Ptarmigan creative platform: no boundaries

Creative plat­form Ptarmigan is an extraordin­ary example of just how altern­at­ive cul­tural man­age­ment can be. At the moment it is based between Helsinki, Finland and Tallinn, Estonia. Overall, this com­munity already organ­ized more than 200 vari­ous events — from avantgarde music con­certs to sound work­shops and graphic art exhib­i­tions. Ptarmigan has star­ted in 2009 in Helsinki, and is still act­ive there together with Oksasenkatu 11 gal­lery. I ame talk­ing with John W. Fail, the leader of Ptarmigan, about man­aging artists, set­ting up events and keep­ing a res­id­ency program.

>> So firstly, could you give some back­ground about your­self? You are quite keen on trav­el­ing — you moved from the USA to the UK to Finland to Estonia. What was the reason that con­vinced you to settle in Northern Europe? Are there more oppor­tun­it­ies, is it easier to work, or on the con­trary — more chal­len­ging envir­on­ment than in other countries?

I ini­tially moved to Scotland to study at the University of Glasgow, where I did a master’s in post­mod­ern lit­er­at­ure. I got mar­ried and that took me to Finland, and we split up last year so I decided to try Estonia to get some sep­ar­a­tion (also, because Finland is too expens­ive to live in). I still, how­ever, am very focused on Finland as it’s where Ptarmigan was built; our audi­ence is really there, but all of our events are here in Tallinn now, which is some­what strange.

Finland is extremely dif­fi­cult and extremely easy at the same time. I felt frus­trated by the highly insti­tu­tional struc­ture of cul­ture in Helsinki, which was the main motiv­a­tion to start the space — to exper­i­ment with altern­at­ives in cul­tural logic. After two years, my thoughts have almost reversed. I still think Finland is rigid and insti­tu­tional, but because of that, there’s a real hun­ger for some­thing dif­fer­ent. In Estonia, which is a messy and chaotic place, Ptarmigan is just another artist-run pro­ject space — noth­ing spe­cial, and not really offer­ing many altern­at­ives in struc­ture. I think our focus is unusual here, though, as we are very much based on inter­dis­cip­lin­ary, post-subcultural cul­ture and I per­son­ally strive to pro­gramme bizarre events that don’t really fit into any easy cat­egor­ies. I am hap­pi­est when the most diverse pos­sible audi­ence attends an event, instead of being just a bunch of music types or art types, etc.

>>How did you start work­ing with Ptarmigan?

Ptarmigan Tallinn is cur­rently a part­ner­ship between myself and two oth­ers, though I guess I would reluct­antly admit to being the ‘leader’ since I brought the pro­ject here from Helsinki. I can’t say what the pri­or­it­ies of the other two are, but for me it is cre­at­ing par­ti­cip­at­ory events such as work­shops, classes, and other interactive/educational things — where the con­tent is unique, non-institutional and some­what exper­i­mental. This has been dif­fi­cult to imple­ment with zero fund­ing. We’ve had a few sound work­shops, mostly focused on elec­tron­ics, and we have a monthly class on DIY tat­too­ing led by a Canadian artist which I would say is the per­fect example of what I would like to see hap­pen­ing here more. On top of this, we have reg­u­lar film and video nights, artist talks, and other events that I hope can be more par­ti­cip­at­ory than audience-based. We do have audience-orientated events too though — and these are fun, though our phys­ical space is not always ideal for that.

>>How would you describe cre­at­ive prac­tices in Estonia?

After 8 months here I still don’t really know if I have a feel for Tallinn. I can say that Helsinki is way, way more inter­na­tional; it was easy for two for­eign­ers to run a cul­ture space there, with all advert­ising and pro­gram­ming in English, because of the large num­ber of stu­dents and other inter­na­tional people. In Estonia, Ptarmigan I think is per­ceived as a place for inter­na­tional work, and thus we attract vir­tu­ally no one from the Estonian art scene. Our audi­ence here is made up of the few other immig­rants in the cul­ture scene, Russian speak­ers, and a hand­ful of Estonians who come from non-art back­ground. Though Tallinn has a far more act­ive, open cul­tural scene than Helsinki, it still feels like most events run accord­ing to strict logic.

>>Could you tell me more about your res­id­ency pro­gram?

Our res­id­ency pro­gramme isn’t really form­al­ised. Since we star­ted we’ve made the place open to ‘res­id­en­cies’ in a very loose, anarch­ist sense. We’ve had a bunch of people come from other coun­tries to work on our pro­jects. We never had any sup­port for them fin­an­cially, so the vast major­ity were self-financed. In 2010, we received a 2 year grant from KK Nord to host a Nordic/Baltic res­id­ency pro­gramme, which has some­what taken over the ‘res­id­ency’ side of things. This allowed us to give money to some people, to cover travel costs, and give them proper accom­mod­a­tion. But the grant spe­cified that these had to be 2 month min­im­ums, so it’s been tricky to find people who fit with our projects.

>>You have res­id­ency pro­grams in both cit­ies. How is this going? I see it as a really inter­est­ing prac­tice, true citizen-of-a-world style. Since nowadays noth­ing must be tied to one firm place, the form of res­id­ency (or organ­iz­a­tion or any­thing of the kind) is quite liquid. Any thoughts on this?

We’ll always be open to res­id­en­cies for people with good ideas that fit into what we do — pro­jects that are socially focused and encour­age par­ti­cip­a­tion. This is one reason I don’t even like to say “artist” in res­id­ency because I’m not as con­cerned with people being artists as much as hav­ing good ideas — cre­at­ive prac­ti­tion­ers, in general.

We had per­mis­sion to move one of the KK Nord res­id­en­cies to Tallinn which helped spread the money, as without hav­ing a loc­a­tion in Helsinki any­more it became more costly for us to provide work­ing space for res­id­ents and organ­ise events. The other res­id­en­cies here in Tallinn are like they used to be in Helsinki — people come for a short-term pro­ject, sleep on the floor, and do some­thing cool. We just had a cello player from Scotland who was here for a week devel­op­ing some work and lead­ing impro­visa­tion work­shops in both cit­ies — he had his own fund­ing to cover costs so we provided a space and our enthu­si­asm organ­ising and set­ting up events.

>>What are your plans for the future, both about res­id­ency and organ­iz­ing events?

Residencies are some­thing I’m less keen on right now. The KK Nord money was nice, but none of it helped Ptarmigan as it all just covered the costs of the res­id­ents, and it was dif­fi­cult to find people who fit into our style with the 2 month and coun­try lim­it­a­tions. I love the grass­roots res­id­ency style, but we have to be care­ful about hav­ing people stay here as it’s not legal … I’m def­in­itely open to help­ing vis­it­ing prac­ti­tion­ers as we have always been extremely internationally focused (some­thing that sets us really apart from the other cul­ture spaces in Tallinn, I think, also as we are run by mostly non-natives).

Events though are the main thing — we’ve done over 180 in the two cit­ies since July 2009 when we star­ted, and the res­id­en­cies and other pro­jects are com­pletely focused around events. It’s exhaust­ing at times, espe­cially without sup­port, but we love doing it and it func­tions as an artistic prac­tice for all of us.


One response to “Ptarmigan creative platform: no boundaries

  1. Pingback: The scene, the sound and the visual: Interview with Daina Dieva | Circa Buffet·

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