Advocating the Work of Baltic Artists and Topics That Push The Boundaries Of What Art Can Talk About

Curator Juste Kostikovaite
Curator Juste Kostikovaite

My path to curatorship was quite a long one. It didn’t start with a BA in Fine Arts, and then deciding that I was more interested in organising, rather than creating artworks. I worked in business management and marketing in the 2000s, and after hours, I was managing an dub music band, and helping with a film project. I came to art from the dance and raves fields. In Lithuania, these scenes often included contemporary art, and I think it was the same in Latvia and Estonia. It was about discovering new ways of being together through music and being open to new sensations, and through that, I encountered contemporary art. It came to me gradually. During the crisis, in 2008, I was travelling in South East Asia, and I thought that since jobs were disappearing in my market, why not do what I always liked, and work in the cultural field. With artist Arturas Bumsteinas, we applied with a sound art map project for Vilnius European Capital of Culture, in 2009. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), there was a money scandal, and while my project was selected, we didn’t receive the funding. I never ended up showing Bumsteinas, but we are still in contact, and his work is very interesting to follow. He is a composer and sound artist working in an expanded field, creating work for theatre, making sculptures, basically working in all art fields, except film. That quality of doing everything and being sort of misfits, is probably what is the most interesting about Lithuanian artists. They don’t work in a narrow line, but in several media and disciplines, and very often also as curators.

It actually motivated me to try harder. I got an internship in Berlin, through the European Network of Cultural Centres (ENCC), and I worked there for half a year. In Berlin, you are surrounded by contemporary art exhibitions, and you envelop yourself in them. It’s a place where many disciplines and many people meet. I rented out a room in an existing residency, at GlogauAIR, and relied on the existing structure to host and show works by Lithuanian artists, such as Žilvinas Landzbergas, the collective Ateate, and Asta Ostrovskaja. At the Berlin Biennale, I saw the film by Renzo Martens titled “Episode III – Enjoy Poverty”, where, like a prophet, Martens goes to Congo and teaches people in deprived areas how to mine their own capital through photography and owning their own representations. Until now, only Western photographers were covering famine-struck people, and profiting from these images. It also questions the need to portray certain regions as suffering and in a state of lack, as it just feeds the approval of a colonial gaze and how it wants to portray certain world regions. Martens’s art has activism in it, but also a certain author-grandeur. It is autoreferential, as Martens remains a privileged Dutch white male artist. Although I had to agree with art critic Dan Fox, who said that the film perpetuates the very thing it was protesting against, it inspired me to organise, with curator Viktorija Siaulyte, a three-day conference called ‘Spheres of Power – Tension & Exchange’, at GlogauAIR, in 2011. It was a workshop for artists and cultural producers to discuss the characteristics attributed to images of poverty and wealth in the public sphere; examine how concepts of poverty, wealth, and power are interpreted in artistic work; and discuss the danger of reinforcing clichés. At some point, since I had never studied contemporary art, I felt like I needed to legitimise my position. I enrolled with the Royal College of Art, and moved to London.

I was working in the Lithuanian embassy as a cultural attaché for the last four years in London, my contract just ended. I was working in all art fields, including contemporary art, but also architecture, design, contemporary dance, theatre, illustration, and other art forms. I was liaising between the UK art institutions (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) and the Lithuanian ones. Last year we had a special focus on Scotland. Mostly, I was working with contemporary art, in par with my contemporary art curatorial studies. The UK is extremely open in terms of working with contemporary art from abroad, much more open in that field than in theatre, let’s say. Contemporary art is very developed with hundreds of institutions and many connections. Of course it has its own flaws and prejudices, post-colonial and other issues, but it seems more aware of them. Part of my work was made of a series of small collaborations with institutions that host art residencies, either connecting them with Lithuanian institutions, or helping them establish pop-up open calls for Lithuanian artists. We worked with the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Newcastle and the Delfina Foundation in London. One recent collaboration was with CCA Londonderry and its director Catherine Hemelryk. We established a reciprocal residency programme called “DeMo residency” with Kaunas artist house, which is one of the most interesting curatorial initiative in Kaunas, the second largest city in Lithuania. There is currently a show that resulted from that collaboration, at Londonderry, with Niamh Seana Meehan from Belfast and filmmaker Gintė Regina from Lithuania. These small exchanges allow artists to develop their practices while researching the local context. It is very rewarding.

Evita Vasiljeva & Antoine Nessi - Portraits © photo Aurélien Meimaris
“Roots to Routes” team: Ryan Galer, Ilze Aulmane, Justė Kostikovaitė, Nijolė Kostikovaitė, Merilin Talumaa. Photography Aurélien Meimaris

Curating allows me to learn and observe different life strategies. You learn different approaches of organising space. It goes from aesthetic decisions to moral and psychological questions, such as how to deal with life and the world, be in peace with it, go against it, or investigate it. Because you are a curator, you are sort of allowed to approach people, and enter their world, it’s never a too professionalised and corporate way of working. There are rules, but there also are no rules, it is very interpersonal, very subjective.

Together with curators Maija Rudovska, from Latvia, and Merlin Talumaa, from Estonia, we created the programme Roots to Routes in Marseille, a series of events and exhibitions during Manifesta that bring together artists from the Baltic and the city. We are like three Baltic curators sisters. That is how we joke about it. We are connected because we share a common past, perhaps not directly, but through our parents. Maybe it is this common experience of a soviet shadow (our countries were part of the USSR until 1991), and a particular appreciation for nature and its energy. The Baltic states are in a struggle to reassert or define their so-called “Baltic” denomination. We are at the beginning of forming our identities, unlike the Scandinavians. Often for economical, political, and reasons of cultural policies, these regions are presented as a whole to the rest of the world. The Baltic states are curious and inspired by the experience of their bigger neighbours, in order to present themselves together, but the actual coherent and authentic backstory or narrative in support to that commonality, is yet to be created. At least in my mind, and in the minds of other curators. It was a personal choice to work together for this project, but it also created this opportunity to connect people and search for, or even conjure, those missing backstories.

A curatorial practice inspired by art and location. I can’t pinpoint one theme about my curatorial practice. It changes with time. But I like working with artists that are expanding the boundaries of what art speaks about, even if it is in a conventional form, say through sculpture. Or art that speaks like science, but when it’s not limited to art as a research. Or artists who also work as curators. In Marseille, we worked with Latvian artist Daria Melnikova, who presented an installation consisting of a travelling, nomadic, surrealistic 1990s bar counter, “Palette”. She invited other artists to present their work within her installation. It became an exhibition inside an exhibition, a family inside another family. Amongst others we included French artist Ndayé Kouagou, and his publishing project Young Black Romantics—showcasing a local artist who had more opportunities to work with international, but not French, curators, so far.

Sometimes, when you are an outsider, you have more perspective. Recently, we made an interview with curator Cédric Fauq, about his challenging views on French universalism (including issues relating to exclusion and institutional doctrines). In particular, how institutions place the values of the French tripartite motto “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” higher than the need to recognise racism in France. There is a need to recognise the roots of institutional racism, and to work with artists that represent the diversity of the French population. But current values don’t really allow you to name people’s ethnicity, and differentiate them. It is the opposite approach to what’s happening in the UK, where the idea is that we should be aware of certain people’s underrepresentation. As an outsider, it can be a little problematic to bring forth certain issues, but at the same time, you are allowed to comment.

I like everything about Marseille. It has this kind of energy that is rough, tough, and anxious, but also light. It kind of radiates. People can be brusque, but also the next day everything can be very friendly. It is a mixture, and it has this taste of freedom.

For fun I like to go to the beach and swim, or hike in the mountains. I am quite a restless person who doesn’t like to spend too much time in a situation like the confinement. I always need to go out, almost like a dog or a horse. Currently, I have a knee injury, but before, I started to jog in London. Now in France, it is not the best place to do sports, psychologically. I am eating too many croissants. I don’t worry about it, but hopefully later on, I will come back to my more sporty regime.

My guilty pleasure are books by Elena Ferrante, all of them. It is a pseudonym, nobody knows who is this person. Everybody has read “My Brilliant Friend”, but now I am reading “The Lying Life of Adults”.

Curator Juste Kostikovaite
Curator Juste Kostikovaite

Marseille-themed literature. I read Claude McKay’s “Romance in Marseille”. It was written in the 1920s but published only recently. It is about this very avant-garde outcast living in Le Vieux Port, in Marseille. It was published only decades later because it was considered too queer, which it isn’t directly, but it has the whole aura of it, with some tension that was probably not accepted at the time. I also read, “Afropean” by Johny Pitts, an English writer from mixed heritage. In this book, he is travelling through major European cities to see how diasporas from African countries live. When he comes to Marseille, he’s completely enthralled.

For me, collaborating is more interesting, I feel much more alive bouncing and sharing ideas. Even if you work alone as a curator, you are still collaborating, you are collaborating with an artist. Collaborating with other curators also has its challenges, because at some point you might disagree very strongly about the structure of the show, some changes happening, or on how to react to situations, ethics, including the pandemic. It brings some emotional pressure, buffering someone’s else’s reactions or creating one yourself. It is not always smooth, but it’s more interesting. In this case, we are three curators, so it’s good because two can always agree over one.

Anxiously waiting. For Sophie Jung’s solo show “New Waiting” at Temnikova & Kasela Gallery in Tallinn, in 2015, it was a real collaboration. I wanted to have a dialogue with an artist about how to formalise, in artistic language, the frustration and reward that you get when waiting for messages. We are always obsessed by our emails, constantly scrolling down as if on a slot machine in a casino—you know that you will be greeted by some content, but you are waiting for a specific result, or sender. One of Jung’s strategies was to present letters she wrote with fat on paper, that you could only read in front of a light, like invisible messages. I wondered if perhaps a situation where you are reachable through too many media, old, new, and cryptic, exacerbates the anxiety of waiting.

Second Confinement in France. Since Friday October 30, everything had to close again, even Manifesta had to close. Our performances need to be rescheduled for next year. I could just be anywhere now, and do projects everywhere. We had planned to stay longer after the exhibition, and explore local museums, nature, and the towns nearby, but we will probably need to wait for next spring.

Herring ceviche. For five years, I was obsessed with a recipe I learned from a friend who lives in Paris: herrings, avocado, mint, and lime juice. But now I am obsessed with the Panisse from Marseille. It’s a delicious chickpeas snack.

I cannot answer what I would collect if I were a serious collector. It would mean that I need to limit myself to certain researches, and make selections. I just like too many things. For the same reason, I could not be an artist. There are so many good artists, it’s crazy! They need to be shown and seen! I have some pieces at home, for example an edition by German artist Daniel Gustav Cramer, a painting by Lithuanian artist Rūtenė Merkliopaitė, and another painting which was a present from Estonian painter Merike Estna.

If I wasn’t curating, maybe I would go back to my previous job in strategic marketing, or something to do with working with ideas, evaluating things, creating strategies and insights, and leading a small team.

Juste Kostikovaite

Independent curator

London, UK & Marseille, France (during Manifesta)


Juste Kostikovaite is an independent curator. During her recent tenure as a Lithuanian Cultural Attaché in the UK she has worked closely with the UK arts institutions, including the BALTIC Centre For Contemporary Art, Collective Gallery in Edinburgh, CCA Derry~Londonderry, Somerset House Artists Studios and other institutions. She is interested in the topic of practicing authenticity and process of collecting contemporary art.

Art critic and writer.

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