Queering Yerevan (eds.) “Queered: What’s to be done with Xcentric art?”

Queering Yerevan (eds.) Queered: What’s to be done with Xcentric art? Queering Yerevan Collective, 2011, Yerevan (Armenia), 336 pp.

The notion of identity, being it ethnic, religious, politic or sexual, marks a key feature of the public reality of post-communist transition in Central and Eastern Europe. Queer theory brings a radical political discourse that disrupts the comfortable public arena, employing the means of contemporary art and performativity throughout their actions. Queering Yerevan is a group of female artists, writers, performers, critics and translators active in Yerevan and in the Armenian diaspora. Their recently published book, Queered: What’s to be done with Xcentric art?, tries to recollect the art events organized by the group since 2008. It exposes the internal discussions problematizing the identity of a collective on the edge of a clear queer agenda and a more cultural and political idea.

Written both in English and Armenian, the question of language is very present in the book, as a meta expression of historical, social and cultural contexts and backgrounds. Visually, having entire pages in the Armenian alphabet does create a poetry of resistance. Certain pages are left untranslated, lending a certain intimacy to a book edited as a form of public confession. For the group, the process of interpretation of meaning – translation – refers to Judith Butler’s concept of drag, which disturbs and complicates the given norms. The first event the group organized in Yerevan was the art intervention Queering translation (2010), a series of actions that tried to rework the local context and re-establish a form of subversivity by referring to dominant post-soviet culture, translation and queer spaces.

Translating in the case of Queering Yerevan connects to the identitarian question of the group, established through a strong impulse from some of the members of second or third generations of the Armenian diaspora mostly in North America. The necessity of constant translation from Armenian to English and vice versa, as an everyday practice, does bring a rich and continuous formulation of what the term “queer” can bring, and how certain activist actions can be conceptualized and performed in a cultural territory with strong patriarchal traditions.

After changing their name from Women-Oriented-Women, the group strives to act against all normative aspects of social reality. As Arpi Adamyan writes: “I find queer culture particularly important as it casts a critical look at the rules in the heteronormative structures, the nationalist ideas prevailing in current Armenian reality, the structure of the heterosexual family, and the domination of its functions even in the field of art.”Arpi Adamyan, in Queered: What’s to be done with Xcentric Art?, ed. Queering Yerevan, 2011, p. 31. It is through artistic expression that they have chosen to be represented in the public sphere.

This notion of art activism is long debated in the introductory interviews with members of the group. Instead of finding separate spaces for practicing their activist views or their art, the groups aims at finding the crossings, for a stronger discourse, despite the reticence of the Armenian public, as it was in 2006–2007, when the group first started to meet.

Art activism is a notion contested in former Soviet territories, where art has been instrumentalized in the past in the form of propagandistic actions. But the title of the book does include the Leninist phrase “What’s to be done?” inspiring a pro-active vision, as well as the name of well-known, Moscow-based art collective Chto Delat? However, the actions exposed in the book do not come across as radical, but rather as symbolic or poetic statements, despite their internal discourse and motivation. One example is the intervention im(war)ge that took place on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2009, in the Republic Square in Yerevan. Three members of the group (one representing an artist in struggle, one a drag holding a dildo instead of a gun, and the other, a breathless victim of war lying on the pavement) performed a series of actions that directly referenced the power symbols that surround the square: the National Gallery, the House of the Government, the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The action disrupted the atmosphere of celebration and reinforced the idea of the square as a symbol of war and militarism.

Armenian nationalism and its male representation is put into question, especially in a series of photos and experimental video recontextualizing footage of Sergei Parajanov’s archetypal film The Color of Pomegranates from 1969. The video Delicious Fruit (2010), by group members Melissa Boyajian and Arpi Adamyan, reworks some of Parajanov’s original footage through a queer lens, referring to the subversive act of showing images of Armenian nationalism from that time. Further more, Boyajian and Adamyan enhance a feminist perspective by eroticizing the image of the pomegranate (a symbol of fertility in Armenian culture).

The book also includes a more theoretical attempt to contextualize the actions of the group and the continuous negotiation between direct activist action and more pluralistic strategies that question normative categories. “Aesthetic experience has a political effect to the extent that the loss of destination that it presupposes disturbs the way in which bodies fit their functions and destinations.”Angela Harutyunyan, in Queered: What’s to be done with Xcentric Art?, ed. Queering Yerevan, 2011, p. 200. Art theoretician and curator Angela Harutyunyan was a member of the group and had a strong influence on crystalizing the debate surrounding queer theory and the public sphere, knowledge production and criticality, in the same way as distilling the work inside a collective. The name of the group Queering Yerevan actually came from the title of the project Queering Yerevan: a self-mapping. Together with the exhibition Coming To You To Not Be With You (2008), it deconstructs the concept of “queerness” in the local context. The non-normative, marginalized emerges in the sphere of the politics of art, challenging canonical esthetics grounded in the Armenian context. In this exhibition, works by lesbian, bisexual and heterosexual artists were presented together for the first time in Armenia. Furthermore, many of the works were presented in empty sites, isolated spaces, and deserted buildings, in an attempt to re-map and re-position a city in the process of reconstruction.

Queered: What’s to be done with Xcentric art? adopts an interdisciplinary approach, summing up the voices of female artists, writers and scholars concerned with the intersection of gender and politics, done not through immediate group identification, but rather through an association of individuals, a frame for emancipatory politics, which does criticize highly rigid regulatory norms that structure our society. Queering Yerevan employs performativity in the public sphere as a strategy of resistance and their practice contests the ongoing cultural acceptance and the power relations in the production of knowledge.

If we manage to de-institutionalize gender (the heterosexual family constitutes the basis of our society according to many constitutional laws), than we are one step closer to freeing the individual. This is a message thatdeserves to be spoken out loud. Gender is not simply “performed,” but the acts that constitute gender are reiterated throughout time, and reinforced through discursive practices.Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘’Sex” (Routledge, 1993), pp. 9-11. The only wish is that the present book, written almost like a memoir of a group that struggles with their own identity, constitutes the beginning of a strong artistic action and does not perish in the obsolete discussion of deciding a vision between esthetics and activism. The Western hegemony that often characterizes gender studies has found a strong theoretical debate in a different geo-temporal reality. As such, the book will be of interest to queer studies scholars, art historians, activists and artists engaged with the current debate surrounding constructed identity and parodic repetition of norms.