How can transatlantic residencies and exchanges continue despite ongoing travel restrictions worldwide? How to ensure continuous support to creative and artistic processes affected by the pandemic? Colleagues from EUNIC New York and their local partner talk about UN/MUTE 10002, a project funded through the 2020 EUNIC Cluster Fund, offering an innovative format for collaboration and co-creation.
UN/MUTE 10002, a EUNIC New York project funded through the 2020 EUNIC Cluster Fund, offers an innovative format for collaboration and co-creation for 10 artists based in NYC matched into pairs with artists from 10 different countries in the EU during a three months period. Two colleagues from the New York cluster, Jaanika Peerna, Cultural Affairs Coordinator at the Consulate General of Estonia and Gražina Michnevičiūtė, Cultural Attache at the Consulate General of Lithuania together with Daina Mattis, Co-Director of Undercurrent Gallery in NYC talk about the origin of the project.
How did the collaboration between EUNIC New York and Undercurrent come about?
Jaanika: When in April 2020 New York City became the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic and eerily quiet with every cultural institution closed and travel restrictions between the US and EU in place, everyone pondered the most essential questions, including the importance of culture and exchange of ideas. So did myself and my colleague Gražina, and we came up with a seed idea for what by today has become a project called UN/MUTE 10002. We felt how essential it is to keep creating ways for artists of all kinds and backgrounds to be in touch, exchange ideas and create together against all odds and uncertainties. But we needed a New York based partner to help us develop the idea and run the project, which is when a wonderful gallery in Brooklyn called Undercurrent came to mind. The collaboration has been a wonderful and generative one and we are happy to have such a hands-on partner to work with.
Gražina: I had a very long talk with Jaanika about a thirst to bring a creative idea to reflect what was happening to New York City, a world cultural capital that in a few weeks became silent, sad, unbelievable empty. My mind echoed someone’s quote: “Covid-19 is long, but art is longer” and it became kind of a motto. Jaanika and I sowed the seed of idea that was in a very creative and innovative way developed by Undercurrent, and later presented to other cluster members. When six EU countries (Austria, Estonia, Flanders (Belgium), Lithuania, Malta, and Poland) decided to collaborate on the virtual art project I think none of us even had a slight idea how this first online artist project would be evolving and that it would get into such a wonderful artistic journey.
Covid-19 is long, but art is longer.
Daina: When the pandemic hit, many projects were cancelled. Jaanika and Grazina approached us on behalf of their respective cultural institutions. They asked if we would be interested in partnering with them on a potential project, yet they weren’t sure what it would look like, or exactly what it would be. The idea they prompted Undercurrent with was a collaboration between two EU artists who had never met. From there, Undercurrent put on its thinking cap and evaluated the situation. Many galleries were opening up virtual spaces, however that did not seem an interesting solution nor a project we were interested in facilitating at the time. With the pandemic there seemed to be a global phenomenon of DIY (Do It Yourself) in the common household, people’s interests were in making and creating. Therefore, we saw the creative process as a subject, which is so often hidden from the audience. With this in mind, Undercurrent pitched the concept to share the creative process unfolding as a narrative between these two artists using Zoom as the medium for communication. That’s how the first volume of UN/MUTE was conceived.
Despite the ongoing pandemic, why is it important to continue with transnational mobilities and exchanges? Did you encounter any challenges?
Daina: Undercurrent’s mission is to promote and support contemporary art practices that are contrary to prevailing trends and movements. We support international exchanges because that is what New York City is, a cultural epicenter where few are actually from here. Undercurrent’s belief in showing local and international contemporary artists “augments our mission by providing a switchback, for a diverse and accessible platform distilling cultural perspectives in New York City.” The challenges we typically encounter are the same that many must overcome living in a metropolitan city - language and cultural dividers. Fortunately, it is the language of art where we find common ground, can share, and exchange ideas. Art becomes the conduit, the solution to being lost in translation.
In UN/MUTE 10002, artist duos are divided into specific themes creating a dialogue between mythological and nature references with digital analogies. How did you create the matching of artists under the specific themes? How did the artists react to this form of working together? Are they expected to produce new art pieces as the end goal of the project or is the focus on creative and research process with no strings attached?
Daina: The project concept was developed by Undercurrent’s co-directors, myself and Laura Zaveckaite after researching various studies showing that children had a disconnection from nature, especially with recognition to language. More children affiliate words such as stream, tweet, and apple with technology and branding over nature. Therefore, language is the first indicator of cultural changes, one that will be impacted by words such as Zoom, unmute, and screen share. We are being conditioned at this very moment.
The matching of team names to artists is entirely random, we leave it to chance. This can be viewed in our first video, the Lottery, where the artists are randomly paired. Artists are aware that they will be working with a total stranger, we are transparent of that. Some are excited for the opportunity while others are nervous of the chance pairing. Even if they could pick the other artist out of the group, there is no guarantee that they would collaborate well. We encourage and advocate for successful collaborations, but we recognize that failure is also an outcome, something too few want to accept. Failure is a way of learning, failure is a tool.
Artists are only expected to collaborate on a singular project, that they each own 50/50. We do not limit them to what that might be, therefore their final piece could be a blueprint, a slice, or a finished piece. We recognize that some concepts could need more time and resources, therefore we left it open. While Undercurrent focuses on the artists’ process as a primary subject within UN/MUTE, it is the individuals and how they navigate their shared artistic practice which creates interesting dynamics to deconstruct such as the artist’s ego, compromise and authorship.
Language is the first indicator of cultural changes, one that will be impacted by words such as Zoom, unmute, and screen share.
What is new in the concept of UN/MUTE 10002 compared to the first edition of the project? Do you plan to continue with the project beyond this year?
Jaanika: The first edition of the project involved twelve artists living in NYC with roots in six EU countries. They were split into six pairs of collaborative teams who worked together for six weeks on a common project.
This time we have doubled the number of artists and the length of collaboration and we have introduced a different pairing system: 10 artists from various backgrounds and ages who live in the EU and have never visited NYC before are paired through a lottery with 10 artists based in NYC into collaborative teams. We have put more emphasis on the diversity of age, gender, sexual orientation and race amongst the participating artists. Creative teams have more time to get to know each other and collaborate, plus they have more chances to get to know the entire group of 20 artists.
UN/MUTE 10002 facilitates and fosters the online channels for new works of art (of any kind!) being co-created by two strangers who hopefully will not stop communicating when the project ends. Our hope is that we can realize also the next phase of the project when we get to present the works in a physical space and to have the artists meet in NYC in Fall 2021. We will see if that can happen.
What message do you want to send to the public with this initiative?
Daina: Our message is one of inclusion, no matter your age, color, gender, native language, or location. We are attempting to build trust, bridge differences, and create an accessible platform to share, discuss, innovate and create no matter your technical ability as a digital immigrant or digital native. On behalf of Undercurrent, I believe the creative process is our most valuable resource. It’s something we need to nurture in new and unexpected ways. We need to learn how to work with what we don’t know and we need to recognize the importance of the creative process and that it comes in many forms.
We are attempting to build trust, bridge differences, and create an accessible platform to share, discuss, innovate and create no matter your technical ability as a digital immigrant or digital native.
Gražina: we think this unique online art project reminds everyone how important it is for humans to exchange ideas, communicate and learn to listen, understand sometimes opposite points of view. UN/MUTE 10002 gives an opportunity to present a very diverse artistic field across the Atlantic. Artists are the most sensitive receivers of our reality and they are not indifferent to what is happening around us, by creating they reflect the situation in a very personal way and hence in universal language that doesn’t need a translation.
With this much uncertainty in our lives and fewer chances to be in touch, UN/MUTE 10002 reminds us that creative acts matter.
Jaanika: With this much uncertainty in our lives and fewer chances to be in touch, UN/MUTE 10002 reminds us that creative acts matter and unknown situations (like having a chance-based collaborator!) can be invigorating in pushing us to think and create new. We need to listen to each other carefully and work together towards constructive ideas, and while distances might be vast, we can embrace the technological possibilities to be in touch while we cannot travel.