Ene-Liis Semper, Estonian Contemporary Buddhist, in one of her video works

Marina Abramović –  the “Grandmother of Performance Art”, as she has christened herself – once said that for creativity, the most important part is the “space in-between”, meaning the psychological state where we haven't yet come to a safe place where we feel at home, but we are on the way there. Abramović believes that we are at our most vulnerable when in this “space in-between”. And that specifically, vulnerability is the fundamental condition for our minds to be open, so that we can truly be creative. Do you agree? Specifically, in terms of vulnerability?

Absolutely. In the last eight years, we've used a similar ideology in the theater. Our condition is that we never repeat ourselves, that we don't copy ourselves; we must always go forward and challenge with something new. I'd like to emphasize that no99 is not a typical theater, it could even be seen as a conceptual art project. For instance, we just closed down the Straw Theater, which was open in Tallinn all summer long. It started out as my idea of a huge installation in the urban environment, but it outgrew that and became a work of art with a functional role – it became an activity space for city dwellers, as well as a cultural center where we exhibited and performed different international projects that we had seen around the world and wanted Tallinners to see for themselves. The Straw Theater expanded into something like a big performance. 

In such an “unsafe” position – invading unknown, as of yet strange horizons – we relentlessly try to support both ourselves and the viewer – we also want the viewer to become braver and to leave his or her comfort zone. To carry this out, we begin with the method of how we work with our actors – we don't give them a script before rehearsals because often, an already memorized script protects the actors. In its place, we use improvisation, as well as long discussions about the intended situation in the plot and how the actor should express himself; after which, we rehearse again. It is possible to find similar theater troupes in the world that work at such an intense level, but it's not typical of theaters that have national importance. Yes, we are a state theater! We replaced a theater that went bankrupt and created a new team, all the way from the directors to the stage lighters.

What sort of advice would you like to give to viewers of your newly-opened show, or rather – what sort of message would you like to send out?

The space at KUMU, namely, the fifth floor, or as it's otherwise known, the Contemporary Art Gallery, is really huge. That's why the curator [Eha Komissarov] suggested that we include some earlier works – videos in which I'm still the central character. As a result, the exhibition allows the viewer to follow how my viewpoint has changed over the years.

Are there any artists that inspire you, whose works you can always return to and they never disappoint? Or has there been an exhibition that left you with a strong impression?

Truth be told, I've spent the last three or four years looking for good, new works of art. But it's a strange period right now, because there are only retrospectives going on all over the place. However, two years ago I was really delighted by a show in Berlin – by the American artist, Bruce Nauman (1941)... but that was also a retrospective! (Laughs) The exhibition was so powerful and so full of energy that I was taken over by sadness – all of the best works have already been made in the 1960's and 70's. In today's art scene, I'm missing this clean image – a work that's not just a commentary about something else, but that brings about a flight of imagination, free of associations. Today, there's a whole row of works that are associated with different discourses that I just can't follow anymore. As a human being, I miss the opportunity to connect with unforced, simple and clean art.

Will this situation in the art world change?

I don't know, I'm not sure; if I knew how to change it, I already would have done it. (Laughs) But – hopefully. Yes, hopefully.

...There are so many stories about the theater, but my art and my work with theater productions have  grown together so very much. In addition, I'm confident that a certain level of abstractness can be attained on the stage, not just in art galleries. In the actors' portrayals, we accent the person's presence – not so much the verbal message and narrative. Emphasis is put on rhythm, energy, the show's dynamics, the relationships between the characters. It's like a step ahead – contemporary theater.

But what do you mean by the word “contemporary”?

A bit more freedom in mixing together different mediums, but not in an illustrative way. If you have the capability, then you can successfully and elastically combine, let's say, an installation and play acting. And you can do it so that the consolidation seems natural, even necessary for the content. Being contemporary is my belief in the future.

Ene-Liis Semper. Portrait made by estonian artist Laura Kallasvee