Free Space

Artist: Art + Activism
Location: Karen Demirchyan Park, Yerevan, Armenia
Year of completion: 2014
Researcher: Giusy Checola

According to ArtAct collective, Armenia is a traditionally patriarchal and conservative society for which women are ideally meant to be chaste and passive. It established unwritten limited choices for women regarding their life, their sexuality, and career, and often they face discrimination, harassment, domestic violence and disrespect. There is no difference between social class or age for that, every woman can be harassed. ArtAct was founded in autumn 2013 by a group of young women who wanted to challenge and change those unwritten rules.

In 2014 ArtAct was invited by the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights in cooperation with the South Caucasus Regional Office of Heinrich Böll Foundation to participate in the FREE SPACE International Forum. The collective conceived a public intervention entitled Respect my space, which included a workshop, performative actions in public space by Armenian women, and the presentation of MiLrir (Don't Be Silent), an online interactive map. The public intervention has been organized around Mashtots Park, which is the symbol for Armenian activism because of the Mashtots Park Movement in 2012, who faced harassment while struggling for the life of the park as public green area against its demolition for private interests, by demanding the citizens' self-determination.

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The interactive map MiLrir was initiated before the opening of the FREE SPACE forum, in a period when the Yerevan's police published an announcement that underlined the supposed responsibility of women harassed, to which ArtAct replied by spreading pubicly posters that questions its affirmations. MiLrir consisted of a crowd mapping of Armenia streets where women experienced harassment, as the outcome of regular group meetings which had been conceived as constant terapy action.

Each woman who participated to Respect my space public actions chose her own space in the area, its size and shape, and whether or not to invite someone else to istay inside it. Then they marked it with colored tape by codifyng the space with their own body and activities. T hey used their space in different ways, like making yoga, reading, singing, talking, embroidering, dancing and playing with other ways of expression. Some new rules were established before the intervention, for example, if someone tried not to respect the space all participants would surround the person without speaking and would oblige her to have a better behavior. But that didn't happen and women felt safe and strong.

During the following public discussion some very upset men, whose approach to women in public space was so problematic that could be compared to islamophobia, raised questions about the topic. That allowed ArtAct to work on the men's understanding of the problem, and at the same time to make women demand them the right of the public space. That's why they got more attention from media than the FREE SPACE forum itself, that wrote about the effects of the intervention as a “trace in public mind”.

ArtAct replied to a huge need of working on the Armenian gender discrimination and, despite the almost absent financial support, they used creative tools for empowering women. Acting with art as dimension in which everyone could feel comfortable and free, they confronted men with the problem of harassment from the women point of view, by demonstrating that art can be also a great tool for positive social change.They have been able to open both a local and an international discussion on the harassment of women.

FREE SPACE international forum has been held in Yerevan with about 15 events around the main theme of democratisation of public spaces and empowerment of women. Activists and researchers from 7 different countries participated at the forum and provided a platform for discussions, exchange and networking concerning issues of (re)claiming and designing democratic, free public spaces and the safe presence of women in public spaces. The Karen Demirchyan park, known as the «Malibu park», is an abandoned public space in the very heart of Yerevan, near Mashtots Avenue and which we aim at co-designing and co-using through this event. The project aim has been that of shaping democratic, participatory, diverse public spaces in Yerevan, by facilitating informal education for disadvantaged women, raise awareness on strength of the organized social mobility of women, and enhance their civic culture and rights-based claims. Art + Activism organizers asked female members of the audience to walk from one side of the lecture area to the other if they had ever experienced any of the following unwanted interactions from a man on the streets in Yerevan: staring, stalking (by foot or car), inappropriate dialogue, or any other form of harassment. Street harassment is an enormous problem in Yerevan and stems largely from an entitlement over public space that men naturally feel in a patriarchal society. Art + Activism has overcome this obstacle by creatively combining action with interaction in their latest project: an interactive crowd map called “Mi Lrir” (Don’t Be Silent). he concept for Mi Lrir is an incredible example of creative problem-solving. It documents in real-time from real women what is really happening on Yerevan’s streets. An interactive map (see tracks incidents of harassment on the streets by allowing women to place “pins” on locations where real harassment of some kind has happened to them. The severity and degree of harassment is indicated by different colors; for example, a purple pin refers to harassment that took place on the street, while a blue one indicates it happened from a vehicle. During the forum, organizers provided a real map to introduce the concept to the audience, and allowed them to begin indicating their experiences at the forum, which would later be uploaded to the website. The project has only been active for a few days and has already had 24 stories uploaded by women in the community. Following the introduction of Mi Lrir, organizers allowed participants to engage in an empowering creative activity they called, “Respect My Space,” which emphasized n a very literal way a woman’s right to not have her space invaded by outsiders.In plain view, on Mashtots Avenue at the entrance to the park, each woman was given a roll of colored tape to mark her personal space wherever and however she deemed appropriate. In this space, she was free to do whatever she wished, anything from practicing yoga to writing an e-mail.If approached, even if out of sheer curiosity, participants were instructed to respond, “Yes chem uzum khosel, harkek im taratskuh” (“I don’t want to talk, please respect my space”). Outsiders were not entitled to enter participants’ space unless given permission to do so. The activity gave women in Yerevan’s community permission to practice assertion and solidarity.

They have been invited to talk about it by local organizations such as PINK Armenia, Women in Black Armenia, Women’s Resource Center Armenia, American University, Yerevan State University and to intervene in the AWID Forum 2016 in Brazil.

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency