/ 3 October 2019

Week of the Festival: Druskininkai, Lithuania

On Governmental Lying Practices

Disregarding the Law

Sometimes one wishes for a text that could wave the flag of resistance, similar to that of Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, leading the fighters from the barricades and into the decisive assault. Sometimes it would be prudent to borrow the glasses of a systematising scholar and look through them at present-day confrontations happening in the public space between different communities, social groups, and the acting government. Sure, to have two in one would be the best option, though freedom flags and philosophical theories have always been known to go hand-in-hand – and I would much rather invoke the Paris events of 1968, inspired by Guy Debord and his The Society of the Spectacle, than bring to memory the elderly Marx, who later turned into a mere Soviet ghost. Conflicts in Lithuania this spring took no vacations and instead hammered away at the reconstructions of various parks, at the fate of the monument to Soviet-era writer Petras Cvirka, and the question of preserving Lithuania’s ancient forests; they, fuelled by the actions of the Vilnius and other city mayors, laboured behind our backs, devising new scenarios for antagonising the society.

The first thing that particularly catches the eye (even without the scholar’s glasses on) are the government’s actions, which are either baseless in terms of the law or done clearly in such a way as to circumvent it, such as the unilateral decisions of Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius, taken when his political opponents were on vacation, when he does not require the city’s municipality voting to take place, and carried out based on an unregistered legal document, and thus are, roughly and mildly speaking, legally dubious.

The Vilnius mayor’s actions are not the only ones marked by the same bizarre disregard for the law – the Ministry of Culture is now planning to build a suspension bridge within the territory of the Vilnius Castles state cultural reservation, while the status of the reservation itself precludes building of any kind. All the while others, less powerful or audacious, choose not new construction projects but ‘reconstructions’, when, for example, outdoor showers or lavatories suddenly transform into a hundred-square-feet, several story-high building standing on an immovable cultural heritage site and first-level resort protection zone, wherein the construction of any new buildings is prohibited. It is symptomatic that state institutions, i.e., the experts tasked with verifying the lawfulness of such projects ‘detect no violations’ until the issues are raised by the press, the local community, or any regular citizen.

The very first days of the Vilnius mayor’s term of office were marked by illegality – namely the removal of four Soviet sculptures from the Green Bridge in Vilnius, initiated in 2015. These sculptures are included in the registry of cultural heritage, are protected by the law even now, and thus cannot be erected anywhere else; however, the very same excuse of a ‘reconstruction’, restoration, or the apparently poor conditions can be used as a cover-up, the sculptures being transported in an unknown direction. Cultural heritage (luxurious Soviet-era lighting fixtures, also included in the list of cultural assets) simply ‘disappears’, as if fortuitously, from the city’s central Lukiškės Square; historical street pavement is disassembled and removed to some unknown place (the reconstruction of the Daugėliškio Street in Vilnius), even though, according to the project’s description, the funds are appointed to its restoration. On their way these ‘fixers’ also disassemble an ancient, 100-year-old water pressure substation that they have dug up beneath the soil – they disassemble it just so that it does not obstruct them in digging the pit. Trees standing in the squares of the cities and towns are felled on a massive scale, as the ‘reconstructions’ of these squares must be carried out, uniform like according to a military template – bare stretches paved with tiles. Are the barbarians ransacking Rome? Are the proletarians destroying the ancient historical legacy? No, these are the signs of our times. Those were not the primitive barbarians who decided to cut the whole city park down, to fell the hundreds of its trees for the development of a ‘reconstruction’ and a Baroque park, while in truth its construction project hid plans for laying new supply pipes across the park’s area. Perhaps the barbarians did not require such strategies of falsehood, even though their savagery is truly barbaric, as if borrowed from the arsenal of the old proletarian leaders. It is true that most European capital cities and minor towns also suffer from this disease of the eradication of nature and heritage, but the enduring struggles of the press, the publicity, the protesting citizens, and the trade unions have curbed a great deal of this savage barbarity.

Some time ago, as I contemplated the fight lead by prominent artists Gediminas and Nomeda Urbonas in 2007–2010 for the preservation of the privatized cinema ‘Lithuania’ with regards to it as a public space, I was sure that those were the times of an emerging statehood, the times of wild capitalism running amok, when vandalism and contempt for culture were generally normalised – but, I said to myself, things have improved now, we are in the European Union now, the scenario of ‘Lithuania’ becoming privatised cannot repeat itself. I was wrong; it did repeat itself. And it became the scenario of Lithuania becoming privatised. Even worse – parcels of land, our public spaces, our cultural heritage are often not only sold but given away for free, bestowed upon businesses.

The experience of disappointment and helpless observation of how cultural values are destroyed, an experience accumulated throughout a prolonged period, does not go away – and thus the scenarios consistently used by functionaries and business structures for concealing antistate, antilegal, antienvironmental, and other kinds of dirty deals lose their power of surprise and become easily recognizable. The systematic lying of the functionaries produces hostility and distrust; therefore, the communities and the citizens gradually devise and cultivate strategies of resistance, discontent, and disbelief, until one day the confrontation matures into a common distrust of the governmental structures, when any proposed reconstruction project of a square, park, mound, complex, or monument is deemed unacceptable. Is there a single one of them that does not hide some form of treachery, deception, or the interests of private parties?

It seems we agree that our country consists of different lingual and social groups. But looking at the ever-revolving wave of ‘reconstructions’ of various public spaces across Lithuania, one is surprised to observe the ability that not just Vilnius has to place the larger part of all projects in the hands of one architect and one construction company; it appears as if though they were all made by a single uninspired or some new state canon abiding-architect: Just chop all of the trees down and cover everything in tiles. Even the greenery is similar everywhere: short, small-leaved limes, hydrangeas that do not bear large blossoms, and small-leaved shrubs. And if a group of people, no matter how large, would wish to have an English garden, if the community or some group of people care for nature, if the trees that they still remember from their childhoods, and which are still remembered by their parents, are dear to them, if somebody chooses to walk on foot and not go by car, all of their needs are plainly disregarded. Who needs historical heritage? You do? Is it too hot for you to cross the Lukiškių Square, paved with stone and concrete, during the summer? Well don’t cross it then. Are you standing during the peak summer heat at a public transport stop? So that you don’t stand there anymore, state-picked experts have cut down all of the trees and specifically designed transparent stop canopies that provide no shade.

This is what Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes had to say in her famous book,Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype:

While much psychology emphasises the familial causes of angst in humans, the cultural component carries as much weight, for culture is the family of the family. If the family of the family has various sicknesses, then all families within that culture will have to struggle with the same malaises. (p. 51)

It’s not by accident that the pristine wilderness of our planet disappears as the understanding of our own inner wild nature fades. It is not so difficult to comprehend why old forests and old women are viewed as not very important resources. It is not such a mystery.(p. 10)

I would only add that neither old men, nor the old architecture, nor cultural values, nor even history are considered needed anymore.

Thus, members of the community must suffer psychological pain and abuse as they are forced to watch how the parts of any individual or any state, cherished by them and foundational in essence – history, culture, nature – are being destroyed. It comes as no surprise that Clarissa Pinkola Estes uses the word struggle in saying that ‘all families within that culture will have to struggle with the same malaises’. Especially when those malaisesare embodied not only in the laws but in the very individuals that violate them, regardless of the fact that they are the ones who have the instruments of power, i.e., who hold the offices of government.

I would like to look at just another aspect, or perhaps a paradox of the recent times, which came to be as a result of this confrontation – the division of one of the instruments of power. Information was always an instrument of infinite importance both in conflicts and creative work. During the times of war, and the subsequent Cold War, stories of espionage attracted a great deal of legends and film scenarios; Stierlitz, the Soviet hero of one such film (Seventeen Moments of Spring), became a prominent protagonist of folk anecdotes, while the just as much impressive agent James Bond, and industrial espionage in general, are still quite relevant. But the development of the internet brought about many changes – forms of espionage changed, and we have seen the emergence of all manner of cybernetic crimes and identity thefts – this, again, is linked to access to information. How governmental institutions operate and the appearance of official documents have changed, as well – now a great deal of things must be uploaded on the internet, where open access is granted to the very same documents that once could be stashed away in drawers and shelves and made unavailable for public use. The digital space is also a good place for easily tracking down the various fragments of a particular somebody’s personal life. We are worried about data protection, that we are tracked by various persons, that the State Tax Inspectorate can access much more of our personal data. But the same thing happened to government documents and affairs, session protocols, projects, and financial routes. An angry activist may easily find scores of data that the executive must put out. And here’s the frightening paradox – every functionary may also be tracked with the help of the internet, tracked by an anonymous observer, especially if they, the functionary, have already done something so as to ‘deserve’ the attention. A whole mob of observers and trackers can appear then. And these are not the kind of followers that one would like to have. The regular lies of the executive generate not just resistance but stalking, as well, when the name of a politician becomes a curse, when social media are flooded with dirty jokes and memes and collages made with the politician’s face. If, during the Soviet period, persecutions and lynchings could have been organised by the state and aided by the press, nowadays the same can be done by the angry citizens themselves, using the public space or the social media platforms, which act as equivalents to the press. Imagine – your name is not only turned into a curse, but with the help of tags, you’re also constantly reminded of it!

I can only conclude by bringing to memory a truth – a truth that has been known since times immemorial in small, closed communities, the shape of which, it seems, the whole of humanity has recently acquired: To lie in a narrow circle is dangerous. A lie here has short legs. All the while the executions carried out by such communities, albeit having nothing in common with corporal punishment, are especially cruel. How easy it is today to become a persecuted animal… O reputable politicians! Can you imagine the consequences that await when a large community, devoid of any other option, will go out to hunt?

By Aistė Kisarauskaitė (b. 1967 ), an artist, curator and writer. She has an MA degree in Painting in Vilnius Academy of Arts and now is studying for Ph. D. Since 2015 she is the owner and curator of home gallery „Trivium“. She is also the author of short prose book 39 salto mortale. This book in 2013 was nominated for the best essay book in „Book of the Year“ cathegory. She is the author of many art performances, participated in many joint and group exhibitions and had several personal exhibitions. Kisarauskaitė also writes reviews and articles for various Lithuanian newspapers, cultural magazines and internet media. She lives in Vilnius.

Translated by Markas Aurelijus Piesinas

Edited by Marius Burokas