NSFW. A Chairman's Tale
Since 2007, Estonian artist Jaanus Samma has focused his research on collecting stories of gay lives in Soviet Estonia. Sharing the same interest, the project Not Suitable for Work. A Chairman’s Tale draws from the life of Juhan Ojaste1 (1921–1990), a war hero and “family man”, who was a successful chairman of a kolkhoz, i.e. a collective farm in Soviet Estonia. In 1964, he was arrested and then expelled from the Communist Party due to his involvement in homosexual acts. A degrading trial was followed by a sentence of one and a half year of hard labour. Following the loss of his social status as well as his dignity, family and job, Ojaste was forced to move to a different town, where he could hold only menial positions. In the end, he was murdered by an alleged Russian male prostitute, a year before Estonia regained independence and homosexuality was decriminalised.
From a micro-historical perspective, Jaanus Samma links the public and collective dimension of History with the private and biographical qualities of the chronicle. An archival impulse (Foster) investigates memory and images, documents and their representation, in order to restore a window into a period governed by an authoritarian regime. As a matter of fact “a heightened sense of urgency surrounds the demand to remember and commemorate in societies where social codes of communication have been historically unstable or pre-empted by state repression” (Enwezor).2
Despite their different reasons, both the Annales school, from Bloch to Le Goff, along with some Marxist historians like Hobsbawm on one side, and several thinkers, such as Benjamin, Arendt, and Foucault on the other agree on turning the projective thought to the past instead of the future, using, according to Agamben, an archaeological approach to the present. Samma adopts a similar strategy, which is highlighted by the title Not Suitable For Work taken from internet slang 3 and applied to Chairman’s tale in order to emphasise the precarious professional and social position of all individuals subjected to the scrutiny of power. Moreover, the computer terminology refers to the pervading nature of media society, which turns us into passive witnesses of history and its discriminations, discords and contradictions.
The social debate on LGBTI rights intercepts the wider issue of the violation of fundamental human rights, so common in the past and the current day alike. In this sense, the Chairman’s story becomes the tip of the iceberg for a broader denouncement addressed at all kinds of discrimination: cultural, social, political, religious, sexual and racial. Therefore, once again, in order to remind us that art is always for the co-existence of differences.