The Cabbage Field is part of a former barracks in Šančiai, a suburb of Kaunas (Lithuania). The site was established by the Imperial Russian army in 1899, used by Soviet, German and Lithuanian troops during the 20th century and abandoned in 1991, after Lithuania became the first republic to declare independence from the USSR. Much was then dismantled for building materials, but substantial parts remain, including some derelict buildings and some that have converted into private flats. and new industrial units have also been built. There is also public housing and industrial units, old and new. The site is edged by the small, traditional houses built during the course of the 20th century as Šančiai slowly grew.
The future of such unwanted, but potentially valuable sites is always a matter of debate. Governments change, factories close, mines are exhausted: it is the people who live nearby who have to make a new way of life among the vestiges of the past. The cabbage field – so called because of the cellars in which fermented cabbage and other army stores were kept – is a rare piece of open, public space in Šančiai. It matters to local people who are working to save the site as a community asset. And community art is at the centre of their activity, as a way of coming together, exploring the traditions and history of their home, and creating events that make the spirit of the place visible. One of those events was written about on this blog by Ed Carroll and Vita Gelūnienė a few months ago.
All this is new to me — it’s my first time in Lithuania — and yet very familiar. I’ve worked in community art with groups who are engaged in a similar process of shared ownership and renewal in many European countries. But everywhere is different, and community art reflects that difference. It is a global phenomenon, true, but only because it always speaks in local accents.
So I’m here for a week, to talk about community art, facilitate some art workshops, and contribute to the development of a community opera which will be performed on the Cabbage Field at midwinter. All I’ve done so far is take a walk around the site: later today, I’m going to the library and sports centre where we – other artists and local people – will work together for the next five days. If I have the stamina, I’m going to post some thoughts and photos here each day, to give a sense of what a project feels like as it develops, and you don’t really know what is happening or if it will work. The posts will be less polished than what I usually try to do here, but I hope that it will be lively and worth seeing, if only because of the immediacy of following an unfolding project.