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Anthony Auerbach
Rosa Reitsamer
Vardan Azatyan
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Video Yerevan
Workshop held at the Armenian Center for Contemporary Experimental Art, Yerevan, 15 June 2006

Anthony Auerbach reflected on the 'politics of looking', Rosa Reitsamer discussed the construction of gender in 'Urban' music videos and Vardan Azatyan here summarises his response and the discussion. If you would like to add to the discussion, please contact us. If you would like to read it in Armenian, please go to the website of the Armenian National Association of Art Critics.

Anthony Auerbach

Some of you may have come to my introduction to the project Video as Urban Condition on Saturday. I will try not to repeat myself, but I hope that those of you who were not there will also get some idea, from what I have to say, of the parameters and ambitions of the project. My talk is not intended to provide a general theory of video as an urban condition, but rather to highlight just a part of a larger picture. You will no doubt perceive how it might interlock with other pieces of the puzzle or overlap or aspects of the topic, such as Rosa Reitsamer will outline in her talk on ‘urban’ music videos.

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Who is Big Brother?
Anthony Auerbach

Who is Big Brother? is the question I would like to use as the headline for a few observations. The topic is probably too complicated to develop a very coherent thesis in a short talk, but what I would like to suggest is an approach to video that is based on the politics of looking. This could be another way of talking about what I understand by video as an urban condition.

Big Brother first appeared in George Orwell’s novel 1984, written in 1948. Orwell projected a contemporary political parable into the near future. Clearly, Big Brother was Uncle Joe, and the book is a bitter reflection on the transformation from Revolutionary Socialism to Stalinism. Picking up where Animal Farm left off, Orwell explored the effects of totalitarian politics. The book is best remembered for the phrase, ‘Big Brother is watching you’ and for the way Orwell imagined the future ubiquity of television, not only as an instrument of propaganda — projecting the paternalistic gaze of the leader Big Brother — but also as a two-way device — projecting the faceless and menacing gaze of total surveillance. As it turned out, this kind of technical apparatus of surveillance and control was not installed under Communism. Instead, television entered every home as the favourite propaganda instrument of the consumer society. Noam Chomsky described the totalitarian aspects of capitalism with an analysis of the TV broadcast system in the United States, under the title Manufacturing Consent. The system he described was certainly paternalistic and exerted powerful control over the flow of information, the mobilisation of desire and the conformity of behaviour. But it was not quite Big Brother.

The system of surveillance and control installed by the Soviet Union and satellite states worked without the consumer-oriented economy which brought TV and video technology to the public, isolating and reassembling the masses in their own homes. The Communist regime established a system of domestic surveillance in which brothers spied on sisters, mothers on their children and neighbours. Big Brother could be a metaphor for a remote, watchful authority, but was actually present in your environment in the gaze of your intimates, colleagues, friends and family.

Video and electronic surveillance networks are by now a pervasive feature of daily life in the ‘overdeveloped’ capitalist economies, although without the unified and centralised system which Orwell imagined. The proliferation of the technical apparatus — cameras, monitors, recording, transmitting and receiving devices — together with a weak regulatory apparatus has raised a multitude of possibilities and fears. We should ask, who is afraid of whom? That is to say, the meaning and potential of technology is different, depending on who you are. It is one thing if you are a citizen, confident of your rights (perhaps concerned about privacy); another thing if you are an authoritarian ruler (perhaps concerned about the subversion of media controls); another thing if you are corporate chief (perhaps trying to reconcile selling copying machines with defending copyright property).

Since 1999, when the popular TV series first aired in the Netherlands, the name Big Brother has been most likely to be associated with what is known as reality TV. In the Big Brother game show, members of the public voluntarily submit to total surveillance, which is transmitted in regular TV digests as well as live streams on cable and online to other people’s homes for them to observe and judge the contestants’ behaviour. The contestants trade their temporary isolation and subjection to the regime of the observer (more or less mediated by the producers of the show) for the promise of fame (perhaps only for fifteen minutes) and the possibility of a cash prize. But what is the viewer’s motivation? Why does behaviour seem more compelling than drama? What kind of identification takes place between the observer and the observed? I can’t answer these questions from the point of view of a fan of reality TV game shows. I don’t watch Big Brother, in fact, I don’t even have a TV.

But I can think about the fascination of television — that is, seeing at a distance — and about the voyeuristic pleasures it offers in the context of broadcast TV or closed circuits; and about how these pleasures are modified by video recording and playback. We could then begin to analyse how urban (or political relations) are mediated and modified by video.

In the early days of television, before videotape, some stations simply used to broadcast live pictures from distant cities to fill the gaps between programmes. Apparently, these shows were quite popular, although the only content of the show was the apparatus of looking: the ability of the video-stream at the same time to assert the remoteness of the object and insert it into your own space.

I would like to suggest that the essence of voyeurism is not the consumption of the image (mediated by technology or by fantasy). The video image is in any case always disappearing. As Sean Cubitt points out, it is present only for a fraction of a second: its purpose is to follow the previous image and anticipate the next. The possibility of slow motion replay seems only to stretch out the anxiety of this moment. For the voyeur/se, because the object of desire is always out of reach, desire becomes focused no longer on the object, but on the act of looking and fetishised in the apparatus of looking.

The notion of fetish hints at a way of understanding seemingly irrational behaviours associated with video culture, for example, people who point their camcorders but don’t shoot, who record TV shows but never watch them, who attend live events only to watch them on video screens, not to mention the various homages paid to TV sets.

But to return to the question of Big Brother, I would like to consider some irrational aspects of video surveillance. Although the commonplace rationale of video surveillance is crime prevention, it seems to be the case that surveillance systems tend to displace crime rather than reduce it, while from time to time providing sensational images for the media and helping to solve crimes which they clearly did not prevent. It is no surprise that people have been prosecuted for voyeuristic use of surveillance installations and recordings which were supposed to be there for security purposes.

Closed circuit video installations seem to be most effective in projecting ownership or domination of space, reinforcing the division between those who are welcome in a place and those who are not. A common device is the video surveillance monitor positioned at the entrance to a place which announces ‘You are being watched’ by offering the individual a glimpse of him/herself entering, uniting the video stream with the stream of people crossing the threshold of the place. The image crosses the voyeuristic pleasure of television with narcissistic desire, seducing you with the unattainable object of desire — yourself — captured where you stand — at a distance.

The closed circuit surveillance monitor entwines identification with the watcher and identification with the watched even more tightly than watching Big Brother on broadcast TV. Recognising one’s own image on screen affirms both identifications, while dissimulating the actual regime of the place with the comforting reassurance of the sign on a map which says ‘You are here.’ TV, it seems, still flatters, even without the promise of fame. Perhaps this helps explain how pervasive video surveillance appears to be accepted so easily (arguably, even by criminals, for whom the convergence of interests between surveillance and broadcast TV does offer the chance of momentary fame).

The reason for discussing these urban phenomena of video, or the politics of looking, is to suggest a way of thinking about video which does not regard a video primarily as an object, still less as an artwork or even as an articulate instance of language. Video is not necessarily bound by constraints of coherence such as we would expect from a text, or of resolution such as we would expect from drama (with a beginning middle and end). The meaning of (a) video is more a question of use which takes shape in a contested space. Video is exposed to viewer (the voyeur) as much as the viewer is exposed to video.

Video can certainly be used to restate the expectations of art and thus assert the artistic identity of the author, but only if the site-specific power relations associated with the presentation and reception of art — that is, between the ‘viewer’ and the ‘object’ — are also upheld in the work and enforced by its environment.

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Who’s That Man?
Rosa Reitsamer

In this talk I will discuss the question how the urban landscape is mediated in ‘urban music’ video clips. I will start with a short description of the term ‘urban music’ and continue with the introduction of three categories of ‘urban music’ video clips that I found by watching commercial music television in Austria. For my analyses, I recorded Hip Hop, Rap and R’n’B videos that were screened on MTV Germany and VIVA. Certainly, we can find overlaps between the three categories but they might be useful for answering the question how urbanity, gender and ‘race’/ethnicity is negotiated in video clips summarised under the term ‘urban music’.

Urban music
The term ‘urban music’ derives from ‘urban contemporary’ radio stations in the US featuring Hip Hop and Rap, contemporary R&B and Reggae. The term ‘urban contemporary’ coined by New York DJ Frankie Crocker in the mid-1970s has become heavily associated with contemporary R&B, and is used as a synonym to describe the genre. ‘Urban contemporary’ radio stations are dominated by singles by top-selling Hip Hop and R&B performers and tend to target primarily African-American females between the ages of 18 to 34. ‘Mainstream Urban’ stations have a more Hip Hop-heavy playlist targeting both genders and ‘urban Top 40’, also known as ‘urban contemporary hits’ is similar to Top 40 radio [note 1]. ‘Urban contemporary’, ‘mainstream urban’ or ‘urban top 40’ focus on Hip Hop, Rap, R&B and Reggae and tend to target a predominantly African American audience and include Latino, Asian and white listeners.

Since the late 90s, ‘urban music’ has become the more popular term to summarise music mainly with black origins but also hybrid sounds such as Drum’n’Bass, UK Garage or Bhangra. ‘Urban music’ seems to be the new way of saying ‘black music’ but this supposedly ‘race’-neutral term expresses racist undertones on different levels: the term is used by music companies, record labels and journalists to process any kind of ‘black music’ for the mainstream with the aim of increasing sales. ‘Urban music’ has become a marketing tool for (re-)packaging ‘black music’ for white listeners and furthermore, the term has been created in order to make it easier for white or non-black artists to participate in popular ‘black music’ genres without worrying about political issues that listeners might anticipate with the term ‘black music’. According to the discussions at the ‘Black Music Congress’ at London’s City University in 2004, ‘urban music has no compulsion to express the serious black experience or struggle. (…) It perpetuates the excesses within our culture by glamorising the materialistic bling-bling, disrespect of womanhood, use of profanity, crass dancing, etc.’ [note 2]

‘Urban music’, we could summarise, is a term that has been strongly linked, on the one hand, with popular ‘black music’ genres, but, on the other hand, tries to neglect any connection between and any reference to ‘race’/ethnicity, class and ‘black music’ in order to bring about a shift in the discussions on ‘race’ and music. It is supposed to reflect the multicultural atmosphere and the developments in popular music of the last century in European and US-American cities by ignoring the racial segregation taking place in these cities. In contrary to ‘urban contemporary’ radio stations in the 70s and 80s where the term ‘urban’ was mainly associated with Hip Hop, Rap and R&B and the radio stations tended to target a predominantly African-American audience, ‘urban music’ seems to be a more open category that includes hybrid sounds developed by blending and shifting musical traditions from all kind of origins such as African-American, Indian, Jamaican or Eastern European.

Migration movements
Apart from these points of criticism, the term ‘urban music’ refers to two interconnected phenomena that are of interest for this talk: First, the influence of migrants and migration movements in the developments of ‘black music’ and hybrid sounds and second, the relation between the term ‘urban music’ and living conditions of migrants based in Western European and US-American cities.

Major influence for the developments of any hybrid sound are the migration movements. Immigrants from former British and French colonies who moved to London or Paris after the Second World War brought along their music and musical traditions and combined them with Western musical styles. Especially in Great Britain and France, migrants have evolved their own means of speaking about racism and discrimination they experience on a daily basis. Examples since the 1950s for this empowerment are the sound system culture from Jamaica, the influence of Indian music and film (Bhangra, Bollywood film) on the British culture, or the influence of Rap music on French culture.

In Austria (a country which pretends it does not have a colonial past) the first official enrolments for foreign workers (‘Anwerbungen von GastarbeiterInnen’) from (Ex-)Yugoslavia and Turkey started in the 1960s. At the beginning of the 1970s, the first migrant organisations were founded to claim the same rights and payment as Austrian workers get and to protest against the awful living and working conditions. At that time, the music production and consumption of migrants from Turkey and (Ex-)Yugoslavia were limited mainly to listening to tapes from their home countries. This situation stands in contrast to the 1990s were so called ‘Yugo-’/’Türk’-Pop and ‘Balkan music’ has become popular for the white Austrian middle class and a major influence for the development of popular music in Austria as a whole [note 3].

If we understand the term ‘urban music’ as a synonym for ‘black music’ and hybrid sounds such as ‘Balkan music’ or Bhangra, it implicitly points to the living circumstances of black people and migrants in Western European and US-American cities. In this way, ‘urban music’ becomes not just a term for specific genres of popular music. It is a political term, too, strongly linked with questions of migration, urban space and power. The term refers to urban landscapes and areas where black people and migrants live or supposed to live: in so-called ‘ghettoes’, with poor infrastructure and housing conditions. The spatial location of the ‘ghettoes’ depends of their evolution and differs between US-American, French or Austrian cities. In Los Angeles, for example, black areas evolved in the centre because blacks were prevented from moving to the suburbs by racist planning regulations while white inner-city residents fled to the suburbs on the periphery. In Paris, black people and migrants live in the suburbs, built in the 1960s, that quickly turned into ‘ghettoes’ with massive police harassments. In Vienna, the urban planning is regulated by the city government. From the beginning of the twentieth century until now, many council houses have been built for the white Austrian working class. Apart from this tradition, during National Socialism, houses and flats owned by Jews were expropriated by the Nazis and have still not been given back to their original owners. This creates a situation where migrants and black people hardly find appropriate housing conditions because council flats are only rented to people with Austrian citizenship and many private landlords owners refuse to rent their flats to migrants. Working migrants from Eastern Europe who came to Vienna in the 1960s found their accommodation in small rooms provided by the factories. In the 1970s and 1980s migrants from Eastern Europe started to build their community centres, mainly based in traditional working class districts in Vienna. Just recently, in the last five years, a significant amount of black people have come to Austria, mainly to Vienna and Graz. Today we find a concentration of Eastern European migrants and black people in districts of Vienna (10th, 15th, 16th) where the prices of flats are still reasonable. These districts are located at the inner suburbs, whereas the centre of the city and the periphery is strictly reserved to the white middle- and upper class.

On the basis of these examples we can see the politicised organisation of urban space that touches on questions of ethnicity, class and power. Urban space, we can summarise, is riven by ‘race’/ethnicity and class as well as by gender.

Urban Landscapes
How does the urban landscape appear in the urban music video clips?

To answer this question I will focus on Hip Hop, Rap and R’n’B video clips screened on MTV Germany and VIVA from February until May 2006. I found three categories of video clips in Hip Hop, Rap and R’n’B that might give an answer to the question how the urban landscape is inscribed with traces of ethnicity, class and gender.

Hip Hop was originally developed by African-Americans in the late 1980s. It came into being, as many other genres of black or ‘urban music’, through the influence of Disco, Funk and Soul. These genres of popular music and the new technical developments of that time (synthesizer, drum machine, turntables) helped the rise of Hip Hop with its characteristic rap lyrics and break beats. At that time, Hip Hop was music from the black ghettoes of New York City.

Since the beginning, Hip Hop oscillated between different forms of expression such as crime rap, party rap, nonsense rap or sex rap, just to name a few. Although, Hip Hop has been globalised and commercialised by the music industry and the media and has been appropriated by teenagers, often with migrant backgrounds, all over the world, the strong link between Hip Hop and the ghetto as an expression of a poverty-riven and violent life remains the main subject in rap lyrics and Hip Hop video clips. Certainly, we can easily find many other expressions of Hip Hop, but the most influential and the ones most often screened on commercial music television (MTV, VIVA) in German speaking countries are Hip Hop video clips dealing with street crime, violence and sex. For these video clips two main scenes are used:

  • the urban landscape of impoverished neighbourhoods and
  • the club as a venue for the demonstration of male sexual power.

1. Urban landscape
The reference to the urban landscape expresses on the one hand the globalised imagery of Hip Hop and, on the other hand, it produces a relation to spatial and ideological locality. In this way, Hip Hop video clips reflect the circular movement of globalisation and commercialisation of Hip Hop as well as the appropriation of Rap by youngsters in different parts all over the world. The imagery of the city becomes a theatrical means for the production of locality which finds its representation in car parks, roofs of high-rise buildings, train stations or basket ball courts [note 4]. These places become venues for performing, dancing and rivalling with other street gangs. The leading actor is the rapper, staged as gangsta, pimp or hustler, who tells life-stories of male adolescence, very well-aware of defending his geographical and ideological space.

These performances refer to urban space as one that is divided along the so called ‘colour lines’ where ethnicity functions as a social signifier for black people and migrants. Car parks, basket ball courts or deserted underground stations are stereotypical urban landscapes where underprivileged black (and white) men hang out with their gang. These urban landscapes, as part of the ghetto, are inscribed with the traces of power that finds it offshoots in police harassment, massive unemployment and violence against peers. The rapper aggressively speaks out and claims these social evils and inequalities. According to Paul Gilroy [note 5], black or ‘urban music’ such as Hip Hop has become a necessary resource and a transcendent yearning for freedom and equality and for the pain of subordination.

2. The Club
As in the Hip Hop video clips dealing with the ghetto as the stage of poverty, crime and violence, the rapper is the centre of interest in Hip Hop video clips using the club as the setting. The rapper is surrounded by his crew or gang and the dancing crowd, his fans, while he is performing the rap lyrics in dialogue form with his audience. The characteristic moment in his performance is the stereotypical body language expressed in the upright waist, the straight forward gaze into the camera and the gesture of his hands, fingers and arms. Once established, the role of the rapper doesn’t change throughout the video clip: if his body language is quiet and cool at the beginning, it will be the same at the end or if he is aggressive and violent at the beginning, he will act this way the whole time. Therefore, the rapper is not acting or performing a role, rather his body language and expression are part of his habitus [note 6]. His movements and lyrics are incorporated as part of his being.

Typical for this type of Hip Hop video clip is the representation of traditional gender roles. The club functions as an urban space for the representation of leisure activity for underprivileged black (and white) young men. Hyper-masculinity and machismo finds its expression on different levels in these video clips: men are portrayed actively as rappers and main characters of the gang while women are dancing half naked and paying tribute to the rapper. The status of the women is the one of an sex object, their main task is to look sexy, to dance and to get attention. Although, as feminist cultural studies theoreticians like Angela McRobbie or Maria Pini [note 7] have analysed, the club could be a terrain for young women, too, as dancing is one of the major leisure activity for girls and young women. In Hip Hop video clips using the club as an imagery of urban space we hardly find any dancing scene as an act of female empowerment. Instead, the female dancers are posturing for the male gaze.

This representation of traditional gender roles stands in contrast to the notion of club culture we find in the academic and journalistic writing since the 1990s. The idea that the club as a social and urban space for entertainment that provides a greater degree of fluidity about femininity and masculinity finds its backlash in commercial Hip Hop video clips I am describing. There, we won’t find any ‘changing modes of femininity’, a phrase used by Angela McRobbie [note 8] to describe the fluid gender practices in popular and youth culture. As a result of the women’s movement in Western societies, we might find a greater degree of uncertainty in society as a whole about what it is to be a woman or a man, and it might filter down to younger generations within this new habitus of gender relations.

For example, the gay disco scene back in the 1970s was a club environment fore expressing different sexual desire and raising questions about heteronormativity and homosexuality that eroded fixed gender roles. Richard Dyer [note 9] describes in his article ‘In Defence of Disco’ that disco implies a kind of eroticism of the whole of the body and for both sexes that leads to the expressive movement of disco dancing. Song lyrics from Grace Jones’ ‘La Vie en Rose’ or Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ or Diana Ross’ classics such as ‘Reach Out’ express the intensity of emotional contacts which have built on the temporary quality of experience in the club. The eroticism in the dancing and the romanticism in the song lyrics embody an experience that negates everyday homophobia, sexism and racism. The club becomes an environment for drifting away from the organised routine of life where men and women, blacks and white, heterosexuals and homosexuals have there fixed social roles.

These processes of levering gender roles, relations and ascriptions are not reflected in commercial Hip Hop and Rap videos. Rather, we find stereotypical gender performances re-establishing traditional norms of behaviour for men and women. The scenery of the club functions as an urban space for the demonstration of male sexual power and as a result, we can say, that the urban landscape carries not only traces of ethnicity. Urban space is a gendered space, too.

3. R’n’B video clips
The story of most R’n’B video clips is easy to sum up: it’s a heterosexual love story between a black man and a black woman staged in a city somewhere in Western Europe or the United States. The story begins with a romantic walk through the park, the couple is hugging and kissing until the first disputes arise. We see pictures of quarrelling and shouting on the screen while a smooth male or female R’n’B-voice is singing about love. The disputes take place in the private and intimate space of a bourgeois flat with big windows that allow an impressive view over the skyline of the city. At the peak of the argument the man holds the woman on her upper arms and pushes her, not too hard, against the wall. The male actor leaves the flat, slamming the door before he loosing his temper completely. The woman stays behind, left alone like a princess in her castle.

The classical staging of a heterosexual romance brings the traditional dualism of public and private, to the surface. The ongoing romance seems to be a public matter, while the dispute should be hidden in the intimacy of the private. The public space, as we already saw in the Hip Hop video clips staged in car parks and train stations, is dedicated to men, while the private space seems to be a territory for women and children. Therefore, the women is left behind while the man is leaving the flat. This situation is an embodiment of the traditional dualism of public and private space where masculinity and femininity is engraved.

Certainly, we might find many other representations of urban landscapes in ‘urban music’ video clips. My interest was to provide an analysis on video clips screened on commercial music television because these video clips have become our permanent companion in public urban spaces. The days where MTV showed video clips on mixed race relationships or ambiguous gender roles or self-produced music video clips are certainly over since the turn of the millennium. With the evacuation of any visual representation that questions the hegemonic social order where gender and ‘race’/ethnicity functions as social signifier for women, blacks and migrants, the music programmes contribute to the persistence of racism and sexism inscribed in urban landscapes.


  1. See: (02.07.2006) back to text
  2. (02.07.2006) back to text
  3. See: ‘Türk- und Jugo-Pop: The Sound of ... Migrantische Musik und ihr Labeling durch die Popindustrie. Interview mit Fatih Aydogdu und Vlakta Frketic.' In: Reitsamer, Rosa/Weinzierl, Rupert: Female Consequences. Feminismus, Antirassismus, Popmusik. Vienna: Löcker Verlag 2006, p. 91–101 back to text
  4. See also: Klein, Gabriele/Friedrich, Malte (2003): Is this real? Die Kultur des Hip Hop. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp back to text
  5. See: Gilroy, Paul (1993): The Black Atlantic. Modernity and Double Consciousness. London/New York: Verso back to text
  6. Bourdieu, Pierre (1984): Distinction. London/New York : Routledge & Kegan Paul back to text
  7. See: Pini, Maria (1997): ‘Women and the early British rave scene’. In: McRobbie, Angela: Back to Reality? Social Experience and Cultural Studies. Manchester/New York: Manchester University Press back to text
  8. McRobbie, Angela (1994): ‘Shut Up and Dance: Youth Culture and Changing Modes of Femininity’. In: Ders.: Postmodernism and Popular Culture. London/New York: Routledge back to text
  9. Dyer, Richard (1979): ‘In Defence of Disco’. In: Frith, Simon/Goodwin, Andrew (eds.) (1990): On Record. Rock, Pop, and the Written Word. London/New York: Routledge back to text

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On Video in Armenia: Avant-garde and/in Urban Conditions
Vardan Azatyan
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I was about six years old when I first saw a video player. I was looking forward to seeing it, for I knew that it could show colourful animation films (Disney cartoons, the series of Tom & Jerry) and Hollywood movies (Rambo, Commando). But what is more important is that video was a source of "sexually explicit content", so to speak, erotic movies, scenes of sexual relations and naked bodies. A little later the rapidly emerging video clubs and video cassette rental places shaped a youth subculture "sexually educated" on the video images of popular movies. Video, in a sense, has become a sexual object; the words "sex" and "video" were closely interlinked. Thus, video was perceived as a key to what was forbidden, to a kind of "dreamworld". It was associated with the lack of restrictions and with [Liberal Bourgeois] freedom. It provided the fantasy that through video the West was "exposed" to you.

I remember, however, that I was disappointed to find out that much praised video was but a small black box which even had no monitor to watch the much desired images.

When I was around six, Gorbachev's Perestroika was in progress. On the level of the symbolic this was the process of [capitalist] "aesthetisation", somewhat uncanny glamorisation of Soviet culture, the youth as its target (Fig.1 view images). Video played an essential role in this process. However, at first, video emerged as a sign of privilege; first only few were able to possess it; one had to have enough money and "access" to the West, mainly, the US. These few, as a rule, were the ones who already had high social and economic status within the Soviet society. Therefore, Perestroika smoothly transformed the image of Soviet upper classes into the image of a capitalist elite, or to be more precise, Perestroika rather made already existing capitalist image of Soviet elite explicit and acknowledged.

When I was around nine, my grandmother took me to an exhibition of young avant-garde artists. Only later I realised that it was one of the important exhibitions of Armenian avant-garde art movement the 3rd Floor aimed at propagating the consumerist visual culture of Western liberal democracies in Soviet Armenia. They, and contemporary art together with them, were part of Perestroika politics of aestheticisation conceived as democratisation of Soviet culture. This is not to say that they had no idea about the leftist critiques of consumerist society (though, one has to admit that they knew them only superficially). The strange and somewhat uncanny thing was that the theories of avant-garde were seen as part of Western liberal democratic systems. For example, American mass culture could be praised because of having psychoanalysis as its background. All the manifestations of modern and contemporary art were seen as equal in a sense of being "non-Soviet signs" as Groys would put it [note 1]. Pop-art, Abstract art, Minimalism, Dada, Surrealism, Photo-Realism, Graffiti, Transavanguardia all were present in the 3rd Floor shows and were all judged not by contextual but solely stylistic standards of being [once] prohibited by the Soviet system. As I have argued elsewhere, the 3rd Floor was a kind of "dream in reality", a laboratory where the "democratic" culture of the West had to be "transmitted" into the Soviet system in order to destroy its Socialist-Nationalism [note 2]. This was exactly the function of video in Perestroika cultural life, to "transfuse" one [banned] world into another [note 3].

In the show, I saw an installation which left a strong impression and had a queer influence on me. There was a female mannequin lying on the bed, it/she was naked, its/her hairs and the hairs of its/her crotch were made of numerous dead flies (Fig. 2 view images). It was uncanny.

The process of "transmission" of one world into another has to do with the rhetoric of resurrection, death and ghost-making. When the object of desire is constantly legitimised in the appearance of death, while being linked with the far away, the problem of uncanniness comes to the fore. It is not by chance that in the first happening of the movement, artists were acting as resurrected ghosts. Hail to the Artists' Union from Netherworld: Official art has Died was the symptomatic title of the event (Fig. 3 view images).

If video was so operational in the process of this resurrection of consumerist culture in Perestroika Armenia, how then was it being appropriated by avant-garde practices? It may sound strange, but in nearly no ways. The first and, as far as I know, the only video work done by the member of the 3rd Floor at a time, can tell much about the status of video on their agenda. In 1990 Ashot Ashot made a video The Archangel Gabriel (Fig. 4 view images). According to the author he did it in order to find the answers to the religious/spiritual crisis he was facing; video art was a practice of "God-seeking" for him [note 4]. Leaving aside the religious overtone of this interpretation, it comes to confirm that video remained a means of possibility to be in contact with the distanced Object of Desire. Though Armenian Perestroika avant-garde did not much appropriate video as a medium, it itself functioned as a kind of physical video space: A virtual/real space in Perestroika state/public space functioning as Armenican Dream, to use Arman Grigoryan's [an ideologue of the movement] play of the words (Fig. 5 view images). Interestingly enough, Grigoryan in his installation Incest of 1990 (which can be seen as the "dark side" of Ashot Ashot's "God-seeking") used a TV more as an artifact, than something that "shows". [note 5] (Fig. 6 view images).

Thus, if in the case of the 3rd Floor "video was an avant-garde condition", to paraphrase Anthony Auerbach, now, in consumerist Armenia "video is an urban condition". Might this be interpreted in a way that today's rapidly globalising Armenian cityscape is what was previously the Perestoika avant-garde project? Might it be that we now live in the 3rd Floor exhibitions, in an uncanny Armenican Dream, as it were?

Among the video screens that have been recently filling the cityscape of Yerevan with a rapid pace there is one which can be of special interest for us in connection with the problem of video as a vehicle of the uncanny. The screen that shows video clips, fashion shows and a lot of other images of the glamorous culture of late capitalism is installed at the place of doormat in the ground (Fig. 7 view images). A glamorous grave, a consumerist netherworld where the ghosts of the 3rd Floor once had resurrected from.

Azat Sargsyan's work can give us further insight into this uncanny mingling of avant-garde and death, again invoking the motive of doormat in already post-Perestroika Armenian avant-garde. In 1999, Azat did a performance where he was lying at front of the door of the gallery like a doormat with the text on his shirt, Welcome (Fig. 8 view images). Thus, in late 1990s the place of doormat (or the doormat) was precisely the place occupied by the avant-garde artist. Strangely enough, at the place of today's shop with the doormat-screen, once was an art salon. Later, in 2003, when globalisation of Armenia was already at its height, Azat again reused the same strategy, but now in cemetery. With the same Welcome shirt he stood as a living gravestone beside the actually sculpted ones. Welcome to Armenia, a Museum under the Open Sky, was the title of the project giving the status of a dead-art-institution to Armenia of around 2000 as a whole (Fig. 9 view images) [note 6]. With transnational capital (which in the case of Armenia is largely coming through the well-to-do diaspora Armenians who, as a rule, dream of being buried in their "fatherland") the country itself has now become a cemetery. This logic was already evident in the happening of the 3rd Floor. The difference is that if in the case of the 3rd Floor, artists wanted to equate the Artists' Union — an official Soviet art institution, with a cemetery, now it is more than evident that the Armenican Dream has turned the whole country into a consumerist netherworld. It comes out that the Soviet-Armenian Dream of Artists' Union and the Armenican Dream of the 3rd Floor were not so different.

The concept of video as an "access" to the consumerist West [conceived as a positive alternative to Soviet-Nationalism] and essentially linked with the sexuality can tell us quite a lot about the politics and imagery of video art production in Armenia in early 2000s, a time when it actually became widespread. One can say that the Perestroika logic of making an Armenican Dream through contemporary art is still at work. The politics of video is still in its ability of "getting in touch" with the modern [capitalist] world. This, at the same time is embedded with opportunistic and careerist manoeuvres. The “Biennales” of contemporary art have now replaced the official shows of Soviet Union, and the “nomenclatura” careerism of Soviet system is now functioning within the paradigm of the "access" to the West. Eva Khachatryan's critical and curatorial work shows this logic perhaps most evidently. One has to read the following quotes under the light of what was just said.

Thus, the development of video art in Armenia is tied in with a trend to be modern, to be associated with the international contemporary art. Yet it is also dictated at the local level, by ACCEA [Armenian Center for Contemporary Experimental Art, founded by diaspora Armenians]. Video art has become a signature. Being capable of it means that an artist is modern and has a chance to exhibit at the Venice Biennial.

Concluding, Khachatryan situates her own curatorial practice within this same politics of the video:

Hence, we can conclude that today, alternative Armenian art has already gained a certain position and in order to strengthen and promote it we are engaged mainly in the organisation of international projects (my emphasis) [note 7].

Here the 3rd Floor equation of the space of contemporary art show with the function video had in Perestroika Armenia is uncritically repeated because of the total lack of historical understanding of the situation, something I would call a "trap of history".

This "exposure" to the West is not only the function of the video art, but essential part of its iconography. There are a lot of examples of video works where Perestroika and post-Perestroika Armenian artists in different ways use the video image as the space of "nakedness" (Figs. 10, 11 view images) [note 8]. Thus, one can say that like in Perestroika, video still remains as a realm of "sexually explicit content", and at the same time of being "exposed" to the [Western] world. It is at this point that video provides us a unique insight into the understanding of the political constitution of sexuality and image, an issue which perhaps can be a more relevant subject for video art production in Armenia than an uncritical longing for Freedom.

Yerevan, 23 April 07


  1. Boris Groys, "A Style and a Half: Socialist Realism between Modernism and Postmodernism", in Socialist Realism Without Shores, eds. T. Lahusen, E. Dobrenko, E. A. Dobrenko, Durham: Duke University Press, 1997, p. 82. back to text
  2. Vardan Azatyan, "Hole in the Sky", The Internationaler, No.1, (June 2006), p. 8-10. back to text
  3. Anna Schober has shown that quite the same logic was the case in Eastern European avant-garde cinema movements of late 1950s. "... due to its standardisation, the participation in an internationally orientated distribution system and the central means of moving images, which were viewed of being able to transgress language barriers — the cinema setting in itself was repeatedly seen by such movements as incarnating "universal", "transnational" potentialities of speech." Paper delivered at the symposium Public Sphere: Between Contestaion and Reconciliation, Yerevan, October 26, 2005. See also the publication of the proceedings in Armenian Public Sphere: Between Contestaion and Reconciliation, ed. by V. Azatyan, Ankynakar Press: Yerevan, 2007, pp. 134-135. back to text
  4. Letter sent to me by Ashot Ashot (15 April 2007). back to text
  5. I thank Angela Harutyunyan for pointing out that a parallel can be drawn between Grygoryan's use of TV and the earlier practices of Wolf Vostell and Nam June Paik — TV as a an object. This was connected with the utopian promise of Global connectivity that especially Paik was so inspired from. back to text
  6. See my article in French and Armenian; Vardan Azatyan, "Benvenue en Arménie", L'environnment du corps, Genève: MetisPress, 2004, pp. 48-51. back to text
  7. Eva Khachatryan, "The issues of Alternative Art in Armenia: Video, Media Art and the "Antifreeze" Art Festival", in Adieu Parajanov: Contemporary Art from Armenia, eds. H. Saxenhuber, G. Schöllhammer, Vienna: Springerin, 2003, pp. 20, 22. back to text
  8. In alternative films made before Perestroika in Armenia, the space of moving images by no means can be interpreted as a site of "nudity". The examples are Hamlet Hovsepyan's films made in 1970s. back to text

Images view images

  1. A store sign left from Perestroika times: Goods for Youth: Shoes, Cloths, Knitted Clothing, Yerevan, 2007 (photo by V. Azatyan).
  2. Armen Petrosyan (title unknown), installation, medium and sizes unknown, 1990.
  3. Hail to the Artists’ Union from Netherworld: Official art has Died, happening, 1988.
  4. Ashot Ashot, Archangel Gabriel, photo from the video scene, 1990.
  5. Arman Grigoryan, Armenican Dream, oil on canvas, 195 x 145, 1999.
  6. Arman Grigoryan, Incest, installation, 1990.
  7. A screen installed as a doormat at front of the shop for audio-video equipments, Yerevan, 2007 (photo by V. Azatyan).
  8. Azat Sargsyan, Welcome, performance, 1999.
  9. Azat Sargsyan, Welcome to Armenia, a Museum under the Open Sky, performance, 2003.
  10. David Kareyan, Body Cage, video, still, 2003.
  11. Tigran Khachatryan, Romeo, video, still, 2003.

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