Date: Sat, 5 Oct 1996 11:05:07 +0100


The Case of Sven Kivisildnik

Or How the Conceptual Poet of the Internet Became a Scapegoat of Estonia

Heie Treier

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, and the 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:

4) Aspects. Interpretation.

Kivisildnik's Internet address:

1. Introduction

While in Western capitalist countries information-dominated society has gradually developed during several decades, people in East Europe (post-communist countries) have found themselves almost overnight lying in the info society (or so-called open society). Computers, faxes, xerox machines, etc., have been available to us only since the early 1990s as well as respective theoretical literature. While in the beginning people were afraid of computers, now life is unimaginable 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 a dangerous situtation. 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 more motivated than the 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 faster in learning the lessons of info society than the police. 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, has 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 Soviet politics and experienced the whole package of Soviet brainwashing 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, a fanatic, who died as a martyr for his ideals in the 1920s. His drowned corpse was found in the Gulf of Finland, 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.

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 Chechen patriot Dzohhar Dudajev (who served as a Soviet Air Force commander in Tartu during the Soviet regime) and bound in a startling red cover. The design of the book "documentary": it consists of finger prints like in criminal file. The whole poetry has been created on the basis of Estonian poetry classics that most of Estonians know by heart since attending elementary school. A romantic sample of 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 been turned by Kivisildnik in the poetry that in Estonian language also refers to S. Dali:

Dali oppige! Dali! paehe! Dali Dali

Lepracy Study! Lepracy! By heart! Lepracy Lepracy)

Lepracy was the mediaeval disease regarded with the same fear reserved for computer viruses or AIDS. It's dangerous to be "innocent" living in the middle of deseases and viruses. The Kivisildnik's poetry has lost its innocence, and the person who reads it must feel uncomfortable.

The most recent poetry Kivisildnik published in "Vikerkaar" (7/19/96) which deals with another "negative sign", the Estonia ferry catastrophy that took place in 1994. Kivisildnik cruelly mixes the meanings of the word Estonia: Miss Estonia and Estonia ferry. You cannot take either of them seriously any more. Neither the catastrophy nor beauty contests. This is meant to be a psychotherapy, self-protection against the two great aggressive media events.

EK$ - the publisher of books by Kivisildnik - means the 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 to be both extremely ironic and serious. The name of the $ociety refers to the provocative artist and media figure living in New York, Kalev Mark Kostabi (b. 1960). Both his parents are Estonians living in LA. Kalev is the name of the most mythical Estonian epic hero (Kalevipoeg / the Son of Kalev). Kostabi has become known as the owner of the studio, Kostabi World at 600 Broadway, NYC. Beforehand, he was known as a painter who does not paint his own works. Kostabi has managed to become rich and famous (which are the cliches he usually stresses in interviews), especially in the USA, Japan and Italy. Konstabi is beloved in Estonia. His personal utopia is to be able to make the world a better place to live in. One model for Sven Kivisildnik's "Mushroom..." book has been Mark Kostabi's 528 page, several kilogram, 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, and there had been some conceptual troubles with poets of the older generation.

3. Internet Scandal in Estonia. Facts

In 1990 Sven Kivisildnik 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 creative works. They must have been either military journalists or spys of Communist Party who simply enjoyed the privileges 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 speculate about the biographies of these people. The poem turned out to be quite a humorous one, but unfortunately his fantasies were more or less insulting. The poem 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:

Here problems began. Two reputable older poets from Tartu, Hando Runnel and Aivo Lohmus, felt insulted in front of the whole world and accused Kivisildnik of being unethical. 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 Kivisildnik and having found nothing illegal acted quite primitively: they arrested his computer, printer, modem and manuscripts. The poem was eliminated from the Internet. Policemen started to investigate his writing to find out whether it was poetry or an insulting text. They started to study literary criticism.

This summer every single Estonian newspaper wrote about the case of Kivisildnik. Obviously, arresting hardware was stupid and somebody argued that instead the police should have arrested the head of Kivisildnik. At the same time Kivisildnik introduced himself as "the favourite of thousands of people". Yet, he must have had a hard time as his personal life became public and his the family began to suffer. Kivisildnik discovered that he was secretly followed and that his telephone was tapped. Overnight, he became an official enemy of the state. Members of Estonian Pen Club wrote an article to protect him ("Postimees" 8. July 1996) while several poets and journalists discussed Kivisildnik in a positive way. Finally, there still remained 49 people in favor of bad manners.

Then, folklore was created. Kivisildnik was suddenly guilty of all the devices that are experience in post-communist society. Kivisildnik was accused of being a satanist who had spread political leaflets of the Russian extremist Zhirinovski in Tartu. 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 elements of 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 the Internet is considered a mythical force that is capable of anything. During 1990-96 the manuscript was not available in Internet. Trouble only started after Internet was involved (1996). However, the text appears in Estonian and only 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 enemies 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. Any country has its own contemporary examples where artists have been considered "dangerous", censored or sued.

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

- Ethics is the basis of the argument that is usually used against certain artists. It's true that the contemporary world, and especially media, need 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 the previous code may have a totally different meaning in the new context. The artist should not be a scapegoat of the society where the true corrupt go unaccused.

- Poetry must be considered of sublime importance when the police pay so much attention to it. Or has the author been simply a "safe" person to turn attention to? It would have been much more dangerous to investigate mafia crimes.

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

- The Internet scandal has healthily brought into consciousness new problems related to media. Obviously Estonian police and lawyers act from time to time according to the model of the closed Soviet system (like they did when arresting a computer). They 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.

Heie Treier is an art critic in Tallinn, Estonia, editor of "Kunst" magazine

(Fax ++372-6 411 762)