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Estonian Internet/Poetry Scandal: the Case of Sven Kivisildnik

Article by Heie Treier explaining the internet poetry scandal around Sven Kivisildnik which took place in 1996.

Date: Sat, 5 Oct 1996 11:05:07 +0100
From: post@skkke.ee
Subject: Estonian Internet/Poetry Scandal

The Case of Sven Kivisildnik
Or how the conceptual poet of Internet became a scapegoat of Estonia

Lecture at the Media & Ethics Conference, MUU Festilval, Helsinki, September 1996
By Heie Treier (Tallinn)

This text consists of the following parts:

  1. Introduction
  2. Who is Sven Kivisildnik? Background of his poetry and activity, EK$ or Estonian Kostabi $ociety, newspaper "Kostabi"
  3. The Internet scandal in Estonia. Summer, 1996. Facts See: "The Soviet Estonian Union of Writers - in 1981, of Importance" by Sven Kivisildnik.
    Address: http://krisse.ut.ee/~aadroch/sven
  4. Aspects. Interpretation.

Internet address of Kivisildnik: SVENK@POSTIMEES.EE

1. Introduction

While in Western capitalist countries information dominated society has developed gradually during several decades, people in East Europe (postcommunist countries) have found them-selves overnight lying in the info society (so-called open society). Computers, faxes, xerox machines etc. have been available for us since early 1990s only, as well as respective theo-retical literature. While in the beginning people were afraid of computers, now life is unima-ginable without them. People have learned to use computers technically, but sometimes they have not learned the new models of behaviour and thinking. In a way some parts of the society are still "innocent" which is dangerous. It means that certain groups of people like criminals have been more successful in learning the lessons of info society. They have been faster and had greater motivation than police. Other dangers stem from corruption, local and Western business sharks whose refinement is sometimes admirable. Estonian literary theorist Hasso Krull made a remark: we find ourselves suddenly living in the middle of Jurassic park.

But even poets of younger generation have been more fast in learning the lessons of info society than the police. Here is the story about the conceptual poet Sven Kivisildnik whose poetry has recently caused the greatest Internet scandal in Estonia. Kivisildnik, like other poets Andrus Kiviraehk and Peeter Sauter have been most active in testing the tolerance of the society with the help of media. They have caught the point of this kind of provocation even better than visual artists some of whom still follow esthetical ideals.

2. Who is Sven Kivisildnik?

Sven Kivisildnik is a nice person living in Tartu, the well known university town in central Estonia. He started activities in the late 1980s when things began to happen in the Soviet politics. So it means that by that time he had experienced the whole package of Soviet brainwash during his most sensitive formative years as a teenager and student. That may be considered the starting point of his later creation and provocation. For example, his poetry book "Wet, Viktor" (EK$, 1989) refers to the most well known Estonian communist Viktor Kingissep, fanatic, who died as a martyr of his ideals in the 1920s. His corpse was drowned in the Gulf of Finland - he had found a wet grave. "Wet, Viktor" is a playful game with words. It's monotonous like rave music or a speech at the communist party congress. All words stem from the early, most "sacred" poetry classics of Estonia. The book is designed in the manner of a KGB file where even the stenogram of the poet's heart is preserved. Poetry has been translated into South Estonian (Voru) dialect.

The latest engenious book by Kivisildnik bears the title: "Like a Poisonous Red Mushroom for an Ox" (841 pages, EK$, 1996). It is dedicated to the Chetchen patriot Dzohhar Dudajev (who had served as a Soviet army military in Tartu during the Soviet time) and the cover is red all over. The design of the book is "a documentary" again: it consists of finger prints like in criminal file. The whole poetry has been created on the bases of Estonian poetry classics that most of Estonians know by heart since elementary school. For example, a romantic beautiful poetry:

Sireli, kas mul onne, sireli sireli. Sireli mulle ja sulle, sireli sireli.
(Lilac, will I have luck, lilac, lilac. Lilac, luck for me and you). Lilac has turned into the poetry by Kivisildnik that in Estonian language also refers to S. Dali:

PiDali oppige! PiDali! paehe! PiDali PiDali
(Please replace here the 'Pi'-sign: Lepracy Study! Lepracy! By heart! Lepracy Lepracy)

Lepracy was the mediaeval dangerous desease like a computer virus or aids is nowadays. It's dangerous to be "innocent" living in the middle of deseases and viruses. The poetry of Kivisil-dnik has los innocence and the person who reads it must feel uncomfortable.

The most recent poetry Kivisildnik published in Vikerkaar 7/1996 deals with another "negative sign", Estonia ferry catastrophy that took place in 1994. Kivisildnik mixes cruelly the meanings of the word Estonia: Miss Estonia and Estonia ferry, so you cannot take either of them seriously any more. Neither the catastrophy, nor beauty contests. This is meant to be a psychoterapy, self protection against the two great aggressive media events.

Actually, EK$ - the publisher of books by Kivisildnik mean Estonian Kostabi $ociety. In the late 1980s Sven Kivisildnik co-operated with a group of poets in Tartu who founded the Estonian Kostabi $ociety - it was meant both ironically and extremely seriously. The name of the $ociety refers to a provocative artist and media figure living in New York, Kalev Mark Kostabi (b. 1960). His both parents are Estonians living in LA and his first name Kalev is the name of the most mythical Estonian epic hero ever known (Kalevipoeg / the Son of Kalev). Kostabi has become known as an owner of the studio Kostabi World in 600 Broadway, NYC, and he is beforehand known as a painter who does not paint his own works. Kostabi has managed to become rich and famous (which are main cliches he usually stresses in interviews), especially in the USA, Japan and Italy. He is beloved in Estonia. His personal utopy is to be able to make the world a better place to live in. One model for Sven Kivisildnik's "Mush-room..." book has been Mark Kostabi's 528 page, several kilograms weighing mega-book "Kostabi: The Early Years" (1991). In 1991 poets in Tartu founded an alternative cultural newspaper "Kostabi" where Kivisildnik worked as an editor and writer. The newspaper appeared irregulary and was extremely successful in the beginning. Yet, it was closed in 1993 because of economic troubles, besides, there had been some conceptual troubles with poets of older generation.

3. Internet scandal in Estonia. Facts

In 1990 Sven Kivisildnik had wrote a poem "The Soviet Estonian Union of Writers - in 1981, of Importance". He had taken the list of members of the Union of Writers and made it into a poem. The point is that although some of the members were internationally very well known like Juri Lotman, the founder of Tartu school of semiotics, several people who belonged to the Union had no creation of their own - they must have been either military journalists or spys of Communist Party who enjoyed simply the priviledges of membership. This was a typical practice in the Soviet Union. Now, Kivisildnik decided to make all the members of the Writers' Union (156 in all) known, so he started to fantasize information about these people. The poem turned out to be quite a humorous one, but unfortunately the fantasies were more or less insulting. The poem is a manuscript, it was never published. In 1990 the manuscript of the poem received several positive reviews in Estonian literary magazines. Six years later in 1996 Kivisildnik made the poem available in Internet - http://krisse.ut.ee/~aadroch/sven.

Here problems began. Two well known older poets from Tartu Hando Runnel and Aivo Lohmus felt insulted in front of the whole world and accused Kivisildnik of being not ethical. They sued Kivisildnik. On 6. June 1996 a criminal case was opened by the prosecutor Arvi Kungla, based on § 129 chpt. 4 (badmouthing). Policemen searched the studio of Sven Kivisil-dnik and having found nothing illegal acted quite primitively: they arrested his computer, printer, modem and manuscripts. The poem was eliminated from Internet. Policemen started to invest his writing to find out whether it was poetry or an insulting text, they started to study literary criticism etc.

This summer every single Estonian newspaper wrote about the case of Kivisildnik. Obviously, arresting hardware was stupid and somebody argued that policemen should have arrested the head of Kivisildnik, instead. At the same time Kivisildnik introduced himself as "the favourite of thousands of people". Yet, he must have had a hard time - his personal life became public (he discovered that he was secretly followed by some guys, his telephone was listened to), the family and kid suffered. He had become an official enemy of the state overnight. Members of Estonian Pen-club wrote an article to protect him (Postimees 8. July 1996), several poets and journalists discussed Kivisildnik in a positive way. Finally, there still remained § 49 - behaving against good manners.

Then, folklore was created. Kivisildnik was suddenly guilty of all devices that are experience in the postcommunist society. Kivisildnik was blamed to be a satanist, the one who had spread political leaflets of the Russian extremist Zhirinovski in Tartu etc. In fact Kivisildnik considers himself "an ethnofuturist", which is a very positive movement protecting the oldest cultural layers and trying to unite them with the most contemporary info society (his articles discussing the principles of writing poetry). Ethnofuturism makes an attempt to purify contemporary society from the hypocricy of the past.

4. Interpretation. Aspects

- In a relatively "innocent" society Internet is considered a mythical force that is capable of anything. During 1990-96 the manuscript was not available in Internet, and everything was OK. Troubles started only after Internet was involved (1996). Yet the text is in Estonian language and a limited number of people in the world can read it and understand the point.

- Do societies need an enemy? NY art critic Kim Levin has analysed the situation in the USA: before the end of the cold war the enemy had been the Soviet Union. After the end of the cold war the enenies have become artists. (Interview given to H. Treier, "Puehapaeevaleht" 22. Oct. 1994.) Examples in the USA are well known: Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, Hans Haacke. Actually, any country had recently its own examples where artists have been consid-ered "dangerous" and censored or even sued.

- At the same time, usually only a certain type of art is considered hurting: mainly a photo-based art perhaps because of its documentary aspect. The scandalous poetry by Sven Kivisil-dnik was also based on a document (list of the members of the Writers' Union).

- Argument that is usually used against certain artists is ethics. It's true that contemporary world and especially media needs a new sense of ethics. At the same time the code of reading new poerty (and art) has changed. Things that seem unethical according to previous code may have a totally different meaning in the new context. Artist should not be a scapegoat of the society where real corrupt people go free unaccused.

- Poetry must be considered really important when the police pays so much attention to it. Or has the author been simply a "safe" person to turn attention to? Much more dangerous would have been to investigate mafia crimes.

- Scandals feed media. While Sven Kivisildnik has fed journalists and newspapers with his case, he himself has had troubles and expenses only, being nailed to the virtual cross like in the painting Goya O Boya" by Kostabi.

- The Internet scandal has brought healthily into consciousness new problems related to media. Obviously Estonian police and lawyers act from time to time according to the model of closed Soviet system (like they did when arresting a computer), they also lack new legal laws and models of reacting in certain cases. Hopefully, Sven Kivisildnik has helped some people to get rid of "innocence" and start to think about the problems.

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