Global and Local: An Observation from the Neighborhood

Edvardas Šumila / 24 Sep 2019

The vision of Sacrum Profanum, especially this year’s edition, catalyzes our thinking on the contemporary issues which we face on a daily basis. Most of these issues deal with our relation to borders and what comes under threat when we have a pressing political situation. Moreover, they comprise a register of the crucial shifts within the artistic sphere and acting as a response by crossing from the aesthetic dimension into the social and the political.

What does it mean to introduce a book of the festival, when we want it to have long-lasting value and, perhaps, even impact? By following Theodor W. Adorno’s way of thinking, art should not be directly engaged in politics to be truly committed politically. Quite the contrary, if we try to pose our commitment directly we fail at it instantly, as if by self-betrayal. And, of course, this notion is important when we talk about art. Furthermore, I believe that we are most truthful to our contemporary circumstances when we observe them from our own standpoint (after all, no other is available to us): with no feeling of imposition, but rather a candid assessment. Let us try to take this as our agenda here as well.

I think the challenge that is posed today in and at the same time by contemporary culture is situated in the paradigm shift of the meaning of global art, which has been so imminent in the past couple of decades. What does it mean for art to be global? Firstly, we tried to challenge our perception of art as a canon of exclusively Western culture. This hegemonic standpoint had to be changed, but we had yet to understand exactly what it means to think globally. Furthermore, art history – as a narrative progression – then becomes obsolete, since it reflects a very one-dimensional and fairly localized view on what art could, or indeed should be.

Since this discussion came into the spotlight, there had to be a way to pose different conceptual definitions of global art: in other words, a discussion aimed at finding different ways of talking about it. Earlier, it was not unusual to speak about art as a form of development: between different generations, movements, and trends which replaced one another while overlapping but still progressing. This narrative paradigm of Western art had to come to an end, but this sense of “globalness” went together with global economic development, a promise of global welfare, a dream which has never come close to its fulfillment, yet which still fuels neoliberal illusions.

As we face this change, this paradigm concerning globalness, we also face challenges. I want to discuss this by distinguishing between globalism – a conceived homogenization mostly turning all of us into economic subjects, with internationalism – which is by no means a new idea, but which became overshadowed by globality. According to Boris Groys, the artists of the avant-garde wanted their art to become universalist, and their visual language had to become accessible beyond traditional cultural borders.[1] I believe this was also the case with the most radical examples in music and sound-related practices. Quite to the contrary though, the contemporary artistic activities became perceived as ones very much reflecting the neoliberal paradigm: most importantly that everything becomes a commodity which can be auctioned, bought, and sold. But again, according to Groys, in its initial phases, internationalism was understood not as a marketing strategy, but as a political project.

Now before moving towards the relation to the particular situation of the festival, I would like to take a short excursion to another project I had a chance to curate, namely a CD compilation which was released in the end of 2018 by Lithuanian Music Information Centre under the title “Faraway but Ever Closer: Young Lithuanian Artists Abroad.” This release was chiefly a result of the need to present artists who were never part of the traditional art narrative, and yet, since the starting point of this discussion – an article by the same name couple of years before[2] – was initiated as a way to present the youngest generation, albeit approaching a phenomenon from this perspective seemed already outdated in 2016, as it is now. So, the investigation had to shift towards those who are on the sidelines, those who chose to study and create abroad without actually trying to follow the traditional path a to composer’s or music-maker’s career domestically.

What I was trying to talk about at that time was the movement of ideas, and the artist as an agent, choosing a cultural background which suits his or herself the best. And while we might be cautious about the identity which is presented within such a release, the cultural potential should not be seen as something localized or national. Quite the opposite, art, even when declared otherwise, has always been something international. And the more progressive and radical it was, the more it was about internationalism. So, in the global scene art can feel at home: it must have different ideas and also strive to become something broader.

Hence, if we continue this thought, I myself would never believe in any attempt to present exclusively Lithuanian or any other localized (or identified) discourse if it was based just on ethnic or national grounds, not so much also if it was to represent a very narrow understanding of what could it mean to be from somewhere in particular. But location and identity exist as much as otherness does, and it is of paramount importance in the emancipatory sense. Intersectionality also comes into play here, and it seems that different identities and entities impact one another. I believe it is very important to acknowledge the differences and avoid homogenization in order to prevent exactly the opposite: ultra-right tendencies in the social and political spheres.

The editors of e-flux, one of the biggest artistic and intellectual platforms, published a volume of texts that appeared as a way to reflect artistic practices in the globalized context, of which we talked at the beginning of this text – it is called Supercommunity, and I would like to raise awareness of this notion. It is both a pseudonym and a concept, while the authors are only trying to articulate it almost anonymously. “I am the supercommunity, and you are only starting to recognize me,”[3] they state. Supercommunity, as a unity and as a plurality is very important to consider when we talk about this. And as I am very fond of this notion, I believe that a festival like Sacrum Profanum has all the potential to join up and put our knowledge to work by getting to know the meaning of being a neighbor, something which is put up as one of the central themes in this year’s festival program. “I grow larger and healthier when forms of international solidarity are stripped of their progressive promise, and when those solidarities are put to work munching up real estate or vying for control of towns and villages.”[4] From this standpoint, the notion of neighbor as proposed by Sacrum Profanum is a fascinating one. It opens up a possibility to do just that, because being a neighbor is already a form of international solidarity, as put in the curatorial statement of the festival by Krzysztof Pietraszewski: “A good neighbor – one we can rely on, one we can count on – does not try to out-do us, but instead supports us in our endeavors.” And that is exactly what gives it a meaning, shape, and potential.

Discussing the neighbor situation also makes us think about borders; a notion which has altered its meaning with every big political change. While we were building the infrastructure of openness within Europe for the past few decades, economic struggles and social injustice have brought us the issues we have to contend with now – furthermore, the notion of borders has changed and in fact one can perceive a shift whereby borders have started to be perceived as walls as much in the country where I live right now (although I have to say that living in New York can give another concentrated feeling of what it means to live among different neighbors), as in many places across Europe too, and very much so in Poland. But walls make no sense when one understands the necessity of the other. And that can be done only by knowledge, and this, I believe, is what our mutual aim is here.

I believe that the realm of music and sound art has a little bit of a different dynamic than visual art does though. First of all, it is not so easily imagined as a commodity, with the exception of installations, the works are temporal and do not exist as things so it becomes difficult to speak about their aura in the Benjaminian sense and one authentic shape. Furthermore, localized art institutions are more aware of visual artists who are dispersed throughout the world, whereas it is much harder for a composer to engage in different communities as well as to be recognized by curators.

Nonetheless, curatorship is finding its way more and more into the realm of music, where festivals and events usually have artistic directors, managers, and not curators. In this sense, musical experience joins the global movement towards art as a place of experience and political manifestation – while curating meant telling a story, which was a departure from its original meaning – to take care (from the Latin “curare”) of the things presented, and now, more than ever, the curator’s goal has become to mediate and be less and less authoritarian. There is no great narrative behind this kind of approach, rather we examine the complexities and create ones of our own. And through this action we might come closer to the real political commitment which we mentioned at the beginning of this text – one of being truthful to the case.

Having discussed all of this, you are welcome to take a look into the musical and sound-related world, which is stemming right from the neighborhood, from Lithuania. Although be cautious, the notion of what is Lithuanian is discussed ever more in recent years and requires an awareness of what complexities does affiliation within such an identity brings. After all, these notions are liquid and ever-changing.

The relationship between the musical scenes of Poland and Lithuania has a long-standing tradition, and I believe many of the names from the mid-20th century onwards are well known to Polish audiences. It seems that we were good neighbors for quite a while now, and of course, we should be grateful to the old generation of musicologists and composers who dared to exchange ideas and knowledge still under oppression behind the Iron Curtain. Such figures as Krzysztof Droba and Andrzej Chłopecki on the Polish side were extremely important for the relationship and the knowledge of Lithuanian music from the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

Now a lot has changed in the past few decades and we tried to talk about these changes conceptually in the first half of the text. While we try to understand this “neighborship,” we also see that it has changed its habitus and works in a complex and relatively intersectional way.

The AHEAD festival for electronic sound practices was probably the first to explicitly employ the curatorial attitude described above. The festival was one of the factors to endorse it: one of the missions, since its inception in 2013, was to present unknown young Lithuanian artists from abroad, who later on became an integral part of the Lithuanian music scene. The original idea of the festival was to turn to unconventional spaces and employ them in a sort of independent manner and also show how easy it is to share knowledge and experience, making them available for everyone.

Since then it has become a place where young artists can experiment with electronic and electroacoustic means and, by inviting artists and lecturers from abroad, help them form an international experience. But the word music cannot frame what was happening in the festival from the very beginning – so, everything that has even a distant relation to the electronic sound practices and its impact can become part of it. Later on, it gained the subtitle Mutual thinking which came to be its principal aim; a shared experience and active participation, raising important questions and discussions. So, during the years its focus was put on electroacoustic composition, visual and sonic practices, analog music-making technologies and DIY aesthetics.

So, even coming from an unestablished background, the festival was the first to introduce the work of Vitalija Glovackytė and her project KINDER MECCANO (with her partner Michael Cutting), Andrius Arutiunian, Justina Šikšnelytė, Juta Pranulytė, Jūra Elena Šedytė, Andrius Šiurys, Aurimas Bavarskis among many others in Lithuania, while a lot of contemporary performers first found recognition within this festival as well, notably ensemble Synaesthesis – now perhaps the most important new-music collective based in Lithuania. Many of them have formed different entities and paths in the Lithuanian music scene, now becoming regular participants of Lithuanian cultural life.

The AHEAD festival as an initiative of extremely young curators and composers set the path even for more established ones, and now their work with the festival has been temporarily halted, but the mission has at least recently been taken up in part by another festival – Jauna Muzika, which has a long legacy of its own but also has changed its identity many times too. For more than a decade, under the leadership by members of the “Diissc orchestra” collective (Vytautas V. Jurgutis, Antanas Jasenka, and Martynas Bialobžeskis respectively) it was devoted to electronic music. From this year, curated by Arturas Bumšteinas, the festival focusses on experimental art forms as well as sound art and presents quite a range of different sound practices from Lithuania and abroad. While the festival itself is fairly well-known in the region, its focus has been on the more established ones, and most of the artists presented at the festival are already known on the scene in one way or another.

Lithuania became the forerunner in the field of contemporary opera, with the New Opera Action festival dedicated exclusively to contemporary opera – which is one of its kind in the region and one of only a few worldwide. It has presented dozens of new operatic works over the course of more than a decade. The festival is progressive in a sense that it acknowledges the complexity of the notion of the opera today, so the works range from theatre-like pieces to installation-based performances (such as the production of “Honey Moon” by Gailė Griciūtė (music, whose work is presented at the Sacrum Profanum festival this year as well), Gabrielė Labanauskaitė (libretto) and Julijonas Urbonas (design), to name just one). Although many successful collaborations have emerged from this festival, the alliance of Lina Lapelytė (composer), Vaiva Grainytė (writer), and Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė (director) is worthy of a special mention. Their first mutual work, exploring the laborious routine at the supermarket, called “HAVE A GOOD DAY!,” which was (and still is) extremely successful worldwide, and has been performed on many occasions in Europe, China, as well as New York. Its minimalist musical style and fresh approach to dramaturgy, emphasizing the inner dramas of the cashiers has set the path for their next work, “The Sun and The Sea”, an extremely original piece, turning a stage into a beach with real sand and putting the spectators to observe it from above. The piece investigates climate change through everyday life situations from the perspective of beach visitors. Although the first edition of the work was produced a couple of years ago, the new production won Lithuania its first Golden Lion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, so its recognition is still ever-growing rapidly.

Of course, the reader might be quite familiar with the Gaida festival, which is still a household name among the more conventional new-music circles. While the festival commissions many of the pieces by Lithuanian composers, and it is still the place to hear big names from abroad, it does not respond to any particular curatorial axis whatsoever. Perhaps it is the destiny of many established festivals – they lose their experimental spirit and, by establishing themselves as a tradition, they become more traditional themselves. Many of the internationally acclaimed composers from Lithuania, including the ones in the program of Sacrum Profanum namely Rytis Mažulis, Egidija Medekšaitė, and Justė Janulytė, have had their works performed there.

There are numerous other events and trends, but a more alternative kind of scene has become strong in Vilnius and Kaunas with different concert series devoted to noise and less conventional electronic sound practices which provide a hybrid or crossover approach to these genres. Concert tours and series organized by Armantas Gečiauskas (known mostly as Arma Agharta) and record labels such as Electron Emitter also participate in the organization of different experiences of contemporary sound. Meanwhile, the new music department established within the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre a couple of years ago has also become a source of experimental impulses and, under the direction of Vykintas Baltakas, initiates a lot of performances and collaborations.

Different phenomena associated with Lithuania live internationally, and along with Anton Lukoszevieze and his direction of “Apartment House” lots of Lithuanian pieces are presented worldwide, while the FLUXUS movement and its origins are inseparable from Lithuania as its founder Jurgis Maciunas was an exile from Kaunas. The endeavors of “Apartment House” and very explicitly in combination with Maciunas’ work show whole other side of what Lithuanian identity may mean. While Anton wasn’t raised in Lithuania, his sense of the culture is unique and international, being aware of the local artistic achievements, he always puts them in the right context universally. One of his regular collaborators, Arturas Bumšteinas, previously mentioned as the new curator of Jauna Muzika, has been based in Poland for many years and showcased his own work as well as helping to present music of other authors, and with the “Works and Days” ensemble, which is revived for the occasion of the festival as well.

When talking about the international, it is worthwhile to get back briefly to the discourse formed the Faraway but Ever Closer compilation. It is of those who chose to go abroad after finishing high school, or perhaps a bit later and formed their artistic paths. Many of them studied at the Institute of Sonology at The Hague, which is strongly oriented towards sound art, electronic and electroacoustic music. Aurimas Bavarskis, Donatas Tubutis, and Gediminas Žygus are just a few of those who went towards this direction. But the disposition, which Lithuanian artists have abroad allowed some distance and forms something new and interesting. Some others are keener to investigate the identity and its history, like Andrius Arutiunian, now pretty much as active in Lithuania as abroad. Yet some just choose different paths and investigate applied sound possibilities, like Aistė Noreikaitė, whose “Experience Helmet” reads brain waves and turns them into sound and has many possible uses; as a stand-alone piece, a tool for doing other interdisciplinary projects or as sound therapy.

Lastly, the awareness of globality has also revealed the universal attitude of artists and more and more of them chooses to identify more with ideas and conceptions than a branch of artistic discipline. That’s why sound practices stand along with all the other work done by artists in the fields of visual art, architecture, and film. It partly responds to the curatorial shift, albeit it is quite an important phenomenon on its own. While looking for sound-related ideas, it is worthwhile to check out the work of those primarily grounded in other artistic disciplines.

I believe that observing these different trends has given a picture of diversity of which the world of Lithuanian music comprises, thus, I have deliberately tried to present it as a totality, a constellation, and touched very little upon the participants of the Sacrum Profanum festival this year; I am sure that they will be well observed by other authors. All these contexts, which are going to be put forward within this book and within this festival promise a long-lasting impact, and issues that are touched within it must be relevant for a long while from now. I hope it will be a proper guide and a further invitation to see one another and learn from each other as well. Because that is what neighbors are for.

[1] Groys, Boris. Towards a New Universalism. In: Geert Lovink, ”What is the Social in Social Media?,” e-flux Journal #86(November 2017), accessed August 10, 2019,

[2] See: Šumila, Edvardas. Far Away but Ever Closer: Young Lithuanian Composers Abroad. In: Lithuanian Music Link, No. 19 | January–December 2016, ISSN 1648-469X. accessed August 10, 2019,

[3] Aranda, Julieta; Kuan Wood, Brian; Vidokle, Anton (eds.). Supercommunity : Diabolical Togetherness Beyond Contemporary Art. London ; New York : Verso, 2017, p. 9.

[4] Ibid., p. 11.