Armenia’s ‘Revolutionary Sensorium’ Shines at 2019 Venice Biennale

A scene from the Armenian Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Art Biennale
A scene from the Armenian Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Art Biennale

A scene from the Armenian Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Art Biennale

BY TINA CHAKARIAN

The project “Revolutionary Sensorium” reconstructed the 2018 Armenian revolution that took the country by storm, transforming Yerevan into a space where an energized multitude exemplified just what it means to be revolutionary.

This “Velvet Revolution” united the people of Armenia under the motto “Solidarity and Love” — one of the revolution’s popular slogans — and facilitated a climate of parity, equality, and collaboration.

Of course, the revolution did not come about in the blink of an eye. It was the accumulation of years of retaliation against the wide-spread corruption, social injustices, authoritarianism, and other reprehensible practices on the part of the country’s former government for over 25 years.

The exhibition consisted of three parts. The first segment featured artistic group “Artlab Yerevan,” a team comprised of Gagik Charchyan, Vardan Jaloyan, Hovhannes Margaryan, and Artur Petrosyan. The Yerevan-based art collective spent the last year researching, studying, and compiling data chronicling the revolution, before recreating it visually. The group addressed topics such as “Revolutionary Assemblages and the Multitude,” “Violence in Revolution,” “Revolutionary Participation,” and “Revolutionary Aesthetics: the Effectiveness of New Technologies and Drones.” The exhibit featured large-scale video projections across the venue’s walls.

The curator of the project, Susanna Gyulamiryan, initiated and organized the second segment, featuring videos and recordings of female experts, scholars, and feminist civil society activists Gayane Ayvazyan, Ruzanna Grigoryan, Anna Jamakochyan, and Anna Nikoghosyan. They engaged in thoughtful and critical discussions on post-revolution political agendas, cultural and economic issues, and media bias throughout the course of the revolution. Another female participant staged a silent protest through a performance titled “Not Speaking About the Revolution for the Sake of the Revolution.” The segment also included a spoken word poetry performance titled “Revolution: The Event of Return of Reality.”

The final element of the project was a public performance by artist Narine Arakelian, who reenacted one of the revolution’s most unique protests — the “Cast Iron Pots and Pans.” This feminist undertaking saw women in Armenia opening their windows at 11 p.m. every night of the revolution, banging pots and pans together, en masse, to stand in solidarity with disabled women unable to march in the streets. Indeed, this protest led many to point out that the revolution in Armenia could not have succeeded, had it not been for the active participation of the country’s women and more specifically, their determined efforts, radical undertakings, innovativeness, and fearless acts of courage. Arakelian recreated this moment along the streets and canals of Venice.

In May 2019, the Republic of Armenia presented “Revolutionary Sensorium” at what is perhaps the most prestigious international art exhibition of our era — La Biennale di Venezia. The Armenian Pavilion was inspired by the 2018 Velvet Revolution, a historical event that quickly became the subject of global media coverage and analyses, with particular attention attributed to its non-violent nature: not a single bullet was ever fired.

What lessons did we learn from the revolution, exactly?
First, it underscored the invaluable role of youth in leading resistance. The protests were almost childlike in nature. Following Serzh Sargsyan’s official resignation, a group of teenagers brought snow from the country’s mountainous terrain to its Republic Square, only to start a snowball fight in front of parliament. Hundreds of young men and women held signs denouncing Sargsyan, comparing him to Cheburashka — a Soviet cartoon character. The use of drones and modern technologies in the revolution were indicative of a movement led by a new generation of Armenians, tired of outdated politics and Soviet-era politicians.

Second, women were at the forefront of the groups involved in the formation of organized, anti-government protest; to quote an article in Open Caucasus Media, “on top of consistently being involved in the grassroots-organizing of social movements, they [women] also make up the majority of Armenia’s journalists.” It is women who form the majority of Armenia’s NGOs and media, and who had been leading the resistance through their civil activism, decades before the revolution took place.

Armenian Pavilion team members preparing for the "Revolutionary Sensorium"

Armenian Pavilion team members preparing for the “Revolutionary Sensorium”

Last July, international art curator Ralph Rugoff announced the theme of the 2019 International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia. He named it “May You Live In Interesting Times,” an ode to the ancient Chinese curse. In December, the Economist named Armenia “Country of the Year.” The opening of La Biennale was to take place on May 9 — just two weeks following the one year anniversary of the revolution. And so, we created “Revolutionary Sensorium,” a pavilion meant to recreate the events of April 2018 through video installations, artwork, and live performances.

Following my announcement regarding the theme of this year’s Armenian Pavilion, I was met with a recurring question which I had difficulty answering, “Can art really effectuate change?” Can “Revolutionary Sensorium” truly honor the decades of work on the part of activists, human rights defenders and journalists who have selflessly fought against the corruption and authoritarianism widespread in Armenia? After all, art cannot monitor free and fair elections. It does not choose who governs and leads nor for how many terms. It will not implement transitional justice, nor will it hold trials to indict individuals responsible for widespread civil and political injustices.

What art can provide is a platform for dialogue. The rise of political art as genre and the incensing number of contemporary artists associating themselves with activism means the historical distinctions between art and politics have begun to dissolve. National pavilions have a special role in the world of political art. They made their debut appearance at La Biennale di Venezia in 1907, and have since featured the greatest modern art hailing from every corner of the world. At La Biennale, there are no closed borders and territorial disputes. There is one exhibition, nearly one hundred participating countries, and an open space to communicate what message your country wants to send to the world, and to its people. Here, art is a space for full, uncensored discourse, accessible to all. It is a space where artists can make otherwise marginalized cultural narratives visible on a global scale. This is what “Revolutionary Sensorium” does so brilliantly.

Armenia is a country reborn. The next few years will be vital to its establishment as a democracy. Last December’s elections reflected poorly on that establishment, with few women elected to parliament. Women were an invaluable voice in the revolution, but are now ignored in the decision-making process. “Revolutionary Sensorium” is an immersive experience, yet its purpose is not solely to rekindle the emotions we felt during the revolution. It is a reminder of solidarity and unity in the midst of uncertainty. It is a reminder that peaceful protest can ignite change, and that women and youth are indispensable to this process.

This is not Armenia’s first time participating in the Venice Biennale. In 2015, the Armenian Pavilion presented “Armenity,” which won the Golden Lion Award for Best National Pavilion. Its theme honored the centennial of the Armenian Genocide and was based on the premise of the formation of nation characterized by a dispersed identity. The artists featured in the pavilion were Armenians of the diaspora, descendants of the 1915 genocide survivors. The pavilion commemorated the darkest hour in Armenia’s history while shedding light on perhaps one of the most beautiful aspects of the Armenian nation — the Diaspora. In its portrayal of the diaspora as blossoming and flourishing in every corner of the world, borrowing from its adopted cultures while staying connected to an Armenian motherland, “Armenity” sent a message to the world — we are among you.

Armenia will have the chance to represent itself again at La Biennale di Venezia in 2021. It’s a chance for us to support our most talented artists in both the Armenian mainland and the diaspora, allowing them to showcase art inspired by our country’s past, present, and future. This is not an easy initiative. To assemble a team of artists, curator, development director, and producers take months to plan and of course, require adequate funding and resources. It can be done, but it’s up to our commissioner and sponsors to see that the Armenian Pavilion can create something capable of actually effectuating the change we so often speak of.

Tina Chakarian is an Armenian installation artist and business development specialist currently based in Yerevan. She is the development director of the Armenian Pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia.

The "Cast Iron Pots and Pans" action of disobedience staged by women

The “Cast Iron Pots and Pans” action of disobedience staged by women

Curator’s Statement:

BY SUSANNA GYULAMIRYAN

In the recent Armenian history of protest, struggle, and movements of resistance, the tragedy that took place in February and March of 2008 is one of the most memorable and worrisome events. The Armenian presidential elections ran according to the well-known script: the people’s freedom to vote was neglected in a systematic manner; a major part of the voters was either bribed or threatened; turnout buying took place; and eventually the candidate of the ruling regime came to power. Public indignation ensued as a result, which hastily grew into an unprecedentedly massive social and political movement. From March 1 onward, the movement was met with severe resistance by the ruling power and its subordinate institutions, the national army, and riot police: ten people were killed, a considerable number of activists were arrested, and all public rallies were banned. The government announced a state of emergency.

The following years saw the situation in the country grow stagnant and tepid, promising little hope for democratic reform in a country ruled by a highly-corrupt regime. The number of people emigrating increased by the year.

Since 2008 – the year bears unequivocal connection with the political events of March 1 – the Armenian contemporary art scene has started to demonstrate a higher level of political, social, and civil engagement, gaining the strength and momentum to break out of conventional artistic spaces, the confines of galleries onto streets and into public spaces. There was a desire to create a form of art that would not hesitate to unmask the social injustices widespread across the country.

This impulse towards politicization paved also the way for highly motivated art curators, art critics, and artists to set a new agenda of incomparably more profound critical (self-) analysis and (self-) definitions.

During the process of merging local artists with civil activism, a so-called “post-conceptual turn” emerged in Armenia’s local contemporary art scene: rejection of new theories and contemporary discourses, even though at earlier stages of the ideological formation of the local scene, references to post-structuralist and post-modernist discourses were very common in visual citations and verbal discussions. The political activism inspirited with ideas of revolution became a more preferable and urgent issue for the artists.

The revolutionary events that took place in Armenia in Spring 2018, according to almost all of the participants and analysts, did not come about in a blink of an eye but were, inter alia, the result of continued and consistent struggle comprising protests, resistance, and civil movements for over a quarter of a century. Artists, feminist activists, and civil activists were all part of these processes, struggling against patriarchy, corruption, social injustice, violations of basic human rights and democratic values, unlawfulness, incompetence of the authorities and their incredible wastefulness, and many other issues.

“Revolutionary Sensorium”
The Armenian pavilion of the 58th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia is titled “Revolutionary Sensorium.” This three-part project is an artistic and analytical representation of the Armenian Revolution of 2018.

The first part of the project is a video installation by “Artlabyerevan” art collective comprising of members Gagik Charchyan, Hovhannes Margaryan, Vardan Jaloyan, and Arthur Petrosyan. Their work is structured thematically and contextually, and is the presentation of the research, collection, and distillation of documentary materials on the most memorable events of the revolution. Another element of the project is a public performance by artist Narine Arakelian, who reenacts one of the revolution’s most unique forms of protest — the “Cast Iron Pots and Pans” action of disobedience staged by women.

The final part of the installation is comprised of a series of videos titled “Dialogues about Revolution and Power” initiated and organized by myself — the curator of the Armenian pavilion. In these videos, female experts, researchers, scholars, and feminist and queer activists – Gayane Ayvazyan, Ruzanna Grigoryan, Anna Zhamakochyan, and Anna Nikoghosyan – present reflections and analyses on the Armenian revolution, recite a revolutionary poem-manifesto, and announce a “statement-slogan.”

I would like to note that the decision to invite women exclusively was countered by the question as to why the discourse of revolution is put to the analysis of an all-female team. Suffice it to say, I am certain that, were the team to consist only of male experts, intellectuals, and activists, one would take this as self-evident and normal.

Young men and women held signs in protest

Young men and women held signs in protest

In response to that, I would like to establish my rebuttal of the spectator’s and reader’s traditional expectations from women and from the ways of representing women. I also speak against those who, by way of praise, claim that Armenian women demonstrate almost equal capabilities to men in the process of intellectual ideation and analysis.

Moving forward, I would like to elaborate on the ideas behind each of the above-mentioned projects in their chronological order.

The video series by Artlabyerevan is composed of several thematic video projections, where the focal theme is the “revolutionary multitude.” The term multitude was coined by political philosophers Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt. Among the important features of the 2018 Armenian revolution were agility, mobility, new forms of relationships between the resisting and struggling sides, and the formation of self-sufficient and decentralized groups. This corresponds to the definitions and practices of the revolutionary multitude introduced by Negri and Hardt. According to them, the discussion is not limited to the formal structures of resistance. We must also talk about the relationships that exist among these structures and relationships that follow the principle of cooperative action and shared impact. In times of revolt, resistance, and upheaval, neither centralized control, nor individual intelligence, carry any value. Here, a new type of intelligence comes into play — collective intelligence, which is social in essence. The multitude is therefore, a body of networks.

This part of the video series is also about revolutionary balance — when no group, party, organization, or other force in the country can dominate the rest.

In the video series, the artists also emphasize footage shot by drones. Group member Vardan Jaloyan states the following: “When thinking about the Armenian revolution, we should speak about the change of the sensorium during the past twenty years. More specifically, we can point to a sensorium of new technology, keeping in mind the active use of computers, cellphones, the Internet, and, in the case of this revolution, drones. Drone footage extended the human’s visual sensorium. The drones captured neither the individual, nor small groups of people. Rather, they filmed a revolutionary society. The shooting process gave the revolution’s participants a unique sense of excitement — the notion that “there are many of us.” Drone footage enriched the political and revolutionary sensorium with a degree of elevation — both literally and metaphorically.”

Digital technology certainly had an essential role in political mobilization. The failed revolution of 2008 had been called a DVD revolution, since, under the information blockade, news was spread via DVD. In 2018, however, the network of decentralized, and mostly self-organized actions and decisions were, among other things, fostered by the presence of information technology. The Internet, accessible to the revolutionary multitude, ensured the rapid spread of information via social networks and messenger applications. The live online broadcasts from drones helped the masses become alert and aware of the attacks initiated by police, as well as widespread violence in general. Drones also helped prevent the spread of misinformation incited by the pro-government press.

Other footage in the video series features the violence used during the days of revolution by representatives of the previous regime and the police, who often labeled the actions of the struggling multitude as “group attacks.” Up until the second stage of the revolution clashes occurred between demonstrators and police. Hundreds of citizens were being detained or beaten, and the use of explosives resulted in serious injuries.

Typically, for safety reasons, any activity in and around exhibition venues are often broadcast live via various technical tools and software programs. “Artlabyerevan” also uses this approach in its video series but for a different purpose: the image of the spectator appears on the screen, which is part of the exhibition. This creates an illusion of re-participation, or participating in the revolution anew.

The video series also embodies the creative side of the revolution. According to members of the collective, “the multitude of bodies draws on not only political, but also poetic and creative features.” The artists demonstrate diverse means of creativity, such as the procession of cyclists, the sounds of car horns, and the reenactment of the famous Scandinavian “Viking chant,” accompanied by rhythmic clapping and drum beats, if we are to mention a few.

It is worth mentioning that the last two aforementioned means of inventiveness are largely androcentric and, to some extent, militant manifestations. Some of the women’s public performance acts, on the other hand, had clear messages, establishing a certain relationship between feminist ideology, strategy, and action. For instance, the “Serzh is not our Father [patriarch] — we don’t have a Father” act of protest, was an outcry against deep-rooted patriarchy in Armenia, and the corrupt authorities that enjoyed unconditional legitimacy for years on end.

Equally noteworthy is the “Cast Iron Pots and Pans” initiative. During the revolution, women from all walks of life would open their windows at 11 p.m. every night, banging pots and pans en masse throughout Yerevan and other cities in the country. This protest was in support of disabled women, who were unable to join their sisters fighting in the streets. It was also in support of the “revolution is persisting” slogan.

The 2019 Armenian Pavilion was inspired by the 2018 Velvet Revolution

The 2019 Armenian Pavilion was inspired by the 2018 Velvet Revolution

Artist Narine Arakelian reproduces this act of civil disobedience along the streets and canals of Venice with over fifty female volunteers. This symbolic artistic gesture underscores the fact that the revolution in Armenia could not have succeeded, had it not been for the active participation of women and their determination, radicalism, courage, and creativity.

Indeed, feminist artistic practices often feature the public use of subcultural or household-related objects such as ceramics, fabrics, or kitchen appliances, to articulate political messages.

Dialogues about Revolution and Power
Another part of the Armenian pavilion is dedicated to video recordings of talks, post-revolutionary analyses and creative interventions conducted by women. The compilation is titled “Dialogues about Revolution and Power.”

Gayane Ayvazyan focuses on one of the most important sources that documented the Armenian revolution — the Armenian press coverage. The spread of misinformation via newspapers and online news platforms in the days of revolution up until now has recently become a subject of common discussion. Much is being spoken about the dangers of commissioned media coverage, journalistic negligence, and the lack of proper analysis of political issues and other professionally vital dicta.

Ayvazyan especially pays attention to the complete incompetency of the official press to perceive phenomena and analyze them through an intellectual prism as well as its description-oriented and narrative-oriented nature of its politico-ideological instability and opportunism.

Anna Nikoghosyan observes the political events that took place in Armenia in 2018 “through the lens of complicated and complex gender relations.” She argues that these events were characteristic of mere regime change, not revolution. Nikoghosyan analyzes the phallocentric logic of gender stance and genderized interrelations observed in the neoliberal and conservative political utterances of Armenia. She criticizes gender performativity and hegemonic masculinity – a central notion in patriarchalism – and emphasizes the magnitude of feminism, in its ability to incite revolution and political upheaval.

Nikoghosyan also focuses on women’s civil activism and political actions — the dominating interpretations based on the idea of male supremacy. Unfortunately, the majority of Armenians either believes in male supremacy or takes a passive stance, abstaining from responding to the statements about women’s innate qualities made by the male leader(s) of the revolution. Women who are in the center of revolutionary struggle are expected to retain their femininity, keeping in mind their important vocation of giving birth and enriching the national army with their male children.

After the revolution, feminists and women activists initiated discussions about women appearing in government. I would like to stress that, during this period of involvement, women should beware of finding themselves engrained in the patriarchal system, and even identifying with it. Many of the women involved in government circles work in a patriarchal environment in a peaceful and non-conflicting manner. They are careful to avoid voicing their stances through feminist language. In this regard, Anna’s question is quite urgent: “Should we even expect to have feminist agendas in the government? How can feminism, which is an entirely anti-patriarchal and anti- power ideology, engage in dialogue or negotiation with the power? And, for that matter, is it really a problem that during regime change, women’s struggles were not acknowledged in the policies of the new government circles, so much so that women’s representation in the decision-making circles… even dwindled?”

Ruzanna Grigoryan’s statement-slogan of “Not Speaking of the Revolution for the Sake of the Revolution” emphasizes the apologia of the revolution and the revolution as an Event. Paraphrasing Hannah Arendt, politics can realize that, for which the human brings to life. The human corresponds to this mission, only when she or he is a participant of a revolution, or is, at least, faithful to the heritage of the revolution.

Anna Zhamakochyan’s manifesto titled “Revolution: The Event of The Return of Reality” speaks of what is the Revolution, where radical rejection, compassion, and collective, emotional, and political actions merge — if I were shortly to put Anna’s poetically charged manifesto in my own words. Revolution does not demand that poetry die.

Dialogues with Power
In a recent collection of texts that I published, which encompasses speeches by and conversations with public intellectuals, I briefly touched upon the post-revolutionary situation in Armenia in the frame of “dialogues with power.” Let me share several excerpts from this book.

Different claims regarding reorganization of all the spheres of life in the “new” Armenia have been made, yet nothing has been mentioned about the development of and contribution to the humanitarian and intellectual thinking in the country. Instead, the vision of society’s future positive development stresses the formation of a society furnished with good management and a competitive field of information technology. Fiscal privileges for small and medium- sized enterprises as well as the development of economic activities are widely discussed. The desire to have a society that would be impacted by intellectual and even anti-patriarchal thinking seems unrealizable yet. These discourses remain negatively marginal and exist within the sphere of personal undertakings. Here, I am primarily talking about critically thinking intellectuals, who are not hasty to serve big politics, preferring to keep a distance, and instead cherishing the possibility of critically rethinking the social, cultural, and political issues of the country. History reminds us of the dangers of uncritical and non-resistant post-revolutionary consensus in dialogues with power.

These are issues in need of interrogation, examination, and epistemological effort. They are rooted in the critical and political thinking of the participants of this project, as part of their social and political activism.

Susanna Gyulamiryan is an art critic and curator. She is the curator of the Armenian Pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia.

A scene from the opening of "Revolutionary Sensorium"

A scene from the opening of “Revolutionary Sensorium”

SENSORY REVOLUTIONS: Art and the Post-Revolutionary Flux at the Armenian Pavilion of the 58th Venice Biennale

BY VIGEN GALSTYAN

When the Armenian pavilion opens its doors on May 9 at the 58th Venice Biennale, it will do so on the back of two major achievements for the country: the 2015 Golden Lion prize for “Armenity” – curated for Armenia by Adelina von Fürstenberg – and the non-violent overthrow of ex-president Serzh Sargsyan’s long-reigning government in May 2018. Though immeasurably different in scale and nature, these two milestones are historical reference points to which the current exhibition – curated by Susanna Gyulamiryan – is inevitably anchored to. This “burden” is further compounded by Ralph Rugoff’s slyly ironic and challenging Biennale theme, “May You Live in Interesting Times.”

Even at face value, the Armenians’ “Revolutionary Sensorium” indeed promises to be of much interest for the times we live in. Representing last year’s “Velvet Revolution,” this pavilion represents a cataclysmic event that the artistic avant-garde often only cautiously hopes for and anticipates. But it is one thing to undergo a revolution in concrete time and place, and quite another to export it as an artwork for the “Olympics” of contemporary art. Consisting of three sections, “Revolutionary Sensorium” will showcase a multipart audio-visual installation by the activist group Artlabyerevan, juxtaposed with more solemn videos of four feminist participants of the May 2018 events and an in-situ performance by artist Narine Arakelyan. The latter half was put together by the curator as a dialectical retort to Artlabyerevan’s exultant, interactive, and zealous celebration of the Revolution, which is cobbled together from news media and amateur videos. This inner division is dictated by the post-revolutionary pressures facing Armenian artists, which are succinctly formulated by the curator thus: “How to be in dialogue with power?” That question echoes Armenia’s first appearance at Venice – a major harbinger that is worth recalling here.

In 1924, two years after the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’ formation, the communist state presented a 600-piece panorama of its art at the 14th Venice Biennale. Structured around two of the most current and conflicted artistic propositions of post-Revolutionary Russia, the mammoth exhibition included suprematism’s total rescinding of mimetic art and the anti-formalist social realism that would become the model of totalitarian socialist-realism during Stalin’s reign. Both trajectories had the revolution at heart, but offered fundamentally divergent paradigms for envisioning the utopian Soviet future.

Remarkably, Armenia was the only other republic , along with Ukraine, to have also participated in this important exhibition – a clear acknowledgement of the nation’s estimable achievements in fine arts. Fronted by Martiros Saryan’s luminous canvases, the Armenian section proposed yet another sub-model for thinking about the “nation” in the universalizing context of communism. Saryan’s dexterous fusion of fauvism, medieval art, orientalism, and socialist ideology engendered a prototype that’s come to be known as “national modernism.” It offered a distilled visual identity that carefully balanced the undifferentiating cultural rhetoric of communism with the Armenian desire for a sense of collective selfhood. Coming so soon after the 1915 Genocide, Saryan’s visual model was not merely a formalist ripple in the fabric of international modernism: it was ontological glue that filled the void left by an ancient culture that was eviscerated in a sea of blood and catastrophe. This model of a sun-drenched country rooted in land, community, and tradition, yet relentlessly progressive in its culture and industry, has remained barely challenged to this day. The win of the Golden Lion in 2015, on the 100th anniversary of the Genocide, consolidated the promise of the 1924 appearance at the Biennale. As the only ex-Soviet nation to have been awarded the prize, it seemed like a clear proof that Armenians had finally ascended from the position of post-Genocidal victimhood to stake a claim as a dynamic cultural force of the 21st century. These hopes were amply fulfilled when Serzh Sargsyan was forced to resign on April 23, 2018 – on the eve of Genocide’s commemoration day – at a culminative moment of the “Velvet Revolution.”

Hence, unsurprisingly, the new Armenian pavilion faces a glut of expectations as a post-revolutionary “manifesto” of sorts. A historical corner has been turned, yet the road ahead is unmarked, shrouded in the uncertainty of our doomsday existence. It is, therefore, reasonable to expect a degree of guidance and edict from contemporary art-makers directly involved in bringing about a political sea-change. But wouldn’t this also require a paradigm shift in the modus-operandi of contemporary art? And can art activism really make that particular change happen?

This is a relatively new issue for the figures behind “Revolutionary Sensorium.” Understandably, their critically oppositional work has rarely strived to go beyond reactions to immediate and very local problems. Artlabyerevan, has been one of the more vociferous activist art groups in Armenia since the bloody suppression of the March 1, 2008 protests against the Republican Party. Inspired by neo-Marxists ideas, they have instigated dozens of performances, interventions, lectures, workshops, and graffiti, which earned them attention from both the public and the police. But with no one nailing their testicles to the ground, or breaking-in bare-breasted into church services, Armenian art activism did not seem worth the trouble for the authoritarian government, which tended to view contemporary art as a mildly annoying but “harmless” disturbance. Nevertheless, along with other underground collectives such as The Commune and Hakaharvats (Counterblow), Artlabyerevan’s presence on the frontlines of social protest was part of activism’s crucial role in inspiring many of the creative strategies that made the 2018 uprising a success.

Chanting slogans of peace and unity, the crowds that rose up all over the country used the power of words, images, and sounds, instead of violence, to collectively bring an impossible dream into manifest reality. Akin to a giant happening in the form of disruptive interventions – from barbeques on major crossroads, to children playing soccer on laneways, and housewives banging pots and pans from their kitchens at midnight – the spontaneous actions by ordinary citizens were uncannily similar to the tactics normally employed by contemporary political art: upturning the function of ubiquitous socio-cultural mechanisms to generate critical change. The crowds, thus, instigated a dazzling display of collective creativity that was miles above and beyond any “work” that could have been offered by any single artist or artist. It was hard to beat the surreal sight of young villagers who carted off a truckload of snow from the Aragats Mountain to the capital’s Republic square so that the protesters could snowball each other and the police. The paucity of actual artworks during this revolution indicated that the institutional dams, segregating art from daily life, had collapsed. Naturally, like the various occupy movements, this was also a process that came to a close – except that in the Armenian case, it has had a massive outcome: from democratic elections in December to strict anti-corruption regulations and increased ecological accountability.

Then what should the art that comes after this cataclysmic event be like? Should it be celebratory, populist, engaged, reflective, constructively critical, or deconstructively melancholic, unsatisfied, and demanding, museological or dissolved in the social? The pragmatic focus on short-term goals means that much activist art often sidesteps this ambivalent issue. This has been especially the case in countries like Armenia with its economic blockade and the frozen conflict in Nagorno-Karabagh, which often preclude local artists from engaging with discombobulating issues like global warming and AI. The possible conditions of an actual democracy compel local artists to finally engage with these universal dilemmas as well and fully face the enduring predicament of Power.

A scene from the opening of "Revolutionary Sensorium"

A scene from the opening of “Revolutionary Sensorium”

There are key precedents for similar confrontations between art and post-revolutionary demands, such as the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s to 1930s. But, as Boris Groys has argued, that was an instance in which the avant-garde “believed in their ability to change the world because at the time, their artistic practice was supported by Soviet authorities.” While contemporary art activism never intends to be aligned with power structures, we momentarily find the return of the Russian model in the case of the Armenian revolutionaries. Technically, the artists and feminist intellectuals making up “Revolutionary Sensorium,” do represent the new government at the Venice Biennale, with the commissioner of the exhibition being no less than the deputy minister of culture, Nazeni Gharibyan. And the Armenian government is keen to be represented through these leftist figures, who have found themselves in the uncustomary position of thinkers serving the interests of the (“revolutionary” or not) State.

When I questioned Artlabyerevan about this quandary, they were quick to affirm their commitment to resistance as a general condition for their practice. However, “it was too soon to make any concrete proposals or promote new models for post-Revolutionary reality” they opined. The revolutionary dust hasn’t settled and what the activist artists suggest instead is to harvest some of it as an archived experience – “revolutionary energy” bottled as a euphoric elixir, so to speak. In his unpublished text written for the project, Artlabyerevan member Vardan Jaloyan puts an unbridled emphasis on the role of new communication technologies, and their employment by “generation Z,” in mobilizing the masses towards the victorious finale. Citing Walter Benjamin, Jaloyan puts forth the drone as an example of how such technology has “qualitatively expanded… the human visual sensorium.” He goes on to state that drone-vision makes tangible what Siegfried Kracauer has termed as “the mass ornament,” a perception of the communal whole that “elevates the political sensorium.” In short, such new vision becomes an anti-alienating device, enabling a perspective on the communal body in which individuals can see themselves as part of the revolutionary “multitudes.” The latter is a concept proposed by political theorists Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt to describe the alternative resistance model based on decentralized and networked subjects in the age of globalization.

The deft use of new technology and social networks by the Armenian public and especially the popular opposition leader, Nikol Pashinyan was a masterclass in this regard. Making direct contact with the public via live-streams, Pashinyan seized on the opportunity to become omnipotent. This decentralizing tactic meant that the flow of action and information occurred without any mediation or delay and was impossible to stop. Based on a set of common principles, people were given the freedom to become equal actors in a vast horizontal network that pulsated with the speed of internet. Even the news media became secondary as the citizens themselves became the primary producers and consumers of the revolutionary content.

In their video installation, Artlabherevan has focused on this technologically enabled phenomenon, pointing to the way that digital connectivity stimulates hitherto inexperienced sensory states that transform our very understanding of reality and provide new means for transcending the status quo. But feelings pass and all revolutionary content ultimately requires structural translation in order to operate as a fixture of the ongoing present. A process of archiving usually follows in which both Realpolitik and Art are equally engaged in, generating their respective sets of new laws and signs. Artlabyerevan’s video assemblage is also an archive that attempts to sustain the effect of the lived experience as a kaleidoscopic rush of images. The visitor is automatically “caught” into this visual loop replayed across different screens, as surveillance cameras within the exposition superimpose the viewers onto the images of the crowds. The resulting effect, however, is one of photographic flattening. The projections of jubilant crowds cannot but become visual memento mori: a spectacle of a spectacle.

Of course, what we see here is the aestheticization of the political – that perennial trap of modern art, which sucks the social exigency of protest into “stabilizing,” institutional mechanisms. In his provocative text on the subject, Groys states that all art predating the French Revolution is design: a form of aestheticization that turns reality into functional culture. Art as we know it today is the aestheticization of politics – something that makes signs and images inoperable as anything but art. This is the revolutionary engine of modern and contemporary art. Such art reveals the present “as being already a corpse,” embalmed in a museum where historical realities can safely be aestheticized as melancholic ruins that will never come back to life. Following post-modern thinkers such as Guy Debord, Groys goes on to claim that we live – and it is hard to disagree – in a time of total aestheticization, which “means that we see the current status quo [reality] as already dead, already abolished.” This gives him hope for the possibility of reaching true political change since total aestheticization is meant to kill off the very system that has produced it (capitalism) by making a “U-turn against progress.”

But isn’t this then a U-turn against Art itself? The Art of modernity shaped since the French Revolution? And a U-turn to what exactly? More politicized reflection perhaps. This is precisely what “Revolutionary Sensorium’s” second section purports to do. The video pieces representing Anna Zhamakochyan, Ruzanna Grigoryan, Gayane Abrahamyan and Anna Nikoghosyan – social researchers, feminist critics, historians and queer activists – provide dramatically different perspectives on the 2018 Revolution. Zhamakochyan presents an actual manifesto, which argues that the “Revolution is the continual reinterpretation and reexamination of the revolutionary event. The Revolution is the unswerving fidelity to the revolutionary event.” These edicts emerge with clarity in Susanna Gyulamiryan’s curatorial text, which stresses the need for more critical vigilance and an ongoing pressure on authorities to stay true to the ideals espoused by the movement itself, before they lapse back into an “ameliorated” status quo. The critical analyses by Gayane Abrahamyan and Anna Nikoghosyan forensically dissect the April and May 2018 developments by looking at the role of the news media and women during and after the Revolution. Abrahamyan points to the lack of intellectual discourse and analysis in the Armenian media – an ominous sign of the inability of this vital public organ to support revolutionary ideas and influence policy at a time when new power-relations are being formed. That role is assumed to a degree by feminist activists such as Nikoghosyan, who sees the 2018 uprising more as a regime-change, rather than a revolution per se. To her, the patriarchal rhetoric of Armenian society has remained unchallenged and the decisive input of feminists and ordinary women in instigating these political changes has, once again, been swept to the margins – a fact amply illustrated by the symbolic presence of a sole female minister in the new government.

What these perspectives testify is that the work of the Armenian revolution has only just began. Its triumphant inauguration one year ago was simply a microscopic taste of a utopia that has retreated to the social and ideological conflicts embodied by the pavilion itself. The primary question posed by Gyulamiryan is relevant far beyond the contextual confines of her exhibition: how to enter into a constructive relationship with Power when “the possibility of counterinfluence, mutual understanding and dialogue between the new government, artists and intellectuals seems difficult to realize?” How indeed? The show calls for rigorous critical alertness, designating contemporary artists and thinkers with the mission to bring authorities to task when all other social organs fail.

Which brings me back to the issue intoned at the beginning. What is contemporary art meant to do after a major shift in the political reality? Becoming watchdogs of power is a position that most artists with any ethical responsibility will inadvertently fall into. But as key representatives of activist art such as Gregory Sholette have noted, the co-option of artistic resistance by capitalism and its attendant institutional systems has become too ingrained in the “art-world” for such resistance to be truly effective. And being a mere “catalyst rather than a plan” as Lucy Lippard has suggested, no longer seems to be a viable option for politically-engaged art.15 On the contrary, as Mel Evans – a leading figure of British activist art – has recently proclaimed, artists can no longer be “satisfied with art about the political, art must change it.” Doing so would require a transformation of art’s functionality in the first place.

Though “Revolutionary Sensorium” seems to forego direct, self-reflective reexamination of contemporary art’s modus-operandi, the constitutive elements of the exhibition give us valuable insights into where art’s revolutionary propensity may lie in the future. The sensory accent of Artlabyerevan’s immersive video installation exposes the unbridled sensuality of the revolution and of Armenian culture more specifically. It undermines the very essence of patriarchy by attacking its formal armor. Here, rigid machismo gives way to the tactile, undiscerning fluidity of the Eros, unleashing an empowering flow of previously repressed desire. This positive affirmation of emotion by a group of male artists is all the more remarkable in that affect has long considered to be the domain of feminist contemporary art and activism. In contrast, the ascetic, critically aloof tone of women intellectuals stands as a firm rejection of gender-based qualifications through which the Armenian social sphere has kept everyone “in their right place” thus far. It’s not yet another gendered gimmick of “trading places” but a liberating outcome of the revolution itself. One of the reasons behind the success of the 2018 uprising was the freedom that people allowed themselves in choosing the mode of response that best suited their personal experiences and desires outside of prescribed polity of behavior. The recognition of the nation as a cluster of multitudes led to the equalizing effect in which power became horizontally distributed and all forms of action were deemed essential in achieving the common goal. Hence violence was neutralized from the very beginning as it would have precluded any possibility of engaging those that have been crippled, ignored and repressed by systems of Power.

Perhaps this is the “U-turn” espoused by Groys. And yet again, it inevitably pertains to the question of aesthetics. As the 2018 Revolution lucidly demonstrated, the successful transformation of the political realm hinged upon not anti-aestheticization (hard to imagine anything more aesthetic than the burlesque carnival of the revolution), but counter-aestheticization. The entire process entailed a radical “retooling” of public and private spaces, relations, images, and symbols that made explicit the transformative forces hidden in the benign and the derided – modern folk culture, for example. In other words, this was a mass-scale project of redesign. So is a U-turn to Art as design the order of the day? To a degree, I would argue. But this is no longer about aestheticizing the world to fit our base pleasures and pangs for comfort. Rather, it is about redesigning ourselves to fit the needs of the world at large. And that’s not a new development either. Consider how contemporary art practitioners have gradually slid towards designing transformative tools, spaces and experiences for the User: from Olafur Elaisson’s functionalist, energy-generating art to curator Daniel Birnbaum’s recent engagement with VR technology as a content producer.

The constructive possibilities of art to reimagine how we can better serve the planet and each other have long been usurped by capitalism’s vicious cycle of production and consumption. By redirecting the arrows of change towards themselves and realigning their needs, beliefs and aesthetic sensibilities, those who took part in “Velvet Revolution” were able to halt that cycle long enough for tangible change to happen. The positive after-effects of this experience are what Armenia brings to the world, ingrained in the tense dialectical structure of “Revolutionary Sensorium.” And what they remind us is the immediate need for art to be present in all spheres of life as a revolutionary means not simply for resisting Power, but a ‘working’ device that liberates us from our dependence on its coercive structures.

Vigen Galstyan is an art historian and curator. He is the director of Lusadaran Armenian Photography Foundation, an organization he co-founded in 2011 with the aim of collecting and researching photo-media art from Armenia and beyond.

Authors

Discussion Policy

Comments are welcomed and encouraged. Though you are fully responsible for the content you post, comments that include profanity, personal attacks or other inappropriate material will not be permitted. Asbarez reserves the right to block users who violate any of our posting standards and policies.

*

Top