Meet Estonia’s digital dreamers

Meet Estonia’s digital dreamers

Drones, robots, and algorithms electrify the art scene in e-Estonia, the world’s most digitally advanced society.


Blurred lines

Pixel is the perfect name for a pint-sized Italian greyhound−especially one owned by Alyona Movko, an artist acclaimed for her audiovisual experiments and wow-eliciting projection mapping projects.

Movko spearheads a rising generation of young Estonian artists who are boldly harnessing digital technology−a trend that seems logical in the world’s most digitally connected nation.

Her creative work spans a wide spectrum from video mapping to music composition, including collaboration with partners from symphony orchestras to heavy metal bands. Her recent public commissions include a light show in Tallinn’s Freedom Square celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia.

Many of her works are inspired by synaesthesia, or the “joining of the senses.” A synaesthete might, for instance, hear music as colour, or the number “3” might have a particular flavour or sound.

Movko works year-round juggling several projects on top of VJ appearances (real-time visual DJing) at events such as Helsinki’s Flow Festival.

In many respects Movko defies definition: She blurs the line between high and low, commercial and cultural, digital and analogue, urban and rural.

“Nature is my greatest inspiration. When I’m on a tight schedule, I go foraging for mushrooms in the woods to reconnect with myself. I just got back to the city this morning to wash my hair!” she jokes.

Movko sees Estonia as an ideal environment for digital creatives. “Our president Kersti Kaljulaid is a great advocate of culture and education. Estonia is a nation that urges creativity to flourish.”

Xanax teddy

Taavi Varm (nicknamed “Miisu” ­or Pussycat) is the creator of numerous large-scale video mapping projects and interactive installations for theatres and public venues such as the Fazer Museum in Helsinki.

Public art represents only a small fragment of Varm’s creative passions. He also directs theatre, runs a design studio together with his wife, Anni Varm, and plays experimental electronic music in his band Miisutron−all while completing a master’s degree at Aalto University’s Media Lab in Helsinki.

A self-avowed “people person,” Varm lost his heart to computers the moment he caught sight of his first Macintosh while studying graphic art in Norway. “Something just clicked. But computers will always be just tools. I start with a pen and paper. The technology follows the idea,” he insists.

Much as he enjoys monumental projects, addressing a wide public audience imposes certain ­limits. More freedom is offered by his new pet project, an intimate theatre piece called 000 Xanax Edition ­featuring a whimsical group of robotic teddy bears.

Although Varm works widely across Europe, he has no plans to leave Estonia. “Our progressive society is a great environment for creative people. We don’t hide brilliant minds in basements. Culture is funded generously. Anything is possible for anyone in our small nation,” he says.

Art of algorithms

Mar Canet and Varvara Guljajeva have been making art together since 2009. Surprisingly for such conceptually oriented artists, Guljajeva started out in computing, and Canet previously worked in games development.

The couple met in Barcelona and initially lived in Austria, but resettled in Estonia after the birth of their daughter nearly five years ago. Both gave up steady jobs “to challenge themselves” and survive solely on art. Guljajeva is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Estonian Art Academy.

Varvara & Mar are nothing if not experimental. Their art migrates freely between various media, occupying a borderland between video, installation, and performance. Not only are their tools digital, but so are their themes.

Their video Neuronal Landscape features drone footage of an immersive landscape enhanced by DeepDream algorithm. The video was shot over frozen sea and wintry landscapes using a 360° drone camera at three metres, creating an illusion of levitation.

“The piece was commissioned for ­Estonia’s 100th-anniversary celebration by the Estonian Museum of History. We wanted to imagine e-­Estonia 1,000 years from now when we’ll all be seeing the world through the eyes of machines,” describes Canet.

The duo enthusiastically greets the new wave of young post-digital artists following in the wake of Estonia’s best-known contemporary artist, Katja Novitskova.

“Actually I’m surprised that new media art isn’t even bigger in a society as advanced as ours. We were among the first pathfinders in Estonia to proclaim ‘digital is art,’” says Guljajeva.

Text Silja Kudel
Photos Liisa Valonen


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