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Blind Dates Project

Artists and non-artists tackle what remains of the legacy and rupture of the Ottoman Empire.
By Defne Ayas and Neery Melkonian | Mar 2011

Under the title Blind Dates: New Encounters from the Edges of a Former Empire, thirteen new collaborative artistic projects were launched at Pratt Manhattan Gallery in November 2010. The exhibition, together with a series of related public programs which began two years prior to its opening, provided a rare platform, particularly in the North American context, for both artists and non-artists, who were curatorially "match-made" to tackle what remains of the legacy and rupture of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923).

The Blind Dates Project was conceived in 2006 by curators Defne Ayas and Neery Melkonian, who envision to expand its reach by opening it up to reformulations and inviting colleagues to pair additional artistic collaborators, as the exhibit begins its international travel later this year.

Nafas invited Ayas and Melkonian to reflect on their curatorial premise and the process of making the exhibition’s first installment in New York City where they met on a blind date during Performa 2005 through artist Melik Ohanian.

Concept & Rational:

It took a ‘blind date’ for us to meet and engage in a meaningful journey as "Armenian" and "Turkish" curators. We thought mediating similar encounters might encourage others to start undoing the complex knots that keep suspending ‘dialogue’ between estranged neighbors and distanced cultures, as they relate to a fragmented, de-territorialized cultural cartography.

The Blind Dates Project departs from the premise that the empire’s abrupt rupture and its violent reformulation into nation-states have their lingering effects on life to this day. Given the current political changes unfolding within the former Ottoman Empire territory (which once engulfed much of the Middle East and North Africa, the Black Sea and the Caucasus regions, and parts of Europe), a critical understanding of unresolved historical underpinnings become more relevant today than ever before. One could also argue that the current struggles in Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Palestine as well as the modern formation of the Armenian and Greek Diasporas are largely linked to this particular historical moment in question. Add to that a corresponding amnesia and perversion of historiography or continued denial of catastrophic events in Turkish politics today.

Until now interested audiences have mostly relied on academics, politicians, even literary traditions to learn about this underexplored, yet highly nuanced, topic. Even though Ottoman Studies have been in existence in leading Western institutions for decades, only recently we began to witness non-formalist or critical scholarship on related subjects. The  Blind Dates Project trusted the task of ‘unlearning and relearning’ to an international roster of established and emerging artists, and practitioners from Armenia, Bosnia, Greece, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, along with their transnational or "globalized" counterparts in Europe and the United States. As curators we encouraged the integrations of other fields of knowledge production within their inquiries i.e. architecture, philosophy, anthropology, poetry and dance. We were looking to define a discursive and aesthetic space based on overlooked sentiments, unsettled stories, silenced archives etc. 


For "homework" we started pairing or rather matchmaking artists and non artists for a series of private and informal discussions. These were usually held around dinner tables and helped inform the curatorial process. We orchestrated these so-called "blind dates" to facilitate research-based artistic projects. Such encounters took place in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Austin, Istanbul, Amsterdam, Shanghai, Sharjah, Sarajevo, Yerevan, Van and Venice. As a prelude to the exhibition, a series of Blind Dates panels also took place, bringing together people interested in deconstructing master narratives, to consider 'new ways of seeing' contentious historical accounts/events, and to give agency a chance through artistic and curatorial practice. As we started receiving the proposals from the invited artists/collaborators a cluster of sensibilities began to map a human geography marked by specific attachments to images, voices, places, and histories that collided with existing taxonomies of nation-states, art histories, and identities. In summary, the artists were intervening with the way certain pasts have thus far been 'written' or 'represented' without resorting to nostalgia, fixed narratives or clichés.

Prevailing threads throughout the exhibition:

Writer and visual artist Jalal Toufic worked with Ottoman Studies professor Selim Kuru to translate a segment of his recent philosophical text "The withdrawal of tradition past surpassing disaster" from English to Ottoman. This symbolic attempt to bring back to life a centuries old language, which was also subjected to the rupture with the breakup of the empire and by its modern, nationalist, reformulation, stood as an example of how a lost tradition can be resurrected through unlikely means.

Jean Marie Casbarian re-presented a group of black and white photographs from the much- compromised Near East Foundation archives to highlight the ambiguous relation between the ‘rescued’ and ‘rescuer.’  The accompanied essay by genocide historian Nazan Maksudyan about her grandmother transformed the fragility of the glass panels that carried it into a testimony of 'the death of the witness.' 

Other artists focused on the importance of challenging the interdiction of mourning without resorting to victimization. Hrayr Anmahouni Eulmessekian worked with sound scholar Anahid Kassabian to critique documentary approaches that pretend to re-present trauma and atrocity.  Xurban collective embarked on a 2800-km journey to five different ‘deserted’ cities in Anatolia and brought back samples of the region’s flowers and natural sounds to embrace what some consider a controversial approach that naturalizes catastrophes, by resorting to nature to heal. Aram Jibilian’s photographic reconstructions of Arshile Gorky’s ghost (personified by Aaron Mattocks) visiting the environs of his Connecticut home and neighbors refer to the futility of biographical translations.

The architectural models and sketches of Silva Ajemian and Aslihan Demirtas’s Remains Connected: The Bridge at Ani take us through the ruins of an ancient city divided by national borders between Turkey and Armenia, which were once connected by a now collapsed bridge over the Arpa river that also divides the terrain.

Elif Uras and Linda Ganjian chose to re-invent a tradition that shared their passion for crafts by recreating an octagonal shaped platform known as göbek taşı (navel stone) covered entirely with painted ceramic tiles which allude to the interconnected aesthetic heritage of Armenians and Turks under Ottoman patronage in the 18th and 19th centuries.  In a similar effort but differing field, Stefan Tsivopoulos worked with contemporary dancers Ursula Eagly, Carlos Fittante & Christopher Williams on his project Dance DNA to trace the origins of the Greek zeibekiko dance and give it a fresh identity.

Conceptual artists Nina Katchadourian and Ahmet Öğüt pursued justice through a performance piece that entailed making a life-time commitment under oath. Their project AH-HA is centered around the act of exchanging letters in their names through a legalized transaction.

Michael Blum and Damir Nikšić’s video, Oriental Dream, sketches 'business as usual' in contemporary geo-politics of east/west divides which perpetuate ruptures. Karine Matsakyan and Sona Abgaryan also took a humorous approach to deal with continued gender divides.

Last but not least, we all went back to the drawing table of re-writing (art) history by questioning who/how/why histories are written. This thesis was put forth through a new Ottoman "project timeline" poster by the young curators Özge Ersoy and Taline Toutounjian.


Defne Ayas and Neery Melkonian

Co-curators of Blind Dates Project Defne Ayas, curator of Performa, New York, and one of the directors of Arthub Asia, Shanghai. Neery Melkonian, independent art advisor, educator, and writer.

Blind Dates: New Encounters from the Edges of a Former Empire

19 Nov. 2010 -
12 Feb. 2011

Pratt Manhattan Gallery
144 West 14th Street
New York, USA

Defne Ayas
Neery Melkonian

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