Published April 2022
Paul Kuimet (b. 1984) is an artist based in Tallinn, Estonia. He works with photographic installations and 16 mm films, the subject matter of which ranges from landscapes and architecture to objects and works of art.
On 2nd March I met Estonian artist Paul Kuimet in his studio, which is housed in a building owned by the Estonian Artists’ Association, next door to Tallinn Art Hall in Freedom Square. Before we sat down to talk, Paul offered me a blackcurrant tea and introduced me to his ongoing series of collages, which lined the back wall of his studio. I put my phone on the table, opened my voice memo app and pressed record.
BC: What have you been up to since we last spoke in 2018, when you had your solo exhibition Five Volumes (a survey of your work) at Narva Art Residency?
PK: That was a year in which I was in a couple of residency programmes, one in Brussels at WIELS, and then I did a short residency right after the opening of Five Volumes in New York at ISCP (International Studio & Curatorial Program). That year, aside from working on the show for Narva, I started to work on a new body of work that revolves largely around the film Material Aspects (2020), which is a study about certain materials that are used in modern architecture like steel and glass. This body of new work involves that said film, a series of collages and a series of photographs called A Brief History of Scaffolding (2020). The majority of that work was first presented in a duo exhibition that I had in 2020 at the Tallinn Art Hall [with Mihkel Ilus]. After that, in 2020 I worked together with Laura Toots and Indrek Sirkel to publish a book called Compositions with Passing Time (2021), which gathers most of my work from 2013-2020. That was also a surprisingly large enterprise in terms of the energy that it consumed!
Golden Home, 16mm film, rear projection, 4 min 26 s loop, 2017; Installation view, Five Volumes, Narva Art Residency, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.
BC: At Apertura Institute we are especially interested in the relationship and cross-over between film and artist moving image. Could you tell me where and what you studied? How did you become an artist and a filmmaker?
PK: I have a background in skateboarding and making skateboarding videos, so when the time came to try to decide on some kind of direction in higher education, the only thing that I could think of was film. I went to school in London for one year at the University of East London where I studied film and video. Although it was an important period in my life and the first time that I stayed abroad for a longer period of time, the school wasn't particularly interesting so when they opened a film school here, the Baltic Film and Media School, which grew out of Tallinn University, I applied to that school and then I trained to be a cinematographer for one year. But still I didn’t feel very comfortable in that environment, one reason being that there was a kind of forced collectivity in feature filmmaking which was what the programme was focusing on, and I also felt that I was looking for something else. I had started to take some photographs and then had this half-baked idea that I would try to apply to the Art Academy. I applied to the photography department knowing that it was quite an art-oriented programme, but I had no ambition to be an artist. However, when I got into that school, I quickly realised that I really liked the vibe of the place; it was a more socially and politically engaged environment, there was a lot more discussion going on also about things going on in society at large and not just cameras or lenses... By the end of the second year, I had a renewed understanding of what artists do and how they work. Perhaps I felt that I could contribute something in this field instead. Although I was working quite a lot in still photography throughout my studies, filmmaking also slowly became an interest. In 2013 I was staying in Brussels and in hindsight, I can say, that the exhibition Film as Sculpture that Elena Filipovic curated at WIELS was also major influence that drew me towards filmmaking, and especially 16mm film.
BC: So then you came back to filmmaking?
PK: Yes, slowly, very slowly. But in the beginning, especially, I was more interested in looping films, single shot films, and then placing them in the exhibition space, as opposed to the cinema setting. I tried to avoid the passivity of the sitting viewer in a cinema and have the viewer more engaged with the installation and the exhibition space. I suppose these would largely be ideas from American experimental and expanded cinema of the 1960s.
BC: Were there any key artistic influences that led you to work in this way, or that you have referred back to throughout your artistic career?
PK: If we are talking about moving image work, I have a very vivid memory of going to the Venice Biennale in 2009. Mark Lewis was showing in the Canadian Pavilion, and this is really, I think, one of the key moments to which I come back to, just because that work really made me see and look at moving image as a viable medium. Lewis makes mostly single take films, and at the time he filmed in 35mm and then projected the work in extremely high quality – in 2K, which in 2009 was something that you really didn’t see in any exhibitions. That was the first time that I saw moving image work in an art context that did not make any deductions in terms of the quality of the image. Coming from photography, the density of the image was always very important to me and most other video work at the time just didn't cut it for me, largely because visual artists didn't have the necessary funding for it. Of course, this has now changed as good equipment becomes more and more affordable each year, both in terms of cameras as well as projectors. So anyway, Mark Lewis’ work and writing has been a key influence ever since, as well as Bojan Šarčević, Ruben Bellinkx, Katja Mater, Manon de Boer and others...
BC: I see in your work that there is an ongoing interest in the relationship between architecture and filmic space? Where did this interest begin?
PK: Whilst I was studying on my BA, I made a series of photographs called In Vicinity (2010) that looked at the newly built suburbs around the area where I grew up in.
At the time I was interested in American photographers like Alec Soth and Stephen Shore, as well as the other ‘new topographics’ photographers from the 70s. So, on one hand, I was interested in the how the former collectivized agricultural lands were quickly becoming something else, and on the other hand I was interested in certain formal questions in photography, and how to depict space coherently. All my influences being American, this was certainly the right environment in which I could ‘practice by imitation’.
From that I moved towards more installational work, with lightboxes being placed into darkened spaces and as the viewer would move through these spaces and encounter one image after another, you could already say that in this work the temporal element was already part of the work. As to why I chose to continue depicting architecture or ‘architectural’ environments...I really can't say. Sometimes I'd find certain scenes almost by chance and then I'd work from there, other times work would grow out from previous work and so on.
In Vicinity, artists’ book, text by Mari Laanemets, 36 pp, 220 x 280 mm, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.
And then there was a period during which I was interested in Modernist architecture because it's ideologically very charged and of course, very good to look at through a camera. Modernist architects often designed with the knowledge that their architecture would be photographed and thus one could say that architecture became photogenic, as architects realised that if their work was published in magazines etc., they would become more known and have more work in the future.
BC: I find that idea fascinating, that a building would be designed around how it looks photographically.
PK: Now of course we are in a period where we can see the photograph almost before the building gets built, because the renderings have become so photographic and realistic.
BC: So, moving forward to your most recent film Material Aspects, what led you to make this work?
PK: In 2016 I made a couple of lightbox installations which depicted former World's Fair sites in Brussels and Rome (Perspective Study; Figure-Ground Study) but only through the sites being reflected on rather anonymous glass-and-steel curtain facades. As I looked at the history of these materials, I realised that their development can be traced back to the Crystal Palace that hosted the very first World's Fair in London in 1851.
Figure-Ground Study, photographic installation, space divided by a partition wall with two arc-shaped openings, two inkjet transparencies in lightboxes, each 113 x 114 cm, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.
I was on a residency programme in Italy reading Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts into Air (1982) in which he discusses the motif (not the actual building) of the Crystal Palace in Russian thought and literature. It was discussed in Russian thought as something that could help modernize the vast country of Russia in the 19th century.
In the early 20th century however, it was the Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin who used this motif in his dystopic novel We (first published in English in 1924). Written in the early 20s, Zamyatin’s novel is largely thought of as a sort of prediction of the Stalinist surveillance state that the Soviet Union was slowly moving towards and Zamyatin's novel takes place in City state made completely of glass, which places everyone under surveillance by default. But as also mentioned in the film, Berman notes that there was a paradox or ”glitch” in (architectural) history – i.e., although the surveillance society as such came to be in the Soviet Union, the architectural environment did not follow suit. Instead, what came to be known as Stalinist architecture was in essence what we call neo-classicist architecture, that is, not ‘light as air’ or transparent in any sense, but rather something very heavy and solid. An architecture that evoked some ‘great history’ that never actually was. So, there is a certain darkness associated with this architecture and its grandiosity as it’s quite hollow and eerie, if one knew the real state of affairs in said state. Berman concludes, that as history, or architectural history would know it, of course the glass-and-steel cities would instead be built in the free market dominated West.
While reading this, I found a magazine at the residency in Mazzano, a minor historical paradox perhaps, but nevertheless a significant one for me in terms of my interests at the time. The magazine was Domus, and it was an issue that concentrated on skyscraper architecture in the West but included an article on the Stalinist (or neoclassicist) high-rises built in the Soviet Union.
The Berman line of thought and the magazine with its content made me think that perhaps the magazine could act as source material for a set of collages that could describe and/or juxtapose these sets of ideas about steel, glass, surveillance, transparency and architectural history. Regarding transparency, of course it would be necessary to make the source material clear and apparent when presenting the work. But for some reason, I became uncomfortable with the idea of making collages and started thinking that perhaps a film that takes place on the desktop of a fictional collage artist seemed better suited for me.
That was in 2015 and I postponed making the film for a long time because I didn’t know how. I then got invited to do an exhibition at Tallinn Art Hall by curator Siim Preiman and I felt really like ok, if I don’t make this film now then I will never make it.
Material Aspects, 16mm projection, sound, 9 min 14 s loop, 2020; Installation view, Tallinn Art Hall, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
BC: In Material Aspects you create a set of almost transparent layers that blend through each other as your images dissolve. I’m thinking of the ideas of transparency and surface that your film brings up, which seem to be very prescient concerns at this moment in terms of state architecture and national buildings. So, do feel that there is a contemporary relevance and politics to transparency?
PK: Yes, certainly, that is something that is on my mind, but I think that this film tries to point out this idea, I’m not sure how successfully...and I don’t want to be too metaphysical...but a lot of architecture of power, like financial institutions and state institutions, a lot of the architecture in Brussels and in the Hague, have glass facades to suggest this idea of transparency, without being literally transparent. So that was certainly on my mind, and when you look at these skyscrapers on a clear day, the clouds are passing, and it's all reflected on these massive glass facades. There is a lightness to how we perceive them, but we can’t really see what is going on inside them.
BC: I would like to hear your thoughts on collage. You introduce a collage artist in Material Aspects, and I notice that you have turned to collage in your own work in both photography and film. Collage has a history of being a political medium connected to movements such as the Feminist Art Movement and Dada, as well as a history of revolutionary film where montage is central, so why is collage important to you?
Material Aspects, 16mm projection, sound, 9 min 14 s loop, 2020. Film still. Courtesy of the artist.
PK: Maybe it was precisely the reason that I didn’t know so much about the history of collage, so it was easier for me to go into it. But the second thing was, that life, or at least my perception of modern life, is that it has become so incredibly complex, that one can perhaps only comment on it through collage. Certainly, the fact that we are surrounded by so much information and so many images on a daily basis has something to do with this. This an afterthought, that I was not thinking about when making the work, but I attended a lecture by Nicolas Bourriaud last fall in which he presented an idea that the Western tradition of depiction that uses figure (as subject) against a ground (nature), is not an adequate way of representing the world anymore. Because a person is now present in so many places simultaneously thanks to the development of modern technology (think of airplanes and the Internet, for example) we can't be detached from nature anymore (think of the climate crisis).
So, when I think about some of my own collage work, which is on the wall back there, I can also see that this idea was always there. You can look at these images [Crystal Grid (2020)]in two ways: you can look at the photographic layer of the image that is created using perspectival space (and thus has a figure-ground relationship) but you can also look at the image as the collage pattern that I have used. So, you can look through the collage pattern in one looking regime and at the collage pattern in the other regime.
Crystal Grid 10-12 (Brooklyn-Tallinn-Meise) photo collage, C-prints on aluminium composite, epoxy resin, each 47.5 x 47.5 cm; Installation view, Tallinn Art Hall, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
BC: I think this leads on to my next question. In Material Aspects you give us a view of an artist’s workspace with a cutting mat, a scalpel, and pins, and in doing this you hint at the construction of an image, or what goes in to constructing an artwork. Why did you bring the workspace into this work?
PK: I know that I was interested in making a film in a space that I could completely control, so I was interested in making a film in the studio and...
BC: Was it your studio?
PK: Yes, it was shot in my previous studio, there was a desk, which I don't have here anymore, but all the "props" of the film, if you can call them that, are here in a box somewhere...
I remember reading an interview with the Los Angeles based artist Paul Sietsema who described building a studio for his film Figure 3 (2008) that depicts reproductions of artefacts from the sixteenth century. He describes his studio, which he built as a kind of scanner. He used multiple cameras in the space, and he could film these objects right there. This idea seemed extremely fascinating to me -- that going into the studio would be going inside a scanner. I thought it would be really good because I could control everything, but then you have so much control and almost too many choices, so it became anxiety inducing as well. On the other hand, it was very comfortable as I could shoot something, I could check if it was fine, then I could leave and come back the next morning and if I was still happy with what I had done the previous day, then I could move onto the next scene. A large film production with a big crew does not allow for this kind of control as each shooting day is very expensive.
Material Aspects, 16mm film projection, optical sound, 9 min 14 s loop, 2020. Film still. Courtesy of the artist.
BC: In this film you make explicit the relationship between the spectator and the projected image. You remind the viewer that your film is on celluloid through your voice over, you remind us that the image is a print, a document, and by reminding us that “the passing of light through synthetic polyester is what makes visible the image that is projected in front of you”, all these relations come together.
PK: That was part of the idea, that I would also make the production of the image transparent, I would not hide it. In the lightbox installation shown alongside Material Aspects at Tallinn Art Hall, I also left visible how the lightboxes worked... In this piece you saw the outside of the lightbox first...and then entered inside of it, into a completely darkened space, [where the images that I was showing on] the lightbox were lit from the natural light of the gallery. In a way, I approached the film projection in a similar way. I left the film projector in a lit space and separated it from the screen space with an open structured wall so as not to hide the film projector in the dark.
Untiled (Main Hall), photographic installation, daylight, aluminum wall structure, MDF, four inkjet transparencies mounted onto acrylic glass, each 107 x 107 cm; Installation view, Tallinn Art Hall, 2020.
Courtesy of the artist.
Pushpin, C-print, 20.5 x 30 cm, 2020, and Material Aspects,16mm film projection, optical sound, 9 min 14 s loop, 2020; Installation view, Tallinn Art Hall, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
BC: Perhaps this is the perfect time to hear about your approach to working with 16mm film and making the apparatus of film visible. One of the things that drew me to your work was your approach to analogue film. Am I right in thinking that you often shoot digitally first and then transfer your footage to 16mm?
PK: I have worked using different workflows, actually. I have shot film that was scanned and then printed back to film, I have shot still photography on film that was scanned, animated on my computer, and then printed back to film... I made one film that was fully analogue, well apart from the editing that I did on the computer, but still, it was shot on black and white negative, and the final print was printed optically from the same camera negative. But certain techniques, such as the long cross dissolves in Material Aspects can only be made digitally.
When I made my first film, there was a problem with the filmstock, so the film had to be retouched digitally, it was a lot of work, but the film was not that long. I sort of realised then that I can shoot film, work on it digitally and then go back to film, and this opened a series of possibilities that I could use, including the long cross dissolve. I also realised that I was perhaps more interested in the material from which one projects the film than that onto which one records. Initially, I made film loops that were single shot films and it seemed like this idea of the film loop was kind of make-believe, but when you are working with 16mm film you do physically take the beginning and end of the film and glue them together. There seemed to be a sculptural presence there. Because I was only showing my work in exhibition spaces anyway, why not make use of this. In terms of analogue, I have shot almost all the photographic work that I have made on film, and sometimes it is scanned and printed if it is a larger size or needs some editing digitally. But for the collage work, and the photographic series A Brief History of Scaffolding, and for other work that I am thinking of doing, it is all printed using the analogue colour processor which I am very lucky to be able to use at the Estonian Academy of Arts.
A Brief History of Scaffolding, C-print, each 48 x 48 cm, 2020 - (ongoing); Installed in If Air Can Be Poured Like a Liquid at FUGA: Bucharest Centre of Architecture, 2021, Courtesy of the artist.
BC: Has it become harder to work on analogue over the last few years, in terms of materials...?
PK: Not for me, but in general it is becoming problematic. I think that the film lab that I work with in Belgium [Color by DeJonghe] is actually doing quite well as there is a renewed interest now [in analogue film].
In terms of photography, I just became annoyed by the fact that everything ends up on the computer, I look at it on a screen and then I send a file to somewhere else to be printed. It seemed like there was this distance between myself and the work. But when I go into the analogue darkroom I can be there when the work gets made. Sometimes, if I am lucky, when I see the print emerge from the colour processor, I also see something that I didn’t see before -- there is a sense of discovery in the work which in the digital sphere is perhaps not there in the same way.
BC: In Material Aspects you used a voice over. This is not something that you have done before. What was the process of writing and recording this?
PK: It was nightmarish! In the end it seemed that there were way too many ideas to put into that film. A large part of that film, the text of that film, is also a collage with quotes from a variety of books from Marshall Berman to the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk...
BC: I found the voiceover very engaging and in my own collaborative practice with Kat Cutler-MacKenzie we are particularly interested in pedagogic forms of communication. A question comes to mind. I have been thinking about the use of 16mm for teaching in schools in the form of infographic films. Was there a reason why you decided to engage with the transmission of historical knowledge in Material Aspects?
PK: There was an amount of research that I carried out, and although I do this for other works as well, perhaps in a lesser amount, I don't show it with the final work. But for this piece it was unavoidable not to make it part of the work, as there was a train of associations that felt integral to the film. What felt a problematic to me was, that for the first time I had a pretty good amount of control over the formal properties of the film – composition, colour, light etc – but of course that probably falls to the background of the experience of the work for most viewers, since the voiceover demands much of the attention.
I don't think visual arts should be overly didactic, I think it should be more like a field of discovery for the viewer. I'm reminded of what Christopher Williams said about the relationship between theory and art, something along the lines that "an artist should not illustrate a theory with art, but instead make work and think through their materials and ideas to create something like a theoretical framework”... For me the most satisfying experiences of art have also been the ones where that I did not ‘get it’ from single look at a piece, but the ones that made me think about a work afterward, perhaps even read about it, and then go look at it again.
BC: In your film 2060 (2014) you respond to a past artist’s work, a conversation through time perhaps. You often take another artist’s or architect’s work as your object of enquiry. Do you feel that you share an intergenerational connection to these past makers?
2060,16mm film projection on double-sided screen, black and white, continuous loop, 2014; Installation view, BOZAR Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
PK: I can't say that I have a personal relationship to artists or architects of that generation, but I do like the idea that there is a conversation through time that takes place between the objects that they made and the how I responded to them. I feel as if Edgar Viies’ Spatial Figure I, the sculpture that is featured in my film 2060, already held within itself the idea of constant and never-ending motion. It was my contribution to make visible that idea through my film.
BC: Are you working on any upcoming projects at the moment?
PK: I am continuing the collage work (Crystal Grid) and wish to make an exhibition solely with those pieces. When I first showed the beginnings of that work in 2020, I was just getting started, and had just figured out the necessary technique for producing them, so after that I really wanted to explore questions of form and composition in that work, and I believe those investigations deserve an exhibition on their own. I've been trying to work in the calm of studio and darkroom without too many deadlines and it's important for me to have that sort of balance, like there is no pressure for a period, but once I see that I'm just postponing decisions I try to put a deadline on things to get them done. In my daily work I thrive for a balance between enjoyment and challenge. When things become a little bit too comfortable, I try to change the work, challenge myself and think of new problems to solve.
Paul Kuimet (b. 1984) is an artist based in Tallinn, Estonia. He received an MA degree from the Estonian Academy of Arts (2014). In 2018, he participated in the residency programmes at WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels and at the International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP) in New York City. He works with photographic installations and 16 mm films, the subject matter of which ranges from landscapes and architecture to objects and works of art. Obliquely addressing capitalism, its structure and modus operandi in which we are all immersed, Kuimet visually and aurally presents the social and cultural values of the present day through atemporal details and fleeting moments.
Ben Caro (b. 1998) is an interdisciplinary artist based in Edinburgh, United Kingdom. He received an MA in Fine Art from the University of Edinburgh (2021) and studied at the Estonian Academy of Arts, Tallinn, for his Erasmus Exchange (2019). In 2022, he undertook the Copper Leg Art Residency in Vaskjala, Estonia, as well as the ECA/ESW graduate residency at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, Edinburgh. He works at the intersection of sculpture and photography, following an archaeological approach, excavating object-histories and time layers via analogue photographic processes. Recently, in his collaborative practice with Kat Cutler-MacKenzie, he has been working with 35mm slide projection to examine the politics of looking in the National Museum of Scotland.