Writing, Curating and Lecturing on Visual Arts, Public Space and Architecture

On a Few Contexts for LIFT11

Essay on Lift11 urban installation festival published in the festival's catalogue.

On a few contexts for LIFT11

Gregor Taul


LIFT11 included installations, events, interventions, actions and architecture, but also urban planning and politics, and it is difficult to speak of one general context for the festival, or of a dozen particular ones. Therefore I will introduce three tentative contexts: the genius loci of Tallinn, the city’s status as a European Capital of Culture, and criticism on the part of the curators. The setup of this triad appears to be the best way to exemplify the procedural logic of LIFT11 (the contest), where the current urban situation was initially analysed by curators, artists, critics and theorists, after which the selected installations were incorporated into the context of Tallinn as the Capital of Culture, and underwent their active, i.e. critical, phase in the urban space. In retrospect it can be stated that the success of the installations largely depended on how the authors understood one or another context, interpreted them for others and critically reimagined them.


LIFT11 as genius loci

In 1977, Norwegian architect and theorist Christian Norberg-Schulz published the book Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture, in which he observed how cultural geographic conditions create particular genii loci in different places of the world. Although for Norberg-Schulz, genius loci was a real quality and measure on which the planning of cities or buildings can be based, alas the notion has been left to linger in the domain of poetic imagery (for example, in Estonia, the word is evoked in relation to summertime theatrical productions).

The present author considers genius loci to be a potential vehicle for getting us closer than ever to the fundamental layers of urban space. Awareness of genius loci appears to be inscribed in urban installations as site-specific works of art, as several works of LIFT11 activated the genius loci of some location in Tallinn. For instance in Kalamaja district, the installations described the genius loci by such notions as sea, a historical workers’ suburb, wood, ruins, romanticism, human scale; Soodevahe was characterised by airport, being a buffer zone, greenery; and the genius loci of Kadriorg was outlined as a spirit walking, dreamy and reconciled with nature.


LIFT11 as Capital of Culture

The curators of LIFT11 have claimed the festival to have been a late, but vital, catch-up lesson in public art and space in Tallinn. The purpose of the catch-up lesson was to explain fresh trends in urban space and introduce new ideas. As it was the first time for a festival of this kind, it is understandable that none of the completed installations were perfect. Most of all, the works were lacking in the political dimension, i.e. in the ability to live up to their name, be visible and participate in the decision-making process. A strongly charged installation constitutes an invasive force.

The LIFT11 installations hardly excelled in political force, but that was less the fault of the curators and artists and more of the bureaucratic environment at the time, impeding the emergence of a new artistic quality (for political reasons, the installation Face It! was not realised, while Chimney was completed independently of LIFT11). Eleven installations were served to the townspeople in a hermetically safe and appropriately commercial package. The amiable look of the installations enabled the managers of the Capital of Culture to use them as their advertising front, a venue for boasting how they had finally brought art to the street and created so much public space — as if a couple of months’ visual presence of the installations were the expected maximum. It is rather the minimum.

Then again, it would be unfair to represent the relationship between LIFT11 and the Capital of Culture merely in a negative light. The fact is that LIFT11 was a dignified feature of the Capital of Culture which contrasted Tallinn’s urban space in (summer) 2011 to the situation of a year ago. For this author also, LIFT11’s installations were the main landmarks for presenting Tallinn to visiting friends. Abroad, the website www.lift.ee served as a good business card for Tallinn.

Since installations were used as tokens for the city, they deserve a critical eye on how an installation worth seeing features as a regular decorative sculpture or monument. Is it just a classic object of sightseeing with a twist? A weak installation will be taken down a peg on the current value scale — treated as sculpture, worse, as a monument, i.e. a stone or metal memory dump. Such a putdown conveys either an aesthetic or an emotional judgement. All too often it is forgotten that even though installations and monuments (in some cases, also decorative sculptures) are situated in the same physical space, their conceptual spaces operate according to different cultural and, therefore, also political conditions (liberties and obligations). One of the crucial functions of a monument is likely to be the recording and/or propaganda of cultural memory, and its aesthetic aspect tends to remain secondary. Besides, monuments and decorative sculptures are applied to the cityscape (at least in Tallinn) from above, from the position of political power and money, whereas urban installations tend to be created by way of grassroots initiative.

Regarding the latter, one could somewhat snidely wonder whether LIFT11’s installations came from above or below? Is a publicly well-funded grassroots action more likely to convey artistic liberty or municipal rigour? The two opposite poles — in this case, the struggle of the contemporary-minded curators and authors with the city officials — certainly need to be kept in mind while judging the installations. From the very start, LIFT11’s installations were burdened with political correctness, prescribed responsibility and loyalty, and could thus not entirely avoid appearing as decorative sculptures or monuments.


LIFT11 as critic

Wayne Attoe has written[1] that an architectural critic fulfils three classic roles: description, interpretation and evaluation, sometimes complemented by a fourth and a fifth role. Description is based on the construction and design of the building; in interpretation, some way of conceptualising architecture serves as the basis; and the process of evaluation relies on comparison to the existing norms. If the critic diverges from his or her customary tasks and starts to review criticism as such, fresh methods of providing description, interpretation and evaluation can be created. In the fifth role, the critic employs speaking about architecture for creating something entirely new, which can be considered a work of art in its own right. Attoe emphasises that no role is in principle more important or pithy than the others: each has its own purpose. Naturally, the critic can also act out all the roles in one writing.

One could conjecturally view the curators of LIFT11 here as critics whose vehicle was installation rather than the more conventional textual format and whose object of analysis was the urban space of Tallinn. Which roles were fulfilled by the texts they curated?

At least eight of the installations (Audio Tour Of Street Space, Chime, The Pier, Kalarand, To The Sea, A Path In The Forest, Soodevahe, Detectors) were mainly descriptive texts, giving a fair overview of the selected place. Descriptive criticism helps to notice and highlight something which might otherwise be missed. Descriptive criticism also has an important role regarding the future, as the exact answers to the questions what, when, where, why, how and who will years later form a basis for detailed interpretations and evaluations.

Interpretation is characterised by Attoe as drawing a veil between architecture and the observer. The transparency of the veil depends on how skilfully the critical discourse, theory, method, etc. is used. Those who are good at the interpretative discourse can make the reader forget that the interpretation relies on the currently valid canon, not on the facts. As boundaries blur between facts and interpretation, it is easy to present changeable values as the fundamental ones. For example, The Pier, Kalarand and Soodevahe presented a well-veiled sustainability, green thought, development without change and perhaps also volatile genius loci to the audience as the only proper solution to the problems raised.

Evaluation means setting up a hierarchy of values, and this is something intrinsically characteristic of the human species. Thus there is no surprise that all eleven installations were, above all, self-assured evaluators, judges, who loudly pronounced what needs to be developed or eradicated in the city. The most modest of the judges was the reverent O, which seemed to consider all urban space as equally fascinating.

None of the critical texts brought into the city by the curators saw its purpose in analysing its own status as an urban installation, as the main emphasis was rightly put on solving the city’s problems. Therefore, LIFT11 added nothing essentially new to the genre of urban installation. Despite the genre boundaries having been left unreformed, I would still underline the international acclaim of O, The Pier and A Path In The Forest in the specialised media, thanks to which perhaps a place was secured in the image bank of the history of urban installations. To which extent one or another of LIFT11’s texts qualified as a work of art eventually still depended on what was mentioned in the introduction: on who were the best in addressing the genius loci, the requirements of the Capital of Culture and the problem raised by the installation itself.

[1] In Wayne Attoe, ‘The Role of the Critic’, in Ben Farmer et al. (eds.), Companion to Contemporary Architectural Thought (London and New York: Routledge, 1993).

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