in conversation with Ingrid Luquet-Gad
Ingrid Luquet-Gad : There is a recurrent line that you often use to introduce yourself: “Slavs and Tatars is a faction of polemics and intimacies devoted to an area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China known as Eurasia”…
Slavs and Tatars : In our name and biography, there is an idea of mixing perspectives, scales and registers. This has always been very important to us, in the sense that when we started with Slavs and Tatars in 2006, a lot of our initial motivation came from an exhaustion with the modernist model of critical-analytical investigation of subjects and modes of knowledge inherited from Enlightenment. Because our geographical scope of analysis is such a large one, it by necessity implies a macro or an aerial view. At the same time, we also really wanted to bring in a deep-dive, micro-perspective through the question of intimacy, as something which allows you to have an up-close, physical and affective relationship with what you are studying. As for the “faction,” it is a word that connotates the “émigré,” the emigrant. Our approach is to some extent a view from the outside in as well: even though some of us are Slav or from the region, none of us are really living there. To come back to the idea of the emigrant, there is something very romantic but also sadly often reactionary about it. The most reactionary parts of a society are usually its diasporic elements. The idea of the “faction” was a way to put pressure on this, as we wanted to reclaim a different understanding of immigration.
ILG: What does such a polymorph collective identity, one further entangled along the way rather than elucidated, bring to the works and their reception?
S&T : The question of authorship is a very interesting one, but we are not interested in it as a subject matter. Ideally, when working as a collective, you work with people who are not like you, so that it dissolves the idea of individuality or subjectivity. This is also why we try not to share so much biographical information about the people involved, although of course, you’ll now know that Slavs and Tatars was founded by Payam Sharifi, an Iranian-American, and Kasia Korczak, a Pole. What is also quite interesting is that generally, at least in the languages that I know, our vocabulary is quite poor when it comes to different degrees of revelation of self. In most of them, you’ll either be completely transparent or anonymous. When I give lectures for instance, I am not going to hide myself, and I won’t scramble my voice. So we are not anonymous in the sense that anonymity usually implies or at least involves a certain theatricality, one which becomes a performance of sorts. To state this is not a critique, but it means that anonymity is just not relevant for us, as it becomes something that you have to claim or take on. Our work just doesn’t deal with that but at the same time, we also don’t want to be fully transparent.
ILG: Your practice is constituted by three parts: exhibitions, books and lecture-performances. How does the visual part of it relate to language, which could be seen as a common thread of your practice as a whole?
S&T : As much as we are enamored in language and its complexities, we are also aware that as soon as you use any, you will automatically be limiting your audience. This is not only the case because of the access to it, but also because there is still a widespread understanding of art as something which is visual. People won’t consider text as art, as opposed to painting. So when we work with language in that context, we feel that we really have to reify it: we take a word and we almost give it flesh and substance so that one can get behind it. Approaching things from behind always makes them a bit more subversive. In English, “from behind” has a homoerotic connotation that will often means anally, but historically, this can also relate to segregated societies, where the backdoor would be where immigrants and colored people would have to enter so as not be seen, as they were not allowed through the front door. This is a perfect example of how, through a conversational use of language, the “backdoor” habit or condition brings two worlds together: the LGBT or queer world and the immigrant world. Exhibition-wise, we deal with this by working very hard to make sure that our work is available in other languages than English. This is easier said than done. When you work with humor for instance, it is very difficult to do so in another language, so we really make an effort to be sure to adapt the piece into French, Russian, Georgian or any other language.
IGL: Would you say that this image-based approach to language is essentially a personal one, or does it also reflect the fact that our media-landscape is evolving as a whole, increasingly towards a post-text future?
S&T : There are definitely other people that have already highlighted this in some ways, for instance by saying that our approach to a more obscure area of language has elements of memes or memeing. However, it is not only a question of images, but ultimately, it comes back to another question, one very present when we started, which was why we would make all these objects and sculptures and not just publish books. There is definitely a personal element involved for each of us in this, but to come back to the Enlightenment approach, if you want to explore other forms of knowledge, the digested, phenomenological and physical forms instead of the purely theoretical ones, it is ultimately very hard to do so purely in text or through a discursive media like literature—except maybe Dada or concrete poetry. Whereas if you explore the more spatial repercussions of language, then you invite another understanding of the piece. I am saying this as somebody who is a huge fan of books, and I would gladly just be making books for the rest of my life, but I think that it would almost be too self-centered to do so as an artist.
IGL: Over the years, did you feel the reception of your work change in this regard, reflecting a global turn which increasingly makes us read text as images online?
S&T : Good question. I only know that the reception has changed in so far as people have become more familiar with the work. There is a quote that I am fond of by Thomas Merton (1915-1968), an American Trappist monk who actually became one of the first to teach Buddhism in the West and is the author of several books, which is “quit this world, quit the next and quit quitting.” What he is trying to say is that even the most liberating ideology will become a prison at some point. When we started Slavs and Tatars, people really didn’t know what we were doing at all. There was a lot of suspicion, and there still is, for example about whether we were right wing or left wing, religious or maybe nationalist, serious or taking the piss… Such an ambiguous position has become much more difficult to maintain over time, at least with the professionals and the media, because now they know what we are doing beforehand. The ambiguity of people not knowing what you are doing is an incredibly powerful tool. As an artist, I’m always surprised by how the vast majority of contemporary art as we know it, 99% of it really, positions itself as art in the way it is presented. I find this very weird, because you give away a huge power by putting people in a dynamic where they have certain expectations. It is much more interesting if they don’t know. But we all know why that is: people want to ascribe to a certain order, and the need to be accepted is prioritized over the need to be challenged. We try as hard as we can to maintain this ambiguity, but unfortunately, the more you move forward as an artist or as a writer, the more you also know yourself what you’re doing and you have to try and break this model again.
ILG: How have your recent projects dealt with or tried to overcome this?
S&T : We curated a show, the 33rd Biennial of Graphic Arts in Ljubljana in 2019, and we opened a project-space in Berlin, the Pickle Bar, whose first event launched earlier in June. This also relates to the previous question of authorship. We thought that if we can open a space and invite people to explore the same questions that we’re interested in, but not do it under our name, then we would almost become the MCs or the “maîtres de cérémonie,” and we wouldn’t have to be so present all the time. I really believe that we as artists are generally too present, and that to overcome this, one has to try and borrow a little from the Buddhist idea of self-annihilation.
ILG: In Ljubljana, you included yourself as artists. To come back to your own works, wouldn’t their open and polysemic character tend to reinforce the primacy of the institutional structure hosting them? Do you think they would function just as well were they placed outside a certain symbolic framework that makes us identity them as art?
S&T : I believe they would. The few experiences and responses we have had in the public realm were very good. The Pickle Bar, for instance, is a new part of our practice in the sense that it is self-commissioned. Before that, we were once approached by a guy in the United States, whom I had never heard of, who makes spaghetti sauce for grocery stores. He wanted to use the texts from one of our posters, and we said: sure! This had nothing to do with art, it is not like a champagne bottle designed by Yayoi Kusama. I am however very suspicious of something I’ve noticed for instance on social media, but which also reflects a general tendency. Institutions have started to verbally express something they never did before, saying that they want to invite certain artists who would bring in X community that normally doesn’t come into art spaces. For example with us, it could be that they would like to invite us because we would bring in the Muslim community that usually doesn’t go to art institutions in London, or that in Moscow, they would like us to come because the migrant community normally doesn’t come to art spaces there. For me, people feel spoken to by what we are doing and when that happens outside of art spaces, I don’t know exactly how successful that is, but I still think it can be.
ILG: We spoke about humor earlier on. How would you qualify the tonality of your work in the way it pushes back against established centers and norms? Would you say that there is criticality or irony at play?
S&T : I am not a big fan of the word irony. I am a maximalist so for me, the sweet spot is how to stab something in the back while picking it up at the same time. I think that it is relatively easy to be critical of something just as it is to be celebratory, but to do both in the same breath or gesture, or at least deliver critique in a cheerful way, this is when it becomes really powerful. If you consider the most important period of 20th-century art, which I believe would be Constructivism and Bauhaus in Germany and the Soviet Union, there was a strong belief at the time that art played a productive role in society. A hundred years later, things are obviously different, but in our work there is definitely an attempt to help people critique themselves in order to better understand their identity, subjectivity and language. We could do this by pointing out certain weaknesses, but we are also living in a different time and mindset than the 1970s, when political art could simply speak to the audience and expose things this way. What is difficult nowadays is to point the way forward while also producing social values of some sort. It doesn’t have to be through direct action but at the end of the day, and this might sound cheesy, the work purely and simply has to make for a better world.
ILG: Don’t you feel that it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so? The current ideological climate rather tends to favor a clear and identifiable positioning, as well as one which takes sides…
S&T : That I agree with. The kind of work that Forensic Architecture is doing, for instance, is to me one of the most promising aspects of investigative journalism and citizen power. But to be perfectly honest, I am not convinced that it is relevant as art. I am suspicious of the idea that art is supposed to take the place of other specific institutions in terms of delivering social justice. It is not that we, as artists, should not be invested therein, but I think that by accepting this dynamic, we are letting those responsible for social justice off hook, just as we are allowing the State to fail by pretending that culture can maybe take over after them. To me, it is the wrong way to go about things, at least in functioning States, which Europe for now still consists of.
ILG: What projects are Slavs and Tatars currently working on, and which ones are you looking forward to in the near future?
S&T : There is the Pickle Bar which is ongoing, and we also just finished our first animation film. It is called The Contest of the Fruits and is based on a 19th-century Muslim satirical text written in Uyghur dealing with tolerance, identity and plurality. The poem is literally about a battle of fruits: the mulberry battles the cherry, the cherry the watermelon, the watermelon the pear. We’ll have it performed by a Uyghur rapper as a Turkic rap battle, as a way to deal with Uyghur culture beyond the headlines that we are hearing everywhere. It will be premiering in September in an exhibition at Haverford College’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery in Philadelphia. There is also a publication accompanying the project which will be published in October by MIT Press and bring together artists, academics, poets and performers.
Slavs And Tatars
in conversation with Ingrid Luquet-Gad
After Language / Post Society
SLAVS AND TATARS
founded in 2006, is a faction of polemics and intimacies devoted to an area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China known as Eurasia. Spanning several media, disciplines, and a broad spectrum of cultural registers (high and low), their practice is based on three activities: exhibitions, books and lecture performances.
is an art critic currently based in Paris, France. She is the arts editor of French culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles and a contributing editor to Spike Art Magazine. Her research, developed through essays, catalog texts, and conferences, explores the individual and collective structures of the networked self, as reflected by its current representations, media and affects.