Nightivism

We are Europe is launching a new series of articles to showcase and support European nightclubs. The nightlife sector is just one of those that has been hugely impacted by the pandemic, which is why we wish to show our support for all the people and teams behind these essential cultural venues. To launch the series, we caught up with Vidmantas Čepkauskas from Opium, the iconic club in Vilnius. As the club’s artistic director, Vidmantas shares his vision for the political role occupied by the club scene.

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Photo credit: Opium Club, Silvija Valeišaitė

We are Europe: Who is behind Opium club? Can you tell us a bit about the history of your organization?

Vidmantas: Opium is the meeting place of kindred spirits. Residents provide the music, promoters bring ideas, influences and pull their crowds, dancers fuel the space with explosive energy, owners run the restaurant, bar, crew and all the business operation, I provide artistic direction and do all the bookings for the last 9 years. Everyone has her or his own story of Opium and all together it makes our shared history.

Where is your club located? Does the district have a specific history regarding the city’s history? 

Islandijos Street 4, 01401 Vilnius, is the address of the club. It’s one of the shortest streets in Vilnius’ old town, named after Iceland, the first country in the world to recognise the independence of Lithuania in 1991. The building was constructed in 1913 for a local businessman and landlord Rafal Jan Slizien. Tadeusz Maria Rostworowski was the architect to design a place for shops on the ground floor and apartments – on the upper floors. During 100 plus years these walls have hosted a brothel for the German soldiers during WW2, Ministry of Industry throughout the Soviet Era and, a rumour has it, a bar for the Armenian mobsters’ congregation during the troubled 90-ies. So, the Opium story added, it’s quite a historical building. 

Opium is on a mission to explore less charted territories of house and techno as well as spreading the gospel of a club as a cultural institution and community centre.

Musically & aesthetically speaking, how would you describe the scene in which your club evolves? Also, could you please present us your resident(s) if you have some? Or artists who play regularly at your venue?

Aesthetically speaking, Opium is on a mission to explore less charted territories of house and techno as well as spreading the gospel of a club as a cultural institution and community centre.

When talking about historical context of the scene, deliberately or not, Opium is a successor of 30-year-old tradition of nightlife and clubbing in Lithuania and Vilnius. The club’s open-mindedness and special vibe would not exist without the predecessor clubs, promoters, labels, broadcasters, bloggers and DJ crews like Gravity, Satta, Stereo45, Boogaloo, MondayJazz, Sutemos, Disco Mafia, Partyzanai, Minimal Mondays, Ore, Dubauskaitė… These are just a few names and phenomenon off the top of my head. All of them and many others have paved the way for this small but exciting scene we have today. 


Talking of local heroes, you should definitely check Manfredas, 12 inčų po žeme, Roe Deers, Pletnev, Monika Seta, Clicklounge, Tumosa, Tadas Quazar, Saulty, Ernestas Sadau, Roman Sputnik, Low Heights. There are many more and I’m always excited about up-and-coming talent. Our annual New Blood competition doesn’t cease to impress and inspire. 

As for the extended international family, Multi Culti, Calypso Records, Beesmunt Soundsystem, Lena Willikens all throw their nights at our club, and the likes of Lauer, Paramida, Fango, Sado Opera, Jennifer Cardini, Roman Flügel, Elena Colombi, Die Wilde Jagd, Nick Murray, Capablanca, Autarkic, Red Axes, Ivan Smagghe, Marvin & Guy, Justin Strauss and far too many others to mention are regular guests here. 

What’s special about partying in your nightclub?

I think it is fair to say that Opium has built a reputation in certain circles for its electric vibe, open-minded and enthusiastic crowd, deep musical knowledge and eclectic tastes of resident DJs, as well as small but devoted and passioned family-like crew.

Opium Club, by Silvija Valeišaitė
Opium Club, by Silvija Valeišaitė

Please describe one specific night or one special moment during your club’s life that illustrates its DNA.

It is impossible to experience Opium in one night or describe it in one event. I believe you cannot do this with any club, especially if it has got a history of 11 or more years. I would say you need to come to our club in Vilnius, visit our beach festival Ant Bangos in Nida, meet all of the crew on the annual trip to Berlin, come a day earlier and leave a day later for a little chitchat-dinner before and hang-over-cure brunch after. And do it all over again. Then you’d start grasping Opium experience and vibe.

How does your club interact within its political local context?

It’s a mixed bag really. On one hand, our sector has been marginalised and stigmatised for ages, the outgoing government criminalised drug possession, organised raids in night clubs with special militarised units, and mainstream media has been supporting and reporting these crusades. On the other hand, the fact that we have a small but lively night life scene of international reputation proves that all these policies and attitudes are not that bad or at least not very effective.

It is constantly changing too. Not without our involvement. During the first wave of pandemic, we launched Vilnius Night Alliance, an association of the capital’s key clubs, venues and bars, which helps to mediate our sector’s needs and concerns to the municipality and a national government, campaigns for the night life’s recognition, value and importance. And I dear say, we’ve managed to unite our efforts and start a constructive dialogue with authorities. It helped to keep our night life open between the first and the second wave of a pandemic. It also helped to secure a healthy relationship with an incoming government. This could be a new start in terms of changing attitudes and policies. Fingers crossed.

© Tautvydas Stukas photography

Would you say running your nightclub means political involvement?

Everything is political. Legislative process happens in parliaments of course, nevertheless our every-day decisions are all political, they are based on our values, aspirations, socio-economic class, in other words, on our personal political standing and agenda. So even if you don’t throw a protest rave in front of a parliament, but for example, attend International Day for Tolerance’s party in Vilnius to celebrate diversity and inclusiveness in a country with one of the worst homophobia record in Europe, it is political. Spreading the message of “come as you are” and hugging a stranger on a dancefloor in a divided and hateful society is political. Sticking to your own ideals and principals in an increasingly commercialised scene is political. And so on…

Raison d’être of our sector is to give people a little bit of meaning, sense of belonging, opportunity to release the pressure, provide safe spaces and incubators for creative ideas in increasingly meaningless hostile consumerist world.

What is the social and political role of the “nightlife” sector? 

Let me take another angle on this. We at Opium, just like many others, found ourselves in a strange place during the pandemic. When our country got shut down for a quarantine and different relief strategies were put on the table, we suddenly realised we’re in “no man’s land” of sorts. Not culture enough for the Ministry of Culture, not big enough to be the key contributor to budget for the Ministry of Finance or for the Ministry of the Economy and Innovation. And when you expect some financial support, your first instinct is to prove your economic, political and social value, which are the key words in a vocabulary of politicians. But if you take a step back to try and grasp the larger picture, you realise that our sector is culture for the first and the most, modern day culture of the cities with economic, political and social layers to it. Raison d’être of our sector is to give people a little bit of meaning, sense of belonging, opportunity to release the pressure, provide safe spaces and incubators for creative ideas in increasingly meaningless hostile consumerist world. We have to find the ways to explain to our citizens and governments that we are culture and should be treated as such. Our contribution cannot be valued squarely in terms of budget or numbers of employment. I believe our activities have particularly positive impact on the state of public mental health. How to measure that?

Would you say that the current “nightlife” shutdown is a democratic issue (as the dancefloor can be seen as a space for sharing ideas, debating, etc.)?

We’ve figured out already that everything is political. So yes, shutting down the nightlife is yet another political decision raising questions about how our democracies function and how far the social contract goes, meaning what are the actual red lines for the governments restricting our lives, limiting social contact, compromising livelihoods while taking very little accountability.

We all understand that closing down places of mass gatherings is unavoidable in the face of the global pandemic. On the other hand, the way closures have been communicated and enforced, the level of neglect in terms of financial support and complete absence of long-term strategies for the sector’s relief and preservation, as well as demonising rhetoric and discrimination in most of the countries have showed that the nightlife, in particular and so-called creative industries in general, aren’t valued and considered important. Even in the UK and Germany, where creative industries employ tens if not hundreds of thousands of people and contribute significantly to the national GDP, tourism as well as international image, the lack of support has been mind-boggling and sometimes even comical, recalling Rishi Sunak’s infamous proposal to retrain artists, Berlin police’s aggressive clamp down on law abiding promoters and sometimes even on the closed clubs.

 

I guess it all means we have to continue working tirelessly, consolidating our efforts and actively taking part in political process, not only flashing some banners and slogans on social media or going to a protest rave once in a while. The scene has come of age, parliaments, municipalities and all kinds of institutions are full of people of “acid house”, “rave”, “dance” or whatever you may call it generation. We just need to get our act together.

How do you see future ?

The future is imminent.

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