Critical Mass: Cultural Conduits, Translations and Provocations, by Shelley McSpedden
Critical Mass: Cultural Conduits, Translations and Provocations in the Work of Danius Kesminas and Collaborators
by Shelley McSpedden
Danius Kesminas is an artist who likes to tinker with arcane technologies and semiotic orders. His provocative experimentations with these systems function as a kind of critical mass, sparking creative chain reactions amidst an expanding network of collaborators that course out in seemingly inexhaustible manifestations, mutations and iterations. Slave Pianos, Punkasila, Pipeline to Oblivion: 3 Projects by Danius Kesminas and Collaborators (5 May – 23 July 2011), curated by Monash University Museum of Art’s Director, Max Delany, provides a raucous rendition of three of his major projects to-date.
Pipeline to Oblivion 2011 serves up an explosive blend of folk art, music, dissident production processes and a DYI mentality, all doused in a good soaking of moonshine liquor. In a distillation of a deliciously preposterous instance of backyard ingenuity in which a three kilometre pipeline for smuggling black market vodka in from neighbouring Belarus was discovered by Lithuanian authorities in 2004, Kesminas presents a pipe organ fashioned from PVC water pipes and other repurposed household equipment which also doubles as a fully functioning vodka still. Resembling the Lithuanian folk instrument, the skudučiai, this automated device pumps out the traditional drinking song Gerkit Gerkit, Broliukai (Drink Brothers, Drink) at regular intervals. The high spiritedness of proceedings is hampered somewhat by a cluster of paintings adorning the gallery walls which appropriate 1930s Lithuania posters promoting abstinence. Nearby, a bust of the Bishop Motiejus Valančius – a teetotaller who led the popular temperance movement in Lithuania in the mid 19th century – watches sombrely over proceedings.
As Boris Kremer evocatively attests, “If vodka is culture, and no doubt it is, then Kesminas’ still is the neo-rustic version of the alchemists’ melting pot and the art it spurts out is the panacea against museum fatigue.”1 Kesminas utilises the “social lubricants” of music, drink and subversive humour to grease the wheels of ethnographic encounters and the projects that they engender.2 Mining the crude cultural caricature of the vodka swilling Eastern European, this work reveals some sobering insights into the way the vodka trade flows through the history of Lithuania and its relations with neighbouring Slavic countries.3 The underground pipeline also functions as a potent emblem of economic and political concerns of contemporary Lithuania, as the recent increased demand for black market spirits is just one up-shot of massive inflation linked to the nation’s entry into the European Union in 2004. 4
Each of Kesminas’ projects is anchored by his role as agent provocateur. In a documentary video in Pipeline to Oblivion for example, he and a small film crew scour the streets of Eišiškės, a remote Lithuanian village, approaching locals to help orientate them in relation to a map of the underground network they have. At one point Kesminas even presents this map to Vytautas Landsbergis, Lithuania’s first head of state and later its representative to the European Parliament, asking him what he knows about the fabled network.5 This seemingly earnest attempt to locate and verify the existence of the system is, in fact, based on a ruse as the map is a highly speculative fabrication created by the artist. Here Kesminas’ irreverent cultural incitements come across as an affectionate in-joke in large part because of his own Lithuanian heritage, a lineage made evident to the viewer by his effortless grasp of the language (an old world version inherited from his grandparents) and numerous references to local diasporic manifestations of the culture, such as the inclusion in the installation of a painting borrowed from Melbourne’s iconic Lithuanian Club.
In Punkasila however, Kesminas takes on the role of the cultural interloper. This “high octane” punk band was formed as a kind of contingent structural improvisation – a tactic to penetrate a culture and country he had no real knowledge of whilst on residency in Yogyakarta, Indonesia in 2006.6 In a parodic nod to Malcolm McLaren he set about handpicking a ‘Super Group’ scouted from the vibrant local music scene.7 Their status as an art collective/punk band has seen them play across diverse forums – from official art events such as the Tenth Biennale of Havana in Cuba in 2009 to local music mainstays such as Melbourne’s Ding Dong Lounge.
Punkasila’s moniker riffs off Pancasila– a five prong ideology devised in the Sukarno era (1945–65) as the new order of Indonesian nationhood. The band makes further playful gestures to the state apparatus in Post-reformasi Indonesia through their irreverent embrace of military motifs. In the installation at MUMA we find alongside the obligatory paraphernalia accompanying any self respecting rock group – t-shirts, video clips, promotional posters, comics and even business cards – a sprawling bricolage of objects ripped from Indonesia’s cottage industries – custom-made mahogany guitars carved to resemble M–16s and AK–47s, camouflage fatigues fabricated from batik, hand painted bollywood style banners, and most strikingly a Garuda (Indonesia’s national emblem) plastered with band’s insignia and gripping their iconic gun guitar. These objects attest to a hyper-collaborative effort involving countless Indonesian crafts people and artisans.
Kesminas’ role amidst all this energetic Indo-centric production is slightly perplexing, what is this middle aged Australian man doing thrashing about with all these young Indonesian punks? He is brazen about this cultural disconnect and promotes the fact that he does not speak the language of his fellow band members and has only a rudimentary knowledge of their country’s political history gleaned from a copy of Damien Kingsbury’s The Politics of Indonesia.8 Rather than being “paralysed by taboos”, Punkasila instead embraces the generative potential of this culture clash.9 Kesminas claims there is a certain artistic license afforded to him as the “White Buffoon”, ignorant to Indonesian customs and cultural sensitivities, which allows Punkasila to sidestep political and cultural embargos, such as in their appropriation of the Garuda Pancasila.10
The productive miscommunications, linguistic slippages and chance formulations which occur in the personal intercultural space occupied by the band translates into their broader strategy of “semiotic guerrilla warfare” – with their song titles and lyrics consisting solely of Indonesian acronyms of government, military and religious organisations. These official insignias are recast as rousing new idioms; KORPRI (Civil Servants Corp of the Republic of Indonesia) becomes Korak Pringisan (Smiling Criminals); while RPKAD (Army Para-commando Regiment) is reinterpreted as Rampung Kenthu Anake Duwekmu (Let’s Have Sex! But the child will be yours). In the proud punk tradition, these seemingly juvenile semiotic shifts perform a poignant emptying out of state, religious and moral imperatives. As anthropologist Dick Hebdige suggests we should not underestimate the signifying power of the spectacular subculture, “as an actual mechanism of semantic disorder: a kind of temporary blockage in the system of representation”11.
An assault on the symbolic order is launched on an entirely different front in the remaining section of the exhibition by Slave Pianos – a collective of artists and musicians Rohan Drape, Neil Kelly, Danius Kesminas and Michael Stevenson. Slave Pianos’ central mission is the recuperation of a range of avant-garde works using the protocol of the classical cannon. Archiving and transcribing these works into musical scores, the conversion exchanges the currency of radical singularity for repeatable legibility. This should not be seen as a complete taming of the original materials however for it also offers them the possibility of new and unimagined articulations. This long running project has seen Slave Pianos collaborate with a varied ensemble of musicians, artists, actors and writers in constructing and presenting these scores in a cacophony of operas, concerts and performances across the globe.
In a schlocky rendition of Cold War aesthetics, Slave Pianos presents The Execution Protocol III: Mutually Assured Production (The MAP room) 2007–11 at MUMA, an installation which situates the viewer inside a ‘war room’ containing an oversized computer terminal tracking data on an adjacent wall-map of the globe and connected to large scale electric chair in which a 19th century piano attached to a computer controlled solenoid device sits waiting passively. Viewers are invited to sentence an avant-garde artist to death by selecting them from a list of names on the console – at which point biographical data about the artist appears on the monitor and their movements plotted on the map. In a particularly perverse form of persecution these experimental trailblazers are then sent to their death as the mechanised piano ‘executes’ their work in automated tones.
Whilst an irreverent play on the artistic aura of the avant-garde, the work also functions as a form of homage – an animated archive of a diverse range of conceptual practices. Not only concerned with the artistic itinerary of individuals, the work can be seen to track the topography of complex networks of avant-garde production across the globe. As Max Delany observes, “Cartographic mapping – extending the tradition of Fluxus’ genealogical diagrams and the psycho-geographic cartography of the Situationists – is a feature of Slave Pianos’ methodology”12. In positioning local artists such as John Nixon and Ronnie van Hout alongside international luminaries such as Martin Creed, Nam June Paik and Yoko Ono, Slave Pianos provokes their audience to envisage artistic links, nods and reverberations across time and space. Thus, in each of the projects exhibited Kesminas and his collaborators can be seen to chart the subterranean cultural flows which refuse to be contained by national borders or official channels.