Ever wondered how you would survive in a post-apocalyptic world? A stay in the Master Suite at Polymer Culture Factory in Tallinn is your chance to find out. Billed by as an “authentic artist experience” with post-Soviet overtones, the makers Error Collective want to create a social-cultural laboratory that gives non-artists an insight into the kind of experiences lived by those of us who dedicate our lives to following the muse down whatever strange unforeseen paths she may lead us.
My time in the Master Suite fell into a grey area between the artist residency program and the fully catered cultural tourist experience. Guests can expect to pay around €1500 Euros for four nights, in which case Error are able to provide all of the food, drinks and pay people to offer tours and other programs. As I was more of an artist resident (paying electric bills, rent in lieu via this article), producing work and staying for almost a month, this tourist experience was not offered, as the hosts felt I didn’t need it since I know how to operate among artists and was there on a different time scale. However, a taste of that hospitality program and tour early in my stay would have allowed me to engage more deeply with the local context and this could have been an entirely different story.
The Master Suite is built entirely with recycled materials, mostly found on-site and offers a single bed accommodation in a heated room with windows looking down into the larger social area. Error Collective have expended much time and effort in creating the small sleeping room loft, which is decidedly cosier than many of the other spaces and their self-built “rocket-stove” and very hot sauna are deservedly legendary in these circles. We had a memorable feast of pancakes including Justin’s Baltic Elvis Special (filled with peanut butter and refried), if you have to survive in a world with no electricity and few supplies, this is the place. The double glazed window fit-out was in progress when I arrived, keeping more of the warmth inside, while the library construction took place for most of the time I stayed, making a secret hideaway with hidden bookshelves for the door. Both of these undertakings ultimately improve the space overall, however the promise of a studio in which to write for me proved incompatible with the Error boys zealous wielding of power tools and constant stream of innuendo, as even with ironic intent, the macho double-talk still grated on my nerves as much as the noise and dust. Their catchphrase for an entire day: “Error got wood” (American slang originating in the porn industry, “got wood” means to have an erection). The cowboy ethos is a large part of the Polymer culture, the fact that no-one is going to tell you what not to do, the freedom to build entirely without permits or plans, which allows a variety of construction activities to flourish unhindered. This is part of the Error art production, and their dedication to creating and producing work is definitely inspiring, even if this conflicted with the needs for my own writing/creative practice on a day-to-day basis.
Those with a taste for nostalgia will enjoy the authentic Soviet wallpapers, from a stash found in the back workshop and the fabulous Polymer Toy Museum housed in custom-built shelves made by Ernest during my stay, with the collection of strange and wonderful plush toys made on the premises. There is a magical rooftop garden across the way, and the Polymer factory also incorporates various gallery, theatre and concert stages, a video games room and the highlight for me, a Soviet-Era Printing Press. I was thrilled to be able to learn how to select and arrange the beautiful antique Russian fonts to create a typographical poster and series of cards. Watching Luda, the Mistress of the Press assemble the layout and run the machines was a kind of dada performance art in itself, and I will always be glad I had the chance to experience and create work in this UNESCO Cultural heritage site. One of the long term resident artists, Mai Soot made all the arrangements and negotiations for me, and was able to assist in the translation of my text into Estonian and Russian.
The Ilus Salong “Beauty Salon” in which Master Suite is located functions mostly as a social space for the extended community associated with Polymer, so you can also expect to host drop-ins by people who are used to coming here for entertainment or just to hang out. Look out for nocturnal visits by the Ivan, who scares everyone a little at first, however he is reputedly the maintenance guy and lives on a mysterious floor above. There are a few gems hidden in the midst of these impromptu gatherings, and I was delighted to be invited over with Ernest for evening porridge by Maxim and the Russian hippies who were incredibly charming and gave me the warmest welcome of my time at Polymer, which led to another invitation for their drumming circle. Sadly I couldn’t attend this in the end, due to a conflict with the social outing organised by one of my hosts during the two weeks I was there, dinner at a local cafe and a party at Ptarmigan. I was taken on a walk to the supermarket and tour of the Polymer factory, and Sandra Jogeva invited us to the first year birthday party of a local queer space, and I ended up taking the initiative to show myself around Tallinn as the midnight tour never eventuated. One of the other artists and I both wanted to light the sauna, but as there was a limited supply of wood, Error Collective decided to conserve the energy as a practical consideration, and so it was held when another visitor arrived, to make the most of the effort and resources available. Päivi turned out to be a wonderful person and new friend, however I would still suggest making some effort at the start to introduce a new visiting artist, colleague or potential cultural tourist in order to help make them feel at home or welcome, especially when they are paying for the privilege of being there.
Finally after ten days by special request, Ernest gave me a similar tour as offered to visiting friends and family (Teleskivi, Baalti Jaam, the diner, Humana, etc.) We walked around the famed Baalti Jam market and nearby F-Hone Factory cultural space, which has a weekly fleamarket, photo gallery, vintage store and excellent cosy bar/cafe with great food. This complex is livelier than Polymer, with the investment in renovation and social space both evident, and the F Hone cafe was my favourite hang out, the mix of creative and local people giving a friendly warm vibe. Audiences for the style of underground and alternative visual and performance art found at Polymer can be small in any city, and the trendy neighbourhood and business at F Hone offer immediate access to a wider public. The Russian recycled furniture factory and car detailing businesses around Polymer are not so conducive to bringing in the bright young things. There are plenty of events happening around the community at Polymer, but you will have to work to find them, as there is no program information easily accessible to a visitor.
Notable art luminaries lurk in the dark alleyways and on the board of the organisation, although there is no guarantee you will meet Sandra, a brash and hilarious feminist hardline artist & activist, or Raoul Kurviz, famous artist and Estonia’s answer to Nick Cave – look for his tall lanky figure in the night shadows. Talking with him about the album he had just made, of love ballads and confounded bridges was a highlight, in his extraordinary cavern lined with antique books, music, stacks of his psychedelic paintings and other curios.
Everything’s a little bit punk at Polymer, from the black mould and lead paint on the walls to the absence of light in the toilet and asbestos known to be riddled throughout the building, and the artists living there are no exception. Apparently the visiting artist is expected to host their own introduction to the community, as a form of exchange, however this was not clearly communicated except in a rather brash and demanding way. Despite the lauded value of the “community,” this very much depends on being able to make your own contacts and find ways to connect with the people there, as it is not well facilitated by the organisation. If you’re lucky enough to have your stay coincide with some event, activity or festival then you will be swept up into whatever is going on around you, otherwise it can be a spooky and lonely place.
One of the artists who arrived after me left two weeks early, after making a striking series of photographs around the factory, she felt isolated and ill at ease there, with her only social interaction due to a festival that she participated in which took place after I left. The Japanese artist learning traditional Estonian metal techniques showed me an incredible hand-beaten metal knife he had made, he mostly looked a little lost but seemed happy to drift in late at night and return to the art school to work all day, so I guess whether the space will work for you or not ultimately depends on your needs.
Despite my adaptability and best efforts to integrate my work into the circumstances, Polymer did not work well for me as a creative space, and one of my hosts expressed his observation of my practice in a way that was intended to be helpful but had the opposite effect. As you can tell my stay was not one of unmitigated joy and this mutual disappointment is maybe due to the incompatibilities of expectation and working practices. However I did attempt to connect with the people I came in contact with, and to work using the materials that came my way, as it was impossible for me to write in the space I was offered, taken over as it was by construction noise, dust, debris and extended community visits. The French Knit Helsinki installation documented was a site specific response to the array of bric-a-brac which could be found, with an orange hat & mannequin head from the costume artist letting go of her collection, and throw-away labels from Justin. I was attempting to infuse my own take on the surroundings with a little humour, and although there may have been light moments, the experience was mostly depressing. The crucifixion of Santa took place while I was there, and despite a long conversation with the organiser, I am still not entirely sure why the big guy in red had to be sacrificed. We drank the wine and talked about capitalism, religion and advertising then enjoyed the large sauna built as an art project from recycled windows, in the exhibition hall outside the Master Suite.
Doing my own self-guided tour of Tallinn brought me mostly into contact with the tourist information and slightly kitsch overplayed medieval village aspect of the old town, until I got to visit Ptarmigan, another artist run culture space below the Canadian Embassy. Sign up for one of Justin’s “Fake it til You Make it” or other workshops to learn new skills or attend concerts and experimental sound events run by Ptarmigan. Seeing the tourist spectacle in action with a medieval knight tour outside one evening, I realised that the absolute uniqueness of Polymer is the access it gives you to an extremely underground and alternative side of the city, that most tourists and visitors will never see. This in itself is a valuable experience, and although the challenges of living in the space and always pissing in the dark were too much for my delicate sensibilities, perhaps you are made of tougher stuff. So, if you want to test your survival techniques and creative mettle in this hardcore environment, book now!
Thanks to Error Collective for their hospitality and all the artists & visitors at Polymer for making it such a wild & intriguing place.
Raoul Kurvitz Kumu Art Museum
Raoul Kurvitz Darkness Darkness