The following is a brief introduction to the history of technology and art, their crossing points and the formation of the space for media art in Estonia.
In Estonia, the usage of digital technology in social and cultural contexts can be divided into two contrasting phases. The first can be defined as pre-history – a period where premises for the later coherence of ICT with social and cultural dimensions occur. The first computer arrived in Estonia in 1959. A year later the first images were programmed to appear on the computer screen, and later also on perforated tape. The images, formed in ASCII-format, spread out of the computer centres and onto walls at offices and homes here and there. Although these experiments were not considered as art, some pioneering exhibitions were held. At that time, the computer was not seen in a broader cultural context, but only as a tool, “a wonder machine” which demonstrated the tremendous possibilities of technology.
In the 1960s, artists and scientists organised events together. In the 1970s the term “computer art” appeared and was discussed widely. At that time scientists offered computers to artists for creative purposes. By the 1990s the situation had reversed;by then artists were taking the active side, proposing their ideas to engineers and programmers. There are now teams that have been working together for about 10 years – indeed, the beginning of the 1990s was a rather significant turning point. The Architecture Department of the Estonian Academy of Arts (FAA) had its first contact with computing for educational reasons in 1985, although this was outside the school itself – at the Building Committee computer centre of the ESSR.
The second phase of the formation of the media art environment in Estonia reflects a principal change whereby ICT was placed into a social and cultural context and the new technologies became an essential environment for media art. A pioneering role in that shift was played by the international conference Interstanding organized in 1995 by the Soros Centre For Contemporary Art and the Estonian Academy of Arts in collaboration with SCAN, an Interdisciplinary Expertise Centre for New Media in Groningen, the Netherlands. The programme was compiled by Eric Ktuitenberg (SCAN) and Ando Keskkula (EAA). A sub-exhibition Biotoopia (curated by Sirje Helme and Eha Komissarov) introduced new, strange and unfamiliar topics to the audience; which were only truly understood later, after the case of Dolly, the cloned sheep. Interstanding took place every second year and had a huge impact on developing the media art environment in the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania). After four biannual events the organisers decided to drop the conference/exhibition format and change Interstanding into a constant process.
The biggest difference between Tallinn and Amsterdam, Berlin or Riga is the lack of an independent media centre. As the ideas and activities were mainly imported by the Estonian Academy of Arts, the synergy, which media activism can create, could not happen in the academic institutional space. However, as noted before, Interstanding brought Estonia into international network, opened communication channels with other media centres, artists and theoreticians in the world. One of ISEA’s premises for Tallinn is the further development of those international networks.
Ando Keskkiila, Rector of the Estonian Academy of Arts