Zulf (blond), oak wood, hair, 30 x 70 x 30 cm,
and Zulf (brunette), oak wood, hair, 82 x 60 x 30 cm
AN INTERVIEW WITH SLAVS AND TATARS, PART II
Slavs and Tatars is an art collective that deals with issues of language, identity, and culture in the area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China. As it engages with the region’s polemics, the collective works across disciplines and media. As artists-in-residence hosted by the NYUAD Art Gallery during Spring 2015, Slavs and Tatars will temporarily shift operations from Berlin to Abu Dhabi. Slavs and Tatars were able to set aside some time to chat in the collective’s studio to discuss its practice. In Part I of the interview, I spoke to the collective about its origins as well as the nature of its work and the conversations sparked by its installations. (I spoke to one member of the collective who speaks for the group; individual members of the collective do not give their names to the public.) Here, in Part II of the interview, we focus on the collective’s current work and its plans for the residency at the NYUAD Art Gallery.
Diana Gluck: What are you planning for your residency at the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery this Spring?
Slavs and Tatars: When we do a residency, a lot of the research that we’ll do at the residency won’t result in work that you’ll see at the venue, it’ll be for the next chapter. With our research we generally work in a cycle of roughly 3 years. We do a couple years of bibliographic research bookended by field research. For this current project, Mirrors for Princes, we went to Xinjiang in western China, the Muslim region of China, [and then there was] about a year of production work to form or give shape to those ideas. Then the series of works that result from this research and production travels to different venues, adding new elements at each stop, by accretion. It was unveiled at the Kunsthalle Zurich, the next iteration will be at the GfZK Leipzig, and the iteration after that is in Abu Dhabi. In each iteration it will accumulate.
For the residency, we’ll have a seminar that will pursue the editorial direction of mirrors for princes by combining the macro and micro scales and registers of the millennial genre and its contemporary stakes by looking at self-presentation as a form of governance. Identifying the individual as a polity, the self as an assembly of multiples will allow for an effectively multidisciplinary research as well best leverage the expertise of the diverse faculty. It will be run like a salon, we’ll meet once every week or two, with three or four faculty members, four or five students — on a different component of these “mirrors for princes.”
DG: Can you talk more about the larger themes present in this current project, Mirrors for Princes?
ST: Essentially, mirrors for princes were guides for future rulers in the tenth to twelvth [sic] centuries. The most-famous one is Machiavelli’s The Prince, which was later of course and during the Renaissance, but actually, they first arrived in and most of them happened during medieval times. It was a first attempt by scholars to put statecraft on the same level as religious jurisprudence and theology, because until the tenth/eleventh century, most scholars either wrote about religion, or they didn’t write. It wasn’t considered worthy to talk about secular matters. Today, what’s interesting is that a thousand years later or a millennium later, we have a completely different situation. The pendulum has swung to the other extreme, because now everybody and their grandma is a political pundit of some sort, and there’s very little intelligent writing about faith in the public realm. Basically if you’re an intellectual, you don’t talk about religion. You can talk about it sort of with gloves on and say something anthropologically, but religion is the kiss of death for an intellectual or professional person today.
So what we’re looking at is, in a way, the latter day version of mirrors for princes: self help books. Like, How to Lose 15 kilos in 10 Days or How to Marry a Millionaire …
We’re thinking about how we can re-invest this genre that’s become sort of individually focused — self betterment — into the question of self-presentation, but as one would imagine oneself as a multitude or as a corpus of pluralities. So thinking of oneself as a nation of many. The different factions within yourself. Different belongings, different allegiances, different affinities. Take the example of one of our own — a Russophile from the United States who’s originally from Iran. Those are three areas or spheres of influence that are in complete conflict.
This negotiation of allegiances, of multiplicities, of identities, of behaviors, is a necessarily urgent practice — it’s quite relevant to what we found at NYU Abu Dhabi, from the student body to the curriculum itself. It was the first time we’ve seen a school that has a truly global student body in the sense that diversity isn’t a token. [In one of our experiences] as an undergrad at Columbia, there were the international students, but then the bulk is American. If you’re at Sorbonne, the bulk is French; if you’re at Oxbridge, it’s British; if you’re in Heidelberg it’s German. And [at NYUAD] it’s … everybody’s from everywhere. And perversely, the tabula rasa that the [United Arab] Emirates is often misconstrued as, actually works to its benefit.
DG: So you’re looking to write the same sort of self-help mirror for princes texts but for the Emirates, or as individuals with multiple identities?
ST: The idea is to present the exhibition that would address these themes of self-presentation.
In the works from Zurich there are a lot of different elements about grooming. Grooming of course has a double meaning in English. How to present oneself, in terms of hair and hair-care, but also grooming in that you groom a child — not for paedophilic reasons — but more to prepare, to raise, to elevate, to guide. Hair in a sense is a perfect example of de-sacralization, because hair used to be, until 200 years ago, always a sacred, ritualistic thing, and today it’s purely aesthetic or at best tribal. The question is how to de-profanize or re-sacralize or reconsider these. One chapter is grooming, and in Abu Dhabi we’ll think about perhaps another chapter … possibly “reading’, as kind of sacred activity. Reading used to be a group activity. You didn’t have a book per person, you had a book for fifty people, a hundred people, a thousand people. Books were precious objects. So it can re-activate some of these ideas.
Hirsute happily with hairless (white), dichroic glass, tinned copper, 25 x 10 x 8 cm, 2014
and Hirsute happily with hairless (green), dichroic glass, tinned copper, 25 x 10 x 8 cm, 2014
Courtesy Kraupa Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin
DG: Interesting – on that topic, the Qur’an is constantly recited over Sheikh Zayed’s tomb at the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.
ST: The reciting, the orality, of language is super interesting because the Muslim world came relatively late to print, actually, around the late nineteenth/early-twentieth century. Not because it didn’t have access to it — it was a decision that dates back to the fifteenth/sixteenth century. All religions were very suspicious about print because there’s a loss of authority with print, of interpretation.
And ironically our Not Moscow, Not Mecca [show / book] project looked at this idea of how normally people think that Islam needs to be “modern” or needs to be “modernized.” You hear it a lot, “Oh, Islam needs a reform movement and needs to be modernized” — which is actually quite islamophobic. In fact, it is counterintuitive – it was Islam’s modernization which contributed to its radicalism. Meaning that it’s only since print arrived in Islam that someone can decide who is Muslim, who is not or what Islam is or isn’t — because before, it was completely communitarian and largely ritual-based.
Each village, each town, would have its oral tradition of Islam, and few in Bukhara or Samarkand cared what someone in Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo said. There wasn’t this type of dialogue. So ironically, in Central Asia and the Soviet Union, they missed out on modernization — because print arrived during Communism and nothing could be printed that was religious — Jewish, Christian, Muslim — nothing. So they strangely maintained that ritualistic, oral approach to Islam, which has maintained quite a Sufi, almost more esoteric approach that’s been relatively resilient to things like Saudi attempts to radicalize or Wahhabi funding.
DG: In addition to thinking of a new chapter for Abu Dhabi, you mentioned that your work accumulates, and that some previous work from Zurich will be shown in the iteration for the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery. So far, are there any pieces that are part of Mirrors for Princes that you will add to or somehow alter in Abu Dhabi?
ST: In particular there’s a large sound installation in Zurich that had an excerpt from a mirror for prince being read. You have a 4-channel video, and there is an excerpt from this mirror for prince from the eleventh century, and each time it’s presented in a different venue, there’s a new language added for that venue. So the original was Uighur, then it was shown in Turkey, so Turkish, and then Polish, German, and now it’ll be Arabic.
Speculum linguarum (installation view), 4 channel sound installation (in Uighur, Turkish, Polish, and German),
16 mirrored plexiglass rahlé with speakers, each 30 x 30 x 50 cm, 2014
Courtesy Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin
DG: Will it loop first in one language then in another language?
ST: It’s actually interesting; in Poland and Russia they have this phenomena of Gavrilov translation [which we utilize in this piece], which is basically, instead of dubbing where they would turn off the original and just dub, like in Germany or France, they would instead speak over the original voice. So this is Pulp Fiction [Plays excerpt from Pulp Fiction with Gavrilov translation, one voice dubbed over the original].
All one voice. It is an interesting phenomenon. One, that it’s maximalism of means, meaning that it’s cheaper obviously to do that — that’s the origin of the practice. But it’s also maximal in the sense that the audience gets to listen to the original and yet understand. So instead of canceling the original, which is normally done, where you don’t get to see the original acting — you just have some new person’s voice on top of it, you get the best of both worlds. But it’s schizophrenic, right? Where you have to split your brain basically.
What we like about it is that there’s a respect and disrespect of the material, meaning that you’re respecting the original source because you’re translating it, but you’re also disrespecting it because you’re speaking over it. If you’re reading poetry and I am tasked with translating, usually what happens is you read a line, a verse, and then I translate. And then you read. And then I translate. But here, you’re reading and I’m translating over your voice. So it’s a very strange push and pull of both [respect and disrespect].
DG: Under the umbrella of themes explored by Mirrors for Princes, in addition to the changing associations held with regards to grooming, the connection to modern day self-help books, and the mix of respect/disrepect present in Gavrilov translation, earlier you mentioned briefly the role of faith in law. What are you particularly interested in concerning the role of faith in law in the Emirates?
ST: From what we understand NYU has a status of being able to discuss anything. There’s a real freedom of discussion and expression within the university. The question is can it then be broadcast outwards to the larger community. For us it’s crucial to make the exhibition relevant not only to the student body and faculty but to the larger community. This exhibition is not really a commentary on the Emirates, just like it’s not a commentary on Swiss law. There’s just as much to object to with Swiss law as there is with Emirati law. Especially recently, whether it’s the prohibition on foreigners being able to work in Switzerland, or the ban on minarets being constructed.
Our work doesn’t really prescribe anything but it’s more a reflection that allows for other questions to bubble to the surface. We don’t take a singular position. For us, the real interesting moments happen when you work on a subject matter or exhibition for a couple of years, and you still don’t really know where you stand on it. That resistance to your own determination is interesting because it confounds you, and if it confounds you after so much time spent on it, then there’s a chance there that it has layers of complexity that can’t be reduced to a polemical statement.
Regarding the question of faith in government – we’re somewhat suspicious of this very modernist rhetoric or what Charles de Foucauld, a Catholic scholar and monk, called ‘secular rage’ which you see among elites in Western society. It’s the natural extension of Cartesian thought, of modernity, of homo modernicus, who has survived homo sovieticus. The idea, according to Marx, Weber or Durkheim, that there is a new man that no longer has tradition, that no longer has religion or faith, and that no longer has a need for these – because now the world is industrial, it’s secular, it’s rational. We’re suspicious of this break.
We don’t obviously believe in throwing one out or the other. We’re not suspicious of technology or rationalism, but we equally don’t ascribe to the philosophy of either one. Also we believe that … if you look at the most successful acts of civil disobedience over the past century, they’ve always been led by people for whom faith played an extremely important role. Martin Luther King, Gandhi, the Solidarność in Poland against Communism — the Catholic church played a huge role.
But now, we as intellectuals appropriate these people as secular individuals. We whitewash them of their religious role, we claim Martin Luther King as a civil rights leader, Gandhi as a human rights leader, but actually you can’t disassociate the role that faith played in any of these struggles — and it would go a long way towards creating a cohesive society. In Turkey, today in America, same thing – you have this partisanship of people yelling at each other but not listening at all to each other. It’s because, “We believe everybody who is religious is stupid” and they believe, “Anybody who is secular is godless and sinning.” We’re maximalists. We believe it’s a question of “and” and not a question of “or,” you know?
Love Letters No. 3
woolen yarn, 250 × 250 cm, 2013
AN INTERVIEW WITH SLAVS AND TATARS, PART I
Slavs and Tatars is an art collective that deals with issues of language, identity, and culture in the area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China. As it engages with the region’s polemics, the collective works across disciplines and media. As artists-in-residence hosted by the NYUAD Art Gallery during Spring 2015, Slavs and Tatars will temporarily shift operations from Berlin to Abu Dhabi. Slavs and Tatars were able to set aside some time to chat in the collective’s studio to discuss its practice. The following interview sheds light on the collective’s origins as well as the nature of its work and the conversations sparked by its installations. I spoke with one member of the collective who speaks for the group; individual members of the collective do not give their names to the public. Part II of the interview focuses on the collective’s current work and their plans for their residency at the NYUAD Art Gallery.
Diana Gluck: I read that you started out as a book club, could you tell me more about that?
Slavs and Tatars: Yes, we basically just started by translating small pamphlets, 10, 20 page things, into English that had not been translated before, or republishing things that had been out of print. We’d do editions of 10, of 50, 100, and we’d pass them around to our friends and charge nothing — perhaps ten bucks for an edition, most often gratis. We never expected to be artists. We thought — we’re going to continue to publish, maybe 1-2 books a year.
It’s a testament to the elasticity of art as a discipline. It’s really the only discipline we know of that is questioning its own boundaries all the time. It took a risk. They [the art world] basically said, “Okay, these guys can do interesting printed matter, let’s see if they can do an exhibition in three dimensions in space.”
Publishing remains so central to the practice, because it’s a reversal of normal hierarchy. Often the book in art is a type of documentation. A catalog. After the fact. You ask somebody to take pictures; you ask somebody to write about you. For us, the book must always be a beginning, never an end.
Pages from Naughty Nasals (book)
DG: Right, the book itself is not the artwork.
ST: Exactly. The other extreme is that it becomes an art book, where it costs a lot of money [and you have to] wear gloves. It’s a book as a piece. And for us, it’s actually, all the kind of sculptures in these installations that you see, they’re ways to bring people back to the book. For us, the book is the work.
And that kind of goes to our questions on knowledge production, which is why we got involved in this. We’re ultimately interested not in art as an end in itself, but how art can be a platform for asking certain types of questions, certain kinds of behaviors, certain kinds of affectivities or affinities.
DG: So you didn’t foresee a career in the art world at the beginning. You mentioned in a previous interview that you worked in different mediums because doing so allows the work to maintain a notion of indistinguishability and perhaps be present in places where it is not expected. Even though you work in a lot of mediums, they are all still presented in a gallery or art space context. Have you ever thought of placing work outside of this context to reach a different audience?
ST: There’s a great quote about art from an interview in The New Yorker — a profile of the Iranian artist Siah Armajani by Calvin Tomkins. He says that it’s very important to rescue the term populism, as populism for many people means the lowest common denominator, but actually, he says, populism can mean making the highest achievements possible for the largest amount of people. And he distinguishes, interestingly enough, between two terms. He says it’s important to distinguish between availability and accessibility. Making your work available for everybody is important — accessible depends on the person’s investment into the work. It’s available for everybody — it’s accessible if the person puts an effort into it — like anything in life, the more you put into it the more you take out. I think we ascribe to that.
The most rewarding lectures that we do are actually not in art departments at Yale or NYU or University of Texas, but actually the Middle Eastern Studies Department, or the Eastern European Studies Department, first of all because there’s more of a sense of dialogue. There’s too often this assumption that because we’re talking about a region that very few people know about that we’re somehow experts on the region. And we’re really not. You can’t be an expert on a region that big, as you know. It’s ridiculous, right? 340 ethnicities and I don’t know how many languages. So when it’s an art audience it [our work] often just sort of flies over everybody’s head. So there’s less of an understanding about maybe the performativity – not how we’re performing when we’re giving a lecture — but the research performativity; how we perform across the material. How we can play with the material.
DG: You don’t know when the performativity starts and when what you started with, the raw material, ends.
ST: Yes. And to be honest we’re very proud of the feedback from the Dallas show [more press here]. It was overwhelming, especially from the “layperson” – the non-art professional. They just gave incredible feedback to the guards, the invigilators, the curators, and online. This is important for us because there’s a risk we run … when art … when any kind of medium … attains a critical mass, enough so that it can delude itself into believing that it’s big enough to speak to itself. Then you can think that “Okay, it’s big enough to be self-sufficient” and that you don’t need to speak to outside your own discipline because it’s so big now. What was maybe 5,000 people ten years ago is now 50,000 people. But that’s still not enough.
We always think about the layperson because we ourselves go to many exhibitions and read the texts and don’t understand anything. And we think to ourselves, well if we don’t understand anything then how does … your uncle? … who is an educated person, not necessarily interested in art, but you know.
It was either Nick Serota or Chris Dercon (from the Tate) who said that museums today occupy the role that libraries did in the nineteenth century. They are places where people go for education and entertainment. That’s super important, but the third element that is perhaps the elusive one for all of us is the question of transcendence. How does it affect or spark a questioning that can lead to a different way of being as opposed to just thinking about something [the viewer] didn’t think about before. That’s why for us the most rewarding venues are places where there isn’t a critical mass of art, actually. It’s not necessarily New York or London but it’s Abu Dhabi, Istanbul, Bialystok in eastern Poland. You know, those are the places that for us give the most rewarding feedback.
Love Letters No. 7
woolen yarn, 2014
DG: Places where you are creating these dialogues where they might not otherwise be happening. How might your practice relate to that of a scholarly institution?
ST: There is that kind of transversal, cross-disciplinary investigation. It’s something that is obviously central to our practice. Our books — you can see it’s not journalism. There are journalistic elements, but it’s not journalism. There are scholarly elements but it’s not academic, it’s not purely analytical and objective and as rigorous of research as let’s say an academic publication would be. It’s intimate but it’s not a memoir, because it’s not about our lives. So there’s this kind of in-betweenness. Much as our region. Our region is in between. It’s not the Middle East, it’s not China, it’s not Russia, it’s in between these regions. And this sort of in-betweenness is an interesting, if difficult, space to straddle and I think that in parallel institutions of higher education, all kind of lay claim to that holy grail of interdisciplinarity. They all say that they’re interdisciplinary, but the ones who are able to implement it are … I haven’t seen many, if any. Because there are so many entrenched interests. It boggles the mind. There should be almost like a Hippocratic oath of scholars. How could you be a linguist if you don’t study religion, psychology, and history? The history department won’t give you tenure if you want to spend three years studying faith in language politics, because they’ll say go do that in the religion department or literature department. It’s the collateral damage of specialization in some sense, which is fine — which is important, but there’s obviously negatives to the positives as well.
DG: You’ve mentioned the interdisciplinary nature of your practice. In one article on the recent Lichtgrenze installation commemorating 25 years after the fall of the Berlin wall, I found the following quote: “Unlike a history textbook or an article on Wikipedia, art has the inherent benefit of showing, not telling.” I thought this was an interesting statement in dialogue with your work because your pieces often involve text alongside visuals. So in a way your work is another grey zone in that it’s showing and it’s telling. Or, it’s manipulating the showing of that telling.
ST: That’s a good point. It’s something that we ourselves sort of struggle with. We do show and tell, but you’re right, we don’t tell what we’re showing. A lot of times there are reading spaces with our shows and as you’ll see, our books don’t actually explain the work at all. We never talk about our work in the lectures. They’re investigations of our research. So [our work] disrupts this question of what it means to have text near a work, what it means to read near a work. We use the example of a bazaar in the sense that in a bazaar there’s something for everybody. Some people want to read, some people want more formal elements, some people want the performative elements, some people want some kind of text. This runs counter to this very precious, solemn, self-important tradition we have in art. A sort of notion that fine-art is, “I put one thing here [motions with cup on table] and then it’s up to you to kind of understand or … or not.” We try to create many levels of entry to the pieces. There’s not one. If somebody comes into one of our installations and just takes a nap, it’s just as valid and legitimate as someone who has read everything and knows the entire discourse around it. There’s no hierarchy of access to the work.
Go to Part II of the interview.
[Images courtesy of Slavs and Tartars]
AED 50 = 10.98 Euros
With only €10.98 in your pocket, you’ve found yourself in Berlin. We can work with this. You’re not in New York.
UBahn at Eberswalderstrasse
For breakfast, grab a classic brotchen or maybe even go a little crazy and get a Butter Schnittlauch Bretzel — a delicious classic pretzel or pretzel stick sliced and filled with butter and chives — if it suits your taste. They are top notch in the stand on the U6 platform at Stadtmitte (or at least I like and eat them often, whatever that’s worth — but what else do you have to go off of except my opinions in this article?) and only cost €1.20.
Berlin is very walkable, especially the stretch of Unter den Linden which leads you all the way from the Brandenburg Gate to Museum Island and then finally to Alexanderplatz where by that point it is called Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse. This route is a nice walk in either direction, and along the way you’ll pass the memorial in Bebelplatz in front of a Humboldt University Library that commemorates the book burnings that were organized by students and took place in 1933. The memorial is a glass square set into the ground through which one can view empty bookshelves, symbolizing the books lost in the fire. Museum Island is beautiful to walk through even if you don’t have time (or funds) to see the insides of its many museums.
Looking toward Alexanderplatz
While this walk along Unter den Linden is great and the central area ‘Mitte’ of Berlin is very walkable, you may still want to buy a Berlin AB public transport day pass for €6.70 since it will get you around faster than anything. With a day pass, you can use any bus, U-Bahn (train/metro) or S-Bahn (train that stops less, goes longer distances). Or, you could keep in mind that a single ticket is €2.60 and be careful with when you use your single trip. Alternatively you can rent a bike for around €5, but be sure to check return times. A metro pass, carefully planned single trip, or bike is useful in the evening (or just when it’s cold) for hopping around to free events.
When you’re finished walking around Mitte, hop on your chosen means of transportation and if the weather is good, head to Tempelhofer Feld. The old converted airfield is the perfect park for a picnic. Bring a friend and food. Walk around, make a few more friends among the field mice, and climb on the bales of hay.
Now for a meal. There are lots of options. I’ll list a few in different areas, and you can choose which to do for each meal depending on your location.
If you’re near Mitte or anywhere off the U6, Mehringdamm isn’t far. The Mehringdamm stop hosts the most famous döner stand — Mustafa’s Döner Kebab, as well as Curry 36, a famed currywurst vendor. Expect to spend around €3.00 at either place.
If you’re near Eberswalderstrasse in Prenzlauer Berg, Konnopke’s Imbiss is located under the tracks and is also known for its currywurst. Also around €3.
If you’re near Oranienstrasse or Görlitzer Bahnhof in Kreuzberg, Rissani is a Lebanese establishment with delicious falafel for only €2 It’s the best I’ve had in city so far. Maybe buy an extra.
If you’ve ventured down to Neukölln, Sahara Imbiss serves excellent tofu, falafel, or other meat sandwiches drizzled in delectable peanut sauce for around €3. They claim their cuisine is Sudanese, but they seem to have adapted aspects of Sudanese cuisine to the tastes and preferred or popular dishes of Berliners. Personally, I believe the peanut sauce is a welcome addition and improvement on any food item.
With your döner, wurst, or falafel in hand, venture to the East Side Gallery and see the famous graffiti for free. One can also freely stroll through the Tiergarten (Berlin’s Central Park) or Park am Gleisdreieck (Kreuzberg) in good weather.
Since we’re limited to the equivalent of 50 dirhams, in lieu of the (wonderful) large art museums and institutions, check out www.index.de for free gallery openings and events happening for the given night. Free events don’t always mean free refreshments, but you never know.
If by whatever combination you’ve concocted of the above recommendations you’ve managed to still have around €1 or 2 left on you, stop by a Spätkauf (convenience store) for a cold drink or snack and take it for a walk along the Spree or Landwehrkanal.
[Photo Credits: Diana Gluck]