Armenia At the corner of Teryan and Northern Avenue, a Soviet era building has the air of festivity adorning its façade. Flags and banners sway from wrought iron balconies in the early summer breeze. Approaching the structure, a more sobering intent of the proclamations becomes clear. SOS is printed in large block letters. In this circumstance, SOS translates to SAVE OUR BUILDING. The residents are joined in solidarity, bravely united in opposition to the insatiable greed of the oligarchs.
At the beginning of the new millennium, the Armenian government established a mandate of “State Needs” as its principle guide for urban development in the central hub of downtown Yerevan (to be called Northern Avenue). For the thousands of residents to be effected by the government’s imminent domain plans, the exact nature of what the state needed was never discussed with them. Within the historical neighborhoods desperately in need of infrastructure improvements, the populace welcomed change. Genuine “State Needs” such as civil society principles of progressive urban development that addressed community, education, health and the preservation of history were never brought into the dialogue. Serious discrepancies soon emerged in regards to fair and adequate compensation for homes and property. Through the manipulation of legislative procedures and control of the independent judiciary, the government and developers established the Project Implementation Office. Their intimidating policies resulted in:
These same malevolent government policies toward private property are now being imposed upon residents in several neighborhoods. For the historic community of Kond, for the SOS building off Northern Avenue and for the few remaining families living in the shadow of vacant opulence along Arami St., the situation is, well, overwhelming.
With this public intervention our collaborative team hoped to reignite a constructive public dialogue that addresses the relationship between genuine “State Needs” and a civil society. The use of the Monopoly logo as a framework for our visual identity was developed as a politically relevant and recognizable graphic symbol. The Armenian language text translates directly to St. Needs. On the evening of June 17th we gathered along Northern Avenue across from the SOS building to distribute flyers and discuss the ongoing dilemma of “State Needs” with the masses that parade along the boulevard. The banner soon became a familiar urban icon, soliciting knowing smiles, the shaking of heads, and unfortunately, a certain pessimistic reality in regards to saving what little is left of historic Yerevan.
Project Sponsored by CEC Artslink & Colombik Studios
and the International Artist in Residence “Art Commune” Art & Culture Studies Laboratory, Yerevan, Armenia. Special thanks to Susanna Gyulamiryan, Director of ACSL, Vahe Budumyan for his creative wit and patience and Vardan Geravetyan, Leader of the SOS Building Coalition
photographs ©2010 Roger Colombik & Jerolyn Bahm-Colombik
St. Needs logo © 2010 Vahe Budumyan, Jerolyn Bahm-Colombik, Roger Colombik
Video image of Robert Kocharian from the film Victims of State Needs by Karen Adamyan
At 3:00am on the morning of January 27, 2003, my wife and I were standing out on the tarmac of the Tbilisi airport. A diesel belching, antiquated Russian military vehicle was waiting to transport a group of tired, irritated and very chilled passengers over to the terminal. The temperature in the airport seemed to be in equilibrium with the outdoor temperature. The gentleman behind us inquired as to our business in Georgia. I mentioned that I would be teaching art and researching traditional village life. His startled expression was followed by a diatribe of disgust—“I hate it here. This is my sixth trip on business. If you have a family you shouldn’t be here. The first thing you need to do is get a gun. Don’t go anywhere without a gun”. I glance back at Jerry. This is the last thing I wanted her to hear, particularly within five minutes of arrival. She did not need to speak for I could read her expression quite clearly—“Now, why are we here?”
Fortunately, the words of this angry Brit were not an omen and I found them to be far removed from the reality of life there. The next six months in the Republic of Georgia (along with additional project visits) were to be the most challenging, difficult, frustrating, crazy, enlightening, educational and rewarding experiences that I have encountered in my many travels through the post—communist world. I was there to teach, yet I became the student. I was there to observe and record, yet we were often the ones under observation and questioning. I was there to learn. I am still absorbing the experience.
When you work with the land, your hands are never dirty.
- Peter the Poet
I am just a peasant, trying to save a three thousand year old grape.
- Otari Chakashvili, Governor of the Kaspi Region
Romania: Singeorze BaiIn the mountain villages of Transylvania there’s a colloquial jest that’s spoken with a hint of gravitas when discussing issues of emigration and the loss of cultural heritage—Hey, last one across the border, make sure you turn out the lights.
Economic pressures continue to drive families apart and tear at the fabric of traditional Romanian society. Two centuries of cultural identity slowly disappear as the elderly pass on, the parents look for work in Spain or Italy and the children dream of departure, away from the traditional village and labor-intensive agrarian lifestyles of their parents. At ninety-one years of age, Costin wonders who will be left to bury his old bones. Agnes carries portraits of her three sons in her purse. She shares the images with all who pass, questioning the mercy of god for taking her boys while she continues to walk these dusty streets.
Our project examined the nuances of village life, promoting a communal dialogue on how to nurture a future for the children along with recognizing the concerns of the elderly in Singeorz-Bai. Vinyl banners were installed throughout the village as well as the Muzeul de Arte Comparata during the summer in 2006.
Project sponsored by Colombik Studios, Texas State University & Muzeul de Arte Comparata
Concept & Design: Sergiu Lupse & Roger Colombik
Photography: Roger Colombik
Romania: WolfsbergThere were once four villages in the fabled lands of the Carpathian Mountains. In the mid-18th century Empress Maria Theresa looked to expand her empire eastward into the Banat (now western Romania) with offers of agricultural assistance to families and intrepid farmers willing to do their part for the Hapsburgs. Many a Swabian answered the call. Another wave of migration followed in the 19th century, with Bavarians and Bohemians establishing the villages of Wolfsberg (Wolf’s Mountain), Lindenfeld (Field of Linden Trees) Vidental (Valley of the Meadows) and Wolfsweise (Wolf’s Plain). There is an anonymous poem from the time of the early migration that conveys the hardships of the first settlers to establish a prosperous life for the coming generations:
After one year of winter’s hardships, Wolfsweise was abandoned. This is fact, though from here on out, history (and this project) becomes a beautifully amorphous blend of village gossip, museum records, oral histories, the grand sweep of European history and fairy tales.
Today, two of the villages remain, Wolfsberg and Vidental, and there are only twenty-five ethnic Germans from this heritage that continue to reside here as Romanian citizens. Most of the other individuals and families departed for Germany in the early 1990’s after the fall of Ceausescu’s dictatorship. After all they had been through—post war Soviet internment camps, communism and the malfeasance of the new governments—they saw this as their chance to begin life anew in a more civil social environment. Germany’s favorable citizenship laws for people of German heritage provided the means for migration with financial assistance. So after two centuries, the road led back to ancestral lands. But darkness soon embraced the lives of these ethnic German/Romanian citizens. They did not feel accepted and they did not discover a new sense of home in Germany. For many, home continued to be a spiritual and physical place in Romania.
Economic irony aside, the villages of Wolfsberg and Vidental come to life in the summer as the émigrés return (financed by their generous German pensions) to replenish their spiritsand reconnect with their community and pastoral life. Lindenfeld has become a ghost town, some say by government decree, others profess to the impossible winters but these tales will be discussed at a later time. During my time in the region I collected stories, village gossip and bits of archival documentation. Hellish tales of Siberian labor camps weave into memories of pastoral splendor and the richness of family. Of the twenty-five remaining ethnic Germans that continue to reside full time in the region, there is one family in Wolfsberg that accounts for nearly one quarter of this figure. This family’s history is a Grimm tale with an alcoholic father, retarded children, physical handicaps, rape, and issues of inbreeding. My encounters with the family yielded an awareness of their powerful will to sustain a sense of normalcy in daily life.
The project is intended to convey their dignity and to examine the region’s convoluted terrain of memory and history, cultural heritage, migration and the meaning of home. This project was made possible by my gracious hosts and dear friends, Elisabeth and Hartwig Ochsenfeld and their residency program at Arthouse Wolfsberg/Garana.