Ptarmigan creative platform: loosened from space or place

Creative plat­form called Ptarmigan is an extraordin­ary example of just how altern­at­ive cul­tural man­age­ment can be. At the moment it is based between Helsinki, Finland and Tallin, Estonia. Overall, this com­munity already organ­ized more than 200 vari­ous events — from avant-​garde music con­certs to sound work­shops and graphic art exhib­i­tions. Ptarmigan has star­ted in 2009 in Helsinki, and is still act­ive there together with Oksasenkatu 11 gal­lery. We are talk­ing with John W. Fail, the leader of Ptarmigan, about man­aging artists, set­ting up events and keep­ing a res­id­ency program.

Schmelfhelp per­form­ance, Ptarmigan Helsinki, by Antti Ahonen
Avarus gig, Ptarmigan Helsinki, by Antti Ahonen

Ilona Klimaitytė: So firstly, could you give some back­ground about your­self? You are quite keen on trav­el­ing — you moved from the USA to the UK to Finland to Estonia. What was the reason that con­vinced you to settle in Northern Europe? Are there more oppor­tun­it­ies, is it easier to work, or on the con­trary — more chal­len­ging envir­on­ment than in other countries?

John W. Fail: I ini­tially moved to Scotland to study at the University of Glasgow, where I did a master’s in post­mod­ern lit­er­at­ure. I got mar­ried and that took me to Finland, and we split up last year so I decided to try Estonia to get some sep­ar­a­tion (also, because Finland is too expens­ive to live in). I still, how­ever, am very focused on Finland as it’s where Ptarmigan was built; our audi­ence is really there, but all of our events are here in Tallinn now, which is some­what strange.

Finland is extremely dif­fi­cult and extremely easy at the same time. I felt frus­trated by the highly insti­tu­tional struc­ture of cul­ture in Helsinki, which was the main motiv­a­tion to start the space — to exper­i­ment with altern­at­ives in cul­tural logic. After two years, my thoughts have almost reversed. I still think Finland is rigid and insti­tu­tional, but because of that, there’s a real hun­ger for some­thing dif­fer­ent. In Estonia, which is a messy and chaotic place, Ptarmigan is just another artist-​run pro­ject space — noth­ing spe­cial, and not really offer­ing many altern­at­ives in struc­ture. I think our focus is unusual here, though, as we are very much based on inter­dis­cip­lin­ary, post-​subcultural cul­ture and I per­son­ally strive to pro­gramme bizarre events that don’t really fit into any easy cat­egor­ies. I am hap­pi­est when the most diverse pos­sible audi­ence attends an event, instead of being just a bunch of music types or art types, etc.

NON GRATA „Diverse Universe“ per­form­ance, 2011-​06-​03, Tallinn
NON GRATA „Diverse Universe“ per­form­ance, 2011-​06-​03, Tallinn

I.K. How did you start work­ing with Ptarmigan?

J. W. F. : Ptarmigan Tallinn is cur­rently a part­ner­ship between myself and two oth­ers, though I guess I would reluct­antly admit to being the ‘leader’ since I brought the pro­ject here from Helsinki. I can’t say what the pri­or­it­ies of the other two are, but for me it is cre­at­ing par­ti­cip­at­ory events such as work­shops, classes, and other interactive/​educational things — where the con­tent is unique, non-​institutional and some­what exper­i­mental. This has been dif­fi­cult to imple­ment with zero fund­ing. We’ve had a few sound work­shops, mostly focused on elec­tron­ics, and we have a monthly class on DIY tat­too­ing led by a Canadian artist which I would say is the per­fect example of what I would like to see hap­pen­ing here more. On top of this, we have reg­u­lar film and video nights, artist talks, and other events that I hope can be more par­ti­cip­at­ory than audience-​based. We do have audience-​orientated events too though — and these are fun, though our phys­ical space is not always ideal for that.

I. K. : How could you describe cre­at­ive prac­tices in Estonia?

J. W. F.: After 8 months here I still don’t really know if I have a feel for Tallinn. I can say that Helsinki is way, way more inter­na­tional; it was easy for two for­eign­ers to run a cul­ture space there, with all advert­ising and pro­gram­ming in English, because of the large num­ber of stu­dents and other inter­na­tional people. In Estonia, Ptarmigan I think is per­ceived as a place for inter­na­tional work, and thus we attract vir­tu­ally no one from the Estonian art scene. Our audi­ence here is made up of the few other immig­rants in the cul­ture scene, Russian speak­ers, and a hand­ful of Estonians who come from non-​art back­ground. Though Tallinn has a far more act­ive, open cul­tural scene than Helsinki, it still feels like most events run accord­ing to strict logic.

Performance — con­cert in Ptarmigan Helsinki, 2010-​03-​28, photo by Antti Ahonen
Performance — con­cert in Ptarmigan Helsinki, 2010-​03-​28, by Antti Ahonen
Performance — con­cert in Ptarmigan Helsinki, 2010-​03-​28, by Antti Ahonen
Performance „The Bow of Oddyseus”, Tallinn, 2011–10-1

I. K. Could you tell me more about your res­id­ency pro­gram?

J.W.F.: Our res­id­ency pro­gramme isn’t really form­al­ised. Since we star­ted we’ve made the place open to ‘res­id­en­cies’ in a very loose, anarch­ist sense. We’ve had a bunch of people come from other coun­tries to work on our pro­jects. We never had any sup­port for them fin­an­cially, so the vast major­ity were self-​financed. In 2010, we received a 2 year grant from KK Nord to host a Nordic/​Baltic res­id­ency pro­gramme, which has some­what taken over the ‘res­id­ency’ side of things. This allowed us to give money to some people, to cover travel costs, and give them proper accom­mod­a­tion. But the grant spe­cified that these had to be 2 month min­im­ums, so it’s been tricky to find people that fit with our projects.

Ptarmigan Helsinki
Closing event of Pixelache 2010 fest­ival. By Antti Ahonen

I.K.: You have res­id­ency pro­grams in both cit­ies. How is this going? I see it as a really inter­est­ing prac­tice, true citizen-​of-​a-​world style. Since nowadays noth­ing must be tied to one firm place, the form of res­id­ency (or organ­iz­a­tion or any­thing of the kind) is quite liquid. Any thoughts on this?

J.W.F.: We’ll always be open to res­id­en­cies for people with good ideas that fit into what we do — pro­jects that are socially focused and encour­age par­ti­cip­a­tion. This is one reason I don’t even like to say “artist” in res­id­ency because I’m not as con­cerned with people being artists as much as hav­ing good ideas — cre­at­ive prac­ti­tion­ers, in general.

We had per­mis­sion to move one of the KK Nord res­id­en­cies to Tallinn which helped spread the money, as without hav­ing a loc­a­tion in Helsinki any­more it became more costly for us to provide work­ing space for res­id­ents and organ­ise events. The other res­id­en­cies here in Tallinn are like they used to be in Helsinki — people come for a short term pro­ject, sleep on the floor, and do some­thing cool. We just had a cello player from Scotland who was here for a week devel­op­ing some work and lead­ing impro­visa­tion work­shops in both cit­ies — he had his own fund­ing to cover costs so we provided a space and our enthu­si­asm organ­ising and set­ting up events.

Hooliganship per­form­ance, Ptarmigan Helsinki, by Antti Ahonen
Hooliganship per­form­ance, Ptarmigan Helsinki, by Antti Ahonen.

I. K. : What are your plans for the future, both about res­id­ency and organ­iz­ing events?

J.W.F.: Residencies are some­thing I’m less keen on right now. The KK Nord money was nice, but none of it helped Ptarmigan as it all just covered the costs of the res­id­ents, and it was dif­fi­cult to find people that fit into our style with the 2 month and coun­try lim­it­a­tions. I love the grass­roots res­id­ency style, but we have to be care­ful about hav­ing people stay here as it’s not legal … I’m def­in­itely open to help­ing vis­it­ing prac­ti­tion­ers as we have always been extremely internationally-​focused (some­thing that sets us really apart from the other cul­ture spaces in Tallinn, I think, also as we are run by mostly non-​natives).

Events though are the main thing — we’ve done over 180 in the two cit­ies since July 2009 when we star­ted, and the res­id­en­cies and other pro­jects are com­pletely focused around events. It’s exhaust­ing at times, espe­cially without sup­port, but we love doing it and it func­tions as an artistic prac­tice for all of us.

Performance in Ptarmigan, by Antti Ahjonen.
Concert in Ptarmigan, by Antti Ahonen.
John W. Fail

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Ilona Klimaitytė
About author:
Ilona Klimaitytė
From the very beginning, Ilona had a passion for event management, writing and a cold glass of beer. These three forces fit perfectly together with interests in postindustrial music, anthropology and weird cinema. At the moment, she is finishing her cultural history and anthropology studies and is writing thesis on the subject of industrial elec... Read further >
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