thisPLACEd - Introduction

by Silvina Der-Meguerditchian

As a result of a long history of displacement, the Armenian identity is a good example of an “early globalized nation”1. The exhibition thisPLACEd real • virtual • in between in Tallinn aims to show this transnational and hybrid identity model and to juxtapose it with the arising understanding of Estonians in a post-Soviet framework “on the way” to becoming a full member of the European Union. The Armenia related artists of the platform under_construction invited Estonia related artists to participate in an open process, a visual-virtual dialog using a blog format as an artistic tool for exchange (from January to December 2008) with the goal of developing an exhibition in Tallinn. In the process they were exploring the boundaries of the blog format and challenging themselves in a real context to create an exhibition together in an engaging way. Several blogs became the virtual “territory” where the artists approached each other and shared experiences and observations in image, word and sound. Since 2006 under_construction has grown and pins its structure on virtual visual dialogues followed by real dialogues in the form of exhibitions2, symposiums and meetings. The platform, a landscape of independent artists, coordinated by an artist acting as a curator, was perhaps not immediately “attractive” for a collaboration in terms of contemporary art criteria, and therefore it was a challenge to find Estonian partners to participate in this open process. Offering primarily a mental and virtual space of artistic exchange, the difficulty was to develop an exhibition in an institutional space that would be relevant for a local audience.To reinforce the virtual relationship and the process orientated aspect of this Armenian/Estonian temporary “community”, the attempt to achieve a dialogue amongst the diverse group was supported through a real experience: the meeting “Face to Face” in Berlin (May 2008). The diverse participants in the blogs, all of whom live outside their homeland and have hybrid backgrounds, include Achot Achot (Yerevan/Paris), Emily Artinian (London/Pennsylvania), Archi Galentz (Moscow/Berlin), Tanya Kaprielian (London), Sophia Gasparian (Los Angeles), Dahlia Elsayed (New Jersey), Andrew Demirjian (New Jersey), Aram Jibilian (New York), Hrayr Eulmessekian (Los Angeles), Eléonore de Montesquiou (Paris/Berlin/Tallinn), Olga Jürgenson (Tallinn/London) and Silvina Der-Meguerditchian (Buenos Aires/Berlin).
Face to Face took place with the participation of the Europe based artists, the curator Reet Varblane (Tallinn) and was moderated by the sociologist Estela Schindel. The overseas artists were invited to take part through Skype. The discussion turned around the potential for an identity beyond defined national borders, tradition and language. The consensus amongst participants was to focus on the positive things that displacement brings to the individual: its influence on everyday life, thoughts and choices. With its realization the exhibition answers some of the project’s big challenges: can virtual space legitimate itself as a sustainable settlement and give confidence to its “inhabitants”? How meaningful is it to have true dialog partners spread around the world and is it possible to develop common goals and real, qualitative communication, especially today? 

The catalog is divided into 3 parts: virtual, real and in between. Virtual shows content from the blogs reinterpreted specially for the catalog by each artist-participant. Real documents the “Face to Face” meeting and the “thisPLACEd” exhibition. The art on display in the City Gallery shows interstitial positions without rose-colored glasses: Elénore de Montesquiou’s video work “Chorum” picks one moment of harmony, speaking against the cacophony that one might expect hearing a song sung in different languages. Archi Galentz’s installation confronts another kind of successful cooperation beyond frontiers: a series of hand tailored suits made in different countries allows him to build a very individual image of a partisan that moves in the spheres inside out of the contemporary art context. Questioning the influence of legacy and real geography, Emily Artinian’s “Dead Dad” installation, including photo and book work, deconstructs the notion of ownership and the heritage of land/property. Olga Jürgenson also questions legacy, but the legacy of national pride: Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, became the hero of a Soviet nation, the “conqueror of sidereal space”. With her multipart installation consisting of stenciled wallpaper, objects and video, she positions herself in the poetical space of childhood and approaches the “alien” with a critical sense of humor. Achot Achot deals with the “alien’s” wounds and the healing potential of art. His video work shows healing as a meditative and quiet process only influenced by time. Finally my work explores the spaces between “place” and the “individual”, deconstructing word in image visually, where enthusiasm prevails over feelings of despair.In between is made up of textual reflections. The artists Achot Achot and Archi Galentz write from a personal level: Achot’s text “Mimikria” explores this phenomenon from the opposite point of view, here it is not the individual who adapts his color or behavior to become part of a context, a context which tries to take over the individual. “Say it loud… displaced and proud” by Galentz is an open letter questioning possible future strategies of the platform under_construction and aching for the discussion about criteria beyond the contemporary art discourse for the further development of the landscape. Christopher Atamian’s text presents his translation of Nigoghos Sarafian’s “Bois de Vincennes”, one of the most important texts from the Armenian Diaspora post Genocide. The essence of this text turns around identity in the Diaspora.
Following this introduction the sociologist and writer Estela Schindel advocates for the joyful search of emancipated partners, while the curator Reet Varblane gives us an overview shared by the Armenian and Estonian art scenes, underlining how interesting it can be to aproach a “net system” from the margins.

1) Ashot Voskanian, in “D’Arménie”: “The Armenian individual and his virtual society”, Le Quartier, Quimper, 20072) See catalogue of the exhibition Underconstruction: Visual dialogue Talking about identities in the Armenian Transnation, Venice, 2007


Imaginary landscapes for a post-national world

by Estela Schindel

Since 2005 artists from different Armenian backgrounds have been meeting and exchanging visual impressions through a virtual platform, which latterly has developed into a blog. Inspired by that experience, a series of Estonian artists were invited to join and expand the dialogue in this virtual space. Subsequently, some of them gathered together in order to think collectively about this process and a possible outcome to be shown.The artists of the original group have been interrogating and deconstructing in their work the established notions of nation and identity as monolithically fixed. They commit to Armenia in ways that go beyond the idea of a nation being geographically or genetically defined. In so doing, they explore new languages and means for recreating this heritage and shaping new imaginary landscapes. Those born under the Soviet block experienced the disintegration of the USSR as a source of instability which deepened a certain sense of lack and loss. Those coming from the Diaspora tended to rebel against the supremacy of an identity based in terms of the tension between home and periphery and to enjoy instead the richness and opportunities posed by multilingualism and cultural diversity. In what Archi Galentz accurately characterizes as a subtle, meditative approach, their work often evokes a sense of being out of place. Not a sense of being displaced as their grandparents, who suffered persecution and exile, experienced, but a positive understanding of their nomadic search. The genocide and the persistence of memory do not emerge in apparent, visually explicit manners, but as a certain form of absence and longing. It is not the historical facts or the political interpretations which are deployed, but rather the silent legacy of an erased presence. Diasporic experience and territorial homeland are assumed as productive poles in a fertile dialogue. Identity becomes rhizomatic, multiple, dynamic and constantly recreated.When the Estonia related artists were invited to join the blog and to discuss in Berlin possibilities for a common development many questions arose. What exactly is this gathering of these Armenian related artists? And what is the purpose of inviting Estonians to work with them? Why should they create something together? What result could come out of this exchange and how – if at all – should it be shown?While the search for responses to these questions opened a still ongoing discussion process, some latent answers are to be found in the artworks themselves. Many underlying affinities can be detected crossing through these and other European peripheries. From another margin of the Western dream, the work of the Estonian artists addresses issues such as citizenship, nationalities, borders and migration. The edges and cities of Europe appear as places where belonging and integration are negotiated, the common market territory is portrayed as one marked by traces of destruction as much as by the promises of capitalism. While a visual dialogue took place on the virtual surface of the blog, allowing mutual approaches and perplexities to follow their own pace, the juxtaposing of participants’ artwork offers by itself a constellation of concerns around related themes. Beyond the hazard of affinities and the circumstances of historical parallels, such as the experience of war or the disintegration of the Soviet regime, biographical and artistic itineraries perform a constant displacement of the rigid borders of what is thought of as “the national”. The re-creation of territories and landscapes operates as a permanent, mobilizing principle. Windows, doors, bridges and thresholds speak to the crossing through of countries and languages. Texts, maps and legal documentation are revisited and employed as means of representation. Testimonies and meditations allow intimate ways of relating to memories, families and homelands, while martyrs and fallen heroes speak for a sense of broken, incomplete national narratives. The healing gesture and hospitality are depicted as messages carrying hope. New approaches to legacy and filiations reshape tradition in alternative ways. The adaptive mechanisms of foreigners are regarded also with an estranged distance: assimilation and cultural resistance are both perceived as futile since the labelling into fixed identities is naught but an external request. As Audre Lorde put it, it is not about being different but about inhabiting the very house of difference.This plural, heterogeneous, multilayered cartography of strangeness can also be read in the spirit of what Deleuze and Guattari, inspired by Kafka, named a “minor literature”: one whose subversive potential is precisely being written from the margins and deterritorializing one terrain as it maps another. It is speaking from the border where other possible communities can be expressed and another sensibility can be forged. For these French philosophers, writing in major languages from a marginalized or minoritarian position allows for linking the subject to the political, the individual to the collective, and erases the major discourses in the manner of a joyful stranger (they even contradict all canonical hermeneutics by posing that Kafka laughs!).

From the porous borders of the academic system concepts such as borderland theorizing, intra-peripherical approaches, hybrid methods and cross-differences alliances are being developed and explored in order to refer to this challenging and questioning of given boundaries. Being out of place, displaced, in geographical and symbolic senses, becomes an affirmative option for eluding the established categories which organize the production and circulation of art and knowledge in terms defined from the centre. 
The search is not for a harbour of identity but for allies in the unsheltered celebration of an emancipated flowing. Not belonging, along with the tranquilizing effect any identifying mechanism would imply, but a perpetual longing and desiring, as a mobilizing, joyful vital force. 

We need flexible networks but we do not want to be spiders

by Reet Varblane

When Silvina Der-Meguerditchian visited Tallinn in December 2007 to speak about the next ”Under_construction” exhibition in Tallinn, my first idea was to organize something together: to add Estonian artists to this Armenian group and to create a dialogue in our artspace. And not only an Armenian-Estonian dialogue, but following the „Under_construction” model, a dialogue of “foreign” Armenian artists and “foreign” Estonian artists. But from here we came to the first question: what does it mean to be a foreign Estonian artist? Who are these artists who live and work in the exile? How to define the foreign Estonian?When talking about foreign Estonian artists, writers, composers, etc. in the Estonian context, one often means cultural people who left (or were made to leave) Estonia in 1944 when it became clear that Estonia would be occupied (again) by the Soviet Union. We even have an extended, state-financed programme for study this foreign culture. Mostly these people began to work in the cultural scene already in Estonia and then continued mostly inside their new Estonian community, in the inner circle – in the Estonian Houses or in the galleries which were meant mostly for foreign Estonian people. They were interested in their identity – especially in how to define themselves inside a foreign country, culture and language – but in their cultural action they carried on in the same aesthetic way as they did in Estonia, or else tried to join international art tendencies, or to preserve something that could be defined as Estonian (Estonian national signs, costums, customs, the country-side way of life) but which has nothing to do with the real, actual identity of these people inside the foreign situation and environment. The next generation who were born in the new homeland were not too interested in Estonia, especially during the period of occupation. Later, especially in the very beginning of the 1990s, the young generation was quite eager to discover their parents’ homeland, their roots, but this remained mostly a ‘one-night stand’. Their home (language, friends, comprehensions) was somewhere else. And, is there any sense at all in talking about national culture in the narrower sense in the context of the contemporary, postmodernist culture? It seems a relic, especially in the context of big metropolis, multi-cultural Western countries, “post-societies” (post-colonial, post-national). However, all people, everywhere, always face the problem of identity – who are we? Where do we belong? Do we belong anywhere? From where have we come? Where and which is my own place? Do we have any place or we are displaced? Dislanguaged? And does nationality have any importance, any meaning among the character references? Who are we if we have been born in England, our parents’ nationality is Estonian, we happen to live in Argentina, our home language (our children’s language) is Spanish but most of our friends speak English and we know barely a few words in our ancestral language? Or if we have been born in Estonia in a Ukrainian family whose home language is Russian but we happen to live in Germany and our everyday languages are equally German and English? Which characteristics then have the most significance?Since the collapse of the totalitarian system of the Soviet Union in the beginning of the 1990s it has been really easy to change ones place of residence (and language in accordance to the new place or to the rules of international linguistic performance). Does this mean the change of culture? Identity? Where is the border we could not cross in order to preserve ourselves, to not get lost?In light of these questions I and Silvina Der-Meguerditchian, group leader and curator of the „Under_construction” project, decided to shift to the perspective, and to solicit proposals from Estonian artists who either (1) live in Estonia but have more complicated backgrounds (in a national or linguistic sense, or in both); or (2) have an Estonian identity (in a national and in a linguistic sense) but happen to live somewhere else and because of that have changed something in their identity (or share different identities) or, (3) even if they do not have Estonian identity in the national or language sense, they have dealt with and been interested in Estonian identity – or more precisely, in the potential identities in Estonia. In the first selection there were Mare Tralla and Olga Jürgenson who have Estonian backgrounds but who both live in United Kingdom. However their backgrounds are slightly different: Mare Tralla has grown up completely in the Estonian cultural environment – in the national and in the linguistic sense, whereas Olga Jürgenson has grown up in the Russian cultural environment (in the Russian language context). And Eleonore de Montesquiou who is by the background French but who has been connected with Estonia because of her Russian grandmother who happens to live in Estonia, and who has had great interest in how to define the identity of people who happen to be engaged with Estonia. And Tanja Muravskaja who is Ukrainian by nationality, whose first language is Russian but who acts in the Estonian cultural space. And Kristina Norman who has mixed nationality, whose early education was in a Russian language based school and who acts in the Estonian cultural scene. However, all of these artists act in the international art scene. For one or another reason in the current exhibition at the Tallinn City Gallery there are only two artists from the Estonian side – Olga Jürgenson and Eleonore de Montesquiou. But they are absolutely perfect partners in this Armenian – Estonian dialogue.
Estonia and Armenia have had a long connection, cooperation, and understanding of each other. I remember that we Estonians envied Armenians for their excellent relationship with their diaspora. Even more, foreign Armenians supported occupied Armenia not only through relatives or friends but also on a public, cultural level. The first contemporary art museum in the Soviet Union was founded in the capital of Armenia. And it happened with the help of the foreign Armenian community.

I’d like to remember one incident involving the cooperation of Armenian and Estonian artists and curators. At the end of the 1970s curators from the Tartu Art Museum and the Armenian Contemporary Art Museum mounted an exhibition of contemporary Armenian art at the Tartu Art Museum. It was really progressive in that context, mostly abstract paintings. As these two museums had very good connections then they made a joint decision to continue the exhibition and as the Tartu Art Museum had good connections with Lithuania, Kaunas, the exhibition was taken there. But during installation, authorities from the Moscow Communist Party happened to visit. When they saw the exhibition, they were confused: both because it was abstract work and also because Estonian art curators were behind the exhibition. And when one of the authorities attacked the art, saying that it did not mean anything, that it was trash, then my good colleague – an excellent art historian, and friend of Armenia – protected the Armenian artists’ works, saying that it was not the artist’s mistake but the uneducated receiver’s one. This case caused a big scandal: the director of the Tartu Art Museum was punished by the cultural ministry authorities. And not because of the honest and maybe a little bit arrogant answer, but because two small nations (both occupied) collaborated by themselves, made their own choices and, what was even worse, their own network. And they advanced their identity by this network.Ten years ago, in December 1998, a group from the Estonian Art Academy studying applied aesthetics and the semiotics of art initiated a seminar „Place and Location”. The aim of the seminar was to study man’s relationship with the environment, proceeding from the practice of signification: how does man define and signify his surroundings, and what is the role of language in these processes. In her study „The Road that Takes and Points” Kaia Lehari, one of the founders of this group and seminars, writes about roads and lines which „continuously and vigorously shape man’s world”: „A strong and flexible net enables one to move in each direction, starting from the centre. From here it is possible to rule over information happening in the net. A spider rules the area over which it has woven its net. The idea is to bind the prey, deprive it of freedom and get it entangled since it is not able to find its way among the net of sticky threads, as it is poisoned and totally confused. The ambient network embodies a society: the denser and wider the net, the easier it is to manipulate the victim. The net embodies power that can even catch the spirit in its net and increase injustice.” But this is only one way to understand the net-system: another is to start not from the centre but from the border, uniting the small outside points. 

It is just what „Under_construction” and now ”thisPLACEd” does.

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. 

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