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Theory Entangled
Interview with Eglė Kulbokaitė and Dorota Gawęda

Patrick Tayler

In 2020 there was an exhibition at Trafó Gallery, which gave the viewer a glimpse into the alternative realm of existence imagined by Eglė Kulbokaitė and Dorota Gawęda. In the complex practice of the two artists, a range of notions merge to establish a platform where the core ideas of what art theory could be are continuously rethought. Their work reaches from the reinterpretation of witchcraft and high-tech solutions to the investigation and close reading of various texts and the creation of materially tangible constellations. Their theoretical work is performative, while the objects they work on become embedded into a textual context. In this interview, we talked about the in-between zones of their artistic practice, to shed light on the parallel realities that provide the dynamics of their work.

Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė: Rūta (Pentatonic) / 2020 / sound loop 6:52, public address speakers / dimensions variable / Photo: © Dávid Biró / courtesy of the artists and Trafó Gallery

Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė: Mouthless Part II (Dziady) / 2021 / performed by Giulia Termino at Istituto Svizzero, Milan / Photo: © Giulio Boem / courtesy of the artists

YGRG (Young Girl Reading Group)1 is a complex, trans-media project – a reading group – which you have been working on since 2013, hosting more than 160 sessions so far. How and why did you establish it?

Eglė Kulbokaitė: After finishing our MAs in 2012 at the Royal College of Art in London, we moved to Berlin and felt the need for an extended community, where we could collectively reflect on issues – from a feminist or queer perspective – that weren’t a part of our formal education. Initially, YGRG was more like a community project, that started in our Berlin flat: every Sunday, we would look closely at different texts that showcased different, unrepresented voices. Our community gradually expanded, and we got invited to several institutions and project spaces. As these venues require a more concentrated aesthetic approach – compared to an event held in a domestic environment – YGRG turned into a performative, trans-media project. From the beginning, we wanted the project to have an internationally accessible, digital platform. We started sharing texts initially through a Facebook group for the people who couldn’t make it in real life. We also decided to read a new text every time, so that people could participate in their own way.

Dorota Gawęda: We wanted to read in a manner that does not follow the typical academic approach. Our goal was to “demystify” theoretical texts, interpreting them from a more open social position, while everybody becomes empowered by reading them together. To provide a space where the dissemination and production of knowledge can be a shared experience, and where one doesn’t need to be aware of all of the background information and references.

1 https://arielfeminisms.dk/ygrg

Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė: Mouthless Part II (Dziady) / 2021 / performed by Giulia Termino at Istituto Svizzero, Milan / Photo: © Giulio Boem / courtesy of the artists

Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė: Mouthless Part II (Dziady) / 2021 / performed by Giulia Termino at Istituto Svizzero, Milan / Photo: © Giulio Boem / courtesy of the artists

EK: Art theory can be intimidating for many people due to their given educational history… During our previous studies, there was this specific reference pool of authors one would refer to, such as Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, etc. We, however, wanted to establish something more inclusive. For many people, it is difficult to voice themselves. People gain agency by pronouncing words and ideas out loud – even if it is somebody else’s thoughts. What we try to do is explore a wide array of perspectives in these sessions. Of course, today there are more perspectives in the education of art theory!

DG: Yes! Things have changed a great deal since 2012. Feminist-queer theory really wasn’t a reference point in RCA when we started to deal with these questions. The notion of inclusion has become a pressing, globally relevant issue. At the same time, we also started to think about English as a language that is not equally accessible for everybody. Actually, with Eglė we speak English with each other – even though I am from Poland and Eglė is from Lithuania – and we are aware that there is a loss of meaning when one uses a second language instead of a mother tongue. However, when you allow yourself to let your voice be heard in the performative space of the reading group, even if English isn’t your first language, you become part of a discourse, which can go into many exciting directions. Hearing the variation of non-native English speakers in the room can also be an exciting, encouraging situation. In general – looking beyond the question of language – our main aim is to create a safe environment for approaching theory. But not just theory, because it is important for us to dismantle the strict hierarchy between different genres of texts. This is why we have always chosen to read fiction alongside theory.

And how do these heterogeneous textual sources intertwine?

EK: Theory and fiction complement each other well! Many writers use metaphors to deliver their ideas and, in a way, a theorist can also navigate their idea in the zone of fiction.

DG: The possibility of relating texts to your personal experiences was also important to us and it was exactly fiction that provided a subjective focus that we were looking for.

RYXPER1126AE / installation view / solo exhibition of Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė at Trafó Gallery, Budapest / Photo: © Dávid Biró / courtesy of the artists and Trafó Gallery

Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė: SULK II / 2018 / performed by Enrico Boccioletti, Alexandra Koumantaki and Miranda Secondari at Spazio Maiocchi, Milan / Photo: © Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė / courtesy of the artists

Even in the traditional ’one-reader situation’, reading is critical, creative, and participatory. One navigates through a text along very different paths. How does the interpersonal dimension of the reading group add a further layer to interpreting texts?

DG: This has a very physical aspect as well. By making space with your voice, this space becomes an arena of negotiation and listening to each other. So one could say that each reading group outlines a thread through the given text and that this process is always a collective process.

EK: It is very important for us that these texts are enlivened and embodied, and that there is an intimacy – a corporal connection – between the reader and the text. Also, the relationship between the readers of the group forms the whole experience. Our performances usually exist in series. The text always provides the same starting point within the series, but the people and the circumstances change. Interestingly, text becomes so different when approached by a different person. There is always an unexpected element to it.

DG: While the text does shape the performance, there is no strict choreography, instead the movement is developed together dilogically in a workshop-like setting.

How do you curate the texts you work with? Are there central themes that concern the two of you at the moment?

EK: Well, we have an extensive list of texts and keep on searching for further authors. At the moment, we quote a lot of Eastern European mythology that tells stories about thresholds and the porosity of boundaries. But also a lot of Queer Ecology that underlies this entanglement between events, structures, and every living entity basically.

DG: We use a lot of different sources in a collage-like sense, instead of relying on one larger body of work. The various perspectives turn into a musical composition of sorts, and, in a sense, an autonomous material. What this collage contains ranges from theory to traditional folk songs and mythic tales.

EK: In our latest work, the main theme is soil, landscape, and ecology. But for the community-based reading groups, we choose one or two chapters from a given book, which someone has recommended to us. We opened a solo exhibition in Swimming Pool in Sofia, Bulgaria recently.2 Here, we did a reading of the book Witchcraft and Demonology in Hungary and Transylvania (2018) co-authored by Gábor Klaniczay and Éva Pócs.3,4 Actually, I think the Hangover Reading Club5 was reading this during one of their sessions led by the Hungarian artist Dominika Trapp. I think this book was a very interesting volume for the Bulgarian audience as well as one can draw exciting regional parallels. Timothy Morton’s Dark Ecology (2018) was also recently on our list, which is still a very relevant book. We are at the moment also planning to read more sci-fi, most of all short stories, as they are easier to connect with the reading group format.

Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė: Mouthless Part II / 2021 / Video Still: © Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė / courtesy of the artists

Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė: Mouthless Part II / 2021 / Video Still: © Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė / courtesy of the artists

Are there utopian ideals that drive you? Is your work future-oriented? Or is it rather the present that you would like to reconstruct through investigating the various in-between zones of theory?

EK: We are interested in how science fiction speculates on the future and how it sheds light on the present.

DG: In this way, yes, but our performances exist in the present. We are also interested in material and practical things. We want to claim the exhibition space and negotiate the working conditions. It should always be fairer than what is offered: it is never good enough for the artist and the performers.

EK: Exactly! There are two sides to art-making. The professional and the artistic side: one is concerned with the production, while the other with the ideas. Appropriating space through the use of voices is very important but doing this on an institutional level is also crucial. Inventing and establishing your own creative space is about the future!

The past is also put into play in your work. In the on- and offline, hybrid exhibition at Trafó titled RYXPER1126AE (2020)6, for example, a performance was archived or documented into a fragrance.

EK: True! Since performances are such intimate, temporary experiences, we always search for alternatives to visual documentation. We kind of gravitated to fragrance at the Trafó exhibition as the smell is connected to emotion more directly, than visuality. RYXPER1126AE fragrance was conceived after our YGRG159:SULK (2018) performance at ANTI – 6th Athens Biennial in collaboration with International Flavors and Fragrances Inc. in New York. Produced working together with a chemist, perfumer and scent designer, RYXPER1126AE is a fragrance based on the sample of the air collected with the use of headspace technology during the aforementioned performance. It is a synthetic molecular replica of the piece.

DG: For us, it is very exciting how much data a performance generates and how this can be transcribed. Or how can the direct experience of smell become disseminated? You can send it in an envelope but you cant send it quickly. Fragrance is a very spatial and temporal medium. It is short and fleeting because there is a limit to sensory input. It is beyond language, it is in the sensory domain, which is very interesting keeping in mind that it is – in the case of the Trafó show – connected to a reading group performance.

You seem to be drawn to these between zones! How do cybernetics, technology, and gender connect in your artistic practice?

EK: In a variety of ways. In the beginning, writers like Donna Haraway – by thematising cybernetics, technology and feminism – were very influential for us, but also people like Shulamith Firestone who spoke about the potential of gender equality through technology. We think about the notion of technology in a much broader sense as well. For example, we think of reading as a kind of technology. Language is also a tool, a technology, the primal interface to the world. So when we talk about tech, it is not just the image of the machine or the currently invented, latest digital technologies that come to our minds. If you come to think about it, reading is historically only recently available to people as a way of understanding the world. Even at the moment, it is a tool and a privilege that is not equally distributed. Writers like Octavia Butler are very interesting to us because there aren’t so many technological objects and tools in her work. Instead, cutting-edge technology appears, for example, as a feeling or a sensation, or the ability to understand another person, to have empathy.

PT: Your work is activated through a wide range of tools – performance, object, sound, video, algorithmic AI hallucinations, etc. How does one medium relate to the other? What are the points where one system leaks into the other?

DG: There is a dialogue between the works, which can unravel in a variety of ways. Sometimes it is formal qualities or symbolic association between the diverse objects that become central for us.

EK: At Trafó the fragrance of hay and RYXPER1126AE was very much present. This immersive physical aspect is very important for us. The polyphonic folk song titled Rūta is about the rue plant traditionally associated with women’s gardens and is also known for its antiseptic and absorptive qualities. The folk song – which is thus connected to female knowledge and pharmaceutical knowledge simultaneously – was filling up the space. A kind of molecular understanding of things connected the song with the fragrance on another level. All these things bleed into each other, and this is impossible to translate through photography.

What have you been working on since your exhibition at Trafó? Did you continue working on online projects, on finding connection points between web-based presentation and the physical reality of real-life projects?

DG: Last year everybody was forced into the online realm. We are very excited to do things at the moment in real life with real people. This new piece titled –lalia which we are working on that will be presented at the end of August as part of the Swiss Performance Prize will include CCTV cameras and we are going to deal with the issues of mediation and image. On the one hand, there will be the live event and on the other hand, the camera footage, while the audience will be split into two groups.

EK: You simply cannot experience the totality of the work. There is always an incompleteness of an experience, and this is important for us.

And what is the latest project of yours?

EK: For –lalia we are working with voice actors at the moment, where there is a score that the performer lip-syncs to. Words turning into multi-layered noise. Parts of it will overlap. Some things will be clear, some things will be unclear.

DG: We are working with mourning and lamenting rituals and mourning as a profession, also thinking about how language plays into this.

EK: The supernatural ability to speak in tongues: the difference between glossolalia and xenolalia. I think, – in general – we’re interested in approaching theory and language in a more emotional way.