Leave room for doubt - Interview

Emilija Škarnulytė

Emilija Škarnulytė is an artist and filmmaker, who reflects on human civilization through the topic of deep time. In the exploration of invisible structures and components of reality beyond human control, she uses the camera as an archaeological tool that pierces through cosmic and geologic, as well as ecological and political strata. Immersive experiences, exercising a move away from the homocentric perspective, dive into the Earth discovering signs of human presence and its interrelation with the beyond-human.

„The anthropocentric perspective refuses all history outside a narrow band of relatively recent human history. And yet so many phenomena – most phenomena – work on other time scales. Abandoning this narrow view allows us to perceive our reality. Zooming in and out, from the lifetime of a neutrino to that of a galaxy. Shifting perspectives and scales, rather than forming conceptions.“

Emilija's rather diametrical approach to the anthropocentric perspective also invokes an interest in the variations of presence beyond the earth-bound, questioning our sensory experience just as much as human alignment of alternative forms of existence. Her strive to unravel seemingly distant truths becomes the examination of life in order to push boundaries of the form of living as an approach of internal world-building and how we can use this knowledge to expand our understanding of complexities of our environment as well as its physical and metaphysical dimension.

„What if aliens are blind? We have to somehow think in sensibilities that are not ours.“

Following the story of the artist’s grandmother, who lost vision after the Chernobyl disaster yet was able to see her grandchild even more profoundly, Emilija enchants her ways of seeing through artistic, scientific, mythological, and cosmic tools/visions. These other kinds of sensitivities allow for a poetic meditation on humanity and its ripples.

„Deprivation of senses, as a way to expand and vary perception is something I find fascination in. I try to unlearn and re-learn seeing. Echolocation is one of these processes.“

Reminiscing on what she has learned from the most, Emilija lists „Boredom. Potentiality of absence. Suspense. Void“ which appears plausible, recognizing some of the locations she has worked at, whether it is the abandoned Cold-War submarine base in Olavsvern, Norway for “Sirenomelia“ (2018), or the aphotic zone, 4 km deep into the Gulf of Mexico for her recent work „Aphotic Zone“ (2022). All these places inherit a sense of abandonment and complexity of location in time, bridging the past and the present, documentation and mythology. In her artistic practice Emilija explores the junction between the depths and beauty of the forgotten and the potential of the unknown, conveying the idea of presence in absence and vice versa.

„Looking at present, live, and operating structures, signs of ‘progress’ they are already ruins. Both deserted and accessible places are bound to decay. A body is situated next to big structures, and those big structures are situated within time. It’s never only one or the other, there are signs of abandonment in use, and signs of use in abandonment.“

Getting into exclusive or extreme contexts, such as diving bare-bodied in a navy base above the Arctic Circle, visiting mega-sites of cutting-edge or outdated technology, or filming in radioactive environments, is a way of measuring humans, their monuments, and putting them into perspective. Considering the magnitude of time and these contexts of Emilija's work, the „human" or "post-human" perspective seems to become almost irrelevant.

„The focus is on signs of human activity and their remains, and measurements of the scale of those remains. The human dimension is still there, but only as a remnant. The question of its impact misses relevance on the level of relativity or the quantum. The world is full of lifeforms, beings, structures, processes, etc., bigger or smaller in scale, but we as humans can imagine and speculate on their perspective. The viewer can ask who is speaking.“

Emilija’s work is situated between documentary and the fictional, assessing the present to find that which seems otherworldly. In an attempt to measure space and time, using her own body as a scale, Emilija recurrently free-dives in the sea dressed as a mermaid, as in the video „Sunken Cities“ (2021). Apart from embodying a counter-myth to sites that are far from the everyday, unknown, hidden, or forgotten, which are shrouded in myths, the mermaid possesses an unique ability:

„She can navigate the human world, and below the surface she can inhabit and explore a strange and mysterious realm. Observing the left scars of the human species, one can explore deep time and dive through the strata.“

To mediate these inter-worlds to the viewer, Emilija operates under many guises: Researching, collaborating, interviewing, immersing, intuiting is all part of the strenuous process, which lies underneath her body of work.

„Extensive research, dialogues with scientists, feeling out the locations with my own body - all are crucial parts of my work, and yet they’re invisible to the viewer. Often the actual location, whether that’s a political border or a geological stratum, takes the main role. When I was working on ‚Burial‘, my first feature-length film, for seven years we grew and lived together. I probably would have kept filming for years if my producers hadn’t told me to wrap up. The same thing happens with all the other projects too – the need to pierce through the layers and excavate the hidden and the invisible in various periods of time.“

Having a degree in sculpture, there is a noticeable element of 'the sculptural' as a structural continuity in her work.

„Filmmaking is in many ways a sculptural medium. The pixels of the moving image are like clay, and physical kneading is replaced with the shaping of space and time. One particularly big influence was Tarkovsky’s concept of film-making as “sculpting in time.” Architecture, space, and void are critical dimensions for the immersion. By using a site-specific approach to researching, producing, and showing the films, the sculptural element is always present. Chambers, tunnels, mirrored ceilings, and tilted screens create a portal to usually unreachable sites such as Etruscan caves, sunken cities, nuclear power plants, neutrino observatories, and aphotic zones at four kilometers of depth.“

Nonetheless, there are still some yet inaccessible places where Emilija envisions herself at work in the future like „vaults or high-security places where internet data cables meet and private information is being kept.“, noting that „paradoxically as our privacy becomes ever more eroded, the places where our data is kept are becoming ever more private.„, which could possibly be an analogy for the focus of her artistic process, located between different worlds and dimensions of time.

Dealing with the dichotomy of private (or rather secluded) and public space(s), while working nomadically in often remote or abandoned places, Emilija's commitment, her focus on location and intense work on it, seem to create an inevitable level of immersion. When asked what 'home' means to her, she answers by questioning „Did I ever have one? Perhaps this obsession with exploring, reaching deserted and hardly accessible locations and contexts, has to do with searching for it. So what is home for other, non-human beings? Thinking about what home means for me is too human, which I’m diverting from. We all came from the ocean, right?“

While Emilija's work reflects on the relationship between humanity, nature and technology, her distinct vision of the magnitude and complexity of time challenges traditional perceptions of these structures, and remains a driving inspiration for her distinct perspective, in the midst of the assertedly accelerated convergence of society and technology referenced in contemporary art.

„The idea of progress and technological advancements is speculative. Distance from current ideologies is critical. How is a core sample taken? Is it a human perspective, or someone else’s? The latter is likewise speculative, “but isn't every perspective bounded by its own speculations? Technology is not teleology. And yet it is treated as such. We should leave room for doubt.“