Redeeming dynamics

Conversation with Slavs and Tatars


Slavs and Tatars is an art collective devoted to an area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China known as Eurasia. The artists have exhibited in major international institutions amongst which the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Vienna Secession, Tate Modern in London, and Kunsthalle Zurich. Slavs and Tatars have published more than half a dozen books, including a translation of the satirical Azeri weekly Molla Nasreddin (currently in its second edition with I.B. Tauris). On the occasion of a recent mid-career survey, a monograph was published on their work by König Books. In 2018, the artists have solo exhibitions at the Westfälischer Kunstverein, in Münster; Albertinum in Dresden; ar/ge kunst, Bolzano; and Kunstverein Hannover.

R. A. M.: The name Slavs and Tatars reminds me more to a pop-band. To what extent can we call it a performative entity?

S. a. T.: It’s more accurate to consider Slavs and Tatars not as a name full stop, but rather as a brief. Often names are given to collectives or groups for what they represent. For us, Slavs and Tatars is a call to study: not necessarily that which we know, or that which we are, but rather that which is outside ourselves.

R. A. M.: You say that you prefer anonymity – that Slavs and Tatars refer more to the works, not the people behind the name. Still, it is public that the people behind it are Payam Sharifi and Kasia Korczak, and your works are (among others) exhibited in highly represented exhibition spaces of the art world.

S. a. T.: We do not hide our identities, we do not scramble our voices during lecture performances: that would be a performative and rather dramatic gesture. We simply do not believe in indulging a very human instinct towards the personal. When we see something we like, we want to know where s/he is from, where s/he studied etc. The very fact that we seem not to have a choice, in our public imagination, in our languages, to describe any degree of existence between the otherwise extreme ends of the spectrum – anonymity and exposure – seems to be a rather poor way of being.

R. A. M.: You founded Slavs and Tatars in 2006, but you worked together before that, too. With your 10th anniversary and a retrospective exhibition series in 2016 you stepped into a new phase again. Could you summarize these stages of your activity and the line that they draw?

S. a. T.: To date our works can be arranged under roughly 7 cycles, which treat subjects as varied as alphabet politics, mirrors for princes (fürstenspiegel), German orientalism, or the relationship between Iran and Poland from the 17th to the 21st centuries.

We founded Slavs and Tatars in 2006, two years after the ten new member states of Eastern Europe joined the EU, as a reading group. For the first 3-4 years, our activity was almost exclusively print-based and two-dimensional and, most importantly, required reading. However, as our work has grown to include other media – exhibitions, installations, audio-work, lecture-performances – the book’s position has become more fragile within this ecosystem, ostensibly eclipsed by other more sensorial, seductive platforms. When given a chance not to read, audiences will almost always go for this option. Similarly, despite growing interest and commissions on their behalf, institutions tend to prioritize other media, rarely the publication or the collective act of reading required of its mise-en-scene.

R. A. M.: Can you tell me more about the Eurasia region? When and why you started to take it as your field of research?

S. a. T.: The region between the former Berlin Wall and Great Wall of China is one which often falls through the cracks: it is significantly Muslim but not the Middle East, largely Russian speaking but very distinct from Russia and largely in Asia but, with an exception of Xinjiang, not historically under Chinese rule. So it’s an in-between region thru and thru. We are drawn to edges of empires, the limits of ideologies and margins of belief systems: this is often where syncretism takes place, where the heterogeneous thrives, not at the too-often rotten core.

And while the region might seem remote to some, this is of course a relatively recent phenomenon and the exception not the rule. Whether it’s the Golden Age of Islam, or the Silk route or the Great Game between the English and the Russians in the 19th century, Central Asia was very much at center-stage.

R. A. M.: The title of the project that was present in the 2nd OFF Biennale BudapestSociety of Rascals is drawn from a Vilnius based, 19th century literary society. Could you tell more about the activities of them and how did you start building a complex project based on the community?

S. a. T.: We learned about Towarszystwo Szubrawców (Society of Rascals) through our research into Slavic Orientalisms: how the East viewed the East. In particular, via a 19th century literary editor and figure named Josef Senkowski who was a Pole working for the Russian Empire who was equally reviled by both Russians and Poles. The Vilnius-based society attacked their compatriot Mickiewicz and his Romanticist cohorts as simplistic sentimental and victim-based. The Society of Rascals believed in a more cosmopolitan, pluralist notion of identity: one is always several, be it Lithuanian, Polish, Jewish and Russian at the same time. In the climate of the current Polish government’s revanchist and reductivist nationalist politics, one could draw a straight line from Mickiewicz to the right-wing understanding of Polish identity.

R. A. M.: The circle of research material and work that are part of Society of Rascals resonate between Poland and Lithuania. What are the key aspects when you start to research a specific field within the region of Eurasia?

S. a. T.: We have three main activities: exhibitions, lecture-performances and publications. If the lectures and books articulate a series of ideas then it becomes incumbent on the exhibitions to disarticulate those very ideas. But to disarticulate does not mean to remain silent but rather to scramble them, or like the loose thread which undoes the sweater as you pull it.

R. A. M.: Your lecture-performances, textual and visual works sometimes re-appear as part of complex future projects too. The Khhhhhhh publication was part of the Society of Rascals in your exhibition in Budapest. It is the same with the The Tranny Tease. Could you write about this compilation method?

S. a. T.: The interest in fermentation is not purely comestible and participatory: we also look to yoghurt and bacteria as a way of mapping the constellation of our work. There’s the idea of totum-simul in the making of yoghurt, the whole is in the parts: to make yoghurt, one cultivates a batch of existing yoghurt bacteria. To take one example, our interest in the early 20th century satirical magazine Molla Nasreddin started as a page within our first book, Kidnapping Mountains, then expanded into a full fledged book of translations, Molla Nasreddin: the magazine that would’ve, could’ve, should’ve before becoming a blinking sculpture Madame Mmmorphologie. Similarly, the research into Society of Rascals was conducted in parallel to research on an anti-rabbinical sect of Judaism called Karaism, whose adherents traveled from Crimea to Poland and Lithuania in the 14th to 16th centuries. The Karaites cultivated a particular form of cucumber, renowned for its high sugar content, called Ogórek Trocki or the Trakai Cucumber, named after the village in present-day Lithuania.

R. A. M.: The topics that you are researching are quite broad both historically and geographically. What are your methods of research? Do you have a network of collaborators in the region?

S. a. T.: Each cycle consist of roughly 2-3 years of scholarly research. Due to its 20th century history, Berlin is particularly well-suited for such transregional research on Eurasia, combining in one city, often under one roof or institution the resources one would find either in Moscow or the west (Paris, London, Boston, etc). Following the scholarly research, we travel to the region concerned, for field research, where we try to approach the material more affectively. For example, for our Mirrors for Princes, we spent time in Xinjiang, China home to the Uighurs, a Turkic peoples where a foundational text of Turkic literature, a fürstenspiegel, was composed. The most difficult stage is the translation of this research into an artistic practice. What do we bring to the discussion that hasn’t already been addressed by academics, activists, NGOs, etc?

R. A. M.: The heart of the works of Slavs and Tatars are still texts. The media of lecture-performances seems to function also as a bridge between visual and textual works. How do you feel about the dominance of visuality and how do you maintain the balance between the different parts?

S. a. T.: Yes, you could say we are in this sense Abrahamic: we believe in returning to the Word, the Logos. We’ve published 8 books over the past decade and created spaces, sculptures, and installations to engage with them: the book is central to our practice as is the act of collective reading; that is, reading as a social practice and as a multiple subjectivity. Perhaps it stems from our beginnings as a reading group. In any case, the likelihood of mis-translation and the space it opens up of course increases exponentially with the amount of people reading a work in tandem. For most of its history, the book has been a collective text and the act of reading a group activity and not an individual, solitary practice. We’re interested in redeeming this dynamic.

R. A. M.: Could you tell me about the research / project that you are currently working on?

S. a. T.: We are currently preparing a new body of work for an exhibition at the Westfälischer Kunstverein in Münster revisiting the work of Johann Georg Hamann, the enfant-terrible of Counter-Enlightenment thinking. Hamann attacked the excessive emphasis on reason and the separation of body and mind via an unlikely combination of Lutheran theology and highly sexualized, vulgar language, a rather peculiar approach for an 18th century obsessed with good manners. Instead of cogito ergo sum, Hamann suggests sum ergo cogito, thereby allowing for a subjectivity that is not exclusively analytical. We see in his work an early critique of modernity and the legacy of excessive rational thinking: one can draw a line from Descartes to Agro-business and anthropocentric exploitation of the environment.