In and Between (english)

Interview with: 
Queering Yerevan

Queering Yerevan, a collective of artists and activists in the capital of Armenia, elaborates on "slant activism" and the idea of "egalitarian invisibility" in public spaces.

migrazine.at: What's the history of the Queering Yerevan collective?

Queering Yerevan: The Queering Yerevan (QY) collective has named and defined itself variously since 2007, when a group of artists, writers, cultural critics and activists started to collaborate with each other in various forms to mainly "queer," de-automate, subvert, and use the capital of Armenia, Yerevan, as an experimental space for new cultural production. From the very beginning, the task of the collective has been to disturb habitual perception by rendering the familiar in unfamiliar terms in order to slow down automated perception. A QY act, in other words, is a form of slant activism, which differs from conventional acts of intervention that use direct or straightforward language to get across a certain message, or elicit a specific response.

Our first happening titled "Coming To You To Not Be With You" took place in 2008 in the garden of 34 Zarubyan Street, which became a space for future gatherings and happenings. The garden was a private space shared by two non-governmental organizations, the Women's Resource Center and the Utopiana Cultural Center, which we turned into a transitory station for art events and public discussions.

To become visible through art can be a more subtle strategy than political activism. Would you draw any distinction between both concepts, are they intermingled?

Actually, a lot more can be done through anonymity and invisibility. We try not to erase our individual names, but more often than not we find ourselves interacting with and agitating the public in modes of communication that require anonymity such as graffiti. For example, we have been stencilling the verses of socialist feminist poet Shushanik Kurghinian (1876-1927) in the entrances of multi-story buildings in Yerevan within the frames of our latest project. These are neither private nor public spaces – they are hallways, stairwells, corridors, passageways that connect or lead from the public to the private and vice versa. So someone taking his child to school one morning might see the following line on the wall of the building's entrance: "I am the one, buoyant and rebellious, who stayed with you." Or someone coming back from work might encounter a line like this one: "A curse on the generation still creeping in serfdom!"

These words appear in unanticipated places, they are taken out of their context and yet they address each and every one of us as members of a public who are subjects of a republic governed by anti-public politicians and administrative incompetents. So in this case we thrive on anonymity and we also protect ourselves from being charged for "property damage." As Lana Wachowski says, "Anonymity allows you access to civic space, to a form of participation and public life, to an egalitarian invisibility."

How do you define the term "queer" or "queerness"? Is there a significant shift in the meaning by using it in the Armenian context?

We de-queer the term and strip it of its label-oriented functions. We don't use it as a noun or an adjective as it is normally used, but rather as a verb: "to queer something" and in this sense we engender it with "estranging" properties. Anyone can do it, anyone can participate in subverting the familiar, in derailing the norm, in perverting the recognizable pattern. In Armenian we say "tarorinakel", which is a non-existent verb derived from the adjective "tarorinak" ("strange"). It's more about "doing" rather than "being."

A lot of your actions take place in public – also to reclaim space for LGBTI people. What was the main intention behind your last action "In and Between the (Re)Public"?

The Republic can be viewed as a mode of transition from the communist rule to a post-communist phase, especially with the springing up of new (in)dependent nation-states after the break-up of the Soviet Union. But what or who are the "publics" on which the (Re)public is based?
Historian Joan Landes finds an etymological connection between "public" and "pubic," marking the public sphere as gendered - for subjects who qualify to speak by ownership of a penis. The conventional binary opposition to public has been the private. But is the private not already included within the aggressive forms of privatization of the Republic?

There is the Republic – the idealized structure of modern statehood to which all nations must aspire. And there is the Republic, "our" nation, "our" people as one collective body. Within both singularities of the Republic, any notion of "public" is rendered meaningless through an oligarchy's appropriation of the commons, forced mass migration, unprecedented levels of unemployment, and the draining from the population voices of resistance.
But (r-e)p-u-b-l-i-c-s are also in and between language that separates rather than unites, that foreignizes rather than domesticates. Within this "new" era of "Republicanism" and "democratization"," how can we discuss the specificity of the impact on bodies, on language, on memory, and the interfacial affective realm of the (virtual) embodiment of inbetweenness? How can the publics (de)scribe and reinscribe spaces through which to continue meaningful production of disc(our)ses?

One of the actions of this project was a tree-planting in the semipark located at 26 Baghramyan Avenue, in the corridor between the Presidential Palace, the poet Silva Kaputikyan's House-Museum and Lovers' Park. The semipark is often a gathering place for radically different entities such as police officers who guard the Presidential Palace to hang out and smoke, homeless people, and children who like to play there, but it actually belongs to the community living in the adjacent building. In other words, the semipark is both a privately-owned space and a public space, not completely private and not completely public. The action draws attention to the communities undergoing gentrification via the illegal privatization of public areas where the new owners cut down the trees and build expensive cafés or elite housing at the expense of those who previously inhabited those spaces. We had specifically chosen to plant the Cercis siliquastrum commonly known as the Judas tree, symbolizing treachery and disillusionment and simultaneously repopulation of the social spaces of the evicted populace.

What is the cost of coming out in Armenia? And how does that influence your work?

From the very beginning we were extremely keen on queering heteronormativity and creating spaces for the non-hetero community, which implied that we could not function in the hitherto modes of anonymity and the closet. In other words, yes, it became crucial to undergo a process of naming and identifying oneself and discovering the community that had been silenced by laws, traditions, families, and religions.
Meanwhile, our collective has been moving away from visibility and individuality to more civic-oriented art forms and strategies that diffuse and fragment perception in subtle ways.

We explore this shift from identity politics to an egalitarian invisibility, for example, using the concept of migration: "QY engages with the question of migration as a physical as well as cognitive movement from a fixed (known) reality to a changing actuality, from a grounded, rooted community to a routed one. Is leaving one's own immovable 'home' as joyfully confounding or explosively estranging in a post-independence Armenia today as it was a century ago, in colonial (Russian) Armenia, when agents of dissident ideologies moved from their apartment floor plans to the map of the world? What happens to the material debris abandoned at home? Could it be that the things that once made one sick of home, will frame the homesickness of the future?" [1]

What are the next actions planned by the Queering Yerevan Collective?

We are currently working on the book/catalogue titled "In and Between the (Re)public", which we hope to present in Yerevan and in Tbilisi (and maybe elsewhere). Our presentations are usually interactive, we dialogue with the audience and we also often incorporate performance acts, so we are in the process of conceptualizing these happenings.


Interview by Barbara Eder



Links

Queering Yerevan (QY) Collective's homepage
"Meeting with remarkable women" - QY featured in "Gay Armenia"
QY in "p|art|icipate eJournal"
QY in "ARTMargins Online"


End note

[1] From QY's concept titled "Caution: People Crossing Border" at the 8th Gyumri International Biennial of Contemporary Art.


"Mezzanin" ist ein Teilprojekt von "Intermezzo", entwickelt von maiz und gefördert vom BMBF und Europäischen Sozialfond/ESF.