myself. I guess that, without starting to work closely with Ugnius on his own projects, I wouldn’t have shifted my role to the current one.
Ugnius: Culture has been in my life since infancy too – my father is a painter and my mother was a music teacher. Thus, since I was a kid, I was more into music: I went to a music school and choir, then I was in two different bands for, like, 15 years or so. I thought my life would be bound with music for the rest of my days, but then I went to open studios in Vilnius Art Academy where my cousin studied photography and media art at that time, and it blew my mind. I immediately was hooked on photography and entered into the same photography and media department later on. However, since we started working together with Neringa, my primary medium – photography and media art – switched to a more tangible form of sculpture and installation.
Let’s remember 2014, the year when Pakui Hardware was created. What was the year for you, personally? Was the creation of the group an answer to some global changes?
It was a year when Neringa graduated from her studies at CCS Bard and we returned from New York to Europe. The return coincided with our solo show at Vilnius Contemporary Art Centre (CAC) for which we presented installation The Metaphysics of the Runner, which was conceived specially for the CAC space. With this show we had to articulate – to ourselves and to others – the strong shift from our previous practice both materially, aesthetically and conceptually. While living in New York we were strongly influenced by the city’s rhythm, emerging theoretical and artistic trends. We moved away from archival approach towards more contemporary language and issues, such as capital traveling through bodies and materials. The Metaphysics of the Runner and the topics explored there provoked the birth of Pakui Hardware title, which was coined by a curator Alex Ross. Pakui is a Hawaiian mythological character, a runner that is able to circle Oahu island six times a day, thus it refers to velocity and more semiotic part of the reality, while Hardware is the material part of that same reality – body, matter, resources, hardware. Pakui Hardware is a constant friction between these two levels of reality, and also an active exchange of resources.
What was the first solo exhibition of the PH about?
As the title of the show – The Metaphysics of the Runner – itself suggests, the installation derived from the growing cult of an über athletic body which was building up rapidly at that time not only in NYC, but all around Western countries. This cult was nurtured by the capital’s need for constant and increasing productivity that humans kept failing to provide. In this context, we researched such ideas as transhumanism, prosthetic beings, and accelerationism. The installation itself was reminiscent of a dysfunctional gym, where exercising devices were stripped of their original function to become abstract minimalist sculptures that were used as ‘pedestals’ for TV monitors and other objects. The whole atmosphere in the exhibit was eerie, sterile and cold as a contrast to the usual sweaty bodily experience of a gym. It was devoid of physical bodies. The metaphysics of the runner is about pushing forward, exceeding yourself, stepping into post-organics, consuming additives.
Judging by the shape of your works, they can be called neo-sculpture (using a mix of different materials) that underline the difficulties that the bioworld encounters in the current environment of the anthropocene. Is it your actual conceptual intention when creating your pieces?
Absolutely. By combining synthetic and organic materials we allow their own performativity to flourish. We work hand-in-hand with materials, often obeying their demands and character rather than acting as some sort of a Creator, a transformer of material reality. By doing so, we attempt to show the importance of that ‘hardware’ part of the real: to emphasize the active symbiotic relationship between the body and its environment, technology and energy, capital and resources. Materiality is not passive, but a very active agent in developments in the world, be they technological, geological or cultural changes. Since the very beginning of our practice, we celebrated hybridity of things. Hybridity not only helps to defeat established dualisms (the Cartesian mind-body divide, or the canonical Culture-Nature dichotomy), but also it seems to be the only mode of survival in the given (anthropocenic) situation and in the future.
What is the place of material here?
Central, haha. When it comes to realizing our initial visions, we are truly analog people. Thus, when institutions or galleries, or curators ask us for visualizations, we freak out every time, because it’s almost impossible to predict how things in the process are going to evolve, even for ourselves. We can sketch out the schematic floor plan, or mood of the upcoming project, but not detailed slick renders of future sculptures. That is why we often invite our architect friends, Ona Lozuraitytė and Petras Išora, to work on large-scale institutional shows – their architectural sketches are like pieces in themselves! Meanwhile, the sculptural objects always remain vague until they are born. It is because the chosen materials dictate their own rules and shape your initial visions and decisions. The process of their combination thus turns out to be very spontaneous, intuitive, playing in accordance with their specifications. It might be a painfully frustrating or a very joyous process. It is never boring, though, that’s for sure!
It is symbolic that The Metaphysics of the Runner in the context of the ongoing coronavirus crisis can be revised as a reflection of the world in which we have lived before… and how some Materiality could be changed by the natural obstacles which are beyond our control, to the smallest nature – an extracellular information agent such as a virus. It looks like we don’t have so much power over the material, over nature, as we used to think.
In the Hybridity it seems as if materiality is more powerful than nature, isn’t it?
We don’t oppose material(ity) to nature, because material and materiality is exactly what deletes the dichotomy of culture-nature, as it can be both man-made and natural. It also often has control over humans rather than vice versa… So if we answered your question it would be that both parts are powerful, because they are both a part of nature.
The next question for both of you, separately: what is the most intimate (in the terms of bounded emotionally) project for you in PH?
Neringa: I would say The Return of Sweetness. It was the first time we worked with glass and it was an incredible discovery and challenge. This endeavor resulted in pieces that are very light visually, but conceptually heavy. It’s not easy to create something that looks so effortless, but they truly looked that way somehow.
Ugnius: Extrakorporal. It managed to embody the ideas that we were focusing on at that time in a very organic manner. We enjoyed working with new combinations of materials, such as faux fur, leather, glass, silicone, and latex. It was quite bumpy, but a very fruitful experience.
Could you say that each exhibition in a new geographical place gets affected by the local context? What do you pay attention to first of all when you are offered an exhibition in a city you have not been before?
Naturally, when you’re invited to have a solo show in a city/country you’ve never been to before, you try to get acquainted with the local context and history as much as possible. However, unless you come for a longer term residency, it is unrealistic to get a more complete picture of that particular city. Therefore, we try to focus first on the physical space of where the show is going to take place and then the context around the institution (both material context and political, social context in which it is situated). For example, when we did Creatures of Habit, the former SIC gallery space was located in a post-industrial harbor territory, which has been rapidly gentrified and developed into a residential and recreational area. The building was surrounded by beautiful industrial harbor machinery, like cranes etc. This triggered the idea and vision of Creatures of Habit, which explored robotic bodies and their vulnerability. In the case of Underbelly, for example, the installation was also inspired partly by the exceptional architecture of the museum, its luminosity and open spaces, and the possibility to overview a few floors at the same time. We transformed the light into a soft pinkish color via the stretched fabric and also doubled the viewing possibility by introducing three ladders/objects on which viewers could climb up to experience the installation (and the architecture of the museum) from one more angle. Our first large scale institutional solo show Vanilla Eyes at MUMOK in Vienna was too strongly influenced by the low, long and cold underground room in which our installation was supposed to be created. It was reminiscent of an underground laboratory, an effect which we tried to evoke in Vanilla Eyes too.
Let’s imagine… in the world where Hybridity is already almost an everyday norm, what could be the next global idea in the art of PH?
Renewability. Starting from cellular level (learning about rejuvenation and immortality from aquatic species such as turritopsis dohrnii jellyfish) to renewable energy and resources. Such a project again requires a close assemblage of technology, nature and correct political agenda.
What would the ideal environment to exhibit the idea of Renewability be?
At the bottom of the Ocean.
Where do new ideas for the art of PH come from? What are the sources of your inspiration?
It comes both from our recent interest and research about various technologies and techniques to achieve rejuvenation and immortality and from the present condition of suspension. Such techniques might vary from tacit knowledge of the aforementioned species, like the immortal jellyfish or, say, lobsters or sea urchins, to scientific attempts made in laboratories (in such fields as regenerative medicine and tissue engineering), and, finally, to shamanistic knowledge and performed rituals. The idea of a wider renewal is also derived from the current global situation, which will require a fundamental rethinking of revival. We can only hope this revival would also bring about crucial changes regarding the use of resources and the conscious limitations on human activities. So that such epidemics would not repeat over and over again. But it is already clear that we won’t learn from our mistakes as some country leaders from the EU are already pushing to put the green deal aside in favor of faster economic recovery…
What other kinds of media would PH love to try? Should we wait for video or digital sculptures from PH, for example?
Like we’ve mentioned before, we are definitely analog people when it comes to digital tools, so no digital sculptures or virtual exhibitions from our camp. We would like to continue experimenting with textiles, their surfaces and textures, impregnating them with silicone, latex or resin. We still feel like we haven’t yet explored the whole potential glass can offer, thus we are definitely going to use it for a little while longer (as long as the resources allow us, haha). So, nothing extraordinary as such, but for us each new project opens up new perspectives in terms of techniques and materiality. This is one of the reasons that keeps us going. The excitement of unresolved and unpredictable.
The Return of Sweetness explores metabolism, both as a biological bodily process and on a global, civilisational scale. But in Extrakorporal you are thinking about magic which is inaccessible for human beings (as a mythical peaches of Immortality). What is the role of humans in your concepts? Is it about an archetype of a positive or a negative hero?
In Extrakorporal we were thinking of shamanistic techniques to enter levels of reality that are not accessible to a regular Western person, but are open for those with a wider perspective. A view in which culture vs nature dichotomy is much blurrier than we are used to. In general, the role of humans in our practice is as important as other species or not living things. We always try to emphasize the vulnerability of human bodies and what positive things such vulnerability could bring. We can think of empathy, of care or interdependence, of prosthetics. Thus, humans are neither negative nor positive per se in our practice. It is one bio-technological species among others, entangled in wide and complex assemblages of things and processes.
As you mentioned above, there are topics of rejuvenation and immortality in your art as a reflection of the current condition of the world… Are you personally afraid of death? Would you like to be immortal in any shape?
Neringa: We both read this novel All Men Are Mortal (1946) by Simone de Beauvoir in which the main character was immortal from the middle ages to the present. It was one of the saddest books that we have ever encountered. Being immortal means seeing the same mistakes repeated by humans and humanity over and over again, as they never learn from history and thrive on revenge and violence. You also lose all of your beloved ones constantly as you’re the only one who survives them. Do we really want to be immortal?
Ugnius: We were invited to an exhibition Immortalism curated by Heinrich Dietz at Kunstverein Freiburg, and the curator quoted Hito Steyerl, who, in one of her talks, said that maybe we should change the question from ‘Do you want to be immortal?’ to ‘Do you want to die today?’. Then the perspective changes quite radically. Barely anyone wants to die today, but being immortal sounds more like a curse than a blessing for me. Living a little longer and in better health – yes, why not. But living forever…