This interview took place during the record-breaking heat in Tallinn this June. In the context of these brain-numbing temperatures, I sat down with the team of the upcoming Tallinn Photomonth: artistic director Laura Toots and managing director Kadri Laas. We talked about the legacy of the event, the need to constantly re-evaluate its focus as well as to slow down and reflect, fluid identities, and other questions pertaining to thinking about the global conditions of image-making today.
Paulius Petraitis: I would like to start with a long-winded question. As artist and director of the first Tallinn Photomonth biennial, Marge Monko referred in our recent interview to the fact that Photomonth, first organized in 2011, has had a strenuous relationship with the word “Photo” in its title since its inception. The tension seems to come from what the word defines, which avenues it opens, and closes. I think for someone from outside, quite a normal reaction on visiting one of Photomonth’s exhibitions is that of a surprise – seeing how little of what was traditionally defined as photography is shown. Could you speak to this relationship, and why it is important to have an open definition of photography?
Laura Toots: The Union of Photography Artists (Foku), which is behind Tallinn Photomonth, was founded in 2007 by ten members who were mainly linked to the Department of Photography at the Estonian Academy of Arts (EAA). It was a like-minded group of colleagues, and their idea was to promote photographic art next to printmaking, painting, and sculpture – more acknowledged ways of art-making. Tallinn being one of the upcoming European Capitals of Culture then, the idea was to join energies and minds for an international event in 2011. This is its pedigree. The name has also been retained to reflect that. At that time promoting photography so that it would be more widely recognised as art was still necessary.
Kadri Laas: It was also related to discussions that Western Europe had already decades ago, that photography is a form of visual arts. All Tallinn Photomonth biennials have promoted this attitude. The first main exhibition in 2011 at Kumu Art Museum in Tallinn was an international contemporary art show that brought forth artistic positions concerned with the use(s) of photography, but also blurred the lines between forms of expression. Visitors could see photography in a way that was new for local audiences: works in new formations, placed in an experimental and spatial way in the space, and maybe most importantly – made to escape the set categories. Not having only framed photographs on the wall, we had an exemplary situation providing us with food for thought regarding these definitions.
LT: The members of Foku also incorporated film, video, sculpture and spatial interventions into their work – an interest that was also passed on from this organising body to the Tallinn Photomonth biennial. Therefore, since the first edition of the biennial in 2011, the artists and curators behind it have felt the need to broaden the boundaries and rules of photographic art. The need to think more broadly about the term “photography” has become more inevitable in the world we live in, which is mediated by screens and cameras. Everything is photographic.
KL: For visitors hoping to see something else – you are right, that is there. Sometimes it’s a more clearly expressed reaction, sometimes more a discussion formed by an understanding of why it is like this. When we approach international curators and invite them to propose projects for the biennial, this is something we ask them to consider. The received proposals have been very interesting – what is photography nowadays when we are talking about screens in the wider sense, cameras and scanners with unimaginable capabilities, or jpegs as an integral part of society?
PP: This is perhaps symptomatic to the global shift in how photography is understood and functions. We acknowledge that photography has changed, but it is also changing and will continue to change. We need to constantly update the idea of what photography is, what it entails, where its limits and boundaries stand. What’s interesting for me, and what I find valuable, is that Tallinn Photomonth tries to tackle these rather difficult questions. The “Photo” in the name feels a bit like an anchor, but it is important to ask what photography’s legacy is in 2019 and what ways we have to talk about it, to open it up. For us in Lithuania the situation is slightly different, since we have a strong tradition of a humanistic photography school. It still forms our thinking. I think, compared to Estonia, the idea of classical photography is more strongly ingrained in our cultural fabric.
LT: I agree. Artist Eve Kiiler, who was one of the people behind the photography curriculum at EAA, has said the similar thing. The move towards a more critical and conceptual photography in the early 1990s was possible due to the adventurous attitude of not having traditional teachers. Applied photography education existed before, but as a degree – at Tartu Art College and at the Estonian Academy of Arts – it’s only 20 years old.
KL: When we discussed whether to keep the word “Photo”, we added “Contemporary art biennial” as a subtitle for clarity. But we also kept the main title so the discussion could still be present.
PP: Tallinn Photomonth is a special photography event in the Baltic context, not only in its expanded approach to the photographic discourse and image-making, but also that it is consciously reflecting and positioning itself within the field of contemporary art.
LT: The Department of Photography at EAA has trained a lot of people currently active in the contemporary art field. Not only as artists, but also as curators, programme directors, project managers, etc. Marco Laimre, who ran this department through 2005–2017, has said that having “photography” in the name was mainly to distinguish it from other departments in the academy, otherwise he would have called it the “Department of Contemporary Art”. As I studied in the same department, I’m also keen to continue working with this interconnectedness and feel comfortable in this relationship.
KL: It is triggering to think about artists graduating from the photography department without making any photographs at all, or in that regard sculptureless sculptors and painters with no paintings to show. The need to expand one’s world and practice is very present. It also seems to be a wave of discarding labels like “photography” artist and “installation” artist as well as the specific divisions in the art academies where the trend seems to be to open more general visual art programmes.
PP: Twenty or even ten years ago the focus of critical discussion around photography was its malleability and manipulation. A few years ago a prominent strand was the unprecedented influx and abundance of images, which was also reflected in your opening exhibition in 2017 called “Image Drain”. Working with this year’s programme, what do you sense is the focus? Do you feel that we have to an extent accepted the situation that we live in a world full of images and are moving on to other issues?
LT: We seem to have accepted the situation and are now thinking about navigating and surviving in this abundance, as well as related policy making on various levels. This year’s programme brings forth some of these strategies. For Heidi Ballet, who is the curator of the opening exhibition at EKKM, the focus is on environmental issues. Matthew Post together with Simon Dybbroe Møller work with the development of technology discussing images and objects and routines that are not photography but are photography-like.
KL: The latter exhibition, for example, also talks about photos being sleeping data on phones that are continuously taken but never looked at. The abundance of images and other data are still important topics – information existing and not existing at the same time. The third main exhibition at the new Kai Art Center, curated by Hanna Laura Kaljo, offers a recovery from that intense world by presenting artists whose practices span visual art, meditation, contemporary dance, writing, and traditional medicinal knowledge. As our lives are so busy, winters are dark, information so abundant, and everyone expects us to do so much, the question is what to do with that? How to navigate, to cope and survive?
LT: Maybe we should slow down or even hibernate during the winters to be more in connection with the natural processes around us, to be more us. I have started to pay attention to this much more since working with Kaljo and analysing her focus on receptivity, to our bodies and our surroundings. The flood of information has alienated us from each other for such a long time and to such a degree, that now we are looking for closeness with each other. And for the ground under our feet. If nature and our bodies tell us to take a break or slow down, we should listen.
PP: That’s an important point. You are running the biennial together for the second time in a row. How are you approaching this Photomonth and its programme?
LT: This year, we aim to be more compact in order to have thorough discussions with artists and curators, as well as collaborate more closely with institutions we work with. The goal is to have more dialogue. With the curators’ first site-visit in January we hoped that they would already cross-pollinate each other – be aware what others are working on and propose events for each other’s exhibitions.
KL: In 2019, we have three international exhibitions at three different venues in Tallinn by the abovementioned curators. The main programme of this Photomonth opens gradually on consecutive Fridays throughout September. The last week of the month is the Professional Week, when all the shows will be open, art fair Foto Tallinn and specially programmed networking events take place. A series of three screenings of artist’s films, curated by Ingel Vaikla and Jesse Cumming, takes place at Sõprus cinema in Tallinn’s Old Town. In October, the public and educational programme will be emphasized. On top of that we have a satellite programme, with 18 independent events, varying in size and duration, taking place in Tallinn.
LT: Also, this year, for the opening exhibition at EKKM curated by Heidi Ballet we are planning engagement with local community to a greater extent. We have provided her with three researchers based in Tallinn – Linda Kaljundi, Francisco Martínez and Tanel Rander – who are dealing with economic, social and geographical aspects of Estonia in different historical periods. The goal is that this local knowledge would come out more in the exhibition and its publication, as well as on the level of research for all involved. The curator has highlighted the multiplicity of perspectives and the importance of working with advisors to not only know the local art scene but also learn about the wider processes that have shaped the art field, among other areas of life.
PP: What is interesting about Photomonth is that not only is it artist-initiated and led, but also that its leaders change. After Marge Monko was the director in 2011, Kristel Raesaar led the biennial in 2013 and 2015, it was you for 2017 and also for the upcoming 2019 edition, stopping there. What do you think this rotation does and how this process affects the programme?
KL: The rotation is not an established principle in itself. But until now it has happened that no director(s) have taken on more than two Photomonths. I think organising any big event repeatedly has pros and cons; but it definitely needs fresh ideas at some point. At the moment we have ideas for the next Photomonth but I consider it a healthy decision to pass it on now when everything is still stimulating.
LT: I also think rotation of people and ideas makes it simpler to react to current times. These revisions have helped the Photomonth biennial in many ways. It adds flexibility, intimacy – it is an organization, but then again it isn’t.
PP: Yes, I’m thinking if that also contributes to the expanded approach to the notion of photography. As people are changing maybe there is less of a habit for a certain thinking pattern to set in, as each person or team brings a different background with them. Photography as a traditional medium is still an important part of Marge’s artistic toolbox, while Kristel has her own different profile. And you have your own background and other jobs – Laura you are working as a curator at EKKM and Kadri at the Estonian Contemporary Art Development Center. Therefore, perhaps each person or team adds something to this understanding of the definition of photography that Photomonth, making it pluralist and more like a dialogue. So the approach becomes polyphonic, which for me is a strength of the Tallinn Photomonth biennial.
KL: Yes. And in addition to the team’s understanding and approaches constantly changing, Photomonth has always invited guest curators with fresh blood and ideas. In 2011, Adam Budak and Vytautas Michelkevičius curated the main exhibitions (at Kumu Art Museum and Tallinn Art Hall respectively), in 2013 it was Niekolaas Johannes Lekkerkerk (Tallinn Art Hall), in 2015 David Raymond Conroy (EKKM), in 2017 Anthea Buys (Tallinn Art Hall) and Stefanie Hessler (EKKM).
LT: For us it is like a playground, where we are constantly inviting new “playmates”– curators and other collaborators – to enter the dialogue. Enjoying ourselves in the constructive process has been important. We are currently thinking about finding new candidates to pass on the biennial to. We are also excited to see which approaches the next biennial in 2021 will take.