[ISEA2004] Introduction: Mare Tralla — Step Into ISEA2004 in Tallinn

Introductory Statement

One of Estonia’s most read novels, Kevade by Oskar Luts, starts with a boy and his father arriving at school for the first time. They’re a bit late and class has already started. He stands at the doorway and looks into his new environment, into a new process. He’s a bit shy and overwhelmed but already has a feeling of belonging and empathy with the crowd of people he is about to join. For a long time the process of the development of technology and its related critical and noncritical environments has existed. At some point each of us has been on that doorway and knowingly, or unknowingly, we have crossed the threshold. The ways we relate and act within that environment differ. Most simply use what is given to them by way of consumerism. Others develop the products and services to be consumed. Then there are a handful of people who try to make critical sense of this, analyzing the impact of technology on cultures and societies. This group includes practitioners who find new and creative uses of the available technology, or even invent alternatives for specific uses.

My Helsinki colleague, Tapio Makela, has often stated that one of the reasons to organise ISEA2004 is to “evaluate ‘new media’ through its various histories, to assess its impact on local and international media cultures through the social and artistic uses that have evolved.” He has often also made the connection that it is now ten years after ISEA94, a time when technologies like the internet were considered “new”. When ISEA94 took place in Helsinki, only a handful people in Estonia knew anything about electronic arts and culture. It was almost as if the doorway to international electronic culture had yet to be found by Estonians. For me, then, one of the key reasons for ISEA2004 is to raise further an awareness of the critical issues surrounding new media and technology in Estonia, and to provide some international reference points for re-assessing our local situation.

To my recollection, 1994 is a year when there was active mention of interactive multimedia in Estonia. This was to such an extent that, as young artists oblivious to ISEA94, we referred to it as the “fashionable illness” amongst ourselves. For a long time there was little critical discussion, just techno-optimistic statements from people and institutions close to the fields of technology and media. Nineties Estonia can be characterized, together with the ultra right wing political turmoil of a regained independence, as e-euphoria. IT and ICT were declared by government as priorities for development. Several initiatives, such as The Tiger Leap Foundation within education, were established to promote and guarantee the spread and implementation of ICT. Simultaneously, the commercial sector developed services and infrastructure at a rapid pace.

I left Estonia in September 1996 for England. At that time, only a few of my friends and colleagues used the Internet daily and did not talk about the limited access to online facilities. When I returned less then a year later to give a workshop at the Estonian Academy of Art [FAA) I encountered a totally new scenario. In the morning, students would run to the E-media Centre at the EEA to go online and check their bank balances and pay their bills online. The Internet had arrived within daily life, but in a  commercial manner. It was a space within which to do business: not for art, nor critical interaction. Ironically, online banking was not available for me in England, yet.

Estonians are proud of this rapid development. Just a few days ago Estonian media was full of references to Newsweek which admired Estonia’s IT expertise and said that Estonia has a geopolitical edge over India, when it comes to cheap and professional software development. This type of ‘self-fuelling’ story is helpful for the Nation’s morale. However the situation is not quite so rosy, as the same people, who were praised by Newsweek work for western companies and do not necessarily contribute to local development, besides supporting a myth of ‘east european whiz-kids’. Furthermore their ‘success’ often makes critical discussion impossible within our small culture. In some ways Estonia still lives in an e-euphoria, even though in reality resources are scarce; experts working locally are in short supply; there is a lack of funding and funding strategies – playing only to one card of ‘technological excellence’ in education for a long time; no strategy on how to use differing creative potentials in collaboration and to build up a sustainable environment; and almost no active research into new media culture.

Interstanding in 1995 initiated some dialog and discussion in local circles. I am sure ISEA2004 with the themes of Wearable Experience, Geopolitics of Media and Critical Interdisciplines will engage the international participants and Estonian public. I also hope that ISEA2004, which geopolitically and culturally takes place on new ground – a former republic of USSR now a member of the EU – will provide a culturally interesting historic reference.
The cultures of Estonia and Finland with their similarities and differences will form a cultural context to ISEA2004. Besides the commonality in the languages, Estonia and Finland have many similarities in history and culture. Just the 20th century bought about a situation, where Finland reminded independent, while Estonia lost it’s independence to Soviet regime. That period is now in history books and Estonians “can feel free and equal to our Finnish neighbours”. Still the void of media and personal freedom of the Soviet era affects our daily lives, mainly on conceptual level. When the Soviets had an obsession with the ideas of progress and technological futurism, they controlled very strictly the means and technologies of communication. Thus it could be argued that the effects of soviet era in Estonia are also demonstrated by the lack of serious critical research into new media. ISEA2004 with it’s truly multicultural participation and viewpoints represented will hopefully also provide a context for future local discussions and research.

ISEA2004 would have not been possible in Tallinn without the previous expertise gained from organising international new media festivals such as Interstanding which was held biannually by the EEA and the Center for Contemporary Arts (CCA) between 1995 and 2001. It has been a privilege to work with both the EAA and the CCA. My special thanks go to Piret Lindpere, ISEA2004 Tallinn Exhibition Co-ordinator from the CCA whose exhibition production skills have been invaluable, and to Andres Kurg from the EAA, who has done a great job with conference co-ordination.

Further, the E-media Centre at the EAA has played an instrumental role. Current and former students of the Centre’s MA programme in interactive multimedia have formed an active volunteer team assisting at all possible levels of ISEA2004 organisation. Piibe Piirma from the E-media Centre has been there for us, always, assisted by Annika Kaljurand. I would like to highlight former students Marge Paas and Mart Normet, who came on board at a difficult time yet lifted everyone’s spirits with their enthusiasm.

I am also delighted to see that local artists, DJs, VJs, journalists, cultural workers and others are seizing the opportunity ISEA2004 presents by organising independent satellite events and interventions. For a long time there have been complaints that the local community is too inactive and lacking independent initiatives. During ISEA2004 there will be two manifestations of local creativity: Multikultuurimaja, a week long open space with a live experimental sound event on 17″, and co-incidentally Culturefactory’s opening week takes place during ISEA2004 and incorporates meetings and sessions where local artists meet international artists attending ISEA2004.

Further, I am delighted with our collaboration with Estonia’s major newspaper, Eesti Paevaleht, which will be running a 16 page ISEA supplement during the event which will be filled with articles, interviews and information about the issues discussed at ISEA. This will really bring the message of ISEA2004 into the homes of Estonians. There are many organisations supporting ISEA2004 in Tallinn. The most generous support has come from the Estonian Ministry of Culture and the Cultural Endowment of Estonia, which demonstrates the importance of new media culture for Estonian society. In addition I would like to thank the British Council and the Centre Culturel Francais in Tallinn as well as all the many international funds, which supported artists and presenters from their countries.

Besides public cultural funding, ISEA2004 Tallinn is generously supported by many Estonian companies and organizations and I would like to give special mention to some of them: Foorum Cinemas physically support the conference; Elion has provided the internet connections; IM Arvutid has supplied Macintosh computers; Ellington printers support the catalogue printing; Estonian Music Academy supplied audio equipment; and BonBon is ours to use for the club night. The ISEA2004 Tallinn Exhibition takes place in most major art venues  in the City. We have had wonderful collaboration with the Art Museum, the Applied Arts and Design Museum and Tallinn Art Hall. Plus, all the complicated issues of designing new media exhibitions have been overseen by architects from 3+1. Last but not least, I would like to thank all the artists and presenters of ISEA2004 Tallinn, who have been so patient with us and whose ideas and actions will make ISEA2004.

Organising ISEA2004 in Tallinn has been an incredible journey. From the moment Tapio Makela invited me to cross the threshold of ISEA2004 four years ago until now – just two weeks to go. I have had an incredible time working with my colleagues here in Tallinn and in Helsinki. The interest and support for ISEA2004, both by the international new media community, who firstly applied to be part of ISEA2004 and then later by the local community, has been enormous. Every day still brings positive surprises and I hope it will result in an event which is contextually rich, full of heated discussions, fruitful meetings, enjoyable performances, local participation, and memorable exhibitions.

  • Mare Tralla, Estonian Academy of Arts. Programme chair, ISEA2004 Tallinn