Dear friends, This is an open letter about the future strategies of our development. I think it is necessary to raise some issues just before the Tallinn exhibition, which will play an important role in our self understanding.
Remember the intensive May 2008 meeting in Berlin with artists and curators both from our group and from Estonia. We did not only learn about each other, and present our own work and positions, but, for our proposed exhibition in the Tallinn City Hall Gallery, also had to find a clear answer to the question “why develop a trans-national group project for a national public institution?”. There was also the complex problem of finding a satisfying “common denominator” for Armenian diaspora artists and the Estonia related artists.
The first working title proposed was „displaced persons“. This was meant in a positive sense, referring to two small nations with many historical and current parallel issues, including those of diaspora, minorities, immigration, being a “toy ball” of larger geopolitical interests, and so on. On one hand it was felt this would be a catchy name, probably guaranteeing a clear discourse; however it could also trap the viewer into stereotypes. This kind of “victim” position, politically correct and frequently found in contemporary art, had something unacceptable, deconstructing our group philosophy badly. That was the point at which we had to debate and persuade so that the emphasis was moved. Finally, a solution in the form of a different title, “thisPLACEd”, was suggested by Silvina.
We as a group of Armenia related artists do not have a worked out doctrine to relate; instead what we have developed is a number of significant projects. One starting point was the 2003 exhibition “Getting Closer” in Berlin's ifa-galerie¹. The basic concept was the decision not to show predictable images intended to arouse in viewers what one might call “social-pornographic” feelings. For instance, there were no sentimental black and white photos of the regions that suffered from the 1988 earthquake, no defenceless refugees, no “clochards” and other victims of a failed “communist utopia”. And still it was a very “Armenian” show, or maybe it is better to say “diasporic” show in its best way – a collaboration, based on trust, respect for and real interest in every artist and every piece. Later on, Silvina der Meguerditchian, Achot Achot and I organized other projects, integrating a whole landscape of other artists. The constellation of participants was always different, depending on context and possibilities: the experience became our common practice. There were exhibitions in institutions such as museums in Helsinki, Belgrade, Skopje, Medellin. There were video screenings and presentations in galleries, artist run spaces and other venues in Berlin, Bonn, Paris, Buenos Aires and Venice.
We developed as artists in a belief that contemporary art is a universal language, and the early hope of our under_construction group was to integrate dispersed artists of Armenian descent and, importantly, to activate Armenian communities, making them interested in us as artists performing modern concepts of identity. We started to speak about nonmainstream topics. We wanted more than another line on a CV, more than exhibitions in “good venues”; we wanted a creative manifestation and real experience, understanding that we as Armenian diaspora artists are already in a situation which many artists of other nationalities are beginning to have to face, as the times of a national state are gone.
One thing that has become clear to me and to the other artists is that in the late 90s and up to the present, those living in countries with developed art systems have found themselves excluded from serious support and interest. They are already cut off from their homeland community, but are not real “aborigines” anymore – to be shown to the western public as an exotic example illustrating the clichéd “insights” of the mass media and politicians. This might be seen as a sort of paranoia, but it comes from personal experience, seeing firsthand how nationalistic clichés have been pushed through international exhibition halls with help of “compradores”, “kulturträger”, and other knights of the cold war period who wear grey suits, make capital on middle class resentments and play a huge role in turning art into show business.
Probably it is more than coincidence that the main creative core of our group in one or another way have not followed the common, usual artistic career path. Being somewhat apart from the “system”, many of us facefinancial problems as artists and have to search for uncommon resources. In 2006 a known French museum was gathering video works from Armenia based artists for a group of exhibitions for the “year of French-Armenian cultural exchange”. We as diaspora artists were not welcomed to participate. The local Armenian curator got paid for a text in the catalogue, but local artists received just 100 Euro for an entire years display of their works in museum and other institutions. This is an example of how democratisation of the contemporary art business goes hand in hand with its “proletarianisation”. I think our group should continue to use every possibility to cooperate with foundations and institutions, but from the position of the emancipated and skeptical player. I find it is more valid to make a living as a designer or restorer, teacher or translator and so on. Let us keep in mind the historical figure of Spinoza the Jewish philosopher of the Enlightenment who lived in a diaspora and preferred to make his living as a lens polisher but be free to develop his own philosophy, rather than to deny his ideas and beliefs, beholden to his orthodox community. Could he be our new saint?
We have to find time to start to construct some clearly defined philosophy, possibly acting in other fields, not only in artistic expression: the example of our collaboration forces us to continue discussions of what it is what we are doing and why it is good to share. Today we are preparing for the exhibition with Estonia related artists and hope to use the week of coming together for intensive face to face communication. Being as we are transnational, or multi-geographied, we have an opportunity to avoid falling into the role of the “victim”: in fact, we are survival experts. We have arrived at this position of stressing the positive aspects of being different, alone, geographically dispersed and un-integrated: we should take the next logical step and realize that we will probably always keep one foot out of the contemporary art system. Its strength is in its flexibility: the changes are already happening and we better face them as prepared actors and not marrionettes.
There are some brave thinkers like German media theorist Peter Weibel who, for instance, explains that the whole of western art is written from the position of the cold war, going so far as to announce that all the books on art of the 20th century are “maculature”². That’s why the most professional thing to do is to write own histories. I consider it is the time for us to decide if we are ready to stop running after the “train that left”, consolidate our efforts and to decide clearly which way to move tomorrow.
For me personally, the position of an independent artist is very near to that of an arrieregardist fighter. Contemporary art uses this term mostly to name something back oriented, a phonetic contradiction to an avantgarde³. I use it as in the sense meant by the fathers of military theory Jomini and Klausewitz, to speak about the one who faces the enemy without a reserve army behind him, and without a general who watches and commands. The arrieregarde fighter, this metaphor, is very much about survival, about keeping contact with your comrade, about taking care. A craftsman artist becomes not a compromise, but a healthy constellation: I suggest we see this position as a chance. One of my favorite contemporary thinkers, the Slovenian born Slavoj Zizek criticized the new European oppositions to the neo liberal order, comparing them not as usual with the marginal, but with the strategy of the hysteric who needles his master permanently with unrealistic demands. The same happens also in art: criticism is an important part of and is exposed proudly from the system, to present its tolerant nature, but the requests are from the same unemancipated manner: more exhibition space, more money for whatever, more attention from mass media…
We are often expected to play the role of the victim, but we build instead our own virtual and physical spaces. This means for me, let us stop thinking of playing a passive role in an old system, where someone else knows what is better, but let us keep on searching for new and independent criteria. Let us become “thisPLACEd”.
Archi Galentz, Berlin, last days of 2008
1) See exhibition catalogue "Getting Closer - four Armenians are looking for a way out" ifa-galerie Berlin 2003. 2)See Peter Weibel “Der Kalte Krieg und die Kunst” in “Zurück aus der Zukunft”, Edition Suhrkamp 2452, 2005, page 49. 3) See Clement Greenberg’s “Avantgarde and kitsch”, essay from 1939, the beginning of part 2
The link with reality is created when one understands the surrounding world as a part of himself.
I lived in the USSR for 30 years but realized its real existence only after its breakdown. Which means that I did not live in it but rather in my own sensorial world which only God and I were aware of. I still do not understand those conversations about the difference between nations and the Armenians being a nation of worldwide historical importance. Later, after having lived for 7 years in France, I returned to Armenia. The country where I was born and grew up did not exist anymore. I felt like a tourist discovering a new country and new people. Everything had changed; I had changed too, but my constant world was always with me: it followed me everywhere. It turned out that I was born and I had grown up in the Soviet Union, but had never lived in it. I do not know if this phenomenon affects others. I used to wear a Pioneer tie but I was never a Young Pioneer; I used to give bribes while shopping but did not know I was bribing; passing through the main place of the city during a May Day I was just moving from one point to another. Which means that such a country does not exist and that in 1993 I left neither the remains of an imaginary Soviet Union nor the quickly made up Armenian Republic: I left my missed unity with people who wanted to live and communicate with each other in the Armenian way of life, which had been strange to me from earliest childhood. The artist is a special plant: the phenomenon of mimicry does not extend to him. External conditions only accelerate or slow down his growth. For the artist, art is the best way to understand reality because only art preserves the form of an emotional experience in social life. As a sharply perceiving individual, he is a stranger to the collective consciousness, which explains the gap between collective perception and his production: his production is made as a transformation of individual consciousness. As an artist, can I consider myself to be a social singularity? Is there a social border in my consciousness? Why does social communication bring suffering and feelings of unhappiness where there is no culprit? Social frameworks imposed on the artist are less oppressive than ethnic, national and traditional ones. The latter restrict personal freedom in one’s life choices and thinking: they become the police of free self-expression.Carl Andre has noticed: “Art is what we do. Culture is what is done to us.” In order to simplify and make it accessible for all, art is turned into culture. Armenians do not manage to make a decision: being between the West and the East, Armenia is like a tree with roots extending towards the East leaves reaching towards the West. Sometimes these leaves fall down and the branches, as the logical continuation of roots, are stripped bare of their true origin. The genetic code contained in blood actively participates in the creative process, defining the temperament and the thermo-chromatic nature of the work. It is the strongest link connecting me as a person and as an artist with Armenia and Armenians. People are constantly looking to belong to a culture, a nation and a homeland, a phenomenon which leads to a total disappearance of the reality of individual existence. As for my own experience, this research led me to discover the real Me, beyond all sociopolitical, national-geographical conventions. Spiritual values have no similar classifications. This is entirely another platform: God and soul. Their communication is beyond social links; they are purely personal relations based on an unconditional love and full devotion. God cannot be Armenian, Jewish, or French. After coming to understand one’s true essence, one cannot continue to have any feelings of national identity. Only at such a level is social reality transformed to perfect personal harmony between people and all existence. The cause of all of our worries is our broken communication with the Absolute; however, one searches for other reasons naively thinking that the material accomplishment will bring the peace to the whole world. Actually, one forgets that envy, avidity, anger, laziness and arrogance destroy every day our universal harmony. Attachment to one’s body is the single force behind all our illusory activity. Thirst for power and glory is the goal of the weak. These are expressed in the accumulation of human labour, in money. In artworks, the artist’s experience and meaning of life are present. That is why artworks are the most expensive objects on earth. On earth, but not in the sky. Before my departure from Armenia the director of the cultural centre where I used to teach told me as a goodbye : «... Leave, it is also a way to preserve the Armenian culture». These words were a great relief. I have often asked myself: did I Achot Achot or did I simply go to live in France? Most likely neither. The reasons were a desire for moral freedom and moral noninterferencewith one’s private life, both of which were always absent in Soviet Armenia and remain so in the post-Soviet system. Artas an invisible balsam softens and cures the wounds of the soul. It is not able to carry out administrative, social, or political functions: in so doing it would cease to be art and would be another activity. As spiritual activity, art is directed towards the soul, towards its study, and towards the restoration of love, as its very best quality. What we today call contemporary art is nothing but the carrier of ideology of the state. The contemporary art dictatorship is very similar to the dictatorship of socialist realism expressed through the praise of the socialist system and the cult of personality. Contemporary art does the same, but under pretexts such as the protection of the environment, of nonviolence, of human rights, etc.
Institutions finance such projects, but after two or three short years these burst like soap bubbles. Because an artist making such work doesn’t live the life he preaches in the end the result is always: «Consume better, consume more». Such institutions have continued to feed "elites", when there is no necessity for a reinforcement of the ideology of consumption: the products of consumption themselves already accomplish this function.Today one has the impression that the Armenian people, throughout their existence, dreamt only to fill up their stomachs and to drive the smartest cars. Such mentality is very strange to me and it is this which violently pushed me out from this environment which is opposite to the nature of human love. It is difficult and almost impossible to live there where anything subtle and sublime is trodden for the sake of the Armenian way of life and happiness: «I live well because you live badly». «Love your neighbour» is replaced by a more "biblical" «humiliate your neighbour». It was the typical position of a “respectable person” during the Soviet period. It is still the same in this era of wildly developing capitalism. In my own case mimicry did not work either in the homeland or abroad. Society kills personal relations with an ideology of continuous economic development and consumption at the highest level. Finally, man is not necessary to anybody: neither in his homeland nor in a foreign land. He is the one who needs them for the protection of his little personal freedom. Both the homeland and the foreign land are of the same essence: human congestion on mother earth. People move on it and create new states, calling them homelands. But to whom belongs the homeland? If I can easily leave my homeland, do I not belong to it and it does not need me? I think, most likely it is the case that it sends me to foreign lands for its own rescue... All our geographical movements are linked with the search for freedom, which exists only in our personal dictionary. The rest is a matter of history, that misleading science. Freedom and the right to be oneself are inherent to high civilization. In European countries this freedom and this right are present on a platform of moderate or well controllable egotism. In the Armenian child, egotism is cultivated from birth; then, as a teenager, he is sure that he is the best in the world. He who, because of education and an open consciousness does not think like this, accepts a similar protective position: “I am like everybody but slightly better”. One of the important values of a high civilization is compassion. It is a sign of spiritual progress and of a healthy society. Compassion can be reached by disinterested execution of a duty. In the Vedic concept of the perfect society it is said: «The King should sacrifice his personal interests for the sake of family interests, family interests for the sake of state interests, state interests for the sake of his people’s interests and his people’s for the sake of interests of the whole of humanity».Each nation writes its own history and the history of the others, taking into account such values as justice, honor, freedom, love for one’s neighbor... but from a position of national interest, without understanding that such values cannot be national. I have never liked history and never trusted it. From "historical" considerations people have come to hate other people, and have inflated their own vanity and arrogance. The same history justifies violence and revenge, proceeding as always from national interests. History is written by personal ambitions fed by a collective consciousness. With people as well as with animals and plants mimicry is an instinct of self-preservation. I do not require this instinct, it is only an imaginary defense, it is one of the most direct forms of exploitation of man by man. True protection of the person comes from above and is not influenced by social, or ethnic, or personal cataclysms. This is the protection that moves me in time and space.
To build (a landscape)
Creating a context where it’s possible to re-think the dimension “national” belonging, beyond a specific geography. Questioning the relationship between centre/periphery (Diaspora and the Republic of Armenia). Approaching our self understanding not as an archipelago1, but rather as the system of a river delta, flowing from land into one ocean, lake, another river… a landscape formed by accumulations of sediments carried by the stream as the flow leaves the mouth of the river2: the islands and islets, the canals and new bifurcations of this stream are in constant movement and evolution. Relating to the water stream. Thinking further a dynamic that follows the cycle of water condensing to steam, building clouds and raining over the earth. Changing different estates of density, but not living in the liquid modernity defined by Zygmunt Bauman, nor the evanescent structure of Sloterdijk’s foam theory of society…3 because our landscape transports sediments, therefore being a combination of water and earth… Relating us to the delta landscape. Reinforcing the existing links and creating through exchange new and stronger streams. One might speculate that Mesopotamia4, formed by the Tigris and the Euphrates, which leads into a delta, and was also the first geography of the Armenians, continues to structure their mental landscape thousands of years later.
Giving is the warm energy that flows, nourishing, bringing life, curiosity and respect for the other in this delta as the gulfstream does in the sea. Taking time to understand the other. Cultivating the interest for the other and not only interest for the self, which is so widespread in contemporary society. Giving a real sense to the word dialog, a term that has become commonplace, but that still is not well understood by most people. Cultivating the model of a mobile personality, whose central feature is empathy, "the ability of the human being to see himself in the situation of others”. Pushing the next dialectic turn of the spiral. Moving from Silvina Der-Meguerditchian Performative acts 53 times marked by the marketing slogan “Geiz ist geil” (Miserliness is cool!) to Sloterdijk’s “period of balance between Thymos (the awareness driven by those proud to be able to give something) and Eros, (the desire driven by lack) that has been dominant in recent years”5.
Making our equation look to others as potential partners, rather as potential contenders. Sharing information, knowledge, feelings, connections, resources and professional tools. Using the surfaces of the field of contemporary art, without becoming subordinate to its rules. Integrating our dispersed situation into our identity, not fighting against it. Using the tools created by new technology to achieve our purposes. Adding pilgrims/intellectuals from other fields (historians, sociologists, psychologists, philosophers, musicians, writers) to our landscape. Adding our historical absences to our pragmatic reality. Enjoying presences. Learning from the experience of duality/plurality of other cultures, such as in this case, the Estonian/Russian culture.
Sowing contemporary gardens (the garden of democracy, the garden of human rights, the garden of respect, the garden of memory, the garden of equality). Cultivating joy. Helping new gardens and
gardeners to flourish, gardeners who will take care, irrigate and raise our delicate seedlings, here and now. Nobody can deny our right to cultivate our culture, music, writing, painting... Cultures
that don’t develop become museum artefacts, nations that don’t produce culture become “fossil nations”. If we want to live, we have to flow, and not in only one direction.
Accepting the nebulosity of the Diaspora. Recognizing our nature as a cascade of paradoxes and contradictions: to be in and out of society at the same time. Sharing our points of view because we have the ability to feel the dimensions of closeness and remoteness simultaneously. Considering this historical consciousness of cultural autonomy as skill. Valorising the regulating and innovating power of minorities for the society. Understanding that our primary conscience of the earth “as an open space where we live with others” is a precious experience and richness worth sharing.
1) In “D’ Armenie“ « La Diaspora: periferique or archipelique? » in Arménographie : dispersion des lieux- discontinuité de temps, Anna Barseghian and Stefan Kristensen. In the essay the authors suggest to consider the notion of archipelago to approach the interrogation of identity in the Diaspora, where the different Armenian communities are islands and the Republic Armenia is the bigger island.
2) According to the different aglomerations and migrations, (Lebanese-Armenians, Iranian- Armenians in the 1970s, the exodus from the Republic of Armenia to the USA and Europe in the past 15 years, to speak only of the largest migrations from the last 30 years).
3) Sloterdijk uses the image of foam to describe society as a conglomeration of multiple cells, fragile, different, isolated and permeable. In Sloterdijk’s theory of society foam is also a metaphor used to describe multitudes of tissues and habitats embedded one inside the other.
4) Etymologically: “in between rivers”.
5) DIE ZEIT, Dez. 2008-Interview
Laddaga, Reinaldo, Estética de la emergencia, Buenos Aires, 2006
Agamben Giorgio, Das Offene, Der Mensch und das Tier, Frankfurt, 2003
Dabag Mihran- Platt Kristin, Ed. Identität in der Fremde, Bochum, 1993
Kristeva Julia, Fremde sind wir uns selbst, Frankfurt, 1990 Le langage, cet inconnu, Paris, 1981
Bataille Georges, Lo que entiendo por soberanía, Barcelona, 1996
Altounian Janine, La survivance- Traduire le trauma collectif, Paris, 2000
Founded in 2004 by Silvina Der-Meguerditchian, Underconstruction is 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.