by Varduhi Kirakosian and Anna Gargarian
In response to the growing fear and anxiety around the ever-spreading COVID-19, some artists are embracing the #StayHome movement and making the most of isolation. Cities across the globe have declared a state of emergency, while artists have announced a state of inventiveness.
Trending Instagram challenges, live streams, and Facebook watch parties are finding ways to inspire creativity during confinement, encourage people to stay home, and raise spirits in the age of social distancing. A number of artist-run initiatives caught our attention, and we thought we’d share some of our favorites.
Restoring a (false?) sense of control
In a letter to “humans everywhere,” @Enyleeparker launched Clay Play, inviting interior designers to make tiny homes and rooms out of baked clay. The results are sweet and satisfying as scaled-down order is given to otherwise chaotic times.
Moscow-based photographer @Nicolaspolli has been running an Instagram page called @Homelife_Stilllife since mid March, calling on artists to share still life photographs taken from their interiors, including the backstage images. The result is a photo repository of everyday home sculptures that transform the domestic environment into a fantasy playground. Seeing images of both the final artistic vision and its process reminds us that reality is about perspective, and that the stories we tell (on social media and otherwise) are highly curated.
On April 3, performance artist Katya Bondar launched a digital performance MY-BODY-YOUR-BODY, in which she reflects on “time, the everyday state of reality, cyber communication and layered physicality”.
In her four hour performance live streamed on Instagram, Katya embraces the Avatar as she gives herself over to the audience, allowing users to direct her movements and actions within the confines of her bedroom through commands sent via a private server. Katya notes in her performance description that due to the current state of events, “we all found ourselves in a new space of bodies, movements and communication”.
Such projects got us wondering, how are artists in Armenia reacting to confinement?
Pandemic -> Panic -> Performing Perspectives
Online performance has gone viral, from local music clubs like Yerevan’s Ulikhanyan Jazz Club and Gyumri’s Garage Club’s watch parties, to musicians and DJs inviting us into their homes for live-stream sessions. Among these musicians is Mikayel Voskanyan, who decided to turn his quarantine into a “Tarantine”. Tarantine (‘Թառանծին’ in Armenian) is a word play on “Tar” (Թառ), a traditional lute-like instrument that Voskanyan has mastered. He notes that his live stream sessions aren’t concerts at all, but rather “reflect a [new] chapter from my artistic lifestyle.” Mikayel hopes to shift the public focus and reshape the emotions dominating current news outlets and public conversation.
“Even though all my plans are canceled – concerts have been delayed and rescheduled – there is no way I can stop practicing and enjoying playing music. It’s an indispensable part of my life. I decided to stay true to my calling and encourage and give hope to people through music,” says Voskanyan.
Renowned jazz pianist Vahagn Hayrapetyan has also joined the virtual bandwagon of live streaming. Hayrapetyan launched a series of watch parties he calls “AntiVirus jazz”. Though they’re mostly solo performances, he has the occasional accompaniment, some invited and others unexpected. In this virtual duet, a musician chimes in on the upright bass, while watching Vahagn from home.
Accompaniment takes on a whole new meaning in Ara Dabandjian’s music video for “By the River”, an instrumental arrangement the artist composed during the COVID-19 times. The video, directed by comedian and artist Vahe Berberian, depicts a four-person band playing at home. The catch is, Ara performs with, well… himself, in this one-man show that playfully embodies how isolation is forcing us to really be with ourselves. The Aras share coffee, laughs, and a jam session, and one Ara (the drummer) get’s the door shut in his face when he shows up late to the party. Berberian notes in his facebook post, “During these Coronavirus times this was the safest way to bring together all the musicians.”
Many electronic music artists are sharing content (old and new) on platforms like Bohemnotsradio.com, Mixlr, Soundcloud or Mixcloud in hopes of not only sharing content, but encouraging other artists to make it their own. DJ Arpie shared with us that she’s trying to promote good vibes and just “have fun, release everything into the music, and let it talk to you”.
Outside of the musical realm, poet Arqmenik Nikoghosyan aims to educate followers and spark discussion in his live stream sessions where he recites and discusses poetry in order to, “fight against Coronavirus and isolation through literature.”
It’s safe to say that live streaming has become a trend, and content has varied with social media as a “free for all”. For those searching for content that scratches beneath the surface, “Pnti Khoghovak” (Փնթի խողովակ) podcast may be of interest. Translating roughly to “messy/disheveled pipe”, this Armenian language podcast features interviews and discussions on alternative music and subculture. In a recent interview with Evn Magazine, Pnti Khoghovak Founder Areg Arakelian shared that, “I don’t think there is a real underground scene [in Armenia] yet, but there are a lot of non-mainstream musicians and artists that I try to unite [on my platform]”. Arakelian hopes Pnti Khoghovak will be a go-to for people interested in what’s happening outside of the mainstream.
New Times Call for New Meaning
These times pose a real challenge for collaboration and have forced us to take a hard look at how meaningful our online communities really are. While sharing lends itself to performers wishing to “rekindle” an audience relationship, this presents an altogether new challenge for visual artists seeking a deeper exchange than image-sharing.
This phenomenon is perhaps best represented in artist Anna Vahrami’s recent video work, “The Square”, posted to Facebook. Reflecting on the squares that outline our isolation, whether through the screens of our devices, Zoom windows, or the four walls of our homes, Vahrami laments the lack of direct communication, and brings our attention to the heightened mediation during quarantine.
Artist Samvel Saghatelyan told us he was “flourishing in the times of the coronavirus”. Known for his provocative and humorous social commentary that combines graphic, collage, and performance work, Samvel often incorporates the ready made into his oeuvre. His recent piece, “Save Your Ass”, remarks on the absurdity of human (re)action in the face of panic.
The work incorporates his trademark graphic text (reminiscent of his political protest signs) on a roll of toilet paper. He posted an image of the work to Facebook with the subtext, “But you can’t save your ass with just toilet paper….”. In his letter to journalist Anush Kocharyan, published in the interview series “From Balcony to Balcony”, Saghatelyan reflects on crisis and opportunity. For Samvel, this is a “return to our original state”, a reckoning with nature that forces us to deal with our negligence and carelessness, and reintroduce discipline into our lives. “Let’s think about how to transform this period,” he says, “how to find a way of self expression not only in art but in all types of relationships.” As an artist who lived through the soviet system, its downfall, and the following hardships of the 90s, Samvel says that this situation isn’t so unfamiliar.
“I’m used to working with limitations. Sometimes you need limitations in order to help you give shape to all the sh*t you have inside.”
In an interview with photographer, Karén Khachaturov, he explained the challenge of making art these days since what inspires him most is social life. Karén is taking this time to reflect on, rethink and share works from his previous series which are acquiring new meaning in the context of Coronavirus. Khachaturov’s trademark pastel color palette and utopia/dystopia landscapes reflect on alternative realities. If before the works stemmed from his own experience, today his sterile aesthetic and surreal environments are uncannily relatable on a global scale.
No less relatable is the general concern for economic livelihood in the face of halted festivals, concerts, and exhibitions. Musician Arash Azadi offers a simple solution to this challenge, taking advantage of the current hyperactivity of the web during quarantine as an opportunity for artists to collectively support each other economically. With the knowledge that YouTube allows individuals to monetize their channels with a minimum of 1000 subscribers, Azadi invites artists to share each other’s work and increase the number of subscribers to their private channels in an act of collective social support.
While global isolation movements have ironically leveled the playing field across the globe, creating an unexpected sense of unity in our shared struggle, there is an undeniable need for more meaningful communication. Artists Anna Vahrami and Gohar Martirosyan’s aim to bridge this gap through a project called Antibody:
“Antibody is a social platform, where we would like to develop alternative ways of communication based on contemporary art. The main concept is to recreate an approach that empowers the ‘social body’ system, out of the ego’s competition and hierarchical structure, in order to organize an immune-strong and conscious process of collaboration,” Vahrami explains.
Antibody intends to be a virtual platform for artists from around the world to come together and discuss the future prospects of spreading art in times of COVID-19 and beyond. They hope to set the stage for collaborations between local and international artists, and “spread art like a virus”.