Book Club – Anush Babajanyan, The House of Culture

Anush Babajanyan is in conversation with Ziyah Gafic for a VII Insider Book Club event discussion of her handmade book The House of Culture.

Anush photographed the House of Culture series in Armenian villages, in locations where performances, theatre, art classes took place years ago. Many of these houses do not function anymore yet have not been removed. Anush photographed Houses of Culture to bring together the connection of the human and the houses themselves, to speak about the past through her present emotions. The process of photography was also a meditative experience for her at a turbulent time in her life.

Anush has brought the project together in a handmade book, which she presents here. In addition to the images and the story itself, Anush speaks about the process of binding and producing the book.



Ziyah Gafic: Thank you very much for joining us, Anush. And today’s topic is actually one very close to my own country. It’s a book, it’s a very special book, and I’m just going to give a little bit of background to those who don’t know, what House of Culture is, in general terms. House of Culture, is a project that was kind of launched in late 50s, by then left or socialist government, French government and the idea was to democratize the culture, and to move away the culture from the big centers like Paris. So what they did is they organized, funded, constructed hundreds and 1000s of these houses of cultures, or maison de la culture, pardon my French. And the idea, like I said, was to basically take the culture to the high culture that used to be reserved for capital cities. And for more, let’s say, by association, wealthier and more educated audience and to take it out in the, let’s say, more rural, smaller, even, let’s say countryside. Now, that’s all happened, that was all happening thanks to the initiative of André Malraux. And it was happening in around ’59 and onwards, both Anush and I are coming from former socialist countries me coming from country that used to be called Yugoslavia, and now it’s called Bosnia and I know she’s coming from Armenia. Now, a lot of socialist countries took over this idea of bringing the culture to the apologize for this, to bring the culture to the places where you usually wouldn’t see it. In this case, let’s say rural areas and so that hence, they build 1000s of these houses of cultures across the country, I think only in former Yugoslavia, we had like, around 1500. And they would basically take the art from the National Museum, national galleries, and bring it and show it to peasants and workers and so on, and that worked for a while. But then what they noticed is that often, the audience which they were targeting, which is this, let’s say, less educated, more sort of working class, audience wasn’t always.. wasn’t always responding in a right way to this high culture that was being brought to these venues. And so they made an adjustment, at least in my part of the world in former Yugoslavia. And they decided to make those houses of culture places where local associations, amateur theaters, and so on would perform and thus it would be sort of grassroot culture. So in a way, the relate.. the concept was almost as if it was reversed in just before handing over to Anush. In Bosnian, Yugoslavia, these houses of culture were so massive. They were huge, well funded, state funded. And at some point, they were the principal means or the principal venues in these less populous, small, rural areas. Anyway, so that’s sort of a short introduction into what House of Culture is. And I would like to give a word to Anush. And tell us a little bit about this very special book, which is a book that it’s handmade, and it’s made to order. So I’m going to post here a link for everyone. Should everyone, should anyone like to purchase of purchase a copy of it, and Anush, welcome so can you, just before we get into the all the specifics of how this special book is made, can you share a little bit of your experience about these houses of culture compared to what I just said, and what the role they had in in, in former Yugoslavia?


Anush Babajanyan: Yes, yes. Yes. Thank you, for this introduction, it’s very interesting for me, I, when I was getting ready for this conversation, it really didn’t cross my mind. And I completely forgot that you are very familiar with this topic as well, with the houses of culture. Because, yeah, I mean, for me, this is something that the post Soviet countries have. But you’re right, in terms of the post socialist world as well. So it’s interesting to learn. Also, that in your beginning, the beginning of your conversation, you mentioned that they tried to bring actual art into this houses, because in my knowledge, I didn’t know about art, but I do know that, like theater troupes and dance performances would, you know, when they traveled, this is where they would perform, not only from cities and towns, but also local ones. So this was, you know, these were places for these performances for exhibitions, but also in many ways for they served as educational purposes as well for local children. And yeah, so in the cities, this were rather clubs in, you know, every in different parts of towns, but their houses of culture, were in the villages in post Soviet area, in villages, and there was only one in each village. And they were sometimes here they call them like the club with like, the village club, sometimes, when I would look for one this is this is how I would ask, and they would show me one. So in Armenia, many houses actually do operate. There are there is some funding, but not directly for these houses, not by the Ministry of Culture. But the it’s the funding that the local municipality receives. And if they choose to our cake budget to do something with the House of Culture, they will other if if, but a lot of times, they don’t. So a lot of these houses just stay as they are. And it’s also sort of expensive to just destroy them and clean the area. And then other times, you know, they stay with the hope that after all, the head of the village maybe will allocate it will do something about it. So these are the houses that I actually focused on the ones that are not taking care of where nothing is happening, but which do you, in my imagination, in my understanding and feeling carry with memory of the past?


Ziyah: How many are still functional? In whatever capacity like as in their own right, not in whatever capacity but in their original, you know, scope? And meaning? Like, how many are still houses of culture, or? Yeah, what’s the general state of that?


Anush: Well, I wouldn’t know about the whole post Soviet space but I’d say in Armenia, probably around, maybe 10 to 20% are functioning, while most are just not taken care of, because of it being a bit expensive. Not a bit but pretty expensive. I’ll keep this open while we speak, so that you can also experience some of the images.


Ziyah: So are you saying that… So are you saying that this original concept of houses of cultures as places of, as the word says culture is kind of abandoned? Or it’s just for lack of funding, or it’s just sort of passe kind of approach to the culture?


Anush: Yes, yes. That is basically what happens that is the consequence. The consequence is that culture outside the city is abandoned, basically, centralized again, if the purpose was to decentralize, that has reversed and now everything is again, in our case in the capital, Yerevan, in the second largest city, maybe in the third, but rarely in the villages in the rural areas And it’s not only culture, it’s just you know, when a country is going through economical hardships, fail, all through its independence in the culture is definitely not a priority.


Ziyah: Yeah, I think that’s the same goes for what I think it’s it is priority when it comes to spread. It is priority when it comes to defending the the culture and art, but just to get back. Just to go back to the part where you said that you’ve that you’ve photographed this book on, on the phone. I mean, with the phone camera. I mean, obviously, there are other examples where photographers used phones as a primary camera, like Brown Sugar, Michael Christopher Brown, and so on. But I’m just curious, why did you opt for, for a phone? Just curious, why did you decide to shoot it on the phone?


Anush: It was, it was an artistic decision. That’s sometimes not very straightforward to explain. I wanted the image just to be square. And well, my camera doesn’t it, of course, we cannot always be with the images can always be cropped. But the iPhone did did have this, the former iPhones have the square crop that came just naturally, it doesn’t anymore. And I photographed with it a lot and I decided to just keep the whole book photographed that way. I did, I did take pictures with my camera as well, the 35 millimeter, not the 35 film, it’s a digital camera. But in the end, in order to keep things consistent, I just kept the images and most was either way photographed on the phone. So in the end, it all came together this way.


Ziyah: So for people who don’t know, so the book is entirely made by you, right? You actually conceived the book photograph the book, designed, I assume you also design it you also printed binder than you do the whole the whole process, right?


Anush: Yes, yes.


Ziyah: Would you mind if I, before asking a few questions, do you mind if I share a clip of how the book is made? Is that okay?


Anush: Of course. This is the website of the book. Yeah, there I have a few.


So while we’re watching this, I wonder, how long it takes you to create a single copy of the book. Can you put it in hours?


Anush: If I constantly worked, yeah, If I do it all the time, it will take me a day. And I can describe the process to you as well what happens? So this is the beginning of it. Yes, this is the beginning of it when I stitch the title, the House of Culture. And my grandmother told me to do this very easy cross stitch, you know, the thing that it’s just easy with these threads called moline. And then yes, I have to use those little squares so that the text is goes in a straight line. And that’s how I then separate it and this material is going to become the cover. It is then put together with cardboard glued together and like to pieces and they become the cardboard.


Ziyah: May I ask, why did you decide to go this way so to speak? Instead of the what we like to call traditional way of doing books and you know, chasing the publisher raising funds, one way or the other, and so on, may I ask, why did you decide to go this way? I mean, it’s obviously I mean, I love it. And I think it’s it’s a beautiful because it becomes an art piece in itself but I’m just wondering why. Why put yourself every time through this.


Anush: Right. Yes, because this the experience of photographing the book as I told you was a personal For me, it just meant everything. It really helped me and brought me back together. Once I completed this body of work around that, I think in 2017, or ’18, I realized that if I’m going to make the book, it’s going to be a personal experience. Again, it would need to be that’s how everything was coming together. And so I decided to go this way. So everything is done by me but the of course, I print these images on this special paper, which is not really photo paper, it is called newsprint, this type of paper. So the printer is next door, I print the pages like these are the pages. Or you can’t see me. Yeah, so I’ll explain more about the process. But basically, the reason is that this was too personal for me to go through the process of doing this through a printing house but I’m working on a book now that I want to publish in a more.. What was the word that you used?


Ziyah: Let’s use the word, conventional.


Anush: Conventional way.


Ziyah: Would you like sharing with us a few favorite shots or whatever you feel like from the book?


Anush: Yeah, yeah. So the here I will.


Ziyah: And while you’re doing that, while you while you’re doing that, let me just say to everyone who’s here, if you have any questions for Anush, or, anyone here, please use Q&A box, rather than chatroom, and then we will convey those questions for Anush. Yes. Okay.


Anush: So at the beginning, yes. Yeah, so basically, this is the description of the book, it’s very short. And it the idea is not to do a lot of text, what’s not to do a lot of text, but to focus on images that I do explain how this was a journey through memory, and how it was both, it was a bit to raise awareness about the fact that so many beautiful buildings are just, you know, left and nothing is happening with them. But at the same time, it was something that was a bit of therapy. So this is one of the images that really somehow connects with people, usually, and this is a Culture House in a pretty large village called (name of village), it’s a half an hour from the Capitol, Yerevan, and its hole is just really large, you can see it from the chairs, you can see the dimensions. And then on top it had this socialists symbols. And this is not very common, usually the situation is a bit less understandable, like they used to look a little older. But this one was very large. And then because maybe because the village is just a large one, so was the house, but usually they’re a little smaller. This one was almost the kind of building that could be in a city, you know, like a big theater, that type of place. Then, in some of the houses, there were maybe one or two people, there were libraries. So in this village called Gusanagyugh, more in the north of Armenia, only this was used as a library, and this woman was the librarian so the books were all really old from the Soviet times just as well. Again, a house closer to our third largest city, but this was more more of an element of the curtains photographed from outside. These are people who used to work at houses of culture. The woman on the left, it was the director of this house in the village in Zurich.


Ziyah: Excuse me. I think you’re browsing through the pictures, but I don’t see changing on the screen we keep seeing, I keep seeing just the first one you showed. Are you browsing through the pictures?


Anush: Yes. Yes. You cannot see me change them?


Ziyah: Nope, nope. If you want I can share it for I think I have.


Anush: Let me try this way. Yeah, see now


Ziyah: It’s good. Now it’s going. Yeah, now it’s, it’s working


Anush: So in case, other’s didn’t see it either. So this was the first image of the large culture house in the village, (name of village). This is the small library, the only room that’s used in this house and part of a curtain in culture, (name of village) village. And these people who were friends, though, not a couple, but the woman on the left was the director of a culture house years ago. And, and the person the man was a dance teacher, but rather, what they call the someone who would direct performances, direct dance performances. And that village also didn’t work in this is also the village Gusanagyugh, near the second largest city, Gyumri. They’ll just produce parts of projectors in the cinema on the ground, and the shadow is of my daughter, Ella, who was sitting on my shoulders, with a bucket of flowers. So I had her on my shoulders, and I was taking a picture through the window.


Ziyah: What was I mean, this may be off topic, but not entirely. What do you know? What’s the situation with these houses of culture? In the in the Martakert area? Like, were they all destroyed, destroyed in a conflict? Or do you have any idea what’s what’s happening with them in that area? Because it’s obviously contested, yes, was contested and so on.


Anush: Well, here’s the thing is in Armenia, you’re some of them function, some don’t. I have photographed, remains of house in Marktakert, and one of the largest, larger towns, and really it was, there was not much left, but only the walls, beautiful walls, covered with these mosaics. But Lenin’s head somewhere there in the garden, too. But depends, you know, in some places, they do operate, they do reconstruct them. So it’s very similar picture to the one in Armenia, basically, depending on how the local municipality will decide to allocate their budget. This person used to be a head of Culture House and that house was destroyed not by time, but because of the war. The first Nagorno-Karabakh war, it was close to the border with Azerbaijan. This is another one where I liked, I loved the colors, there’s always something just so mystical in these houses. It partly operated because I saw little girls running into one of the rooms for dance classes there that day. So this is the same house that one of the first pictures have the element of the curtain. So this is the same house from inside. Just outside you can see that, to the extent to which they’re just not used. This is the house that was destroyed during the war. So those are some of the images from the book.


Ziyah: It’s just so interesting to see what happened to met this massive at least I know from from from Yugoslavia, I’m sure it’s pretty much everywhere in so in its former socialist bloc, like what happened to this massive, massive intervention, and attempt to bring, you know, to bring culture to the places where it wasn’t available before and art. And I’m just thinking like how many billions and billions of dollars has been spent into this. I know for a fact that in Bosnia usually, Sasha, I’m just answering the question. Usually the village halls or town halls were separate buildings, but often, not often, but sometimes and these were proper cultural institutions, but sometimes when we are talking about smaller places, then they would have the dual function, meaning they would be placed, you know, for voting if such thing happened, or like, you know, village meetings, town meetings, as well as cultural, as well as a place for cultural events. That’s how it works here. I’m pretty, I assume it works. everywhere else. So I’m curious what, yes, there if our friends from the western part of the world, what do they have to say about this? I mean, were you aware about this? I’m just asking the audience. Were you aware of this concept of the house of culture? I mean, in the in Eastern Europe, it was a massive and in France, and for that matter in Italy, partially, was a massive, massive movement in the 60s and so on, I wonder what was the counterpart in the West, if there was?


Anush: Okay, Gabby Breadman said absolutely not very interesting. And Gabby also said, she’d love to see some pictures. And the way we were planning to also show some from the book. So if this is also these are just either details, or again, the image of Ella here as it was in the PDF, well, these the way it’s printed on this paper, which is called newsprint, it’s not very white paper. So but more into the feeling of something that’s our cars, something that’s not off today. And it’s not glossy either. So I wanted to give it that kind of a feeling. This is also an image that you saw. And that is also why the stitch of the book is sort of, I didn’t want it to look very contemporary, I like the way you mentioned, because if it was published in a more standard manner, it wouldn’t have this feel and I wanted it to take us back somewhere, not to have anything connected with today. And that’s why this stitching which I learned from my grandmother, that’s why the H is sort of always dropped a little bit, because the house like the house is dropped and abandoned. And the stitch here, it’s called coptic stitch, it’s a very easy one, but it keeps the book really tight together, and the pages never fall apart. And the the papers also not too thick, but not not too thin to be, like torn. So I’ll go through some more of the images. If anyone is interested in the process in more detail, I can definitely, they can write to me and I can let them know. Even in the very beginning the I wanted to do the cover out of why the covers made of velvet, again, because this reminds me of that Soviet time in the beginning for the first two books and found velvet from that time from 80s and 90s even. Well, 90s is already post Soviet but but then I realized he was it was too difficult for me to keep searching for that material all the time. And I just started to buy ordinary relic. Again, the library here, and see, this is a diptych of that same image that I show, but one closer and one a little farther. I do that a couple of times where I try to show a bit of movement


Anush: And the book is a bit less affordable this way because it’s handmade, instead of the usual, maybe $50, $60, $70, it’s $200. But that’s because of the whole effort I take to make it and and then every time someone orders it. I can put my heart into each book. I can if I know the person I can think of them, I usually write a message to the person who ordered. So turns into this communication into this additional experience every time I make it. The books are also limited, there are five, there are going to be 500 copies. This one is 37 out of 500. Yes, this is a picture about how, how a construction starts merging with nature, it’s starting to be green and mold. And here I have a bit of text, nature goes into the house becomes moss, the house deteriorates becomes nature, eventually and essentially, about how if we don’t do anything about these houses, nature just takes over. So you see, in the process, the the project became less informative, and again, a diptych. This is an image of the same wall, less informative and more about experience in the house. And I even thought of maybe like mapping these houses and inviting people to just go walk through them and experience everything themselves, you know, everything that I could feel emotionally. The this comes if you’re alone, this happens.


Ziyah: Here’s a practical question, how did you learn how to make books?


Anush: How to make it well, as soon as I decided to, to do this, I taught myself how to do it. So first, I began with the covers, I decided this, right? That is going to be velvet. And then I asked myself, and in general how I’m going to make the cover. And I think for the cover, I probably looked up a tutorial, learned how to put it together with the silicone glue. I don’t know if you can see it, but put it together with cardboard. Okay, so I had the two covers. So that was one thing. Then there was the printing. And first, my friend in America helped me with it, he printed them and sent them to me. I got my printer here now. And I can now easily print them myself. So that’s my that’s relieving. Why because this paper didn’t go into any printers here in any like, little or big printing houses. So I had to just order a Canon printer myself a good one in order for it to print on this thin paper, which is not photo paper. So okay, I was able to print them. And then the there was the layout to figure out and so I did that. Making sure that let’s say that if I want a diptych but after all, they’re not going to be on one spread. So this goes with this one in the beginning to later end up with this. So these are things that people don’t usually take care of, or think about when they make a book because it’s up to designers. Yeah, to up to the book designer. But yeah, that was something to think about. Definitely. And once that was ready, stitching the books together. And so as a draw just this is just a stitch that I liked. Again, I just looked it up on the internet. It was called, it was called one window please. Yes, so it was called coptic stitch. And again, I learned how to do it through this tutorial I can share with you just a YouTube tutorial, very easy. And the stitch is actually easier to make than it may look. So that’s it, you know, and this is the wax thread that I used for it for this for this stitch. These are the different versions of velvet. I sometimes have a dark green, sometimes this red cover, it used to be Corel some tools like this awl I think that’s what they’re called to make the holes before I do the stitching So all of these I have to learn. And it’s a very, very satisfying, very interesting process to actually make the books. And as difficult as it is, I really don’t regret this decision. Because just just every time one person orders it will go into this two day, sort of residency of my own, you know, I’m making a book. Well, right now I have one extra, which, which I pre made, or made it to take with me to (name), to show it around, I always do. Anyway, so this is it, you know, but I don’t think I will do this again. Because it’s just involving, it’s really not easy. And right now I’m good. I told you I’m getting ready for another book, in this time is not going to be handmade is going to, I’m going to I’m going through the conventional process.


Ziyah: There is no right or wrong way to make a book I think both ways have its pros and cons. I think with this one is just takes incredible effort every time and whatever the price tag, it’s kind of hard to how do you say? Reconcile the effort you’ve put in with whatever is. Yeah, I don’t see myself doing that. That’s definitely.


Anush: Yeah, I was asking myself that this is also, one of the when I was trying one of the signatures. But yeah, I was asking that myself too. I said, Okay, what if you get tired of making the book, you can’t make them forever. After all, I realized and remember that there are not forever, there are 500 of them to be done. So I could maybe take the time and say, so take one month, and say I’m only making books, this one month, pre made maybe 20-30 of them, keep them and sell them. However, so it’s possible. It’s just a different processes, different type of process but it makes me happy that I can make a special book for every person who orders something. Because every, you know, I want to connect with people, people who see my photography, who look through this book, every person is just special. This is the whole purpose of why I photograph. So that’s why it all feels so logical, and so natural for me to also make this for someone like I’m making a picture for someone, there’s always that purpose and this serves that purpose just as well.


Ziyah: Just gonna share, again, a little bit of your website, so you can see so people can see how, okay, sorry, you’ve seen that just to see bits and pieces of the process and how it actually looks like. I love the way it’s binded, the binding is amazing. So what do you use, it’s a very silly question. What do you use to? How do you say to penetrate with the needle the tread? Would you use you just use your hand? Or do you have actual tool?


Anush: Yes, I have these tools. They’re called awl and make the holes in advance. And very later, of course, I don’t have to make the holes with the needle, because it would be very unorganized. Right? I need to do that that in advance so that the paper doesn’t get torn off. This is the process of me working.


Ziyah: Again, I’m gonna sway conversation just a little bit into direction of the Balkans. For those who don’t know, something really bizarre has happened to houses of culture during the war in the 90s. There are at least, I would say 10 cases, in Croatia, in Bosnia, also in Serbia, and Kosovo, where the these houses of cultures were used as execution sites, which sort of brings and I urge everyone to look around. There’s a bit of a literature on that also translated in English. How these places where performances were done theater, plays, concerts, and so on and so on. In an instance, where transformed in a places of massacres. And actually, there are I mean, documented cases where this sort of musical theatre took place in this place in these houses of cultures in Bosnia, where they use the stage as a place where they would sort of the executions were done in a sort of almost horrible thing to say theatrical way. So it’s very interesting conversation how the role of these spaces dramatically shifted. In, during the war times. And there’s also for again, a horrible thing to say. horrible thing to say. But there was also this insane logic because in these small cities and villages, those were the only places where you could gather larger groups of people’s like, oh yeah, well, you know, we have this theater or House of Culture, let’s just put everyone there. And execute is just a bizarre twist of fate of how spaces that were built to read joy and culture and tradition and so on, were turned into execution sites. So I think it’s just..


Anush: Yeah, well, you see, it, that’s the thing, if you were there, if you were there, not photographing these houses inside and just experience them, if you were all alone to without distractions, I’m sure this would be this would have a very completely different meaning than it did for me. So like this, the memory of a space right there, what we mentioned in the beginning, whether it is independent, we have you or your knowledge about it, and what it is for you on a personal level as well. And then with that, as a foundation, you’ll create something like my photographs there. And then that becomes a memory of its own but, you know, depending on what you know about it, and what the the creation depends on your knowledge about it. So I’m sure something that you would create would be, yeah, very different, very different from what I photographed in these houses.


Ziyah: But I think we can definitely say that these houses of culture were incredibly noble attempt to, on behalf of the state or inaction from the state to disseminate and democratize culture, which was previously unknown in our parts of the world. And unfortunately, now that we see this there, you know, it’s sort of sad to see this go to waste, and I’m pretty sure it’s never coming back. So it’s pretty depressing. People, I’m just talking to the audience, if you have any last minute questions for Anush, I’m sure she’ll be happy to answer.


Anush: I just poked myself with this needle.


Ziyah: You shed blood, you shed blood for this talk? Thank you very much.


Anush: I saw I have the knowledge of how to use them. But I went through all the comments of everyone here in the chat and really, really thankful, will they stay, or will they go away once I once we turn this off?


Ziyah: So recorded and which It’s all recorded.


Anush: Okay. They will be here, the questions.

00: 43:49

Ziyah: Well, everyone, thank you very much. And Anush, thank you very much for shedding blood for this event, and for joining us and make sure to everyone


Anush: And thank you for the..


Ziyah: Make sure to join us. Next in, almost let me share our quickly our calendar. So just to give you an idea, what’s up next VII Insider. I think I’m going to go quickly. Tomorrow, there’s in two days, there’s an event with Chris Graves. Then this awesome set session with between Ilvy and Stefano. It’s a great series that she’s doing, then an absolute must you can’t miss A Guide to Online storytelling by Brian Storm, one of the pioneers of multimedia and online storytelling. And then again, book club with Zalmaï Swiss again, photographer who left Afghanistan when he was I think 16 but never stopped working there. And then again, a book with a book club with Edgar Sheep. So make sure to tune in, I’m sure you’re going to find something interesting for everyone. And I’m going to share it again, the link to the House of Culture book that come and should everyone is be interested. Thank you very much and wish everyone thanks for joining us and see you soon again. Bye bye


Anush: Bye and thank you everyone for being here.

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