26. October 2016
Do Estonians Dream of Electric Sheep?

Photo: Pedro Figueiredo/Creative Commons/Flickr

Estonia’s image is marked by accelerated digital transformation, while tourism advertising relies on medieval kitsch. Yet its theatre and performing arts scene of one of Europe’s most vibrant.

To come to Estonia – specifically to Tallinn – is a shock. And it’s no minor shock. Mostly, though, it is a pleasant shock, a positive surprise. To the outside, to the west, Estonia is selling itself exclusively as a cyber wonderland. The main and the only idea one has in Germany, for instance, when approaching Lennart Meri is that of a thoroughly digitized society that has thrown itself into the brave new world of electronic media with a great deal of euphoria and with a good measure of naïveté.

Digital redistribution

I cannot get carried away by enthusiasm for technology, to be honest. I certainly do not have any of the Western privacy paranoia, but like any busy consumer of novels and films, I know, of course, that so much lived optimism must somehow turn into disappointment and has always had dystopian fraying at the edges, will have been a redistribution from the bottom to the top. According to a study conducted by Glassdoor Economic Research in cooperation with the Llewellyn Institute published this spring, after a decade being at the digital forefront, the Estonians have the lowest standard of living in Europe, far lower than in Portugal and Greece.

And then you arrive and realize that this is a pulsating and vibrant metropolis not because of, yet not necessarily in spite of, its outstanding technology, but thanks to its artistic avant-garde, its empathy and thought factories. It is impressive, for example, that Tallinn alone has around 20 theatres. For comparison: Berlin, which has more than twice as many inhabitants as all of Estonia, has less than 67 theatres if one counts among them those outside the genre like the Philharmonie and seasonal events without a fixed ensemble like the Berliner Festspiele.

Several of Tallinn’s theatres are known to professional circles throughout Europe, including Vaba Lava and the Von Krahl Theater, which are two projects being talked about. But even those who know about it, or at least have heard about it, and are thus curious about it, find little evidence of this specific wealth of performing arts, which do not exactly thrive on hearsay alone, outside of Estonia. And a regular tourist does not find out anything about it. As if it were a matter of concealing such a thing jealously from the eyes of strangers, even the practical calendar on www.culture.ee/en/ lacks any indication that Estonia’s most celebrated theatre abroad – in Germany’s secret theatre capital Munich, in London, at the Avignon Festival – the NO99 Theater will have an important premiere on Saturday evening with Bert Brecht’s Ema Courage. Anyone who visits the official website of the Tallinn City Tourist Office & Convention Bureau and glances at the “Contemporary Culture” section because they’re considering coming here may even be dissuaded to do so by the information about the Tallinn Old Town Days.

Dissuasive advertising

Yes, dissuaded. And not only because the Old Town Days, if I see it correctly, were in May, naturally giving one the impression that nothing has happened here since then and nothing else new will happen until next May. But if I am interested in contemporary culture, a folkloristic dance with Disneyesque, medieval gimmicks and archery has a definitely dissuasive effect.

Nothing against the folkloristic dances! If you like it, go for it! But a medieval market is not contemporary culture. Contemporary culture is also not the premiere of a lovely Tchaikovsky ballet choreographed by Petipa, hence from the 19th century, which is just young enough to reflect the invention of the steam engine and its consequences for society. Contemporary culture is what happens, with any luck, in the “Miscellaneous” section, such as the pseudo exhibition by the gallery for contemporary art in the old fish factory at the port, the Eesti Kaasaegse Muuseum, or it is what is danced by the Fine5 Company.

Multiplied through sharing

These are the reserves of a reflection that keeps up with the pace of the digital revolution, participates in it and at the same time forms a counterpart to it, which thus asserts itself in a dialectical relationship with it. In these places, in the words of Philip K. Dick, people can dream of electric sheep. There is much evidence that this wealth lasts longer, and more distinctly strengthens the location than many technological advances. As impressive as these may be, the accelerationist logic of their emergence is due to the fact that they can neither last long nor create a local bond. On the other hand, there is no reason to shamefully or jealously hide this cultural wealth on the promotional sites. This remarkable capital multiplies through sharing.