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FROM THE ARCHIVES: "In the capital, only a few steps from the sea, there is a small international art institution, which has, in its own way, become dear to all members of the local art scene during the ten years of its activity." – Marika Agu, Siim Preiman, "A "phantom platform" as an Art Institution for All" (KUNST.EE 2017/2)

 

A "phantom platform"* as an Art Institution for All

Marika Agu (2/2017)

Marika Agu and Siim Preiman noticed that this summer will be different: the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia (EKKM) will celebrate its 10th anniversary and the annual Köler Prize nominee show, that has been organised every year since 2011, will not take place at all.

 


Attention! This article is speculation and based on the opinions of third parties, whispers in smoking corners, slack-jawed imaginations, excerpts from overheard meetings, "Facebook dramas" etc. Therefore, we cannot be held responsible for the (un)truthfulness, (dis)uniformity or (il)legibility of the text. With appreciation and for your reading pleasure!


In the capital, only a few steps from the sea, there is a small international art institution, which has, in its own way, become dear to all members of the local art scene during the ten years of its activity. Parties and performances have been organised there as well as exhibitions and galas. Every self-respecting contemporary artist has exhibited their works there and every self-respecting socialite has warmed themselves there before a burning barrel. In this, the year of its 10th anniversary, the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia (EKKM) is at a symbolic milestone, which is why it is appropriate to review the history of the institution until now and ask: hey, what now? Evidently, we don't have to wait long for an answer, because already in June (At the time this issue of KUNST.EE will be published. – Ed.) an exhibition will open entitled "EKKM 10? What Now?", organised by the new management of Marten Esko and Johannes Säre.


The Past

It is hard to say exactly when the first steps were made toward creating EKKM as it is today. Fantasy and reality mix in the stories of the ghosts of Põhja pst 35 and not a single unbiased chronicle can be found. Most likely, EKKM was started as a squat by Neeme Külm and Marco Laimre sometime in 2006. This seems believable because it seems easier to imagine impudent artists breaking into the dirty industrial building than the curators who later joined the group. We will probably never know which one of these two was the "first man on the moon" nor how long these pioneers worked in the old administrative building of the former boiler house without Elin Kard and Anders Härm. According to Neeme Külm, Elin and Anders became part of the group early enough to say they were there "from the beginning". They brought with them the necessary institutional experience for the emerging platform. (At Hobusepea and Draakon Gallery and Tallinn Art Hall respectively. – Ed.) Truth be told, the EKKM we know today was still quite some way away at this point.

Neeme Külm recalls that the first exhibition took place in the large pillared room on the ground floor. (The first exhibition at EKKM opened on 15 May 2007 and was curated by Elin Kard, "Work feeds", which was held on the ground and first floor. – Ed.) The current director of Tallinn Art Hall, Taaniel Raudsepp, as an artist and participant in the second exhibition at EKKM, remembers that by the second exhibition almost the whole building was used as an exhibition space, although perhaps with the exception of the former transportation bridge, which bit by bit later became a proving ground for subsequent exhibitions in the building.

The first period lasted conditionally from 2006 to 2011, when the institution was basically run by Marco Laimre. During this time, calling the institution an art museum was a clear bluff and in absurd contrast to the raw self-expression that was actually taking place within the building. As its first mission, EKKM mainly served the interests of students from the photography department of the Estonian Academy of Arts, headed by Laimre, thereby providing a counterweight to the opinion among the art field of a stagnated academy, encouraging the students' work and refining their presentation skills. Already then EKKM's ever-increasing (self)-appointed role as the moral compass and pioneer of the local art scene was noticeable. Many artists that have gone on to receive international attention first exhibited their work there, among them Timo Toots, Sigrid Viir, Karel Koplimets, Laura Toots, Paul Kuimet, Johannes Säre, Tõnu Tunnel and others. Clearly, the rest of the scene may have recognised a privilege toward students from the photography department. Over the years, the medium of photography has been visibly prominent in the EKKM programme and indeed this is still so – the final exhibition of 2016 was a solo show by Paul Kuimet and the first one of the 2017 season was a solo show by Dénes Farkas, which encompassed the whole building.

EKKM's second period developed from 2010 to 2012, when a rhythm of regular exhibitions was instigated (2010), the tradition of the Köler Prize exhibitions was inaugurated (2011), developing into the most awaited event in the local art world in recent years among both specialists and the interested public,2 and due to political games Härm was relieved of his position as Tallinn Art Hall curator, so he could concentrate fully on EKKM (2012). Therefore, Härm became the clear compass for EKKM in the second period. In a situation where the Tallinn Art Hall on Vabaduse väljak lost more and more symbolic capital in the whirlwind of a political struggle between generations, EKKM started to become the capital's new Kunsthalle under the guidance of Härm. Largely thanks to financing from the "Tallinn – European Capital of Culture 2011" programme, there was a great leap in development at EKKM, which essentially fixed the guidelines of the exhibition programme and their profile for the subsequent years. Between 2010 and 2015 there was at least one exhibition curated by Härm at EKKM every season, the first two of which were made possible expressly due to the finances from the European Capital of Culture programme: "Next to Nothing" (2010), "Darkness, Dark" (2011), "Collection of Desires" (2012), Mark Raidpere solo exhibition "DAMAGE" (2013, co-curator Eugenio Viola), "Black House" (2014) and "1995" (2015, co-curator Hanno Soans). In addition, the student exhibitions, which had dominated up until then, were removed from the programme and relegated to the cold off-season. The main focus was solo shows and curated exhibitions, which became to a greater or lesser extent fundamental milestones in the careers of those involved. For instance, curator Rebeka Põldsam imported queer theory to Estonia ("Feeling Queezy?!", 2014), Kiwa introduced the neoism art movement ("Istvan Kantor Monty Cantsin? Amen! The Insurgent Neoist", 2012), Laura Kuusk and Margit Säde Lehni played around with the formal qualities of an artwork ("Side Effects", "& SO ON & SO FORTH", 2013) and so on.

If the conquests of the first period took place mainly between the four walls and were concerned with transforming the old industrial building into a white cube room by room, then during the second period led by Härm, EKKM also took steps outside the building. From 2014 to 2016 the travelling exhibition "Kohatu" (Displaced), curated by Härm and Esko, toured small Estonian towns. In this case, the artistic value was greatly outweighed by the cultural-political precedent: otherwise closed for the winter, EKKM found a new way to express its competence in the winter through the travelling exhibition; the capital's wannabe representative institution took on the ambitious role of a regional cultural enlightener. "Kohatu" remained the last great achievement of the Härm period at EKKM. There followed the exhibition "1995", which dealt with memory, and in 2015, at the instigation of Härm, a café reform was instigated – the former problematic operator was replaced. Therefore, after internal and external conquests, the museum got itself a proper facade in the form of a new café. The dingy bar became a presentable entrance and the art scene's very own party venue.

Next to the aforementioned creative directors, one cannot forget Neeme Külm, who held the position of technical director until 2015. Alongside the ideological missions of Laimre and Härm, he managed to achieve an impressive amount with very little, exhibition after exhibition. It was he who gathered old glass doors from buildings under construction and old acquaintances and fitted them to the old industrial building and the sheds next to it, not to speak of his role in working out solutions for technically challenging exhibitions. Despite the small production budgets, EKKM together with Neeme Külm managed to prove that you don't necessarily need lots of money to accomplish a professional result. LLC Valge Kuup (White Cube) has grown out of EKKM to become a separate spin-off installation company that now monopolizes most of the installing contracts in Estonia's art institutions, ranging from the Kunda Cement Museum to the Estonian pavilion at the Venice biennale.


The Future

It is still too early to give a thorough assessment of the activity of Marten Esko and Johannes Säre, the successors to Anders Härm and Neeme Külm. The 2016 exhibition season was clearly more of a transitional period than a full strength change of direction. As in any institution, altering the plaque above the door takes a fair amount of time and before deciding on a new exhibition programme, you must finish the planned activity of the previous management. That said, at the end of the previous season, we were given a glimpse of the style of the new directors. Before Paul Kuimet's solo exhibition, at the end of the summer, the last building-wide group exhibition "Pseudo" was curated by Marten Esko, which received attention for its intentionally downplayed curator's position, but which essentially re-exhibited the work of the "resident artists".

Fearing the approaching depletion of the shining stars of such a tiny art scene, the new management decided in 2016 to change the Köler Prize from an annual to a biennial event. Its new rhythm therefore falls in sync with the spring opening of the International Venice Biennale every two years, which sucks the local art scene so dry of resources that it makes it difficult for EKKM to organise a top-level prize show every year. Taking into account that the initial purpose of the Köler Prize was to popularise contemporary art and draw attention to artists and artist groups working in the local scene, in the interests of informing the public and keeping artists in the public image, shouldn't the event take place every year? The high bar set by the Köler Prize is at odds with the roots of EKKM – the museum born of the enthusiasm shown by students now hosts an award that is not just the only prize exhibition of its kind in Estonia, but also so prestigious that there aren't enough artists at such a level to nominate each year. This contradiction was a good metaphor for the constant (and constructive?) bickering between Laimre and Härm, but will this continue to be an issue and how will it manifest itself in the opinions of the new management?

Despite its rapid "white-cube-isation", EKKM has always considered itself unconventional and, considering the local art field, this attitude has been justified. No one has been brave enough to stand opposed to the existing art agents and art institutions directly in such a way and parody the politics of the archival collecting mentality of a museum as an institution of memory. Publicly, as the communications manager at EKKM, Härm has often acted more like a lion, who instead of investing in relations, has rather put them to the test. That said, he has sought opportunities to finance the reconstruction of the museum. They have probably managed to hide requests for partial renovations in Estonian Cultural Endowment applications (For many years now, it has been stated in Cultural Endowment's principles for distributing funds, that the fund for creative and applied arts does not finance building or renovation costs. – Ed.), but there has as yet not been a national cultural-political call for pouring cement.

So, the question (e.g. to the art advisor at the Ministry of Culture) is: how to react when an institution appears on the scene out of nowhere and calls itself a museum and fights for its existence, saying that it is necessary for the scene? Such an institution undoubtedly broadens the discipline of museology, but should it update its profile after ten years – especially as without the annual Köler Prize, EKKM is just another institution among others producing contemporary art exhibitions. The Tallinn Art Hall has now emerged from its intervening low period, negating the platform that was Anders Härm's reason for leaving. All the other local galleries, museums, project spaces, artist-run spaces, art halls and art centres all over Estonia have established themselves as equally professional exhibition institutions – you know who you are.

Of course, this doesn't mean there cannot be more exhibition spaces in Tallinn and Estonia as a whole – for instance, in Copenhagen alone there are at least five kunsthalles. Tallinn Art Hall is capable of producing six or seven large scale exhibitions a year. Four or five of those exhibitions in the large hall are organised by in-house curators (the Art Hall is obligated to host the spring exhibition of the Estonian Artists' Association and organise one large applied arts exhibition every year), and with the smaller gallery shows, the number of exhibitions rises to 20. Kumu Art Museum produces around 15 exhibitions a year of which two or three are held in the contemporary art gallery on level 5. In addition, besides the Estonian Artists' Association galleries, commercial galleries and self-initiated project spaces, it seems like there is a serious shortage of exhibition spaces in the capital. For instance, at the autonomous gallery of the installation and sculpture department and photography department of the Estonian Academy of Arts (ISFAG) next to EKKM, exhibitions are organised even when there is a large puddle in the middle of the space during a rainy period and the walls are mouldy due to the humidity. The project space at the ARS-building, which has been active now for just over a year, is fully booked months in advance despite the lack of infrastructure and pieces of plaster raining down from the ceiling. The Estonian Contemporary Art Development Center, which will hopefully open its own venue (currently under development) in 2018 in the Noblessner quarter, in addition to offering support, will host exhibition projects by local and foreign artists and curators. And need we mention the new and old biennales and triennials, which also seek a venue every now and then. So it is obvious that in the broadest sense there is a clear need for EKKM as an exhibition platform, especially because the competence of their team when it comes to installation is one of the strongest in the local art scene.


Gentrification

A separate question concerns the location of EKKM and the affect the area will have on the future of the institution. EKKM is situated right next to the most gentrified district of the capital – there currently isn't a single street in Kalamaja without a construction project or some young family pushing their Emmaljunga stroller. On the other hand, the renovation of the nearby City Hall (Linnahall) has been put off for more than ten years and the area has become increasingly dilapidated. Tallinn being "open to the sea" is a dream for urban activists, but the current reality is just chavs freezing around their cars in the car park eating service station hotdogs.

The one-time haunted ruin and now renovated and presentable Tallinn Creative Hub (Kultuurikatel) right next door lords it over the active yet dilapidated EKKM. Apartments are already being sold in the adjacent Katla Maja, which will be ready in 2018, although the advertising text ("Indeed, the Katla Maja is located in the city centre, in a quiet area, on a quiet side street.") seems to suggest that the real estate developers have never set foot on the light-vehicle footpath of the Kilometre of Culture nor seen the parties that take place at EKKM or the Creative Hub garden, because their maps designate the area as a "developing seashore". This all becomes clearer with the addition of a stray overheard remark made by a city official, (although admitting the opposition to the "over-development" of the quarter by artists and the Telliskivi Neighbourhood Association) who said, "It is in the interests of the Tallinn City Council, that profitable businesses be developed there."

Only a few years ago, a plan was about to be given the green light, which would have resulted in a five-storey office block with underground parking being built on the spot where EKKM is located. Even though this was not passed at the time, the plan has not been abandoned. Apart from business minded developers, there are some locals in whose opinion the dirty appearance of EKKM reflects the irrelevance of what takes place inside. Marten and Johannes speak of the old biddies, who having ended up in EKKM's garden, ask, "When will this courtyard be finally cleaned up?" Kati and Kadri from the café have to fend off old men for whom the "ruin" is an eyesore and you can even find complainers from the Kalamaja Facebook group, who blame the city council for the traffic jams on Kalaranna street, because they didn't have the decisiveness to build a new road straight through "that shithouse" (Uncensored authors' words. – Ed.) and out under Linnahall. Although the issue of property in terms of housing a collection while under threat of collapse are not new to Tartu Art Museum (Tartmus), nor to the Tallinn Art Hall, with its leaky ceiling in the main hall, EKKM is fighting windmills in the form of real estate sharks and ignorant public representatives, which is something the institutions in competition with EKKM, with their longer histories, will probably never have to face.

In such an uncertain situation, EKKM being culturally important in the art field, but mostly unknown to the wider public, has tried to woo the Ministry of Culture. The lobbying paid dividends in November 2016, when EKKM was made one of three institutions to be awarded a partial operating subsidy for an indefinite period of time. The ministry explained its decision stating the lack of stability in many key-institutions ("There are no state institutions in the art field."), but, in essence, little has changed for EKKM because they had already signed an agreement with the Ministry of Culture years ago with the same content and similar financial value. For many other cultural institutions in Estonia the taps were closed off with this decision – the methods of the former gallery endowment were implemented through a call for applications. From now on, the commission for the Cultural Endowment should be responsible for regional and grass-roots art development. Although, in reality it's a bit more complicated, because unlike the former practice of the ministry, the Cultural Endowment does not support the acquisition of a collection, rent for rooms or other on-going development costs. Like other institutions, EKKM has remained dependent on the Cultural Endowment for the production of exhibitions.

Maybe the institution, working on an uncertain footing and with a small team, is not ready to be ready. To be a "real" museum with a collection and education programme, a total reconstruction of the institution would be necessary; hiring new employees, introducing a new work regime and so on. It is obvious that EKKM is not such an institution and never will be. Instead, the strength of the institution lies in its annual spatial metamorphoses, which happen without the cagey jargon of institutional criticism, which is expected at Kumu. Stairs, walls, doors and windows appear here and there at EKKM, no big fucking deal! Although these spatial conquests may be deemed part and parcel for regular visitors to EKKM, they are still impressive. Perhaps EKKM's trump over other local art institutions is a certain rule-breaking attitude to modifying the exhibition space?


Phantom platform

So, after ten years of activity, the question is no longer just about continuing to cover costs, which cannot be accomplished even with the current level of support, but how to take EKKM and what happens there to another level. Although the Ministry of Culture would probably ask: why does Tallinn need another Art Hall or Kumu?

So what now? Marten Esko, Johannes Säre and the other members of the EKKM management should not take this as a jab, but as an attempt to think with them and offer something considered. Is getting onto the ministry's "stage" the way to go? Won't EKKM lose its artist-run roots and with this position, lose its right to show the middle finger and do whatever they want? In contrast to other state museums, EKKM is not hindered by a symbolic obligation to adhere to standards and public opinion due to a long history and tradition. In terms of the exhibition programme, up until now they have kept to the tone set by previous seasons, ensuring a smooth transition from the past to the unknown future, but sooner or later we expect a critical stocktake by the new management. Is a "two-man museum" even capable (and at what cost?) of hosting solo shows by artists of "Venice biennale calibre"? Should the Köler Prize await the maturing of artists or offer the youth a springboard?

EKKM is a collective "phantom platform" on the Estonian art scene. The artist that coined this term, Andres Lõo, was inspired by neuroscience, where phantom limb means the continued pulsing of an amputated limb.2 In retrospect we know that at first for EKKM, the limb was dissatisfaction with the Estonian Academy of Arts and then the steep decline of the Tallinn Art Hall. Now that these problems have been overcome, would it be time to set a new "undefined yet instrumental void" to fill? We cannot guess what this may be and we don't expect anyone else to know, including the management of EKKM, but it is quite clear that it cannot be an attempt to become one of the many normalised exhibition institutions.3

Acknowledging the presence of such indescribable potential at this time becomes especially important, if indeed in some dark future scenario, with similar plunderous interests, Tallinn City Council working with the real estate developers were to drive a bulldozer through the EKKM building. It would be quite a horrible scenario, taking into account that the Ministry of Culture has directly supported the activity of the building. Of course, the state may turn off the tap again during the next financial downturn. Until then EKKM has the "partial" obligation to continue its activity.

Think now, is EKKM simply a building at Põhja pst 35? Or is EKKM the mental attitude of all involved – the four founding members, two young directors, café attendants, and artists for whom "it all took off" in that building, and countless other followers. Is this collective consciousness that "sees a problem and comes to help" capable of setting itself up at whichever new venue, where they can continue their stroppy, absurd, contradictory and yet necessary and until now unprecedentedly successful "bluff"?


* The term "phantom platform", coined by artist Andres Lõo, signifies a secret agenda, which although undefined, is an instrumental void, at which every artist aims and which can be used as an instrument to achieve an as yet unknown goal. Potential. A show of good intentions. The phantom platform is a meta-space into which we can project our immediate future. See also the slogan "Estonia should be among the five richest countries!" and others.

1 See for instance: Liisa Kaljula, A New Photogenic Köler Prize. – KUNST.EE 2016 no 2, pp 86–88; Indrek Grigor, Hanno Soans, The Köler Prize Is Boring? – KUNST.EE 2015 no 2, pp 2–10.

2 Optimal Art from Alpha to the Phantom Platform, Interview with Andres Lõo. – Andres Lõo, Phantom Platform, ed. by Hanno Soans. Tartu: ;paranoia, 2016 p 30.

3 See also: Airi Triisberg, Uus põlvkond, vanad probleemid. – Sirp 29. IV 2016.


Siim Preiman and Marika Agu are curators and critics. Siim works at the Tallinn Art Hall, Marika has worked at Tartu Art Museum, they are both frequent visitors to EKKM.

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