Radical space for radical time. The intersections of architecture and performance art in Estonia, 1986 - 1991

Urmas Muru. Computational centre in Pärnu, 1988. Courtesy of the Museum of Estonian Architecture 

In the context of artistic dislocations of architectural practice, I would like to bring to focus a lesser researched episode of Estonian architecture and art history – the activities of Group T (Rühm T), an interdisciplinary creative grouping initiated by architects Raoul Kurvitz and Urmas Muru in 1986 and operating officially until 1991.  As a group with a wide range of creative output spanning from architecture projects and conceptual architectural drawings to neo-expressionist paintings, spatial installations, performances, and music events, it offers a possibility to examine the relationship of performed space to architectural space. How can the understanding and conception of architecture and architectural space be informed by performance art practice, a completely different and seemingly discrete form of artistic production? The case of Group T also brings forth the problem of the social position of architecture at the very end of the 1980s and the beginning of 1990s  - the problem of addressing the position of any critical cultural practice during this in-between era, for that matter. What might constitute a critical architecture at this point of time between the crumbling Soviet power and the reinstatement of the longed-for independence? We do not seem to have any readily applicable frameworks or models for that short but certainly crucial period of time. The interpretational frameworks of the period commonly termed ‘late Soviet’, meaning 1970s and the first half of the 1980s, do not seem to be fully viable any more. Neither can the practices in question be related to the situation of the 1990s reindependent, fiercely neoliberalist social context. I certainly do not have a fully-fledged answer in a form of a comprehensive model, but I would like to use the example of Group T to pose some questions for further examination.

Group T – a ‘curated’ affiliation

Group T was formed at the initiative of two core members – Raoul Kurvitz and Urmas Muru, who had graduated as architects from the Estonian State Institute of Art at the beginning of 1980s. The Soviet planning economics meant that all graduates were assigned a workplace thus they received jobs widely considered as the least creative for an architect – respectively, at the Estonian Industrial Project office (Kurvitz), and the Estonian branch of Tsentrosojuzprojekt (Muru). Both were large state designing offices specialized at infrastructure and industrial buildings. The design process was slow, the assignments – boiler houses, railroad infrastructure, electricity subplants, etc – highly preordained and restricted in nature, and more than often the laborious design work even did not lead to an actual building but rather remained on paper as evidence of five-year plan accomplished, its actual implementation postponed to an unforeseeable future.[1]But the young architects had a different vision of architect’s role and scope before their eyes – by 1980s, the previous avant-garde  generation of so-called Tallinn school had already established the role of architect as an intellectual and artist with their exhibitions and polemical articles in the media, and managed to push through a small revolution in the institutional sphere as well with some of them being elected to the Architects’ Union board in 1981.[2]Of the Tallinn school, Vilen Künnapu was of particularly important influence to young Raoul Kurvitz who had practiced as his assistant during the studies, and later credited him as the one who had opened his eyes toward arts.[3]

So after a couple of years of unimaginative office work, Kurvitz set out to form a grouping of his own. But the aim was to move beyond the realm of architecture, to form an interdisciplinary arts group for renewal of the whole sphere of visual culture. In this purpose he set out to consciously search for likeminded people from the other cultural fields, devising his role more or less as a curator of the group.[4]The closest collaborator in this initial conceptualization was Urmas Muru with whom they had already submitted a couple of competition proposals during architecture studies. The launch of Group T was an outdoor exhibition in the back yard of Adamson-Eric Museum in the winter of 1986 with architects Peeter Pere and Urmas Mikk, painter Lilian Mosolainen, and poet Max Harnoon (philosopher Hasso Krull’s alter ego). The second exhibition a year later at the Tammsaare Museum saw the group expanded to include musicians Ariel Lagle and Margo Kõlar, graphic artist Anu Kalm, painters Tiina Tammetalu and Valev Sein, and the poet Andres Allan. For the third exhibition, painter Ove Büttner joined, and members of the rock band Röövel Ööbik produced the audio. In the following years, they became to define the group as a loose, fluctuating collective of creative individuals, occasionally stressing the openness of the membersip to the extent that any interested passer-by who had the will and ideas was welcomed to contribute to an ongoing performance.[5]In practice however, this could perhaps be true in the case of  Guide to Intronomadism exhibition of 1991, devised as a continuous two-week series of performances in the Tallinn Art Hall. But in most cases, the scenarios were quite prescripted and the activities self-contained enough to draw a clear line between participants and onlookers. Nevertheless, in the progression of time the importance of paintings and installations as object-based art diminished and process-based works took centre stage, with painters receding from the activities, being replaced by actor Maria Avdjushko, stage designer Ene-Liis Semper, and photographer Tarvo Hanno Varres.  At the same time, the architect members continued their design practice, with Raoul Kurvitz and Urmas Muru winning the competition for Tallinn fashion house in 1985 and completing the design in 1988[6]. Kurvitz, Muru and Pere were also submitting proposals for numerous other design competitions, and advancing architectural drawing as a genre in its own right. At the very beginning of the 1990s the three formed a joint design office KMP, later to be reformed to Architects Muru & Pere.  

Performing space, subverting places

The easy explanation for turning towards visual art and performance instead of architecture was surely the frustration with normal architectural practice, a desire to achieve a more instantaneous communication: Kurvitz claimed architecture, under circumstances, an ineffective means of communicating ideas about space[7], and Muru has retrospectively admitted the same, stating that art was simply a swifter way towards self-realization.[8]But the essence of the ideas to be communicated was of no lesser importance. The central, recurring elements in Group T’s performances often so overloaded with disparate and obscure citations and references to become decidedly illegible, were violence and (self)destruction, and negation of possibility of meaning. This has mainly been interpreted from the point of view of the performer, the subject, relating the content to Jungian subconscious, sadomasochism, feelings of guilt, and the like.[9]Yet this commonly held interpretation has overlooked the aspect of space and the performing subjects’ relationship to their location. RoseLee Goldberg who collaborated with Bernard Tschumi in 1974-75 with the latter’s diploma unit at the Architectural Association[10], leading to an exhibition Space: A Thousand Words investigating the relationship of architecture and performance art, has conceptualized ‘space as praxis’, claiming that spatially-informed performance art enters simultaneously into physical and discursive relationships.[11]The pieces of Group T similarly had a very physical, sensual level – “The space of the nomad is rather sonorous and tactile than visual, that is why the exhibition consists of intensive events instead of objects,” as explained by Hasso Krull[12]– but they nevertheless engage in discourses informed by the chosen locations that tended to be culturally highly loaded.

The very first exhibition, mounted literally in snow in the yard of Adamson-Eric museum, was both the young rebels’ triumphant admission directly to institutional premises as well as a violation of all normal conventions about exhibition-making and handling art – a markedly sadomasochistic indifference towards their own oeuvre but also latently violent towards the institution and its spatial premises. The second exhibition took a step further: the home environment of the house-museum of Tammsaare, the beginning of 20thcentury author of some of the core novels from the point of Estonian national identity, was taken over by an industrial wasteland of rusted metal, found wood, and barbed wire. The opening performance involved running head-wise against the wall. The third exhibition took place at the indoor premises of Song festival grounds. In 1988, the year of the ‘Singing revolution’[13], the location could not have been more symbolic. Whereas the song festival grounds is a spatial setting that takes on its actual significance only in practice, i.e in accommodating the tens of thousands of singers under its canopy and on the grounds, in the opening performance of Group T’s exhibition this normal usage was countered by a sole performer on the back side of the building, whose violin playing was, furthermore, disrupted by his suit suddenly catching fire. Later the same year there was a performance event in the Writers’ Union, in the so-called Hall of the Black Ceiling – again a highly symbolically loaded location in terms of Estonian intellectual culture since 1960s. In order to clash and short-circuit meaningful references, the event entitled “Meeting the Black Lady” referred to a painting of René Magritte as well as to a local myth of a lady walled into the castle of Haapsalu. But it also again tried to undo the space, this time by complete blackout, whereas the performance effectually consisted of a chaotic aural mix of female screams and recitals in German and English, with four bright flashes of light meanwhile.

Blacking out the Black Ceiling Hall found a parallel four years later when Urmas Muru, acting as a curator of the second annual exhibition of the Soros Centre for Contemporary Arts – significantly entitled Non-existent Art  – , exhibited the main hall of the Tallinn Art hall as empty and painted in black. This may be read as the culmination of a series of interventions to this most important local art space designed by Edgar Johan Kuusik and Anton Soans in 1934 – a space that may be even read as sacral both in its top-lit and apsidial architectural form, and its position in local art world. Two major performance events took place here – A Guide to Intronomadism, a nonstop performance programme lasting for two weeks in February 1991, and Eleonora in 1992, an event that involved also local and international invited artists. The various performances included a number of violent acts towards the space, such as covering one floor in gritstone, to bury Urmas Muru underneath it; mounting some constructions of prefab industrial elements and setting fire on top of it; dismounting the glass ceiling panels to enable descent from the ceiling; smashing some water-filled buckets for letting the water loose; not to mention an accidental pickaxe hole in the wall[14].  Such direct architectural violence fit in with the overall scripts that could sometimes be read as rituals of sacrifice and purging with a catharctic outcome but sometimes as a general losing of solid ground, disintegration of the structural, and overcoming by the amorphous, meaningless, and discoordinated. The latter may be illustrated by one of the performances at the Eleonora event, where firstly, in a darkened room with flashing lights two men were hurrying around with large orthogonal metal structures on wheels[15]with no clearly discernible aim or direction, often colliding. Then the whole floor space was taken over by large black plastic sheet, amorphously waving and somehow threatening.  At the same time, Urmas Muru was hanging on a rope from the ceiling, and Hasso Krull was reciting verses from Comte de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror.[16]The pristine modernist temple of art was effectively conquered by a completely different configuration of time-space, conceptualized in Deleuzian terms as ‘a slippery space devoid of horizon, where heaven and earth merge into one endlessly continuous field,  its folds full of air – an absolutely continuous, historically unarticulate interiority’.[17]

Technodelic expressionism to counter neo-national romanticism

The performances were driven by discontent with physical architectural space in its rational articulation but they also worked on discursive level, against architecture as productive and symbolising agent. Thus they expressed a certain criticism towards late Soviet reality as well as towards the previous generation’s engaging yet nationalist-nostalgic resistant position. ‘We express the sentiment of our generation – our attitude is rather cool and devoid of pathos,’ exclaimed Muru in one of the earliest interviews.[18]  They called the dissent of the previous generation ‘fruitless’ and their ideals an imagination of ‘pure, bright, uncompromising realm of harmony that is thoroughly different than the actual world they are producing – a discrepancy that could only increase estrangement’.[19]  Their Manifesto for Technodelic Expressionism – the name coined by merging ‘technology’ and ‘psychedelic’ – , published in the peak of the national awakening in 1988, shows both criticism of local architectural tradition, and willingness to embrace the actual changing reality without any illusions, in all of its contemporary industrialist forms. The tradition gets diagnosed as outcome of the national subconscious: ‘The indifferent and harsh nature that has conditioned the Estonian temperament and biological code, has resulted in a static, inward-looking architecture. Yet, this austerity is not our permanent feature: the same energy may be turned outwards instead, to unleash the stern movements.’[20]Instead they call for architecture that would express individual consciousness, erotic passions, desires and hallucinations, at the same time juxtaposing the subjectivity with awareness of the inevitable prevalence of the technological.[21]

The architecture that the manifesto accompanied surely took passionate albeit rather diverse forms. Glorifying ‘space as a state of consciousness’[22], Group T architects preferred to present sketches and drawings instead of actual elevations, let alone plans or sections.[23]The sketches of Raoul Kurvitz but even more those of Peeter Pere demonstrate passion or rather rage against architecture comparable to the sentiments of some of their performances. Pere’s use of newspapers instead of tracing paper is a sign of banalizing the dignified profession as well as adding the level of urgent social issues of the turbulent times. The buildings are rendered in thick lines of black or colourful gouache, ignoring any due precision and making the forms practically illegible.  The drawings of Muru are much more elaborate – dynamic technicist black buildings seem to be caught speeding through some inarticulate space-time. The lines are fine, calculated and cool, and the buildings seem thin, or somehow devoid of spatiality. These are not much more than empty shells belonging to a posthumanist era, and no wonder they have been described as memories[24], residue[25], or ruins[26].  Muru has claimed growing unimportance of the actual properties of any architectural shell, conceiving architecture as pure facilitator of the action taking place in it[27]– but it is hard to imagine any activities in these buildings.

A critical attitude in times of radical indeterminancy

Could it be possible to interpret this kind of radical, self-destructive architecture as somehow characteristic of the era of radical social change, a moment between two societal formations?  To be sure, this was by no means a mainstream position. The expectations of the general public, and those of a significant part of the cultural sphere too, were fuelled by national sentiments,[28]and a restitutive attitude aiming at reinstating the independent republic all together with its previous legislative order and social relationships. The architectural mainstream took a decisive turn towards sober, no-nonsense attitude, eager to start rationally building up a new society – indeed, Mart Kalm has characterized it as the era of the ‘good practitioner’[29]. Still, whereas internationally deconstructivist impulses in architecture have been seen as elitist and self-referential stepping away of societal concerns[30], could it be that in late and post-Socialist setting the similar impulses actually served a purpose, namely that of keeping the possibilities open and resisting a too swift and unproblematized change of gear from one ideological setting to another, no less clear-cut one? In most post-Socialist countries, the collapsing totalitarianism was swiftly being replaced with nationalism as the new ‘ideological cement’[31]; the peculiarity of Estonia was the pairing of national souvereignity with radically liberal right-wing economy politics, presented as a combination so self-evident that one merged seamlessly into another.[32]The in-between space of the two formations was deliberately diminished, the society longed to overcome the transitional period of entropy as fast as possible. Yet it is this in-between period that presents the most possibilities of negotiation and constitutes a true democracy as it has been conceptualized by Claude Lefort, as a radical emptiness, a space for constant negotiations where power belongs to no one. For Lefort, democracy is instituted and sustained by the dissolution of the markers of certainty.[33]  The condition of democracy means experiencing a fundamental indeterminacy as to the basis of power, law and knowledge, and as to the basis of relations between self and other. This essence of democracy as an empty space is clearly visible in the post-Socialist transition[34]  although according to a number of commentators, this productive gap closed fairly quickly.[35]In this light, the activities of Group T, aimed at destabilizing architecture as a productive agent of power relations and symbolic order – architecture as an activity that in its ‘normal mode’ would tend to be rather orientated towards closing of this radical emptiness – can be read as sharp dialogue with its time.  Does the decision to disband in 1991, the year of official proclamation of reindependence, testify of a mission completed, or of illusions broken? Perhaps more than anything else, it was a result of the core members’ diverging visions about fruitful strategies under the new, altered circumstances. Raoul Kurvitz continued a career as solo artist, creating some of the most remarkable spatially-informed installative works of the 1990s. Urmas Muru and Peeter Pere went on to pursue a ‘normal’ architecture practice, occasionally managing to find clients with unconventional taste enough for some critical and experimental projects in dwellings and public buildings.  Nevertheless, the practices of Group T point out the necessity to address the cultural production in-between two social formations in their own right, and problematize the common clear-cut chronology based on a single line of 1989.


[1]Conversation with Urmas Muru and Peeter Pere, 21 November 2012.

[2]See Andres Kurg, “The Turning point in 1978. Architects of the Tallinn School and their late Socialist public,” in Ines Weizman (ed), Architecture and the Paradox of Dissidence(London: Taylor and Francis, 2013), 19–32. For a comprehensive overview of the Tallinn School, see Andres Kurg, Mari Laanemets (eds), Environments, Projects, Concepts. Architects of the Tallinn School 1972–1985(Tallinn: Museum of Estonian Architecture, 2008).

[3]Kärt Hellerma, “Kunst on tunne”, Noorus10 (1988), 40–1.

[4]Raoul Kurvitz (Tallinn: Eesti Kunstimuuseum, 2013). Video interview on DVD accompanying the catalogue.

[5]Conversation with Raoul Kurvitz, December 6, 2012.

[6]See Arhitektuurikroonika1988 (Tallinn: Ehituse TUI, 1991), 86–7.

[7]Kärt Hellerma, “Kunst on tunne”.

[8]Ants Juske, “Rühm T juubel Kunstimuuseumis,”Eesti Päevaleht, October 19, 1996.

[9]See e.g Hanno Soans, “Peegel ja piits. Mina köidikud uuemas eesti kunstis,” Kunstiteaduslikke uurimusi 10(Tallinn: Eesti Kunstiteadlaste Ühing, 2000)  309–53.

[10]Elena Crippa, Tom Vandeputte, “Space as Praxis,” Log21 (2011).

[11]RoseLee Goldberg, ”Space as Praxis,” Studio International190 (977), 1975.

[12]Hasso Krull, “Nomadistlikud rituaalid,” Eesti Ekspress  February 15, 1991.

[13]This term for the Baltics’ non-violent uprising was coined by artist and activist Heinz Valk in an article published a week after the June 10–11 spontaneous mass night-singing demonstrations at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds, see Heinz Valk, “Laulev revolutsioon,“ Sirp ja Vasar, June 17, 1988.

[14]Conversation with Urmas Muru and Peeter Pere, November 21, 2012.

[15]Actually, these were standard bread racks from the groceries – a creative reuse characteristic of the general deficit era.

[16]This nihilistic prose poem has been repeatedly used by the Surrealists, and was also recited in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967. apocalyptic film Le Week-End.

[17]Hasso Krull, “Nomadistlikud rituaalid”.

[18]Heie Treier, “A. H. Tammsaare majamuuseumis. Interview with Raoul Kurvits and Urmas Muru,” Sirp ja Vasar, July 3, 1987.

[19]Urmas Muru, “Rühm T,” Noorus12 (1987).

[20]The manifesto was published in a leaflet Eesti ekspressionistlik arhitektuur 1985–1988(Tallinn: RPI Eesti Tööstusprojekt, 1988), unpaginated.



[23]Curiously enough, the same drawings, in spite of their near-illegibility, got presented as parts of official design documentation and were being published as such in issues of Arhitektuurikroonika,an annual chronicle of projects waiting for implementation in the various state design offices.

[24]Urmas Muru, “Mälestused tunnetest,” Kunst2 (1989), 22–3.

[25]Eesti ekspressionistlik arhitektuur.

[26]Hasso Krull, “Androgüünsed varemed: tekst,” Vikerkaar10 (1989), 35–40.

[27]Vappu Vabar, “Urmas Muru. Jutuajamine näituse “Olematu kunst” kuraatoriga,” Kultuurileht, December 9, 1994.

[28]It has been pointed out that the desire for national romanticist cultural production and nationalist narratives was stronger on the side of art and literature crticism than in actual artistic production, see Johannes Saar, “Võistlevad maastikud: kultuuripanoraamide ja kontekstide vaheldumine 1980. aastate kunstitekstides, ” in Andreas Trossek, Sirje Helme (eds.), Kadunud kaheksakümnendad. The Lost Eighties(Tallinn: Kaasaegse Kunsti Eesti Keskus, 2010), and Epp Annus, “Postmodernism. The Cultural Logic of Late Socialism,” in Johannes Angermüller, Katharina Bunzmann, Christina Rauch (eds), Hybrid Spaces: Theory, Culture, Economy(Hamburg:Lit-Verlag, 2000), 25–36.

[29]Mart Kalm, Eesti 20. sajandi arhitektuur. Estonian 20thCentury Architecture(Tallinn: Prisma Prindi Kirjastus, 2001), 420.

[30]Mary McLeod, “Architecture and Politics in the Reagan Era: From Postmodernism to Deconstructivism,” Assemblage8 (February 1989).

[31]Aleš Erjavec, Postmodernism and the Postsocialist Condition. Politicized Art Under Late Socialism(University of California Press, 2003), 13.

[32]Hasso Krull, “Mõõk merepõhjas. Eesti poliitiline alateadvus,” Eesti Ekspress, September 3, 1993.

[33]Martin Plot (ed), Claude Lefort: Thinker of the Political(Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 5.

[34]Andrew Arato, “Lefort, the Philosopher of 1989,” Constellations, Vol 19, No 1 (2012), 23–9.

[35]In 1994, Hasso Krull published an allegorical description of Estonia as the land where breeding unicorns is no longer possible, see Hasso Krull, “Ükssarvede lahkumine,” Eesti Ekspress, December 30, 1994. Lately, aradical cultural commentator Anders Härm has also claimed that Estonia was democratic only in 1988 – 91/92, see Anders Härm, “Eesti oligarhia,” Eesti Päevaleht, November 30, 2012.

Women architects in Soviet Estonia: four approaches to design in a rural context

Add a comment

Email again: