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The end of work: the ‘Bronze Night’ ball, the pop of the real estate bubble and the unemployment blues

Andreas Trossek (1-2/2010)

Andreas Trossek goes to see Anders Härm’s curatorial exhibition Blue-Collar Blues in Tallinn Art Hall, but meanwhile finds himself at the door of Statistics Estonia

The opening exhibition at Tallinn Art Hall for 2010, Anders Härm’s curatorial project Blue-Collar Blues, dedicated to the subject of (disappearing) work, was surely one of the most interesting thematic exhibitions of recent years. The exhibition certainly proved to be a highly topical and accurately timed media project: with the global economic crisis that started among financial markets just a couple of years ago and the current number of unemployed persons in this small Eastern European country approaching 100,000, this is no ordinary thing in Estonian artworld, but something of greater historical and socio-political significance.[1] No other recent exhibition of contemporary art in Estonia has received so much attention from the Estonian press, and yet at the same time it has scarcely been talked about, perhaps because it seems a better choice to work ‘in the age of capital failure of work’ (at one point the working title of the exhibition) than to accept ‘the end of work’ – e.g. a notice of dismissal, an SMS-loan and a meal from a soup kitchen in some place provided by the third sector (and with none of the redemptive associations suggested by Jeremy Rifkin’s book The End of Work). The exhibition certainly worked as a single integrated whole, yet there were several works that were strong enough to be individually outstanding: for example, those by well-known international stars (Francis Alÿs, Santiago Sierra, Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen) and also the new works exhibited here for the first time and produced specifically for this project by a local artists and collectives (Marge Monko, Johnson and Johnson, Dénes Farkas). Last but not least, Härm’s curatorial project is definitely a step forward from the thematic exhibition Crime and Punishment (shown at Tallinn Art Hall in 2006), which had combined the critical discourse on global and local neoliberalism far less coherently than Blue-Collar Blues, which opened at the peak of unemployment.
But still, what can numbers tell us about the reality? Of course, it depends on a statistical method, the ideological platform of those processing the information and other factors, but it should be nevertheless possible to draw more or less truthful conclusions from here. According to official statistics, in the last quarter of 2009 there were approximately 107,000 unemployed persons in Estonia and the unemployment rate approached 14%, which was the highest level since Estonia regained independence. This means that unemployment is a real problem: in 2008 the number of registered unemployed persons was approximately 27,000, which is about a quarter of the 2009 figure. In a small country with a population of 1.34 million, 100,000 people or more is undoubtedly a considerable enough ‘statistical unit’ to warrant basing all world improvement projects, election campaigns and future coalitions on it, regardless of how slowly or rapidly the statistical rate of unemployment will decrease when the economy picks up again.  
But what can we learn from statistics at all? It is estimated that by early 2010 close to 150,000 Estonians had gone to the cinema to see the newest global box-office success, the 3D movie Avatar by Hollywood film manufacturer James Cameron. Does this mean that unemployment indeed poses a problem, but in the end it is still Avatar that takes the cream? Or perhaps Cameron’s infantile computer-generated fantasy world serves as the new opium for a nation that has already shown its love for little green men and guys like Anatoly Kashpirovsky during the final years of perestroika, when Estonian Television broadcast the TV show Monologue with a Stranger hosted by Vahur Kersna? For example, more than 75,000 Estonian citizens visited the travelling exhibition of human organisms, Bodies: The Exhibition displayed in Solaris Centre during the months before and after the turn of the year. In comparison, the exhibition that followed Blue-Collar Blues at Tallinn Art Hall, From Köler to Subbi: 150 Years of Estonian Classical Painting from the Collection of Enn Kunila, was visited by ‘only’ around 13,000 people during the period from 24 February to 1 April this year: the all-time audience record at Tallinn Art Hall. Thanks to excellent marketing work by Harry Liivrand, the name of Enn Kunila, the owner of one of the most outstanding private collections in Estonia, no longer needs introduction, because the mere time of the Chairman of the boards of Balbiino, Tallinn Department Store and Kinnisvara AS has a higher value than do other people. The consumption of absolute alcohol per-capita in Estonia had increased from 7.6 litres in 2000 to close to 12 litres in 2008. An inexhaustible supply of alcohol, free trade, entertainment and Konrad Mägi – Estonians know how to appreciate their lasting values, because this was precisely the Estonia we wished for during the Singing Revolution, and this is the Estonia we have got. So, what have these numbers got to do with anything here?
Let us rewind the tape to the beginning. During the first months of 2010 there were in fact two curatorial exhibitions open to the public, both of which deserve to be highlighted here. They each tried to address social themes, and regardless of the modest number of visitors, they will remain important reference points in the context of the art world. After several years of tasting the bitter bread of a professional freelance curator, Rael Artel has finally decided to co-operate with state institutions. The national-critical exhibition in Kumu, the main building of our national museum of art, presented, among other works, John Phillip Mäkinen’s jacket Children of the Revolution (2007), inspired by Tallinn’s ‘Bronze Night’ (and of course, by T. Rex). The work was first displayed at the Biennial of Young Artists, Tallinn in 2007. The display also included Artur Żmijewski’s hit-video Them (2007), which brilliantly shows the mutual lack of reconciliation of opposing ideologies and was shown for the first time at the 12th documenta in the same year. It is not without a reason that social scientists call current Estonia a ‘stagnant society’, because new ideas seem to be getting more and more scarce. Besides, what ‘constructive’ advice could a national radical give to a representative of a minority that has no place in his narrow worldview, and likewise: what would a marginal radical have to say to a conservative who wishes to maintain the status quo and is just an obstacle to his revolutionary plans?  
Therefore, while the national-critical and clearly leftist curatorial exhibition Let’s Talk About Nationalism![2] tried make the most of the much-discussed outcomes of the April riots in the Estonian context (while at the same time leaving out Kristina Norman who represented Estonia at last year’s Venice Biennial and was included in the spring exhibition programme of Tallinn Art Hall) Anders Härm’s distinctively leftist curatorial project Blue-Collar Blues tried to address the public with the problem of unemployment that was considerably more topical at the time of the exhibition opening. To raise the audience’s interest, the exhibition was accompanied by a programme of additional events: a round table discussion moderated by the curator Margit Säde about the project of the Art Centre for Dismissed Employees; an employment-related seminar attended by the sociologist Marju Lauristin, economist Raul Eamets, the President of the Estonian Trade Union Confederation Harri Taliga, top lawyer Allar Jõks, social democrat Eiki Nestor and political scientist Oudekki Loone among others; a performance night (Fahim Amir and Krõõt Juurak) as well as the already familiar Portfolio Café format hosted by Anneli Porri to provide feedback to young artists. To accuse curators of conjuncturism or of attempting to make ‘eternal’ art more attractive to the audience by wrapping it in journalistic ‘topicality’[3] would be the same as to blame a TV reporter for daring to interview the local inhabitants at the crime scene, who for some reason were not questioned by the official investigative bodies. Indeed, we may admit that artists participating in an exhibition addressing certain social problems have not received an academic degree in political sciences or sociology, but this would not be strong enough justification to dismiss the possibility that perhaps they still have something new to say about the subject. Because anyway no-one believes a highly paid minister talking about unemployment on a TV screen, Härm intervened at the right moment and gave the microphone to his artists: “According to one approach that greatly appeals to me, contemporary critical artists play the role of public amateurs. This position makes it possible to create far more fascinating associations than the professionals of some narrow field are capable of, being inevitably squeezed into the frames of their speciality. Artists do not have any fixed notions in this respect. This allows them to speak about different things without routine and approach them from different angles. Artists are able to synthesize disciplines.”[4]
OK, that at least says something. The essence of this statement is in accord with the continuous process of growing interdisciplinarity in the humanities in Western universities, as well as with the idea of the 1990s’ star curator, Frenchman Nicholas Bourriaud, according to whom contemporary artists are ‘semionauts’ inventing new and unseen trajectories between signs. The fact that all of this strongly resembles the ‘situation construction’ rhetoric of Situationist International, a group from an altogether different capitalist era with completely different realities, lends these words a historical dimension critical of the reigning power – a breath of fresh air necessary to cool the omnivorous neoliberalism.
Now is the time to take the minutes of the blues. The moment has arrived to call time-out and try to guess what went wrong and why everything remained so silent here. Indeed, it seems that the social process of turning inward began already in 2007, after the ravages of the ‘Bronze Night’ on Tallinn’s streets, when the Estonian population was even more clearly divided into Estonian- and Russian-speaking communities of memory, neighbours with no wish to associate with one another. Something began to tighten up in that moment: internal policy, legal space, the real estate market and economy – we can all supplement the list with our own examples. On the eve of the ‘Bronze Night’ an ambitious youth exhibition New Wave: Estonian Artists of the 21st Century (curated by Härm and his good colleague Hanno Soans) opened at Tallinn Art Hall. Against a background of riots, however, the exhibition felt rather like an obituary to a lost future, a future in which young artists would rock, and the slogan ‘Young Estonian Artists’ would seem as trendy as ‘Young British Artists’ had ten years before. But the party was already over, and many people probably hadn’t arrived before it was prematurely ended or hadn’t even received an invitation. The Biennial of Young Artists, held in autumn of the same year in the Knighthood House on Toompea, already had a far more reserved title Consequences and Proposals given by Rael Artel and Anneli Porri, curators of the next generation. At the same time, Artel, along with her colleague Airi Triisberg, had started an international seminar series Public Preparation – to prepare for... what exactly? After the peak of cheap airlines had passed, people gradually began to pack up and cut their expenses, and it was at some point during that period that the real estate bubble burst. “When the night has come / And the land is dark /.../ No I won’t be afraid / Just as long as you stand, stand by me...”
We knew already from the lectures of Valter Ojakäär, Tõnis Kahu and Mart Juur that The Beatles and The Rolling Stones of the 60s were followed by glam rock and punk in the 70s, and subsequently by post-punk and new wave music during the 80s. But the history of pop music gave no warning that the punk of newly independent Estonian art life during the so-called Nosy Nineties, which was followed by new wave in the first years of the new millenium, would then see the imposed return of blues – the rhythm, soul and conscience of all the discontented in the 20th century. However, the money god, whose prophets were the banks, spares no-one, regardless of nationality, gender, race, education or taste in music. “Already the first work at the exhibition, Forum by Marke Monko, expressively shows how the unemployed have no voice in the society. Sitting at the table familiar from the Forum talk show in Estonian TV, there are middle-aged Russian women repeating in their mother tongue what was actually said on-air by a member of the Estonian Centre Party, the leader of trade unions, the spokesperson of employers and others. This creates a powerful effect of alienation, because the self-confident statement of the member of the Estonian Centre Party theorizing over unemployment sounds harsh when repeated by an unemployed Russian woman and reveals the lack of empathy,” Member of Parliament Hanner Rumm wrote after visiting the exhibition.[5]
The opposition politician does not believe the talk of the member of the reigning party, and he has every right not to. Monko’s one-channel video staging Forum (2009) indeed has a powerful rhetoric effect. Besides, the work is realized in the tradition of the good old political proletarian theatre; mind you, in Monko’s version it is the marginalised Russian women, and not the dominating Estonian men, that play the role of leaders in society. Indeed, as Rumm rightly states, unemployment is not only the problem of the ‘others’ – people with a smaller income and lower level of education: “Here we should specify that the title of the exhibition sounds good, but is not accurate, because instead of classical blue-collars from Narva it is the numerous white-collars living in the new dwelling districts in Harjumaa that are perhaps in even greater trouble. They too have lost their jobs, but their credit obligations are considerably greater and, currently, it is the cruel white-collar waltz they have to dance. On the other hand, videos by Eléonore de Montesquiou about Kreenholm and its employees inevitably reproduce the stereotype shaped by the media over the years, according to which unemployment is a problem of ‘those people’, the native proletarians in Narva, rather than that of the modern E-stonia.”[6]
So what is the main problem of the modern E-stonia? The curator Härm believes it to be overconfidence, as if we already belonged to the wealthy countries, while in reality we are yet another tiny test polygon of neoliberalism rather than anything else: “In a video with excellent visual language, Politics of Rehearsal by Belgian-Mexican artist Francis Alÿs, Cuauhtémoc Medina ironically describes Latin-American countries as permanently ‘rehearsing’ capitalism, but never really ‘qualifying’ for it. It is an excellent metaphor for a great bulk of the world living in the grasp of global capitalism and being forced to make strenuous efforts in deregulating and reforming their economies, competing with other similar countries for every single investment, so that one day in a very unclear future they may attain that goal, which is always slipping away. […] Estonia is an excellent example of this ‘hooray-capitalism’ – the Baltic Tiger, the darling of the IMF during the 90s, a country that tried to be more liberal than its liberal father figures and has now fallen deeper than any other.”[7]
In response to this, critic Teet Veispak contends that Härm at times has a tendency to over-dramatise. Still, Veispak soon acknowledges one of the main works of the exhibition: “The leftist-minded curator Härm should know that the critique of bourgeois society in a gallery supported by that very same bourgeois country (the city, taxes, etc) basically means nothing and does not change the employment relationships prevailing in the society in any way. […] At the same time it seems that the current vast army of unemployed has served as a strong impetus for this project. There is at least one so-called ‘social’ job created for the period in which the exhibition is open, even if it’s only short-lived. Namely, the project by Johnson and Johnson (live web stream The End of Work, 2009) consists in a contest held to find a person from among 69 (!) applicants to read Jeremy Rifkin’s book The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labour Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era in front of the camera. Later, it will be published in audio-book format, with its product rights belonging to the artists.”[8]  
At the same time, from a humanistic point of view, the project of Johnson and Johnson is so cruelly honest that there is only one thing that keeps us from accusing the artist duo of exploitative cynicism: the fact that life itself is even more cruel and honest. “If you fail to produce additional value for capitalism, you might as well die,” sounds the post-Soviet social morale that holds free entrepreneurship sacred. In front of the passionless camera eye, the rooms of the World Trade Centre’s Tallinn office that were rented for the exhibition period, seem as anonymous and expendable as the nameless workforce-for-rent in the live stream.
With regard to exploitation, the work that is most closely related with the Johnsons’ project is one of two videos by Santiago Sierra. According to Hanno Soans, the work 160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People (2000), where a 160 centimetre tattoo line was drawn on the backs of four women, is the “most straightforward and, in a good way, problematic” work at the exhibition. “The artist hired drug-addicted prostitutes to have a permanent line of ink left on their body for the price of a single dose of heroine.”[9] If we now ask from a moralising Christian-democratic position what good the artist did for society with this work, the answer would appear to be that he showed there are people who would agree to such a lousy game, and there are also those who are willing to view it all as ‘entertainment’ in exhibition halls. In other words – as announced by the depressed sarcasm of the title SUPERSTRUCTURE (these are not bloody exit signs, where do you think you are going?) (2009), a laconic photo installation by Dénes Farkas – there is no simple way to escape from the deep-rooted social rules and paradoxes of everyday life.
However, Blue-Collar Blues would not be convincing as a thematic exhibition without a more humorous B-side to the title track: it is, if I may say so, the ‘healthy proletarian humour’ conveyed in the practical thinking characteristic of men with screwdrivers and women behind sewing machines. For example, Vladan Jeremić and Rena Rädle created a photo series in 2007, depicting imaginative monuments dedicated to unforgettable moments in the life of Belgrade workers:“In this school women who currently work as cashiers in a Metro supermarket were dreaming of a career abroad”, and so on. I Love My Job (2008), the four-channel video installation by Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta, also addresses the conflict between the depressing working day reality and limitless imagination. It is an inventive continuation of the artists’ ingenious community-art project Complaint Choir (2005–2006). Tallinn Art Hall showed their short films based on ‘horror stories’ told by Gothenburg workers and employees. For their next project the artist duo will direct short stories about the blues of the unemployed and workers in Helsinki.[10]
Overall, Blue-Collar Blues was an integrated exhibition including several interesting works. No review published thus far, the present article included, has managed to cover all the works displayed; perhaps because we are mostly concerned with the thousands of unemployed persons (despite promises from candidates for the forthcoming parliamentary elections that the number will decrease). It is perhaps inevitable that when we talk about work and unemployment in exhibition halls during a period of economic downturn, the discussion quickly shifts to social questions such as ‘who is to blame?’, ‘what is to be done?’ and ‘who could do it for us, so that we needn’t, by any means, lift a finger ourselves?’. Thus, works displayed in a white cube are left with a mere referential-illustrative role in the reception of the exhibition. This lack of feedback entails a tendency for new superficial problems to emerge, such as the old questions as to which would be the ‘right’ kind of contemporary art, and whether and how art could ‘change the world’, when only ‘so few’ people visit art galleries, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I find it a little comical when I read these rare opinion articles that have recently been published in the Estonian press, where critics have carefully delved into the subject only to come up with the conclusion that all of this addresses no-one, nor is it of any interest. Because it certainly is of interest, and it addresses all of us.
Andreas Trossek works as the editor-in-chief of the KUNST.EE magazine and art historian at the Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia

[1] See: Anders Härm, Millal meid tegelikult koondati. Mõningaid märkmeid töö ajaloo kohta. – Sirp 18.12.2009.
[2] See: Argo Kerb, Vaatlus, analüüs või kriitika? – Artishok 21.04.2010 [].
[3] See, for example: Teet Veispak, Tööst seksini. – KesKus 2010, No. 1; Siram, Kunst, mis räägib inimestest, kuid mitte inimestega. – Eesti Ekspress 11.04.2010; Urve Eslas, Kolletuv kunst. – Postimees 15.04.2010, etc.
[4] Tanel Veenre, Anders Härm – kuidas viia kunst mutrivõtmega inimeseni? – Eesti Päevaleht 16.01.2010.
[5] Hannes Rumm, Sinikrae bluus ja valgekrae valss. – Sirp 21.01.2010.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Anders Härm, Millal meid tegelikult koondati.
[8] Teet Veispak, Tööst seksini.
[9] Hanno Soans, Palgatöölise perspektiivid rahvusvahelises kunstis. – Eesti Ekspress 22.01.2010.
Tallinn Art Hall, Gallery of Tallinn Art Hall
Curator: Anders Härm.
Participating artists: Art Centre for Dismissed Employees (EST), Francis Alÿs (BEL/MEX), Fahim Amir & Krõõt Juurak (AUT/EST), Dario Azzellini & Oliver Ressler (VEZ/AUT), Dénes Farkas (EST), Vladan Jeremić & Rena Rädle (SRB/GER), Johnson and Johnson (EST), Olga Jürgenson (EST/UK), Kennedy Browne (IRE), Tellervo Kalleinen & Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen (FIN/GER), Marge Monko (EST), Eléonore de Montesquiou (FRA/EST), Santiago Sierra (ESP/MEX).
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