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Q&A with cultural producer Jaanika Okk

Jaanika Okk is a Cultural Producer originally from Tallinn, Estonia and now based in Birmingham, West Midlands.

How did you start working with the visual arts in Estonia?

I started as a visual artist with my first solo show in 2005, which involved etchings and mixed media prints. This followed with three other solo shows in 2006, 2007 and 2010, all in Tallinn. Parallel to that, I took part in several group shows but after a while, I realised that I enjoyed organising projects for other artists much more than being one myself.

In 2008, I got involved with arts project management. Initially with small projects and gradually moving towards larger-scale ones. At that time, I was heavily influenced, and actually still am, by Eha Komissarov, a grand old lady of Estonian art world and currently a curator in Kumu Art Museum. At first, I was interested in street art and how it is presented in a gallery and contemporary exhibition context. I organised part of two exhibitions which were curated by Eha, the 9th Baltic States Biennale of Graphic Art: ‘Kaliningrad – Königsberg’, an international printmaking exhibition in Kaliningrad (2008) and ‘Paradise is not Lost’ in Moscow (2008).

My fascination with street art carried through several projects, for example, ‘KONT’ (2010 and 2011), a street art festival which took place when Tallinn was European Capital of Culture. The installation consisted of eight 40ft shipping containers, which were placed as a square with two containers on top of each other, providing eight walls of canvas space. These were filled by invited street artists from Italy, France, Poland, Brazil and Estonia.

The largest project I am working on is the international printmaking exhibition Tallinn Print Triennial. It is the longest recurring exhibition in Estonia taking place every three years since 1968. I joined the team in 2010 and now I am a member of the executive board. In 2014, I managed the 16th Tallinn Print Triennial, curated by Maria Kjaer Themsen (Denmark) and involved 52 artists from 35 different countries. At the moment, we are preparing for the next triennial which will take place in 2018, when we will be celebrating the project’s 50th birthday.

PIND private view. Photograph by Richard Short

What brought you to Birmingham?

After gaining some experience in arts project management I wanted to expand my knowledge and practice in the field, but unfortunately, there wasn’t any specific programme to study this in Estonia. I found a course in Birmingham and after being accepted I moved here to study Arts and Project Management MA at BCU in 2011. At that point, I was convinced that I would move back to Tallinn as soon as I graduated, but after living here for a year I chose to stay. I found the art scene to be graspable enough, not as drowning as London, but much more challenging than Tallinn and Estonia, and still close enough to home to commute fairly conveniently, as the flight is just under 3 hours from Stansted. I have been living here for almost five years now and the city is becoming more and more interesting to me. I feel privileged to work with very talented and hardworking people.

In what ways do you define your role as a cultural producer?

‘Cultural producer’ has quite a broad definition, which means in the most direct sense producing culture. I like this term more than simply arts project manager because it gives me wider room to navigate within. Arts project management is just one part of being a cultural producer. I work with visual artists, animators, filmmakers, poets and more, and this term covers them all. Working in the cultural field I found I was constantly giving myself ten different job titles (project manager, curator, artist, fundraiser, negotiator etc.), which was fine verbally but much more complicated when you need to write something short under your name on a business card or filling in online forms with a specific job title field. I find the term to be more of a formality but at least it is broad enough to fit a lot of activities in. This is purely my own definition and I haven’t gone extremely in depth with it, although I find it interesting how Pierre Bourdieu analyses this in his book ‘The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature’.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

Currently, I am managing and curating an exhibition taking place at Vivid Projects in August 2016 (date TBC) and involving artists from Tallinn and Birmingham. They will present artworks which all deal with the relationship between analogue and manual technology. The exhibition itself will last for a week and will include performances, artist talks and workshops. More information about this project will come soon.

I am also in the process of managing the 17th Tallinn Print Triennial, which will take place in spring of 2018 in Estonia and preparation work for that has already started. In 2018, the Republic of Estonia will celebrate its centenary and Tallinn Print Triennial its 50th birthday. The exhibition will be spread out among various locations, with a curatorial show, historical exhibition of previous prize winners and an exhibition by the last triennial Grand Prix winner.

At the same time, I am researching and developing the idea of establishing a commercial gallery here in Birmingham, which would focus on local West Midlands’ artists. It is currently in the very early stages. I am interested in the local, national and international art market, its history, current position and future.

Installation view. Estonian exhibition at the 9th Baltic States Biennale of Graphic Art: ‘Kaliningrad – Königsberg’, 2008. Photograph by Mare Pedanik
Installation view. Estonian exhibition at the 9th Baltic States Biennale of Graphic Art: ‘Kaliningrad – Königsberg’, 2008. Photograph by Mare Pedanik

What do you see for your career in the next few years?

In the next few years, I am planning to develop my own business and start a company, the exact form of which will be established in the next 6 months. I am planning to have the core of the business in Birmingham but have enough flexibility to travel and continue managing projects in Estonia as well. Unfortunately, I do not see a permanent enough career in my home city to convince me to move back but I try to keep my hand on the art pulse there and be part of it via managing projects and offering a consultation service. The West Midlands and UK in general, is much more challenging for me and I see very interesting changes ahead.

Anneka French

The interview was first published on New Art WM website.

March 2016