This text is also available in Spanish
Source: Diario Armenia 06/11/2008
Armenian Reporter Arts & Culture December 13, 2008
by Luciana Aghazarian
The following interview originally appeared in Spanish in Diario Armenia as a way of introducing “A(r)mar Armenia” (Spanish for “To Build/Love Armenia”), an exhibit of video art by Armenian art- ists that took place at the Armenian Cul- tural Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, curated by Silvina Der-Meguerditchian. The interview was translated from Span- ish by Christopher Atamian. “A(r)mar Armenia:” an original presentation of ideas and documentaries that evoke the memory of Armenia. The participating artists draw their inspiration from the memories, desires, and dreams of Armenian-Genocide survivors, as well as from those who have experienced a real, concrete place called Armenia – the one that existed behind the Iron Curtain. Each artist has different questions and concerns, but each one evokes the same desire to reconstruct a fragmented land. Seven authors who exhibit their work in their own, individual way thanks to Silvina Der-Meguerditchian’s original curatorial vision. Destiny called a 20-year-old Argentine-Armenian by the name of Silvina Der-Meguerditchian in 1988 and told her pull up roots and move to Berlin. It’s there, in the German capital, that the young artist built a successful career. After several false starts, she became a translator at Humboldt University and also developed a passion for art, a voca- tion which eventually won out. Today, married and mother to one son, she shows her work around the world. Transgressive and provocative, Der- Meguerditchian proposes to reconstruct identity and enrich her ancestral culture by way of modern technology. She plans to conquer the young generation of Armenians while touching the hearts of the older generations. Luciana Aghazarian: Your work al- ways seems to be about reconstructing Armenian identity. How do you compile your information? I know that one of your documentaries consists of an inter- view with the historian Vahe Tachjian. Silvina Der-Meguerditchian: A lot of it fell into my lap when my paternal grandmother died. One day I received a suitcase full of papers, documents, and photographs and I almost had a heart attack, because it was such an invalu- able treasure. By using this new information, I was able to follow my family’s trail a bit and I found out things that I didn’t understand very well or whose logic wasn’t clear. After that, I began to read some history. And that’s when I re- alized everything that had happened to them. Some people simplify history too much. That’s too bad because the young generation is intelligent enough to un- derstand history well.
LA: What is video art?
SDM: It’s a way of creating and expressing oneself in a way that is more or less modern, contemporary. Its roots lie in the 70s and 80s, when access to technology became easier. A language of video art started to develop, using digital technology. Unfortunately, anything really modern in the arts is more or less absent from the Armenian community, so for Armenians this is a novelty, but really it’s pretty commonplace today. It does represent a different vision: it uses the quotidian, the everyday, to put forth new ideas and points of view. Perhaps things like paintings – which are more tangible – are more direct.
LA: Is video a way of bringing art to the masses? An attempt to reach young people?
SDM: It may be a good way to reach the young, yes, but artists don’t make videos for this reason or with that goal in mind. All of the par- ticipants in “A(r)mar Armenia” are ani- mated by a spirit that goes beyond mere geography. We’re trying to create some- thing that will last and that enriches “at the same time as” it does other things. It means that we are thinking of enlarging the landscape that maps our identities rather than making it smaller. As I grew up in the Armenian community, this element was completely absent: there were no artists that I wanted to emulate. I think that the Armenian communities around the world are obsessed with the idea of preserving, preserving, preserving at all costs.
LA: Where do you think this mentality comes from and why is it so preva- lent?
SDM: What is lacking in the Armenian diaspora is the understanding that art isn’t a hobby, and that for there to be artists who can spend time creating truly professional art – and not coffee-table art that only people within the com- munity see – you have to create profession- als and you have to believe in them for them and their art to exist. There also exists a mentality which says that one must send all one’s money to Armenia, thinking that this will be one’s salvation. “As long as Armenia exists,” this type of mentality goes, “we will continue to exist; we will not become extinct.” But they are for- getting that the diaspora is not 90 years old (i.e., it didn’t begin in 1915), but rather many centuries old. It’s also an extremely rich culture, but it’s a culture that must be cultivated as well. That includes, for example, beautiful illuminated manuscripts that were produced in times of peace. There was an Armenian kingdom but it was not on Armenia’s historical territory. Those works of art were produced in the diaspora! The first Armenian newspaper was printed in the diaspora, in Madras. Which means: diaspora culture is extremely rich, but it has to be modernized and brought up to date because we can’t continue to operate along paradigms that are hundreds of years old it’s impossible. If we continue this way, then the diaspora will simply die.
LA: How do we give the room and the power to young generations to make decisions?
SDM: The problem is that until Armenia fully recovers from the past 80 years, this attitude and situation will continue to exist. And if the Armenian commu- nity doesn’t generate any real interest or give young diaspora-Armenians any role models to identify with, then they won’t continue to be attached to their Arme- nian identity. The bottom line is pretty simple: young people have to think that by being Armenian they end up ahead of the game, not behind it. Young people should realize, for ex- ample, that speaking a foreign language – in this case Armenian – allows them to travel around the world and to Page 5 communicate with other people. It also makes it much easier for them to learn a third or a fourth language as well. In addition, they need to understand what it means to speak Armenian: it means to enjoy the beauty and poetry of the language itself. What is missing with Armenian today, however, is pre- cisely the poetry of the language, the ability to truly communicate in it and to enjoy doing so. We’ve lost this ability. There are projects in the United States whose goal is to solve this problem, but the organizations that have resources are run by very old, conservative peo ple who are easily shocked or turned off and who don’t provide any support to the youth. But suppose for a minute that [we fail to cultivate the youth and] the next generation doesn’t send more money to Armenia, and in the end we will lose the diaspora and the Republic of Armenia will lose our help. The point, however, is that we can do positive things: of course it’s very difficult on a political level, waiting for Turkey to recognize the Armenian Genocide, but what we can do in the meantime is to combat what is known as the “white genocide” that people are talking about, i.e., a cultural geno- cide, and who better to do that but cul- tural workers? I’m not talking about entertainment, mind you, but about real culture. And this type of person – that is to say, someone who rolls up his sleeves and gets down to business and says, “We’re going to support seri- ous projects” – simply don’t exist in the Armenian community. They waste all their time fighting about internal polit ical issues and that, of course, doesn’t help matters.
LA: What do you think “A(r)mar Armenia” can do to create change?
SDM: First of all, I hope that the exhibit moves people. And then I hope that through the language of art we may work through some of these issues that are so problematic and unconstructive. That’s the goal of art. I have no illusions about being able to change everybody’s mentality. If I can connect with even a few people, then that would already be wonderful.
LA: When did you start using new media techniques in your work?
SDM: I worked for a long time with the theme of memory and it so happened that in 2004 I went to Armenia with the conscious goal of continuing to learn about myself and my identity. And I was terribly disappointed. What I was looking for didn’t exist in Armenia. The world that our grandparents came from is in the Middle East and Turkey, not present-day Armenia. On top of this, you have to add the fact that in the past 90 years, diaspora-Armenians and those living in Armenia have had very different experiences, so that in the end our desire to find in today’s Hayastantsis the Armenian who is missing in us cannot be satisfied. Hayastantsis lived in Armenia for the past 90 years: they were born there, so they ask different questions. Those Armenians lived in a real geography, while ours was imaginary, with everything that entails. They are living in a post-Soviet country, and they have other worries. And so I said to myself, “I will never find what I’m looking for in Ar- menia, so I will have to create it myself.” I came to a fork in the road: either it stops here or else I create my own way of being Armenian, in a healthy and sane context. I create something that is not subordinated or doesn’t answer to any political party, but rather is made up of people who want to exchange ideas and create good things. That’s why I created the platform called underconstruction- home.net, so that artists – Armenians and non-Armenians – can communicate on a daily basis.
LA: Is it hard for you to explain or de- fend your art in different communities around the world?
SDM: The truth is that I can’t believe how easy it was to come here to the Ar- menian Cultural Association, to speak to Jorge [Vartparonian] by phone from Berlin and that he liked my proposal so much. I am extremely grateful to him. It’s a fascinating joint effort that we are undertaking. That being said, “A(r)mar Armenia” deals with some very diffi- cult topics: I ask where our grandparents came from and what happened to them when they were orphaned. Some grandmothers, for example, were forced to work in whorehouses. This may shock some people, but it’s the truth. To understand where one comes from, you have to dig and take a hard look. I keep repeating that this lack of open- ness to the new has something to do with the fact that we’re a community of orphans and that these orphans lost so much that they cling desperately to what they were able to save. But this can’t continue, that the first thing we think of doing when we set- tle somewhere is to build an Armenian school and a church: that’s all well and good, but we have to be able to create something else, so that people on the outside can be interested in our culture as well. Otherwise what does it mean to be Armenian? Why do we still want to identify with “this ancient people?” It’s true, we are an ancient people and that’s wonderful, but if we are going to survive, then we have to widen our horizons and turn up the volume a bit. At one point in history, for example, we were true innovators. We were the first people to accept Christianity as a state religion. Look how original that was at the time! Why is it that we don’t discover and use that creative part of ourselves anymore? That creativity is buried deep in our spirit and doesn’t come to the surface. The ability to bring forth that innovative energy is what’s missing in us today.
Founded in 2004 by Silvina Der-Meguerditchian, Underconstruction was a communication platform for artists interested in issues of identity, transglobalization and the construction of both personal and groupconsciousness. Underconstruction is also interested in issues of concern to worldwide diasporas, including but not limited to the Armenian diaspora.