Talking creativity, gentrification and running an artist-run printing space in Tartu, Estonia An Interview with Lemmit Kaplinski
by Jessie McNeil

Most of us here in Vancouver have not heard of a country called Estonia. And those of us that do know it, usually picture the medieval old town of the country’s capital city Tallinn, communist-era architecture reminding us of soviet occupation, choral festivals, and dairy products that don’t exist anywhere else. If you meet an Estonian-Canadian in Vancouver, you’re often immediately invited to our version of Jaanipäev (their midsummer celebrations with bonfires) and will continue to put up with their constant posts on Facebook of Arvo Pärt articles or their affinity of the colours of blue, black and white. I am an interdisciplinary artist from Vancouver with both Scottish and Estonian heritage and had the opportunity to explore my roots last summer in Tartu, Estonia as an artist in residence at Studio.Tartuensis, (also known as the Estonian Printing Museum). This unique space operates as an active or live museum. The presses are still mostly functional and used on a daily basis.


Lemmit Kaplinski and one of the museum’s more mobile presses, a tabletop platen press

This past July, I had the chance to catch up with Lemmit Kaplinski, the cultural space’s director, founder and active manager in their new location on Kastani Street, Tartu. (“Kastani” is Estonian for “Chestnut” — something that Lemmit very strongly suggests we should mention, because he seems to have a fixation of sorts. It might be due to a poem he wrote). This non-profit organization is going to be presenting Estonian art books for the first time at the Vancouver Art/ Book Fair. Here is our conversation from July 23rd, 2015…

PS:  Where or how did you come up with the idea of a printing museum/creative space?

LK: At a birthday party back in 2008, basically. But before I was doing this [managing and creating Studio.Tartuensis], I was an IT specialist for 10 years. I was working in a very synthetic environment and in some ways started yearning for a simpler era of technology. This yearning manifests itself in the steampunk genre, which I truly enjoy. So in a way I decided to build my own little steampunk printing empire, by switching from digital set of machines to analogue ones. Nobody was using this technology [of letterpress] in Tartu. Polymer in Tallinn was a small artist-run printing studio there. Now they’ve closed and we have all their presses.

PS: What was your first printing press?

LK: This butt ugly soviet era gilding press of an unpronounceable name. It’s a lever operated press. I printed my first posters on it. Around the same time I acquired a small form of platten press – in Estonia we call them Boston presses. It was a gift from a retired printer who was dying of lung cancer. He borrowed it from his employer in the mid-90s, because they were going to throw it out anyway. The make/manufacturer is not known (no markings).

PS: This museum, or studio space is in a large part, reliant on the support of your surrounding community, I understand. Where do most of your volunteers come from?

LK: The community most emphasized is Erasmus – students and occasionally professors from all different backgrounds. Europe has become very mobile in the last 10 years, as mobile as Americans being able to travel from state to state. Tartu is a university city, so there are a lot of students. But most of our volunteers come from this Erasmus bubble. They all attend the same parties and social events and live in the same quarters usually.  Some of these students don’t enjoy the feeling of being herded so they want a means of exploring outside this scene, and building local connections. Once the first ones figured out they can come and hang out here, it all started snowballing from there…

Valued volunteer Agnieszka Kunz displaying one of her creations, a "Hollow Book Treasure Box Sherlock"

Valued volunteer Agnieszka Kunz displaying one of her creations, a “Hollow Book Treasure Box Sherlock”

PS: So how many staff members actually work here?

LK: I keep 4 people here on a steady salary but the rest is all project-based. In 2011, we started hiring EVS (European Volunteer Service) volunteers for long term positions like Artist in Residence coordinators. They each come for a year. It’s hard to say how many volunteers we actually have right now. They come and go but keep the life force running like electrons around a nucleus. They form new compounds in the process. This is what keeps the museum fresh (for me, personally) and emotionally alive in a city like this.

All in all: Tartu is a small city on the outskirts of Europe. The only thing that this city has is the people in it.

PS: In Vancouver, some say that there’s a lack of public and open spaces where people can come and create freely (and cheaply). Particularly, in print media. Perhaps it’s just too expensive a city to create anything permanent, which makes it a discouraging environment for individuals that wish to create places like your museum. Yet, a lot of people are trying to rid the city of our sad nick-name “No Funcouver” with festivals, like the Vancouver Art/Book Fair. You and your community here seem to do so much in Tartu with very little money. And people come out for shows and festivals, no matter what season… It felt like a very open and active city to me, when I was doing my artist in residence project last summer. When it comes to hosting an event, or starting a creative project in Tartu, are there a lot of hoops to jump through? You make it look like there aren’t!

LK: Well, setting something up here in Tartu is relatively easy, in terms of municipal support. There is both a culture of supporting activists as well as a legal framework that makes it relatively hassle-free to organize public events, even at a large scale. It starts from a good net of funding options down to being able to freely use the public space (as long as you’ve registered your events, as well as made sure you are not directly stepping on anyone’s toes).

Street art in Tartu is a prime example of this. We are way past the teenage debate about whether street art is art. Instead, if you want to do a piece that is publicly viable, you turn to the city artist (yes, there is such a person in the office) and show him/her your design. Unless it clashes with something fundamental, he/she gives you the go-ahead and you can spray all you want. Of course you need the approval of the owner, the city does not have the power to disregard private property. But you’d be surprised at how many homeowners actually see value in a piece on their wall. Same goes for the city itself. You can’t do this in Tallinn. Tartu is very open and encouraging of artistic expression.

Studio Administrator Maarja Puistaja assisting at one of the museum's open house nights

Studio Administrator Maarja Puistaja assisting at one of the museum’s open house nights

PS: That’s really inspiring to know that there are little cities out there that are so supportive of the arts. Lots of different people come to your museum. I remember a “free museum night” in the city in May 2014, and yours was completely packed full all sorts of people trying out the iron handpress (aka the Gutenberg). And most people were printing for their first time. When visiting the space, one can purchase pre-made notebooks or book objects like the treasure boxes. But on most days of the year, people can drop in and make their own books, or print with linocuts or letters onto postcards or bookmarks. Do school groups regularly come into the museum to make art as well?

LK: They come in first to learn about the history of printing (type and imagery). You can come in and touch the history – all 800 kilos of it [patting the oldest press in the museum collection, the Gutenberg. Any age is welcome (but one should know the letters of the alphabet at least). In our programs, we want students to look with their fingers. We have a pilot program in place currently in the Tartu education system where it links literary and linguistic history in different museums throughout the city. We talk to them about technology and language and how the technology of the printing press was [and still is] a driving force of social change. By the end of our portion of the program with them, the students will leave here with a notebook that they have bound themselves and printed their names on. They will then travel to the next museum program with something to write in. We’re trying to get the school out of school…

PS:  The process of how you make these notebooks and book objects appeals to me as an environmentalist and collage artist… the re-purposing of something that would otherwise be thrown away. You guys tear apart old books to re-use the covers (the covers are often quite gorgeous, graphically speaking) As the son of a famous Estonian writer (Jaan Kaplinski), did the act of destroying literature cause you some anxiety initially?

LK: [Laughs]. Most of the books donated to us are nostalgic crap from private collections and soviet time books that are no longer relevant in our public library system. Some of these are actually really hard to destroy because the covers break before we can even pull the text blocks out. The covers get really brittle.


An example of the many one-of-a-kind notebooks made from re-purposed book covers

PS: Last summer the museum was in the process of moving down the street to the current location which you call “the widget factory.” It was a huge Soviet-era, light industry factory producing all sorts of things from electronic circuits to doorknobs. A huge undertaking this move must have been! It seems like you’re still in transition, renovating and acquiring more drawers of type and things. Could you describe this transition?

LK: Lots of pain. The new space is 640m2. Renovating a space like this costs about 100€ per m2. We’ve exceeded our budget for renovations, which was of 2,000€ but the total investment has been less than 10,000€. The only way this is possible is because of dedicated people, volunteers and immense amounts of patience. The move has been a good thing though because the previous location was only 242m2. And then Polymer in Tallinn closed down so we had to bring and store 3 truckloads (36 pallets) worth of printing presses, drawers of letterpress type blocks and their furniture and other equipment to our museum. We had to do all of this within 3 months as well. It’s still cramped in our new space, but at least we managed to save all this stuff. And we can now provide more studio spaces (equipped with heating, windows and electricity) for our local artists [on the upper floors].

PS: In the capital city Tallinn, a lot of young people and businesses are attracted to this place calledTelliskivi, this revitalized area of old warehouses and factories. Do you envision this museum and the surrounding buildings accessible by the courtyard becoming something like Telliskivi?

LK: This building is actually owned by the same people that own Telliskivi. I’m not against gentrification. I like it. Something has to die in order for new things to be born.  When an artist is asked to spend a bit more on a studio space it sort of forces them to be in there using it more. I’ve seen examples all over Europe, where artist-run studio buildings are no longer active creative centres but have turned into storage spaces because rent is too cheap. Of course, we want to keep things on the cheaper side here in Tartu, but not as cheap as possible.

PS: Tell me a bit about your artist in residency program…

LK: I was honestly surprised about people wanting to come here! It’s a long history of how this all started, but it was an idea that was bouncing around for years. We had our pilot residency in 2012. Since then, we’ve upped our activity to nearly 20 artist residents a year. We are reducing that amount now. We like working with emerging artists and are setting a standard for artist in residence programs in this part of the world. We are more personally involved with the artist’s experience than most places (often the artist will get a reply online saying “yes you are accepted” then once the artist arrives and are handed the key, that is it.). Here, artists get 24hour access to the printing equipment in the studio space, and an apartment in the city centre. Also, now we give every artist a tour of the city and a chance to have a dinner party with the local community. Because of these little personal touches, the artist leaves with the memory of this experience in their hearts. We’ll reap this investment in the next 20 years we think…

Studio.Tartuensis has recently announced an Open Call for their 2016 Tartu Artist in Residence Programme. Deadline: November 5th, 2015. To read more about this opportunity, visit their residency website. Keep an eye out for their table at this year’s Vancouver Art/Book Fair and opportunities to hear their representatives speak during Artist Book Week!


Resident cat and harshest of Estonian art critics, Johannes Gutenberg. (Because, cats.)


One of the many rare wooden type blocks to be used at the museum.