Zhanar will come up with clever text or Karina... Definitely not Darina

Founded in 2006, Slavs and Tatars is a collective of artists who have managed
to spread their unique view of Central Asian region as far as NY MoMA with their installation «Beyonsense». Using multiple media, Slavs and Tatars establish connections between seemingly disparate subjects. Their projects stage unlikely combinations of mediums, cultural references, and modes of address; books and print is prominent in their work, as do contemplative, library-like installations where visitors may consider their publications. The collective has worked on primarily three cycles of work: the first, a celebration of complexity in the Caucasus (Kidnapping Mountains, Molla Nasreddin, Hymns of No Resistance); the second, on the unlikely heritage between Poland and Iran (Friendship of Nations: Polish Shi'ite Showbiz, 79.89.09, A Monobrow Manifesto) and their third and current cycle, The Faculty of Substitution, on mystical protest and the revolutionary role of the sacred and syncretic.

The collective has published several books that incorporate archival research, texts, original pieces and innovative design. Their work features in collections including the Sharjah Art Foundation, UAE, the Museum of Modern Art New York and the Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw.

Their most famous projects include: Nations (2007) at 2nd Moscow Biennale, Kidnapping Mountains (2009) in Aalst, Belgium, repeated collaboration with 032c magazine, which lead to 79.89.09 project exhibited lately at the 10th Sharjah Biennale, Monobrow Manifesto (2010) at Frieze Art Fair, London, Beyonsense (2012) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Not Moscow, Not Mecca (2010)
at Moravia Gallery, Brno.

— Famously you identify your collective as: "A faction of polemics and intimacies devoted to an area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China known as Eurasia." How did you come to this definition? How did Slavs and Tatars started?

— We founded Slavs and Tatars in 2006 for equally intellectual and intimate reasons. We are interested in researching an area of the world — Eurasia — we consider relevant politically, culturally, and 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, NY, Paris), studied in some of the finest institutions, worked with leading companies, etc. We felt there was something missing.

— Do you remember your first encounter with contemporary art?

— Zbigniew Libera in Pabianice (Polish artist, born in Pabianice, Poland, known for the controversial LEGO Concentration Camp Set he designed in 1996. — Étage).

— How did it all begin for you? What was your first project?

— We participated in the 1st edition of the NY Art Book Fair, organized by Printed Matter, in 2006.

— When did you start working with galleries? How do you choose galleries that should represent you?

— We began working with commercial galleries in 2010. As it is often the case with us, things happened not like we expected. While it is protocol for galleries to approach the artist, in that particular case we approached The Third Line, as we had been accepted into the Frieze Sculpture Park that year with Monobrow Manifesto, and had to be represented by a participating gallery.
"Resist Resisting God", 2010
— Do you know your collectors? Who are the people buying your works?

— We do not know the majority of our collectors personally, but do know some and are good friends with a couple.

— Do you remember a turning point in your artistic career, when you realised that you are successful in what you are doing now?

— The 10th Sharjah Bienniale was pivotal for us, in so far as it was the first time we articulated a series of ideas spatially, and engaged with the notions of hospitality and generosity not just discursively, but phenomenologically.
— Expand on that...

— We presented Friendship of Nations: Polish Shi'ite Showbiz that looked at the unlikely shared heritage between Poland and Iran and in particular, the revolutionary potential of crafts and folklore behind the ideological impulses of two key modern moments, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and Poland's Solidarność in the 1980s. Later it expanded to the 79.89.09 series — a development we didn't quite expect at the moment to happen.

— You explore Eurasia, why is this region so important for your discourse?

— If we are to believe that somehow Islam and modernity are incompatible or that the east and west are in some sort of conflict — then it makes eminent sense to investigate — discursively, performatively and affectively — an area of the world where this has resolutely been proven not to be true. In terms of our practice: to understand contemporary Iran, we looked at Poland and Solidarność (Friendship of Nations: Polish Shi'ite Showbiz); to grasp the nature of political agency in the twenty-first century, we study Muharram and the 1300-year-old Shiite ritual of perpetual protest (Reverse Joy); to demystify Islam, we turned to Communism (Not Moscow Not Rome, Secession); and it is through mysticism that we addressed modernity (Beyonsense, MoMA). We are interested particularly in redeeming, preserving, sharing and revising certain areas of Eurasia's history because we feel it is of particular relevance to larger issues facing the West today: if, once again, we are to believe there is somehow a clash between the East and the West, or between Islam and the West, then it makes sense to look at perhaps the only area in the world where these have co-habited successfully.

— What is more important in your work: the process of reactivating cultural memory or a quest for alternative historical narratives?

— We've attempted to reactivate certain ideas, behaviours, affects and thought-processes associated with a given geographical region. To some degree, we see this work as a correction: recalibrating the balance, whether it involves acknowledging the progressive potential of faith in social revolutions, the sacred use of language, the collective acts of reading and storytelling, for example. Meanwhile, certain traditions and heritage are at risk of being dismissed in the region's efforts at modernization. Too often, across Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, modernization is equated with westernization, to disastrous effects, and ironically at the very moment Western narrative is in doubt and decline.

We believe in resuscitating history, and we use the word 'resuscitation' deliberately: putting one's lips onto the subject matter, onto history, onto language, and breathing in and out of it. So there's a sensual, seductive element to the revisitation, a corporal approach. There's also something disrespectful about this act of resuscitation: putting one's lips onto another's to revive him/her is different from placing one's lips on someone else's romantically, as in a kiss. It's just as important to disrespect your sources as it is to respect them.

Slavs and Tatars book, reproducing the original drawings from «Molla Nasreddin»
— Your installation at the Museum of Modern Art was called "Beyonsense" — it's both a pun to the pop culture and an ironic zeugma. Please expand on this project.

— The name comes from a linguistic study by the Russian futurist Velimir Khlebnikov, called zaum. Literally, za means "beyond" or "across" and um means "intelligence" or "sense." It's often translated as "transrational". "Beyonsense" sort of sounds like "nonsense". It also sounds like "Beyoncé." And we like the juxtaposition of the Russian futurists with those two ideas, nonsense and Beyoncé. The way we describe it, is a psychedelic Muslim library. The skylight is a re-creation of a 1970s Dan Flavin installation for a Sufi mosque in downtown New York, one that very few people know about. It seems that putting those three words, "Islam" and "down- town" and "Manhattan," together is a recipe for disaster, whether 30 years ago or now.

We kind of feel like we've put a Trojan horse inside MoMA. Because, in a way, we stand for everything that MoMA traditionally stands against. We don't believe that modernity is Westernization. And if MoMA is anything, it's a temple to Western modernity or an American idea of modernity. We tend to err on the side of the mystical and the sacred, even just aesthetically. So we felt that we had to tell this other side of the story.

— This year you had the first curatorial experience with art from Central Asia and Caucasus. How would you describe contemporary art from Eurasia?

— Eurasia is too large and unwieldy a territory to define any one way. The art from Central Asia that interests us is steeped in orality, discourse, and the otherworldly, what Rudolf Otto would call the wholly other.

— You've curated "Marker" section at Art Dubai art fair 2014. Would you like to curate again, or you prefer to be artists? Or do you think artists today can be universal — artist, curator, writer, educator?

— We don't claim to continue curatorial practices in any shape or form. We believe in a traditional division of labor: artists separate, curators separate. We don't quite believe (and it's only about us) in dissolving boundaries between the two practices.
For a long time though our work was viewed as curatorial, and we still don't understand why. We think people mean that our work is based on editing, but it doesn't equal it to curating to us. Editing for us is based on research and content. Curating is based on art — its starting and ending point — and it's not quite what we're interested in.
For us art is a supposition to get somewhere else. The periapt quality of the art is important to us only because it leads somewhere else, to new discourse, experiences and questions in socio-political and religious spheres. It should not be self-serving.
"We are interested
in researching an area of the world — Eurasia — we consider relevant politically, culturally,
and spiritually."
— What is particularly interesting or provoking in Eurasian region to you? What artistic patterns do you see if any from your curatorial experience? In your own work as related to the region?

— The alternative that Central Asia is offering, is not an alternative for the West, so to speak. It is a way for the Muslim world, for its self-determination and identity. The reason why we are focused on and are defending this model is that the most interesting things tend to happen on the edge of ideologies. In the XX century Central Asia has experienced demodernization of Islam, which made a more progressive faith possible.

By demodernization we mean that the Muslim world had an access to print since XV or XVI century, but was widely resistant to it. When print was finally introduced, radicalization of Islam began, due to doctrinal argument, as we call it — who can publish fatawa, and who can't, who's a true Muslim, etc. All the theoretical debate was triggered by the introduction of print. In Central Asia at that time religion was banned, and the tendency passed by. Currently there's a discussion about modernisation of Islam, about a reform similar to Protestant reformation. But we believe that modernisation of Islam leads to its radicalisation — a trend that we vividly see today.

Central Asia is different in a sense that here Islam still holds its communal character, and it's quite ironic that women are the transmitters of that knowledge, since religion has shifted out of the private sphere. It's a parallel Islam — on a daily, ritual and oral level.

— You had a chance to travel around Eurasia, do you think there is an art market in our region? Is there potential for art market here? Or do you think local art is best for export to Western markets?

— Markets do not exist in a vacuum: like healthy ecosystems, they need strong institutions, private patronage, audiences, etc.
"Too Much Tłumacz", 2012
— What, in your opinion, is the role of accurate historical representation of the region and its people in your work? After all, you are using a rather ironic approach, do you think it hurts your heroes?

— We believe it's important for the audiences to have a sense of self-representation, but not in a traditional way — a lot of times they are shown obscure, too serious or cliched. Our experience shows that people are happy to realize that they can also be represented or even personified through things they are familiar with in a harsh or even disrespectful manner.

By the way, we find the idea of disrespecting the sources very important. For example, when we talk about the syncretism of Islam in Central Asia, we praise it as an alternative form of Islam, we worship it and put it on pedestal. But we have to, at the same time, stab it in the back with a knife. you stroke it with one hand, and jab it with the other. We hope that his shows maturity relative to the subject, as well as to the audience. It seems like the audiences value that as opposed to a one sided view on the matter — either you are rich or poor, Muslim or atheist, Asian or European. There's certain liquidity to the idea, and you can be everything at the same time.
"Our experience shows that people are happy to realize that they can also be represented or even personified through things they are familiar with in a harsh or even disrespectful manner"

"Death Without Death", 2011
(From the Friendship of Nations Series)
— So you cater towards the Western audience, which is able to evaluate the processes in the region from the outside?

— What we are trying to do within the modest boundaries of a non-profit section of an art fair, is to tell the story of the region and show its meaning in the global context, but also to demystify it, particularly, for the Middle Eastern and Islamic audiences. The fact that Central Asia is unknown and foreign to someone in America is a common thing, but in fact people in Iran, Lebanon or Egypt have no idea about Bukhara, Samarkand, Turkestan or Kashgar. Our goal is to tell stories in a simple and accessible way — to show the people of Central Asia to the rest of the world.

"Friendship Of Nations", 2011
— Would you be interested in exhibiting your works in Central Asia?

— Absolutely. We've exhibited in Caucasus and Russia, and will soon have a project at the Tashkent Biennale.

— You're talking about syncretism in Eurasia a lot, both in your works and interviews. Is that, in a sense, a way to imagine a different kind of global cosmopolitan future?

— Syncretism is to the mind what open-source is to a 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 that 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 differences and emphasising coexistence, syncretism is a compelling argument in favour of compromise too often disparaged as a source of weakness. With a particularly Slavic rollercoaster ride of defeatism: we know we're doomed to fail but we nonetheless try our hardest not to.
"Wheat Molla", 2011
— Do you think artistic education important for contemporary artists? Or do you think anybody with any professional background can be an artist today?

— Actually, our backgrounds are in philosophy, fine arts, and graphic design. Comparative Literature, for example, is an euphemism used in Anglo-American Universities for all the post-war Continental philosophy that traditional English and American philosophy departments were not willing to integrate, and which then found shelter in literature departments. We are heavily invested in discourse, does that make us artists or not? Contrary to the traditional hierarchy in art, where the book is an after-thought, catalogue or documentation of an exhibition, for Slavs and Tatars the book is at the core of our practice. One could say that all our other work, usually defined as Art with a capital 'A', such as sculpture, installations, lecture, etc are simply a means or premise to bring people back to the book.

— Do you think contemporary art should be understandable/accessible to everybody? Or should it stay elitist?

— In a 1990 New Yorker piece on Siah Armajani, Calvin Tomkins talked about the artist's need to res cue the idea of populism: "It bothered him that populism was so often misinterpreted as a movement geared to the lowest common denominator; to his mind, it was committed to making the highest achievements available to everyone, available but not accessible. The distinction was important: why you achieved was up to you". We could not agree more.
Infiltration means for us using your enemies language, for example pop. We are acutely aware the use of pop is a tool to help share our enthusiasm and interest in areas which otherwise remain obscure to large sections of the globe.

— If you could invite anybody in the world for a dinner party, who would this people be?

— Rudolf Steiner, Czesław Milosz, Velimir Khlebnikov, and Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi. É
Interview: Étage Magazine
Date: May, 2016