“Hello, Welcome” says Alexis with a big smile across his face as I, my husband Zohrab and our two-month old baby Kenzo enter the corridor of Plein Jour, an artist residency in Paris and Alexis’ latest project.
We follow him up twisting narrow staircases until we arrive at a kitchenette that opens onto several small but cozy communal rooms. The decor is sparse, but the space is luminous and ornamented with exotic objects – oriental rugs, an hexagonal Arabic coffee table, and dozens of vinyls that line the bookshelves of their lounge area. The furniture is all second-hand.
“Are these from your travels?” I ask, knowing of Alexis’ cultural research trips to Armenia, Georgia, Turkey and Lebanon.
“No…I got these online in Paris” Alexis smiles sheepishly. “But it’s a great organization called Emmaus, it’s all used furniture and the proceeds go to support the homeless getting off the streets and into affordable housing.”
Plein Jour is like this furniture, it’s rough around the edges, but charming, well-kept, and the result of collective goodwill. An abandoned building in a blue-collar community, the city donated the venue to Alexis and his friends for one year (with the possibility of contract extension) for their artist studios.
Further down the hall Alexis shows us three studio spaces, one belonging to a painter, one to a musician, and another which is his own. A fourth space lies at the end of the hall intended for guest artists in residence.
“We renovated everything ourselves. It took us several months. This was my main work during the Covid confinement period. Now we’re happy to be opening the residency. Artists can use the space for several weeks, days, or even a few hours if they need a space to think or present something. If you know artists in Armenia who want to come to Paris for a residency, please tell them about us.”
We sink into the couches of the lounge, where Alexis offers us coffee and “chouquettes”, a typical French cream puff. Kenzo needs a diaper change, and Zohrab asks Alexis which table-top he can use. Alexis gestures over to the large black case in the far corner of the room.
“You can use my organ!”
I met Alexis back in 2016 when he came to Yerevan for an artist residency at the ACSL (Art and Culture Studies Laboratory). He plays a French 17th century mobile wind instrument called the Orgue de Barberie that was typical of peddlers, beggars or foreigners, essentially street musicians. Simply put, it functions by cranking a lever, which rotates an internal cylinder that plays music from punctured paper cards. For Alexis, this instrument is in some ways the very first computer (by way of perforated cards), an ancestor of computer-assisted music. In his compositions, he reinterprets this instrument with electronic music to create poetic melancholic soundscapes. He calls this project “Organ-Paysage”:
For Alexis, the project goes beyond sound creation to explore, resuscitate and even hijack folk traditions. On his various trips throughout Eurasia, Alexis has collaborated with local artists working in a combination of folk and experimental genres in order to create new meaning for this ancient instrument and revive its purpose as a social connector and music maker “of the masses”.
Alexis pulls out a box containing squares of white cloth covered in various embroideries. He explains that they are Afghan motifs, textiles which he acquired on a trip to Lebanon when teaching music to Palestinian refugees. He adds to the coffee table several books on Armenian textiles, embroidery and carpets and begins to share the idea for his next project.
His latest research aims to translate textile into sound by identifying and extracting “loops”, or repeating motifs, which he’ll manipulate and feed into his barrel organ via the punctured musical paper tape. Alexis plans to come back to Armenia in 2021 for a residency with HAYP/IN SITU in order to study Armenian motifs and textile patterns. As folk textiles contain symbols that tell rich stories and narratives, Alexis aims to give a new voice to these stories through sound.
We look forward to working with Alexis, and we encourage artists and interested collaborators in Armenia to reach out to us if you’re interested in meeting Alexis and contributing to his research project this spring. He is seeking fellow musicians, textile experts, as well as designers and fablab professionals to help him translate the motifs into the correct format for his organ.