Les Réverbères de la Mémoire – Interview with Stéphane Kristensen

Q: You are the co-ordinator for Les Réverbères. Could you tell us about this project?
Les Réverbères [Street Lamps] is a project to erect a public art monument to mark the common memory of the Armenians and the citizens of Geneva. We share a common history going back more than a century. There was an Armenian presence in Geneva as early as the 1880s. For example, between 1896 and 1908, i.e. for more than ten years, the western headquarters of the Armenian revolutionary party was located in Geneva. The party was banned in the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Abdul Hamid II after the great massacres of 1894‒1896, and shortly after its creation it went into exile. At that time there were already many students and Armenian activists in Geneva, and there was genuine sympathy for them among the local population. During the Genocide, for instance, much was written about it in the local press, and after the Genocide a number of orphans and survivors found refuge in the region, which can be recognized as a second wave of building up the local Armenian community. It’s an interesting story, rather diverse, and this was the starting point for this project.
Secondly, it was a challenge. The initiative came from the Armenian community, and a proposal that I made with my wife, Anna Berigian, who is also an artist. The idea was to innovate by coming up with an approach to a monument different from those that one finds around the world.
We wished to get out of the logic of revenge, and therefore proposed a different, non-traditional approach where a monument becomes a work of art in itself. A worldwide competition was launched addressed to a number of international renowned and contemporary ― not necessarily Armenian ― artists. The best piece was chosen by an international jury. The idea was to abandon the logic of revenge, get out of the community logic. We have had a productive partnership with the city, particularly the Service for Culture and Public Spaces.
Q: Therefore, it is not necessarily a memorial for the Armenian Genocide as most people might think?
It is a memorial that is not looking to the past, but it has a theme. It demonstrates an experience that we often find among others in Geneva, not only among the Armenians. The Armenians suffered this experience in a very intense way, but there are a lot of other people who have experienced exile and collective wounds. So the idea is, from this singular experience, to exhibit a form of universality, to share this type of experience, and especially to get out of the “victim” status ― and that of revenge.
Of course, the story of what happened is not completely absent from the project, but this is not the only aspect nor the central issue. Focusing only on the past is a trap that the Armenians have often fallen into, as if the world had stopped turning since the First World War. In any case, there is a history of Armenian exile and Diaspora that was going on throughout the nineteenth century, even if it is story of chaotic dispersion. It is also worthy of being represented because it is a story of contact and sharing with others. This cannot be the history of a single event. This is another reason why we wished to have a formal monument of both a national and international character, not necessarily taking the form of the traditional Armenian cross carved on stone or wood, as if we are a separate group of humanity ― which is absurd. It is a little more complex because it also represents the intricacy of the history of the last century.
Q: You’re well advanced with this project. Where will it be located?
In fact, it has been a very long process. It began with a text, which was voted unanimously by the City Council of Geneva in May 2008. Following this vote, a working party was set up with the Director of the Municipal Funds for Contemporary Art, and representatives of the Armenian community, to establish the specifications for the competition, the list of artists to be invited to participate, and subsequently to address the issue of locating the monument.
Those who know Geneva are aware that it is a very dense city full of all kinds of monuments, sculptures and works of art on many sites. On each street there is a bust, a sculpture or something. This is why we have taken our time. We launched the contest in March 2010 ― the whole process took a year and a half. It took a lot of meetings, contacts with artists ― a long process.
The jury took its decision in December 2010. The problem which then arose was that of the location ― originally it was going to be at the Bastion St Antoine, but this raised a lot of opposition. Some people did not agree that a contemporary monument should be placed on an emblematic mediaeval site in Geneva. Cultural heritage is a very sensitive issue in Geneva politics.
So we had to find another location, which explains the delay. The cultural services of the city identified another site ‒‒ the Park Ariana in the neighbourhood of the United Nations. Indeed, the Committee on Monuments and Sites and others believed that the monument would find its natural place in the vicinity of the United Nations, given the nature of such a monument marking Geneva’s international relations, etc. The park also has the advantage of being fully owned by the city and is not a classified heritage site. Then the artist had to reformulate and adapt the project according to the specifications of this new site. Now the project is ready and we should start work soon.
Q: When it comes to funding, who is going to pay for it?
Funding is also an important chapter. The agreement also included in the text of the motion was that the cost of the competition was covered by the city. In practice, the Armenian community will find funding for the realization of the work. The cost of implementation is of the order of CHF500,000. We are lucky to have a community that is generally affluent, supportive and is able to come together and mobilize itself for a major project.
Q: One could say that you are abandoning the role of victim to become one who stretches out his hand to others.
Yes, it is a good way of summarizing it, and I think this is one aspect that really motivates the launching of this project. This is a concern that many of us in the community share. Indeed, it is important to get out of this “victim” identity and turn towards the future. We have often been confronted with the rhetoric of the Turkish state, which I might summarize as follows: forget the past and let us look to the future together. Obviously you cannot build a common ground by forgetting the past because it will reappear in one way or another whether you like it or not. If we accept the past, we can also work and give it unexpected forms. This is an absolutely fundamental issue for Armenians and other people today who have also suffered great injustices or major trauma. We are far from being alone; we can think of the Jews, the Palestinians and others. It is a really important issue to get out of the victim role without denying or forgetting the past. We therefore need to be open and reach out to others, and from this experience a fundamental meaning of this monument is that it is a place to share experiences.
Do you see the paradox? You cannot share an experience in the absolute without its context; you can always share it from a singular experience that follows and when it put in relation to others. That’s what is important.