Feature: The punk vibes of the Estonian art scene

Laura De Jaeger
Laura De Jaeger Source: Jerry Mercury

Laura De Jaeger tells Jerry Mercury about her experience as an expat from Belgium and her work on the Estonian art scene.

There are a lot of reasons why many art lovers avoid going to exhibitions in regular art institutions. Most museums are really expensive. Enormous queues of people at the ticket office, at the cloakroom and bathrooms, crowds of people at the exhibition itself… An elite environment that dictates clear boundaries between art and the viewers, caretakers in each hall strictly regulating the behavior of the visitors: you cannot touch the exhibits, photograph them or film them. Besides, in order to get into an ordinary museum, you might have to communicate with security guards. Like at customs, they can force you to demonstrate the content of you bag. They will not allow you to take a bottle of water with you, if you happen to have one. Certainly, such an atmosphere might discourage people from visiting museums.

I have to admit that these protective measures are not without a reason. But is there any alternative? A museum where there are no crowds, where you will be kindly invited to familiarize yourself with the exhibition without charging you any fee whatsoever. And then – art itself, without any borders.

I was lucky to discover such a place in Tallinn. The museum in question is the self-established, artist-run Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia or EKKM. It was created in an abandoned auxiliary building of the Tallinn Thermal Power Plant, not far from the center of the city and the seashore.

I decided to learn more about the philosophy of that place and the people who work there. When I came to the museum, I was kindly welcomed by Laura De Jaeger, one of the staff members of the museum. As we started talking, I found out that Laura is an expat from Belgium. Having a master's degree in fine arts and cultural studies, she works in the museum as an expert in contemporary art. She kindly agreed to give me an interview and invited me to her art studio in the center of Tallinn for a cup of coffee. What follows is the first part of the interview that she gave me that day.

How did it happen that you got a job at EKKM?

I first came to Tallinn as part of the Erasmus program at the Estonian Academy of Arts (EKA). I had a really good experience there, it was a very active course. So, after completing my master's degree in Belgium I returned to Tallinn to do an internship at EKKM.

EKKM. A photo taken at the exhibition "Shelter-Sanctuary". (Summer, 2023). Source: Jerry Mercury

What did your internship imply?

I was kind of an artworker. I gave guided tours, I built up exhibitions, I was all around supporting the museum. So, this was less of an artistic practice, but more of art-related work and supporting the cultural institution.

What is your position at the EKKM museum now?

I am working in what we call a hosting (or welcoming) hub. We are a small team of about three, sometimes four art professionals who introduce the visitors to the exhibitions, welcoming groups on the guided tours. Sometimes we have reading clubs or art-quizzes. We also serve drinks and welcome people in this way.

Have you ever exhibited your own work in EKKM?

I haven't yet, no. We are quite open as a team and very horizontal, and everyone has a bit of a say. But every project is coordinated by one of the four core members of the team who are curators and project leaders. So, I am not responsible for any exhibition myself, nor have I been an exhibiting artist in the museum, but maybe one day – it would be nice.

What kind of artwork do you produce?

I would say I am not a traditional sculptor. Nor am I fully specialized in one specific medium (Smiles). I work mostly with spaces. I am personally interested in objects that can be found in very specific places, which are currently out of use: for example, those left behind at construction sites. And I am trying to find some stories around them and to see how spaces and objects actually witness how we deal with things in everyday life.

For example, here is a work of mine "Kopli Liinid 3. Liin 10" (produces the photo). Here I tried to preserve an old workers' house in Tallinn by measuring it with thread and making spools for this thread out of the clay from the construction site. Two spools are a document of a "speculative act" of preservation.

"Kopli Liinid 3. Liin 10" by Laura De Jaeger (2019). Material: 69450mm thread (house), 17250mm thread (room). Spool made from Kopli Liinid soil. Source: Laura De Jaeger

Why did you decide to come to Tallinn? Why Tallinn and not some other city?

That is a good question. (Laughs). I think, initially – to do my Erasmus here. I wanted to choose a country I didn't know much about. And I didn't know that much about Estonia. I only knew that it's a small country and that gave me the feeling that it is a bit similar with Belgium. And then I kind of fell in love with the young art scene here. I got the feeling that my colleagues, those of my generation are super-active: they make things happen, rather than wait for the institutions to make those things happen for them. This is something that really appeals to me, as I also like to self-organize a lot. And there was a kind of raw power on this young artists' scene that I hadn't seen before. Not in Belgium at least. I really wanted to work with these artists from my generation who are so active and had this very rough and a bit punk attitude, which I really like (Smiles and takes a sip of her coffee).

Because I am really interested in grassroots initiatives, could you please elaborate, what exactly do those self-organized artists do?

One example, I think, was from the time when I first lived in Tallinn and studied in EKA. The academy used to be spread all over the city with different departments in different buildings. And in 2018 the new central building was renovated which left a lot of other spaces empty. For example, the school gallery was empty and then my coursemate proposed the Sculpture Month (Skulpakuu), which was basically a reaction to the Photo Month (Fotookuu). We held talks, readings and several exhibitions.

Another and even better example, I think, is what has been organized in the Old Tallinn Art Hall building. In the tradition of Estonia there is a union for each job, and so there's also an artists' union, the sculptors' union and so on… Anyway, young people, who are still in EKA started the young artists' union. It's called ENKKL. They are self-organizing a lot of things.

And they created a Summer Exhibition along the lines of the Spring Exhibition, which the official artists' union does each spring. (The Spring Exhibition displays all artworks that Estonian artists have made during the past year. It has an open call and it's not as easy every year to get a spot there). But the EKA students used exactly the same form and self-organized their Summer Exhibition in the empty Art Hall, which is an official gallery. So, they kind of "hijacked" this cultural capital that the official artists' union had built up. And that is something I hadn't personally seen in Brussels. I like this subtle punky attitude which is very present on the Estonian art scene.

What are your general impressions of Estonia and the local people?

I think people are in general very friendly and welcoming and I felt that I as a newcomer was not questioned, more like I could just step into the system which they had really nicely built. In the academy, my peers were very active and self-organized. They had this kind of self-humor and did things collectively and out of their own initiative. I noticed that they were not very scared of the prestige of other institutions, but at the same time, they had this kind of nice do-it-yourself attitude. (Smiles). Yeah, in general, I felt very welcomed to join this community as a foreign artist.

Your social circle is mostly other artists, right?

Yeah, I would say, I mainly communicate with other artists. I think, if you are active in the Estonian art-field and you visit exhibitions regularly, you are kind of welcomed and somehow you build up a network quite quickly. Besides my partner is Estonian and I already had a few friends here when I came. It's been surprising for me throughout the past few years how soon I was welcomed to become part of cultural fabric here, in Estonia.

So, would you say, there are some advantages here in comparison to Brussels?

Yeah. I love Brussels for its complexity, which however also brings some challenges. Such as that it basically has almost the same number of people in one city as the whole country of Estonia. So, competition is quite fierce in Belgium. There are also different communities and there's not much connection between them, while in Estonia I have the feeling that although there are sub-categories in the field, there's also a kind of core to the art scene which is easier to keep in sight.

Laura De Jaeger in Brussels. Source: Laura De Jaeger

Which places in Estonia have you already seen?

I've visited a lot of places. We've been driving around the country in our free time between the exhibitions. We've been to Pärnu, Haapsalu and Tartu.  And we've seen Peipsi Lake and Valga, and also Narva.

And what is your favorite city in Estonia?

I think I am a fan of capitals. (Smiles). Of course, Tallinn has the most capital vibe. But I would say that Narva was for me a very interesting place to visit: it's really scenic and fascinating. But of course, it's easy to say when you've been there only for two weeks.

It all sounds so good. But I assume there must be some challenges that you have encountered here. I know that many people struggle to learn the Estonian language.

Yeah, it's been quite challenging (Smiles). I think I understood quite quickly that it's one of the most complex European languages, let's say. I did an A1 course last year, and now I am doing A2, and it is going quite okay, I would say. I am not scared to talk and people have been so kind to me. If I say a few words in Estonian, people go, "Wow! You are speaking so well." I think they appreciate it a lot and also take into account the complexity of the language.

So, you haven't received any negativity from people here because of the language issue?

Actually, there were some encounters – with older people, I think. This attitude usually comes from guards or personnel who just don't speak English. But I think the toughest situation related to the lack of language happened when I was trying to find a job. I wouldn't say people were rude to me. Rather, if you have a small field where there are a lot of qualified people, there's always a better choice than me. And in general, before EKKM, it was really difficult for me to find a job, because employers usually take on those who speak Estonian.

You've said that the museum accepted you in spite of the language barrier. Was it otherwise easy to get this job?

I think, it was easy, because I'd done an internship there before that, so I became basically a part of the family. It's such a small team that once you are in at the EKKM, they support you. When this job came up, actually, they invited me and I said "yes, I would love to." I guess it was because they knew I was having such trouble finding a job, but it's also because we had had a really good experience working together, so, it's just came naturally. I suited them because I also understood the vision and the mission of the museum.

Coming back to the challenges of living in Estonia, is it difficult for you to get medical help here?

That's a very good question. (Smiles). I am quite an anxious person. So, I have a lot of small health issues due to stress. And for me it was hard to find a family doctor, because there is a long waiting list in Tallinn. As an artist, I don't have health insurance as I don't work enough hours to get it from my job. So, they were not very eager to take me. But finally, after a year and a half of some health issues I found a family doctor. Because I was lucky to have family insurance from my hometown, and that covered the things, I never got in trouble. But I would say that the healthcare situation here has made me very scared – it has been one of the biggest challenges. But I may visit private clinics, because it's much easier language-wise, and you can just get an appointment and speak English with the doctor, and that is much easier to navigate.

Laura De Jaeger Source: Jerry Mercury

What about other artists who don't have official employment but work as freelancers? Does it mean that they have no health insurance here at all?

Actually, there's a big campaign for health insurance for artists because it's a big problem in Estonia in general. As far as I understand, if you don't receive health insurance via your employer, you can pay for it individually. But it is a big sum of money for a freelance artist, who has an unpredictable income every month. So, I assume tons of artists find themselves without health insurance in Estonia. I mean, some of my friends even postpone going to doctors, which is dangerous and might cause bigger problems over time. 

Are you planning to stay in Estonia?

I think I really like it here and I can really feel at home in Estonia. I'd lived abroad before – spent half a year in India for an internship. But here actually is the longest I've lived abroad. I'd like to stay a bit longer, but I do feel that I also have aspirations to see other countries' cultural scenes. And maybe I am a bit too curious to say that I am going to be here all the time, but for now, it feels like my core place or home is here, in Estonia…


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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