Rebuilding the Pantheon
Ingrid Chu and Slavs and Tatars
The following interview coincides with the Pantheon of Broken Men and Women, a special poster insert by Slavs and Tatars produced for Fillip 8. The interview took place over e-mail after a preliminary conversation in January 2008 during their exhibition A Thirteenth Month Against Time (23 January to 1 March 2008) at the Newman Popiashvili Gallery, New York.
Ingrid Chu: How did the collective come about? And the name?
Slavs and Tatars: People often mistake the name to be a badge of expertise. For us, Slavs and Tatars, both as a name and as a project, was and continues to be a way for us to study, share, preserve, provoke, and discuss an area of the world that seems to provide answers to various questions of character, culture, and politics that we do not feel the West can fully address. In fact, Slavs and Tatars was originally meant to be no more than a reading group, a platform for us to share existing material and new work with each other and those around us. In so far as we are focussed on Slavs, Caucasians, and Central Asians, our area of focus is at once clearly defined, yet quite fluid given the sheer upheaval this area has witnessed in its recent and distant history. Because of the rapid changes of late globalization, cultural encounters with modernity, etc., the geopolitical importance of the area, and the quest for natural resources, etc.—part of our mission is to preserve, slow down, concentrate, and thwart the positivism that passes for liberal, Western culture.
As for the name, Slavs and Tatars is deliberately caricatural: it obviously brings to mind certain impressions and images with which we are not afraid to engage. Not only does it evoke a collective, but it also verges on the absurd, as if a horde of people, or “Darkies,” was coming over the horizon to conquer the “Whities.” So on one side, we address the first-degree, off-the-shelf sense of violence this engenders, and, on the other, our work is quite intimate, sometimes even sentimental.
Chu: Slavs and Tatars seems different from some of your earlier collaborative projects, particularly due to the group’s identification with a specific area of inquiry—namely Eurasia—that serves as the common ground among all of you. How does this collective entity build on or diverge from your previous work?
Slavs and Tatars: We’ve been collaborating since 2000, but Slavs and Tatars allowed us to legitimize our areas of activity, interest, even pleasure in a given area that will not only be relevant, but urgent—perhaps heartbreakingly so—for the rest of our lives. It was a very organic and yet somewhat resistant process: we had been increasingly moving East, both geographically and intellectually, despite these very Eastern countries wanting to move West.
Chu: So much of your work attempts to reclaim history by retelling it, and primarily through the perspective of the defeated, as opposed to the victors. What is your individual and/or collective identification with Eurasia? Why there? Why now?
Slavs and Tatars: Eurasia represents, to our eyes, a historic and no less radical attempt to bridge and blur the East and West. One area of our focus—Central Asia and the Caucasus—was considered throughout the nineteenth century as the Great Game, the primary geopolitical focus and competition between the rival empires of England and Russia. On a more personal level, Kasia and my respective identities were also formed between various registers of the West and East, that is, between England and Poland, and Iran and the United States, respectively.
Also, the countries in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia are at particular risk of losing their cultural treasures—both their specificities and their shared heritage—due to a faulty post-Cold War geopolitical narrative that says: you guys in the East lost (the war) so now you must do like us (in the West). You must join NATO, apply for the European Union and to do so you must modernize and liberalize your economy, etc. Our Slavs poster (2005) best articulates this strange predicament and has become a kind of retroactive manifesto for our collective. Today, if you ask a Slovak how he identifies himself, he is likely to say: first as a European, then as a Slovak, and third as a Slav. While this is admirably aspirational, a Slovak doesn’t have more in common with a Frenchman than he does a Pole.
To paraphrase George Gurdjieff, nobody can live without influences, so the best you can do is to choose your influences. Our interest in Eurasia stems from an inability to find the answers to several questions—both political and personal—solely in the West.
Chu: It is interesting that the collective members are based in various locales, with Eurasia and its attendant politics and polemics serving as the meeting point for your collaborative output. Your work also manifests in various forms and circulates in a wide range of public venues. What is the connection between your interest in these formats with respect to their widespread distribution? How does this influence your attempts to re-imagine, and thus redefine, the somewhat arbitrary borders that constitute Eurasia?
Slavs and Tatars: The methods of distribution and variety of media we use are driven by two concerns: one is a simple attempt to maximize the points of access to our work, and the other is a deliberate cultivation of disparate, sometimes conflicting points of distribution. That is, ideally, you would find our editions in an airport bookstore as well as a concept store like Colette in Paris. By and large, the countries within our area of focus share this heterogeneity: spaces are less codified, as are socioeconomic classes. What looks like a building that houses a museum is, in fact, a retail store, or what looks like a residential building is commercial, and what looks like a bank is a restaurant.
Chu: Your recent exhibition A Thirteenth Month Against Time diverges somewhat from how your work has been showcased in the past, but not completely. I am thinking about other projects, like when the group sold The Wrong and Strong Posters (2005) through Colette. How does showcasing your work in such “retail operations” function as a platform to highlight the collective’s ideas to the public? How do you feel these sites help address issues related to locational identity and the politics of place?
Slavs and Tatars: As mentioned above, our areas of intervention are diverse because the nature of our work does not sit comfortably within any single medium or locus: it is equally concerned with geopolitics, with an early-nineteenth-century form of travel writing that doubles as armchair anthropology, and with forms of aesthetic inquiry to be found in the art world. Similarly, our audience is just as much members of our splintered family as it is collectors or journalists. The reason most of our work is in print and in multiple editions becomes one of pure circumstance: it allows us to share and disseminate our work with others in a manner that is affordable to us and not precious to our readers. A person’s relationship to a poster is healthier and far more flexible and open-ended than a collector’s relationship to an art piece. Like, if a teenager puts a Kurt Cobain poster up in his or her room, takes it down at some point, and replaces it with another one, then when older, he or she can frame it if it has particular importance. Similarly, our editions are to be cherished but not rarefied, whether read on the terrace, the tramway, or the toilet.
Chu: Thinking about your recent work, I am intrigued by the publication accompanying the exhibition, also entitled A Thirteenth Month Against Time, that is inspired by an old version of the Jalali Calendar, which is still used in Iran and Afghanistan and is considered more accurate than the Gregorian calendar we use in the West. Compounded by your focus on source material ranging from old maps in Drafting Defeat (2007) and Histoire du Monde (2008) to nicked stationery in Stolen Letterheads (2006), it becomes clear that Slavs and Tatars has maintained an active interest in “alternative mapping.” Now that we are living in a so-called “post-global society,” what is your relationship to mobility and displacement, and how does this affect your work given the influence of older models used to measure time and place, past, and present?
Slavs and Tatars: I am not sure we are living in a post-global society. The Poles use the European Union to advance a thoroughly national agenda. Iranians want a nuclear bomb to assert their regional power. The Russians are reasserting their Soviet area of influence by pushing Georgia out of Abkhazia, and the Kosovars printed the headline FUCK YU with pictures of Nikola Pasic, Josip Broz Tito, and Slobodan Miloševic on the cover of their national newspaper one day after declaring independence from Serbia. Much of our work flirts with what could be deemed as a reactionary approach to identity and nationhood: as much as we believe in heterogeneity and creolization, we do not believe this can or should happen without requisite attention to, and knowledge of, the specificities of the given identities, cultures, and societies in our area of focus. We are hell-bent on cherishing, fostering, and highlighting certain endangered elements of cultures, which we believe of particular relevance to contemporary society. In the past three months, we have been to Tbilisi, Yerevan, Tehran, Odessa, and Baku, for very concrete research purposes.
In fact, I was in Tbilisi recently during the NATO summit in Bucharest where Georgia and the Ukraine’s potential membership were up for discussion. A cartoon in the International Herald Tribune best captured our thoughts on this whole process: all the NATO delegates are seated around the table and a Georgian delegate, in a typical long sheep’s wool papakhi hat, leans over to his Ukrainian homologue and whispers: “What exactly is Atlantic?” That is, to be very literal, “What exactly do Georgia and the Ukraine, both on the Black Sea, have to do with a Northern Atlantic treaty organization?”
Chu: As the title of the exhibition A Thirteenth Month Against Time suggests, the notion of expanded time serves as the basis for the work in the show as well as the associated publication. While you cite Zoroastrianism and the Jalali Calendar specifically, I can’t help but think of how my personal adherence to both Chinese and Gregorian calendars has resulted in two birthdays, two New Year’s, and a whole host of holidays and their associated rituals, all of which have served to cultivate an appreciation for intercultural experiences at best and to reinforce an ever-present sense of dislocation at worst. How does your calendar, which you intend “as an addendum to one’s everyday calendar/diary [as] a libretto of daily polemics, reflections, and musings” not come off as nostalgic, unless nostalgia and romanticism play a role in the group’s approach and interest in this region?
Slavs and Tatars: The calendar is first and foremost about cultivating complexity. As you mentioned, the doubling of time adds a further layer much in the same way a thirteenth month stuck on the end of a twelfth does. The entries themselves also serve to highlight the theme of complexity over one of simplification: the questions of Turkey, pomegranates, the Kurds, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Chenghis Khan, etc., are ones which, despite our polemics, we make no effort to resolve but rather to shake up, whip up, and “froth,” to use a term so dear to coffee drinkers around the world. In other words, to let it overflow from its often pat, concise reading into a more unwieldy and debatable issue. We relish taking heavily loaded issues, the white elephants of contemporary society, and confronting them head-on...but also from behind. That is, without gloves to unwrap the layers of meaning. It is a very maximalist sense of dislocation, of always being outside and inside a given culture.
As for nostalgia and romanticism, sure—in so far as we are keen on excavating and redeeming elements of the past in an area of the world at risk of looking only to the future. However, I would say that our work is more unequivocally intimate and perhaps sentimental: that is, meant to be as affective as cerebral. If we speak to the head, it is perhaps a means to get to the gut.
Chu: In your projects, there seems to be a constant clash between conceptions of the old and the new, but also an ongoing impulse to find common ground between opposing themes. Usually, this is articulated through a presentation style that invokes polemics through popular forms—an approach Slavs and Tatars describes as “engineering complexity.” Would you say that providing an alternative means to navigate, if not to deny complexity, extends possibilities for potential new meanings in your work?
Slavs and Tatars: Absolutely, whether it’s drawing a line between Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Leon Trotsky through to Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, Ali Khamenei, and Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, or hijacking certain undeniably Anglo-Saxon idioms, we are very committed to opening up new meanings. Not only between the old and new, and the East and West, but also between the tasteful, intellectual, and subtle on the one hand, and the vulgar, dumb, and obvious on the other.
Chu: Slavs and Tatars has claimed to be “against editing,” yet the group consistently produces and distributes text-based works through a wide range of published formats. You also use provocative phrases like, “Yankee go home, and take me with you” and “It is of the utmost importance that we repeat our mistakes as a reminder to future generations of the depths of our stupidity”—such as in your Wrong and Strong posters—and cite the historical import of the words and theories from figures lost or forgotten, like in your recent exhibition and here again, through the Pantheon of Broken Men and Women. In your re-reading of history, how does language serve as a means of recovery, reenactment, and reclamation?
Slavs and Tatars: I don’t know exactly what it means to be “against editing.” God knows we edit each other rather harshly in our work. As much as language opens up meanings, it also closes them off. The two pieces you mention above are perfect examples of the collapse and subsequent sense of defeatism in a given piece because they both start out with what seems to be a call to action and end with the exact antithesis or undoing of the thrust at the beginning. In the Wrong and Strong series, we were trying to produce political or activist posters that would be non-positivist, and which wouldn’t allow one to believe naively in any sense of progress. We wanted to express despair and doubt while still working hard to overcome it.
Yes, we want to bridge certain cultural divides, yes, we want language to be affective as well as analytical and discursive, but our aspirations are, from the outset, weathered by this notion of defeatism, rupture, or equivocation best described by Antoine Compagnon in his book Les Antimodernes (2005). We know we will fail but try our damnedest to succeed nonetheless. And this, to a certain extent, is Eurasian. It’s a heady mix of the fatalism of the East with the positivism of the West.
Chu: Some artists use text-based formats as a way to feign an authoritative sensibility in querying the effects of how information is distributed. Your approach, while thought provoking, proves infinitely more humourous despite the complex and contentious area of inquiry that it addresses, like in I Still See Communism Everywhere (2005), a publication that explored “the clash of civilizations between the US and Iran across such cultural phenomena as the monobrow, soft drugs, and men’s ties.” In creating new documents for the future, is your interest to make work that invokes an anthropological impulse of a different kind?
Slavs and Tatars: The use of text, whether in essays, in articles, or as graphics, should not be the exclusive realm of rational, analytical discourse. We are trying to make words and language affective, as visceral as they are cerebral. Despite popular perception, we believe that there is a greater amount of segmentation in cultural products today than at any point in the past. Despite the astonishing level of activity in the art world or the proliferation of books in the publishing industry, the reception of these pieces are often determined from the outset as X or Y and marginalized within their respective milieus. Our work attempts to undo this by mixing registers of high and low and trying to be sincerely accessible to people who are not necessarily interested in art, anthropology, or media per se. We believe in cultivating what Rem Koolhaas has called “a regime of curiosity.” Curiosity often implies a certain superficial, dilettantish approach to culture, but the word regime leaves no doubt as to the scope of work and intensity of curiosity we expect from our audience and ourselves.
About the Authors
Ingrid Chu is a Canadian curator and critic based in New York. She serves as the Director/Curator of RED-I Projects, an organization she founded in 2004 to assist artists in the creation of new work in the public realm. In 2008, she will launch a project space on New York’s Lower East Side. As a critic, her writing has been featured in Afterall, Frieze, Parachute, and Time Out New York, as well as in Cross, which developed out of a previous collaboration with Slavs and Tatars.
Slavs and Tatars is a faction of polemics and intimacies devoted to an area east of the Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China known as Eurasia. Redeeming an often forgotten, romantic sphere of influence between Slavs, Caucasians, and Central Asians, the group’s work has been featured in a wide range of international venues and publications. Later this year, Onestar Press will publish an artist’s book based on the Pantheon of Broken Men and Women poster. More information can be found at: http://www.slavsandtatars.com/