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.
PetPunk’s 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 emerged.”
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 Park, 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.
In 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.