Kilometre of Sculpture (KmS) was originally conceived in response to two main considerations––the public discussion of the gulf that seemed to have emerged between the field of contemporary art and the general public in Estonia, and the lack of any major event specifically designed for artists working in three dimensions.
As highlighted so well by various commentators since the mid 2000s, contemporary artists had become increasingly estranged from the general public in re-independent Estonia in spite of having enjoyed a popular position in the 1980s as part of the pro-independence movement. In the final years of the Soviet era, the general public could identify with the strange behaviour of many contemporary artists and artist groups, since the games played with the Soviet censorship authorities were seen as a daring form of protest, and as perestroika emerged and new freedoms were won, it seemed that the artists were contributing in practical terms to the general cohesive push towards the dream of independence.
When independence came in 1991, and Estonia adopted a neo-liberal free-market economic paradigm, the success of which quickly became known as the Baltic Tiger, the artists felt that their newfound freedom was a dream come true. It was of course, but while the artists desperately sought to use that freedom to join (or re-join) the international arts community, the Estonian public no longer saw their experiments as relevant or even appropriate now that independence had been won. It seemed that ordinary Estonians now wanted the artists to stop playing silly buggers, and return to making ‘real art’ again, whatever that meant. But the truth was that the artists had not been ‘playing silly buggers’ just to get under the Soviet skin. They had been exploring new creative boundaries as a general programme of artistic development, and there was no reason to stop. This ‘was’ real art. So while the rest of Estonia became cowboy capitalists overnight––a course that took them and Estonian society into completely uncharted waters and through a process sociologists called ‘social transience’––the artists continued their normal programme, which necessarily meant they took a different course to mainstream society. In many cases the artists found that where once they had been compelled to question the Soviet regime, now they had to question the culture of ‘I want it now’ and ‘I’m gonna get rich’ whatever the cost.
Reflections on these developments started to appear in the media and cultural papers around the time Estonia joined the EU, and since then the discussion has continued to gain momentum. By the second decade of the new millennium, the plight of sculptors or artists working in three dimensions started to be singled out as a particularly overlooked group. As everywhere, painters have always had a forum and an acceptance in creative circles and society in general, and in the Estonian context printmaking had always held its own special place (the printmaking triennial was already one of the most respected events of its kind in Europe). But sculpture had been overlooked it seemed, and articles bemoaning the gulf between artists and society also identified the need for some event, some prize or some programme for sculptors.
Against this background the concept for kmS was slowly formed on the basis of similar sculpture events around the world. The original team that put together the project for kmS saw that a free, outdoor, international sculpture exhibition, if handled well enough, could fill this gap for artists working in 3D while also bridging the gap between contemporary art and the general public. As the project took shape, it became clear that kmS also had the potential to contribute a lot more, and so further aims started to emerge.
The primary aim of kmS is to organize a free outdoor exhibition of contemporary art, and although the word sculpture is enshrined in the title, it is one of the core values of the event that it welcomes artists from all disciplines. KmS aims to be an event with broad appeal. By this we mean two things––firstly, that all artists working in all fields in any medium, style or genre are welcome. And secondly, we aim through this concept to guarantee that there will be something for everyone to discover and enjoy at Kilometre of Sculpture––and by ‘everyone’ we mean every visitor, every casual passer-by, every member of the public.
In the beginning, kmS was planned for the urban space in the Tallinn suburb of Kalamaja by the sea, but after researching the area it became clear that Kalamaja as a unique urban setting had many sensitive and fragile elements that were already struggling to survive, and so adding an ambitious exhibition event to this was the last thing it needed. The process of gentrification was already happening at an alarming rate, and an exhibition event of the kind we had planned, would only hasten this process, and so we stopped, putting the project on ice until some future moment when we might find an appropriate venue.
When we learned that the Baltoscandal theatre festival had been looking for a visual arts event to cover the daylight hours for their audiences––all cultural visitors with time on their hands––we realised Rakvere might be the right place for kmS. After a couple of meetings and visits to Rakvere, it was clear that not only would kmS work there, but it seemed custom built. Rakvere has ready-made public spaces in various sectors of the city with huge potential for an outdoor exhibition. The windswept exposed castle park, the historic milieu of Pikk Street and the various open spaces towards the centre of town all provide their own very particular potential and challenges for artists working in 3D.
Although it already seemed clear that Rakvere was the ideal setting for Kilometre of Sculpture, the very fact that Rakvere was 100 km from the capital added another level. We could now see how kmS could also contribute to the vitality of regional Estonian towns by taking a premier cultural event, normally reserved for the capital, and staging it in rural Estonia. In addition, kmS would remain a partner with Baltoscandal in Rakvere every two years, but it could also travel to other regional towns and cities across Estonia in the interim years, creating new focal points of cultural interest outside the capital.
1. To deliver an international exhibition open to all artists working in all disciplines and genres.
2. To deliver an exhibition event that welcomes all audiences and works to provide paths to the enjoyment and understanding of contemporary art.
3. To introduce an event that follows a new model in the Estonian context in order to increase the variety of options available for artists to further their career both locally and through contacts across the Baltic Sea region and Europe.
4. To contribute to regional sustainability by organising an international cultural event outside the capital, Tallinn, and focusing on cultural exchange with other similar-sized towns across the Nordic region.
The KmS team realises that this is a long-term commitment. These aims will take time, but year-by-year the hope is that KmS will find its own place in the Estonian cultural calendar in order to make a positive and lasting contribution.
After a successful exhibition in 2014 curated by Niekolaas Johannes Lekkerkerk (which could be seen as a kind of pilot project), kmS delivered its second exhibition in the southern Estonian town of Võru in summer 2015 with Andreas Nilsson as the guest curator. The introductory text in the catalogue for that exhibition presents the project as an ‘everlasting lesson’ in the sense of learning by doing.
This is an accurate description because kmS, like many projects that deal with social goals involving communities and the public space, is a kind of workshop for learning-by-doing. As we deliver each exhibition, our core values, which describe the core project or experiment if we extend the image, open out into a number of sub-themes or sub-projects as a result of their intersection with the venue (the host city) and the content of the exhibition in the form of the artworks and the participants.
As already suggested, this is a common process in any project, so it is in no way revolutionary or new. But it is worth highlighting as a core element of how we would like this thing to work because it demands that we watch and listen throughout the project. A receptiveness to our target audiences and stakeholders is a crucial element that prompts us towards certain strategic choices. And so it is that on the one hand, year-by-year the parameters of our experiment become more clearly defined, while on the other hand, each iteration throws up new opportunities and challenges.
Every year we start by discussing our core values and adjusting our aims (or at least the wording of them) where necessary. This is the starting point, where we re-set the experiment, as it were, and re-acquaint ourselves with the parameters. The core values remain the same, but through our aims and sub-aims we identify new aspects to explore, like walking through a museum or a labyrinth, and each new room or passage offers a new task, and after each year the floor plan shifts and we find ourselves in a slightly new challenge with different rooms and different passages – only the rules of the game and its ultimate goal have remained the same.
points of interest
This process throws up new points of interest as the project develops and at the same time offers insights into the deeper nature of existing tasks or targets. In the beginning, we assumed that simply installing artworks in the public space would naturally engage the public’s curiosity, and visitor numbers would grow automatically. In the context of a public space like the castle park in Rakvere, it is easy to be fooled by the constant stream of visitors that seemed to come through the exhibition over the two weeks. In Võru, where the exhibition was discreet in the way it was added to the cityscape, we saw that there is much more to the public space and the potential audiences that inhabit it. In Rakvere, the castle park becomes like an outdoor gallery, a semi-private space that we as the exhibition organisers move into and temporarily claim as our own, while in Võru, since there was no separated entity in the public sphere that compares (e.g. a large park or pedestrianized area), no such semi-private space can be negotiated, and so the exhibition is forced to establish a life for itself among the social forces of the everyday life of the town. And this must be achieved within three weeks.
I believe this caught us somewhat off-guard, and in the end we realised the hit-and-miss manner in which the exhibition was received. I believe that people living in regional areas away from larger cities are not so used to engaging with an exhibition like kmS, and when they do take the plunge, what should they make of it. This is partly borne out by the apparent timid interest shown during the normal day to day of the exhibition in Võru compared to the rush of interest when a guided tour or artist talk was organized. With the prospect of a guide that could unpack the exhibition for an audience that needed a leg up, as it were, people showed a little more courage and hopefully benefited from coming along and getting involved. In Rakvere, the castle park obviously benefits from the spill-over from the castle itself, which receives bus-loads of visitors every day, but as the main exhibition in 2016 intends to use more of the city centre, the kmS organisers will have to pay special attention to the lessons learned in Võru.
In two years, the laboratory has already given us kilometres of data about the public space and how people may variously enter it, use it and interact with each other and our exhibition. Nevertheless, we are still at the very beginning, and the road stretches out before us.