Slavs and Tatars: Siah Armajani, Red-Black Thread, and the Art and Act of Reading
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Slavs and Tatars: Siah Armajani, Red-Black Thread, and the Art and Act of Reading

Slavs and Tatars, Made in Dschermany, 2018. Installation view at Albertinum, Dresden. Photo: Klemens Renner

Watch Slavs and Tatars perform Red-Black Thread in the Walker Cinema.

The Berlin-based art collective Slavs and Tatars works in eight ongoing and overlapping areas of research, which they refer to as “cycles,” that include academic research followed by field research and, of course, making. The designed outcomes of this research take a variety of forms—from sculptures to books to lecture-performances—but always remain rooted in the collective’s publishing focus and recognizable visual language, which embodies a graphic sensibility and leveling of hierarchy that manages to bridge the gaps between supermarket advertisements, encyclopedias, and ancient Turkic texts. Some cycles, its members explain, “bleed into one another, like yoghurt.” The idea that “the whole is in the parts” is one that has been adopted and embraced by the collective and is visible in the way it works. “This is why we compare the conception of works, and namely books, to yoghurt: to make yoghurt, one needs yoghurt,” they explain.

Long inspired by the work of Iranian-born, Minneapolis-based artist Siah Armajani, whose exhibition Follow This Line is currently on view here at the Walker, the collective was quoted by Frieze as part of its “Looking Forward 2018: Europe” roundup, saying:

We’re very much looking forward to the Siah Armajani retrospective scheduled for 2018 at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. The near octogenarian’s oeuvre is a compelling example of contemplative engagement in the US: his reading spaces argue for another understanding of a commons or public in a country too often lacking the basic vocabulary for these. That he brings a Christian faith from a Shi’a country to bear on a tradition of American transcendentalism in his home in the mid-western US makes his work all the more syncretic and unique.

Slavs and Tatars’s interest in Armajani led to an invitation by the curators to contribute to the exhibition catalogue and create a reading list—a selection of books to be included in Armajani’s Sacco and Vanzetti Reading Room #3, currently on view at the Walker Art Center. This interactive reading space is dedicated to Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian American radicals executed in Boston in the 1920s. With its functional design and simple construction, the installation recalls the Russian Constructivist Aleksandr Rodchenko’s Workers’ Club of 1925. Designed as a meeting place for Soviet workers, the club promoted literacy, education, and productivity. Similarly, Armajani’s Sacco and Vanzetti Reading Room #3 presents reading as a collective activity intended to foster discussion, debate, and the sharing of ideas. In the spirit of these multi-layered associations, Slavs and Tatars, whose work often includes printed matter as a way to connect diverse and cultural references, chose a selection of publications drawn from their newest cycle of research, Red-Black Thread, which explores the construction of race and black identity from a Soviet and Russian perspective.

Siah Armajani’s Sacco and Vanzetti Reading Room #3, 1988. Installation view at Walker Art Center, 2018. Photo: Bobby Rogers

Over the course of this collaboration, I had the opportunity to work with Slavs and Tatars on their catalogue contribution, from its initial stages through to the production of the catalogue and exhibition graphics. The following interview reflects on their interest in Armajani’s work and practice, their approach to book design—which they describe as dizzying swings of high and low—and their workings as a multifaceted art collective deeply intertwined in the art, and act, of publishing and reading.

 

Aryn Beitz (AB)

Where did you first encounter Siah Armajani’s work? What drew you to his practice?

Slavs and Tatars (S&T)

We first came across Armajani’s work at his retrospective show in 2013 at Parasol unit in London. He became, without knowing it, a retroactive mentor of sorts. When we founded Slavs and Tatars, at an adult age, we already had relatively developed careers in other fields (publishing, design, research). As such we never really considered our work within any kind of genealogy, much less one of contemporary art. Armajani’s work helped us articulate our own practice. It’s difficult to place his work: Is it architecture? Is it sculpture? Is it participatory? Similarly, Armajani never aligned himself with the monadic identity often ascribed to (and accepted by) by other Middle Eastern artists. His work is as American as it is Iranian, as Protestant in some sense as it is Shi’a. Finally, there’s the thorny issue of faith and religion, especially in the world of contemporary art. Armajani’s reading rooms and vernacular language engage with faith (be it Christian or Muslim or other) and locate a progressive agency there, where most intellectual traditions of modernity see only revanchism and orthodoxy.

Siah Armajani, Alfred Whitehead Reading Room, 2013. Installation view of the exhibition Siah Armajani: An Ingenious World, Parasol unit, London, September 18–December 15, 2013

AB

In your catalogue contribution for the book, Siah Armajani: Follow This Line, you touch on the concept of reading. The notion of reading obviously is, and always has been, an important part of your practice. Can you elaborate on the concept of reading and how Armajani might figure as a precedent? How does reading, as both an idea and an act, continue to pave the way for future projects and areas of research?

S&T

Reading is a civic act. As much as we are suckers for the oral, the written word manages to constitute a social body in ways too often lacking today: a rigor in terms of focus, a polyphony of voices. A friend of ours noted recently that the only activities left today which require full concentration are reading and making love. Sadly, the latter doesn’t even qualify. We don’t believe in the autonomy of art. Perhaps it stems from the very idea of a collective: being multiple deflates the romantic aura of the artist. We’ve never been afraid of our work to be instrumentalized; if anything, we’d like it to be. The question is to what ends? How? Armajani’s reading rooms always engage and create a public but with a confidence that we are only beginning to acquire. His work manages to suggest reading without requiring it.

AB

There are many similarities between Slavs and Tatars work and Armajani’s work. The rahle book stand, for instance. Is there a particular work of Armajani’s that has been most influential to you?

S&T

Tabletop Bookshelf from the series Dictionary for Building (1982-1983) or Poetry Garden (1992) at the Lannan Foundation in Los Angeles.

 

Slavs and Tatars, visual research on rahlé, 2018
Slavs and Tatars, Reading Room of Saalbadereien / Bathhouse Quackeries, 2018. Installation view at Westfälischer Kunstverein, Münster. Photo: Thorsten Arendt
Slavs and Tatars, PrayWay, 2012. Installation view at the Preis der Nationalgalerie exhibition, Hamburger Bahnof, Berlin, 2017
Siah Armajani, Dictionary For Building: Tabletop Bookshelf, 1982–1983. Installation view of the exhibition Siah Armajani: An Ingenious World, Parasol unit, London, September 18–December 15, 2013

 

AB

Tell us about your catalogue contribution, Red-Black Thread (2018). How did you settle on this area of research, and how does it circle back to Armajani’s practice? What are your favorite books from the reading list you curated for the exhibition?

S&T

We believe in telling one story through another, what we call the “faculty of substitution.” In order to get from point A to point B, one must engage a certain circuity, via C or D. We’ve been interested in pursuing the twin topics of Black identity and Russia for some time and, sadly, the last couple years of events in the US have made it all the more pressing to do so. So when the curators of the exhibition invited us to contribute to the catalogue and exhibition, we felt Armajani’s work, dedicated to certain thinkers—namely those with a particular political or poetic radicalism—offered the perfect opportunity to do so.

Terry Martin’s Affirmative Action Empire is a tour de force of scholarship on the nationalities policies of the early USSR and Steven Lee’s The Ethnic Avant-Garde offers an interesting argument for redeeming socialist internationalism as a way to accommodate multi-ethnic societies as opposed to the neoliberal policy of multiculturalism.

 

AB

Like Armajani, Slavs and Tatars’s work traverses a wide range of mediums and has strong ties to graphic design. Some of you come from a design background, having studied at Werkplaats. Aside from designing your own publications, how does graphic design influence your work and the collective as a whole?

S&T

We’ve always looked to graphic design as an editorial practice. In fact, most of our work is conceived first as a publication (real or not) with the accompanying rhythm, pace, and discourse required by the given area of interest, and then it fans out to include other media, be it installation, sculpture, audio, or a lecture-performance. Traditionally there are two roles for a book in an artist’s practice, either as a catalogue, which implies a temporality after the fact (of the exhibition, performance, etc.) or as an artist’s book, with a very limited number of copies, requiring white gloves or to be handled with care. For us, the fact that the book predates the work is important: it acts as a source material of sorts, for future projects, new sculptures, other books, etc. This is why we compare the conception of works and namely books to yoghurt: to make yoghurt, one needs yoghurt. For example, our translation of the Azeri weekly Molla Nasreddin (1st ed. JRP|Ringier, 2011, 2nd ed. I.B. Tauris, 2017) grew out of a double page spread in our book Kidnapping Mountains (Book Works, 2009) into a 200+ page volume of its own. Which then led to a public sculpture, Molla Nasreddin the Antimodern (2012), before landing in another sculpture, a blinking volume of the original Molla Nasreddin in Madame MMMorphologie (2013).

 

AB

The books designed by Slavs and Tatars definitely have a certain aesthetic and share a similar visual language. How do you approach book design and what is most important to you? Conceptual rigor? Legibility? Content? Typography? Irony?

S&T

We believe in this idea of dizzying swings of high and low, be it in the visual articulation of ideas, in the tone of writing, or the very references used. As opposed to buttressing an argument in the text, the footnotes can send the reader in another direction entirely: they become tentacular. Perhaps it stems from our interest in coincidentia oppositorum, or the coincidence of opposites, originally a Christian idea—that to convey the holy, one must use paradox or the language of irrationalism. This Stilbruch or “rupture of style,” to borrow a phrase from one of our recently-discovered heroes Johann Georg Hamann, the bad-boy of the Enlightenment, manages to bring the incommensurate together, and that’s really what we try to do with our work, starting first and foremost with our books. The holy and the humorous, the sensual and spiritual, etc.

 

AB

What kind of design references are most interesting to you?

S&T

We’ve always been drawn to the resourcefulness and auto-didactic element of samizdats, which were self-published books passed furtively to avoid authorities in the USSR. Not necessarily zines or the like, but rather small communities who pack a lot of punch within the design. It’s a kind of poor man’s maximalism. Our books, particularly the early ones such as Kidnapping Mountains or Khhhhhhh, really speak to this approach. In our books, for example, it’s difficult to distinguish between reference image, research, and our work. They are deliberately placed on equal footing: further indication that the art work with a capital A is simply a means to another end.

Slavs and Tatars, Kidnapping Mountains, 2009

 

The cover and end sheets from a volume on Ismail Bey Gasprinski, a Tatar Muslim reformer (Jadidst), as well as a volume on Vietnamese textiles (see below) are good examples of how maximalism of scope combined with minimalism of means combine for a visual density—one we try to emulate in our own publications. They are not samizdats per se, but rather books published by rather parochial outfits. They are similar to samizdats in that they do not follow any standards of publishing: no ISBN, no grid, etc. Our book Not Moscow Not Mecca is another good example of this approach.

Slavs and Tatars, Not Moscow, Not Mecca, 2012

 

AB

Can you describe the dynamic of the collective a bit? Your projects and areas of research can be quite in-depth and complex. How do you reach a consensus on everything?

S&T

We work in cycles of research, each lasting between three and four years. Each cycle consists roughly of a couple years of scholarly research, followed by field research. These cycles are dedicated to such disparate subjects as medieval advice literature (Mirrors for Princes), alphabet politics (Language Arts), German orientalism (Made in Germany), or the relationship between Iran and Poland from the 17th to the 21st century. While the books and lectures articulate a series of concerns, the question becomes, of course, that of the artwork, i.e. sculptures, installations, etc. They cannot illustrate apropos and as such must disarticulate the very concerns above. As in, pulling a thread to undo a sweater.

 

CYCLE: MIRRORS FOR PRINCES

 

CYCLE: LANGUAGE ARTS

 

CYCLE: MADE IN GERMANY

 

CYCLE: PICKLE POLITICS

 

AB

Slavs and Tatars was recently appointed curators of the 33rd Biennial of Graphic Arts in Ljubljana. Can you tell me more about your roles as curators?

S&T

We’re eager to engage with the legacy of the biennial—as an early form of soft diplomacy, its non-Alignment status in the Cold War, and the availability of print as medium—in the early 21st century where each of these aspects has taken a beating but remains equally resonant. To take one example, we are witnessing a proliferation of graphic arts, via the internet and social media, much like the early 20th century with print (think of satirical periodicals such as Simplicissimus in Germany, L’Assiette au Beurre in France or Molla Nasreddin in the Caucasus).

Slavs and Tatars, Molla Nasreddin, 2011

 

AB

The art and design world feels a bit saturated at the moment. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I’m curious if this affects the way in which you position yourself in the mix. Is creating or maintaining a “brand” or “voice” important to you? Have your values or priorities as a collective shifted over time?

S&T

It is important to acknowledge the opportunities afforded by our discipline; nonetheless, we are challenging ourselves, like some of our colleagues, to further extend our practice beyond the disciplinary infrastructure of contemporary art. How can our investigations into certain belief systems, rituals, affects move beyond the admittedly generous confines of museums, kunsthalles, galleries, etc.?

This line of questioning has become even more pressing as a result of a mid-career survey we did in 2017: to mark ten years of activity we decided to look backwards to see how we can otherwise move forward. The exhibition Mouth to Mouth travelled exclusively within our regional remit: from Warsaw to Tehran, Istanbul to Vilnius. Again, we are grateful for the commissions and exhibitions we’ve had in the West, but one must make a concerted effort to exhibit beyond North America and Western Europe; in Iran, Turkey, Belarus there isn’t the robust funding structures for public institutions. On the occasion we published a monograph as well (Mouth to Mouth, with König Books), something we had thus successfully avoided, in favor of some eight to ten more research-based publications. We often return to a quote by Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, author and theologian, “Quit this world, quit the next, and quit quitting.” We understand this to mean that, no matter how liberating or impactful an ideology, approach, or thought system can be, at some point, it becomes its own prison.

In our case, it’s particularly relevant because Slavs and Tatars was never conceived to be an artist collective but rather a publishing concern. As mentioned earlier, it’s equally a principle as a tactic. When faced with resources of increased scale and frequency, we can either scale our activity up or across; we prefer the latter. To that effect, we are in the midst of launching several initiatives: one is a new residency and mentorship program for young artists, researchers, and curators from our region, with the support of the Goethe-Institut. The inaugural residents will be from Minsk, to be followed by Yerevan. At the end of September, we are also finally launching our Pickle Politics bar: the Slavic equivalent of an aperitivo bar where, instead of wine and cheese pairings, patrons will be offered different vodka and fermentation pairings. The bar will act as a venue for stand-up comedy: a medium we feel resonates with the limits on language and public discourse today.

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