“We’re a sucker for unlikely genealogies”
Interview by Michelangelo Corsaro
Slavs and Tatars talk about their work, between ideological displacement, plurality of identities, and methodological syncretism
Slavs and Tatars is an art collective whose installations, performance lectures, publications and artist’s multiples contemplate intercultural relations and perceived differences between East and West. Pursuing an unconventional research-based practice, the group identifies the “area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China known as Eurasia” as the focus of their speculations and propositions.
Their projects address the transmission and hybridisation of traditions, politics and language within the region while ne- gotiating expansive topics such as the fall of Communism, the Iranian Revolution, migrations within the Caucasus and mystical traditions in Islam. Associating incompatible and con- tradictory themes and forms, they proceed with an irreverent approachdeploying wit and wordplay to gain entry into otherwise complex and often incendiary topics. To communicate the many threads of their inquiry, the collective creates inviting environments where visitors can linger and experience the art objects, which themselves draw upon a wide range of sources, including regional craft traditions and pop-art.
Michelangelo Corsaro: Some questions to introduce your work: How did you meet? Why did you decide to work together? How did you start to work as visual artists? What kind of research are you carrying on at the moment?
Slavs and Tatars: We founded Slavs and Tatars in 2006 for equally intellectual and intimate reasons. Of course, we are interested in researching an area of the world—Eurasia— we consider relevant, politically, culturally, spiritually. But it is also the result of the end of a “Western promise” to some degree in our respective lives: after having lived in the major metropolises of the West (London, New York, Paris), studied in some of the finest institutions, worked with leading companies, etc., we feel there is something missing. We take issue with various ideas: the positivism that seems to be so rampant in the West; the pragmatic nature of knowledge versus the intuitive, experiential nature of wisdom; the idolisation of youth coupled with the dismissal of age; an excessive emphasis on the rational at the expense of the mystical; the segregation of children from adults at social functions; splitting dinner bills; disproportionate attention to the individual over the collective.
We began as a reading group—Oprah meets Attila the Hun, if you will. From our very first works (cf. Wrong and Strong, Slavs,Nations), the rewritings, revisions and re-visitations we conduct on language have served as much as a strategy as the very subject of exploration and research. No matter how ambitious, varied, playful or arcane, our performative approach to language, until recently, operated exclusively in one register: that of profane or secular language. Not the wash-your-mouth-with-soap kind, but rather the lay language that merges the academy and the street. From our recent Not Moscow Not Mecca at Vienna’s Secession, a celebration of spiritual and ideological syncretism, toReverse Joy, a lecture-performance on the role of mystical protest and the sacred in social revolutions, we have embarked on an attempt to understand that which is often dismissed in our universities, spurned in symposia, and notably absent from the weight of books that toned our biceps in younger days: a non- positivist, numinous understanding of phenomena.
MC: Your work is a complex composition of different narratives. How do geographical, political and cultural issues overlap in your vision?
S&T: Today, we not only need intellectual acrobatics but metaphysical ones: substitution requires us to cultivate the agility, coordination and balance necessary to tell one tale through another, to adopt the innermost thoughts, experiences, beliefs and sensations of others as our own, in an effort to challenge the very notion of distance as the shortest length between two points. In terms of our practice: to understand contemporary Iran, we look at Poland and Solidarność(Friendship of Nations:Polish Shi’ite Showbiz); to grasp the nature of political agency in the 21st century, we study Muharram and the 1,300-year-old Shiite ritual of perpetual protest (Reverse Joy); to demystify Islam, we turned to Communism (forNot Moscow Not Mecca at Vienna’s Secession); and it is through mysticism that we told an alternative version of modernity at the MoMA with Beyonsense.
MC: What role does humour play in the notion of crossing linguistic, geographic and ideological borders?
S&T: Humour is an effective, because disarming, means of critique. Which is one reason Molla Nasreddin has become a retroactive mascot of sorts. A Eurasian equivalent of, say, La Fontaine or the Brothers Grimm, Nasreddin tells anecdotes or jokes as a point of departure into more abstract allegories or complex ethical questions. Not to mention that he’s a transnational figure par excellence: A version of Nasreddin can be found from Croatia all the way to China.
MC: How do you practically apply the notion of syncretism in the research process you undertake?
S&T: We’re a sucker for unlikely genealogies. Bringing things together that don’t seem at first glance to fit, forcing them to sit on one page, think in one voice, sing in one register, has become somewhat of a modus operandi for Slavs and Tatars. High and low, hot and cold, good and bad: nowadays it is our heads and hearts—and not just our legs—that are forced to do the splits. To connect the increasingly disparate dots around us. Linguistics call it “amphiboly,” Latinists “co- incidentia oppositorum,” and social psychologists “cognitive dissonance,” but it’s simply music to our Eurasian ears. We prefer to call it the metaphysical splits, in so far as it forces our minds and hearts to embrace that which is thought to be mutually exclusive.
An elaboration of these stretched, if not strained thoughts, syncretism is to the mind what open-source is to code: it allows for the integration of ‘alien’ or ‘other’ forms of thought, behaviour, practice into one’s own. It also operates a collapse of time, not just of space, allowing for the incorporation of those beliefs which precede one’s own. We should highlight the numinous or “wholly other,” to quote Rudolf Otto, context in which syncretism is often used: by reconciling difference and emphasising coexistence, syncretism is a compelling argument in favour of compromise too often disparaged as a source of weakness. Our current cycle of work, The Faculty of Substitution, investigates this circumlocution that is anathema to purists or the orthodox of any stripe. Syncretism is often understood as a betrayal of pure truths. Replacing one thing with another, telling one tale through another—often referred to as mystical substitution or sacred hospitality—can be found in a disparate array of authors including Joris-Karl Huysmans, Louis Massignon, Norman Brown or Mansur al-Hallaj. At the heart of this research is an attempt to rethink the very notion of self-discovery via the slow burn of syncretism, be it linguistic, religious or ideological.
MC: Language seems to play an essential function in your approach. How does the concept of translation apply to cultural conflict and interpretation of social contexts as well as to the collaboration between you?
S&T: Translation is an attempt to find “a point of commerce, if not resolution” between two irreconcilable view points, as Paul Ricoeur says, which brings us back to the metaphysical splits, putting together that which is considered mutually exclusive. We are interested in the plurality of languages as we are in the plurality of identities and to what extent this polyphony allows for a reconsideration of hospitality, asking us to expropriate ourselves and appropriate the other as we attempt to put on the clothes of the foreign and ask the foreign to step into our language.
MC: In 2010, Angela Merkel stated that the political vision of a multicultural society in Germany has “utterly failed.” In the current socio-political situation, is there a possibility to carry on a theoretical and visual discourse about multiculturalism in Europe? What is your experience of working both inside and outside its borders?
S&T: Our approach to identity is to adopt several at once—hence our name—not to mention our interest in transnational ideas, behaviours, thought processes. It’s a pity that allegiances in general are conceived as singular, exclusive affairs. As the end-game of loyalty only gains in severity the higher up the scale one climbs, the more we must struggle to keep blurred the boundaries of where one nation’s, one people’s or one ideology’s history begins and another one’s ends. Woe to the hapless immigrant who finds themselves caught between devotion to home and host country, mother tongue and second language, former and future passport. The proliferation of allegiances—to languages, histories, beliefs—keeps us on our toes, constantly negotiating the pitfalls at the heart of monogamous polemics and brittle identity politics. If we are steadfast believers in sticking to the singular in our love lives, then surely our affections for places, peoples, histories, languages and countries could and should escape the girdle of the singular and unique and spill, joyously, into the plural and polyphonic.
As Hamid Dabashi says, “Every home has its abroad.”
Other Peoples’ Prepositions, 2013, glass, steel, 112 x 45 x 45 cm Long Legged Linguistics, Art Space Pythagorion, Samos, 2013