JAANIKA PEERNA and AGNIESZKA KARASCH- a talk proceeding their joint studio work in NYC in May 2017.

JAANIKA PEERNA and AGNIESZKA KARASCH recall the years of their artistic education (back to the 90-ies) and think about what’s left of collaboration in performance. This talk proceeded their joint studio work in NYC, which took place one month later the same year.


18.04.2017, Warsaw – New York


Agnieszka Karasch:  At first I’d like to talk to you about your education. Your first degree in arts was awarded to you by a conservative Tallinn Pedagogical University in 1995 (now University of Tallinn). What do you understand by so called conservative approach with regards to your studies in Estonia?

Jaanika Peerna: In my pre-university years I attended so called Tallinn Youth Art School, now Tallinn Art School. It was there that I realised I wanted to study art. It was a year 1990 when I was graduating and wondering what to do and what to study. There were two universities I considered; Tallinn Pedagogical University and Estonian Art Institute (now Estonian Academy of Art), which at that time was recognized as the art academy. My choice was really to study art, but at that time one had to choose a very particular study area. You had to choose whether to become a painter, a leather smith, a gold smith, a glass artist, a print maker and so on… It was all so clearly divided and one was supposed to decide even before submitting an application. I wanted to do different things. I didn’t want to be a painter for all my life. So my mother said to me – “well you also like teaching, so why don’t you get a teaching degree. Then you can study all of these things and you also have a job!” A very practical mother, an economist (laugh). And that was in a way true! I went to Pedagogical University to become an art teacher and I did get to study all these different things in addition to psychology, philosophy, educational sciences and technical drawing.

What I mean by traditional is that the methods with which we were taught were very clear. We had to learn main skills, how to draw, paint and sculpt from life. We couldn’t make anything up. This is what you see and this is what you draw. This is an amazing thing one gets from this training obviously as, for example,  hand-eye coordination.
It was a huge amount of hours spent on training of that specific skill. I had my other work going on at home, which was basically line-based printmaking. I was cutting wood and printing things. Sometimes I brought them to my professor, but he’d say: “you can do them on your own, but you don’t have to bring them here, that’s not something we consider”. It was very clear that at school we did one thing and outside another. 

After graduation life kicked in. Although I did go to school and graduated it, I already started teaching in the third year of my studies and was a part of this, at the time, very innovative Old Town Educational College Art House. (http://www.vhk.ee/kunstimaja/art-house )

People who really wanted to change education were part of it. That became my practice and I went very deeply into teaching. At that time I felt we had much freedom about how to teach art. With the help of some grants I went to Finland to learn how things were done there in art education and that experience was also very important to me.


AK: How do these early experiences of technical and observational drawing and all this conservative approach influence you now? Do you have any connection to those years while working here?

JP: Technical drawing was very rigorous and was also a mind activity. Both in technical drawing and drawing from life we had to put three dimensional reality into a 2D surface of paper. I feel like in my artistic practice I currently go between the 2D and 3D matter all the time, only from an opposite perspective. When I work with paper or mylar I make as flat lines as possible and then brig them into 3D by sculpting them onto wall sculptures and hanging them as structures. The process goes reverse too. I had promised myself when I graduated that I would never again draw from life the way we were trained at school. I had been drawing from life at Youth Art School for 4 years and then for another 5 at Tallinn pedagogical University, so all together 9 years of that approach! Of course this was my rebellion, “oh, I can’t do this anymore, I will do just abstract stuff”.

By now I am free from the resistance. In some ways I’m drawing much more from life now. It actually is an act of a human being here and now, leaving a mark instead of describing life or trying to flatten what one sees. What is life? What is drawing from life? Actually, I am drawing from my physical presence. I don’t want anything to be between my hand, my pencil and a material I’m leaving a mark on. I’m trying to diminish the gap between my act and the mark. I don’t need it to symbolize anything or have any meaning. It just is what it is.


AK: You mentioned the rigour that influences mind activity and then your rigorous organisation of materials.  I can also refer to it. Remembering the first two years of my studies at the Fine Arts Academy in Warsaw, I admit we dealt with the rigour of material mostly. That school did teach me a rigorous approach. So the component of rigour is very interesting for me now.

JP: I mean – you definitely have it. I saw some of your images. You set some kind of parameters and rules. Even the way you prepare for an interview… It’s definitely not the kind of “oh-let’s-just-talk” approach.

AK: I’ve always thought that the fact we were placed between so called West and a conservative school or Russian tradition if you will, gave us quite a good insight into drawing. We were able to explore its contemporary idea and at the same time had quite a profound feeling for and knowledge of the formal approach, tools, materials and generally how to creatively and consciously process phenomena such as a line, texture, tonality, etc.

JP: Oh, I value it now a lot, because we are in such a collision between these two.

AK: Back then in the early stages of artistic education, did you feel a need of leadership, a need of an authority for example?

JP: That’s an interesting question. I keep hearing people, including my husband, say – “this professor influenced me” or “ I study this because of that person who was an authority in a field”. Well, I can’t even think of any teachers who truly influenced me. In that growing age it would have definitely been nice to have somebody like that. I actually was in a managerial position myself at the age of 25 when I became director of the Art House at Old Town School. Teaching while I was studying was already so much more of learning than going to school and learning about didactics. So to answer your question, no I don’t think I had this need of somebody to look up to. Professors of that time were not so accessible anyway. They were just out there, telling their story and you had to memorize and repeat.

AK: I imagine that this so called “conservative education” in Tallinn also included a clear master-student type of relationship. If so then how did it manifest? Do you recall any particular examples between yourself and your professors?

JP: As I said before, this was a big thing for me to bring my printmaking to school, but he really dismissed it. No conversation. Nothing opened up in him. It didn’t encourage me to do more. I don’t know, I chose him because he belonged to older generation. He knew what went on before the Soviet occupation came. I sensed the possibility that he might have had. The setting in which he taught was more intimate, more hands on and personal I guess. It was not a lecture. That was sort of a disappointment I have to say. I went to him because I admired his work – giant charcoal drawings of old pine trees, the kind of meandering shapes… That particular aspect was crucial. If you sometimes look closely at the bark of really old trees near shorelines, they have these meandering shapes because wind has shaped them that way. These drawings were stunning and so big. In some ways reminding me of what you do now, but they were pictorial.

AK: So what did the actual exchange or communication between you and your professors rely on? How were you informed about your progress and your work? Were you given notes?

JP: There were two different things. One is the lectures. After some time as one becomes an art teacher there is making and there’s some feedback. So for example one makes paintings and drawings during a semester and then at the end they are lined up on the wall. Professors come for couple of hours and then give grades. There wasn’t really that much more. This was it – a grade. I wasn’t a top student. And again, there was no feedback.


The teacher would come and say – fix this or make that. They would sometimes take a pencil and draw on your drawing.


They’d say, what about this, look at that more… It was about getting the object right. There wasn’t more training of anything beyond that, which could also be a very good exchange between a student and a teacher.

I studied from 1990 to 1995, so I started in the Soviet Union and graduated in independent Estonia. It was a time of crazy turmoil for everyone, also for professors. Nobody had money, the schools were not heated, we tried to work there with frozen hands. You can also see it wasn’t a usual setting for a very kind and attentive teacher-student relationship. Everybody was trying to figure out how to get food, get warm and make some money. So it was a kind a turbulent time, which you can probably relate to.
I do remember working on finals. It was the first time when we were given the possibility to choose whatever we wanted to create in a medium we could pick ourselves. We had to do different exams in didactics but then for the practical part of the finals we could choose our own way. So I graduated with those oil paintings on canvas, very large, almost abstracted close-ups of calla lily blossoms. I have it on a photo – standing with my two professors in front of these works, them even saying something about the work… I finally felt like they were human beings and loosened up. I forgot what they said but I do remember feeling I had been seen as a human or may be even as an artist!

AK: It was interesting what you mentioned that they drew on your pictures sometimes. They would add some comments. Did you experience this as a power or control over you or perceived it as a natural form of exchange?

JP: It felt like an intrusion in some ways. You know it’s my work, my world… and then it was like really rough, with an eraser like down, very dynamic lines you know… People who taught were all good in what they were doing in practice.


And there was always this dilemma between being a teacher and being an artist for them. It didn’t quite blend very well. Most artists really didn’t want to be teachers, but they kind of had to, because they had to make a living somewhere.


I think it didn’t feel like such a kind gesture of teaching. I think I would have preferred if it had been done verbally and not so much directly on my work. For example, when I write I’m thinking – would it be ok if someone suggested some other ways of saying something. Probably yes! But somehow the drawing feels more like my world, you know… Their approach did seem like an intrusion into my world.

AK: Yeah, but when you look at a person’s hand, at somebody who is in charge in that particular moment, and you sense the movement… I had a lot of these experiences in my artistic education.


On such occasions I had to relax and allow this person to do this. The way they moved their hands, the abruptness and impetuosity of gestures that existed right in front of my eyes, on my work and in my world, as you put it. Didn’t you think you gained something from this method?


For example, more empowerment or a conviction that you can go beyond your innate inhibitions in the body or hand for that matter? For example if you look at somebody’s hand moving in a particular way, then you may get the feel for a line or a gesture or a certain action on paper. Didn’t you experience this?

JP: It’s interesting. Immediate response was – “oh it feels like an intrusion!”. Yet, they were all great artists and good draftsmen. I know I always had this kind of searching line. That’s what it’s called in Estonian – otsiv joon. I would not draw very surely only one line but rather few lines looking for that shape through repetition.

There was this particular teacher who would just do one (using forceful tone) line! I would go over many times thinking “ok, where is the curve, how will it change…” And then he goes like whack! Did I gain something from it? I’m sure! This [the teacher’s approach] was way more intimate than looking at some far away examples during lecture. They never discussed anything, so there must have been some communication via example and straight on paper.

I remember thinking about a nude model. We had this woman, literally from Kamchatka. She only agreed to model nude when we had to learn to draw a figure. It was so cold in winter. We only had two or three heat lamps. She had 12 minutes sessions and then she’d go and run in between. She was a very athletic woman. She did winter swimming in ice… I thought ”is she ok, is she warm enough?”. I wished the 12 minutes was over so she could warm up. I’d have all these empathetic thoughts about her.

AK: I kind of get the impression you had a strong feel of possession towards your drawing rather than really allowing somebody exercise his own ways on it.

JP: Yes, but at the same time we were all soviet-trained people. We were a part of a group and you didn’t have your ego allowed to kick in much. There was a lot of hesitation in it but there were definitely some things I knew I wanted to do and they echoed in the world.


AK: As soon as Estonia gained independence, that is in 1991, you went to study at Aalto University. What did you study there?

JP: I was in Aalto in 1998, so much later. And it was just half a year of non degree study at the Art Education Department, so technically I was a part of the department but I could choose whichever classes I wanted to take. I could use their facilities.


AK: Was that the first time you were exposed to different type of art-thinking?

JP: I met the people from Aalto in Tallinn in early nineties. They found me through my school. I was becoming an art teacher and spoke Finnish. Somehow I was involved to help them during these ecology-and-art camps in Estonia. I was their Estonian liaison.  That was something completely different. Finland is famous for putting environmental education and art together. That’s how I witnessed it in action. The things they did in nature and the way they talked about it. This was already going on before I graduated. I did it two summers, in 1994 and 1995. They invited Meri-Helga Mantere who gave me a lot of attention. She’d say “look there is a Soviet kid!” (laugh). I studied a lot and was interested in how to alternatively teach and understand art. I remember I took this class called Art Understanding. I also took art therapy, photography and other things like video. I knew I wanted to expand and not close in.

AK: Also later institutions such as State University of New York… Did this experience extend your understanding of drawing?

JP: I went to the States at the end of 1998. Then I became a mother and when my kid was two I wanted to go back to school here. I was in PhD studies when I left Estonia but since I decided to move to the States, I didn’t finish it. It comes from my home, from my mother… “if you start something, you finish it”. Especially when it comes to education. Education is holy, it’s precious for my mother.. So I went to MFA studies at the State University of New York. There was a new program there called Visual Research Laboratory. We spent time in one giant space where people did different things. They were performance artists, graphic designers, photographers… I was particularly interested in drawing so I went through a phase of doing digital art and then used  drawing mixed with digital work. I met Cathy Goodell, a professor who is still there, a really good artist who taught an experimental drawing class. So it was all expanding but at the same time I do remember the disappointment. I really felt that many students at school had nothing to say. Yet, they were saying a lot of things. At first I was so quiet and everybody was speaking at seminars. Even in studio classes there was always this bla bla bla going on. Of course my English wasn’t so good then, but when I started understanding it, I realized they really weren’t saying that much. Everybody was allowed to speak and say anything and everybody was listened to.

So I’d definitely experienced these two extremes within two societies. To quietly listen, to be a student when you are told what to do and repeat over. And then this kind of – “oh everybody is welcome to say something, the more you say the more it means you’re participating”. That felt like chaos, there was no structure I have to say. So it’s an interesting other part of the spectrum and I don’t think it was so helpful either.



Let’s move to performative drawing for a while. When I saw your performance in London when we first met, after a while of watching I immediately thought of it as lyrical. Lyrical in the sense of gentleness, intuitive and delicate seduction, almost poetic approach and strong, but not overbearing sense of presence. Presence is a very fine and complicated task if you think of it. The idea here is how to make the minimal movement with maximum of people’s attention on you. It is a very sensual, complicated and a very feminine task. How to make people look at you without really acting straight in their faces.

When you perform do you think of ways or strategies to hold people’s attention or is it just a way you simply act in life perhaps?

: At the moment I’d say I don’t even exactly know what happens. During performing I feel that I am very alert to everything that’s around, but I’m also in a very definite zone. It’s either this or it’s nothing. Obviously I have some plan in mind because I’ve already set up the materials. There’s time frame, there is space, but every increment of time tells you what comes next. What is the material going to do, how is the water going to drip, where is the sound coming from. Feeling the audience, the temperature and the context of a space. But I don’t fully realize what exactly happens there. But also there is this overarching sense I have of what I want to achieve.

AK: I really like looking at the way people concentrate when they perform. It does not only refer to visual performance. It also goes to dance, music and different types of performative arts. This question always seemed interesting to me. How to keep peoples’ attention with a minimum exertion of energy. The degree of concentration in an artist versus the reception of the public.  So coming back to your piece, I really appreciated the fact that at many points throughout that quiet performance there were those delicate movements and sounds that attracted and kept people’s attention. Then I thought to myself “oh she’d be a good one to collaborate with”, because there comes up a whole aspect of going on with my own stuff in such a type of presence as you emanate.


I know you did collaborative performances in the past, a couple of them in Berlin, the one mentioned with Vera Martins as well as the latest ones such as True Stretch with Christine Sciulli and Qian Yi in spring 2017 at Triskelion Arts, Brooklyn (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OqvlswgBR0) or In This Drawn Out Space with David Rothenberg and Chris Moffett in 2016 at Five Myles, Brooklyn (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-qBu_x9lFbw).

Why do you think artists collaborate?


JP: I think all performances for me are actually collaborative, even if I’m there alone I collaborate with time, with the audience and so on… Living in Berlin 3 years ago helped me a lot in exploring performance.I was puzzling about it myself, asking if it makes sense, why to do a collaborative performance when I can just work on my own in my studio… But there was this interest in doing it anyway. Only in Berlin did I start to understand that actually these two ways – a solitary work in a studio and performing are not so different. Actually everything always is collaborative, like for example the dialogue with the surface of mylar. I’ve got my stories and the material has got its own. This material Mylar, essentially a thin, plastic, semi transparent, matte sheet has been my partner for almost 10 years now and this relationship has evolved ever since. After using it in my studio I am taking  the dialogue with the material into the public and trying to consider what comes in from the air, silence and location.


Now your question is – why bring people from other fields, like a dancer, a musician or a philosopher, people from different media backgrounds. Because it’s expanding my own practice. I want [art] to expand and collaboration with another person means expansion.


I definitely don’t believe in art that is about itself, an artist making work about himself or about the history of this practice. I don’t believe in art about art.  You can collaborate lightly or you can truly collaborate in a more immersive way. Artists can, or at least I feel the tendency, get really narrowed down, very controlling and set in their individual ways, so there has to be some disruption to it, some loss of control… Just the expertise that comes from working with different people, such as my latest learning about gravitational waves, for example, when working with a physicist and cellist Lucio Corrente. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYbb7zhTIvM&t=15s).

AK: Have you ever collaborated with visual artists?

JP: I don’t think so. In Berlin there were 4 performances going on simultaneously. They were all visual artists but they were not directly sharing paper with me. No, in fact I haven’t collaborated with a visual artist except for Vera Martins. With Vera it was a spontaneous performance. It started with joining her after her solo part at Draw to Perform in London was over. It is hard to tell now how long it went on since I dropped into the process quite deeply.


Additionally, since there was no verbal communication between us, it really made me feel like I was in touch with her via the act of pure making.


AK: Do you have a need to collaborate now?

JP: There’s definitely a need to expand and to be with other humans particularly for artistic practises. So I’d say it is a need then. It’s definitely a growing part of my practice. Last year I’ve gotten more and more into the collaborative. Actually at the moment I am doing something with a much bigger group and with much less of my personality in it. A really giant event at Pioneer works in Brooklyn this Friday. I am almost totally invisible there. Nobody knows that there’s an agent working within (laugh).

AK: How do you feel about it that you are going to partially or fully disappear in the multitude of other people’s activities?

JP: I am actually very interested in it. It’s something different. I don’t know. Again, I want to try this out. I want to know what it’s like.

AK: How do you understand the word consensus or consensual? Not necessarily in art but generally in life?

JP: The only reason to collaborate is to reach a certain level of consensus obviously. 

AK: Well, we’ll continue from here then… After we’ve seen each other and worked together!


Warsaw – New York