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Upside-down Estonian map: Põlva becomes a European city spotlight

Tartu 2024 announcing the program of Tartu and Southern Estonia 2024 from the balcony of the Põlva Culture Center.
Tartu 2024 announcing the program of Tartu and Southern Estonia 2024 from the balcony of the Põlva Culture Center. Source: Tartu 2024

Tartu and Southern Estonia 2024 celebrates Põlva as a highlight on the upside-down Estonian map and the edge of Europe for an anti-centric view of cultural significance.

On stage, the folk-rockers Zetod, playing an original song about the Seto people with traditional instruments – accordion and violin, and guitar. They really made visible the tradition and the location of the last frontier of Europe. Yeah, the last frontier of Europe! Because this band belongs to an indigenous group of Estonia, the Seto, and comes from the most southeastern part of Estonia – Setomaa in Võru County, which borders Russia. This location and culture are crucial since the stage was organized by Tartu 2024, which celebrates the title "European Capital of Culture (ECOC) Tartu and Southern Estonia 2024."

Tartu and Southern Estonia together will be celebrated as the European Capital of Culture in 2024, along with two other cities from Austria and Norway. As part of this mission, the organizer of the celebrations, Tartu 2024, has been holding various programs since last year to showcase the diversity of traditions and culture in Southern Estonia and the involvement of its residents in them. This time the program took place on March 17 in the small southern city of Põlva where they celebrated their first program for Southern Estonia, dubbed the Capital Party.

This is the second time that an Estonian city and part of the country have held the title of European Capital of Culture; previously, the capital Tallinn shared the title with Turku, the former capital of Finland, in 2011.

With Capital Party, Põlva staged cultures from the borderlands of Southern Estonia with a music concert and art exhibition titled "Ordinary World." The stage was set in the backyard of the Põlva Culture Center. The concert began with a performance by Ukrainian artist DJ Putrik, who moved to Põlva last year from the war-torn Donbas of Ukraine. After that, Põlva-based music band and solo artists Karmid Torud, Redel and Lenna performed. The last musical performance was by the band Zetod. Artist Rene Liivamägi projected the most famous landmark of Põlva on the Culture Center walls with a light installation.

Lenna performing at the Capital Party event. Source: Tartu 2024

The cold, wintry evening of March 17 crept over the venue, but the heat-generating gathering of locals in front of the stage didn't make it gloomy. Instead, the spotlight was on one of Northern Europe's hidden cities as the city gets ready to step into the cultural spotlight as the 2024 European Capital of Culture.

So, why did Tartu 2024 have the Capital Party in Põlva, one of the most distant cities in Estonia, located about 225 kilometers from the capital Tallinn? Is it a matter of denying Tallinn-centricity and relying on the periphery – an upside-down orientation of the Estonian map?

When these questions are put to the CEO of Tartu 2024, Kuldar Leis, he says, "Yes, we are pursuing this idea in the programs celebrating the European Capital of Culture Tartu and Southern Estonia 2024 – the idea of the upside-down Estonian map." He adds again, "Basically, we took this idea from the writer and semiotician Valdur Mikita, who is very well-known in Estonia, and whose works have long reflected Estonian identity and culture."

Upside-down Estonian map: what's the big idea?

In the age of Netflix, the words "upside down" may bring to mind the popular TV series "Stranger Things," in which the Upside Down is the name of a mysterious place where an alternate dimension exists parallel to the human world. In lexical meaning, upside-down means a position where the top and bottom parts are aligned in an inverted position. But what does it actually mean to talk about the upside-down of a country map?

Valdur Mikita, who was born and raised in the southern part of Estonia, explains to ERR his idea of the upside-down Estonian map. In an interview with ERR, he says that this upside-down map is more "psychographical" rather than a geographical orientation of the south and north directions. This means that psychology is much more influential in understanding what is the North and what is the South, since the concept of the global North and the global South reflects the richness and poorness of the socioeconomic and political situation of countries.

Mikita first explained his idea in an article in Estonian, which is called "Constantly Changing World" when translated into English. Referring to the article he says, "Even the map of Estonia is not immune to this shift in perception. It seems that the smarter and wealthier people live in the north while the dumber and poorer people live in the south part of Estonia."

"If you try to see the geographical direction of Estonia, you will see that the sea, the capital Tallinn and the high standard of living or the 'role model countries' are all in the North direction, and therefore we perceive that the northern part of Estonia is more important and prosperous than the southern part," he denotes the psychology of the geographical map.

Bringing up his memories of growing up in Southern Estonia, he says: "I myself feel this psychogeographical asymmetry very clearly, because I come from a small village in Southern Estonia. Estonia's development is very uneven regionally, and unfortunately it is increasing every year. This leads to a lot of regional political tensions. That is why I think that the map of Estonia should be turned upside down. Estonia needs the renaissance of South Estonia!"

Valdur Mikita's idea of an upside-down Estonian map essentially focuses on the activities of illuminating the periphery more than the center. It's like a view from the below that could reflect the idea of postcolonial theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty's idea of seeing people's history and belongings "from and for the margins" in his book "Provincializing Europe," where differences can have their place.

Mikita's literary series "Metsik lingvistika, Lingvistiline mets" and "Lindvistika ehk metsa see lingvistika," which are among the best-selling in the country, deal with the relationships between Estonian identity, language, culture and nature.

Kati Torp, the artistic director of Tartu 2024, says: "Valdur Mikita has worked a lot on the uniqueness of Southern Estonia and Estonian identity, and when we were preparing the celebration of the European Capital of Culture Tartu and Southern Estonia 2024, we completely agreed with his idea of the upside-down Estonian map. This means shifting the focus from the Tallinn-centric North to the South of Estonia."

She says, "By shifting the focus to the southern part, it now becomes visually tangible to the European cityscape. Visibility is one aspect, the other is cooperation and collaboration on different levels. To be able to implement the program, you have to work together with the municipalities."

Then she adds, "If they work together, they get more funding. It is also required to have European partners, so the main impact of these programs would be that the whole cultural field would be more international, more connected, and probably more open to people – openness to different cultural practices."

Europe's gaze turns to Põlva and Southern Estonia

On March 17, when the ECOC title celebration program was taking place at the Põlva Culture Center, I tried to talk to concertgoers to understand what people in Estonia's southernmost city were thinking.

An outpouring of joy was in the air, people were pouring into the concert area and gathering in front of the stage, some listening to the music in the distance and chatting with friends and family members. I met Anna there, a bit away from the stage. She is not a local, but has lived in Põlva for three years and said, "I don't know what it means or how it's received by the locals, but I am amazed to see this gathering, the way they uphold the local culture and values. We used to see this kind of festival in Tallinn, in the center, but now it's here in Põlva, with only local artists. This is amazing!"

By 8 p.m. that evening, the venue became packed to the brim, but some visitors were engaged in the "Ordinary World" exhibition on the second floor of the Põlva Culture Center. I met artist Toomas Kuusing backstage. He has been working on the same title, "Ordinary World," for over 14 years and is completely based in Põlva. He said, "It's really hard to explain why I chose this title, but it's about simplicity, the simplicity of the human being, nature, relationships – the way I see things and the way I live in Põlva."

Karmid torud, Lenna and Redel performing at the Capital Party event. Source: Tartu 2024

Indrek Vaheoja, a member of the band Redel, was beside Toomas in the backstage and about to go on stage to perform at that time. He is also a childhood friend of Toomas. Both have many stories to tell about practicing art in Põlva. He said, "Most Westerners, I mean people from big cities in Western countries, think that life is only possible in big cities, but for me you can only breathe, eat and sleep there, you can't create art there. A city like Põlva is a place of creativity, so calm, quiet and bright-sunny in summer, like a fairy tale! I think this program is a great opportunity to show that life and art are possible everywhere in the world."

According to the European Commission's website, celebrations such as the Capital Party during the Capital of Culture title celebration program, mean to put a local culture at the heart of European cities that could bring a positive change in cultural, social and economic status.

The economy of Põlva, which historically belonged to Livonia, Poland, Sweden and Russia, is today mainly supported by agriculture, forestry and fishing. The border counties of Põlva and Võru, as well as Valga and Viljandi in southern Estonia are still a corner of Europe.

By indicating geographical locations of these counties on the map, The CEO of Tartu 2024 Kuldar Leis says, "The integration of Mikita's idea into the European Capital of Culture 2024 celebrations is serious on the one hand, to show Europe our cultural strengths from the corner, from the border area of Europe, at the same time, it is fun to me to beam local culture from a small town to the global screen. This could attract more tourists and startups and boost the economy."

Tartu 2024 will host 27 major projects in South Estonia next year as part of the title celebrations. However, the opening ceremonies of the European Capital of Culture Tartu 2024 will start on January 26, 2024.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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