Heritage, Armenia

If There's Space I'll Stay, If There's Time I'll Sing

A reconstruction of Armenian familial memory

EastEast’s film curator Olya Korsun met with Suzanna Spertsyan, Armenian-born writer and stylist based in Paris, and German photographer Patrick Bienert to talk about their collective project If There's Space I'll Stay, If There's Time I'll Sing, first presented at Sheriff gallery (Paris) in November of 2023. Conceived and shot in Spertsyan’s home country of Armenia, the project sparked conversations about homecoming, being an Armenian as a full-time job, and the (re)construction of memory as a conscious practice of identity building. 

EastEast: The first question was about the title of the show—how did you come up with this name? It sounds like a quote from a song or poem.

Suzanna spertsyan: I think we both wanted to find something poetic for the title. And we both agreed that we wanted something long and kind of obtuse in a way, maybe inconvenient to pronounce, not necessarily to cause inconvenience to anyone, but just something that wasn't trying to be a show title, but more like a poem title or a line from a poem. We researched a lot of proverbs and myths and fairy tales. The idea was to invent a contemporary proverb or contemporary kind of prayer to say, something to transmit the feeling of longing for a home.  “If there’s space I'll stay, If there's time I'll sing” to me is very Armenian in its essence—wherever you go, you can join a table, you always have a corner. People love to sing and dance. And then there was all this clerical singing involved in the show as part of the soundtrack, so it kind of just all came together at some point.

EastEast: I wanted to talk a bit about the models. Patrick, how do you work with amateur, non professionals and what is your process? You come from a European perspective and work with local Armenian people. How do you avoid slipping into exotification?

Patrick Bienert: I feel like one of the very important points was that we shot everything in one small village with the people from there. For example, Alan, the boy, we met on the street and then I took a portrait of him. We thought about him and then we decided to ask him to join the project. And then we tried to find him; we were walking from house to house, asking around in the village and at some point people tell us: “Okay, it's this boy, so he's living there.” And then after three or four houses, we finally found him and his mother was there and also his sisters (one of them also became involved in the project). We came in and we had tea and then we discussed with the mother if it would be okay if they would join the project. Of course, the kids were very into it. 

It's also a very interesting point that Alan is named after Alain Delon, a famous actor. And because in Armenia names are given a lot of importance, his family was excited he was an actor/model for our project. Also we shot everything at the school’s theater and the older members of their family joined us while we took the pictures, so the kids felt safe and comfortable in the scene. I think the surroundings were really the key for characters to feel comfortable—I think that's just that for me.

SS: We actually ended up spending quite some time with Alan's family before and after we shot the kids in the school. So this kind of method requires you to spend time with your characters. And I think that's something that really allows for this feeling of comfort and sincerity. So by the time you take photos of them, all the cakes have been eaten, there's been some real bonding. It really becomes collective. For them, it was really bizarre because it's quite a rural part of Armenia and beauty standards and art are seen as totally different. I mean, it's gold and stones and roses and all this stuff that's considered really chic and cool, but we wanted more of the actual, local, sort of real material that was there and we just cultivated that to a certain theatrical degree. And for them, that was extremely odd. They were like, Why are you taking pictures of me in socks? Like, this is embarrassing. When we went to see the little boy in their house, they changed him into the best costume he had so that he comes out and says hi to us. And there we go. You know, some artists from Europe that come in and want to take pictures of them in socks! For them, it's something you really do at home when you are not receiving guests, it's something very discreet and intimate. So there were a lot of conversations and  jokes, but there also was trust, I would say, because we got to know them before we started taking pictures. 

EE: I also really was curious about this model Armine—she almost looks like some kind of a socialite. 

PB: She has been modeling a bit. And she's comfortable in front of the camera. She's a very interesting character. For me, she was more like an actress in that sense. I feel like she really transported a different kind of a character.

SS: I first discovered her years ago when I'd heard that an Armenian model walked for Gucci, when Alessandro Michele was their creative director. It was truly exciting to see an Armenian beauty like hers recognized and represented among a variety of appearance types from everywhere in the world. This story attracted a lot of attention to her in Armenia, and now people of all ages and occupation in Armenia know her name. I had already worked with her on other projects and, and it was symbolically important for me that she became part of this story too. In a way she is a socialite, a recognizable face in this tiny country, so her appearance in the project might feel less realistic: she is a vision, a mother Armenia statue from a dream.

EE:  In the description of the show you mention the “construction of memory.” Could you elaborate on that?

SS: We spent a month traveling together and going into the village for this project and also going to other parts of Armenia, for other things. So we had constant conversations about how we remember things and how we remember them collectively, and what are my experiences as an Armenian who lives abroad. They are very much fragmented, wounded by certain experiences. And it's very nostalgic, it's very sad, there's a lot of silence in it, there's a lot of feeling that something is missing, like a character missing, like a family member missing. So when we were working on the project, it was mostly about just trying to recognize the symbols around us that could somehow represent fragments of the collective consciousness and memory. It was not entirely rational and a lot of it was intuitive. We recorded things that could somehow feel that way. 

And with the characters, we were led with this idea of a family—Alan and his sister, then this older couple came into the project, who are the  stand-ins for the generation of grandparents. And there's Armine, more of a younger wife character. And then once the story was shot some things came up—for example, the fact that the only person that was missing in the pictures is the father of a family, the young men, the husband, this guy that's not there, which is a real story of Alan and his sister, as their father and grandfather are living in the south of Russia, working there as construction workers. So they live in Russia and they send money back home. They're not home for literal decades, and then they just come once every few years to visit their families. This is a very common story in rural parts of Armenia—people leave for other Eastern European countries to provide their families with better income.

EE:  Suzanna, you are an Armenian who doesn’t live in Armenia, and in a way, you play a role in the process of the reproduction or creation of an international image of the country. I'm interested in the intentionality of this gesture. Do you feel responsible for creating a particular image of Armenia? 

SS: Of course, I spent a lot of time reflecting on this and my responsibility as an Armenian person bringing any images from my country to the West and saying, “There you go, this is what life over there is like.” So, what was my role in it? I think first off I just realized that I had no other choice—being an Armenian is my number one job, and I cope with it how I can. When I was younger it was more hard work, but now it has become something joyful to live. Through this process, through working on these projects, I have found a method that allows me to interact with my heritage while keeping the right distance from my personal background and through a gradual, growing intimacy with the land, its people, and the cultural context.

It's a truthful way to interact with my origins and, most importantly, to be able to define my own (I always say this word, but I don't think it exists) “Armenianness,” the idea of how to be Armenian. These are very much the questions of immigrants, also questions of countries in which safety is at a certain risk or that are in a difficult geo political or internal political situation. And as you grow up in immigration, you have lots of existential questions—your value as an Armenian is at stake, because this is such a traditional, conservative, society that expects you to be a certain way, even in immigration. It was very important for us when we were writing the show description to say that we do not try to define or introduce this as a country; we try to show Armenia less as a physical place, but more as a mental space that you come to experience with us.  

The soundtrack to If There's Space I'll Stay, If There's Time I'll Sing was composed by Antoine Daviaud In 2020, Antoine Daviaud spent a month in Armenia where he met a local musician and folk enthusiast, Kenas Ter-Aristakesyan. Together they visited Armenian churches with Kenas performing folk songs inside them and Antoine recording his performance. Kenas' voice became the primary sound of this exhibition accompanied by the country's soundscape, all recorded and composed by Antoine. Antoine Daviaud is a French composer who writes music for theater and film. His minimalistic approach to orchestral writing and field recordings leads him to conceive of any sound as a material.

All images are part of the If There's Space I'll Stay, If There's Time I'll Sing project.

Authors Patrick Bienert, Suzanna Spertsyan.

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Patrick Bienert
A German photographer who works on long-term projects of portrait, landscape and documentary photography. He predominantly documents youth culture and transformation on the borders of Eastern Europe.
Suzanna Spertsyan
An Armenian-born writer and stylist based in Paris. Her work explores the space between personal narrative and appearance by combining auto-fictional writing and costume design.