Transmedia Engagements with the Armenian Genocide and Its Legacies
This panel considers different aspects of the way the memory and meaning of the Armenian Genocide is conveyed, transformed, and recovered by different media, including heritage sites, monuments, virtual augmentations, photographs, and podcasts. Our primary emphasis falls on the kinds of stories that are both made possible and/or precluded by the technological and other constraints inherent in specific representational contexts and expressive media.
The panel begins with Donna Frieze’s account of “transmedia storytelling” as she develops this idea through sustained consideration of a podcast devoted to narrating the history of the Armenian Genocide; Armen Marsoobian will provide details concerning a digital memory project built around an important photography archive that aims to shed light on the variety and richness of pre-genocide Armenian life, as well as the scale and force of its destruction; Peter Balakian will assess the impact of government attempts to eradicate the memory of Armenians in Nakhichevan, Azerbaijan, which continues to destroy and reappropriate Armenian cultural heritage; and Adam Muller will introduce, contextualize, and assess the prospects of a new digital collaboration seeking to disrupt attempts at Azeri genocide and other denial through virtual reconstructions of lost Armenian cross-stones.
The four papers comprising this panel converge in their acknowledgment of the dependence of genocide memory and cultures of remembrance not just on the specifics of the stories we tell about the past, but also on the location these stories are told, and the representational means used to tell them. Together our papers will argue that while the facts of a genocide remain discoverable, which of those facts are remembered – and how, where, and through which representational means remembering takes place – remains contingent in ways that create opportunities for enhanced forms of genocide education.
Presentations of the Symposium
Erasing History: Cultural Genocide, Digital Witnessing, and International Law: The Armenian Cemetery in Djulfa, Nakhichevan
The case of the systematic campaign by Azerbaijan to destroy Armenian cultural heritage in the historic Armenian province of Nakhichevan, which is now under Azeri control, has been recorded by digital media: video footage and satellite cameras. Between 1998 and 2004 about 10,000 stone crosses or khachkars in the largest Armenian cemetery in the world in Djulfa, Nakhichevan were destroyed and erased. The goal was to eradicate the Armenian historic presence from a part of this segment of its homeland for the purpose of erasing history to further Azerbaijan’s colonial conquest in the south Caucasus. The most dramatic images were captured in December of 2005 by Armenian Bishop Nishan Topouzian standing few a hundred yards across the Araxes River in Iran with a video camera. His footage of Azerbaijani forces sledge hammering hundreds of khachkars, loading the debris into trucks and then dumping the remains in the River went viral and quickly became a digitally transmitted witness account of the violence.
My paper will discuss this history through the lens of Raphael Lemkin’s notion of cultural destruction as a component of genocide as he defined the problem in his various writings starting with his 1933 Madrid paper. From Lemkin’s notion I will then explore the relevance of the Hague Protocols of 1954, ‘77, and ’99 that deal with the destruction of cultural property as an international crime. I will close by suggesting how witness images and their presence in our digital memory constructs might impact pursuits of justice.
The Power of Personal Archives in Witnessing, Teaching, and Visual Storytelling: The Armenian Memory Project
The Armenian Memory Project is a collaborative effort designed to harness the energy and resources of academia and the Armenian American diaspora for the goal of fostering greater understanding of endangered and destroyed Armenian cultural heritage and the impact human rights crimes had on the Armenian community. In 2019 and 2020, students and faculty from the University of Connecticut worked with Armenian American institutions and individuals on an initial project, employing digital media technology to tell the story of one immigrant Armenian family, the Dildilians. Under the auspices of the university’s Norian Armenian Program, a unique course was created to produce a documentary film centering around the experiences of this family in Ottoman Turkey before, during, and after the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Designed and taught by a documentary filmmaker with support from a family archivist/historian, the course brought a select group of students together in a collaborative and transformative learning experience. By immersing themselves in the Dildilian family’s extensive photography and documentary archive, these students came to understand the important role that the past continues to play in the lives of Armenians who live among us today. Furthermore, by taking on the responsibility as storytellers of the Dildilian narrative, students developed a deeper identification with this distant history and, in a wider sense, an appreciation for the ethical value of memory in bearing witness to the past injustices. This collaborative and participatory framework for teaching using archival collections can serve as a model for creating a transformative learning experience in the study of human rights, war, and genocide for outreach to schools and the wider community.
Recovering the Khachkars of Djulfa: Challenging Genocide Denial in Azerbaijan
This presentation explores the aesthetic and political possibilities inherent in a new critical-creative digital collaboration entitled The Khachkars of Djulfa. While multifaceted, the project seeks above all to promote genocide education and challenge genocide denial through the construction of a “spatial augmented reality” virtual 3D installation that recreates some of the thousands of khachkars (cross-stones) destroyed in the medieval Armenian cemetery in Djulfa, Azerbaijan, by the country’s Turkic government. The khachkars were eradicated as part of Azerbaijan’s attempt to erase any physical traces of an Armenian population and its history in its territory.
Taking as a point of departure Peter Balakian’s view that the destruction of Djulfa’s khachkars contributes to an attempted cultural genocide in Azerbaijan (and, relatedly, Turkey), my remarks will explore the political and technological contexts for The Khachkars of Djulfa, with special emphasis on the latter. I will discuss some of the lessons we can learn from present as well as past “digital sites of mourning” (DSMs), a term I will unpack, contextualize, and offer for critique. Organized around experiences of loss, the DSM concept helps to explain the scope as well as the political and pedagogical ambitions of The Khachkars of Djulfa.