Hrag Vartanian and Veken Gueyikian are the co-founders of Hyperallergic, an online magazine that describes itself as a “forum for playful, serious, and radical perspectives on art and culture in the world today.” Hrag sees Hyperallergic’s unique voice as informed by their many intersecting identities: “We were often told to compartmentalize our lives but refused. We are many things and we embrace them. We’re both Armenian, I’m Canadian, Veken is American, I was born in Syria, he was born here. We’re both queer; we’re many things and that’s great. We created Hyperallergic so that we can function in this world. There was nothing that felt inclusive of our lives and worlds, so we had to create it.”
When they moved to Brooklyn in 2008, Hrag and Veken instantly knew that this was where they wanted to build their lives together. It was a place where their intersecting identities had room to breath and where there were more opportunities to explore the many facets of themselves. In describing the motivation behind Hyperallergic, Hrag explains, “I want the writing we publish to reflect our lives, and I refuse to live a dry, serious life talking about esoteric topics all day. Life is more complicated, difficult, playful, and challenging than that. Ideas need to spring from all those parts of life. We refuse to cut ourselves off from a larger and more complete idea of what art and life is and how they are connected.”
Take for example, a recent Hyperallergic article by Carey Dunne called Kara Walker’s Puppets Dance in a New Music Video for Santigold. It perfectly embodies this balance between playful, serious, and radical; Kara Walker’s puppets illuminate the history of structural racism and white supremacy in the United States while playfully dancing across the screen with Santigold in a bouffant. Veken explains, “When we started Hyperallergic six years ago, we were both fascinated by the almost unlimited possibilities of digital media, specifically the explosion of dynamic blogs and social media conversations. And we were tired of the art field’s reliance on print publications that provided mostly dry reviews of exhibitions. Reviews are only one part of the larger conversations about art.” He also admits, “We’d love to be the gateway drug to art, if such a thing exists.”
“I want the writing we publish to reflect our lives, and I refuse to live a dry, serious life talking about esoteric topics all day. Life is more complicated, difficult, playful, and challenging than that.” – Hrag Vartanian
Hrag comes from an art history background, and has always had a keen awareness of the role of media in shaping one’s relationship to and understanding of art. From his experience working in the nonprofit sector, he also saw the limitations of patron-funder art advocacy across the globe. Veken had previously worked as a digital strategist at advertising agencies. He says that this experience helped him to understand how sponsors think about marketing goals and how advertising fits into their overall plans. These distinctive experiences have informed Hyperallergic’s funding model, which has played a key role in allowing Hrag and Veken to build a viable publication and maintain their independent voice: “We aren’t looking for patrons, we don’t care about getting into the VIP parties, and we are dedicated to decentralized conversations on social media that go in different directions. We aren’t interested in reproducing old models. And, perhaps most importantly, we’re sustainable. We have a clear economic model that helps us do what we do. Early on we knew that we wanted to be political and challenge the status quo and realized that the nonprofit model, with the impact of foundation guidelines and other funding strings attached, probably wouldn’t allow us to do it. I suggest anyone interested in understanding the weaknesses of the nonprofit model read The Revolution Will Not be Funded by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, which discusses the $1.3 trillion US nonprofit sector and how it often blunts the political goals of social justice organizations in order to satisfy government and foundation mandates.”
Hyperallergic’s unique voice has certainly impacted the art world by situating its criticism within a greater political and cultural context. They intentionally deconstruct the Eurocentric bias common within the contemporary art world: “People don’t even see the biases in art. We talk about African American art but never White American art, since the latter is seen as generically ‘American.’ Some people write travelogues or touristic pieces about art in Ghana or Indonesia or about Native American art, yet they would never do that about art in France or other places. We’re both diasporans, we believe in the multiplicity of identity and we reject the hierarchy that mainstream culture wants to enforce. We don’t believe in assimilation — which is a tool of white supremacy — but we believe in acculturation, multicultural dialogue, decolonization, and other ideas that allow people to function in this world as fully engaged human beings. Nowadays, if you curated a major biennial and there were no artists of color or women in the list of artists, there would be a lot of criticism. We have contributed to that. We won’t stand quietly by as the systems and networks of patriarchy and white supremacy determine culture.”
“We don’t believe in assimilation — which is a tool of white supremacy — but we believe in acculturation, multicultural dialogue, decolonization, and other ideas that allow people to function in this world as fully engaged human beings.”
Over the years, Hrag and Veken have seen others adopt their approach of writing and thinking of art more holistically, which they describe as also including issues such as labor, money, support networks, or government roles within a greater discussion of art: “You might be building a fancy museum by a starchitect, but who is actually building it? Are they being mistreated? Is the patron a bloodthirsty autocrat who looted their country’s resources and exploited people to do it? Most art publications don’t care about that stuff, as they are out of touch. We think it is all related. To isolate art from life is a way of reinforcing established power structures. There are so many apologists for power and the elites in the art world, we’re not one of them.”
With over a million monthly readers, Hyperallergic has clearly made an impact on the way with which we engage and understand art. They’ve also been incredibly successful in creating a more inclusive and holistic conversation about art that extends beyond the art establishment. Nevertheless, Hrag and Veken still feel like there’s more work to be done. Their goal is to change the anxiety among artists about rich collectors and patrons: “So many people still think you need a sugar daddy. Our attitude is, ‘no, you don’t, and don’t fall for the lie of patronage as there are ALWAYS strings attached to money.’ We stay independent through support of dozens of advertisers each month who get what we’re doing and dedicated readers who share and value our publication. It takes a village, right?” And what a great, big, intersectional, queer village it is.
For more information please visit hyperallergic.com.
This interview originally appeared in Posture’s third print issue — The Boss Issue — which is available for purchase in our shop. You can also support Posture by choosing to become a member and receive benefits including our 168-page biannual print magazine, behind-the-scenes access to our content creation, personal updates, and more. Please visit shop.posturemag.com for more information.