Interview with Airi Triisberg

Freelance art worker, educator and political organizer based in Tallinn, Estonia. Interview by Maarin Ektermann Estonian Academy of Arts (EKA), 30.04.2021.

“As much as we like to think about art as the most critical cultural practice, it is also the most commodified one”


Airi Triisberg, freelance art worker, educator and political organizer based in Tallinn, Estonia discusses the growing de-politicized and entrepreneurization of visual arts and the need for changes in the art world, with institutions leading the way towards sustainability rather than just pressuring artists to use eco-friendly materials.


Hello Airi! Could you please first introduce yourself briefly and describe your profession?

I am an independent art worker in the broadest sense of its meaning: journalist, art critic and theorist, curator, cultural manager and educator. I teach as an external lecturer in EKA and other universities. I am also active in the context of movement politics.

How do you see what are the most impactful roles of artists in society?

I would say that one of the important functions is to be a mirror, sometimes a critical mirror. Artists also make interventions into the ways how society is organised, but most frequently they produce reflections and diffractions.

It should also be noted that the agency of the artist is not the same in every society. What artists can or cannot do, and what kind of spaces are open for them, depends on the structure of society and the condition of democracy.

Right now we are witnessing an illiberal turn, I think it is very important to mention that. It has manifested in racism, homophobia, hostility against minorities, and also in the erosion of democratic institutions. We are living in a time when society is very polarized and it’s not clear which direction it will develop. The illiberal path is a threat not only for vulnerable groups, but it will impact the society at large, including the art sector. For example in Hungary, critical art has lost much funding throughout the past decade. After the last elections in Poland, similar processes started happening there – the directors of critical art institutions are being replaced with conservative ones, etc.

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Next to this illiberal turn, do you see some alternatives emerging to the dominant neoliberal paradigm?

I see the strengthening of neoliberal world order, but no alternatives. There has been a continuous erosion of social security systems. The inequalities that global capitalism produces are being ignored.

I have been involved in struggles against precarious labour in the cultural sector. I remember the time around 2010-2011 when both you and I were involved in a cycle of art workers’ organising in Tallinn. We aimed to improve working conditions in the art field. Back then precarious labour was a new concept for us and we asked ourselves who are other precarious workers in Estonian society. We could only name a few examples, it seemed that precarious jobs did not exist yet, at least not in the same way as they were discussed in Western political theory. Today precarious labour has become much more prominent in Estonia, one visible example of that is the platform economy.

In the cultural sector, we are less likely to conceptualise ourselves as workers. It has become common to think of ourselves as entrepreneurs. Ten years ago it was very different, most cultural workers did not want to be identified as entrepreneurs. Nowadays, almost every artist runs a small enterprise. These enterprises are often established as a survival strategy to navigate the tax system. However, they have more far-reaching consequences, because becoming an entrepreneur affects the subjectivity of art practitioners quite substantially.

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But what kind of changes do you see in the arts field, besides ones already mentioned?

First key word that comes to my mind is de-politicisation. When I entered the art field in the early 2000s, art production was very much influenced by the alter-globalisation movement which brought along forms of expression that were blurring the boundaries between art and activism. This type of politically engaged and interventionist art is not very present any more in exhibition spaces and museums, neither in Estonia nor internationally. Current art production has been strongly influenced by the media, social media and advertisement. The dominant visual language in exhibitions is very much based on browsing the internet. The art market is more present, and overall marketing as such. Those tendencies are again related to neoliberal normality. There are also exceptions, of course, especially in response to the recent illiberal turn which has triggered very intense cycles of politicisation in some contexts.

That’s interesting because how contemporary art is often described is that it deals with pressing social issues. But do you think it’s not true?

I would say that those cultural sectors that depend on ticket sales – film, theatre, music – need to please their audience. They cannot risk being very norm-critical. In comparison to them, contemporary art may seem to address social issues very boldly. Yet it also speaks to a limited auditorium. Artists and curators can make very bold statements, but who will hear them?

Let’s not forget that art is also an elitist commodity. As much as we like to think about art as the most critical cultural practice, it is also the most commodified one. It’s a luxury product for the wealthiest people.

Maarin Ektermann
If you want to own it, yes.

Airi Triisberg
Moreover, art is a luxury product that receives state subsidies. There is public funding for private galleries to participate in art fairs in Dubai and Basel. There are state subsidies to support the consumption habits of wealthy international collectors, whereas artists don’t have proper access to basic social guarantees such as health insurance.

But then again, many exhibition spaces have free entry whereas theatre, cinema and concert tickets are expensive. In comparison with other fields of culture, art may seem more approachable. So on the one hand, art is the most accessible, on the other hand, it’s the most elitist. On the one hand, it’s the most critical, on the other hand, it’s the most commodified. It’s really hard to say something conclusive about art.

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Considering all those things we discussed, how do you see Institutes of Higher Arts Education, what role they are playing? It’s of course hard to generalise, but maybe from your experience with EKA, how they are influencing those tendencies that we discussed?

I don’t see that art institutions in Estonia, including educational institutions, would take a very active role in society. Yet education is such a powerful tool. Art and education are both about values. For example in relation to the illiberal turn, art could be helpful in preventing it. Art has the soft power of changing viewpoints, it can influence our ways of relating to other human beings or the environment around us. Education shapes subjectivity as well. The problem with art education is the production of emancipated subjects whose voice in society will remain weak. The graduates of EKA have no political, economical or even much cultural impact in society. I think the question is about overproduction of artists who don’t seem to be needed in this society.

Do you see certain curriculums in Institutes of Higher Arts Eduaction to be outdated?

I find it problematic that the central narrative is based on Western art history. It is not a question about one single course or curriculum but what forms the epistemic frame. Current education ignores knowledge and histories from the global South, and also from the post-socialist semi-peripheries. We are living in a globalised world. The international art world is going through an intense conversation about decolonization. The dominant narrative must change.

But what about diversity in the institutions of higher art education, do you see those kinds of organisations as accessible? Or do you see them creating kind of ivory towers?

I think the explanation why the Western perspective is so pervasive in the educational system and contemporary art field in general can be found by asking who is working in those institutions. Who is teaching? Who is creating the curricula? How many persons of colour are teaching in EKA? How many other people with non-dominant identities? The subject position of the educator inevitably shapes the contents of teaching. The subjectivity of the educator has an impact on what they know, how they interpret society and history. When we map who is working in EKA and other cultural institutions in Estonia, we can learn a lot about whose subject position is dominant in Estonian society. For example, the Russian-speaking population is under-represented. In every other sphere of society, the inclusion of the Russian-speaking population is better. In the commercial sector, the employment strategy is much more diverse, because they acknowledge that the Russian-speaking customer segment is too big to lose. But in the cultural sector it is considered irrelevant. Culture is the core of nationalism. Here it is possible to pretend as if Estonian society would be mono-ethnic.

We’ve been talking about the official educational system, but nowadays it’s quite easy to access knowledge about art and undertake skill building courses online, plus there are a number of alternative educational practices available… What would be the advantages of enrolling into an art institute versus taking a self-taught trope?

When I think back to my time as a student in academia, the most important aspect was networking – coming into personal contact with artists, curators, art historians and other colleagues. This is especially important because the art world is so much based on networks and personal connections. I do not remember much about Baroque architecture that I studied as part of the formal curriculum (laughing).

Secondly, learning happens through interaction. It happens through conversations and disputes, through the experience of being challenged or growing together with someone. Attending lectures and seminars together with co-students is different from taking online courses, while sitting alone with your computer. The encounters in virtual space are so temporary, distanced, and there is not much at stake. I believe that an important part of learning happens through friction, and for that you need continuous contact. Students learn a lot from each other. When students leave the classroom, they often continue discussing. They do not always do that in an academic way, and they might end up discussing completely other issues than what was addressed in the seminar, but that is exactly how students learn from each other in diverse ways.

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But to turn our conversation again to this topic of art and society, I wanted to ask, in which ways art can contribute to tackling complex social challenges?

One important planetary challenge is the climate crisis. The current art world, as we know it, is very much based on circulation and mobility. There is a constant pressure to produce something new: new art works and exhibitions are valued most highly. To have a positive impact on climate, some types of art institutions, along with our usual ways of consuming, exhibiting and producing art should actually stop existing.

I believe that art is good in creating epistemic changes. Out of all things, this is one thing that art can do. Not only mirroring, but also raising awareness and channeling attention. In relation to climate heating, changing consciousness can be an important function. How we think about the word also affects the way we act in it.

I’m thinking about ecological topics in relation to the contemporary art field, and you said that the most conscious thing would be to analyse operational systems and also the expectations of ourselves as art workers. But do you see this conversation happening?

We have been trained to think that we need to change our consumer habits: use less plastic, consume green products and recycle our waste. But the focus on individual behaviour can also be a trap that guides our attention away from systemic change. Where are the biggest emissions produced?

Earlier this year, I published a cycle of interviews about the climate crisis and art. I wanted to learn about this topic: What constitutes the carbon footprint of the art world? How can emissions be reduced? One important thing I learned from these conversations is that the biggest emissions are produced by institutions. The individual practice of artists, for example, which materials they are using, does not have such a big impact.

Most emissions come from travel and the energy consumption of art institutions. The carbon footprint of art works is much less significant, as long as these artworks are not produced from cement or steel. The most problematic art institutions are art fairs, biennials and festivals, because they are premised on circulation – artists need to travel, art works must be transported, and audiences have to travel. It is also very problematic when museums produce their exhibitions primarily for tourists. I recently heard that Kumu art museum (national art museum of Estonia) is re-thinking their programme and ways of doing because they lost tourist audiences during the Covid-19 pandemic. This sounds like good news even if Kumu did not arrive at this point in response to climate urgency.

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But I think the artists themselves are also pushing this tempo of contemporary art life, pushing the institutions. I have heard institutions saying like we cannot make a slower exhibition schedule, make exhibitions longer, because there are so many artists in line and artists want to exhibit their work and we have to provide them this opportunity…

For sure, these things are connected. But the biggest emissions and climate impact come from institutions, so they need to change first. When institutions change, artists will change with them because institutions dictate the working conditions to a very large extent.

The conclusion is that the ethical choice is to produce less. The art world needs to refrain from some practices that are at the centre of it right now. It’s about rethinking our modes of doing and this requires institutional change. This will not be a popular message, but some art institutions should stop existing altogether. Why not ban art fairs? In the 1950s there were only a handful of biennials in the world. Do we really need hundreds of them today?

Do you see that artists could occupy new positions in society, work in more diverse roles?

I would really like to see artists working in diverse roles. I am thinking about the recent exhibition Cut Out of Life by Flo Kasearu which addressed domestic violence against women. This exhibition was based on her long-term engagement with women’s shelters. It was not a short-lived project in which the artist seeks out a vulnerable group, interacts with them for a limited period of time, and then leaves. Flo’s exhibition came out of experiences that are part of her daily life, because her mother works at the women’s shelter and Flo has been accompanying her work for years. I think it was a very strong exhibition. In Estonia it is rare to see art that is informed by experiences of artists who have been embedded in a social context for a long period of time. I believe that art could gain a lot from leaving its usual bubble. But I might be fairly alone with this wish. It seems that the majority of the art world likes to continue repeating the mantra of autonomous art.

But still, why do we see so few examples of artists occupying different roles and in different positions in non-arts spheres?

I would also like to know! I am thinking of this question in terms of precarious labour. Being a freelancer is extremely hard, but it is also hard to practice art next to a full time job. I would not have that capacity myself. If I had a full time job, I would not have the energy to engage with art as a hobby after working hours. But I have been thinking that it would be very useful to have part time jobs that would generate income and also leave time for making art. These part time jobs could also inform artist’s practice, potentially. I learn a lot when I do my part time job as an educator. Preparing for teaching is the most efficient way to learn new things. But teaching in an art academy is still a side job in the art system. Many artists have their money jobs in the art system. That is the best way to survive as an artist, because the job does not distract you from art. But I think it would be quite interesting to see art made by artists who work in other realms of life. How would these experiences inform their art practice?

I wanted to ask now about the Covid pandemic – how did it change your view on teaching, learning and practising arts?

I did not expect that online teaching would become such a good experience for me. I started using the “flipped classroom” model. I asked students to study the course materials on their own. When we met in the seminar, the students were already prepared to discuss the materials. As a result of that, our conversations became much more nuanced. Earlier I have been lecturing in front of the class. It is much more difficult to start a discussion after that. Once you produce the lecturer-listener power relation in the classroom, it’s very hard to break into conversation mode. The students know that if they keep silent long enough, I will switch back into lecturing mode. But when the students know from the start that they will need to participate in discussions, they can prepare themselves at their own tempo. It was also very helpful to work in smaller seminar groups. In bigger groups, students often delegate the work of talking to a few active students, and this dynamic is hard to break. Due to online teaching I had to organise the study materials in a different way, and now I wish I would have done it earlier.

In terms of my other activities besides teaching, I was happy to take a break from organising art events, and also from attending art events and exhibitions. I did attend numerous online events though, and I enjoyed the fact that I could listen to conversations happening in Prague, Bucharest or Almaty while doing housekeeping tasks such as cooking and cleaning. But now I am longing for the conventional forms of intellectual exchange, where I am present with my full attention because we are assembling in a physical space.

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How do you imagine your work to change and evolve within the next few years? What would be the main drivers of this change? You already mentioned the political context and how some processes are quite scary in society, but maybe some other factors as well?

I think in the next few years I will continue doing the same as I am doing now. I am mostly writing and researching these days and these activities take time. But to think in a longer perspective… One possibility is that the illiberal turn will take its full course and destroy democracy. In a non-democratic society I will be likely to end up in prison. It is not quite clear to me whether that would be the good or the bad scenario. As a precarious art worker, I have been joking for years that my pension plan is prison. From the horizon of poverty, this seems like a survival option: prison provides food, shelter, and even medical care. And writing is anyhow a very isolating activity, so it would not be a huge difference…

So you think like in the next 20 years the things basically won’t get better for freelance art workers in terms of social guarantees, pension plans etc.?

I am quite confident in that, unfortunately. There is no strong advocacy work for the social rights of freelance art workers in Estonia. This work cannot be done alone, many people need to participate, and I do not see those people in the art field right now. It’s a hard job to achieve changes and not enough people are ready to engage with that work. From the policymaking perspective, possible solutions are already known to the government but the political will is missing. Thus, two very important elements in the process are missing – art workers who advocate for change and political decision makers who agree to implement the change. Some minor improvements will surely be made now and then, but the situation at large will not change. Actually, the situation in Estonia is not worse than elsewhere in Europe. Visual art is usually the least funded cultural sector in the state budget. It’s a structural thing. And in terms of wider society, what is happening now is the erosion of social democracy. More and more people find themselves in a precarious situation similar to the freelance cultural workers. The only way out would be a radical break from neoliberalism. But no, I don’t see it happening.

But if more and more workers are finding themselves in a similar position that art workers have been in now for decades, then this might bring this social change, if the workers groups would recognise each other? This is a very romantic idea, I know.

In the early 2000s, there was an attempt to create new social movements around the subjectivity of precarious workers. Discussions around the gig economy and flexible jobs were emerging in many European countries at the time. There was a transnational attempt to mobilise resistance and to agitate for alternative social imaginaries, such as universal basic income. These mobilisations were quite strong for some time, but remained without big success. Apropos, I think it’s strange that art workers are not actively campaigning for basic income. This concept comes up every now and then in conversations around art and labour, but is usually quickly dropped as too difficult to achieve. Yet from the perspective of independent cultural workers it is the only viable solution. I don’t know. I’m very pessimistic right now. I see no prospect of change. When there is no collective effort, the pragmatic thing to do is to choose an individual strategy and get a regular job.

Is there anything we haven’t discussed that you consider relevant to the topics of this interview?

Mental health is also a relevant issue. One part of it is digitalization and the isolation resulting from that. Let’s hope that the Covid-19 pandemic is temporary, but at the same time, we know that more epidemics will affect us in connection with the climate crisis. Our lifestyle is becoming very technological: we are always connected to a device, there are less social spaces, because everything can happen online. At the same time, these economic processes we were discussing produce more insecurity and anxiety. I see that especially in younger generations, there is so much anxiety and depression, they talk about it a lot. When I was at the age of 20, I did not have a vocabulary to speak about my anxiety, so at least younger people have better education about mental health. I know very few people who do not take medication against anxiety or depression. The mental health crisis seems very pervasive. But somehow it is still an unspoken topic, it is not acknowledged enough. I think the mental health crisis is going to affect us in many ways in the near future and educational institutions need to take that into consideration.

Maarin Ektermann
Thank you for this conversation, Airi!

Airi Triisberg
Thank you.

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