A Conversation With Hrayr Anmahouni

Dr. Marc Nichanian,  GAM Review #6

Marc Nichanian - Dear Hrayr, we met a few years ago, through circumstances involving Vahe Oshagan’s jubilee in Los Angeles. You had made a video (in which I appear as a commentator) that was screened during the event. You are also the author of a film based on Oshagan’s long prose poem Depi Kyank (Toward Life), featuring a soundtrack by Ohannes Salibian and readings by Oshagan. With these projects, you came on the Armenian film scene not only as an avant-garde filmmaker, but as someone who holds generally avant-guard views. Since then I have had the opportunity to learn more about your work — hence my desire for this interview. 

Throughout the years, you have positioned yourself as an “experimental” artist (a term which I am not convinced by and which I approach with suspicion, concerns that will hopefully be elucidated over the course of this interview). It’s obvious that the development of an “experimental” approach first requires the existence a distinct milieu, museums, exhibitions, and a broad network of conversant audiences and specialists. All of these factors are absent in the Armenian (Diasporan) reality. It was this fact that compelled me to engage in this dialogue. Of course avant-garde art (such as practiced by yourself), the type of art that makes use of many mediums, forms, and contexts, requires constant explanation. Not necessarily to be accepted by the public, but to exist as art. Perhaps “explanation” is the wrong choice of word here. Avant-garde art does not need an explanation. What it does, in my opinion, is question the status of the image, therefore disturbing both the traditional and modern application of representational art, its wonderful “autonomy” (which has come into being and found its theoreticians starting in the last decade of the 18th century). Regardless, our conversation itself is part and parcel of the process of disturbing representational art. It’s only through this process that the avant-garde can emerge. I will begin with questions regarding your preparation as an artist, so that subsequently we can together tackle the many issues pertaining to the modern and hypermodern status of the image. So, my dear Hrayr, with this introduction I invite you to talk a little about your background. 

Hrayr Eulmessekian - After a year of vacillating between mathematics and physics at Haigazian College (now a university), I applied and got accepted at Académie Libanaise des Beaux Arts. Initially I sought to study photography and take film courses. ALBA’s publicity/graphic arts department had one of the rare such programs in the country, and was structured mainly around technical expertise and was applied in nature. Nothing theoretical or analytical. However, true to the French educational tradition, we all had to go through a rigorous two-year academic training, which in itself was surreal, given the political situation of Lebanon. We were studying Western color theory and harmony, the golden rule of composition and aesthetic values, while carnage and destruction went on outside, sometimes literally at the doorstep of the campus. After studying about two and a half years at the Académie and close to a decade in the civil war, in 1984 Maral now my wife, and I decided to pack up and leave for the States. Broke, we ended up in San Francisco mainly because my uncle was there. He was the only relative who gave us a place to stay and spared us the trap that was/is Los Angeles. After a couple of years of struggle for becoming legal residents, survival, and settling down, I heard about the San Francisco Art Institute, by sheer accident. The local Hamazkain chapter had invited world-renowned contemporary composer and KPFA music director Charles Amirkhanian (now the director of the Other Minds Festival), upon the suggestion of Ohannes Salibian, for a lecture-presentation. I am not sure whether it was he or his wife who mentioned the SFAI. The very next day I paid a visit to the campus and immediately fell for it. It smelled right. Ironically of oil paint. I ended up staying there through my MFA. 

One of the biggest advantages of studying in a place like that is that you eventually work and sometimes collaborate with artists and critics who are quite renowned in their fields, be that locally, nationally, or internationally. It was also very easy, even encouraged, to navigate from medium to medium. Best of all, the training was based on expression rather than technical mastery. As far as I know, by now you don’t even have to declare a major. The student body, too, plays a huge role: in the mid to late 80s, the policy was to never accept students fresh out of high school, but rather people who have come to the arts after a few years of college/university studies or already joined the work force. The institute also had an interesting array of international students. So background and life experience were considered as important as innate talent. Later, as the institute was jolted by a financial crunch and possible embezzlement, it brought aboard a new president who specialized in fundraising, with the result that the SFAI reversed its policy and began going after the fresh high school graduates whom it had shunned.

I have to say that my first encounters with creativity came in the form of writing, back in high school, even though we had a visual arts program. When I was in ninth grade, Krikor Chahinian, the famed literary critic and our Armenian teacher, announced early in the school year that as for creative-writing assignments, we were free to write about anything we wanted to and turn our papers in whenever we felt like turning them in, as long as we submitted ten of them during the course of the year. After our initial exuberance, most of us realized the responsibility and burden of the freedom just handed to us. Though it may seem far-fetched, this was likely my first encounter with the absurd. 

Returning to the SFAI: the MFA program was and probably still is very interesting, namely because it is composed of an international student body, and the seminars are conducted by visiting artists and not faculty.

M - And your final thesis?

H -The program did not require a treatise in the classical sense. Nothing researched or written, or, if any, nothing elaborate and academic. After a semester of preparation with an advisor, the requirement was to present a new work to a panel of three faculty members. I don’t think I even shot a single frame of film during the entire MFA program. I did use video, but at the time I was still interested in the nature of the medium, and exploring new uses for its relatively new vocabulary. In general, film is associated with the telling of a story, the documentation of the gesture of acting. In essence, however, the filmmaker’s task is to make the viewer immerse and ultimately lose her/himself in the story. Entertainment has a tangible value, and is not a mere abstraction. Documentaries, on the other hand, often leave me wondering about what was left outside the frame. Here I’m not talking about Hollywood versus Indie/European. Most of the time, the difference between the two is the difference between those who have read Georges Bataille and those who haven’t, or those who haven’t done so properly. In this sense every film is a documentary. It documents and preserves in images what is in front of a lens. It’s no wonder that in time there was an almost irresistible urge to add sound to film, to make it more believable. Things get more complicated when we move to animation, specially computer animation. What I’m trying to get at here is that once you rid yourself of the notion that film, that thin transparent substrate, must ineluctably function as the support of the epos, a whole new world opens up in front of you. And this other world is not necessarily synchronized (in the broader sense of the term).

Around the time of my dissertation, I was very much interested in, and my work had more to do with, separating the image from its picture, removing all cultural references and memories, and reducing it to its components of light and color – something that would be quite easy to achieve by bringing formal abstraction to the rescue. Parenthetically, let me express my dislike for the Armenian word for “abstract,” which is veratsakan. The root word ver, which means “above” or “high,” suggests an upward lift, a more sublime movement which the word-image would warrant, thus not neutral, whereas “abstract” in Latin (abstractus = “drawn away”) does not imply any specific direction. And now a digression into formalism: I think abstract art is commonly misunderstood in relation to figurative or representational art. I think what is figurative or representational is an abstraction, of the real, and what is considered abstract, being nothing but itself, is real, the real real. So this whole system had to be derailed. I ended up spending a week videotaping along the banks of the reservoir of the San Andreas valley. A dozen miles south of the city of San Francisco, along I 280, the valley is the water reservoir for the entire region, and beneath it stretches its ominous namesake, the San Andreas fault line, the one threatening to destroy itself and us, its namers. The lifeline and destructive force on the same plane. Epic, no? I had also started to paint at that time, so I went on to edit a two-channel video and had the results displayed on two monitors facing adjacent walls, upon which hung some rather large paintings depicting an almost bucolic scenery. The idea was to illuminate the painted abstraction with the light of the real, or what I called the actual canned light of past images. The audio, too, was disconnected from its picture (it always is) and was connected to speakers placed behind the paintings in an alternating pattern, so that the audio of monitor one was coming from the speaker placed behind the painting illuminated by monitor two and vice versa. The pressure of the very low frequencies also made the paintings vibrate, in real time, in actual reality. In a way it was an attempt to re-present or re-presence what had happened instead of merely representing it, while reminding of the inevitable. Around that time I was very much interested in the Luminist painters, who were trying to capture the awe of nature in an almost virgin territory. Bill Berkson talked a lot about Albert Bierstadt and Frederick Church in his class, mainly because of Doug Hall’s installation at the SFMOMA, “The Terrible Uncertainty of the Thing Described.”  

Another piece I was working on at the same time (which had to do with information being released in time, as film video and audio do) involved hanging two bed sheets on adjacent walls, with three-dimensional objects hidden behind each one, and fans placed in front so that when they blew in a specific sequence, the object behind the sheets were revealed and released by the force of wind impression. It was also a search for a different projection/screen relationship. 

M - Who decided the sequence and timing of events? And how?

H - Had I had the technical know-how, or the budget, I would’ve taken a different route. We’re talking about the mid to late 80s, when computers were both prohibitively expensive and reviled by artists as merely another tool of control, a technical encroachment on their puri(s)tan world. Fortunately I had taken a class with Jim Pomeroy, who had purged all those fears away, and for good. What I had in mind was a random-number-generating software written for chance games, such as backgammon. I didn’t have it, so I had to revert to the low-tech, “student grade” solution, mainly switching the fans on and off manually. I also toyed with the idea of using neon-sign mechanical sequencing timers. Again too expensive.

M - Let’s move on to more recent works, and attempt to study some of them individually. We can always return to these issues later. Among some of the series we visited today, one had to do with San Francisco’s own assets, an almost “historical” series, layers of transparencies. The second, the large canvas, is itself part of a series. The third would be the “hole” and the “Targets.” They almost beg for a story (I’m not saying an explanation), as did the oil paintings in your dissertation. Do you want to qualify, characterize each one of these works?

H - To characterize as a reminder or an interpretation?

M - You decide whether you want to answer by using a narrative or by refreshing my memory or simply by offering an interpretation. My suggestion is to start from the “Targets.”

H - I will try, since whatever I say will remain in the realm of words, and had I wanted to use words I would have just used them in a writing. I have to say I was toying with the idea ten or 12 years earlier, partly inspired by and partly as a response to Jasper Johns’ “Targets.” What Johns was basically doing was reproducing flat object on flat surfaces, reminding us, because cultures tend to make us forget what we can see with our own naked eyes, both the object’s flatness and that of the canvas. I’m referring to his flag and target series. Among other things, and with a sense of humor and wit, he simply turned cubism on its head (using the thickness of the encaustic as its physical depth). Initially I, too, wanted to use paint, but after giving it some thought I decided on silkscreening, simply because I wanted to eliminate all color and texture play, and to reduce the process to its mechanical reproduction, and aim for identical outcomes. So after I had plain blank pieces of paper fired upon at a firing range, I brought them to my studio and printed the target around the bullet hole, ensuring the outcome. A bull’s eye every time. By rigging the game, I was after the de-targetification of the target. 

M - To shoot at, fire, pierce, and then print, draw the target around the hole. Yes, I get all of that. But,  you have here reversed what you were saying before. What you’re aiming at is the reduction of chance to zero. You draw the target, in al likelihood attempting to reverse a/the direction.   

H - In a way, yes, it is the target that hits the hole, and that’s why the silkscreen was so appealing to me. The statement, or the arrogance, of claiming “the target is where the hole is.” That’s the intent. Later, though, and by introducing the transparency of the varnish to print the target, my attempt was to sabotage the whole premise. Let me say here that the template I used for the screen is the NRA’s official small-arms competition leaflet.

M - That, however, is the final product. You arrived there by going through the traditional process, using visible ink. Now you are at a place where the presence of the viewer and his position relative to the work come into play; they in a way become more important than the hole on the paper (considering that the printed target is visible only from an angle and not when you are directly facing it, so its very being is dependent on the presence of the viewer).

H - Both the position and the presence of the viewer. By presence I also mean the mental presence, the awareness. I don’t think we can separate the two. In the initial pieces, when I was still experimenting with black or orange ink, the work stayed in its intellectual phase, and, for me at least, dissipated, decayed in that feedback created between the eye and the mind. It is a system, a valid one, created and nurtured by conceptual artists, but one that invites intervention. Introducing transparent varnish on white background was an attempt on my part to challenge that premise. I have to say that my relationship of using varnish goes back more than a decade, to the early 90s, when I started using it to draw over painted backgrounds. I think the French word vernissage had a lot to do with it. In this case, however, the problem that’s presented is the successful targeting of an invisible target. The hole, created by an actual bullet, is also an ominous presence. A drama in itself. The implied speed is another. 

It was also interesting and at the same time disconcerting that the employees at the firing range, the mercenaries whom I “hired” to do the shooting, not owning a handgun myself, executed my “orders” without questioning my motives. A glimpse into the military mind. It almost felt like the printing, which was left for me to do, was the coup de grâce.

M - And the varnish on the white background?

H - Among all the other things we discussed, it is also a failed mirror. Had it been applied on a darker background, depending on the amount of polishing, it would’ve reflected light. On white, however, it fails to do so. 

At the time I was working on this series, I had full access to the firing range, whose owner, a Marine that had served in Beirut during 1982-83, gave me permission to go in before hours and take pictures inside the range. I did just that, and after printing the photos in a rather large format, took them back in and had the range employees shoot at them. So I ended up with pictures of bullet holes and an actual hole on the same plane. The reproduction and the real, the past and the present together. Yet another reminder that a picture resides on the surface. 

I worked on this series from the late 90s up till early 2001, way before the September 11 2001 attacks and the war footing this country took ever since. Recently I had the negatives scanned in and I’m in the process of Photoshop-ing the holes away. It is a long and boring yet, for me at least, very emotional, obsessive, almost compulsive, process.

M - There are many things happening here. If I am not mistaken, we have entered the realm of conceptual art. Am I right in my assessment? And what is conceptual art? Is there such a thing?

H - Yes. There is, was, such a thing called and accepted as such. But as to how immaculate it is, is questionable. We shouldn’t dismiss of course the urge to name and claim a movement, which is needed in the world of critics and markets. For the practitioner artist, however, it does put defining restrictions, the concept of the concept itself, up for elaboration. But here, and since you brought up the issue, I will go to edge of the abyss and hazard a philosophical definition before you, the philosopher. If you accept the Platonic vocabulary, its worldview, then there is the concept-object-copy-mimesis progression. If there’s conceptual art, well, then it travels in the other direction, most of the time denying, bypassing the object’s objecthood, or its order of appearance.

M - The way you are describing it, isn’t this an entirely negative  art?

H - In what sense negative?

M - I used the word purely in its “critical” sense. An initial premise, observation, is that art here, by reflecting, bypasses its original intent. By reflecting, questioning itself, it reaches the point of self-negation. Art becomes its own revelation, its own exhibition. Anti-art? How does that happen exactly? And how does that problematic happen exactly? The problematic of the object in the art. The negation is the object as work of art itself. I see this in your work and in your explanation, I hear it. The negated thing. As a last stand, beyond reflection. And if it is its negation as its main objective, how is it possible to present the object without presenting it, as a negation?

H - Let me begin by saying that in that sense, yes, it is a negative art. It is possible to say that that is its motivation. In a sense, the art that we’ve come to know and love is now committing suicide, or maybe being pushed off a cliff (coup de grâce). When concept becomes one with its artifice and the circle is completed, would there be anything left to do? Would there be a need left for it? According to some rhetoricians and critics, we’re way past that point, we passed that point with Warhol’s “Brillo Box.” There’s also the questioning of the art markets, its speculative aspect, its values, and value-added system, its patronage. We can look at the desire of de-objectification from this angle too. It has dealt through non-art processes such as staging Happenings, performance art, installations, video art. Or going to extremes like Smithson’s massive Spiro/Jetty, or Warhol’s mass-produced silkscreens with the intention of flooding the markets, challenging the banality of the supply and demand routine, which would take us back to Walter Benjamin. 

Now, however, after the drying of grants for the arts, at least on the federal level, and the whole dynamic of funding for non-object arts or artists in flux, the same artists (such as Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, or Daniel Buren - so I won’t leave out the French) who have become household names, as much as a serious artist can become a household name, are turning to other means for support, and cashing in on their notoriety by publishing books and headlining shows and drawing crowds into mainstream institutions. This seems to be one way of going about it, whereas before they commended most of the grants available, leaving little to fight for and marginalizing the up and coming ones. It is a vicious circle. But the important thing is that we now have a new vocabulary, and while the medium is a message, the message itself has become a medium, so you’re free to choose. And when you talk about art, you don’t necessarily smell paint. And that’s a good thing.

M - Here, too, we have a paradox. We are still facing the logic of capitalism. What sells is not the work, the object. What sells lies beyond the work, it is what represents the works: books reproductions. It takes a set of photographs to display the works of Buren, or for them to simply survive. Perhaps we should look at this from a different angle. The art we’ve been talking about almost always is for the eyes. What is the role of the eye in all of this?

H -  Well, what is seeing? Why is seeing important? Where does it fall in the pecking order? What is tourism? Why did Kodak capture the imagination? What role did seeing play in human evolution or culture? Did seeing itself evolve, in art or in every aspect of human or animal existence? Another interesting question would be to ask whether the “artists” drawing on the walls of Lascaux used seeing the same way as today’s artists do. Do they/we share similar feelings, or is the satisfaction drawn from the “works” on the same psychological plane? Are they universal within humanity and within the different mediums and disciplines? Is it fair to look for a psychological parity? If you are faced with R. Mutt’s (Marcel Duchamp’s) “Fountain,” what is it that is happening there? A visual feast or simply an eye witnessing? In this case, seeing is purely objective, and, as far as I’m concerned, it is an important and defining moment in the history of both art but also, beyond art, the history of seeing. 

Coming back to your original question, that a series of photographs are needed, or a videotape canning of an event, to preserve and or transmit a given work, let me fist say that those pictures have the same feel and look of a crime-scene photograph, a quality that in and of itself can become mannerist, hence pretentious. And then, looking or seeing? One is instrumental, the other is a process, deeply dependent on frequencies that get translated into colors and shapes, shadows, and lights, not to mention the social, cultural, psychological, the “trained” eye vs. the untrained eye’s conscious and unconscious filters. So the question of seeing is itself questionable. There is no one kind of seeing. As you know, the most unreliable testimony in a courtroom is said to be that of the eyewitness. 

The process has no doubt a political dimension. However, a problem arises when we find that capitalism can commodify descent too, can re-turn it to a marketable product. Conceptual art did try to bring all of this out in the open, but I have my doubts about its success.

M - Force against force? An internal debate against capitalism, or of the dominant paradigm of art-making? The de-composition of the givens for art-making? Pitting art against art?

H - Power, in this case, no longer resides merely in the means of production, but also in the methods of distribution and dissemination. The Internet has brought most of the barriers down. It remains to be seen whether even the most open governments aren’t going to find a way to limit this process. If not by outright controlling it, then at least squelching or taxing it. On the other hand, when it comes to critiquing art by other artists, there arises the issue of an elite coming into play. The language of criticism is so specialized that critics are often engaged in nothing more than preaching to the choir. Having said this, we must also take into account the role and responsibility of the spectator.  

M - Doesn’t provocation itself have a value in creating a space where opposition survives, a space that can be called forth only by the artist? 

H - Yes, of course. But I dislike sensationalism.

M - Let us go back to your work for a moment. Your “Targets” series has left a powerful impression on me because of its layering and the complexity of its stages and contexts. One of those layers is the evocation of your biography, of your personal background. Is that what you were referring to when you mentioned “personal history?”

H - Yes, there is a personal history. A story, a narrative. It took me a very long time to allow myself to separate it from the collective – which in this case is not necessarily confined to the Armenian and comprises those of Lebanon and the Middle East. For a long time I couldn’t differentiate using my personal experience/story from exploiting it. After all, how could I or anyone else refer to all the barbarism, all the inhumanity of Lebanon’s recent history without inviting attention upon oneself? But the experience, ultimately, is one’s own! How is that any different from a US- or Canadian-born artist exploring and exposing the hypocrisies of a barren, puritanical ethos or the values of middle-class suburbia? Isn’t that at the core of what constitutes most of Western art nowadays? Kind of microwaved leftovers from the counter-culture era. It was difficult to get to this point, to convince myself to get to the point of allowing myself to tell it through my own narrative. It wasn’t enough to fall in love with San Francisco, despite its breathtaking beauty… True, we had moved to San Francisco of our own volition. But the decision to leave Lebanon – where I was born, where I had loved, hated, fallen in love, was caught, punished, terrified, and found an identity, no matter how layered… where I have left friends and family behind, both below and above ground – was a difficult one. It was not easy to abandon a place every bit as enchanting as San Francisco, namely Lebanon, in whose destruction the powers that be of our chosen city were as complicit as anyone else. How about the very fact and with it the guilt of having saved one’s skin from certain death? Can we compress all this into the word “refugee?” Can we be in denial of the facts? 

In my recent works I have sought to tackle the fact that we, Maral and I, chose to make San Francisco our home. These works pertain more to the essence of belonging to a city, in the original sense of citizenship, than a country. I wanted to set the parameters and write the rules of that very concept, beyond its legal terms and definition, taking the parameters of citizenship away from that of a government’s. Away from its legal definition. Look, as Diasporans, we’ve always had our feet on the soil of one government and our heads in another’s, in an abstraction of a homeland, which was not only a geographical space but a state of mind. Complete and pristine in its imaginary. Now that that imaginary is clashing with its reality, maybe it is about time to go beyond the denial and shift those parameters and create new ones. One way of doing that, I suggest, is to revert language to its original purpose, as a medium of communication (just like any other medium, be that oil paint or video), rather than an identifier. Shouldn’t the very definition of Diaspora automatically include one’s birthplace and deathplace alike?

It was the search for this sense of citizenship that took me to the edges of San Francisco, the shores of the Pacific, the defensive battery installations along its boundaries, “natural” borders, which remained active until the 50s for conventional warfare and until the 70s for nuclear, only to be bound by the SALT II treaties. I was looking for, wanted to find, some common ground between what I had left behind and what I had chosen, between the powerless and “the” world power, between the third and the first worlds, the civilized and the developing ones. The trade-off between mine and the world’s. I pretty much went up and down the coast, all the way to Marine Headlands, trying to locate and capture, on photographic film, all of the remains of the decommissioned gunnery installations. Each of my resulting works is composed of five layers of transparency. Each layer is a different photograph of the same image, taken on a tripod. Though visually identical, these 4 by 6 images are subtly different from one another. That difference lies in the split second in between the shots. I was looking into the idea of a parallel-time film, instead of the conventional linear running through the projector. 

At the same time, I started to lift the “images” of these metal covers onto canvas. Photography, after all, has its roots in the physicality of silver being oxidized when exposed to light. In this case, I was printing the corrosion of the metal covers directly on canvas – an extreme contact print that denies the distance between the photographer and its “subject,” brings them closer together. It’s a more involved, intimate situation, where you get down on your knees and rub the rust of your subject into the canvas with your bare hands. I even had a run-in with one of the park rangers. The container I was using to carry the water for moistening the metal and loosening the rust was one of those red, hardware-store types, made to carry gasoline. The poor guy thought I was going to blow up the place. He proceeded towards me with extreme caution and an anxious look on his face. But this being San Francisco, people are used to seeing all kinds of things. Fortunately for me, this was before September 11. Otherwise…

Naturally, the latter works are “life-size”, 5 feet by 7.

M - You were depicting not the scenery of San Francisco, not its bay, not its hills, but places and things that hint at violence.

H - And if you consider that the military occupied, still occupies, the most breathtaking locales, are we to assume that they (the stretches of ocean shore where the enemy was supposed to land) are the targets themselves?

M - Here too, then, you are representing targets.

H - Yes, but in this case they have to do with both their military value and esthetic worth… they have to do with the “other” seeing, maybe the original anxiety behind any seeing, the watchful, the watching.

M - But which one is the target here, the view or the gun battery? After all, once you turn the location into a military installation, you automatically turn it into a target (for a real or imaginary enemy), I also want you to elaborate on the layering of your transparencies, and the intervals that separate them.

H - The intervals are only limited by their physical handicap. To capture time is the essence of photography. But in order to do that, in order for a photographic picture to exist, you have to have positive time. I mean the time it takes to shoot the picture must be on the positive side of the zero reference, at least in this known dimension of time, based on humans being condemned to grow old and die. A zero value is a transparent negative and a black positive. We’re still talking chemical age here. In the digital realm we will have the equivalent of formatting a nothing, 0 bites: what is that, a 0 or a 1, a I or a O? So the very existence of an image is the compression of time. In the case of moving images, film, the process is repeated 24 or 30 times a second, after which they are projected or displayed in a similar sequence, creating the illusion of movement. I feel the need to remind the reader that the individual frame of film is a still photograph. It doesn’t move. The sequence does. As for my transparencies, what I’m doing is simply lining them in parallel planes, layers, so you can fit the sequence of time in a single glance. Five is an arbitrary number I arrived at through a process of elimination – six being too opaque, four too square, three too religious, two too poor, one back to square one. Parallel time. Another phenomenon comes into play when you lift, or scrape, the images from the surface and layer them on top of each other, thus enabling time to acquire depth, rather than possessing strictly length. The presence of a viewer in front of the actual work is also required, since things happen in real time and in real presence. Reproducing them would return them to the two dimensions, thus defeating the purpose. 

M - When you refer to parallel moments, you mean to say that consequential moments appear at once, in the same moment, the same view, the same present, and that they leave it to the presence of the viewer to determine their duration and time’s depth.

H - Yes.

M - But that is not what the viewer sees. You have to use words to explain the structure of the work, so that the eye sees, so that the eye understands that there are in fact five layers. The eye sees only the final result.

H - That issue is inherent in every new medium, every new way of using a medium. The first time that a film was ever projected in public, the viewers jumped out of their chairs, fearing the train will run them over. But taking the issue beyond seeing: we know that seeing is relative to a sensory network connected to the eye. How ready you are, or what you have invested with regard to seeing, becomes important. A final result or an explanation is deeply rooted in the dominating culture’s values. It is only in the West that Picasso could have played his cubist game. In Africa, where he co-opted his kind of seeing from, where that way of seeing originated from, he would have participated in his society’s well-being as a shaman, or as a talented craftsman making exotic ornaments, completely devoid of their anxieties and narratives, for the tourist industry. As I was raised in the third world, the developing world, these issues are more immediate than theoretical to me. I am very aware and made aware of my comparative exoticism. My interest in works like these stems first and foremost from personal curiosity: not as to the technique, but the why of showing things the way I chose to show.

M - My question wasn’t about grasping the works through the intellect, but through the eye. Any piece of music needs a moment in time for the actualization of its performance. In the case of your layered images, it’s the presence of the eye that makes the performance possible. 

H - The difference between sound and image is that if you were to “freeze” the image, it would become a photograph. Being frozen, the image becomes an object, a picture, while the sound turns into a single note, of a known or unknown scale, and still in need of time to be deployed, happen, exit. Also, it is not the film itself that we are looking at but its shadow. When I was a child, I heard my grandfather refer to it as “shadow play.” As a student, I used to go around and ask “unsuspecting bystanders” if they would like to see my latest film. If they said yes, then I would show them the actual film on a reel. Again, to be seen with a single look, glance.

M – But that is not the same thing. What you are saying here is different. It is akin to showing an hour and half film in a single picture.

H - No. Showing an hour and half film in a single picture is a metaphor. A visual metaphor, because it hasn’t left the realm of its picturehood. It still represents a past, it still is a generation apart in time, still a past, a copy of an existing film. To be, film has to be projected or coded-decoded, buffered. One also might be tempted to say that it needs a viewer, like the proverbial tree making a noise in the forest. It is possible, would actually be interesting to try, to print each frame and arrange the sequences in order on a wall, and fit the film in a single glance. But as I said before, an element of that already exists in a single still frame, since it itself is a compression of time. 

M - We have just been watching some parts of your latest film. You were also talking about your uncles being photographers, in yet another example of your biography informing your work. Your relationship with pictures seems to be a long-standing one. Is it by any chance preordained?

H - I can’t comment on it being preordained. It was there all the time for me. However, more than four decades after the Catastrophe, when the surviving members of my father’s side of the family, who were scattered across the Middle East and unaware of each other’s existence, finally found one another, it turned out that like my uncles in Lebanon, their cousins in Syria and Cyprus were also photographers. Preordained or simply coincidental? It’s hard to say. It’s worth noting that for a long time, perhaps even till today, most photographers in the Middle East were of Armenian descent. However, the standards, the very concept, of a professional and of the profession of photography are different over there. In the Middle East, there is a certain mystery surrounding the craft. Secrets are passed down from father to son. More alchemy than chemistry, less scientific. And the craft itself, as a means to earn a living, obeyed an internal economic and business model of its own making: an interesting relation between craftsmanship and a certain sense of beauty, an aesthetic, and its exchange value, on the day-to-day, populist level. I don’t think that relationship between aesthetics and economics has been adequately analyzed or studied. The exploitation of vanity. In his latest novel, Patkeru (The Picture), Krikor Beledian has some extremely interesting takes on the subject. I’ve been very close to that world. I still earn a living doing wedding videography. On the other hand, I’ve had access to photographic equipment and learned the techniques of the craft at a fairly young age, in my preteens. My uncles, who disdained anything that had a whiff of the “left,” would let me have their inexpensive Soviet-made cameras, for which they had no use. I still think those cameras were quiet good. Also, in summer I ran their resort-town studio during the day while they worked in the city before driving back to the village in the evening. That’s when the action began for me. I learned the darkroom craft there, through trial and error. Seeing pictures appear, fade into existence, on the paper under the red light (amber is what’s supposed to be used, but improvising a red Christmas tree light, masked with black tape, was the norm) was akin to magic. It still is, but today my interests stop right there. In later years the darkroom also became the place of experimenting and experiencing. I have to say that the SFAI didn’t kill the alchemist in me, as it was non-formalist/conformist at its core – it lets people go on and screw up as much as they could or want. No technicians need apply, no fetishization. The “production values” are self-declared and had to adapt to the thing being expressed rather than the other way around. And that applied across the board, in all the disciplines.

M - At the moment you are working on a series of photographs that were for the most part shot prior to the Lebanese civil war. You’re re-contextualizing them through a different medium. Is this a fresh take on your older work?

H - Prior, or rather between, civil wars. The events of 1958, with their fault lines, were always in the air, especially for the Armenian community, not that far apart from the cold-war divides. They had been transmitted to us through a series of heroic tales, of internecine murder and vengeance, relative to a sociopolitical angle. To this day, Beldian is the only one who has managed, with his later works, to seriously, although briefly, look beyond mere chronicle, into the psychology and mentality of the era. These pictures belong to that entr'acte, the period between 1958 and 1975. That stretch also contains two Arab-Israeli wars, 1967 and 1973, the different stages of the Palestinian cause, electoral upheavals, the 60s and its student pseudo-movements, with its serious issues and its artistic aesthetic – though registered mainly in its fashions and trends. Sine 1997, I’ve been making use of these photographs by blowing up their backgrounds. The series is entitled “On Deep Background,” borrowing a journalistic term. In it, for one reason or another an official, the source, wants to stay hidden, unnamed. While going through my files recently, I remembered that on the occasion of Vahe Oshagan’s jubilee, when I was commissioned to come up with an “artistic” gift, something that the organizing committee ultimately turned down, I used the neighborhood, non-corporate photocopying joint to print a poem of his on transparencies, and my first instinct was to also separate them by generation: the copy of a copy of a copy. Later, though, they looked too cumbersome and stayed only in their conceptual narrative. Thus the visual won the day. It is in this instance that the eye plays its role. Now I’m trying these same backgrounds in a film, a slow scan, a travel in the field. The idea came a few years back when, while working on a commissioned film, I was constructing a narrative backdrop from archival photographs. That was around the same time that Ken Burns’ The Civil War (notice the “The” in its title) was airing on PBS.  

M - But what seems to lie at the heart of your work is the process to make the personal even more personal, by reworking it, cropping it, traveling in it, scanning it. In other words, you are looking at yourself rather than at Beirut. Are you sure the viewer is ready to follow you in that slow journey? Is he or she ready to look at you while you are looking at yourself?

H - Depends on the viewer. Some viewers come to see themselves, others to be seen, some to find themselves, some to lose themselves, surrender. This stage was extremely important for me. Allowing myself to look at the past, to revive the past without reliving it, as would be the case of photography-induced remembrances. To revive the picture without animating it. An anti-animation, beyond the political and collective/official stances, and seen from the point of view of the mundane. One of the casualties of war, something that is almost always overlooked or remains invisible, is the loss of the mundane, of boredom. I also want to kick the subject around (in its physical and abstract incarnations), to push it, skim its essence, consume it, filter it through different mediums, and then look at the outcome. No preconceptions here. Just curiosity. And I would like to keep it in the “experimental,” rather than the conventional, the accepted, the defined.

M - And its relationship with sound?

H - At the stage that the film is in right now, the sound relates more to space than time. I’m still trying to simplify, redact. The idea floating in my head is the use of room tone, the echoing silence of the space. This technique, laying a track of room tone, is commonly used in audio post-production to cover cuts and or create a space, and give the illusion of a continuous background. For me, though, at this point, where I’m gathering the noise, its documentary value, is as important as the thing being narrated.

M - Which is quite surprising. Here you actually want to recreate a continuity, while the art form itself is its fragmentation – assuming for a moment that the narrative arts are themselves based on an illusion. Are you trying to extend a completely ordinary act? Or, on the contrary, deconstruct it? Point out the illusion? This is a serious question because, for you, there is also the continuity of the personal, the wish not to lose even an iota of the past.

H - That’s right. Because film is the latest (not the final yet, but the most recent) perfection of that mimesis, adding another layer of realism to the picture, the motion, and its synchronized sound. In its capturing, and in its reproducing. But I would argue that continuity is the most basic, most primitive, way of understanding, of grasping the reality of the event, or its interpretation. The mainstream West has not yet evolved beyond that. It has on its fringes, in its instinctive and narrow, causality-based logic of time and space, be that on the scale of the human or the universal. I use the word “classical” rather than “Hollywood.” The reason is simple. Every film that has actors or acting is first and foremost a documentary of the actor or the acting. In this sense, every film is its own documentation, therefore a documentary. A witnessing of its own creation, existence. The job of a classical director is to make the viewer forget (some would say transcend, I would say deny) that very fact. The director’s job is basically to stockholm a captive audience, and take it where the producer wants it to go. If he or she fails to do so, entertain and maintain in that condition, people walk out and the film flops. On the other hand, self-deception is a powerful instinct. What I’m looking for mainly is that “innocent” eye, the one that has yet to see a cut between scenes, the moment of self-awareness, as if being the birth of conscience.

M - For the last phase of our interview, I would like to read a page from Beledian and to brainstorm off of it. There’s a page in Patkeru where the narrator talks about going around with a camera and constantly taking pictures of Beirut, sometimes even of the same place, over and over again, at different times of day. I was looking for an echo of that in our conversation, a bridge between your work and Beledian’s book. It seems to me that in that lure of the image there is something associated with the historical experience of the Armenians, namely the horror of violence. That fascination, rapture, with the image of horror is seen often in the great novels of the Diaspora, from Shahnur’s Nahanj Arants Yergi (Retreat Without Song) to the works of Vorbuni and now Beledian. I won’t elaborate.

H - Isn’t it the same with Vahe Oshagan, though in the form of poetry?

M - Since you brought up his name, let’s finish this interview with him. You have done important work with your video of Oshagan’s Depi Kyank, which was later published in his book Arvartsanner (Suburbs). In the film, we hear Oshagan read from his own work. His voice is then sampled and turned into word composition, by Salibian. Finally, there are your images. Thus the film contains three layers: poetry, sound manipulation, and imagery. Watching the film, I have always been under the impression that those three layers do not fit. There are disruptions, some sort of rupture, which renders the film difficult to understand, difficult to watch. What have you tried to do here? Follow the poem? Create correspondences?

H - If you are referring here to ornamentation, the answer is no.

M - Herein lies the issue, Hrayr. When we read Depi Kyank, it takes on a meaning, even though that meaning may be formed by the interpretation of the text. This is a common process of reading, at least as long as there isn’t a conscious effort to derail the assumption of meaning. I think your work, at least in the case of Depi Kyank, proceeds in the opposite direction. It’s as though you’re attempting to dig up and expose a certain meaninglessness. Not “toward life,” as the poem’s title states, but, in a step beyond or a step backwards, towards the space where life has not been formed yet… neither an aspiration that would lend meaning to or even contain the premonition of meaning with regard to the “toward” the direction. The meaninglessness I refer to here is not that of Vahe’s existential absurd. How can you reconcile on the one hand,the pull towards meaning (which is, after all, the poem’s intent) and  on the other hand your very visible intent to push towards meaningless?

H - The way I looked at this was to create a visual parallel, which would run a bit longer than the reading and the soundtrack. I did not want to illustrate any of the existing layers. Remember the sequences where the screen turns deep red? That red happens to be only the negative of the actual images, nothing more, nothing less. Is it ever possible to separate meaning from interpretation? I take interpretation here in the sense of performance. And of course there are many ways of understanding, many layers of it in and out of synch, and not all of them necessarily by the intellect, as it’s often believed in the United States (a flat, mono-level approach which America imposes on the whole world through its military and economic might, and mass media). There are also layers of meaning in any text, beyond just reading in a set time, or in the conventional four dimensions. This video is structured in a way not to give preference to any of its existing mediated layers, namely Salibian’s electronic composer’s intervention. It even tries to forward it back to the poem’s pre-existence, pre-birth. At turns it tries to follow the meaning of the word, its metaphor, itself becoming a metaphor… at turns it follows its rhythm, the composer’s rhythm, or the texture. Once in a while, some of the appropriated images become visible, sharp. When Vahe says “only love,” the screen goes completely dark. If you are watching the video on a TV set, the monitor becomes a mirror, no longer an illusion, no longer referring to the time the record(ing) was made but to the present, its presence.   

 I have to say that when I started working on this project, I had no preconceptions. I started just to see for myself as to how far I can push this, Vahe’s work. Maybe I wanted to exact some kind of revenge on him. When Vahe lived here in San Francisco, he used to push my work, my ideas around. He was the only link left between me and what’s called Armenianness. At the same time, I was also testing the limits of the video signal, with illegal reds and dropped frames, the asynchronized video phase, anything that is a no-no in the video engineer’s handbook. Some of my inspiration came from your description of Vahe’s work, of Vahe himself: the poet standing on top of a heap of wrecked cars, the refuse of this civilization, and looking at us with his typically quizzical, questioning gaze.

M - Yes, but I continue to believe that what you have done goes beyond Vahe’s poetic universe and moves towards the “detritus,” the sediment, maybe inspired by that image of an automobile cemetery. Vahe’s poetry doesn’t deconstruct meaning. It seeks to find it. You have brought out an unwritten layer. 

H - This is exactly why I hesitated for almost a year before starting to work on the video. Don’t you think, after all, that I set out from that same interpretation? Vahe’s subsequent meanings, even the quest for meaning itself, are based on a previous ethos of “meaninglessness,” which was more palpable in his Kaghaku (The City) period. It was that uncertainty, that tension between his life and work, a tension that I wanted to exploit.

M - Thank you.