Armenia Dreaming / A project on post Soviet urban imaginaries / framework and tutorials by Partizan Publik for DAI / in collaboration with Vardan Azatyan, Vahraghasyan, Sophia Tabatadze, Utopiana and the Open Society Institute in Yerevan.
Collaborative research and exibition; May-June 2008.
Yerevan is a dream city, a city constructed out of myth, utopia, desire, dreams and longing. Through building a Dream Depot of post Soviet urban imaginaries in Yerevan we intended to engineer an understanding of the intentional and unintentional forces that are shaping this post-Soviet city.
Over the last decade, the Armenian urban landscape and its visual culture has changed dramatically. The old city of Yerevan, the centre of the Armenian capital, is razed to the ground, the Soviet blocks are crumbling, and a new, foreign-financed Disneyland-like city is emerging.
In Yerevan today, the dreams and cultivated memories of the massive, empire-like Armenian diaspora somehow intertwine with the remains of the wild Soviet experiments of the recent past, the withering utopian dreams of the previous century. In the background: the impact of the recent war with Azerbaijan, the memory of the genocide, and a post Soviet youth claiming a grip on its future. There is no city on earth were dreams of what has been, should have been, will be, and should be are so decisive a force of urban development and visual representation.
Throughout the workshop that will take place in Yerevan end May, beginning of June 2008, we intent to built a visual archive of dreams and nightmares as a way of researching where Soviet and post Soviet reality and fiction meet.
June 11 2008:http://www.hhpress.am/index.php?sub=hodv&hodv=20080611_5&flag=am(in Armenian)
June 13 2008: http://www.armenianow.com/?action=viewArticle&AID=3125&CID=3011&IID=1191&lng=eng
AGOS Newspaper (Turkish)
PERFORMANCE WITH COFFEE IN YEREVAN
The liveliness of summer has started to reveal itself on the streets of Yerevan. After the presidential election and its aftermath that descended over the country during the whole winter, today it is those who carry on with their activities on the Northern Avenue on the one hand, and tourists that have come to see these activities and diaspora Armenians on the other to be seen. One of the novelties of the recent days was the performances that a group of artists conducted on the street. With the initiation of Utopiana, an NGO that supports art projects, many artists coming from Holland and of various ethnic backgrounds are looking for ways to meet the public on the streets.
The group of artists including Seda Manavoğlu, a Dutch national of Turkish origin who works in the field of video installation and Tina Bastajian, known for her film on Shushanik Gurginyan, treated the passers-by to a cup of coffee and to read their fortunes in front of the big closed bazaar on Mashdots Street. Fully equipped with their picnic table and coffee cups, the artists encountered doubtful looks from time to time as they asked the passers-by whether they would like to have a cup of coffee. The organizers were "akhpars" according to some ("akhpar:" a pseudonym for the Armenians who have migrated to Armenia from the diaspora since 1946, "akhpar" emphasizes being from the diaspora. Spoken by the majority of the diaspora Armenians, West Armenian is known as "Akhpareren" among the public) and strangers or tourists according to others. There were nevertheless some who let their fortunes being read or themselves read fortunes after sipping their coffee with delight as they sat down. All these were recorded in the meantime.
Tina Bastajian said that drinking coffee and reading fortunes is a common point for the artists and participants, and that they held such a performance as it catalyzed the creation of an atmosphere in which people could feel comfortable. Seda Manavoğlu reflected about how the public showed great interest in the activities held on the street, and that they were very comfortable in front of the camera. The stand was removed after three hours and the planning of the activities in the coming days was given a start. The city will keep on living during the days in which it is an open performance space...
Preparation Trip Armenia Dreaming
A DAI project curated and produced by Partizan Publik
Date: January 17 to January 22, 2008
Participants: Gabrielle Schleijpen, Christian Ernsten, Joost Janmaat
Narrative: Partizan Publik
Armenia Dreaming: post-Soviet urban imaginaries in Yerevan
Upon arrival at Zvartnots International Airport, Yerevan, we have to leave the plane via the rear, since the front doors are frozen solid. Welcome to Armenia: outside temperature is minus 22 degrees Celsius. After we made our way through the shiny new airport, we enter the first taxi we can. The airport construction is a Mad Max-like thunder dome, a circular colonnaded series of fly-overs with something resembling the pyramid of Ur in the middle. The grey concrete is hard-frozen. Probably that’s what keeps the whole place from crumbling down in the first place.
Our taxi driver, a huge poncho-clad guy with a dumb 50 Cents-like grin, is bend over the wheel of his tiny Lada. Determined to get us home, although he does not know where that might be yet. No worries though, since the first part is easy; with the other Ladas we make our way down Airport Road, one overtaking the other. Some kind of turbo folk on the radio, Gypsy Kings on LSD.
Then the road plunges down. The grey frozen fog dissolves a little, and a burst of color takes over. The first color of Armenia, and as sudden as it is vicious: a string of casinos on either side of the road. Since casinos were banned from the old town, they have found refugee on this stretch of no-man’s land. It is a Las Vegas gone wild. The Lucky King next to Rich Man.
Early morning, and we are about to see Vardan Azatyan, a young though heavy-bearded art critic and curator. We meet in front of caféMarco Polo at the beginning of the Northern Avenue. Northern Avenue is the final realization of the old city plan. A plan from the 1910’s, designed by bolshevist architect Tamanian and based on the fictional Sun City from Sir Thomas More’s Utopia.
‘This street makes me afraid’, Vardan says. The new avenue, connecting Republican Square with the Opera House, stands for a new repressive regime, a new oppressive totalitarianism. The street is funded by Russian money, but very much formatted according to a Los Angeles-style of urbanscape. It’s a clear product of the ‘reversed colonization’, which is taking place in Armenia. ‘This is how our Diaspora wishes to see our country, our capital, our identity. I think I will call it high technological nationalism.’ (Interestingly, the axis of the avenue is just off the central axis of the looming black structure of the opera house at its end. A fault in the planning?)
Vardan asked us how we thought we would format the Armenia Dreaming project, how we would intervene in the city of Yerevan, for that was a question he was pondering on himself already for a while. But before we could answer, he gave us his ideas, embedded in a forceful cultural analysis of his country. According to him, Armenia is set on a strategy of mourning because of a loss of habitat. This mourning leads to at least three extreme spiritual secludes in Armenia: spirituality, nationality and mythology. ‘We don’t forget. Even more than that, we make the suffering endure.’ The prevention of loss leads to a perpetual destruction and remaking of the country’s capital Yerevan city. Interestingly Vardan argues that, ‘in Armenia, memories are erased by mythologized history’.
To really understand Armenia, Vardan warned us, you have to know our ghosts: the ideology of the Armenian Orthodox Church (as embodied by the Katholikos), the nature of Armenian nationalism (as embodied by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation) and the remnants of the Soviet legacy (the orientalist cultural imperialism). These are the roots of the high-technological nationalism that is Armenia today.’ The Armenian nationalist saying ‘hogh ev aryun’ translates literally in ‘Blut und Boden’.
Far from being a straight cut with the past, the Soviet legacy is still very present in today’s Aremnia. In relation to the Soviet legacy Vardan mentions that Armenia used to have a very special status in the Soviet Union. Moskow looked at the southern mountain republic with a romantic Orientalist gaze. Therefore, the Soviets supported the development of a folkloristic traditionalist identity. In many ways, this is still the case in modern Russia. Putin holds the same tourist view on the country as his communist predecessors, namely highly determined by a romantic view of a virulent Christian Orthodox identity. The Soviet legacy is also present in other parts of Armenian everyday life, for example in its culture of resistance, its so-called ‘kitchen resistance’. Finally, the way Armenians archive and classify their past in the libraries and archives of the city is, according to Vardan, still done according to praxis of the Soviet times.
We leave Vardan in front of the backdoor of The Club.
We meet Vardan again the next morning to be introduced to local artists.
First we go to Utopiana, a small art institute located in a residential complex with some NGOs. Utopiana seems to function as a kind of public space. The artists we meet with, Astghik Melkoyan, Lusine Devatyan and Tsolak Topchyan, present their personal projects. They worked previously on a collaborative project about the body and the city. Currently, the two women use their art to criticize how in the state discourse art is purposely misrepresented to promote a nationalist ideology. The materials they use are stencils. Also, they are involved in a project focused on queer issues: mapping queer spaces and activities in the city and researching the institutes where knowledge on queer issues is produced.
By taxi we drive to another part of Yerevan to meet with Vahram Aghasyan, an urbanist or an artist who sometimes calls himself an architect. Vahram works on the city in general and recently started researching the Northern Avenue. His works seem to be a thorough digging into the design as well the political and economical dimensions of this street. He argues that, in a way, ‘the Northern Avenue Stalinist architecture is becoming a carrier of new Armenian nationalism’. To underline his claim he refers to the important coalition between local power, international business and Diaspora, with the aim of developing a new rich boulevard in Yerevan. Interestingly, the very same architects of downtown Beirut's Solidere project were consulted as part of the design process.
The companies involved in the project are, amongst others, Nord, Garni Group, Progress Armenia, Moskow Investment Construction Company. According to Vahram, these are all mafia-type business enterprises. ‘Nothern Avenue is the embodiment of the corrupted system.’ They develop Northern Avenue at this moment without any kind of public resistance. Initially, many people protested against the demolition of the houses and the trees (for example at Pushkin Street) as well as the displacement of the people living there. In order to pacify the people, the government promised to number the stones of the houses, store them, and rebuilt the houses on a later moment. Most inhabitants of Yerevan expect the storage of these historical houses to be a myth. Finally, Vardan told us about a painter who portrayed the Northern Avenue as a continuity of the Bolshevist revolution.
Today we meet again with Arand Hovakimian, a Dutch Armenian, who we met during our Armavia flight. He picks us up in front of the Marriott Hotel on Republican Square (formerly known as Lenin Square: the headless statue of Lenin lies in one of the backyards of the buildings surrounding the square) and explains us that in the early days of independence there were days that even the Marriott Hotel did not serve breakfast and also sometimes did not have warm water and heating. In those days, the people of Yerevan cut down the trees in the streets as fuel for their heating.
Arand brings us to Kino Rossia, the old Russian cinema. The building lies on the northwestern side of town, just outside Tamanian's circular park road, which is enclosing the inner city. One of the qualities of the cinema is certainly its size: it is enormous. It's general shape, resembling two hands pressed together at the wrist, opening their palms to the sky, allows for two cinematic viewing halls. While the entree is below either side of the fingertips, the two halls are connected by a grand staircase, lighted from the sides through massive, church-like gilded glass panels.
While the original structure is surprisingly still much in tact – it has been twenty years since the collapse of the Soviet empire - its function has radically altered. The once grand entree has been boarded up except for a small iron framed door. Inside, the old foyer is barely discernable. In fact, the interior space of the building has been plotted up and divided amongst small entrepreneurs. Hundreds of small (illegal) shops and stalls now fill the room, demarcating their space through flimsy hardboard walls and sheets of agricultural plastic. Here and there, the old design peaks through, for example the twenty-feet wide stairs to the cinema halls above.
This central staircase provides the only point of tranquility in the whole market. It is connecting the two sides of the movie hall. The central nave now is only used to cross from one foyer to the other; the whole upward thrust of people pouring into the cinema has been lost. However, if you do go up under the gilded glass, you can still access the old cinema hall.
Which is massive. The chairs have been removed, and the place is littered with packaging material from the markets downstairs, but you can still sense the former grandeur. The stage area has been boarded up for the first few meters, but nevertheless the decorated background looms in the back. The ceiling is dotted with hundreds of stars and an intricate mosaic of modernist light sculptures.
Ter-Pertrosian Armenia’s first democratic president owns the building. And since he’s running for president this year again, he prefers to have little attention for the illegal businesses in the Kino Rossia. Thus, after taking too many photographs a few muscled men started shouting and forced us to leave the building immediately.
Our first meeting today arranged by Vardan was with Karen Ohanyan. A young painter who makes large pieces, which he stores in the basement of his father’s juice warehouse. Karen can work as a full-time artist because his father sells juice. His work gives evidence to the disappearance of the old buildings to the benefit of the Northern Avenue and the crumbling of the wall at Freedom Park (build by German prisoners of war). Moreover, it communicates a certain nostalgia and hope at the same time. According to Vardan it is ‘dealing with making tangible what is lost or what we’re loosing.’
Vardan thinks Karen's paintings give account of a strategy of mourning. Karen wishes to give a critique of the authorities that are responsible for the creation of Northern Avenue. ‘It's a critique, though within the boundaries of the discourse of painting.’ Karen states that his paintings are an attempt to capture a piece of history, which is gone. To our suggestion to paint to numbers on the new buildings, he responded that that would be an intervention in the style of the government. He seems to pursue a strategy of nostalgic activism.
The discussion that followed between us and Vardan and Karen touched upon several issues. One was the thought that Karen’s paintings have as its effect both closure and openness. Closure, in that he’s attempting to document or to record. Also, an interview, which was held with Karen was banned from TV, this can be seen as another account of closure. Yet, other people who would watch these paintings might experience critical revelation. These works make up a fabrication of evidence. In a way, they are a way of fixing memory in a society where nothing is what it seems. In that respect these paintings are a very temporary account of what is happening at Northern Avenue. It’s a way of documenting in the pursuit of closure. Yet, it generates opposition, leading to an opening in the debate. As soon as the Avenue is finished, nothing but the memory of the old place will remain. The fading memory means in a way a fading context to Karen’s paintings.
Karen told that the price of this piece was about 2000 dollar. He was open to the suggestion of selling/giving his piece to the architectural office that designed the Northern Avenue.
The second artist we met with was Karen Andreassian, who works on a performative project on Voghchaberd, a village nearby Yerevan. His project is related to a whole network of artists, art critiques and art magazines through a website. His piece of network art functions as a sort of intuitive infiltration mechanism, linking the diminishing village, as the results of landslide, to a broad variety of art scenes and institutions. As such, he uses the (story of the) village as context (compare with In Cold Blood, Truman Capote) producing an object, which is not there. (It also refers to Walter Benjamin's Arcade project). Karen said his project focused on or displayed a strategy for a fragmented network, showing at the same time empathy for the narrative of the people who lived in the village and using the story to build a network. This web, according to the artist, was a way of anchoring the project in reality, anchoring a memory.
After Karen left the discussion continued with only Vardan at the table. We articulated Karen’s project as one, which makes you stumble into a network, almost as an intuitive way of archiving. And more in general we discussed that ‘reality (or: the facade) belongs to the powerful.’ If that is true, then perhaps meaning belongs to the dreamer?
Moreover, we outlined some practical and conceptual ideas for our own project. The artists' personal encounters should be the entry points in the city; as such the process is focused on a way of challenging practice through engagement. Also, the internationals will never understand Armenia; they should be searching for what the city of Yerevan tells them about themselves and their own practice. We suggested limiting the engagement of the international artists in some ways.
One way could be by focusing on a small number of sites. Such sites should at least allow for a number of different entry points. Also, they should show a dream colliding, one or more points of tension or friction, where different interests or dreams meet, or where dreams and realities meet. The dream is the starting point. From there we could identify four vectors. Backwards: into the past. To the left: soviet legacy. Right: nationalism. Forward: disaster capitalism. Of course, in reality, every dream will consist of multiple vectors. However, the vector approach allows us to identify four sectors.
Thus, a possible outline of the project might be as follows: Start with an official municipal city tour; continue with four private tours, given by four (groups of) Armenian artists, based on their fascinations and practice; continue by a short assignment, mapping the four sectors (identifying the glossary, discourse, localizing the carriers of imagination (monuments etc) and the people, media and organizations supporting the vector). And from then on the artists could start with autonomous work. Finally tours by the international artists, including power holders, practitioners, etc. involved in the subject and locality of their dream fields.
Another day of highly interesting meetings with a number of artists.
‘I Had A Parrot That Said I Love You But I Sold It.’ Mher Azatyan is a sturdy guy we meet at Utopiana. A rather timid guy, he shows remarkable humor in the titling of his work. They are his lucid little haiku's. Mher is making ‘solidified memories’. He goes around town as a field worker, documenting the remnant or ghosts of Soviet Armenia. The titles of his works are usually taken from comments he hears when taking the photograph, or very common Armenian proverbs. A picture of a wrecked bench in a Soviet park, in the recent past used by old people talking about the politics of those days, runs as a title/comment: ‘Russia says that if Mashadov [the chechen leader?] will not enter into negotiation processes everything will fail’.
Since words are very central to his work, you could almost see his pictures as annotated words, observations and memories in words annotated by a picture [compare what we did in the Lost Room of the Lebanese National Museum]. Under a picture of two other benches, worn with age and covered with a thick layer of snow, is written: ‘It is cold. Moscow already said it would be, but ours did not’. Under a picture of a recently finished high rise apartment complex in down town Yerevan: ‘I am here but my soul is elsewhere’. Under a picture of a variety of small little things, neatly laid out on a piece of cloth on the pavement: ‘What should we do if things get better?’
Then we get introduced to Tigran Khachatryan, who shows a film he made for the 2001 Armenian Pavilion on the Venice Biennale. It’s a video mixing lyrics by the Dead Kennedies with images of the body (more specific: a nose hole, a mouth chewing and drawling, a dick pissing in pants). He sees his work amongst other things as a reaction to the appropriation of Armenian cineaste Sergei Parayanov by commercial interests. Another video (2004) shows a guy preparing to spit water. Tigran here makes reference to and uses a text from a dissident poet from the seventies. Moreover, he takes scenes from among others Tarkovski films. Then follows a reference to a poem about vomiting. A third video deals with the 90th anniversary of the October revolution, and Armenian documentary maker Perechian's way of dealing with the 50the anniversary.
Tigran enacts the revolution, by means of old, well-known video material with new, jackass visual stuff, home video of mainly Russian youth, in the same rough resolution. It’s a rather well-made, associative, not really disturbing way (for so far as we can value the contexts) of making audiovisual art. Moreover, this artist also made a series of small stickers, trying to start of a leftist youth movement, anti-fascist, punk style movement, to balance the big extreme rightist movement in Armenia.
From Utopia we went to visit Armen [family name?], an artist in his fifties, living in a wildly romantic house, hanged from floor to ceiling with art and paintings from himself, his friends, his father and grandfather. The 3rd Floor Movement of which Armen was one of the main protagonists, was a direct result of the atmosphere of Perestroika and Glasnost. Since Armenia was on the border of the Soviet Union, political and cultural control was not so strict as in the centre. A general feeling that everything was stagnating caused a wild simultaneous embracement of punk, hiphop and glamrock subcultures. This strange mixture of cultural elements merely signified ‘otherness’. The appropriation of cultures was a kind of mimicking. One of the associations which came up was that mimicking in the former Soviet Union is a metaphor, which can perhaps also be used to qualify post-Soviet political and economical behavior.
Vardan described the 3rd Floor as a non-formal cultural production, using a broad variety of signs completely decontextualized. These signs were merely supplements used in a symbolic sense. The 3rd Floor held happenings, events and festivals producing positive, hopeful art objects in a variety of styles. Although Western cultural influences were clearly visible, the main exchange took place with artists from other parts of the Soviet Union. Out of the 3rd Floor movement developed a plus and a minus stream. One dealt with more formalist art, the orther became more pop oriented.
These two sides determined eventually the break up of the movement as a whole. In reaction to the 3rd Floor later the P.S. and the Act movement emerged. And in a way, Tigran Katcharian’s work can be seen as kind of mimicking of the 3rd Floor movement. Clearly, he dreams of these types of social movements.
Vahram, the artist we met a few days earlier, took us to the industrial outskirts of Yerevan. We used the city’s subway to get there. A subway build in the eighties, which lost a great deal of its function only a few years later when the industrial plants it was supposed to move people to and from, ceased to operate. Vahram showed the different types (Stalinist, Khrushchev and Brezhnev) social housing.
On the northwestern outskirts of town lies Bangladesh, the latest social housing addition to the city. The neighborhood, consisting of concrete high-rise, is a direct result of a law passed in the seventies, which stipulated that bigger families should live in bigger apartments. Many families (were) thus moved out of the city centre. Because the new settlement was far away, arid and hot, it became known as Bangladesh. The name resonates in the Bollywood film program of the local Kino Atheist.
From Bangladesh we took a taxi to the Yeraz car factory. The Yeraz [a Russian abbreviation of Yerevan Automobile Plant that interestingly happens to translate as ‘dream’ in Armenian] is the old Soviet Armenian van. Since the production quality was so bad (most of the cars, an old employee told us, where pushed – rather than driven – out of the factory), the car brand did not survive the transformation of the country. Unfortunately, the factory was closed down and we were not able to access it.
During a meeting at the Open Society Institute we met up with an interesting group of artists, dj, museum people and scholars. Marine Haroyan and Hripsime Pikichian of the Association of Musea, for example, they suggested to use the museum for Armenia Dreaming interventions. Aram, the previous head of the cultural program at OSI, became very excited about the idea to open up a temporary public art space. He spoke of ‘Armenia Dreaming. A Temporary Archive of Dreams and Desires’. Melik, a film maker and director of the film gallery, suggested to re-humanized the totalitarian imagination of the Northern Avenue, by hanging lines of laundry from one facade to another.
After a nice wodka party in New Nord, a far outskirt of the city, we said good bye to Vardan and his friends and
Monday 12 May
20:00 at De Balie, Kleine-Gartmanplantsoen 10, Amsterdam
A public lecture by art historian Vardan Azatyan on the relationship between the political and contemporary art in Armenia followed by a video program compiled by filmmaker Tina Bastaijan.
Vardan Azatyan is an art historian and translator. He is interested in various aspects of contemporary art and the methodologies of art history. He is a Senior Lecturer in art history at the Yerevan State Academy of Fine Arts. From 2002-2006 he has been the head and a chief curator of visual arts department and the head of art history and theory department of Armenian Center for Contemporary Experimental Art. He is a vice-president and a founding member of AICA – Armenia, as well as a founding editor of the online Armenian art history magazine Revisor. He is a translator of philosophical texts; his translations include major works by George Berkeley and David Hume.
Tina Bastajian is a Los Angeles born, Amsterdam based award-winning film/video artist, curator and moving image preservationist who has exhibited internationally at festivals, galleries and museums. Her recent video essay, ‘Garden Dwelling’ was featured in the 2007 BristolDocs symposium, The Ethnic Self: First Person Plural and her latest video, ‘Two or Three things She Knows About Shushanik’ was included in the 2008 Filmmor Women's Film Festival in Istanbul. In addition to interests in experimental, exilic and diasporan film and the expanded archive, Bastajian is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam (Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis-ASCA). She has been working on strategies of documentation, preservation and re-presentation with regard to Expanded Cinema, using the Amsterdam based underground film venue 'Electric Cinema' (1970-1974) which was curated by Dutch filmmaker Barbara Meter, as her case study. Currently she is developing a curatorial programme together with Anna Abrahams from de Filmbank of Dutch experimental film for an urban screen project in Los Angeles.
On Saturday February 23 you are kindly invited to join us in Amsterdam for:
a public lecture on Post Soviet Urban Imaginaries
by Georgian Artist
hosted by agentur
at the Volkskrantgebouw
Wibautstraat 150 (4th floor)