In 2009, Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, will be designated aEuropean Capital of Culture, a recognition that will inevitably bring inmillions of litas and euros. But I’m not in Vilnius to talk togovernment officials about cultural tourism, or roam a city thatpre-dates the Roman Empire, or visit the granite marker 26 kilometersoutside of it that designates the exact geographical center of Europe:54°50′ N, 25°18′ E. Instead, I’m here watching ants twist a stalkof celery and drop it into the cavity of a makeshift body, which isinjected with so much voltage that its ventricles pump hard enough toanimate a giant, half-robotic Mantis religiosa that climbsinelegantly 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 ofAndrius Kirvela, 25, and Gediminas Šiaulys, 27, excels at smart,surreal motion graphics for the generation that has grown up with theinternet. Kirvela and Šiaulys met while doing standard commercialwork at an ad agency; both longed for some freaky experimentation withFlash, After Effects, and far-flung visual territory that would requirethem to code their own scripts. The pair have been doing this type ofthing for nearly two years now, though Kirvela remains astudent—“occasionally,” he admits—at the VilniusAcademy of Art. The studio’s adolescence and complete lack ofself-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 tospend time on the brand’s site. Kirvela and Šiaulys went toan open-air basketball court in downtown Vilnius and took stop-motionshots of a friend in a Sprite-green jersey posed with a ball while lyingon the ground in a variety of positions. PetPunk animated hundreds ofimages and added a nice touch of their own: The player, controlled bythe user, wheezes and grumbles when missing a basket. Many of thestudio’s endeavors combine this labor-intensive—and witty—spirit with apparent ease.
“Even though we weretrying to be serious when we started, somehow everything came out odd orfunny. It still does, and we don’t know why,” says Kirvela.“It’s true,” Šiaulys chuckles. “Our weakness became our strength.” Tomas Ramanauskas, head ofmarketing for Vilnius-based MTV Baltic, has hired the two for shorts,intros, and various PSAs. “PetPunk has a great sense ofhumor,” he says. “They’re 100 percent original, andthey’re never interested in a project if it’s a plainexecution of someone else’s ideas. I respect that. It’s arelief to have people you can trust with the craziest projects, who arenot in the least bit afraid of goddamn failure.”
Despite their success, no one would mistake the two members of PetPunk—withtheir half-shaven faces, knit caps, shy demeanors, and a skulkingcynicism—for businessmen. They work out of a new space in afive-story ’70s walk-up (observable via webcam), where they keepleftover props from past projects: a remote-controlled truck withPing-Pong balls tied to it, a dirty wig, an old Russian portablespeaker-box with microphone, a raggedy hobby horse.
PetPunk’sapproach reflects this peculiar eclecticism: The designers’painstaking, old-world process is paired with a blazing, fantasy-ladenpastiche of contemporary urban life. “We wanted to balance whatyou do with your hands, like drawing, with a technologyaesthetic—to combine the two without entirely leaning oneither,” Kirvela and Šiaulys say in near unison, somethingthey often do. “Sort of unintentionally, a ‘supernaturalsynthetic,’ an illogical beauty, a less than perfect thing emerged.”
The supernatural synthetic is in full effect in an ad for the TV station SMC, broadcast nationally every
week from theContemporary Arts Center in Vilnius. The viewer zooms toward the actionas if in a low-flying plane, past some clickety-clackety footage ofSoviet-era concrete buildings, up close to a tiny, photo-collaged manwith glowing eyes. As the camera zooms faster, the film speed lags andthe man’s head slowly fragments into eyes, ears, mouth, and hat.Hand-drawn lines grow outward like vines; follow the meandering shapesand 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 forone’s own oppressed heritage, yet guiltily obsessed with Americanculture. PetPunk gobbles up visual fodder from television (SouthPark, VH1); film (Sin City, Japanese movies); the web(Machinima); ’70s album covers (Foghat); and old Sovietanimation—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, incertain 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, whowere nominated as Best Baltic Act at the MTV Europe Awards last year.The piece illustrates how designers in the “big village” aregrappling with their formative identity as a post-perestroika,NATO-belonging democracy, wanting distance from provincial culture whileknowing that it’s the one thing that is resolutelyLithuanian—not Soviet, not Baltic, not pop-culture American.
In the video, the band members’ real heads appear inside cut-out bodyboards and bob along a cartoon landscape replete with monster trucks,fountains, knights, and pig-stabbings. (There’s a lot of smokedsausage in Lithuania.) Thick mustaches abound, and references to folkart run rampant. “I consider PetPunk to be romanticaesthetes,” says Ramanauskas. “Everything they make, nomatter how urban it is, has a postmodern, romanticized feel. Their workis a standout in national design.”
Audrius Klimas, the 50-year-old founder and head of the Lithuanian Graphic DesignAssociation, recalls that the commercial significance of graphic designdidn’t find its footing until the country regained itsindependence in 1990. Now, demand exceeds supply by such a large marginthat many people are choosing the freelance route. “That wasunthinkable, impossible, illegal even, not that long ago,” hesays. “It’s incredibly exciting.” Even PetPunkdescribes itself as a “freelance studio.” At any given time,Kirvela’s and Šiaulys’s fellow freelancers can befound at the studio working on projects, talking, or just helping eachother out; it’s part of a larger, more ambitious plan to build aWarhol-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, wetalk 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 theLithuanian identity and sense of national pride—and on thesensibility that young designers are forging today. “How do you feel Lithuanian?” I ask. “Hmmm,” Šiaulysthinks. “We are small but strong.”
One famous former student of Vilnius University agreed. “The voice of passion isbetter than the voice of reason,” he wrote. “The passionlesscannot change history.” He’s right, of course. His name wasCzeslaw Milosz, the Lithuanian-born, Polish Nobel Laureate poet whoseaugust words could be etched in the wall alongside the toys andartifacts tucked into the rickety bookshelf of PetPunk’s ownenthusiastic studio.