</Non-Artists Wouldn't See The Beauty In This Building, They'd See A Lot Of Problems>
author: Katya Ceppel
photos: Abastan
ODRA’s Katya Ceppel has talked to members of Abastan, a self-organized community in the mountains of Armenia. All united by a common ghost called the post-Soviet, some of them were forced to change their residence, some have changed it at will, but together they have launched construction of a new cultural center on the site of an abandoned factory, creating a space about hope, contemporary art, unity and trust.

Abastan prefers not to call itself an art residency after stories of disappointment from participants: they openly declare that it is not only a residency with art laboratories and research of the local cultural code, but also a construction site. However, after the building would be completed, the Abastan team has big plans for cultural integration into the local community, along with the creation of their own.

Abastan Factory, 2022

Katya: Okay guys, tell me about your background, how have all of you joined Abastan? What are your roles? And what is Abastan for each one of you?

Polina, co-founder of Abastan, came up with the idea of the factory restoration

Polina: Let me tell you the background. This project was born quite spontaneously in March 2022, when suddenly there were quite a lot of people in Armenia who, probably, did not expect such a turn in their lives. Some people managed to find a job quickly, some of them did not. And people who work in the fields of culture, artists and others in the broadest sense, find it much more difficult to settle down because, most likely, they have fewer financial resources. Moreover, their activities are tied to a specific place, language, and community, and it is not so easy to start functioning in a completely different environment.

I had been living in Armenia for quite a long time by then. I am a historian, and have been working on Medieval Armenia for a long time, so I know Armenia well, I have some connections and resources and can do something to help these people.

I personally knew one man who bought a factory building some time ago and dreamed of creating a cultural project there, but didn't know what kind of project. Having said that, we had been discussing this topic a couple of years before, and then I remembered about this building, and then texted him [the man who bought a factory] and said: “Let's try to turn this building into a cultural space and a place where artists could live.” Naturally, like everyone else these days, life was busy and much was done on impulse and emotion, so this project was born in a rush out of a desire to help. Perhaps, underestimating the risks and challenges.

Looking at it after a while, we see that we rushed into this project, without thinking through the huge number of difficulties we would face. But I want to say that this euphoria helped, because if we had sat down and thought rationally, we would still be sitting and thinking and arguing and creating concepts and everything would be great, but on paper, and there would be no Abastan. So, on the one hand this rush created a lot of headaches, but on the other hand, it helped. And now, when we're thinking about the developing Abastan further, we already have some real experience.

Sophia, participant of the first art residence, then stayed with the collective, developing the strategy of Abastan

Sophia: I found out about Abastan from a link in telegram, that there was some kind of art residence, but it didn’t exist yet, and it seemed that there were plans to make a residence. It was like, well, guys, we have an abandoned building in Armenia, and we will feed you. I thought, well, fine, we'd take it! I filled out a questionnaire and had an interview, then I was selected. Then I’d come, I saw and made sure that there really was an abandoned building, which was being cleaned up by the guys who were there before me. I remember our first night, it was very nice: folding beds, cool white bedding, shabby walls, but it was cool. Furnished as much as possible, floors and so on. It is possible to live there. I lived there for two months.

I had come and we started working hard. Initially the concept was that we were going there as volunteers and resident artists. But I understood from the very beginning that if it was an abandoned building, we would be working at some point and doing our art stuff at other times. That's basically how it worked out. In the initial stages we worked for four hours a day – cleaning the floor, making a window, rearranging the glass, etc. Once we joined with Max, and made all sorts of wooden things, like beds, shelves, extension cord holders together.

It's interesting that completely different people came together. And that's the main strength. We all have taught each other something. Some of us were passionate about art, some were passionate about carpentry. We cooperated and did a lot of things for the benefit of the building and the project and there was no thought that we were doing it for nothing. Sure, there were breakdowns and tears and pain – it always happens, especially when you live in a community. There were about 30 of us at one point.

Maxim, engaged in reconstruction and construction

Maxim: There were even two weeks when there were 50 of us. 25 belonged to Abastan and had some kind of relationship with the art residence, and 25 were guests who were just hanging out.

I want to add that we try not to use the term ‘art residence’, and we prefer to call ourselves a self-organized community. Because art residence imposes on us some obligations and notions that we do not quite conform to. People imagine one thing, but in fact they see something else when they come here.
Regina, a member of the first residence, now overseeing the conceptual development of Abastan

Regina: I joined Abastan in the middle of the summer, and at that point the guys were already making great progress with the restoration of the factory. And also in August, the animation shop joined us and decided to hold a silence lab at Abastan. We had an interesting creative week dedicated to this lab and ended up doing an exhibition.

Also during the summer, an urban studies group worked at the Abastan base to do research on the area we live, the city of Tumanyan, the locals, we arranged many interviews, and it's all in processing now. We want to continue to work with the space and the local culture. So on the one hand we have art projects, on the other hand we have research and historical projects.
Katya: It turns out that all of you are not from Armenia, some of you have just come, some have been here for quite a long time. How do you perceive the local cultural code? How do you interact with it? Do you think it could change because so many new people are arriving? How does local culture respond to the new?

Polina: This is a very important question. Let me start by saying that initially, when we first started creating this space, it was a project of another organization called Tumanyan Development Organization. It is a foundation that was established a few years ago with the aim of creating a new life, cultural and social, in this small town of Tumanyan.

Tumanyan represents a quite typical post-Soviet provincial settlement in Armenia. It was not an ancient city, a place without a deep urban history. It suddenly grew due to an industrial boom in the 1950s. The Soviet modernist project involved two factories: a textile factory and a brick factory, and suddenly there was a huge influx of people, schools, a palace of culture was built and planned architecture was implemented. There was a boom. There were no jobs in the post-Soviet period and people started leaving for Yerevan, Moscow or somewhere else.Mostly those who didn't have a chance to leave stayed. But this is not a village, you can't do much farming here. People are engaged in dacha farming.

A few years ago, a new project came about to revitalize and redefine life in this town. Because it's a beautiful place! How could life come back here? How could jobs be created? How can one attract tourists? And Abastan and our participants who came here fit seamlessly into this big picture of revitalization. Of course, words like "revival" carry a lot of responsibility. Even understanding these words, what it will be, what is being discussed right now, at the stage of conversation and experimentation. But we hope to collaborate with other people who are doing projects here. We plan to work with the local community to create new opportunities. So when we think of Abastan, we think of it not as some colony/ghetto behind a fence, but as a project that will be a part of other local initiatives.

As far as the local cultural code is concerned. How it changes and what Abastan has to do with it. What is Abastan? We come back to this question every month, and every month our understanding changes a little bit. And now it's a part of the concept. At first we tried to fit Abastan into a ready conceptual framework, we called it an art residence, then we realized that this creates disappointment and false expectations. And we realized that it would be more correct if there was no definition for the moment. We call it both a cultural space and a self organizing community and a creative "I don't know what," and let us keep rethinking that.

Talking about how we see this place now. The space itself is very important to us. There are several levels. There is a space of the factory itself, in which the project exists. This is both the home of the project and the inspirer, the filler of the project. There's also the city of Tumanyan itself, which we're trying to study and develop in dialogue with. Beyond that, of course, there is also the space, the landscape that surrounds us. Tumanyan is located in the mountains, it has amazing nature, amazing light and sound phenomena. We are an hour's walk from the Medieval Monastery and several others can be reached on foot. So interacting with this cultural space is also very important for us, even if we are not defining it in any way yet.

Maxim: I want to add one more understanding of a place. Almost the most important is the virtual space, or how people interact. The microclimate and the relationships that take place between people. Of course, we wouldn't build those relationships anywhere else in any other way, but nevertheless now there is a sense that we can all conditionally move to another place on the globe and keep this vibe that we have going on here.

Polina: And I'll add a little metaphor. The word "Abastan" is the Western Armenian pronunciation of an ancient word that means shelter. It has a stanza at the end that is characteristic of the Armenian language and other languages (Iranian), which for us is more associated with the names of states, so many people associate "Abastan" with a small country. And it seems to me to be an appropriate metaphor for a country, a space that exists outside of physical space unconditionally. So when we think about how it exists, we resort to metaphors of citizenship and think about ourselves as citizens of Abastan, because you can leave the country without losing your citizenship, and many of us are not physically in Abastan right now, but we feel the sense of belonging.

Katya: How many people are on your team now? Is it growing all the time?

Regina: We have several groups in Abastan. There are about 25 people in total, if I’m not mistaken.

Maxim: 37 in the chat.

Regina: Naturally all 25 people cannot do everything at once, we try to distribute duties, but smoothly and at will, when a person feels an opportunity to do something physically, for example, they turn to Max. If there is a desire to help with grants or SMM you go to another group. There's a strategy group. I came to visit Abastan for three days, and stayed for another three months. So it's all a living organism and people periodically try out different roles.

Katya: How important is the political context to you? Is that one of the starting points for why Abastan has emerged? Or on the contrary, are you trying to move away from it?

Maxim: In a nutshell. Everyone is here because of the political aspect, but my personal feeling and my desire is to move away from the political context in my life. Here I was able to engage with my life and Abastan's life and recover mentally. I would like to express myself more or to do something more, but I understand that specifically in my situation I cannot do more or I do not even feel such a request in myself. But at the same time there is not a single person here without a point of view on this topic.

Regina: I would add that we also have artistic projects of rethinking. There is no manifesto yet, but we are rethinking critical aspects in the art workshops.

Sofia: We're worried about that. And so we had another opencall, for people who are leaving Russia.

Sasha, an artist

Sasha: I've been in residence since June. I also came first to build, and understood that the beginning of the project is not creativity in a pure way, rather in terms of organization. How do I see the project and the people now? I see them as artists. Because non-artists wouldn't see the beauty in this building, they'd see a lot of problems. Now it's like all of our creative statements and thoughts are directed to action.

The last open call happened quickly [in autumn 2022, just after mobilization started – ed.], with resources that could have been transferred to painting, printmaking, and performance art, but now we act with action, we express ourselves more with action than with the medium of art. There's one more thing in particular. Polina has managed to bring completely different people together here, but I have a feeling that we are learning to hear each other here. We all have very different experiences, ages, and we are learning to exist together, to eat together, to work together, and for me this is a creative process, so that we don't quarrel, don't forget what we are doing all this for. Putting more meaning into it. We're going back in history, we're hand-carving the experience of the Soviet Union, and we're now working and talking with those people who lived through it. And there's so much work right now that we just don't have time to sit down to start painting, for example. There are so many other things to do.