The Lithuanian capital is in the middle of a cultural resurgence. Charlotte West talks to Vilnius-based illustration and motion graphics studio PetPunk about bringing its Soviet past together with its European future
In Europe and the United States, Crayola crayons are a staple in kids' creative lives; Burnt Sienna brushes shoulders with Brick Red, while Teal Blue and Mulberry retire to make room for Wild Blue Yonder and Mango Tango. But what if your childhood palette was limited to black, brown, blue, green, yellow and something that resembles red? How would this shape your visual world view?
For Lithuanian animation studio PetPunk, made up of illustrator Gediminas Šiaulys and animator Andrius Kirvela, the result has been a strange marriage of eastern European sensibilities and folk art with modern, almost post-punk visuals. PetPunk's unique angle hasn't gone unnoticed either - in October 2009 the studio picked up the 2009 Art Directors Club Young Guns Award, which recognises the body of work of designers under 30.
As 20-somethings, the pair straddle two vastly different realms of experience. They grew up under Communism, but were teenagers when Lithuania gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1992. "We had a dual experience of cultures," says Šiaulys. "A lot of our work is an investigation into our childhood, a childhood where there wasn't any advertising. This visual clash of two worlds - Socialism vs Capitalism - is reflected in our aesthetic approach. We mix totally different visual styles and techniques."
Take, for instance, their recent project 'Carousel' - a limited-edition giclée print on canvas - and the intro for an independent film they're working on ("about warm love in cold winter's day," according to Šiaulys). The piece is a 3D rendering that interprets the opening credits of a famous Soviet children's television show the pair watched as kids. It was created using an effect that mimics brush strokes and is caused by insufficient computing data. PetPunk has, in essence, turned an error into a work of art, which they say celebrates "computer art at its full, natural, digital beauty".
Šiaulys and Kirvela met while working on a commercial project at a web design agency. After working on several projects with other young Lithuanian artists, they discovered that their diverse skillsets meshed well and decided to start their own studio. But while the duo employs thoroughly modern techniques, they don't forget where they came from. Kirvela describes the five decades of Socialism following World War II as years of terror, censorship, propaganda, Russification and a permanent shortage of goods. "This created poor conditions to develop people's consciousness and creativity. Any departure from the norm was strictly kept down by governmental structures. The situation for design was also difficult. There was no free market, no competition and almost no advertising. This was our childhood," he says.
For graphic designers, Kirvela explains, there was only one outlet for artistic self-expression - posters. "Since designers were separated from the world's modern tendencies, their inspiration came from ethno-art or the work of pre-war artists, as well as from other socialist countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia."
After independence in 1992, Lithuania experienced an influx of culture and goods from the west, which threatened to eclipse its national identity. "Capitalism stood up with all its weight, but society wasn't ready. The culture coming from the west was so rich, colourful and attractive that it drowned everything local. The adjective 'Lithuanian' became a synonym for poor quality or a lack of originality," Kirvela recalls.
In the last decade and a half, the country has morphed from a totalitarian political regime and centrally planned economy to democracy and a free market, complete with plenty of growing pains. The utter transformation - and concurrent identity crisis - of this tiny Baltic nation culminated with its entry to the European Union in 2004.
Like Lithuanian society at large, the PetPunk team have had to reconcile their Soviet past with ambitions for the future, exploring their home country's national identity in the process. For example, in The Magnificent City of Vilnius, a video animation for the European Capital of Culture 2009 campaign, PetPunk explores the history, multiculturalism and creativity of the Lithuanian capital. Inspired both by Lithuanian mythology and viral pet videos on YouTube, the animation presents a dreamy, almost childlike universe populated by animal-headed denizens. Like many of PetPunk's projects, the final product is charming, if a bit rough around the edges.
But that's the way it's supposed to be. Kirvela and Šiaulys revel in the gory details of their work, taking their time to enjoy the creative process. They are also more than willing to share the messier side of the production process with the world, such as uploading to Flickr the amusing behind-the-scenes takes of the parade of pets that came through the studio during the filming of The Magnificent City of Vilnius.
Describing their work as "hybrid and chaotic" and "a bit distracting," Kirvela says experimentation and improvisation are hallmarks of the PetPunk design process: "We don't have an established aesthetic. We find the errors in our creative process. Something goes wrong, and the result is really interesting. We actually use that as our technique. It might be unprofessional, but in our world there is no 'right' way to do it. That gives us a lot of freedom."
Kirvela says that in The Magnificent City of Vilnius animation he used an effect designed for an entirely different purpose to "grow" the buildings and trees. Some of the scenes were also created by mixing 3D objects with the 2D drawings - an idea that only came about during the animation process. PetPunk takes a similar mash-up approach to computer graphics, as Å iaulys points out: "[They] often tend to be stylised and perfect. We prefer warmer and imperfect."
Another example of what Kirvela describes as "unintended effects" is a recent clip PetPunk has made for PSST! 3, a collaborative short film project done by international teams made up of designers, directors and animators. He says he used a "video compression error effect to achieve painterly surfaces while still keeping it purely digital, without trying to replicate or simulate real-world painting techniques."
While much of the visual material and animation coming out of digital studios today appears seamless, it is in the flaws that PetPunk finds its own sense of perfection. Kirvela says he takes inspiration from contemporary Japanese motion graphics works precisely because of their quirks. "To me, it looks like there are lots of artists who are not bound by execution standards and trying to do 'good-looking' stuff. They play hard, experiment, break and invent rules," he says. It sounds like he might just be describing PetPunk.