A Chance to Reflect at AABS 2022: Interview with Andres Kurg

Mar 29, 2022

The AABS 2022 Conference will look toward the future to explore how the Baltic States will move forward into the next century, as a crossroads between Europe and Asia, Nordic and Eastern Europe. Similarly, the field of Baltic Studies is at a crossroads between new and old diaspora communities negotiating the implications of what it means to advance the study and research of the Baltic States into the next century. The conference will promote intersections of academic disciplines, scholarship, and community by focusing on the implications for the Baltic States in the future at the crossroads of different regions, cultures, religions, and historical perspectives. Please find more information here, and registration here.

Andres Kurg (PhD, Estonian Academy of Arts) is Senior Researcher at the Institute of Art History, and Professor, Estonian Academy of Arts in Tallinn.

Professor Kurg is co-chair of the Arts, Music and Religion division at AABS 2022. AABS met with him to discuss the division and what he’s looking forward to at the conference. The transcript of our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

AABS: To start, can you give us a brief overview of your division and what it will cover? What’s new in your division for this conference, compared with previous years?

AK: This was my first time being engaged with AABS. It was exciting to read all the proposals, and I have to say right up front that we agreed to accept all of them, some with suggestions. Overall, the proposals were very interesting and high level.

Of the dominant themes I can point out, one is the work with diasporas. There was quite a bit of interest in musicians, composers, etc. from the Baltics working in the West. Maybe the most interesting papers were ones dealing with those issues: how had they gotten to the West? What were the circumstances of going to work in the West? And not only looking at the success stories, but also the difficulties. This especially has to do with papers looking at the 1990s, and the newly re-independent countries, where people were able to go to look for work in the West. These were highly trained professionals, coming together in circumstances in the US that were not necessarily favorable: how did they cope? These are works based on interviews and a lot of oral history.

Now, in general, there’s a boom I see among students in the study of the 1990s. There’s a lot of research going on about the shifts in society from socialism to post-socialism and coping with this new situation. In art history and visual culture, there are several scholars working on these topics.

AABS: Could you speak as to how the panels will advance the global academic conversation and help build connections between researchers from different parts of the world?

AK: We proposed four sessions: music history, visual culture, theater and performance history, and vocal music. So lots of different disciplines, some more narrowly focused, others more broad. What we tried to do was ensure that dialogue would not remain narrow, and we tried to combine the panels in a way that made sure that people could contribute. We attempted to bring overlapping points to dialogue.

Regarding research done in different parts of the world, then at least in my own field, in art history, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make distinctions between the work done in the Baltics or across the Atlantic, at home or abroad. Through digital databases and archives, our sources are becoming accessible globally and the intellectual discourse is increasingly global in its reach. Furthermore, there are many mobile scholars, including people who have had fellowship or study experience abroad before coming back to the Baltics; we have a lot of those people at this conference. In that sense, the emphasis is more on interdisciplinary dialogue, and maybe also inter-geographical dialogue within the Baltics.

One of the paradoxes that we’ve had in the past was that Baltic scholars would tend to meet at conferences in the US, rather than in the Baltics. This is a fascinating subject in itself, how there’s a certain kind of framework around these conferences which we don’t have back in the Baltics. For example in Art History, back in 2009, we introduced a biennial conference for Baltic art historians, and I think this was an outcome of seeing and participating in blockbuster conferences like AABS.

AABS: What are you excited for at the conference? What are you looking forward to?

AK: First of all, this is a conference dedicated to the thirtieth anniversary of re-independence of the Baltic countries. It’s not just a formal jubilee, because there is a sense of some kind of a historic change. This thirty year landmark gives us a chance to look back, not only at what has happened, but also at how different disciplines have evolved. Because of that, I think historiographic questions have emerged for this conference more so than previously. For example, how have our fields developed during these decades? How have we been able to build up the discipline again, independent from the influence of the Soviet Union and its academic system?

For example, the institution I teach at, the Institute of Art History in Tallinn, was established in 1992, and its foundation was clearly related to the restoration of independence. There was a moment of broader recognition that we needed this institution to engage in society, that art history could have a more broad role beyond its academic use. Now almost thirty years later, there is this question: what have we been able to achieve? How has this field evolved? So I think this self-reflective moment is something to look forward to in the conference, also in other fields.