The Children of the New East Tallinn Art Hall Gallery and Tallinn City Gallery Through March 26, 2017
Artists: Alexei Gordin, Liina Kalvik, Kristi Kongi, Kennet Lekko, Rūtenė Merkliopaitė, Henrik Rakitin, Alvar Reisner, Elīna Vītola. Curator: Siim Preiman
Now I can say it.
There was a winter when I used to meet in Laine with a lover. This bar was open 24/7, situated in the centre of Tallinn (Pronksi 9). Upon first glance, the Soviet rococo style hit back at one’s vision with its plastic flowers, cheap furniture and flamboyant curtains. They disputed the prominence of the muted plasma TV with obscene advertisements and loud radio, which mostly played Estonian songs. The waitress – always hidden behind the bar – didn’t dissimulate her boredom. She ungraciously bowed her head and ignored what was going on.
I just picked up a couple of photos from the Baar Laine Facebook page, so you can let your imagination or memories fly.
We liked to meet there because of its awkwardness, and because none of our friends would ever dare to step inside it. I wonder if she is also reading this text.
Once, on a Monday in December 2012, at midnight, we went to Laine and ordered a Saku Originaal and Saku Tume (back then, it was not seen as ‘disgusting’ to drink any of these beers in public). Right after us, someone else entered the bar. This stranger, dressed as a whore, sat in the opposite corner; we then heard her voice talking on the phone, later laughing, crying, and finally screaming in Russian: “you could kill me then, because you won’t humiliate me”, “you won’t humiliate me”, repeated with an unconvincing tone of voice. I then looked at the waitress and none of her facial muscles had moved since we had ordered the beer. A group of men arrived. They were drunk and uttered some stupidities at the corner where the woman sat talking on her phone. I closed my eyes and thought that I was in one of these post-socialist movies (Brat’, Dom Durakov, Moskva, Pyl’, Particularities of National Fishing, The Asthenic Syndrome, 4, The East…)
Then my friend moved abroad, and I stopped going to Laine.
Last September, after playing football with the Transferwise expats, I suggested going to Laine for a beer… Pronksi was on the way. Instead of that post-socialist bar, we found a new one, called ‘Peemot’, hosted by a bearded barman ready to prepare fancy cocktails and explain the difference between dozens of beers. In the corner, sitting on gaudy armchairs (the new interior looks hipsterish, with steam-punk inspired lamps and pseudo Eames Molded chairs), were five middle-aged men talking loud, in Danish, about business.
In what time is this place? In what epoch are we living now?
By the way, I wonder where the prostitutes and drunks are these days in Tallinn, as most of the places where they used to hang out are closed or have been redesigned… they do not seem to belong to contemporaneity, or even worse, to the New East… Or do they? We could perfectly imagine a photo session being held by Slacker Magazine in Baar Laine.
The New East is an emerging term correlated with generational change, with the global penetration into localities, but also dealing with geopolitics (as we will see at the end of this piece).
As promoted by The Calvert Journal, this category entails an aesthetisation of the socialist world, enhanced through spectacular visuals and articles praising Eastern-chic. Discussions on ‘The New East’ give a new existential glamour to modernist buildings, demonstrate that socialist realist art deserves another look, and rediscover a past that has been reduced to zero-value for the last twenty-five years. All that with a mix of curiosity and a hipster-like ethos.
Digging deeper, we learn that The New East also refers to a supposed renaissance of Russian culture, and even to a “soft-power approach to changing perceptions of Russia” (Olga Podoynitsyna, board member of VTB capital).
As always, any new concept makes visible certain phenomena, people and places (i.e. cultural hubs, Russian contemporary art, trendy clubs, creative clusters, archival utopias, emotional architecture…), while turning others invisible (social inequality, authoritarian politics, ethnic discrimination, gentrification, precarity…)
Even when some marginalia appear in The Calvert Journal, it’s shown in its coolness and hedonism, “celebrating the poor and imperfect”.
I confess I keep an eye on what The Calvert Journal publishes, yet in a distant way; this platform is intended to reach a younger audience, specifically those born after the break-up of the Soviet Union (on either of the two sides of the Berlin Wall).
There is an increasing fascination with the remains of the past, translated into vintage, souvenirs, retro-utopias, nostalgia and the museification of everyday life. This interest also reveals a shift from ‘hot’ to ‘cold’ memory, as the approach towards the past is characterised by distance and detachment. Young people show a curiosity for looking back, uncovering the uneven and ambiguous discourses about the Soviet world.
In contrast to the earlier emphasis on the traumatising consequences of the Soviet regime and the imprint of the Other identity, the engagement of the new generation focuses on material culture and social heritage, functioning indeed as an instrument of the critique of the contemporary that drifts through the ironic and melancholic.
Contemporary youth in Estonia show a way of relating to the past that is different from that manifested by their parents. A new generation that does not remember the socialist time, and that is particularly open to global influences, has grown up. As a result, the impact of the Soviet memory in people’s conventional values is losing its effective power in the course of generational change.
Generations are socially constituted by sharing experiences and cultural referents, formulating particular socialising patterns and temporal paradigms. The dialectic relation between social dynamics and generations implies that their construction of the past may also vary in accordance with their own experiences of being cognitive and contingent.
Younger generations have adjusted to the specific temporal regimes and the hegemonic frame of previous generations, yet they are, in turn, increasingly recalibrating the narrative and experience of time. In Estonia, the new generations are making the relationship between past, present and future less unidirectional and ordered than the previous generations did. They are blurring the strict delineation between past, present and future, approaching them in a more porous and situational way. The riddle here is to figure out how present-day expectations and experiences might invest the past with novel meaning.
The descriptive and conceptual value of post-socialism is unequivocally tied to generational change, hence showing a decreasing analytical functionality, as young people already demonstrate a more neutral and practical approach towards the Soviet world.
Otherwise, when ‘post-socialist’ is applied to people, categorising them as an Other and denying their coeval presence, one should be aware that a patronising agenda is at stake, or a victimist discourse, in order to collect funding from Western institutions.
In the case of the ‘New East’ category, I suggest applying the same sceptical scrutiny and asking who is behind the institution funding The Calvert Journal (Alexei Kudrin; Nonna Materkova, the Russian bank VTB), and to be aware of their agenda of “exploring other sides of Russian culture”.
The New East refers to an emerging social and artistic reality, as generational change is making post-socialist paradigms obsolete; that’s why Siim Preiman is right to apply it to a new generation of artists in Estonia. And yet, we should be aware of the side-effects of the concepts that we use, otherwise the ‘New’ is just another kind of ‘Post-’.
For those working at the periphery, it is crucial to develop our own terms, instead of just applying borrowed concepts from the West. When using a category that someone else has given us, we always have to ask: Who is speaking in the name of Eastern Europe, who is the ventriloquist? Why now? And Qui Prodest (For whose benefit)?
 This passage comes from my field notes written in Tallinn in December 2012.