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  • Grand Theory/Grand Tour: Negotiating Samuel Huntington in the Grey Zone of Europe
  • Dorothy Barenscott

In 1996, the Russian-based photo-conceptualist group AES launched its mock “Travel Agency to the Future” with the “Islamic Project,” a series of digitally altered images depicting the monuments and spaces of familiar tourist destinations in the year 2006, invaded, occupied, and altered by Islamic civilization. Drawing inspiration from Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations?”—the popular and highly influential political paradigm emerging in the mid-1990s anticipating the time when “Islamic” and “Western” civilizations would come violently into collision—AES and its fictitious travel agency has promoted its project as Huntington’s vision of the “Grand Tour” into the future. Cultural difference explored through the rhetoric, gestures, and construction of such a tourist gaze facilitates a mode of political engagement far removed from the specificity of place or history. The unique position of AES to begin critically exploring, problematizing, and articulating what is at stake in the construction of such monolithic stereotypes emerges out of its own status as postcommunist citizens on the fault line between “East” and “West,” in what Piotr Piotrowski terms the “grey zone of Europe.” Therein, the processes and rhetoric of globalization and multiculturalism have played out on the terrain of a hotly divided and increasingly nationalistic social body where geographic tensions have undermined the West’s call for a harmonizing of all divisions—a united Europe. Therefore, AES utilizes the visual effect of montage to critically link the more abstract ideas of Huntington with a wider geo-political conflict emerging in Central Europe.

In conflicts between civilizations, the question is “What are you?” That is a given that cannot be changed. And as we know, from Bosnia to the Caucasus to the Sudan, the wrong answer to that question can mean a bullet in the head.

—Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations(1996)

If the search for difference is widely presented as a tourist attraction, it is obvious that cultural differences are being negated. The new types of difference that emerge are hard to identify and require too much time to decode.

—-Chris Rojek, Touring Cultures(1997)

In 1996, the Russian based photo-conceptualist group AES (made up of artists Tatyana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovitch, and Evgeny Svyatsky) launched its “Travel Agency to the Future” with the Islamic Project. Promoting a set of fictitious Grand Tours which would set out in the year 2006 into a radically changed and dystopic landscape, AES drew inspiration from Samuel Huntington’s popular political paradigm of the mid 1990s, which anticipated the time when Islamic and Western cultures would come violently into collision. Well before the events of September 11th and well before George W. Bush’s “crusade against terror,” AES prepared clients for travel to the future through advertising and promotional material that featured fantastic projections of what the new world order would bring. More specifically, AES produced a series of digitally altered images, in the form of postcards, depicting the monuments and spaces of familiar tourist destinations (such as those found in Paris, Rome, Berlin, and New York) invaded, occupied, and altered by Islamic civilization. Not surprisingly, AES images were scattered among the many “ground zero” photographs widely circulated on the Internet in the days and weeks following the attack on the World Trade Center—a specific moment when a “Western” public was made to confront its own fears of an “Islamic” Other (see Figure 1). 1

Over the past five years, AES, the agency, and its promotional material have been set in a variety of locations and spaces each with its own set of complexities, be they the spaces of the gallery, the spaces of the street, or the virtual spaces of its agency website on the World Wide Web. 2Central to the Islamic Projectis the constructed tension between “East” and “West,” a monolithic paradigm and theoretical concept that works strategically at many levels, be they geographic, economic, cultural, or political.

New Freedom (2006)

Copyright © AES & GRAF d’SIGN 1996

The unique position of AES, as a group of Russian artists, to begin exploring, problematizing, and articulating what is at stake in the construction...

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