“I thought – great, I will be quarantined in Kaunas and I will finally be able to follow a diet. Instead, I order a new dish of Lithuanian cuisine every day“, laughs British creative producer Liz Pugh, co-founder of the organisation “Walk the Plank“. The artist, together with an international team, brings together other artists and residents for the upcoming Fluxus festival in Kaunas, organised by “Kaunas – European Capital of Culture 2022“.

According to her, art can be a way to combat social inequality, become a counterweight to injustice. Art allows you to create the world not as it is, but as it could be. Events that include local residents allow them to entrust their power to implement change.

“I create temporary moments when people gather at a certain time in a certain place and do something amazing together. The moment comes and goes but its echo remains and people hear it every time they pass through that place“, says Liz.

– All your projects are based on the fact that you involve the residents. How is this happening?

– For over twenty years we in “Walk the Plank“ have been working in a way that we involve people not as spectators but as participants, co-creators of events. It is not that we come up with an idea of, let’s say, the march, we organise everything and then invite people to join. No. We start by bringing communities together and then we ask what they want to achieve and how that could be done. Of course, working this way is harder and takes longer.

For instance, in Kaunas we will have only a week for working with professionals and community representatives. It is impossible to organise an event in a week. But what can be done is to train organisers, give them the knowledge on how to work to involve people. It is important to know what questions to ask and how to do it. To teach them dialogue, hoping that in the future people will come out of such a training with ideas, build their own network. I hope that during the training there will be participants who will say: I would like to gather the community for the lantern workshop, or: I have an idea an finally I know how to implement it.

– You have mentioned that involving residents is more complicated, it takes longer. So why bother? Maybe it would be easier to work with professionals who understand each other from half a word?

– Are you asking why I am such a masochist (laughs)? I am from the theatre. This is the only art that cannot exist without spectators, audience. The audience has always been very important to me. Well, and philosophically, I care about creating a fairer world, the one with more equality. I believe that community art projects can help to achieve it.

I am not naive and I do not think that art can solve all economic and social problems but I believe that it helps to encourage people to think better about themselves and the place they are living in. I see that people, when creating together the events and participating in them, learn how to say what they want and become active citizens who gain power, or to be more precise, belief that they can make the change.

– How does it look in practice?

– For instance, for the last ten years we have been contributing to the organisation of marchs in Manchester. Those marchs attract people you wouldn’t normally see in the streets. After all, in a successful city like

Manchester or Kaunas, in the centre of those cities, everything tells about the success: on those streets you see people who have jobs, who have enough money and time to sit in cafes and eat in restaurants, who can shop in expensive stores. In the city centre you will rarely see people from the fringes of society.

Our march is for those people. Streets are closed for one day and those “invisible“ people go out into them. It can be a group of young people with learning disabilities, poor people living in municipal housing, Pakistani, Filipino, or other minority communities. When going out into the streets they say: I am part of this city, I can proudly walk around the city centre.

– How do you manage to involve people?

– We come up with a topic, invite the representatives of the communities and ask them what they would like to create on that topic. Professional artists work with the residents, help them but all the ideas come from the community. Sometimes communities do not want anything. Then we encourage artists to show more initiative, to encourage people to join.

And, you know, on the day of the march I may not see the most amazing works of art, sometimes it is difficult to understand what the group had in mind, what was the idea of their movable platform and costumes they created but what I see is that people are proud of what they did. They enjoy themselves, find a way to celebrate their different identities, they love their city.

I like the words told by cultural theorist Raymond Williams: “To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing“. Such events can create a place and time when people find hope, when they believe in positive change and that everyone can contribute to it individually.

– So art can save the world?

Sometimes it is hard to believe that. Especially in these times when the pandemic has so badly affected our lives, when the heads of states, sitting in the White House or in Minsk, are doing the incredible things. Sometimes I think what can we, artists, offer? People need food, work, new homes. What is the meaning of art in this context? And when I remember that art helps create the version of the world we would like to have instead of the existing one.

This also applies to Fluxus festival of “Kaunas 2022“, which we create here, in Kaunas. You have a lot of art in your city: sculptures, open exhibitions, architecture. I am not an expert in any of these areas, I do not create long-lasting works of art. I like to create short amazing moments when people gather at a certain time in a certain place and do something together. The next day everything is over, but the echo of that common work remains. Every time when people walk past that place they think: oh, this is where it happened and it was amazing. There will be a weekend when people, wearing funny costumes, will climb the mountain, and they will always remember that. They will remember their version of the world, they will remember how they shared their work together, their visions.

– You work in different countries. Probably not everywhere residents easily succumb to being involved in a common artistic activity?

– You need to ask a proper question and establish a dialogue. I have noticed that in every community there is usually a woman (almost always a woman) who speaks out her needs: we would like the park to be open longer, the streets to be safer and so on. We start with what people care about and then we suggest methods and involve artists.

But yes, I have such a feeling that there is a difference between Westerners and the residents of the post-Soviet countries. I was living in Ukraine for half a year and I noticed that there is a huge difference among people who are over 40 and those who are under 40. When you meet older people on the street and look

them in the eye, they immediately drop their gaze. They have learned to remain unnoticed. They do not raise their hand, they do not express their opinion as this is their way to survive. Younger people are absolutely different – they tend to communicate, to cooperate. I think the situation might be similar in Lithuania too.

– Is this your first time visiting Lithuania?

– I was in Kaunas once a few years ago. Just like this time and then, I participated in the project “Creative Europe“ – I was invited by the Šančiai community, or to be more precise, by its two artists. We had workshops with local residents, we were planning to hold a march or a parade.

It was a very interesting experience. The meetings were attended by the residents of Šančiai – engineers, teachers, a policeman, a saleswoman and so on. I tell them to organise a parade and they say that nothing can be done as parades are only military; in their minds that name is associated with Soviet times. So later we agreed that it would be just an event. When working with individual groups we started asking questions: where the event could take place, how it should look like, what people should be involved and how they should be motivated?

We held seminars with artists, representatives of the municipality, we involved people in various activities, such as developing posters. It is a very simple method and it can be used in schools when working with children or with disabled people, with the church community. You don’t have to be a great artist to create a poster.

And you know what, they had Šančiai parade four or five months after that workshop! When organisers sent me the photos I was very happy to see that one of the sections of the march was carrying posters – they accepted my idea and adopted it to create something authentic.

– What do you expect from this stay?

– During our training we gather professional artists and non-professionals, people working with communities and those without such experience, people from different countries and we create situations where they could learn new techniques. The essence of the training is practical implementation, that is – we focus on one event of some city, a date and we aim to turn it into a holiday for everyone. In Plovdiv, Bulgaria, we organised International Day of Volunteers in this way and in Kaunas we are working with the Fluxus festival.

What I expect is not only the event but also what remains after it – people who, after spending several days together, will find new ways to engage in dialogue and who, by the end of the week, will have confidence in themselves as practitioners and will be able to make better decisions both for themselves and for their community.

I work with the cities that have been or are preparing to become European capitals of culture – Plovdiv, Kaunas, Tartu. What I have seen before is that after the city became the European Capital of the Culture, most of the money went to the already established companies or institutions, let’s say for the troupes of the famous theatres or orchestras that are invited from all over the world. What I really seek with my work is to strengthen local artists, to give them contacts and opportunities to benefit from the fact that their city is becoming the European Capital of Culture. I would like the artists to find new ways to practice – the theatre does not necessarily need a stage, painting – a gallery; all this can take place on the streets, around us. In Britain, we saw it in practice during the pandemic.

Although the pandemic has adjusted our plans too – only I could come from the UK, my Estonian and Lithuanian colleagues will participate in the group and people from Serbia and Bulgaria will be joining us virtually – we have a platform where we can share our experiences, learn from each other’s mistakes and success stories. I hope that a new cooperation network will be established after this week.

– Thank you for the conversation.