Yerevan Biennial Launches Online as Shells Fall
19 October 2020
Opening events for the digital exhibition were postponed due to ongoing conflict between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces.
Karen Mirzoyan, Berlin, Intergalactic war photography (2012–2019). Photograph of drawings on windows. Courtesy of the artist.
The inaugural Yerevan Biennial has launched its digital exhibition without ceremony due to fighting in the region. Despite truces brokered on 10 and 17 October, artillery fire continues to fall on Azerbaijan, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave that separated from Azerbaijan in the 1990s in a war that killed 20,000 people and displaced a million.
'In response to the current crisis originating in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and in respect of the victims of the conflict and their families, the Yerevan Biennial Art Foundation has decided to cancel the scheduled launch events of its Digital Biennial,' the event's organisers announced. 'We are mourning in particular civilian casualties.'
The Yerevan Biennial's physical exhibition is not scheduled to open in the Armenian capital until September 2021, but two online panel discussions had been planned to launch the digital show.
'The possibility that bombing could actually occur in Yerevan was remote, an alien thought, when we chose this project,' the biennial's Chief Curator Fusi told Ocula Magazine. 'Now it is a scary reality, another situation in which past, present and future collide.'
The biennial's theme, The Time Complex, takes its name from a book by Austrian-Armenian philosopher Armen Avanessian, who argues that today 'the future happens before the present'. The exhibition is an investigation of the radical use of time in contemporary art, including imagining futures and reimagining histories.
Several works in the digital exhibition are ambivalent about what the future will bring. Karén Mirzoyan's series Intergalactic War: Invaders (2012–ongoing), pictured top, is an attempt to create the first war photography of a battle with Space Invader-esque aliens, while Suzanne Treister's video narrative Networks in Reverse — From the Interplanetary Internet via the ARPANET to the last Pre-Internet Moment (2013) describes the dissolution of the Internet, an event that's almost unimaginable despite its recent invention.
Works of Afrofuturism, a genre born of Africans' exclusion from our imaginings of the future, include Nuotama Bodomo's Afronauts (2014), a video about the Zambian Space Academy's attempt to beat the United States to the moon in 1969. It's inspired by true events wonderfully reported by The New Yorker here.
Another Afrofuturist work is John Akomfrah's The Last Angel of History (1996), a sci-fi documentary-style film discussing Black culture and the influence of funk musician George Clinton. Archival materials are remixed with a fictional story of a time-travelling data thief digging for fragments of history and technology.
One of the exhibition's special projects, Time Out of Joint, is likewise inspired by sci-fi, taking its name from a novel by Philip K. Dick. The project can only be viewed on the dark net using the Tor Browser. Two new works will be added every two weeks from October 2020 until January 2021 by artists such as Joshua Citarella, interdisciplinary collective Clusterduck, and Amalia Ulman.
There are elements of the current real world conflict that feel futuristic—drones are active over Azerbaijan, while an information war is being fought on social media—but the return to ethno-nationalist fighting in Azerbaijan undermines the notion that we are progressing towards a world without war. Fighting there has already killed over 600 Armenian soldiers, scores of civilians and an unknown number of Azerbaijanis, according to The New York Times.
'We are clearly not ready for a time in which we can finally emancipate ourselves from the perceived logic of war,' Fusi said. 'Years ago, I co-curated an exhibition and edited a publication entitled System Error. War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning with the artist Naeem Mohaiemen (we borrowed this sentence from the title of a Chris Hedges book). The idea has stayed with me. For as much as we might like to think differently, perhaps war embodies on some level what makes us humans (rightly or wrongly). And as such, there is no way to escape it, even in a futuristic or idealised time.'
In Yerevan today, he said, 'There is a wide array of feelings, and the mood swings continuously. I cannot speak for the entire community there. I can only report what I hear from our collaborators.'
'There is nothing more heart-breaking than watching a child normally packing their school bag to then find out that the day after will not be just a regular day at school, but their first day as a war refugee,' said Fusi. —[O]