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Ptarmigan’s Alternative Manifesto

David Rothenberg and Umru X5 at Ptarmigan (Umru X5 on the Mac).
David Rothenberg and Umru X5 at Ptarmigan (Umru X5 on the Mac). Source: Photo: Jacques-Alain Finkeltroc

It all started in Finland. American freelance web developer John Fail was living in Helsinki and bored. 

His apartment was a commercial space in Helsinki – significantly cheaper than residential space for some reason – and there was an empty room next to the space he’d rented. The neighborhood, says Fail, was “one nobody would go to,” and he was nervous about who might take the empty room, so Fail himself took the space. But it was room he had to somehow pay for. 

“There was a need in experimental music for places to have shows,” says Fail. “There’s too much overhead in Helsinki. Maybe you want to bring in a free-jazz saxophonist from Italy, but maybe there are only 15 or 20 people hip enough to attend the event. I wanted a place where things like that could happen.” So Fail created it in his spare room. He charged four euros to see a show. A plate of sushi could be had for two euros. 

Ptarmigan was born. Fail hosted over 100 events. Seventy-five people was considered a good turnout.

Fail, a Tallinn resident since January 2011, has done it again. This time on Toompea. 

Ptarmigan lacks a formal manifesto, but, like its Helsinki counterpart, it’s a space for things that wouldn’t happen elsewhere. 

For example, David Rothenberg and Umru X5 recently performed their electronic compositions at Ptarmigan. Rothenberg (with Umru X5 replaced by pianist Marilyn Crispell) is an ECM recording artist. But most acts are virtually unknown. The Motel Sisters, an Australian duo, recently performed their send-up of Paris and Nicky Hilton. A tattoo workshop is on the schedule for September. 

Ptarmigan Tallinn, a not-for-profit organization, is located in space Fail won at public auction, a two-room place under the office of the Canadian embassy on Toompea. Though some performances are free, the organization is financed by four-euro tickets sold to performances.

So far, roughly 30 events have been held since Ptarmigan opened in April.
In Helsinki, the establishment and system ruled, and Ptarmigan was the first of its kind. 

“In Helsinki, there were people with ideas who weren’t part of the funding cycle, artists without grants,” says Fail. “We did Ptarmigan to show there was a different way to do things.”

But Fail and his partner Lewis McGuffie don’t see the same situation in Tallinn. 

“In Finland there’s this path, this procedure,” says Fail. “You apply for funding, you get approval, then you have your event.”

“But here,” says McGuffie, an English artist, who came to Estonia for a residency at the Polymer Culture Factory, “it’s more like Berlin or London. You just do it.” 

Ptarmigan achieved such success in Finland, that Fail says he “somehow became part of the establishment.” But Ptarmigan is so new in Tallinn, it has yet to leave a mark on Estonia. “We’re completely off the map, even among the Estonian art crowd. I don’t think it’s that people aren’t into what we’re doing, but they don’t have an opinion.”

Ptarmigan Tallinn is new enough that Fail and McGuffie haven’t said no to any artists yet. The night this journalist visited, there was a “free movement” artist rehearsing in the other room. “I’m not even sure what that is,” laughed Fail. “But it sounded weird enough. So why not?”

“Weird,” says Fail, is the Ptarmigan aesthetic. “I want to make cool stuff happen. I want it to be accessible to people. I do this stuff because it makes me happy.” 


Scott Diel

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