Benno Schirrmeister: Do Estonians dream of electric sheep? (5)
On a journalist exchange in Estonia, Benno Schirrmeister of Bremen’s TAZ is highly informed, yet a blank slate as far as a foreigner’s experience of Estonia is concerned. In his first op-ed about Tallinn, he spots something beyond IT that Estonia could advertise — but doesn’t.
Arriving in Estonia, more accurately in Tallinn, is a shock. And not a small one. But it’s a good shock, a positive surprise. Towards the outside and towards the West, Estonia sells itself exclusively as a kind of cyber wonderland. The big impression — and the only one! — that you have living in Germany and about to land in Tallinn is that of a thoroughly digitized society that jumped in at the deep end in terms of digital media. Full of euphoria, but also a bit naive.
I’ve never found excitement over new technology to be particularly contagious. I certainly don’t suffer from Western data protection paranoia, but just like every eager consumer of novels and movies I know, of course, that such a degree of optimism has to turn into disappointment sooner or later, and that there must have been certain dystopian elements, and some redistribution from the bottom to the top, right from the beginning.
According to a study by Glassdoor Economic Research and the Llewellyn Institute published in spring this year, the Estonians, after ten years of leading the digital field, have the lowest standard of living in Europe, even worse than Portugal and Greece.
And then you arrive here, and you realize: This is a pulsing and lively metropolis, but not because of its outstanding technology (though also not in spite of it). Thanks to its artistic avant-gardes, its empathy and think tanks. For example, it is impressive that there are 20 theatres in Tallinn alone. Compare this to Berlin, which has more than twice as many residents as all of Estonia, and which has all of 67 stages — and only if you count that of the philharmonic orchestra among them, along with seasonal events like the Berliner Festspiele.
Several of Tallinn’s theatres are very well known in professional circles around Europe, Vaba Lava, for instance, but also the Von Krahl theatre. These are projects people talk about. But even those who know about them, or at least have heard of them and are curious to see them, will hear little to nothing about this specific wealth of performing arts outside Estonia. Even though those theatres depend on people hearing about them.
But a normal tourist won’t learn a thing about them here. And as if it was enviously trying to hide it from the prying looks of strangers, not even the otherwise useful calendar of Culture.ee mentions that NO99, Estonia’s currently most celebrated theatre in places like Munich, London, and at the Avignon festival, is about to have an important premiere, namely Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children.
And if you go for the “Modern Culture” category on the official website of the Tallinn City Tourist Office & Convention Bureau, you will actually be put off by their reference to Tallinn’s Old Town Days.
Yes, put off. And not just because the Old Town Days took place in May, if I’m correct, and the impression is created that nothing new will happen before May next year. But because a folkloristic ring-around-the-rosie with Disney-medieval frippery and archery definitely has a dissuasive effect.
Nothing against folkloristic ring-around-the-rosies, if you like that kind of thing, go ahead. But modern culture isn’t a medieval fair. And neither is it the premiere of a beautiful Tchaikovsky ballet with Petipa choreography, just fresh enough to reflect on the invention of the steam engine and its effect on society.
Here, modern culture is what you find in the “Miscellaneous” category if you’re lucky, like for example the “Pseudo” exhibit by the Estonian Museum of Contemporary Art, down by the port. Or what the Fine5 company dances. Those are reserves of a reflection that can keep up with the speed of the digital revolution, participates in it, and at the same time manages to be a counterweight to it, dialectically overcoming it.
These are places where one can dream of electric sheep, to use Philip K. Dick’s words.
There are a lot of signs that this wealth will hold up longer and strengthen this place more than plenty of technological advances. As impressive as those may be, it is a condition of their own logic that they can never prevail for long, or create a local relationship. On the other hand, there is no reason at all to hide your cultural wealth away when promoting yourself. Because this strange kind of capital actually gains from sharing.