Valley View: An Armenian Diasporic Account in Lieu of a Glendale Biennial Review
By Mashinka Firunts HakopianMay 27, 2018
“NO” WAS THE only word my grandmother, Lida Khatchatrian, knew in English. She declined to learn any others. The only relation she wanted to the English language was one of radical unintelligibility. After immigrating at 70, my grandmother launched a 16-year performance of linguistic refusal. It was staged for a private audience of émigré intimates. No recordings were made.
We relocated from Yerevan to Glendale in 1991, like so many. By 2017, approximately 40 percent of the city’s residents were of Armenian descent, marking it as the largest diasporic population of Armenians in the West. In Glendale, it was still possible to live in Armenian dialects. On East Acacia Avenue, we gathered with neighbors to hear the Soviet Socialist Republic collapsing at the end of a long-distance telephone call we could not afford.
I am telling you this because I recognize that there are no views outside of embodied viewers and historically contingent practices of looking.
When I was 15, we moved to a street in the Glendale foothills from which you could see the mountains. It was called Valley View.
The Pit Gallery opened in Glendale in 2014, and four years later announced the launch of Vision Valley: The Glendale Biennial, slated for May 5, 2018. The exhibition would be curated by The Pit, an artist-run commercial gallery, and hosted at the Brand Library & Art Center, a publicly funded municipal space. I volunteered there as a teenager, enticed by the gleaming white architecture of the library building originally called the Miradero (the Overlook or Vantage Point).
Among the 32 majority white artists selected for the Glendale Biennial, none were Armenian.
The Pit launched in Glendale amid a precipitous influx of finance capital and real estate development in the city, a period whose economic violence is obliquely hinted at in the widely used description; this was “The Boom.” “Violence,” as David Harvey puts it, “is required to build the new urban world on the wreckage of the old.” In 2006, Glendale’s City Council adopted the Downtown Specific Plan, offering developers incentives for large-scale building projects within municipal limits. Two years later, Caruso Affiliated opened the long-planned Americana at Brand, a $400-million luxury residential and retail complex. Its Tiffany’s and Tesla storefronts peer out onto impeccably manicured lawns, animated fountains, and audio kiosks piping Frank Sinatra into a lavish open-air “lifestyle center.” When the Onyx Glendale Apartments finished construction in 2017, they were advertised as a testament to “Downtown Glendale’s spectacular urban renaissance” and its “newly found sense of cutting-edge style, eclectic culture and bountiful energy.” The complex offers one-bedroom lofts at $3,270. One effect of redevelopment was a surge of new residents who wanted, as the Onyx invites, to “[e]xplore like a traveler. Enjoy like a Resident.” Another was rendering working-class and immigrant communities a surplus population.
Against the backdrop of the city’s “spectacular urban renaissance,” The Pit announced the Glendale Biennial in 2018. The curatorial statement for Vision Valley described the show as follows:
- “a celebration of artists working in a specific community”
- “a nod to Glendale’s long-standing artist community”
- “a dynamic multilogue between artists living or working in a specific geographical area”
- that “showcases the many coincidental visions at work in the valley known as Glendale.”
Its title presents a set of fairly straightforward queries: Whose visions of the valley do we get to see? Whose are withheld? Who decides?
While Vision Valley includes no members of the Armenian community among its 32 contributors, it does include all three directors of The Pit, as well as its gallery associate.
Vision seems an ill-fitting rubric for an exhibition that insists on the invisibility of a vast diasporic population. Practices of looking, we know, are also practices of world-making embedded in fields of power. This is why, historically, the right to look was denied to the dispossessed. Avetik Isahakian, poet and Armenian Revolutionary Federation activist, wrote in 1897, “be fearful of dark eyes.”
There is another vision spotlighted in Vision Valley, that of American photographer Edward Weston, who established a studio in Glendale in 1910 and whose photographs are featured in the exhibition. His inclusion, the curators suggest, “enriches the exhibition with a significant bit of Glendale history.” The nostalgic longing to glance back at the city’s golden yesteryears poses a problem. In the first half of the 20th century, Glendale was a “sundown town,” with ordinances that prohibited people of color from being within municipal limits after dark. Glendale was also a national stronghold for white supremacists: a hub for the KKK in the 1920s (a decade after Weston’s relocation), and home to the Western Division headquarters of the Nazi Party in the 1960s. While Weston indeed suffuses the exhibition with “a significant bit of Glendale history,” it remains unclear whose history of Glendale his inclusion conjures. The curators never specify.
What Weston’s inclusion tacitly suggests is that the region’s cultural chronology is bookended by his 1910 arrival on one end, and the founding of The Pit Gallery in 2014 on the other. In the temporal valley that separates these two discoveries of Glendale lies a century of diasporic cultural production. To posit Edward Weston as the punctual origin of artistic activity in the city is to unapologetically whitewash its historical narrative. It is to erase the practices of the indigenous Tongva people who preceded Weston’s appearance by millennia, and those of the Armenian, Filipinx, Korean, and Latinx communities who have been living and working in the city in the 100 years since. One Pit director recently spoke to the Glendale News-Press with the hauteur of someone who had just carried out a civilizing mission, benevolently importing culture to a newly occupied territory. He explained that the idea for the show had started as a joke, about “how people act so surprised that there’s a contemporary art gallery in Glendale.”
Glendale is host to at least five Armenian-owned or Armenian-inclusive art galleries. These include Tufenkian Fine Arts, Roslin Art Gallery, Mkrtchyan Art Gallery, Silvana Gallery, and Armenian Arts.
To perform this erasure in an exhibition that celebrates “artists working in a specific community,” while also featuring majority white artists, is a dazzling instance of what Aruna D’Souza calls “whitewalling.” Whitewalling refers to racialized exclusions that operate by “covering over that which we prefer to ignore or suppress; the idea of putting a wall around whiteness, of fencing it off, of defending it against incursions.” Framing the Glendale Biennial through Weston’s vision without acknowledging that vision’s historical milieu suppresses the racialized violence of the city’s past and enables the exclusion of its current diasporic residents.
When Edward Weston first visited Tropico, as the city of Glendale was then called, he described it with delight as a “little village.” At the time of his arrival, the city was home to 155 acres of strawberry fields, farmed through the exploited labor of migrant workers from Mexico and China. Maybe this is also what The Pit and affiliated artists saw when they settled in Glendale in the last half-decade. Perhaps when they established studio outposts en masse on San Fernando Road, they believed they were entering a rural idyll devoid of what appeared, to them, as official culture. Perhaps they thought they had stumbled upon a blank, pastoral canvas waiting to be injected with cultural content. Perhaps it did not seem germane to ask, to borrow from Tara J. Yosso, “Whose culture has capital?” Perhaps they were surprised to discover that there were already cultural producers here, some engaged in gallery work and others in the communal reproduction of social life.
Some of the 32 contributors neither live nor work in Glendale. Edward Weston neither lives nor works in Glendale, because he has been deceased since 1958.
What Weston’s inclusion also tacitly suggests is that the curators were more willing to feature a dead, white male artist in the exhibition than they were to include an Armenian one. This is perplexing considering the exhibition’s one criterion is that contributors must be artists residing or working in the region today. Despite being dead for 60-odd years, it would appear that Weston is more legible as a contemporary Glendalian artist than any Armenian artist now living in the city of Glendale.
I imagine telling my grandmother about this. I can guess at her one-word response: “No.”
My mother, Sona Hakopian, was a linguist trained in Russian Philology at the Academy of the Pedagogical Sciences of the USSR. In Glendale, she worked as a paralegal specializing in political asylum cases. For over 20 years, she advocated for Armenian asylum seekers who traveled along extended routes of dislocation, fleeing the Lebanese Civil War (1975–1990); the Iranian Revolution (1978–1979); the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988); the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1991); the subsequent collapse of Armenia's economy (1992); and the Syrian Civil War (2011–present).
Theories circulate about why the diasporic community crystallized in Glendale. My mother would say it’s because the valley views approximate the mountainous topographies of Armenia. The valley, as she said, visually softens the losses of territorial dispossession.
[A Selected Chronology of Recent Cultural Activity in Glendale, California.]
Fifty-three days before the Biennial opened, Glendale City Council voted to begin renaming a stretch of Maryland Avenue to “Artsakh Street.” My mother maintained an office on that block for a decade, holding court in smart black suit dresses at Urartu Cafe, where she would meet clients to fill out political asylum applications over delicate cups of Armenian coffee. My mother is gone two years but still lives in Glendale, among the residents who may not otherwise be in the city but for those afternoons on Artsakh.
Twenty-two days before the Biennial opened, the Glendale Tenants Union rallied with a coalition of renters in Los Angeles.
Eighteen days before the Biennial opened, Glendale City Council voted to approve the construction of a 59,800-square-foot Armenian-American Museum downtown.
Eighteen and nine days before the Biennial opened, two Armenian cultural workers contacted the Brand Art Center and The Pit curatorial team, respectively, to address the exhibition’s lack of cultural and racial diversity. The second, artist Gilda Davidian, described the biennial as a “colonizing” enterprise. She asked for the exhibition’s name to be changed or its scope to be broadened. The Pit explained that they never claimed to represent the diverse histories or cultures of Glendale and encouraged her to direct further queries to the Brand. Gilda called the Brand Exhibitions supervisor, but her call was never returned.
Thirteen days before the Biennial opened, 5,000 marched in Glendale in solidarity with protesters in Yerevan, who were organizing against the decade-long rule of president and then–prime minister Serzh Sargsyan and Armenia’s Republican Party. Their signs read, The Armenian Diaspora of Los Angeles Stands with Armenia.
Twelve days before the Biennial opened, residents gathered at Glendale City Hall to celebrate the success of Armenia’s velvet revolution and the possibility of Armenian self-determination. Yerevanian grocery stores reported champagne shortages.
Eleven days before the Biennial opened, tens of thousands gathered in Los Angeles to march for global recognition of the Armenian Genocide, for divestment from Turkey, for reparations and the repatriation of land, and for the 1.5 million lost in 1915. They held signs that read I Remember and I Demand.
Eight days before the Biennial opened at the Brand Art Center, the same venue closed the show Continuity and Rupture: An Armenian Family Odyssey. The photography exhibition charted the violent dislocation of the Dildilian family from Ottoman Turkey during the Genocide. The irony plainly speaks itself: one show documented the attempted erasure of a population; the next enacted a symbolic erasure, excising the visual traces of that population’s diasporic community.
The Armenian diaspora resists monolithic cohesion. It encompasses, instead, manifold cultural identifications and discrete migratory trajectories. Racialization operates differently across these varied communities. In 1909, the US government refused the naturalization petitions of four Armenians on the basis that they were not “free white persons.” A court later ruled that the Armenians were “white by law” because they could be “readily adaptable to European standards.” In other words, they could convincingly perform whiteness. Legal scholar John Tehranian calls this “white performance as a proxy for white racial belonging.” As Tehranian notes, the juridical classification of whiteness doesn’t immunize against the experience of racial injustice. In the realm of daily encounter, bodies marked as Middle Eastern remain vulnerable.
In Glendale, this dynamic often manifests in volatile community response to Armenian-American political participation, which ranges from xenophobic epithets to death threats. In 1999, after Rafi Manoukian’s election to City Council, one resident dutifully attended the Council’s meetings every week to “tell Armenians to go back where they came from.” In 2016, when Ardy Kassakhian ran for the 43rd District Assembly, his campaign headquarters were evacuated after a caller phoned to say, “You fucking Armenian scum. You’re going to get your head flushed […] You are not safe in that office.”
[A Selected Chronology of Recent Cultural Activity in Glendale, California, Continued]
Days before the Biennial opened, the City requested that the curators change the exhibition title. Multiple community members had voiced concern about a Glendale Biennial in a partially publicly funded space that omits 40 percent of Glendalians. Glendale Biennial was officially redacted from the title. All promotional materials and wall text for the exhibition were reprinted to reflect the change and read, simply, Vision Valley. No public acknowledgment, announcement, or apology was made.
The Pit continues, today, to use #theglendalebiennial to tag its social media posts. They assert their inalienable right to claim the city of Glendale over and against the protests of its residents.
Vision Valley, the curators contend, was never “an actual biennial.” Rather, the term “biennial” was deployed in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, a droll commentary on the art field and its blue-chip exhibitions. If The Glendale Biennial is mere jest, it’s a gag they are unwilling to relinquish, disregarding the City and community’s objections. If The Glendale Biennial is mere jest, it lampoons the art field’s exclusionary mechanisms while unapologetically excluding 40 percent of the city’s population. If The Glendale Biennial is mere jest, its comedic value lies in the suggestion that there could be an internationally legible cultural community in the formerly barren badlands of Glendale. The titles “New York Biennial” or “Paris Biennial” could not possibly conjure the same drollery. In other words, “Glendale Biennial” only works as a joke because the city’s perceived cultural deficit is the butt of that joke.
It did not, perhaps, occur to the curators that Glendale might be more than a joke to the tens of thousands who escaped genocide, civil wars, the collapse of a republic, and extreme economic deprivation to assemble a community here.
To be clear, it is not merely the word “biennial” that is at issue. Its absence does not authorize gathering 32 artists in a publicly funded municipal space, purporting to represent a geographic region, and subsequently excluding nearly half of that region’s population.
During the exhibition opening, two Armenian-American attendees approached the curators to inquire about the absence of Armenian artists. One, Ani Tatintsyan, is a filmmaker and artist who has lived in Glendale since 2001. The other, Araik Sinanyan, is a clinical researcher who recently graduated from Humboldt State University, where he founded the Armenian Student Association (ASA). They were told that the organizers didn’t reach out to any specific communities, but that all arts professionals in the area had been consulted. As with Gilda, they were encouraged to address further queries to representatives of the Brand Art Center.
This chronology attests to astonishing feats of selective vision. With unwavering conviction in the virtues of its exclusionary gaze, the exhibition proceeded apace.
One day after the exhibition opening, I received a note from a city representative writing on behalf of the mayor and Glendale City Council members. It stated that the Brand Art Center hopes that “in the future when they work with other curators, that the artistic representation be more inclusive.”
Today, only two discussion posts appear on Vision Valley’s social media event page. One reads: “A biennial about art in Glendale with no Armenian artists? hm.” The other, simply: “Armenian artists?”
When The Pit calls for an exhibition of “contemporary fine artists,” it’s impossible to miss echoes of “the fine art of gentrification.” In an eponymous essay by Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan, the authors entreat the art field to recognize its role as a gentrifying agent — one that actively participates in “systematically destroying the material conditions for the survival” of neighborhoods and localities. This essay was written 24 years ago.
In 2017, as The Pit was conceiving of a Biennial to celebrate a newly formed art community of recent transplants, city residents established the Glendale Tenants Union. The formation of the Union responds to a state of economic violence and pervasive crisis in Glendale and across Los Angeles. Nearly two-thirds of Glendale’s 73,000 renters are classified as rent burdened, allocating more than 30 percent of their household income toward rent.
On the day of the Biennial opening, the Glendale Tenants Union (GTU) collected signatures for a proposed Community Stabilization and Fair Rent Act outside Jons Marketplace.
One GTU housing advocate, Hayk Makhmuryan, is an Armenian-American artist, community activist, and longtime resident of Glendale. He works as the program coordinator of the Studio 526 Arts Program in Downtown Los Angeles, providing studio and exhibition space to members of the Skid Row community. On the subject of Vision Valley being staged against the backdrop of Glendale’s recent transformations, he observes that economic injustice and cultural exclusion often work hand in hand. One systematically eliminates the material conditions necessary for a community to survive, the other eliminates the conditions necessary for a community to make its narratives visible.
When they were asked about the curatorial process, the organizers said:
The criteria were simple: any contemporary fine artist who lives, works, or maintains a studio in Glendale would be considered. We had in-person discussions and sent emails […] asking for suggestions of contemporary artists who fit the criteria […] The resulting exhibition showcases some of the many contemporary artists who live or work in Glendale and whose work is part of a larger conversation around contemporary art in the region and beyond.
“Contemporary” appears four times in this paragraph. Its appearances suggest a temporal incompatibility between the present moment and the cultural activities of Armenian Americans. It’s difficult not to read its ubiquity as an injunction that no duduk players, khachkar carvers, or provincials need apply. The insistence on the “contemporary” as a stable category that explains the exclusion of diasporic artists frames Armenians as non-contemporary producers of non-art. It resurfaces Edward Said’s postcolonial commonplace: the other is a figure whose cultural products are frozen in amber, outside of time, suspended in the tense of the “timeless eternal.”
When they were asked which art spaces and professionals were consulted in the curatorial process, the organizers said they reached out to all galleries in the city. The owner of the Armenian Arts Gallery in Glendale, a venue that hosted the 2017 exhibition Los Angeles — Our Eyes, tells me he has never heard of, or from, a place called The Pit.
When they were asked why no Armenian visions were included in Vision Valley, the organizers said they “did not seek out any artist based on background, ethnicity, race or gender.” This implies a wholly bias-free curatorial process. It implies that when the organizers approached MOCA, the Hammer, LACMA, their friends, and their associates — and emerged with a majority white roster absent any Armenian Americans — they were not consulting a specific community, but rather a set of individuals regarded as the neutral, regulatory body of contemporary art practice.
When they were asked why there are no Armenian Americans in the exhibition by Araik Sinanyan, the organizers inquired whether he was an artist, coding “the artist” as a privileged category of citizenship requisite to civic participation. Araik wondered, “Why does it matter [if I’m an artist]? What if I’m just a community member who wants to be represented?”
When they were asked online why they continue to use the name “Glendale Biennial” on social media after agreeing with the City to remove the title, the organizers blocked the inquiring party.
When they were asked about the curatorial process, the organizers quoted a line from the press copy: Vision Valley does not turn on any “conceptual, political, or philosophical themes, […] [and] it does not claim to distill a particular trend, aesthetic, or idea.” The exhibition, they insist, is devoid of any specific conceptual, political, or philosophical content.
The conceptual, political, and philosophical content of this exhibition is the fine art of gentrification and its economic violence.
The conceptual, political, and philosophical content of this exhibition is whitewalling and its racialized exclusions.
The conceptual, political, and philosophical content of this exhibition is the refusal to ask: whose culture has capital?
The conceptual, political, and philosophical content of this exhibition is the practice of imputing a cultural deficit to a diasporic community.
The conceptual, political, and philosophical content of this exhibition is the use of a community’s fictive cultural deficit as the pretext for claiming ownership of a city, its histories, and its geographies.
The conceptual, political, and philosophical content of this exhibition is a vision of the valley that renders the people who live there invisible.
The promotional imagery for Vision Valley features photographs of Glendale intersections from which you can see the mountains. They are bathed in hyper-saturated, technicolor magenta hues. These valley vistas are absent any human agents: a depopulated visual field from which the bodies of the city’s residents have been evacuated. A pink monochrome awaiting figurative content. They picture a place where nobody lives.
At the onset of my engagement with Vision Valley, I set out to write a standard exhibition review. I began thinking about my grandmother. About her 16-year performance of linguistic refusal. About the tactical repetition of the word “no.”
I am grateful to the many interlocutors whose vision directly and indirectly informs this text: Sona Hakopian, Lida Khatchatrian, Danny Snelson, David Arzumanyan, Naira Harutyunyan, Gilda Davidian, Iggy Cortez, Patricia Kim, Meldia Yesayan, Jacob Halajian, Nathalie Halajian, and Hayk Makhmuryan.
Mashinka Firunts Hakopian is a writer, artist, and PhD Candidate in the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania. She lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches in the Department of English at UCLA.
Feature Image: Gilda Davidian, Stones in Hand, from Say That You Are A Stone
Banner Image: Gilda Davidian, Photo Aram, Glendale, California, from Portrait Studio
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