[ISEA2004] Introduction: Side Heine – Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia

Introductory Statement

The Center for Contemporary Arts (until 1999 the Soros Center for Contemporary Arts) was founded in 1992, in a decade of radical change in Estonian society marked by the creation of synergetic cooperation between new ideas, generations and various groupings. While institutional control and constraints as well as material support were all virtually non-existent, a situation similar to the turn-of-the-century revolutions arose. For a while the CCA was in a position that it was largely responsible for both funding art (artists’ scholarships) and organizing art events (annual exhibitions) in Estonia. The CCA purchased modern computers and got access to the Internet; by taking the first steps of integrating into a new type of society it got onto the highway of infotechnology. The new technology was not just a sideline of CCA activity, it actually came to be a priority. Novel and previously unimaginable possibilities for communication, freedom of information and the use of common social infospace arose and the CCA rode on the crest of the new international wave of media optimism.

In 1995 the first international conference under the title “Interstanding,  Understanding Interactivity” was held, which explored the significance of new media and digital art for society, the keynote speakers being Esa Saarinen, Erkki Huhtamo, and Richard Barbrook. The conference was arranged by the joint efforts of three organizations (SCCA, Estonian Art Academy and SCAN, Groningen, Holland) and two enthusiasts (Ando Keskkbla and Eric Kluitenberg) and the impact it had on Estonian society cannot be overestimated. This laid the foundations for six years of cooperation during which four international conferences and three digital art exhibitions under the general title of -lnterstanding” were organized. Ten years after the event, the journalists are still discussing the influence of infotechnology on society, but in those days communication without frontiers was too radical and innovative, for the wider public. The radical changes provoked a reaction among the new conservatives.

The first “Interstanding” conference was accompanied by the exhibition -Biotopia, Biology, Technology, Utopia”, which launched discussions about the mission of art, ethics and the position of the artist in society. Why did the CCA choose to support the new media and digital art? Its support reflected a futuristic vision of the Web-world, and a new understanding of the freedom that it provided. New media opened – for those who had been previously excluded – a new and inviting door, and Estonian artists and the CCA entered this new world with natural self-confidence. The CCA based its strategy on new media on the assumption that the established and arrogant art institutions would ignore us, and the new space that infotechnology provided for us, and the new and young people who joined the Estonian cultural scene in early 1992, would be what Estonian art needed.

In retrospect, I can claim that the breakthrough in Estonian art came, thanks to new media: -Interstanding attracted international attention to our activities and to Estonian video art. The cooperation with ISEA2004 as organizing partners is proof that the strategy chosen in the early 1990s has been effective.

  • Side Heine, Director, Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia