Slavs and Tatars began as a book club, and in 2006 they reorganized as an art collective. Presently, their practice and research is devoted to an area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China known as Eurasia. Their practice spans across multiple media, disciplines and a broad spectrum of cultural registers, both high and low, and it consists primarily of three activities: exhibitions, books and lecture-performances. I started this conversation with Slavs and Tatars to discover more about their multi-disciplinary practice, as well as to understand better the challenges they are facing in dealing with subjects and histories that face the risk of being consumed and exoticized by a Western culture.
You started off as a book club and only eventually arrived at this current formula of being artists. How did your individual interests merge and how do they echo in this common constructed identity?
Collaboration requires an embrace of alterity to achieve a third identity, beyond the subjectivity of Slavs and Tatars‘ two founding members.
What were some of the readings for the book club and what motivated you to start it in the first place?
One of the early books was Alexander Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts, considered by Isaiah Berlin to be one of the most important memoirs. History hasn’t been kind to Alexander Herzen. He has been doubly condemned. Force-fed to every Russian school child during Communism, Herzen suffers from an unjustified, if understandable, resistance to his work within his home country. Outside Russia, the situation is not much better: he has been almost entirely eclipsed by his contemporary–Marx–whose categorical and highly structural thought has been more actionable than Herzen’s preference for subtlety, sophistication, and contradiction. If you have an MBA, Marx is your man. PhD holders, turn to Herzen .
What was the most interesting – perhaps surprising- thing that you have discovered in your research so far, that you keep coming back to?
To what degree our educational institutions–from Harvard to Heidelberg–toe a similar, enlightenment line of thought: where religiosity is approached with gloves, and thought and body are considered separately.
You always collaborate with a range of professionals to produce your works; from designers to artisans, and you acknowledge their participation as an essential element in your practice. I even remember specifically that you said, in one of your previous interviews, that you often work with craftsmen rather than art technicians. Why is craft important in your practice?
The crafts allow for a decoupling of innovation from individuality. They offer a refreshing antidote to the collective impulse and to the recent decades’ increasing obsession with the individual. When push comes to shove, unlike the arts, crafts tend to opt for repetition over difference: an apprentice calligrapher, for example, must spend some ten years copying his or her mentor before daring to allow a flourish of their own. In fact, the repetition – be it the mantra of a zikr or the stitching of a needlework – revolves around a certain genealogical transparency so engrossing it veers on transubstantiation; one must not just reveal one’s sources but become them. A correlating dynamic – between the collective and the individual – in the crafts takes place between mentor and apprentice, with the latter emphasizing tradition over innovation.
Instead of profaning originality by peddling it at every moment – from the conception of the work to its distribution – the radicalism of what constitutes true innovation is sacralised, soothed by the retelling and reiteration of a certain practice over and over again. When we work with craftsmen or women, we are obliged to relinquish control: to inscribe oneself in the tradition of the trade. We do not wish to nor can we dictate the terms of its realization.
The ten banners, part of the cycle of work “Friendship of Nations”, for which you commissioned seamstresses from Poland, comes to mind here. But the real question is: what are the politics that come into play for you when hiring these artisans? How do you “translate” something of ethnic origins in the context of the globalized art world?
To translate requires a certain respect towards the original, be it a text or a practice. It also requires, however, a respect from the source. To achieve this, one must disrespect the source. In the specific case of Friendship of Nations: Polish Shi’ite Showbiz, we decided to tell the story of contemporary Iran through the lens of Poland during Solidarność : that is, what can Iran, in its approach to political Islam, learn from Poland in its struggle with communism?
Starting from the abundant historical and theoretical research that goes into your practice, to the fabrication and presentation of the pieces, your working process is extremely editorial, or even curatorial one might say. Your exhibitions are composed of carefully arranged and selected objects, that often offer only a glimpse of this elaborate process. How important is it to offer the viewers access to your methodology, and what is the most successful way to do so?
We think the term editorial is more appropriate than curatorial insofar as ideas originate from the book. The proliferation of media that results from the research stems from a generosity vis-à-vis ourselves and the public: we are multiple and different people prefer different platforms. Some prefer to read, others prefer the spatial experience of sculpture, or the intimacy of performativity.
There are three axes to our work: if the lecture-performances and publications articulate a certain position then perhaps the exhibitions–the sculptures, installations, audio pieces, etc–disarticulate that very idea. This does not mean to stay silent: the art works are the thread that undoes the sweater; they muddy the trace in the water left by the publications and lecture-performances.
When Juan Gaitán invited us to participate in the 8th Berlin Biennale in 2014, we thought that given our interest in narrative and research, the next logical step for building upon our publications and lecture-performances would be to do a film or video. Juan pushed back. He said, I wouldn’t do a film if I were you, because the strength of your work right now is that people don’t know what to do with it. They don’t know whether it’s true or fictive, sacred or profane, whether they should sit on it or view it from afar. So it’s important that we maintain this aspect of not knowing. And it’s not just others not knowing. We ourselves don’t know with certain pieces.
Given the specific interest that you have in “filling in” an imaginary cultural and social gap between the East and the West, I’m curious to know if you have a specific public in mind that you’re addressing, when conducting your research? In other words, in what cases does your work become politically and socially site-specific?
When dealing with subject matter like ours–be it medieval advice literature, Turkic language politics, syncretic Islam–we are very aware of the need to make immediate what might otherwise seem remote or obscure. Suffice it to say we have a big tent definition of a public; we prioritize a general public. There’s a great quote by Calvin Tomkins in a 90s profile of the artist Siah Armajani who was reprinted on the occasion of his solo show at Parasol Unit. It distinguished between accessibility and availability: that we have to redeem this idea of populism. Populism doesn’t mean the lowest common denominator, it actually means making the highest achievements available to the greatest number of people. So things are available, but only accessible according to how much effort you put into something. We do not conceive work with a professional audience in mind. Also, we’ve consistently worked to problematize the assumed hegemony of English as a lingua franca. We’ve created art works that deal with language or had our writing translated into the following languages: Russian, Polish, Persian, French, German, Turkish, Arabic, Scots Gaelic, Spanish, Mandarin, and Greek.
You often emphasize that you prefer a non-pedagogical approach in delivering such information. However, the lecture-performances that you give, and that often accompany your exhibitions, seem to be a pedagogical device in delivering such dense and elaborate information.
We resist a pedagogical reading of the work because it assumes a fixed position of knowledge, a hierarchy or, at a minimum, a certain expertise. The very fact that our designated geographical remit covers more than 1/6th of the earth’s land mass, some 300+ ethnicities, 150+ distinct languages etc. speaks somewhat to the absurdity of a pedagogical model in the given circumstances. In fact, it’s the opposite: we devote ourselves to those ideas, belief systems, and individuals that we do not know or understand. There’s a commitment to embracing our antithesis, to borrow the title of one of our lecture-performances.
You coined the term “metaphysical splits” , as the ability to connect cultural concepts, historical and popular movements that don’t seem to fit together at first glance. Can you unpack this a bit more in relation to the idea of “Antimodernism” that you’ve taken at the heart of your practice?
The metaphysical splits–bringing together in one idea, one voice, one register two seemingly incommensurate or antithetical ideas, voices or registers–speaks to our commitment to holism, against the enlightenment tendency to split thought and body. We call ourselves antimodern not because we are against modernity, but rather because we do not ascribe to the definition of modernity shared by Marx, Weber and Durkhim as a break with the past whereby science replaces religion and industry replaces tradition. However you want to call this new man – homo liberalus ? – it’s time to place him alongside his counterpart homo sovieticus in the history books. Our understanding of the antimodern is borrowed from Antoine Compagnon’s book of the same name Les Antimodernes in which he describes the true modernists as being counter revolutionaries, or those individuals who had a conflictual rapport with the passing of the pre-modern age. Compagnon traces the antimodern thru 19th century French literary figures such as Peguy, Baudelaire, Chateaubriand but also all the way to Barthes.
And yet, you made Molla Nasreddin, the fictional character of a Sufi wise man, your Antimodern mascot for often being depicted riding his donkey backwards, but also for his famous tongue-in-cheek and comical anecdotes. That makes for an interesting metaphor. In The Logic of Sense, Deleuze has this beautiful quote saying that “humor is the art of the surface, which is opposed to the old irony, the art of depths and nights.” Both humor and sarcasm have an amazing power to convey progressive ideas, as well as serious critiques. Can you talk more about the use of humor versus the use of sarcasm in your work? When does it become necessary for them to trade spots in your practice?
We believe in the generosity of certain types of humor: its ability to be inclusive and not exclusive, often at the expense of oneself but without the finger-pointing, facile type that alienates. The only instances of sarcasm in our work that come to mind are appropriations, such as one of our Friendship of Nations banners that reads “Help the Militia, Beat Yourself Up,” borrowed from the Polish Solidarnosc group Orange Alternative.
So, can one translate humor on a global scale?
If a version of Molla Nasreddin could be found everywhere from Croatia to China, down to the Sudan, then it certainly gives us hope.
The art world has a tendency to flatten out artistic practices in favor of a faster, more commercial- oriented delivery. Many times this flattening ends up feeding into a singular narrative, in which practices dealing with non-Western concerns or subjects, serve as exoticisms. Thus, this exoticism perpetuates the myth of “the other”. Given the nature of your practice, do you have a strategy in resisting this narrative, or do you prefer embracing this risk, acknowledging that this aspect might be beneficial for delivering a message in a much more extensive way?
We don’t perceive the world as either-or but rather and-and. Ideally, the work embraces a density or complexity that allows for different levels of unraveling. A work like Kitab Kebab can function according to a more consumerist, transactional manner but also resist that very logic. Coming back to the idea of the metaphysical splits, the work should be able to swing both ways, to allow for a spectrum of positions that bring together the irreconcilable.
As for exoticism, as Hamid Dabashi writes, “every home has its abroad.”
 “Few things are more attractive than a person who is of his time, who lives thoroughly his epoch, who is commensurate with it. It is one thing to live such a life, and a rarer thing still to document it. Herzen did both and his My Past and Th oughts , an 8-volume autobiography, has become a quiet benchmark of the art of recollection.The differing scale of tragedy–whether his son’ s premature death or the failure of the 1848 revolutions–is not approached with pincers or shelved but explored intimately, with a sense of urgency in his very language. There are few sound bytes but much to chew on. While American universities still struggle to diff erentiate between Marxist, Marxian and Marxesque, we turn to Herzen’ s humanism and swim in its complexity, hoping one day we can all be Herzian.” Slavs and Tatars, from “A Th irteenth Month Against Time”. self-published. 2008.
 Solidarity, Polish Solidarność, officially Independent Self-Governing Trade Union “Solidarity” or Polish Niezależny Samorza̡d Związków Zawodowych “Solidarność”, Polish trade union that in the early 1980s became the first independent labour union in a country belonging to the Soviet bloc. Solidarity was founded in September 1980, was forcibly suppressed by the Polish government in December 1981, and reemerged in 1989 to become the first opposition movement to participate in free elections in a Soviet-bloc nation.