In Pop Culture and Propaganda, an Alternate History of the Cold War Era
In her new artist book, Handbook of the Spontaneous Other, Aikaterini Gegisian seeks to create alternative histories of the Cold War era through the female gaze. Through a few dozen collages made from clippings of US and Western European popular publications, pornographic magazines, and travel catalogues from the 1950s through the 1970s, Gegisian frees pop-culture images from their original contexts of patriarchal commerce and propaganda, recombining them in ways that reject ideological themes and traditional power relations. Set on bright color blocks of uncoated paper, her collages focus on the view from the periphery. Gegisian’s “spontaneous other” emerges as an entity liberated from the confines of Western capitalism and popular culture, free—for the first time—to explore notions of pleasure and the self on its own terms.
Elena Goukassian: A lot of your work fills in the gaps between various traditional or accepted identities—national, ethnic, and otherwise. How did your own family history inspire these explorations?
Aikaterini Gegisian: I am a diasporic subject, and also a mixed one. All of my grandparents came from different parts of what was the Ottoman Empire. My mother’s family, both my grandmother and grandfather, were Pontic Greeks who came as children to Thessaloniki from the Black Sea coast. My father’s mother came from Crete. My Armenian grandfather came from Izmir, so he was already a diasporic part of the Armenian community. My family is constructed through this dispersal of people.
I was born in Thessaloniki, spent my childhood on the border with Turkey, and returned to Thessaloniki for high school. I studied in Glasgow and Brighton, and the UK has been my base in my adult life, but I have also lived temporarily in other places for fellowships, long-term residencies, and fieldwork. One of these locations was New York in 2014, where I started work on Handbook of the Spontaneous Other.
Goukassian: How did Handbook of the Spontaneous Other come about? Where did you look for images to use in your collages?
Gegisian: When I arrived in New York, there was already a shift in my practice toward working with found and archival material. (Before that, I only filmed.) I went to a flea market in Hell’s Kitchen, collecting ubiquitous American popular culture magazines from the ’50s and ’60s—like LIFE, TIME, anything I could find. One thing I found there was a pornographic magazine. When I bought it, the guy in the stall gave me a book, and he told me, “You may want to use that.” It was a self-published manual of how to become a gigolo, Providing Special Services to Women, and immediately, I wanted to interrogate this type of manual on how to reach female pleasure. The pornographic magazine and this book were the inspiration for Handbook.
Collecting images of American visual culture started as a comparative exercise. Up until then, I was only exploring popular visual cultures of the peripheral (or alternative) modernities that emerged after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire—like Soviet visual culture. In New York, I was collecting American pop-cultural images because I wanted to understand how my work related to American culture. It was clear that American visual culture was the hegemonic voice in the world. But in all the images I collected, what became more interesting for me was the patriarchal, imperialistic gaze. This was what I wanted to question and subvert by making Handbook, appropriating the material and rereading the collections in order to make visible this female gaze through a process of reappropriation.
Goukassian: Over the years, you’ve done a lot of digging into Soviet visual archives as well. What differences have you found between visual cultures in Western capitalist societies versus Soviet socialist societies in the Cold War era?
Gegisian: In both cases, they’re expressions of modernity. In the Soviet context, you’d describe it as “propaganda.” In capitalist culture, we call it “advertising.” But advertising may, at times, be the more aggressive of the two in creating specific ways of being, seeing, and understanding the self and the world. In both cases, visual culture becomes part of the way that ideological structure and power are exercised. For me, collage-making is about taking these materials that express a certain ideology and process, and bringing them together in order to make visible different voices, liberating the images from those ideological forces. I have an intimacy toward the images I collect; I feel they have inner thoughts and ideas that they are not allowed to express.
Goukassian: How do you put your collages together and choose the images?
Gegisian: In each project, there’s a certain type of context, and I’m very strict about the images I use. The context of how images come together is really important in setting up the boundaries of certain types of ideologies.
In my first artist book, A Small Guide to the Invisible Seas (2015), the imagery is from tourist catalogues from Greece, Turkey, and Soviet Armenia from the 1960s to the 1980s. In my research, I looked through the visual culture produced in each Soviet Socialist Republic every year—commemorative photographic albums that functioned as tourist or documentary publications about each republic of the Soviet Union. I noticed that the way they were structured was very similar to the way that photographic albums outside of the Eastern Bloc (like in Greece and Turkey) were structured, so the format was more or less the same. The tourist catalogues functioned as nation-building mechanisms, regardless of the specific nation’s political system. When I chose to focus on Armenia, Greece, and Turkey, it was because of the autobiographical element. I’m part of fragments that have been part of these geographies, but they were not available to me because of the nation-states and borders. A Small Guide to the Invisible Seas was an attempt to create a new landscape and topography outside of the confines of the nation-state. As an Other myself, I try to take hold of the hegemonic material at the center, which has defined me but doesn’t belong to me as a cultural narrative.
Goukassian: You tend to focus on imagery from the 1950s through the ’70s. Why do you choose that time period specifically? And would you ever work with more recent images or contemporary travel catalogues?
Gegisian: I might, but I haven’t reached that point yet. I am still fascinated with the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, because that was when the photographic magazine was ubiquitous, which made the images part of widespread popular culture. They shaped collective memory. There are also specific types of printing technology and conventions of photography that I am interested in, and a specific color palette. These allow you to locate the images temporally. I stop in the ’80s, because the technology changed, the images became digitally reproduced. Images made after 1980 are harder to place in a specific time.
Goukassian: What’s the role of nostalgia in your work?
Gegisian: I’m critical of nostalgia. I don’t go back to the past because I’m nostalgic; I go back because I’m trying to locate a collective sense of the world, the collective sharing of experiences through images. There’s an equality in the experience of images. In the process of questioning why these images were produced, why they were popular, why they were circulating, and why they have created a collective imagery, I am trying to bring forward that they were all produced through a set of power relations. The nostalgia comes in the way these images are consumed. The collages I make are critiques of this function of nostalgia.
Goukassian: How has Brexit affected you and your work?
Gegisian: For me, Brexit has two functions. First, in questioning how certain types of identities are produced—between national, supranational, global, cosmopolitan, diasporic, or transnational identities. At the same time, it made me understand Europe as a Western structural phenomenon. From the point of view of a Greek person, that was not how I identified myself, as a Western person. I was still peripheral.
Goukassian: Greece is a very interesting example, because it’s geographically on the eastern side of the European continent, but it’s often considered Western European.
Gegisian: This is one of the things that I would like to work on, this ambiguous position of Greece and ancient Greek culture as both peripheral and central to understanding Western modernity.
Goukassian: You divided Handbook into sections with various colors. Do the colors provide a narrative structure?
Gegisian: Ideally, everything is up to the interpretation of the reader, but there is always an intention. Self-help guides are very prominent in American society, and I wanted to make a handbook thinking about how the body can find pleasure, but without a set of instructions, placing the body in a position of resistance against capitalism, and finding pleasure, happiness, and spiritualism.
I wanted to avoid giving instructions, because they made finding pleasure a form of labor. Handbook asks how we can find pleasure without working. Capitalism is continuously work, work, work, even with issues of liberation and identity politics. I also wanted to make a handbook that does not place the body in a binary. What emerged was a narrative of nine color variations that go from white to black, or black to white. It functions like a pendulum. The white and black are the binary poles of the ways that we traditionally understand gender, and then in between, there is this endless set of possibilities, of coming together, of encounters.
The book starts with a petrified heterosexual couple, the Western romantic expression of love par excellence, and it sets up this narrative only to break it later. I created Handbook in order to give voice to the Spontaneous Other, a figure of resistance; the moment you give it a voice, it becomes a threat. So, the moment you encounter this petrified image of the heterosexual couple in the first chapter, although it’s quite soft and normalizing, it becomes a threat.
I made a lot of the collages intuitively, without trying to justify the visual relations, and I didn’t put any information in the chapters, because I want you to have the experience of this pendulum of color change. If the collages give voice to the Spontaneous Other, then the text at the end of the book gives voice to the images. It’s written from the point of view of the images. I was thinking of the conventions of early photobooks, where the caption located the image geographically and historically. The text at the end functions as that narrative caption.
Goukassian: Do you think of your work as an archeological study of images?
Gegisian: Archaeological and anthropological. I look at these images as documents, as spaces of certain expressions of being and living. I am trying to reread things by giving shape to different types of narratives and imaginations, making visible a certain type of peripheral female gaze that has not had a place to speak. Thus far.
Elena Goukassian is a copy editor at Aperture Foundation.
Aikaterini Gegisian’s Handbook of the Spontaneous Other was published by MACK in March 2020. All images courtesy the artist and MACK.