In 2009, Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, will be designated a
European Capital of Culture, a recognition that will inevitably bring in
millions of litas and euros. But I’m not in Vilnius to talk to
government officials about cultural tourism, or roam a city that
pre-dates the Roman Empire, or visit the granite marker 26 kilometers
outside of it that designates the exact geographical center of Europe:
54°50′ N, 25°18′ E. Instead, I’m here watching ants twist a stalk
of celery and drop it into the cavity of a makeshift body, which is
injected with so much voltage that its ventricles pump hard enough to
animate a giant, half-robotic Mantis religiosa that climbs
inelegantly out of its loamy underground lair.

This frenzied
motion-graphics film was created by PetPunk, Lithuania’s hippest,
punkest, and perhaps smallest design studio. PetPunk, which consists of
Andrius Kirvela, 25, and Gediminas Šiaulys, 27, excels at smart,
surreal motion graphics for the generation that has grown up with the
internet. Kirvela and Šiaulys met while doing standard commercial
work at an ad agency; both longed for some freaky experimentation with
Flash, After Effects, and far-flung visual territory that would require
them to code their own scripts. The pair have been doing this type of
thing for nearly two years now, though Kirvela remains a
student—“occasionally,” he admits—at the Vilnius
Academy of Art. The studio’s adolescence and complete lack of
self-promotion hasn’t hindered its allure or impressive reach.
Sprite, MTV, Bitë (a Lithuanian Vodafone operator), SMC Television,
Bang and Pravda magazines, SEB Bank, and others have
sought out the duo for a variety of projects.

Sprite, for example,
hired PetPunk to create an online game that would encourage viewers to
spend time on the brand’s site. Kirvela and Šiaulys went to
an open-air basketball court in downtown Vilnius and took stop-motion
shots of a friend in a Sprite-green jersey posed with a ball while lying
on the ground in a variety of positions. PetPunk animated hundreds of
images and added a nice touch of their own: The player, controlled by
the user, wheezes and grumbles when missing a basket. Many of the
studio’s endeavors combine this labor-intensive—and
witty—spirit with apparent ease.

“Even though we were
trying to be serious when we started, somehow everything came out odd or
funny. It still does, and we don’t know why,” says Kirvela.
“It’s true,” Šiaulys chuckles. “Our
weakness became our strength.” Tomas Ramanauskas, head of
marketing for Vilnius-based MTV Baltic, has hired the two for shorts,
intros, and various PSAs. “PetPunk has a great sense of
humor,” he says. “They’re 100 percent original, and
they’re never interested in a project if it’s a plain
execution of someone else’s ideas. I respect that. It’s a
relief to have people you can trust with the craziest projects, who are
not in the least bit afraid of goddamn failure.”

Despite their
success, no one would mistake the two members of PetPunk—with
their half-shaven faces, knit caps, shy demeanors, and a skulking
cynicism—for businessmen. They work out of a new space in a
five-story ’70s walk-up (observable via webcam), where they keep
leftover props from past projects: a remote-controlled truck with
Ping-Pong balls tied to it, a dirty wig, an old Russian portable
speaker-box with microphone, a raggedy hobby horse.

approach reflects this peculiar eclecticism: The designers’
painstaking, old-world process is paired with a blazing, fantasy-laden
pastiche of contemporary urban life. “We wanted to balance what
you do with your hands, like drawing, with a technology
aesthetic—to combine the two without entirely leaning on
either,” Kirvela and Šiaulys say in near unison, something
they often do. “Sort of unintentionally, a ‘supernatural
synthetic,’ an illogical beauty, a less than perfect thing

The supernatural synthetic is in full effect in an ad
for the TV station SMC, broadcast nationally every week from the
Contemporary Arts Center in Vilnius. The viewer zooms toward the action
as if in a low-flying plane, past some clickety-clackety footage of
Soviet-era concrete buildings, up close to a tiny, photo-collaged man
with glowing eyes. As the camera zooms faster, the film speed lags and
the man’s head slowly fragments into eyes, ears, mouth, and hat.
Hand-drawn lines grow outward like vines; follow the meandering shapes
and you’re off in some abstract space, drifting.

The spot
embodies what could be broadly described as a still emergent,
post-Soviet-satellite aesthetic: simultaneously nostalgic for
one’s own oppressed heritage, yet guiltily obsessed with American
culture. PetPunk gobbles up visual fodder from television (South
, VH1); film (Sin City, Japanese movies); the web
(Machinima); ’70s album covers (Foghat); and old Soviet
animation—especially a cartoon called Nu, Pogodi!
(“I’ll get you!”), a sort of Russian Road Runner &
Wile E. Coyote
, with a wolf who chain-smokes as he pursues a rabbit.
“‘Foreign’ became a synonym for
‘cool,’” Kirvela says, “and
‘Lithuanian’ is used to describe things that are average,
naive, provincial, or simply not good enough. This is because, in
certain ways, Lithuania is pretty much just a big village.”

Perhaps it’s surprising, then, that PetPunk is best known for
“Welcome to Lithuania,” a video for the band inCulto, who
were nominated as Best Baltic Act at the MTV Europe Awards last year.
The piece illustrates how designers in the “big village” are
grappling with their formative identity as a post-perestroika,
NATO-belonging democracy, wanting distance from provincial culture while
knowing that it’s the one thing that is resolutely
Lithuanian—not Soviet, not Baltic, not pop-culture American.

the video, the band members’ real heads appear inside cut-out body
boards and bob along a cartoon landscape replete with monster trucks,
fountains, knights, and pig-stabbings. (There’s a lot of smoked
sausage in Lithuania.) Thick mustaches abound, and references to folk
art run rampant. “I consider PetPunk to be romantic
aesthetes,” says Ramanauskas. “Everything they make, no
matter how urban it is, has a postmodern, romanticized feel. Their work
is a standout in national design.”

Audrius Klimas, the
50-year-old founder and head of the Lithuanian Graphic Design
Association, recalls that the commercial significance of graphic design
didn’t find its footing until the country regained its
independence in 1990. Now, demand exceeds supply by such a large margin
that many people are choosing the freelance route. “That was
unthinkable, impossible, illegal even, not that long ago,” he
says. “It’s incredibly exciting.” Even PetPunk
describes itself as a “freelance studio.” At any given time,
Kirvela’s and Šiaulys’s fellow freelancers can be
found at the studio working on projects, talking, or just helping each
other out; it’s part of a larger, more ambitious plan to build a
Warhol-like collective workspace where creative types share ideas,
resources—and Kalnapilis, a delicious Lithuanian beer.

As I
walk around with the PetPunk guys on a snowy, subzero January night, we
talk about Lithuania’s history, battered by 400 years of lengthy,
bloody contests for independence. The last of these, a spirit-crushing,
45-year occupation by the U.S.S.R., left lingering marks on the
Lithuanian identity and sense of national pride—and on the
sensibility that young designers are forging today. “How do you
feel Lithuanian?” I ask. “Hmmm,” Šiaulys
thinks. “We are small but strong.”

One famous former
student of Vilnius University agreed. “The voice of passion is
better than the voice of reason,” he wrote. “The passionless
cannot change history.” He’s right, of course. His name was
Czeslaw Milosz, the Lithuanian-born, Polish Nobel Laureate poet whose
august words could be etched in the wall alongside the toys and
artifacts tucked into the rickety bookshelf of PetPunk’s own
enthusiastic studio.