Ira Melkonyan is a Ukrainian multidisciplinary artist and theater maker with a degree in microbiology and virology. She is a founding member of the Rubberbodies Collective, which started out in Malta and currently is also based in the Netherlands. Earlier this year, when the editors of V/A talked to Melkonyan for the first time, she had suddenly found herself confronted with her Ukrainian heritage due to the war, which previously had not necessarily been of great importance to her. She drew up a personal map of artists, thinkers and practitioners for V/A – a personal sphere of influence that was important right after the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion in February. Now, a few months later, the independent dramaturge and writer Maria Rößler followed up with Melkonyan to ask her how the ongoing war changed her perspective about her political artistic practice as well as how to approach the concept of nation states and cultural heritage from a decolonial point of view.
MARIA RÖßLER In recent years, you have been continuously researching and experimenting with the performative qualities and potential of the human body and non-human material – or perhaps we can say more-than-human material assemblages or laboratories. How would you describe your approach to artistic research and performance?
IRA MELKONYAN I recently read a reference to a book on Indigenous research methods where the author describes research as “a ceremony for improving your relationship with an idea.” I think that this is a perfect description of artistic research. As a metaphor, it resonates with how I would like to approach art-making. The notion of ceremony implies a particular, structured temporality and special attention. There is both a known frame (we all know what happens at a wedding, a funeral, an art awards presentation, etc.) and a certain illogical, associative meandering that is accepted, appreciated, and ritualized. I also like to think of my artworks as cosmologies, as an act of world-building, which allows for a complex layering of themes and ideas that seem unrelated at first glance but eventually turn out to ‘cohabitate.’
I believe that the totality of my experiences in this world find their way into my art-making. Apart from initiating and creating artistic work myself and supporting other artists’ practices through collaboration, I also work as a laboratory practitioner with pharmaceutical medicines; I identify as a woman, and I live in a foreign country… All of this plays a role in how un/comfortably or in/dependently I live life and make art. For example, when the pandemic started and gigs were canceled or postponed, all of a sudden, the alarm bells of my migrant consciousness were ringing so much louder than my audacious, independence-loving inner voice. I needed some stability, which resulted in finding myself working in a lab again. I think that having that practice back in my life affects what I am fantasizing about in my artistic work at the moment. Currently, my universe revolves around citizen science, hacking technologies, and DIY health screening tools more than ever before.
MR Leading up to this, what have been the most central artistic interests for you throughout these past few years, and how did they manifest in your projects?
IM At the very center of my artistic universe lies the word “liquid,” which branches out into an investigation of borders, control, climate, ecology, human bodies, and sensuality. The title of a series of manifestations resulting from this research is Upstairs Geology (2017-2021). It’s an adaptable performance installation created with thickened and colored water, ropes, pumps, and soundscapes in constellations with gravity, various weather conditions, sunlight, snow, rain, the bacterial strand Xanthomonas Campestris, and sometimes people. In fact, people mainly do the labor to set up all that is needed for the more-than-human assemblage to work. For me, this artwork means spending time with metaphors of floods and natural disasters, with the long tradition of ignoring, repressing, and taming the uncontrollable emanations of compound bodies – their sounds, smells, mucus – with a hysterical will to control and to solidify borders, or to qualify “leakages” as good and useful or dirty and undesired on a binary scale. In the constructed cosmology of Upstairs Geology, human biological liquids – such as urine, breast milk, ejaculate, vaginal lubrication – are often equated with the experience of a disturbed and leaking planet with its torrential rains, melting ice, and turbulent oceanic currents; Jane Bennet’s seminal work on assemblages and vibrant matter is definitely on the mental map of my practice. But I think that my artistic exploration of organic matter is very much informed by my laboratory practice, where scientific investigations are usually conducted with an attitude of taming, controlling, and closely observing matter. And conversely, laboratory aesthetics and metaphors often find their space in my performance works.
As a natural progression from Upstairs Geology, I am currently focusing on biological liquids, specifically blood and hormones, with the many complex and poetic themes surrounding them, including ideas of being rooted, cultural belonging, and lineage. Initially, my desire to engage with blood was triggered by an incident of medical violence and gatekeeping. In response, I would like to develop a DIY kit for gynecological health and hormonal blood analysis as part of my current project which, for now, I imagine as a mix of drag performance, poetic science, and hacking medical technologies.
MR You talk about medical violence and gatekeeping. What do you mean by this? And do you think that a DIY approach could improve our understanding of or our access to gynecological health?
IM I observe a tendency of expecting workers to carry out more and more policing functions on top of their usual professional tasks in Western society. Whether as an assistant manager in a take-away restaurant or as a teacher, workers are expected to take on extra ‘guard duties,’ keeping watch for their bosses (private and governmental) to ensure the flow of capital. The Dutch medical system is organized so that patients do not have direct access to any specialized care unless a general medical practitioner prescribes it. On the one hand, this prevents the over-medicalization of society, unnecessary treatments, and medical interventions. On the other hand, there is a tendency of refusing further check-ups where it may be discovered later that a more careful prophylactic approach could have prevented health complications. Such refusal goes hand in hand with the insurance companies’ economic benefits. Doctors end up guarding patients’ access to treatments as they are balancing the interests of the medical system and the patients’ health.
Moreover, there is a lack of biological knowledge and ethical protocol for how to deal with different bodies, their possibilities and needs. In particular, I am referring to a doctor’s attempt at consoling me for my gynecological complaints when he literally told me: “Female hormones are a mystery, no one really knows how to deal with them.” No referral to a gynecologist or blood test followed. I felt ignored and dismissed as a young female person who supposedly knows nothing about her own body and its functions. As a way to deal with the rage I felt, I started fantasizing about DIY approaches to my own health as a form of self-empowerment. I am not advocating for the substitution of professional medical knowledge, especially when it concerns one’s life and well-being; yet I am convinced that medical and scientific knowledge cannot be exclusive. This knowledge is not solid and unchangeable; it must transform with life itself and will remain valid only when there is interest and effort in continuous revision and updates. When medical patriarchy takes away my agency or dominates my relationship with my own body, I am forced to find alternatives and ways to protect my rights.
MR Speaking of protection: On 24 February, Russia invaded Ukraine, escalating and spreading the violence that had begun much earlier and that now affects the entire country, forcing Ukrainians to defend themselves in this war and causing millions of people to leave their homes in search of safety. You were born and raised in the seaport city Odesa, which also suffered severe military attacks. How did these events reach and affect you and the things you do? As an Ukrainian artist living in Amsterdam, in what ways do you perceive and respond to the war and its consequences?
IM The news of the war and its development has become part of my life now. It also meant a quite visceral realization of my privileges: the fact that I already live in a safe place (although this is not how I perceived it at all before the outbreak of the war and particularly at the onset of the pandemic). I don’t need to flee; my body is not in immediate danger of missiles or explosions; I don’t need to undergo the forced process of displacement in order to stay alive, etc. ‘Privileges’ such as being able to communicate comfortably in English and pull together my international professional and social networks, all this quickly allowed me to take on an urgent and straightforward attitude toward sharing and supporting others. I find myself translating, sending part of my earnings to causes I believe in, coordinating transport, accommodation, and medical treatments for friends and family members who left Ukraine, and also staying in touch with those who decided to stay or return. People from my international artistic network have reached out repeatedly, offering various platforms to raise and sustain awareness about the ongoing war. I find this kind of ‘cultural diplomacy’ important, yet I also have to admit that it is new for me.
MR Did your relationship with your country of origin change in any way over these past months?
IM Nation states have never been a compelling concept for me, along with the solidification of borders and state control, which were suspect to me from the perspective of migration. And suddenly I was confronted with questions of belonging to a nation whose state is under attack and whose borders are being violated. Obviously, I experienced that as deeply wrong and traumatic. I started asking myself questions about being rooted in a culture and my relationship to the land I was born in. Momentarily, my dislike of nation states and my pain for Ukraine meet somewhere in between, in a place where people are fighting for the right to live on the land they tend to, the land they know well, with a reciprocal relationship that goes back in time. It is a land that has been exploited and used as a resource for centuries by several imperial powers.
Asia Bazdyrieva’s recent article “No Milk, No Love” was helpful for me in bridging ecological and decolonial approaches: “The popular image of Ukraine as the ‘breadbasket’ of Europe is an apt example of a socio-technical imaginary that enables the making of a resource. A product of the hybrid of European and Soviet modernities—each of which in its own way mapped and imaged the territories that are present-day Ukraine—this breadbasket image evolved through the parallel processes of geological prospecting and territorial imagination. It envisions the infinitely fertile black soil and mineral richness of a land that could easily feed the whole world, an inexhaustible resource unconditionally given by nature. The presumed, automatic inclusion of the territories, their soils, their mineral deposits, and their populations in material transactions between colonial powers has contributed to the emergence of regimes of material power that prevail today through constant reinvention.”
MR Given all the work that you do in support of people who are more directly affected by this war, on top of the basic necessity to sustain your own life in Amsterdam, to what extent has it been possible for you to pursue your artistic plans and practices this year?
IM Working on my art has been a fragmented process in the last months, while the desire to pursue artistic plans is present and even stronger than before, fertilized by all the new and often painful impressions that demand to be articulated and externalized. I feel I am in a constant flux of emotions, communication, and practical assistance to people in need while also trying to nurture the poles that my life orbited around before the war began. Identifying and taking care of the ‘pre-war’ activities that still matter today also gives me the strength to support those who are in a more precarious situation. Making space and time for artistic practice is one of these poles that give me a sense of cohesion in the current and ever-shifting experience of world affairs.
I find myself constantly re-formulating and getting firmer in my ‘pre-war’ inspirations and views. For example, I am strongly convinced of the necessity to think beyond binaries, but I find it a much more delicate process now. War violence asks for binaries; it doesn’t leave much space for the gentle and soft shades of pastel (which I used to love). Today, one must be firm in recognizing and naming the perpetrator in order to gather forces, resist, fight back, defend, and protect oneself. One must be clear in their moral position yet be critical of propaganda. It is a delicate dance between determination and introspection. There was a brief moment when I wondered whether my inspirations in non-human performativity, ecological thinking, and fluidity might be too weak and irrelevant in response to physical brutality and military destruction. Yet, I learned to reaffirm that my core beliefs cannot fall victim to this violence, to draw strength and empowerment from the principles I choose to practice, and that it is ok to gradually learn to formulate these principles more precisely along the way.
The traditional narratives offered by the Ukrainian government in this moment of emergency – such as “men are our heroes who fight and die for the nation, while women must flee to save the children, because children are our future, our reason to live and our guarantee to live on” – do not resonate with me and did not offer me a source of motivation. For some reason, acknowledging and regularly re-asserting that what I am witnessing is ‘wrong,’ ‘evil,’ ‘horrible’ started feeling like a dead-end to me. While I believe that violence is hardly ever justified and that violence does not get ‘better’ or less violent just by looking at it through any particular lens, the somewhat daring question, “Is it possible to queer violence?”, opened up a possibility for me to move beyond the pain and desperation that I felt due to my daily intake of news about exploding missiles and pictures of dead, bleeding, and raped bodies. I needed to go beyond simple binaries and find a coping strategy, not negating the horror but going on despite it all. So the thought of ‘queering violence’ asks for alternative narratives, possibilities, and new motivation.
In my current artistic research, I seek to connect some dots between blood, medical violence on female and queer bodies, and the violence of war. In some ways, I am continuing a process that has already started with Upstairs Geology and thinking with liquids. Now I feel the need to de-emphasize harmony and to embrace chaos even more, not as an act of surrender or resolution but as a source of empowerment and agency while ‘acting together with’ forces bigger than human. War definitely feels bigger than me. I am curious how to shift from destruction to a more capacity-building anarchic understanding of chaos.