Sunday, October 25, 2009

Stumbled Upon A Publication

I stumbled upon an article I had written for the Armenian Weekly. I didn't know they published this. Thought I'd share.
Link -


By Raffi Wartanian
"The Armenian Weekly", Volume 74, No. 26, July 5, 2007

Just a week ago I had the opportunity to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) under special circumstances in our nation’s capitol for the very first time. Through an organization called Humanity in Action (HIA), I received a fellowship to research and report on minority rights issues in France with a team of 10 fellows. The start of the program took place in Washington, D.C., where we devoted two afternoons to visiting the USHMM.

As for the special circumstance: Each day’s visit was followed by a question and answer session with three individuals who played an instrumental role in designing the museum—from the mise en scène to the selection of relevant historical information. These individuals included Dr. Joan Ringelheim, the museum’s former director of oral history and curatorial affairs; Dr. Severin Hochberg, historian at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the USHMM; and Sarah Ogilvie, director of the Institute for Holocaust Education.

The opportunity to pick the brains of these experts about their work on the museum since its congressional authorization in 1980 yielded fascinating information that otherwise would not have been evident from a standard visit to the exhibition.

I write this article because I want to share the fascinating things I learned. Genocide remembrance and commemoration are intricate issues that Armenians, Jews, Bosnians, and other victim groups of mass violence alike must confront and thoughtfully consider.

Throughout my life, I had heard the USHMM was not a pleasant place. Could it ever be? The very content of a Holocaust museum will inevitably cause a cringe, even in the most stoic of individuals. I thought that as an Armenian confronted by genocide and denialism my entire life, I might be less effected by the exhibition than the average viewer. It was a near-sighted expectation. Like many, I left the museum with a pit in my stomach—dazed, confused, shocked.

It turned out that Ringelheim, Hochberg, and Ogilvie(whom I will dub “the designers”) anticipated my response. The museum was, in fact, designed to evoke feelings of confinement, speechlessness, and remorse. The museum’s architerual layout was designed to reflect the architecture common to many concentration camps. Red bricks smeared with shades of grey jutted from a cold cement wall. Balconies overhead, naroowing staircases, and modest lamps evoked a powerful sense of confinement. The designers had hoped to set a melancholic tone complimentary to the exhibition’s dark content.

The narrowing staircase leading to the exhibition’s beginning was meant to mimic the train tracks leading to the entrance of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. A large engraving of a quotation from the Old Testament’s book of Isaiah situated next to the staircase read, “You are my witnesses.”

“If you’re a witness, you have to speak up, “ Ringelheim insisted. No matter what the scale, bystanders of injustice, she argued, should not sink into complacency. They must do what they can to stand up for the marginalized and disenfranchised, whether it is something as simple as calling a government representative, or something more consuming of our time and resources, like sending a care package to a locale of widespread suffering or housing refugees fleeing persecution.

The texts throughout the exhibition were penned in a way to keep the explanations as objective as possible. Adjectives were intentionally omitted. The attrocities speak for themselves, the designers explained, and the immense repository of historical artifacts (photographs, letters, deportation documents, and even shoes to name a few) depicted the tragedy far greater than any dramatic, adjective-laden text could have.

Historians, journalists, and human rights activists were not considered the target audience for the museum. Rather, it is the average American, « the farmer from Kansas, » Ringelheim noted. The exhibition is neither highly politicized, dramatized, nor manipulative. It is a rather straight forward rendering of a very sensative subject.

One question the designers grappled with was how to define a Jew. Reformist, Orthodox, Hassidic; from Russia, from Yugoslavia, from France, the Jews were not centralized in a single location nor did they manifest a uniform interpretation of their religion. Focusing on specific elements of European Jewry necessarily left out some of its other aspects. The practical limitations of presenting a topic as dense and vast as the Holocaust inevtiably led to the exclusion of important pieces of the narrative. Descriptions of Jews in Western Europe, Yiddish culture, and Jewish women were all topics the designers wished they could have spent more time exploring in the exhibition.

Interestingly, the USHMM’s first director, Jeshajahu Weinberg, had been a theater director in Israel where he had also done work designing the Jewish museums in Berlin and Warsaw before coming to America. Weinberg’s approach emphasized the visual language of the exhibition: the layout of documents, the organization of information level by level, the mise en scène of each room and between multiple rooms. Once in a while, empty rooms interrupt the progression of various sections, intended to allow a pause for the viewer, a space to decompress, to reflect—a tragey’s intermission.

The children’s section of the museum focuses on the story of a single individual, Daniel. We learned that, in fact, Daniel was a fictive character. His narrative was a composite of the experiences of many Jewish children, fused and edited to provide a character with which younger viewers can relate.

I asked the designers a question that has always occured to me whenever I’ve visited a museum, studied a photograph in a history textbook, or pondered the “certainty of history.” To what extent, I asked, have you postulated on the text descriptions accompanying photographs throughout the exhibition? I’ve always wondered how historians and curators assembled stories about photographs that seem suspended in time and place.

A scene of a Nazi guard standing next to a head priest and other monks sitting on the ground in a church courtyard. The caption at the USHMM for this image offered a specific year, a specific country, and explained that the priests were about to be sent to a death camp. The caption was quite specific for a photograph that seemed to me difficult to place.

The designers admitted that, as in most situations, the best a historian can do for a photograph lacking overt contextual indications is to carefully analyze the image. Who are the characters? What are are they wearing? What can we assume about their relationship? What are they doing? Where are they? These are all questions considered when searching for clues to reveal the identity of a historical photograph. Remaining uncertainties, the designers said, must be estimated to the best of our ability.

History is not as clear cut of an issue as many of us would like to believe. Competing interpretations, the manipulation of documents, and the obscuring of signifcant details begs a confrontation and reexamination of perceptions of history as fact.

But as humans, we need history. We need memory. Are the two mutually exclusive, or do they belong to the same cognitive constructs swirling between our synapses? History and memory consolidate identity, justify sentiments of belonging, and contribute to rationalizing our decisions. To throw into doubt such a critical component of our survival is perhaps more than the evolved human can tolerate and accept. But we must ask.

Our experience speaking with some of the USHMM’s designers revealed not just a wealth of fascinating facts about the museum, but penetrated to the depths of questions surrounding histor and memory.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Joe's Blues

This is a Joe Pass tune that took me a year to learn; still working out some kinks. Played on my sweet $60 Dr Pepper.

working on a song - "Brother"

It's called "Brother" played on my $60 Dr Pepper guitar I found through Craigslist :). This is just the music. There are lyrics too :). I took some percussive techniques used by Paul Sprawl and when I record this, I intend to include a doumbek for richer percussive textures, casiotone mt-68 synth, affected prayer bowl, bicycle pump, strings, and so on. This is a rough draft so all suggestions are welcome :).

Monday, October 12, 2009

San Francisco Litquake Festival Lecture

Just heard an awesome lecture at the San Francisco Lit Quake Festivals' "Roundtable Discussion with Publishing Industry Professionals: How To Publish Your First Book" - an important perspective on the reality of a life in the arts.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Birthday Blues

Yesterday was my 23rd birthday. Here are some words I wrote in my notebook:

"It's the next 23 years of my life that will define my work, they will perhaps be the 23 most vibrant, engaged years of my life. How many 23-year cycles am I entitled to? Oh, near-quarter-life-crisis, I feel your hand's grip on my coronary artery, sucking the air from my lungs, forcing me to confront mortality's moonlike presence. 46 + 23 = 69 - maybe I'll make it. 23 after that? 92...umm...I don't know to even imagine that. When I consider my journey over the past year, the prospect of a new year enlivens me, 365 more days to step into a building whose general contour mark the only apparent quality. The insides of that building - the people, the rooms, the aches and joys, the love and hate, its essence, its innards - will be revealed as each second in the new year elapses. Last year this time I was in Milan, Italy. My sister had just married, I was with my parents and grandmother and mokour Karine and digin Janet. There was a job offer - to move to Armenia and overtake directing the Janapar Trail in the Nagorno Karabagh Republic (, but ultimately that fell through because job funding was lost. On October 10, 2008, the last place I expected to end up was in San Francisco with a different, equally special Karin, and I truly wonder where I will be October 10, 2010. That would be 10/10/2010; the alignment of numbers terrifies me. There's a numerical significance to it that I can't yet wrap my mind around. Dread morphs into excitement when I zoom in to focus on one year increments, morphed back into dread when I zoom out to analyze greater structures of chronology, narrative, life. Some live in the past, some in the present, some in the future. I strive for balance, aware that there are people in my life who cause me to analyze one aspect more than the other, further aware that a special few help me find that balance. I have many goals before reaching 24 - they involve a book I hand wrote in Lebanon that I'm still typing up, a huge pile of poetry I'm still editing, a new screenplay, musical dreams - there is a key to this, a realization Karin made that is alarmingly true. Later is now. No more saying "I'll do it later." This implies a promised future. If there's something I feel I need to do, I do it now. Later is now. If I had to guess where I'll be next year, it's either San Francisco, Los Angeles, or New York. I have some notions of circumstance, but dare not speak them. Not yet.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

New Project: Peace Bullets

Wow, I feel so neglectful for not posting for almost two months. Amot indz.
I live in San Francisco now and have an AWESOME room in the Lower Haight neighborhood. I've never lived somewhere so beautiful and inspiring - a neighborhood brimming with art and ideas and energy - love it.

At Burning Man, which I realize I need to write posts about, I went on a day trip expedition thirty miles away from the festival into the desert where we saw the Black Rock, once an economic center for Indian traders (I wrote a poem called "Artifiction" about this experience). A few miles up were mini-playas which are essentially mini-deserts inside of mountains. In them I found lots and lots of bullets that I collected and later decided to shape them into a PEACE symbol. Below is a photo of the formation. My plan is to put the bullets on a canvas (or maybe pierce it) with a poem about peace/war written in many lanuages on the canvas. Then throw some red paint on it. When it's done I'll have pics, but for now, enjoy a photo of it at its infantile state.

There it is on the corner of the table from a distance. That's my new decoupage table, by the way. More on that later.

Close up. Bullets are soooo dusty and old and different shapes and sizes - the central one was from a shotgun, I don't know about the others.