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.