Women-Oriented Women’s Collective August 3-4, 2008, Yerevan, Armenia
Zarubyan 34, Utopiana and Women’s Resource Center
Women-Oriented Women (WOW). Exhibition Project: Arpi Adamyan, Shushan Avagyan, Sarah Chance, Lusine Chergeshtyan, Adrineh, Angela Harutyunyan, Alina Martiros, Astghik Melkonyan, Lusine Talalyan, Tsomak
Parting and Reunion as Processes of Subjectivization
By Angela Harutyunyan
The opening of the exhibition took place on August 3rd, in the garden of Utopiana and Women’s Resource Center in Yerevan, and the 4th was reserved for a video screening and public discussions. The correspondent of gazeta.ru in Armenia writes that the exhibition was the first ecological artistic activism in Armenia, while Polish curator Pawel Leszkowicz comments in his Yerevan impressions on rhiz.eu that the exhibition was the first one to represent experiences of Armenian homosexual and bisexual women (“as well as straight women allies”). However, many were confused by the lack of representation or at least a type of representation which is constructed by the hetero-normative regime to convey and materialize homosexual women’s experience. It seemed that the confusion was partly caused by the absence of a direct and clear message as well as easily identified codes of perceived homosexuality: there were no pornographic works or outwardly provocative gestures. In its willingness to pose questions rather than impose answers as well as with its lack of a single thematic line, the exhibition was more of a discursive platform than a representational project. Although opening up a discussion of experiences of concrete women, it nevertheless had no claims of presenting and expressing these experiences or specifically packaged identities. We wanted to talk not so much about the expressions of queer identities but about a queering look. This was a look, which never repeats or always repeats as “the same but not quite.” The ambiguity, always already present in the look, was that which defined the project not as a complete representational show but as a platform for communication. It was this ambiguity that our colleague-artists friends, completely immersed in a revolutionary fervor of the present moment, described as a politically inappropriate position. They were talking with a tone of revolutionary urgency which demands direct and clear-cut statements. Instead, the project was offering self-reflection and negotiation, which brought about a set of questions: Is visibility always empowering? Is it possible to find ways of subjectivisation which do not assume an expression of pre-existing identities and in which what is visible can be deceiving and partial while what is invisible, inaudible and ungraspable, meaningful? Is it possible to articulate subjectivities or modes of subjectivisation in-between visibility and invisibility, within the inherently relational exchange between the Self and the Other and in the dialectics of partition and coming together.
The identity politics of the post-modern age packages and sells identities and differences, taking outwardly manifested and self-stylized appearances as signs of these differences; it commercializes and bureaucratizes desires. Instead, “Coming to You Not To Be With You” does not exclude the failure of desire within the dialectics of partition and reunion, thus it escapes the circle of being identified and marketed, easily named and framed. It strives to offer an ongoing dialogue which never excludes the possibility of failure of communication either.
A Conversation with Members of the Women-Oriented Women’s Collective, who organized the exhibit “Coming to You to not Be with You” as part of their ongoing project of Self-Mapping: Queering the City
By Shushan Avagyan
The idea of “self-mapping” came about in a very spontaneous way; in December 2007 Sarah and I had gone to see an exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, which we started to discuss on the Women-Oriented Women’s (WOW) listserv: “The exhibit is about the streets, buildings, and boroughs of Chicago. The artists have used various techniques: embroidery, photography, graffiti, one of the works consisted of Arabic spices and herbs to create a mandala-shaped map, i.e. the map of the Arab neighborhood in Chicago perceived through the subjectivity of the artist. In other words, the topography of the city conceived through your own prism of perception and interpretation. There also were video-installations . . .” Angela Harutyunyan responded: “I like this idea of mapping of the self, especially because it is connected with issues that I have been lately obsessed with: imaginary geography, “phantasmic topography,” the city not as it really is but as it exists in our consciousness, in our imagination, or as we see it, feel it, perceive it through our bodies. I think that there is some radical potential in this kind of different, diverse conception of the city (rather than the symbolic regime dictating us how to perceive things, conditioning modes of behavior which serve to power structures)—imagining, interpreting and claiming the space of the city through our own memories, on our terms and in our ways . . . To broaden the idea of mapping, we can also question the recent architectural changes in the city and the forms of desire and subjectivity that they prescribe.” Then we started thinking seriously about these issues and bouncing ideas from our own perspectives. Lusine Chergeshtyan wrote back: “We could base our self-mapping on the topography of love and relationship: memories that record chronologically where and when we first talked about queerness, spaces in which we have had positive experiences and felt free, or spaces that have confined or oppressed us, spaces where we met and formed a group, where we found allies who understood us and whom we understood . . .” Astghik Melkonyan began to conceive her self-mapping in terms of performance art: “There will be silhouettes of couples. I haven’t decided how many, but they are going to be life-size, or maybe not so large. They will be on the ground. I will use flour, sieved through a kitchen flour sifter. Which means I’ll have to make a large template and use the flour to achieve the stenciled image . . . I want to have several images in several places and I need people to be able to interact with those images . . .” Adrineh and Alina Martiros, both from Canada, joined the group in March, and in August the collective—Arpi Adamyan, Astghik Melkonyan, Tsomak, Lusine Talalyan, Adrineh, Lusine Chergeshtyan, Alina Martiros, Angela Harutyunyan, Sarah Chance and I—gathered in the garden of Zarubyan 34 in Yerevan.
Shushan Avagyan: My first question is for Lusine Talalyan. Why was it significant for you to participate in this project of self-mapping (now that you are looking back at the exhibit after approximately a month)? What expectations did you have during the initial stages of the project, during the summer of 2007, and at the end, after one year? Also, what was the strangest or the most unexpected aspect for you in regards to the exhibit? For example, the most bizarre thing for me was the unanimous silence of the news media about the project, with the exception of the Russian paper, gazeta.ru, which echoed with a small article.
Lusine Talalyan: When we had just started thinking about a collective project and when we held our first meetings, I imagined that we would unite as a large group of women and try to understand our own sexualities, our place in society and also our place in the realm of art. It was perhaps the association with society (or the idea of “coming out” to the public) that became one of the main reasons that created arguments, disagreements, and some artists refused to participate in the project. Or maybe that wasn’t the only reason, but in any case, that objective, that desire to have a unified group of artists wasn’t fully realized in the end. The only open manifests about the focus of our project (the mapping of our “queer” selves onto the city) were the placards that we posted all over the city and the blog that we created, oh and, of course, the fact that we invited news reporters. But the most desirable prospect that was realized for me was that we all came together and that the exhibit happened. This is the only (queer) exhibit that I have participated in. We came together being so diverse but at the same time being able to underline our similarities, and this was the most exciting and unexpected thing for me. And it made me think that about the Soviet epoch when they tried gay men, not women, which brought many people to think that gay men were more oppressed than women (homosexuality has always been associated with men, they have been incarcerated and punished for being gay, etc.). But maybe the issue is elsewhere: the fact that queer women weren’t incarcerated back then, meaning that a woman’s violation of societal laws wasn’t conceived as a “violation” and hence completely censored or erased from society’s consciousness, is very much analogous to contemporary views. It falls into the same logic of reporters “failing” to report about the exhibit; this phenomenon is precisely the same politics of erasure. It’s that same mentality that says: sexual relationships between women can’t be taken seriously or it can’t be perceived seriously and so there is no reason to even talk about that . . .
Shushan Avagyan: What do you think is our greatest fear in regards to society? Some of the artists in our project, including yourself, have shown their work in large-scale exhibitions, but in those exhibitions their work wasn’t thematized or labeled as “queer.”
Lusine Talalyan: I’ll talk about my own fears regarding society. One of my biggest fears is coming out to my parents: no matter how strongly I believe or hypothesize that they know, I am certain that they don’t want to HEAR about it, and so I don’t want to talk to them about it. At first I was afraid that they might hear from somewhere else or from someone else, but as strange as it is now I don’t care about that. If they find out, that’s fine, but I am not going to come out to them. I don’t know, perhaps I might have a different view on this later . . .
But what I’m afraid of most is that we (as a collective) might become an instrument, that not only do they not critique or label us, but on the contrary, they decide to support us financially, presenting themselves as advocates of progressivism. This implies glamorizing and normalizing what is queer and turning us into their ideological tokens. In the first case with labeling, I think that it’s possible to have or to create a genuine dialog, whereas in the second case the opportunity for a dialog is lost. This is why it was so important that we didn’t have any international organizations that supported us financially; we did everything through our own means and abilities.
When you talk about labeling in exhibitions, what do you mean, Shushan, labeling done by artists themselves or by critics? This brings up a very interesting point, and I had completely forgotten about it—the exhibit that I did with Tatevik (Hakobyan) in 2004, titled “Anyone Who Has the Delusion to Consider Herself Not Deceived.” The fact that I’d forgotten that my works have been discussed in terms of lesbian relations, means something. Susanna Gyulamiryan was the curator and the entire text was about lesbian relations in terms of failed love. Then, of course, it was this project of self-mapping that made it possible to talk publicly about homosexuality in Armenia through art, and most importantly not as a gossip, at that. Today, Arpi, Lara and I were talking about the exhibit again and how, for us, the project was realized, that the event had taken place, and that our objective wasn’t at all to produce a final “product” . . .
Shushan Avagyan: Arpi, you have participated in a variety of exhibitions in the past—was this one any different? How so? What motivates your own project of self-mapping?
Arpi Adamyan: My first exhibition was at NPAK when I was 15; I wasn’t even a student at the Academy of Fine Arts yet. I have periodically shown my work in group exhibitions at NPAK and other places since then. Meeting artists such as Lusine and Asya, who are older than me, has helped me understand many things. It is perhaps for this reason that being queer has never been strange to me (a confounding contradiction of the terms “queer” and “strange”). It was never shocking to me when I came out to myself. And I would like to thank both Lusines (Talalyan and Chergeshtyan), Asya, Sona for this.
Shushan Avagyan: How was your collaboration with Lusine Talalyan conceived and what form did it acquire at the end? Is that how you imagined the piece from the very beginning?
Arpi Adamyan: I have always had an affective connection with Lusine’s work; for me, her videos represent the moving version of my paintings. Lusine might not necessarily agree with me—these are my own perceptions. Surely there are differences in our works as well, but by speaking about similarities I want to stress how unified our work is. Collaboration became possible, I think, due to the fact that we kept influencing one another during the past few months. For me, this is an important factor, since it replaced the conventional “malady” of artists, if you will, the imperative to be original, unique, with the need to be unified, to be able to solve issues together, and to share a perspective . . .
After several other collaborative projects I can say that this was my first collaboration that was successful and wasn’t just limited to the designated one week of the show but is continuing till this day. During one of our conversations Lusine underscored that “giving and taking” works for us. I am saying this because her opinion is very important to me.
You were asking if there were any differences between this exhibition and the past ones . . . I don’t know if there is a difference or if I would like to see a difference, but in the previous exhibitions I have never felt a unity among participants. The most imperative thing for me today, I think, is unity—searching for the different ways to unify, taking one another into consideration, seeing and hearing one another, etc. This is what motivated me and mostly I have found what I was looking for.
Shushan Avagyan: What does “Coming to You to not Be with You” mean? How does it describe our exhibit?
Angela Harutyunyan: I think that on one hand the title expresses the dialectic of the relations between the group, i.e. collective, and the individual, and on the other hand it shows the dialectic between the very intimate levels of the interpersonal. This incorporates the idea of being together and not being together at the same time, which means that group communication is taking place not on the basis of collective agreement, which always implies a majority of consensus, but also on the basis of collective disagreement. The Speaker, the “I’ relates to the Other not as an object but as yet another desiring subject. But this desire does not exclude also non-desire or, what’s even more precise, the desire of failed desire. I think it is at this point that the two aspects of the title—the collective and the interpersonal—collapse. Indeed the title is very dialectical . . . Yet at the same time the title crystallizes our fears, in terms of being seen and not being seen. We become visible, we come out to the audience, but only and always partially . . .
Lusine Talalyan: Women have always played the role of the one who waited and waits for the man, take, for instance, Odysseus’ wife Penelope. In our case, it is the woman who is coming and it’s not clear who she is coming to. She is, as if, present and absent both at the same time, and breaks the stereotype of passivity and waiting.
Adrineh: It’s like we are trying to say to the other that we want to approach, to come closer, but that we are different, that we differ and we are coming without the anticipation that in order to understand one another we should be alike. We want to be accepted as queer women: we don’t want to change in order to be like you. We are what we are, and that’s all, yes?
This article is forthcoming in the 2nd issue of the bilingual journal Feminist, published by the Women’s Resource Center in Yerevan.