Mustekala’s Colleagues Abroad: Artishok – Blog for Independent Art Criticism in Estonia

15.07.2009 Carl-Dag Lige, Tallinn

One of the few independent (read: non-commercial) cultural media channels in Estonia, Artishok ( Artishok blog) was founded by Maarin Ektermann and her friends in 2006. Maarin is a curator, critic and art manager who recently defended her Master thesis at the Estonian Academy of Arts. Maarin describes the reasons for founding Artishok in the following: “The main reason was that the space for art criticism in Estonian traditional media (magazines, newspapers) constantly decreased. To be honest, the situation is still getting worse. Only the employees of a particular media can contribute; due to the lack of money and space the editors do not order articles from independent authors outside of their own organisation.“

There are only some independent art magazines and newspapers in Estonia. “Cheese” is a well-established photography magazine. There are a couple of small journals on literature and different sub-cultures (“Sahtel” is about street culture e.g.). In 2006 there were several more or less professional magazines on Estonian architecture and design, but only one professional magazine (“”) on the visual arts. Therefore Artishok was established to cover issues mainly related to visual arts. Besides Maarin the main contributors of Artishok have been Margus Tamm, an artist and graphic designer who is also behind the visual identity of Artishok, and critics Indrek Grigor and Margus Kiis from Tartu.

Artishok’s activities

During 2008 Artishok has became more active and broadened its field. Artishok started to organize biannual Artishok-exhibition, it also started to organise seminars and has a small online record-label (Artishok Records). The thematic range of articles published in the blog has also become more diverse. For example: Artishok has published different texts about graphic design and product design. Maarin: “When Artishok was established, I had an idea that it would be a platform offering space for those who would be interested in publishing their own articles. I expected that people would be more active to offer their texts, but it turned out that they are not very eager to offer their own texts. Currently I usually ask people to write about some particular topic.”

Last year Artishok organised the first Artishok exhibition, where 10 young critics and 10 young artists participated. During the 10 days every single artist had the opportunity to show their work and receive 10 critiques of their work. The texts of the critics were also exhibited along with the artworks. The exhibition project got good feedback and will be organized regularly in the future.

One of the problems has been Artishok’s dominantly Tallinn-centred activity. During the first years Artishok published many articles about art events taking place in Tartu, Võru and other Estonian towns. The dominance of Tallinn-related issues is without doubt reflecting the increasing concentration of art practices to the capital i.e. Tallinn, but Artishok would like to re-instate a more regionally balanced approach and motivate artists to act in various interesting places and towns outside of Tallinn.

Maarin: “In the future we would like to cover more different events taking place in rest of Estonia as well as outside of our country. Thus far we have had some critiques about a couple of British and American exhibitions because our members have had the possibility to visit them.” As an alternative to detailed articles and critiques, which is main focus of the website, Artishok also publishes the so-called exhibition- and photo-diaries, which provide short over-views of visited exhibitions. In general, Artishok aims to become more regionally as well as internationally oriented.

Artishok in comparison with Mustekala

Mustekala has fixed a level of high level of the quality of the texts, which enables to use them e.g. in educational activity. Most of the writers of Mustekala are teachers or well-informed students. The published articles are used in some schools and universities in Finland as a supporting literature for particular lectures or courses. Artishok on the other hand has been very flexible and has not been too demanding towards contributors. But most of the authors contributing to Artishok have a background in art or art history and most of them also contribute to professional magazines and media. The level of Artishok’s texts and other material is therefore comparable to the rest of art-related media in Estonia. What makes Artishok different from the mainstream media is its ideological liberalism and open-mindedness towards alternative approaches.

The number of authors, who contribute to Artishok is considerably smaller than in Mustekala. Thus far Maarin has been the main co-ordinator of Artishok. A core-group who thinks along and actively participates in the activities of Artishok is about 4-5 people. Maarin would like to see more people willing to publish their texts in Artishok.

The biggest difference between Mustekala and Artishok is, that Artishok does not (yet) have a fixed editorial board and does not (yet) have a formal organisation. In order to become more efficient and regular in its activities, Artishok is planning to register itself as a non-profit organisation, which would also help to find financial support. Artishok’s members support the idea of becoming more organized and focused. Maarin has made research about self-regulatory art oriented initiatives and realized that the process of institutionalisation is usually very painful for those collectives which have formed around a particular activity and have not been interested in the formal/institutional side of the question.

Small non-institutionalised groups have on the one hand more freedom and less responsibility than institutions with a fixed structure. On the other hand small non-institutional groups have got a potential for inner conflicts or fading initiative because everything is based on individual interests and not on formal or organisational rules. Artishok plans to form its editorial board, which would ease the decision-making about future articles and activities, and help in practicalities of editing the materials meant to be published on the site.

Future plans of Artishok

Maarin and other members of Artishok would be glad to see that Artishok becomes a kind of brand or trademark signifying a space or general (mental) platform for public discussion, culture criticism and free thinking, which would be flexible in its use of different media (blog, seminar, lecture, round-table etc). Maarin: “We are planning a series of seminars about art criticism, self-organisational/independent media and art public. We also have to decide whether we are going to pay small fees for our contributors. Funding is very problematic and directly influences how intense and active shall the development of Artishok be.”

In the future Artishok would also like to publish online lectures and downloadable thematic issues in pdf-format. Artishok’s members would like to see the increase of the number of contributing authors and that Artishok becomes more active in “real space” (organizing more seminars for example). Artishok Records is looking for musicians who would be interested to publish their works via the label. The blog will remain as a forum for independent art criticism, but in the future it will be only one of the outputs of Artishok.

Due to the Soviet occupation and lack of general art (historical) education the prestige of contemporary art in Estonian society is very low. People tend to hate modern and contemporary art and are very critical about abstract art and conceptual art practices. Considering the latter, it has been a big surprise for Maarin that Artishok is read by different people outside of the Estonian art-world. “Ordinary people, especially young ones interested in cultural issues, have given very interesting feedback. This is one of the things I think is important to keep in mind when developing Artishok.”

Artishok’s main focus will remain on contemporary art but that does not mean that it will exclude other phenomena of culture and the related discussion. Artishok’s members would be glad to see it transforming into a platform for wider cultural discussion in Estonia, a discussion, which will hopefully become more accessible to foreign readers as well (as soon as Artishok publishes more texts in English). One of Artishok’s goals will be to find partners abroad. Contact with Mustekala is Artishok’s first step towards international co-operation between independent art and culture media.

The text is based on discussion which took place in Helisnki on the 4th of June 2009. Participants were Irmeli Hautamäki (Mustekala), Maarin Ektermann (Artishok) and Carl-Dag Lige (Mustekala and Artishok). Artishok will publish an article about Mustekala in July/August 2009. You can follow Artishok from here: Artishok blog