The Tashkent-Tbilisi project presents the online premiere of a film A Passage by Felix Kalmenson and Rouzbeh Akbari (Pejvak collective), a hybrid visual investigation filmed in Southern Armenia’s Meghri region — border territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The film explores the processes of rapid militarization and neoliberalization in the region. In conversation with film curator Rita Sokolovskaya, Felix and Rouzbeh talk about their travel, importance of hearing multiple voices and their perception of the work after the conflict escalation.
The film screening was available from the 15th until the 30th of June.
First, could you tell me about your collective, Pejvak? How was it formed? What grounds unite you and what topics do you work on in your artistic practice?
Pejvak in Farsi translates to “echo,” primarily the echo of one’s voice in the mountains. We have come to collaborate under this collective name since 2014, when we met in Casablanca as we worked on our first performance and installation project in les Fabrique Culturelle Abattoirs. Since then we have undertaken multiple research-based projects in Ningxia (China), Meghri (Armenia), Tbilisi (Georgia), and Eastern Turkey. Despite having a multitude of convergences in our research interests, we are both particularly drawn to storytelling and the capacity of constructed narratives to trigger cognitive mutations and evolve into lasting socio-political phenomena.
Through our multivalent, intuitive approach to research and living, we often find ourselves in a convergence and entanglement with like-minded collaborators, histories, and geographies.The regional contexts of Pejvak’s collaborative efforts are diverse, with recent collaborations centered on the countries that fall within the landscapes that have been historically contested by the Russian and Persian Empires, drawing on both of our shared cultural and linguistic knowledge bases to generate critical interventions.
How did you come up with the idea of a Passage? What generated your interest in such a specific area of Southern Armenia?
We came to work in Armenia almost as a matter of happenstance. We had this idea to work on a narrative drama film shot across an international border situated in a valley with a river that was defining a border. Our discussions led us to the borders of Northern Iran and as a matter of convenience with permits and access we decided to narrow our search to Southern Armenia in Syunik Marz. We travelled there that summer and stayed in Agarak, the town with the only border crossing into Iran. We stayed in a homestay which was as close to the border as we could get and over the course of a week we developed a soulful connection with our host, Vahe. A former border guard, he shared many stories with us , laying bare the realities of a region that has suffered greatly from the war with Azerbaijan and the subsequent blockade that cut the region off for years from the rest of Armenia. Through conversations with Vahe and other locals we came to see Agarak as a point of convergence for national, regional, and global interest, acting as a testing ground for new logistical networks and power projections. This confirmed our understanding that places framed as marginal frontiers are oftentimes inhabited by the most vital and vulnerable spaces of political, social, and ecological transformation.
There is a huge amount of research behind the film. In your text for the magazine Funambulist, you combine the direct speech of witnesses speaking about the conflict in Southern Armenia with lots of historical information. Where did you start and how did your research develop?
The research for the film unfolded similar to our other works: in a combination of intuitive practice, traveling, and academic research. In response to your previous question, we outlined how we came to Agarak but the research really emerged from an ethical injunction. In our long conversations with Vahe he asked us, “is there not something the camera can do, that the gun cannot?”, in seeking resolution from the quagmire of a political and economic stalemate. Faced with this moral imperative, we set out to build a broader picture of Agarak and the region. When we returned to Armenia the following year, we stumbled upon the first of a series of ruptures, primarily the Velvet Revolution, finding ourselves in living history. This came to inform how we later wrote about the film and project for Funambulist, incorporating snatches of recollections, poetic inhabitations, and conversations both from the 2017 in Agarak and then in 2018 in Yerevan. Later that year we came back to Agarak and celebrated the revolution with Vahe and our friends, dancing on cars and chanting the uprising’s slogans adjacent to the Iranian border in hope of inspiring similar movements. Vahe himself had been part of a contingent of former border guards who blockaded the border as part of civil disobedience actions leading up to the ousting of Serzh Sargsyan. In retrospect, the revolution didn’t live up to many people’s expectations and has in some ways fed into the crisis that evolved into the war but that is for more informed people to comment on.
How did you choose the locations for the film? They are very diverse: an abandoned airport, a church, a Soviet mine.
The locations were arrived at through our research and site visits, each one bearing witness to the material, social, economic, and ecological transformations visited upon Agarak and its environs. Each location holds within it both its present ruinousness and its precarious, and at times, speculative future. For instance, the church, built in the 16th century, is the final remnant of the evacuated village of Agarak, whose ruins were slowly consumed by the ever-expanding copper-molybdenum mine. The church managed to survive the Soviet-era resettlement campaign but was essentially abandoned to the slow violence of the mine, a violence wrought in ecological dimensions, downwind and downstream, contaminating soil, air and water, and toxifying the surrounding communities. The town, like the church itself, hangs on the precipice; awaiting political resolutions, foreign capital, and secessions to seemingly unending hostilities on the nearby border with Nakhchivan/Nakhichevan.
The film was made in 2019. Since then the situation in Southern Armenia has taken on a completely different form — the war has begun. How has your attitude towards the project changed and what has changed in it?
Watching the conflict from afar, we were both surprised by how quickly the discontinuance of hostilities following the cease fire developed into a negotiation for the reopening of Southern Armenian Aras River-corridor that has been in a state of limbo for close to three decades. In a way, the film projected this outcome vis-a-vis a further militarization of the region coupled with a free movement of goods and capital along a geographically determined and historically constituted point of transit through the Southern Caucasus. The closing scenes of the film play this out when a spectre emerges and announces the Free Economic Zone (FEZ), followed by a parade of the Young Patriots in fatigues parading symbols from the Armenian Government’s white-paper for the FEZ. The film catalogues changes that seem enigmatic to the observer in Moscow or even Yerevan but are wholly apparent to those living in Meghri. Fundamentally the drawn out “waiting” being enacted by the characters of the film and by the region as a whole, demanded a rupture to the economic and political order, to restate the limits and priorities of revanchist policies. While we are glad to see the hostilities come to an end, we are concerned with the way the trade corridor will materialize (if it does), and how that will shift the slow violence of perpetual “waiting” to something more compressed and totalizing.
On a visual level, A Passage is a very poetic piece — there are many discontinuities, unspoken ideas, and beauty in it. But at the same time thematically, it speaks about the hardest geopolitical drama and strives to be critical. How do these two aspirations coexist in your work?
In our practice we often give equal weight to gossip and unreliable narrators (ourselves included) as we do to historically agreed upon fictions. Poetics is one of the only means of giving shape to these ambiguities, allowing for multiplicity.
What are you working on now?
For the past year, we have been in residence at the Jan Van Eyck Academie, where we produced a new body of work that engages with the narratives of water scarcity and infrastructural planning in arid regions of Central Asia. In our research, we approach this subject as an interconnected and planetary phenomenon that connects multiple threads to geographies in ancient Persia, the Caucasus, the Mongolian steppe, and the American Great Plains. The project takes various forms, including large-scale installations, artist publications, artefactual wall works, and a melismatic sound piece. The first iteration of this project will be presented in our upcoming solo exhibition at Z33 (Hasselt) which opens to the public on June 12th.
We are also currently research fellows at M HKA and Van Abbemusuem developing a project related to two future exhibitions: Eurasia — A Landscape of Mutability (M HKA, October 2021) and Rewinding Internationalism: The 1990s and Today (November 2022).
This publication is organised by the Tashkent-Tbilisi project. We would like to thank The Prince Claus Fund for supporting the project.