Disobedient Art ? Graffiti and Ancient Imagery in an Armenian Landscape
What is the difference between art and graffiti ? Is the former an acceptable facet of the established creative community ? While the latter seen more – and problematically – perhaps as an act of antisocial behaviour ; a disobedient art1i? The French philosopher Gaston Bachelardii once commented that to disobey in order to take action is the by-word of all creative spirits. Perhaps this is how we might approach an understanding of mark making, not as some kind of label of the art establishment, but rather a social and cultural creative expression of identities and place.
In 2006, I visited the site of Ukhtasar (Armenia) on a small-scale trip that aimed to look at an archaeological site rich in prehistoric rock art. Armenia, sometimes referred to as part of the Eastern Europe/Newly Independent States (NIS Republics), is a culturally rich and politically complex country. Bordering Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran and Georgia, its archaeological record reflects its diverse cultural and social contacts with European, Middle Eastern, and Asian influences, while also acting as an independent and unique region itself. The site of Ukhtasar is located within the prominent mountain range of Syunik in south-eastern Armenia. Situated at c.3,300 meters above sea level within an extinct volcano, Ukhtasar is inaccessible for much of the year, with accessibility only possible in the summer months.
When we began to engage with and think about how we might record the prehistoric rock art, I became more aware of the contemporary rock carvings that also appear on the site. This was considered by the other participants to be ‘graffiti‘, mostly relating to c.1970s conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In fact, as I understand it (the situation is constantly in flux), the site of Ukhtasar is situated at a contested border that marks a position between Armenia and unnamed territory (this perspective varies according to ethnicity and political leaning). These contemporary carvings comprise text that is often accompanied by animal and abstract imagery. The contemporary carvings are located alongside the earlier prehistoric images, as well as on rock surfaces without prehistoric imagery. On first viewing, these prehistoric and contemporary images appear to collide and a majority of the participants in the group commented on how the contemporary ‘graffiti‘ ‘interfered‘ with the prehistoric art and was not worthy of study. I was not in agreement, as I became more attuned to the ‘graffiti‘, I started to see how it interacted with the prehistoric rock art. To me there seemed to be an interplay of image-making taking place between the contemporary and prehistoric images.
By combining studies on the production of contemporary graffiti in urban landscapes (a process of tagging, piecing, symbolic exchange) with prehistoric rock art and graffiti located in a volcanic crater in Armenia, I conducted research that aimed to explore whether there might be any discernible cross- temporal pattern or mark making and, if so, to consider if it is possible to gain an understanding of the wider social and cultural construction of the landscape at Ukhtasar. I also wanted to explore the lexical identifiers we use when it comes to describing and categorizing art and graffiti. Ukhtasar is a place of varied and diverse social practices; its imagery is socially formed, not just a collection of dispassionate visual depictions. This led me to question what an authentic perspective in the interpretation of these multi-vocal, multi-temporal images might be. If they do interact, what are the reasons and motivations behind their social and cultural production? These questions are an evocative proposition, an exploration of my thinking where edges remain open to questions. My standpoint, to take a closer look at the interplay of art/graffiti at Ukhtasar, made it possible to explore this theme of ‘disobedience’ in a variety of lateral and provocative ways. The research relates to the site but also to a wider consideration of the role of art and graffiti in the construction
of self and society. This is the value of looking at this ancient and historical mark making through a lens of ‘disobedience’ . It is often more about the questions we ask than the answers we seek. iii
Fay Stevens http://cargocollective.com/faystevens
i Disobedient Art’ Exhibition, live performance art and symposia curated by Fay Stevens 2015, Fringe Arts Bath https://disobedientart.wordpress.com ii Gaston Bachelard. Fragments of a Poetics of Fire. 1997. Dallas Inst Humanities & Culture iii An extended article on this topic is published here: Stevens, F. 2012. Visual collision? Prehistoric rock art and graffiti in an Armenian landscape . In. A. Stefanou and A. Simindariki-Grimshaw (eds.) From Archaeology to Archaeologies: The ‘Other’ Past. Oxford: BAR International Series, 93-102