At the newly-opened BozarLab in Brussels, visitors will be welcome from the 14th of September to the 12th of November 2017 to get to know a selection of artists who have stood out in the Estonian media scene, plus some of the first promoters of visual culture from the 1980s.
The exhibition The Archaeology of the Screen: The Estonian Example is a project analysing the relations of art and new media in connection with three major events: in July 2017, Estonia took over the European Council presidency; in 2018, the Republic of Estonia will celebrate its 100th anniversary; and the exhibition space Bozar will be opening a new wing, the BozarLab, in September 2017, dedicated specifically to media art.
When preparing an exhibition project to deal with a national event, it is difficult to talk about the curator’s approach in the form of an individual effort. Our team – the curator Eha Komissarov, the coordinator Triin Tulgiste and the art production company Valge Kuup, together with their assistants in Brussels – has primarily worked constructively. Our approach has been clearly determined by the options available to us, and we are aware that we will not be presenting the history of Estonian art nor the crème de la crème of our national media art in Brussels. We have made a selection of digital media artists in Estonia and will take a short look at the past, which is significantly less than a century in respect to media art.
The opportunities offered by the BozarLab favour artists whose creative processes can be brought to viewers via the tangible flat surface of a screen. We decided in favour of the screen, the virtual image, which seemingly resembles the traditional situation of the artist/artwork/representation on the surface of the screen. While the screen acts as a support structure, the overview of Estonian media art is shaped by artists of various orientations, whose artistic views cover a wide variety of phenomena, from terrorism to experiments with hypertext.
We had to overcome a lack of space and other obstructions which are a permanent part of any situation where media art is presented. Media art is certainly the most artificial and demanding branch of culture due to its connection to complicated technology which can act in unexpected ways, and to artists whose paths always take them close to the borders or who create new histories, while being closely related to the absurd, to ideas that are predetermined to fail, or to impossible starting points. Taavi Suisalu’s Landscapes and Portraits (2016) communicates with broken satellites. The created sound installation requires a screen to service an out-of-control satellite and display visual messages received from space. This work of art, projecting the modernist past onto the post-modernist present, while elegantly alluding to the possibility that new technologies and digital art perspectives do not lack a locus classicus, has been summarised by the philosopher Eik Hermann as follows: “Working satellites are tools for the powers that be, primarily meant for military applications, serving as parts of the overall surveillance network. Their decommissioning makes us look at them in a completely opposite way. Similarly to abandoned industrial buildings, after having lost their function, they evoke sympathy and nostalgia instead. It is as if, being released from the power structures, they are automatically also freed from their past. In this respect, former satellites can be considered the most modern ruins, which seem particularly exotic due to their inaccessibility.”
Virtuality is the most ambiguous concept in the field of networking. Artists use it to create new worlds, with opportunities to come up with completely new words and concepts. Andres Lõo has voiced the concept of a media art platform that mixes together the coordinates of space-time via poetic images of a phantom platform: “Neuroscientists claim that humans have two bodies. A physical body and a phantom body. A phantom body is our understanding of how the various parts of the body work together as a whole, which is exemplified by the strange phenomenon of the phantom limb. In the context of contemporary art, this phenomenon can be used as a metaphor for projecting ideas into the future. Thus, I have come up with the concept of a ‘phantom platform’. A phantom platform is a positively charged metaspace into which one can project one’s immediate future. The phantom platform is a possibility. The phantom platform is a reaction against the inescapability of having to choose between two known polarities: it offers a new, third option. The phantom platform is a paradigm shift – if you wish.”
The backgrounds of the Estonian media artists represented at the Bozar contain many similarities; they have arrived at their chosen field from photography, graphic design and media art, the latter of which was introduced as a subject at the Estonian Academy of Arts in the 1990s. Media artists belong to the generation that grew up in a media-enriched environment, which is dominated by the digital camera and smart phone, and where life experience is dominated by the continuous supplementation of culture through media technologies that stress the visual aspect. The abundance of Estonian media artists with photographic backgrounds is, among many other factors, tied to the great demand for such skills. According to Lev Manovich, computer software does not produce images on its own, so the paradox of visual culture can be seen in the transfer of the creation of images to the computer, while outside of the computer the importance of photographic and cinematic imagery continues to grow.
It is not difficult to characterise the art on display: in appearance it refers to camera work, from the aspect of material it is digital, and its logic is based on software. During the formation years, these artists were affected by the utopias of the globalisation process, now in danger of being forgotten; they all view themselves as members of the international digital art scene. The main theme in media art is globalisation, and their approaches have been dictated by globalisation. The screen serves as a metaphor of the global era.
A great example of the perspective of the globalised world is the career of the Tallinn-born Katja Novitskova: her joint studies at the semiotics department of the University of Tartu, and in digital media and graphic design in Lübeck and Amsterdam can be seen as a springboard to the post-Internet art community. Katja, who in 2009 helped define the discourse of post-Internet art, describes herself as follows: “My work process, in general, consists of the visual scanning of the world and understanding the images thus created. I spend a lot of time online. Each data set, each data matrix created in today’s world, is a direct image of this world and/or its author. The imagery is present in the information field, and we are only left to create a narrative and a world-view in this information field.” The critique sees dread in post-Internet art: “This multiplicity of vision – recorded by a machine that humans have created, just like the algorithm commanded; displayed in front of the eyes of an artist by the will of another algorithm, the search engine; chosen by the artist to present to the viewer, now as a tangible sculpture – it’s dreadful.”
Katja Novitskova’s narrative is non-linear, presenting images taken from the information field as sculptures printed on aluminium. Her narrative depends mostly on a green world-view; however, as an artist who is forced to pay increasingly more attention to existential questions, Katja, who has always had close contact with virtual animals, now also keeps an eye on the processes linked to the spread of dystopian ideas and has adopted the mindset characteristic of the anthropocene. Currently, Katja is fascinated by views of the Earth taken from NASA satellites and, in her representation, the surface of our planet resembles the craters on the Moon.
Ivar Veermäe, who studies and works in Berlin, has created a work consisting of several projections called Replica (2017), which deals with the study of terrorism and events caused by the war in Syria. Veermäe employs clear-cut positions in his narrative model; his previous work was concerned with the topics of the Internet, control and observation, based on the example of the Google Corporation. The key image of the Palmyra project is a 3D model of the Arch of Triumph, destroyed by ISIS in 2015, although it had no religious significance. The work of art follows terror and propaganda campaigns related to the site or, in the artist’s words: “In 2016, the Russian Air Force helped to liberate Palmyra from Daesh. Shortly afterwards, the Russian symphony orchestra with one of its best-known conductors, Valery Gergiev, and the cellist Sergei P. Rodulgin (known from Panama papers) played pieces of Johann Sebastian Bach, Sergei Prokofiev and Rodion Shchedrin in the same amphitheatre where people had been executed. There was a live video link from Vladimir Putin in Sochi. In 2008, a similar event was held in South Ossetia to celebrate the victory over Georgia. As these events seem weird and parodic, I’m interested in what effects they have. These actions – displaced replications – are both distanced and real”. What is the relationship of these events to information and how do they help manipulate information? These are the questions Ivar Veermäe asks and tries to answer in the piece completed for the BozarLab exhibition.
How can we link the dominant position of digital media in the Estonian art scene to the development policies of Estonia? In the early 1990s, the newly independent State of Estonia chose IT as one of its development priorities, launching the unique eState project, which has earned us a lot of recognition all over the world. Some of the artists working in digital media are motivated not to fall in the shadow of the innovative state, but to replace official positions with independent authors’ standpoints and to approach the media-governed environment from an unforeseen angle.
Due to the lack of space, we unfortunately had to leave out a work by Timo Toots, who has been involved in revealing dialogues with the information technologies for more than a decade: the new, third version of his mirage-like, three-dimensional supermachine Memopol. Memopol is a machine that visually presents information on the user found on the Internet and various national databases, while revealing with the help of a smartphone the vulnerable sides of the networked society. A citizen can use a smartphone to enter the national information networks and experience the vulnerability of data protection.
Manovich claims that the right to live in a screen society has been accompanied by major changes and sacrifices. The curator’s experience shows that the screen tries to escape the function of a secondary semiotic system linked to its role as an intermediary at every opportunity. The screen is aggressive in nature; it’s not simply a neutral medium of information presentation. The screen has the task of filtering, cutting, controlling, and making everything outside the frame non-existent.
The screen is a symbol of change as we ceaselessly replace simpler functions with more complicated ones. Digital technologies force their logic on the whole society, one of its achievements being that, in the future, each and every story will be meant for particular people sitting at the screens.
This can be experienced in Marge Monko’s work Dear D (2015). Here the artist develops the theme of classic letter-writing from a new angle, taking advantage of the opportunities and conventions of the Internet. As viewers, we cannot see what letters say in paintings: their content is hidden; we can only make assumptions based on the appearance of the writer. Monko’s thought process has moved in the opposite direction, turning the writer into fiction, not the letters. Observations on the textual strategies common in new media were not an attractive subject matter for Estonian artists before Monko came along. Her post-feminist work, describing online communication and activation of different textual levels, certainly has a wider focus than what is immediately visible in the work of art.
Similar changes have been reported by Sue-Ellen Case: “Two prevalent principles of organisation, printing and screens, competed with each other throughout the 20th century. Print and the screen organised their own cultural models, created their own value structures and virtual communities that supported them. The two prevalent methods of presentation walked their own paths and challenged each other on the basis of their strengths until, in the end, the computer as the dominant structure and the engine behind the new style of writing, assigned the screen as the successor of printing. The victory of the screen, accompanied by the victory of global capitalism and the new virtual construction of socio-economic activities, has had a number of consequences.”
Post-structuralism has expanded the concept of the text to a point where everything has become text. The screen is a text and the database is a text and the viewer no longer focuses on a single text. Exploiting the format of the love letter, Monko models online communication in dialogue with the author Chris Kraus, whose book I Love Dick describes her obsession with the sociologist Dick Hebdige. It is a pretext for the creation of a multi-layered cultural space, in which one can witness the interactive, hypertextual and dynamic text in live action. The image is powerful and the viewer of this orgy of references and links would be unable to follow the written word spreading out over the vastness of the Internet without the organising quality of the voice reading the text. By offering unlimited possibilities for telling new stories, the work of art clearly shows that all of these stories are based on the digitalised texts of existing classics.
The might of the screen is limitless: it unites the old and the new media, still frames and moving images, and the analogue and digital cultures. The idea of connecting the screen with archaeological strata came to the curator during preparatory work for an exhibition at the Kumu branch of the Art Museum of Estonia which dealt with the history of the cooperation platform of the representatives of unofficial art in Moscow and experimental Estonian artists in the 1960s and 70s. The exhibition included a collection of materials about the oeuvre and activities of Yuri Sobolev (1928–2002), a Moscow artist, designer and publisher of science fiction literature and the magazines Znaniye and Znaniye Sila. In the Russian visual culture, Yuri Sobolev is known as the initiator and realiser of a composite system of a large number of projections, referred to as the polyscreen. The work was commissioned in relation to the congress of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID) in Moscow in 1976, but the half-finished project was banned. The team of authors (Y. Reshetnikov, Y. Sobolev and A. Farberman) managed to give a presentation of the project in a Moscow cinema, which was also recorded on film. Based on the preserved material, the design and architectural historian Andres Kurg initiated a reconstruction project of the piece. After the experiment in 1976, Yuri Sobolev found public expression for his idea of a film on slides as a design element in a theatre headed by M. Hussid in Tyumen, Siberia. With the help of the Cultural Endowment of Estonia, Yuri Sobolev’s reversal film Mandalas (1981), which was part of the stage setting of the play Post House, staged at the Tyumen Theatre of People, Objects and Puppets in 1981, was reconstructed.
In the cultural space of the Eastern Bloc countries, the screen served in the 1970s and 80s as a bridge, a window to another reality, both virtual and metaphysical. The theme and ideology of the reversal film Mandalas is tied to the author’s documentary by the Estonian printmaker and graphic designer Tõnis Vint, who was Sobolev’s close friend, follower and a student of Oriental transcendental philosophies. The film-study was completed in cooperation with the Riga Cinema Studio and was entitled Lielvarde Belt. Tõnis Vint’s Hypothesis (1981).
The photographers Paul Kuimet and Sigrid Viir are represented at the exhibition in a somewhat atypical format, linked to the screen, not two-dimensional photos. Both artists have exploited the synergy between cameras and the digital environment to test new horizons. The possibility of the abstract treatment of time is examined at the BozarLab in Paul Kuimet’s work 2060 (2014), which focusses on museum exhibits and their presentation. He works with an unusual image, having found a prototypical tautological structure in the oeuvre of the sculptor Edgar Viies. The 1969 aluminium sculpture, reminiscent of a Möbius strip, becomes a kinetic object during the time of the shooting. The work of art enters a new reality: the sculpture located in the display hall of the Art Museum of Estonia has been made to move in the film, forcing the viewer of the clip to think about this unusual situation through monotonous, repeated motion.
Sigrid Viir displays her photograph Waiting Room Improvisation (2016) in a light-box; her work represents a modern self-image and its travails in the waiting room of an airport. The tedium of waiting is symbolised in a fluffy cloud with a small clot of spittle in one corner. Viir’s work is, in general, characterised by her handling of signs that can be constructed, linked to the surrounding circumstances, and reversed to become meaningless non-signs.
P.S. The exhibition The Archaeology of the Screen: The Estonian Example will continue in a further developed format at the Kumu Art Museum in the summer of 2018.
 Eik Hermann. Oodates lähedust. Artishok Biennale, Tallinn 2016 http://artishokbiennale.org/AB16/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/AB16_hermann.pdf.
 Andres Lõo, Fantoomplatvorm. Phantom Platform. Tallinn: ;paranoia publishing 2016, p. 220.
 Lev Manovich, Uue meedia keel, 2012, p. 195.
 Katja Novitskova’s quote from the Venice Biennale press conference on the exhibition If Only You Could See What I’ve Seen with Your Eyes, representing Estonia, 18 April 2017.
 Ott Karulin. Üks roll, Sirp, 21.04.2017, p. 3.
 Artist’s concept, in the author’s possession.
 Manovich, p. 127.
 Игорь Вдовенко. Театр и новые технологии: интерактивность, телесность, текст. – Экранная культура. Теоретические проблемы. Санкт-Петербург: «Дмитрий Булании», 2012, стр. 488.
 Exhibition Symmetrical Worlds – Mirrored Symmetries. Ülo Sooster, Yuri Sobolev, Tõnis Vint, Raul Meel at the Kumu Art Museum 3.03-11.07.2017; curators: Anna Romanova and Eha Komissarov.
 The reconstruction was made on the basis of the original colour slides from 1981 and video documentation from 1986 from the archives of the artist’s family. A total of 84 out of the 92 slides have been preserved.
 Director Mikhail Hussid, and artist Yuri Sobolev.