Imperative to “get well soon”

Helmuts Caune

Interview with Estonian art worker and curator Airi Triisberg


On April 8 this year in Tallinn three political parties signed an agreement on forming a coalition in the freshly elected parliament of Estonia. One of these parties that will now be a part of the government is the infamous EKRE or the Nationa Conservative People's Party. Its inclusion in the government is contraversial and deemed dangerous by many because it is seen as a local version of the rising right-wing populist wave in Europe. Leaders of EKRE have taken positions that are exceedingly conservative, anti-migrant and anti-minorities, and can be seen even as anti-human rights.

Two days earlier, on April 6, at the ISSP premises at Berga Bazārs a symposium titled “Manifestations of (In)activism in the Latest Baltic Art” took place where various practicioners from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania shared various examples from the intersection between art and activism. One of the most notorious guests of the symposium was Estonian art worker, curator and writer Airi Triisberg, who showed a presentation of various instances of the usage and influence of visual language in the public politics of Estonia, including the recent protests against the coalition talks.

Triisberg, who likes calling herself an “art worker”, operates within the political dimension of art since early 2000-s when she studied art history in Tallinn. She works as a writer, publicist, curator and organizer ir various projects concerned with activism, political art, feminism, gender politics, sexuality and artist labour conditions. Besides her theoretical and practical work in artfield she tirelessly participates in the civil life of Estonia and also abroad.

Airi Triisberg, Minna Henriksson and Erik Krikortz. Art Workers – Material Conditions and Labour Struggles in Contemporary Art Practice. 

Arterritory: In 2015, you wrote a book together with Minna Henriksson and Erik Krikortz, titled Art Workers – Material Conditions and Labour Struggles in Contemporary Art Practice.The working conditions for artists isn't perhaps the most talked-about issue in our region. How exactly did you arrive at this topic and what are the main issues and problems you address in the book?

Airi Triisberg: Actually, in the Estonian context you cannot say that it is not discussed. There was a cycle of organizing around 2010-2012, when art practicioners came together in order to address labour issues. It was a collective process which started with mapping working conditions. We were meeting regularly for half a year, identified a set of problems and discussed possibilities to change them. One core issue was unpaid labor, in particular regarding the fact that when artists are exhibiting in exhibitions, fees are sometimes not paid, for instance. This practice of not paying fees has changed quite significantly in Estonia, as a result of this collective discussion that they had some nine years ago. Another issue that we discussed very much was connected to health insurance, because when you're a freelance art worker, it is difficult to access it. Unpaid labour, low incomes and social security were the main issues.  When addressing those problems, we seeked dialogue with different actors in the field, we spoke with artists, curators and art institutions, we went to the ministry of culture, we talked to the funders, like the Cultural Endowment. As a result of expressing our concerns the minsitry of culture set up a working group that was dealing with health insurance, and some small legal changes were made. The practice of not paying fees has changed quite significantly in Estonia as a result of collective discussions inside the art field as well. In the Art Workers book, there are some chapters that describe the organising process in Estonia in detail. The aim of this book was to document labour struggles in different contexts.

What do you think were the reasons that this initiative gathered such strength that you could actually... make change?

Organizing often starts from the moment of a certain affect – you know, when something becomes too much.

A tipping point.

And in our case, there was a very particular situation, it was an exhibition happening in Tallinn Art Hall, and it was about labour conditions in general – as a topic of the exhibition. There was a new labour legistlation being discussed at the parliament at the time which was about the flexibilitation of the labour market. The exhibition responded to the new labor legislation. The curator Anders Härm  made an exhibition that looked into the changes in Western capitalist economies of the 70ies, and then what happened with this exhibition was that many artists had been comissioned with new works and there was no money to pay them. And there was also a difference between the artists from abroad that got some fee and local artists that got none. And then there is this double standart, in a way – how come that even when we talk about labour conditions from the artfield, we don't investigate conditions of our own production? So this kind of contradiction in that exhibition became a trigger.

How and why did your practice become intertwined with forms of activism?

Good question. (Laughs.) I think that I begun when I was a student, which was in early 2000s, it was the time when counter-globalization movement was very strong. And there were many overlaps between art and activism, and sometimes it was not so clear, when using these kinds of visual forms, interventionist forms, sort of art-like forms, is it really art? Are the artists involved or not? And at the same time artists were inspired by the movement and created artworks that have this kind of activist dimension. And I think that, effectively, very much it was the time when I entered into the artfield, and I got the impression that that's what art is about... It was only some years later when I understood that the time of early 2000s had perhaps been a particular period of politicisation. Nowadays the art field looks quite different.

But I think the role of contemporary art is also to be a site for knowledge production and for political discourse, and I don't always find the term “activism” to be so operative. I think there are many ways how to participate in a political discourse, and in order to participate in a political discourse you don't need to be an activist. There are many other forms. I don't have this expectation that everyone should be political.

Would you say that you are dissatisfied with the level of engagement or involvement that at this moment artists have with the most pressing societal and political issues?

In Estonia, now there's a bit of a breaking point. As I was also mentioning yesterday, this right-wing populist party is negotiating its way into the government and protests have been organized for the past two weeks, and they will probably continue. And artists have also been involved in that. Right now it's a bit hard to predict how it will develop, but it is quite likely that the situation will influence the art field as well.  In this protest situation, a poster has become a very, very important channel of communication, especially in the small protests in front of the government building. Sometimes politicians, when they enter, they stop and they read the posters. And sometimes they also comment on something or ask about something, and sometimes the posters change their positions depending on what has been some kind of issues that have come up in the media, or some statemenets that they have made the previous day or morning; the poster responds to that, so posters have become a very important channel. So far they have been very much text-based, but I have a feeling that also artists are contributing more and more to the production of those posters.

Why do you think you care? Obviously, your interest might be purely theoretical. But clearly for you it's also empathy and active involvement.

I mean, if I think back about my practice, many things I did have had resonance in my own life. Back when I was organizing events regarding precarious labouring was because I was pretty precarious myself. I felt that if I wanted it to change I probably have to take part myself. My queer-feminist practice also had to do with my own interests. Then one project I have been curating regarding the question of illness is also because I'm suffering from chronical illness, I live with it. It's a way I conceptualize and also sublimate my own pain. But also, once you find yourself in this position where you need to struggle for something, you develop an automatic solidarity with other people in society and their struggles. Maybe also empathy grows from his positition. And also from the theoretical point I'm into this intersectional thinking of feminist practice and political practice, so they come together.

What's the project that you mentioned that addresses illness?

It was a small exhibition in 2015 in Potsdamm, and the title was “Get well soon”. It's something that I hear very often when I'm in pain. But I will never get well, it will not happen. But then I started to realize that this friendly wish is also an imperative in this working environment, that when my colleagues say that, they actually subconsciously insist on that. Despite the fact that I never will “get well”. But there is an imperative to return to work. And then, in reaction to that situation, I started to ask myself when has experience of illness or living with disabilities been politicized in order to express social critique. And this exhibition was kind of collecting a few moments, mostly originating from 70ies, or maybe artists from today looking back at those moments... When you think about political mobiliztion and illness together, you have different variations of disability movements, but you also have a very interesting relation to art, for instance, if you think about HIV activism in U.S. in 90ies, this political movement that was demanding the government and state agencies to put some research into HIV to develop medication for it, and to just turn some attention to it, the political movement that was mobilized was very much by using graphics as a tool of mobilization, and at the same time they also developed a very strong and interesting social critic. Then, in the 70ies, there were movements that would say “illness is a protest against capitalist explautation”, and if you extend it to my interest about precarious labour, you can point out that precariousness is not only about income, it is also about living conditions, housing issues, health issues, care issues. So I've been interested also in conceptualizing illness. Asking the question – when the body has been turned into site of production, how can it be turned into site of resistence? And looking around in different moment in history, I'm looking for examples when you can think about illness as a form of resistance. But it needs to be nuanced, because that's not something people choose.

Could you mention a few Estonian artists of today that are valueably politically engaged and active?

There are some artists who always get mentioned in such context, so I will name artists who are perhaps less frequently named. Maike and Iggy Lond Malmborg are two perfoming artists who are addressing political issues in a very sharp manner, they work both individually and together. Then there is Evi Pärn, who has been working on issue of nationalism critically, and also takes part in experimental music seen. Also, I would mention Kirill Tulin who stages situations where conceptual and material, poetical and political dimensions intertwine.

Iggy Lond Malmborg and Maike Lond Malmborg performance "99 Words for Void" with knights, metal and empty phrases. ©

Would you be able to lessen your participation politically if your precariousness was lessened?

I don't want to. There is pleasure in doing things together. Otherwise I would just read and write alone. There is this understanding that the norm is that you live your private life, and politics sometimes is what intervenes and forces you to deal with it reluctantly. I do not have that idea. I have been a part of shaping various countercultures and counterpublics for some time, and it is a part of my life.