East meets West : A wondrous journey into the Independent Republic of Užupis, Vilnius, Lithuania
Come share the trip with Alan Dearling!
Still a Utopian!
I’m still a digger and dreamer. Meaning, I like to contribute my five-penneth worth of passion and enthusiasm to the communal efforts of others, to help make the big, bad World just a little bit better. A bit greener (celebrating the efforts of the original diggers and levellers). A bit more caring. A world with a little more time, support and passion for ‘creativity’ in all its myriad forms – art, music, literature (some of the dreamers). What a group of us call ‘Free Cultural Spaces’. After Free Cultural Spaces Symposium (FCS)events in Ruigoord, Amsterdam; Boom Festival, Portugal; and last year in the Free Town of Christiania in Copenhagen, Denmark, this year our core group headed from the United States of America, Netherlands, Russia, Ukraine, Belgium and me from Scotland, at the invitation of Užupis Republic Foreign Minister, Thomas Cepaitis (right). He’s a poet, a writer and an artist.
This community started life as a squat. A ‘contested’ area on the edge of Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital city, threatened back in the 1990s by the municipal developers for re-development. In 1997, on April Fools’ Day, April 1st, it was declared a Free Independent Republic. The residents of the area became that Republic of Užupis, put up their own independent flag, issued currency, and elected a president, and a cabinet of ministers. They created a remarkable, quirky and thought-provoking constitution written by Romas Lileikis and Thomas Chepaitis (do have a read), a national anthem, passport stamp, and an army (numbering something like 11 men). Each year they celebrate their independence on Užupis Day, April 1. With about 7,000 inhabitants including approximately 1,000 artists, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a part of the Vilnius old town. So, a special place. Weird. Different, with a very wry sense of humour! In its early days, a giant egg was the national symbol, but they sold it by auction to the residents at Pylimo Street in Vilnius. The egg is now just round the corner from the statue of Frank Zappa.
Perhaps the only statue to the admirable Mister Zappa anywhere in the world. It was erected in Vilnius by the Lithuanians who felt that the Russian ‘ban’ on Frank and his music needed a response, so they adopted Frank Zappa as a Lithuanian national treasure. Hence the statue in Vilnius. And now in Užupis, since 2002, there is a magnificent statue of the Angel of Užupis. Its trumpet beckons curious visitors to the Independent Republic from all over the world.
Artists, local people and visionaries have joined forces to creatively turn the area into a place ‘beyond’. Beyond, in the sense of being ‘the wished for’, a collection of mindscapes and spaces for possibilities to become realities. Juhani Ihanus, Užupis Ambassador to Helsinki and Beyond, calls it a place that is not ‘owned’. He says,
“Užupis is not ‘ours’, not belonging to ‘us’, to ‘our’ group or pals. If owned, it would become an institution systematically depriving its members of their individual rights. Perhaps it is for nomadic seekers of changing truths, for the wise and the ship of fools.”
And that seems an appropriate introduction to our merry band of free cultural spaces symposiotes!
We had arrived for the first time in Eastern Europe to learn and to share. Four days for our FCS Symposium to swap our experiences of free spaces around the world – squats, art spaces, intentional communities, alternative festivals, parties and dance events, eco-villages, radical education, activism and protests (and more). You can find out more, see videos and explore lots of links at the Free Cultural Spaces Web of Hubs site: www.freeculturalspaces.net
‘What does ‘free’ mean?’, ‘What is a free cultural space?’ No easy answers to these questions and many others. But his is the sort of thing debated by the Symposium delegates as they showed a range of slides, videos and books about ‘Free spaces’ in Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, USA, Poland, Belarus, Maastricht and Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Copenhagen in Denmark and the UK. This year the Symposium took place in two art gallery spaces, but spilled over onto the streets, cafes, bars and local music events – even into the River Vilnia for a very wacky clowning event. Many of the presentations required the hard-working Thomas to act as interpreter from Lithuanian and Russian into something resembling English.
In an FCS Symposium public debate at the Galera, Thomas was amusingly assisted by his alter-ego, Petruška, a lovely talking doll, and the session was recorded by local potter/videographer, Alis, for the local TV. Among those present, were the Prime Minister of this Cultural Freezone in transition, Sakalas (Falcon) Gorodeckis, and Aja Waalwijk from the Netherlands, and other symposiotes who exchanged views and opinions on some of the key issues challenging Užupis, including:
- advancing gentrification,
- direct democracy (with real budgetary authority for children),
- how to creatively respond to increasing tourism,
- and the history of Amsterdam-squats was briefly mentioned as well.
We built ‘road-signs’ which were erected on ‘Ina’s Boom’ (tree) in memory of our core Symposium member, Aja Waalwijk , whose mum died during the Užupis’ Symposium. These signs point towards a number of free cultural zones around the world and have left a visual link between Užupis and other free spaces.
The interaction with local people and visitors was an essential essence of the FCS Symposium. Much of that interaction took place outside of the formal and informal sessions around the Galera by the river and the Kalnas Galery at the other end of the district. Virginie from Maastricht, constructed art-murals on walls of local buildings. Alan with Igor produced an artwork collage on the theme of ‘No Borders – One World – One People’ – this is now part of Marius’s exhibition in the Galera.
Symposiotes talked about free cultural spaces with locals and visitors at music events, in cafes and bars. The Symposium was a moveable feast both in Užupis and Vilnius.
And hey, would you believe it, Thomas, as minister of Foreign Affairs has even honoured me with an official signed certificate making me the Užupis Ambassador for the English-Scottish border. Now, that’s some position – according to the certificate I can even ‘accredit consuls among the border tribes’.
Facebook page with videos and reports from the Užupis FCS event:
Some musical magic!
As you’ll know if you’ve dipped into my books and magazine articles, I love music. All kinds. And especially live. Vilnius and Lithuania is obviously blessed with by lots of talented performers. Even better, there are opportunities aplenty to see some great shows. We were lucky enough to be able to mingle our FCS Symposium in with local events. The two bands I’d like to shine a spotlight on are not familiar (yet) to Western audiences. Maybe that will change. I’d strongly recommend that you check both of them out. First up are:
Kamanių Šilelis (means something like ’bumble bee in the forest’). They brought happy smiles to our communal faces after a hard few days at our Free Cultural Spaces Symposium. Theirs is youthful, exuberant music. They are a duo who are good to watch as well as listen to. It’s arty ‘new-folk’, with plenty of electronic ingredients and edginess. Just right to get the audience jumping and dancing. The warmth, humour and human-connectedness to the audience of the duo is obvious. They enjoy playing and sharing their music. At different times, it is poppy, mixing traditional rhythms of Lithuanian folk traditions with infectious electronic dance music components.
Part of the reason for it being so successful is due to the fact that wonderful singer, Camilia Gudmonaitės’ voice and singing style is as engaging as her mischievous smile! And in the intensity and performance skills of musical partner, guitarist, electronics’ expert and actor, Mars Zemleckas, Camilla has a perfect match.
Links below to their website and to watch my video of them playing in a park just outside the borders of the Užupis Republic. You’ll see what a lively live band they are! They have recently released their first album, ‘Everything Flows’.
The Ministry of Echology.
Reggae in Lithuania? Why not? And very good they are at the Caribbean rhythms too. The Ministry of Echology is one big band. Anything up to eleven members, I think, according to their spokesperson, Ugnius Raugalas. There’s plenty of bass; a big brass section. Nice harmonies blending together sentiments of ‘no war’ and ‘positivity’. Plenty too, of deep, deep, dub grooves and powerful, highly danceable sounds from a band formed in an Eastern bloc country. Lithuania has suffered more than its share of hardships under Russian, German and Polish control. As an independent nation, Lithuanians and their neighbouring Baltic states, are urged to embrace a new era of, hopefully, European peace. We can hope!
An example of the indomitable spirit of the Lithuanian people is sited nearby in Vilnius – the Stebuklas Tile. This tile marks the spot where three million people of the Baltic States, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia joined hands to form a human chain encircling their nations in protest against the Russian occupation. And so it is in their songs, urging us towards, ‘Music Healing’, ‘Moving Forward’, ‘Inner Revolution’, ‘No Fight’ and a lovely tune, ‘Meditation’, in its album versions, with and without added ‘dub’.
Live, they are truly a formidable musical force. Their two albums are good and a highly enjoyable listen: ‘Notes and Quotes’ (2014) and ‘Wanderer’, the recently issued, 7-track mini-album (2016), but don’t quite capture the energy and ‘oomph’ of the live and direct, Ministry of Echology. But well worth having a listen to them. And they pulled in a huge crowd (as you can see) at the audience-friendly Downtown Forest Hostel venue.
Check out Ministry of Echology on the web (photo above from Rokus Milius):
From your favourite clown, Gonzo Alan, (keep your children safe inside!!!) Photo by Marius Abramavicius.