Transgressing the White Cube: Creating an Integrated, Open Forum

estonian former primeminister - Copy

A sencil depicting Estonian former prime minister known for his nationalist views at one of the venues of “Last Thursday” literary event.

Literary evening “Last Thursday” (kirjandusõhtu “Viimane neljapäev”) occurs on the last Thursday of each month, in various venues in Tallinn Estonia. According to Steven Vihalem, the creator and organizer, “The first event was at Kodu baar in 2013 February 28. Kodu baar was run by Russians but in general it was Russian, Estonian and international crowd (volunteers, exchange students, expats). The first event in Polymer was the same year June, August, October and November.”

Having myself been so strongly tied to the rambling, decaying, disused Soviet toy factory Culture Factory Polymer in Tallinn, I admired the capability of liberating cultural events from being bound to a singular piece of real estate.

Refreshed by the notion that the event is not specifically dedicated to visual art, I find the so called “art world” bound to archaic modes of elitism, exclusion and colonial notions of tradition. Steven is creating something different, an open and integrated forum, and a place for people to freely share ideas, self-expression and information. As a foreigner, an outsider, I feel comfortable in the integrated environment. In the art and culture sector in Tallinn, the places where the language groups integrate seem few and far between. At the gallery openings and contemporary art exhibitions the featured artist and audience visitors seem to be mostly Estonian language speakers.

Steven—a native Estonian speaker from Õismäe, convert to Islam, tattooed, and dread-locked—demonstrates not only the knowledge of Russian language but enthusiasm to speak the language in his job as a youth worker in Tallinn, on the street and during his event. But when he refers to “Russians” in this context he is referring to people who were born in Estonia but are native Russian language speakers.

When I moved from America to Estonia in 2008 I felt I was escaping certain aspects of American culture, urban poverty, gun violence and institutionalized racism. I had an awareness of the dark and sad history of Estonia but at this moment in time I found it to be a generally peaceful place. But then I began to notice similar attitudes I was already familiar with from the American context. I was warned by Estonian acquaintances to avoid certain neighborhoods, told that drug problems, robberies, even sexually transmitted diseases were specific to a minority group of people. While in the US I may be warned not to enter a certain area because of people who are black or Hispanic, I was hearing the same phrases except the group I was supposed to fear were the “Russians”. Even the way the word “Russian” was pronounced, seemed the same sort of mixture of disdain and fear I heard white Americans referring to people of color. As an outsider I had no preference, you are all the same East Bloc subculture to me. I took the warnings and explanations with the same grain of salt I took those phrases in from American whites.

In Tallinn from 2008 to 2014, during my years in Culture Factory Polymer, I learned to enter a room of Estonian speakers silently and to sit in silence unless there was some very important matter to discus. When I entered the rooms and studios of the Russian speakers I learned that I should remove my mitten and shake the hands and to say hello; the small talk and conversations that ensued felt similar to my home culture.

At the Last Thursday literary event I find people from both language groups, meeting young people from Estonia willing to speak and interact in Russian language as well as Russian speakers who are not too shy to read their poetry in Estonian language. An example is Marek Rudkevitš (Judaz) who raps, flowing fluidly between Estonian, Russian and English language. Perhaps language group integration occurs more easily when there is a strong presence of foreigners, so using English, as a common language becomes less of a polemic. Feeling more comfortable in an integrated setting, I feel freer to take risks and to experiment.

Open forums are important to places to share ideas and information about our lives and the world we live in. As an artists I either feel excluded from the museum and gallery scene and search for other venues or feel that I am rejecting the so called “white cube”. Although I was trained in the traditional manner of the art academy I discovered new outlets of performance and spoken word in a similar context in an open-microphone event called “Late Night” in 1990 in Portland Oregon USA hosted by Dave “Killer” Queen. It was in that venue that I reinvented myself as a performance artist.

Anyone is welcome to listen or to take the stage but there are many regular performers including Madis Ristmägi, Kristi Ockba, Mihkel Roolaid, Judaz, May Angerjärv, Lihtsalt Arvi;1 the range of offerings can be diverse, from angsty journal entries, spiritual musings, folk music, love poems, comedy, personal anecdotes and traditional poetry. Some performers do not seem to feel the democratic spirit, they get the idea that it is their show, and they chat and move about the space, ignoring the performer on stage, simply waiting for their turn at the microphone. With the privilege of holding the attention of the audience comes the responsibility of showing respect to the others as they perform. I’ll be your fan and you can be mine, then we can all be stars.

  1. A second edition of works by regular participants in the event is available online.  
Ernest Truely
December 22, 2015
Published in Review from Estonia
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