'You are What You Choose'

20.04.2012, Viewpoint

Լրագրող, արվեստի քննադատ

Artist Grigor Khachatryan is a human "alarm clock" who is always ready to provoke viewers, to compel them to contemplate and reinvent reality. Any of his works can be considered an intervention aimed at the mass media industry, since Khachatryan's raw material are ideas, situations and types of people, which have appeared at the border of ridicule and pathos. And when you exacerbate and intensify fabricated and pathetic ideas, they eventually burst. And lo and behold, they appear in their right place.

For example, in Khachatryan's series "Official Meetings" (which he has been working on since the 1970s till today), he plays with the attributes of power — the loudspeaker, military uniforms, award ceremonies. Power is disseminated through creating and using a media figure, and it's no coincidence that assuming a big role in Khachatryan's work are different news media formats, where he makes clandestine discoveries, using the tools of media (posters, video, installation, reportage parodies and so on), happily manipulating them. The first layer of his work is always the "joke" (as he puts it), since ridicule helps to place ideas beside people and not on a pedestal with the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. 

Grigor Khachatryan is also known as the founder of the National Center on Planning Accidents, and with the creation of such a paradoxical institution he proves that everything (from the weather to politics) can be planned, since nothing is sacred.

Now he manages the Media Center adjacent to the Mkhitar Sebastatsi Educational Complex in Yerevan and continues to assert that an awake state is always preferable to pleasant drowsiness — especially when you're facing elections.

The election campaign is media policy manifested in the dissemination of slogans, videos, flags, posters, and candidate figures. In your opinion, what is the picture of the election campaign?

Watching the election campaign videos, you don't even want to laugh, everything is that sad.

Can you be more specific?

It's noticeable, for example, that the Republican Party of Armenia has no faces of people in its videos and posters, imploring that they don't need this, that they're an impersonal party. When viewed from afar, the party's logo on the campaign posters looks like a coin, and the viewer unconsciously associates the ruling party with money since it's an impersonal battle cry and the contour of money. Furthermore, I would call the party's slogan "Believe in order to change" an attempt at inspiration. It seems the party is trying to inspire first itself then the public that there's a need to change. There's a tendency to sell a product, and not just any product but an expired, rotten product, which, to a great extent, no one needs, but it must be sold. Of course, all of life (including politics) is commerce. This or that parliamentary candidate finds himself resources (criminal, administrative, and the rest) to sell his product. But that useless and rancid product, which now has appeared in our political arena, unfortunately, absolutely has to be sold to the people with the participation of the people. 

And it turns out that man is participating in his own suicide. After all, purchasing expired medication or rotten produce, he knows quite well that soon he will be poisoned and die.

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But why does he do it?

Because by doing so, he receives a brief (2–3 minutes, or 5,000 drams — the amount allegedly offered for votes in a recent municipal election) illusion of lightness. There are people in our society who are even ready to sacrifice their lives for the smallest amount. 

Couldn't more effective and creative election campaign tricks be used perhaps?

I'm sure that that those producing the campaign videos are in it simply for the money — they are only fulfilling a specific client's interest. And the client often doesn't understand very well what that interest is. The doer is usually more well versed than the client, but he is only required to sell a product and he creates that product to get money. 

The political exhortations are quite aggressive and full of indelible distinguishing impressions. The stance is arrogant (or grandiose); the remarks, patriotic.

This model of arrogance/grandiosity is particularly used by the Heritage Party and the Republican Party. Generally, the aggressive use of media tools speaks to unprofessionalism.  

The media certainly knows very well what the real value is. But people aren't guided by prospects — they live by not today but even more than today. Perhaps this can be called a Christian attitude (today's concerns are enough for us), but many now live not by this day, but by the half-hour of this day, thinking if it's all the same and nothing's going to change, better that I get my 5,000 drams and go home. And this consciousness leads to suicide. 

It was expected that especially the opposition should've offered an alternative media campaign; for example, put the resilience of contemporary art to use.

I think that the Armenian National Congress (HAK) also hasn't approached its election campaigning seriously. This opposition bloc has a cultural committee (from time to time, I too participate in the discussions there), based on which it could've organized a very professional election advertising campaign, but, unfortunately, that didn't happen.

I place a lot of importance on the role of posters. There are very interesting principles on which it would've been possible to construct individuals' portraits. But I think HAK preferred to go after stereotypes. When a questions arises on how a member of parliament should be, what outlook, manner should he have, immediately certain impressions come to mind. You immediately see a person in fancy dress with an imposing fixed gaze and luxurious cars. I think that HAK should've tried to present itself without such splendour, trying to be more simple and entering into a discourse with voters. Usually during an election campaign when political parties meet with the public they assume the manner not of a servant but of a prince. 

255Though perhaps for our society the only image that's perceptible is that of the prince–parliamentarian, while a candidate who speaks and dresses simply leads voters to ask, who is this guy that I should vote for him? 

Actually, this dichotomy is always there. I think that candidates try to present the image the public wants to see. That is, to sell the product, they consider the demand. And the opposition automatically does the same things, and in no way differs from the ruling authorities in the media.

When a political party's function is to change stereotypes of people then I think they have to begin from changing [the image of] parliamentarian–prince to parliamentarian–servant. By voting for him, people are hiring the parliamentarian (or the president) for a job and acquiring competence on the people they chose. But the public probably wants to elect not one who serves but one who leads them.

These days, it seems, television is giving all political parties the opportunity to speak…

We know very well that Armenian television is under state control and no matter what opposition members do, the ruling authorities are going to use it to their benefit.

If we had independent television, perhaps people wouldn't be so subservient. After all, society is shaped also by the appearance of people who have something to say on screen. Of course, there is more or less an informed segment of society (that is now on Facebook), but the masses continue to remain separated from those possessing a higher sense of awareness. 

Posters are particularly good media tools that are also a type of art, history and advertising. This is the area in which you create, and we know that you've participated in various international poster competitions. Are you working on developing new posters?

I upload some things on Facebook. Of course, I could do more, but my work at the Media Center leaves me with practically no free time. I very much regret that the poster never really picked up as a genre, as a tool in Armenia. Posters are important as a public signal, as a subconscious message.

The posters you created in 1988 were very influential...

Living here for nearly 60 years, I see that nothing changes — 60 years of struggle and I get the impression that there simply isn't anything else to do here. In 1988, it seemed to all of us that we solved a very important issue and we can move forward. But over time it became obvious that this wasn't the case; national dignity, statehood, and many, many other issues are not yet resolved.  

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:256:]]The elections this year are going to incorporate the use of technology (it will be possible to record everything with a camera, quickly share it and inform the public). Can media tools become a serious weapon?

But they are already weapons, and they work quite well too. Audio- and visual-recording equipment can capture anything and disseminate it quickly. No one's actions can go unnoticed. These tools don't "work" as art — rather, they're more like the CCTV cameras on street corners that are meant to record traffic violations.

In 1996, when I tried to put forth my candidacy in the presidential elections, I suggested a camera film all my actions 24 hours a day. I wanted to prove that there's no area of one's personal or private life that can't be shown. There shouldn't be secrets at all — if you're hiding something, there's something more negative about that than when you're completely open. 

And why did you withdraw your candidacy in the presidential election?

At that time we were trying to view television (I'm referring to AR TV, in particular) as a tool that influences public consciousness. But then AR TV shut down, since among the channels it was the most unpredictable. And from that moment on the country's second president began to shut down channels and just two years later, made all the channels controllable. The channels were bought by some businessmen and only that which was favorable to the president's office was said and shown. 

And can an independent TV industry be created now?

The liberalization of television will happen only after the dissolution of the current authorities. As things stand now, television cannot develop. When, for example, the Ararat culture channel was being established, I tried to say that this is an impossible task since art is either contemporary or nothing at all. And contemporary art is always politicized and next to the people. How can art speak for itself and that conversation be broadcast on television? It's simply not possible. And so it happened that this channel became a horrible experiment. 

Generally, all our TV companies are in a serious struggle of survival (if they don't pander to the ruling authorities they'll be shut down). But I'm sure that television will quickly get up on its feet if the industry is liberated. We have no shortage of good directors, camera operators, scriptwriters, journalists or art critics — they simply can't express themselves in these conditions and in the best case scenario they find a place in Facebook. But Facebook is accessible to a few; residents in all the villages of Armenia continue to watch mass television that promotes the ruling authorities.

Online television is developing quite slowly. Why?

257When there's no money, it's difficult to create a fully functioning studio. Without that even, valuable things now are established only on enthusiasm. The approach toward television, which works according to very old, dull, standard formats, has to change. 

And is the National Center on Planning Accidents planning the elections?

Planning accidents actually isn't related to accidents but to secrecy. And you can't uncover and possess a secret; you have to accept it and become a participant of it. If you identify with a secret, it opens up before you. What I'm trying to say is that the entrance to accident planning is from the inside. An accident surprises us when we're not a part of it. When you become a part of it, then you planned it. 

After all, when speaking about an incident, don't people often say I knew it? Modern science proves that it really is like that, that a person can feel what is going to happen. 

In one of my works, I selected an empty space in the Armenian Center for Contemporary Experimental Art (ACCEA, or NPAK in Armenian), cordoned it off with a ribbon and called it "A Space Selected and Cordoned by Grigor Khachatryan." I had considered my work an act of selection.

When a subject accepts an object, they identify with each other. After all, you are what you choose. We are always confronted with choice and we choose based on our value system and ideas. There's always a choice, even taking into consideration the amount of deception and fraud today. There's hope too.

I'm saying this now and feeling that all these words (faith, hope, trust) have become old, worn out and sort of… soiled. People are constantly adding to the terms and epithets… 

Interviewed by Nune Hakhverdyan 

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