Belaboring the Fringe: in lieu of an Artist Statement
Country western is perfect migrant music. Hardship, loss, suffering, all wrapped up in saccharine sentimentality to make it bearable.
–Migritude, Shailja Patel
On November 12, 2014, a month after I permanently deleted my Facebook account, a friend and I walked out of the USC Roski Gallery at 3001 N. Flower Street, known as the “MFA building.” The Art of the Empty Orchestra: Creativity in a Karaoke Culture (organized by Karen Tongson and A.L. Steiner) had ended with an open karaoke event at the gallery of the same MFA program that I had graduated from four years ago. My Argentinian friend and I sang a duet of Country Roads at the same gallery that on the first day of school, at a reception back in 2009 I had been introduced as the MFA candidate “coming all the way from Iran.” I finished that two-year program as one of only two people of color among the entire MFA faculty and candidates, including all the students in my class, the year before and the year after. Ecstatic from the Country Western that we had sung, half drunk on the cheap opening wine and the post-karaoke catharsis, I found myself agreeing to present at the event my friend was going to organize at her studio: a monthly gathering and informal art presentation by and for radical, queer, feminist, politically inclined, and immigrant artists…
Going back to USC for the exhibitions and events always felt particularly traumatic in the same way that visiting one’s family would be after moving away from home. It is not only the combination of one’s strongest feelings of love and hate, or ease and difficulty, but the simultaneity of feeling too much and not feeling anything at all that makes it unbearably difficult to revisit one’s home. This is the way I imagine it, although revisiting “home” is an experience I am only capable of having through dreams and technology—cell phone apps, email and long-distance calls—being a refugee.
Conceived during the fourth year of an eight-year deadly war with Iraq, I received my primary education at different public schools in Tehran. Every year among my classmates were a few whose fathers had lost body parts, been severely affected by the chemical weapons that Saddam Hussein had used in multiple operations—surely enough, with the aid of the U.S. government. There were children of the martyrs or those living and suffering from Leukemia, PTSD and other physical and mental disorders, disabilities and illnesses. In high school, some of my closest friends were children raised by single mothers through the war years, by women who had lost their husbands during the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988.
I went to the same art school that my mother had gone to thirty years earlier, before the revolution. My undergraduate art pedagogy was through a semi-militarized system of education that we had grown accustomed to since the first year of elementary school: the most and the least regulated of systems. The boys’ sex education teacher taught Art History and Islamic Art History courses to the girls. The same art history professor, Mr. Rahbari, was the censor of the art books and magazines acquired by the school’s library. My version of art history includes my imagination of all the moments he would go through every book to cover the nudes, the legs, the breasts, the kisses, the embraces, the skin, the vagina, the alcohol, the penis, the shit, the blood, and the semen with the device at his disposal: a black sharpie. A rogue exercise in aesthetics for us was to hold the censored pages of the books against the bright window of the classroom, tracing with our eyes the original contours of the shape that had been blacked out, the censored, and the joy of discovering what was lying underneath a translucent layer of black ink.
At the school’s main auditorium every week there were student concerts shut down mid-performance. Outside of the classroom there were eyes peeping through the glass window on the door to spot the “immoral” pictures; inside, Mr. Severi, a UCSB art history graduate would show a slideshow of works by Elenor Antin, Anna Mendieta, Adrian Piper and Hanna Wilke before embarking on a discussion about feminist art. Every time he opened up the class to discussion, he would jokingly tell us to feel free to ask any questions but “so what made you come back to Iran to teach?”
Among the everyday occurrences were protests, hour long, day long, weeklong protests. There were teachers who quit and never came back, there were teachers who got fired and it appeared as if they had “resigned.” There were suspended students, “starred” students who would one day disappear without anybody knowing what happened to them; there were others high on tramadol and dextromethorphan purchased from the pharmacy across the street, playing soccer on the hot asphalt in the summer. There were female students banned from playing soccer with the boys on campus. There were nights spent in protest on the campus behind gates that were locked. There were noses broken, bodies beaten. There was camphor in the boys’ subsidized food to diminish their sexual desire and activity, and there were protests against it, after every lunch and every dinner, every day of every week of every semester.
Theory had become incorporated in our coursework with translations and publications growing evermore during Khatami’s presidency. The last year of his office coincided with my first year of undergraduate studies. I decided I was going to stay in Iran, finish school, continue to translate books, write and make art. The next year when Ahmadinejad won the presidential election I began to compress everything I had done to that date into a line on my résumé. I chose French as my fourth language and began to research art programs across the world in the case I needed to take a break from the situation, go away for a few years, get a Master’s degree, and come back when things went back to “normal.”
Four years later when it was time to vote again my bags had been already packed, my life achievements listed in the .pdf of my résumé, my knowledge of English translated to the credentials of a standardized language test. When the election results were announced the only possible response was to get out on streets. Disaster had arrived, and like an earthquake shaking everybody’s house, created the urge to leave the confines of the private space and get out to the immediate public, the street, the alley, the square—and surely be welcomed by the batons and the riot police anticipating this most human expression of rage and disbelief. Raised batons landing on our backs, our shins and our thighs, the dreading sound of the solid object against human flesh, a clashing sound that only echoes inside the body.
Between my visa appointments, waiting lists, flight tickets, street protests, deadlines, and correspondences over my admission to USC’s MFA program, the temporality of limbo and the dial-up internet, one night I found myself sleepless on a plane to Frankfurt with Los Angeles as its final destination.
At the USC’s IFT building I had my first personal studio with an emergency survival backpack as the only thing in it. During my first critique I was told by a classmate—a collector and LA artist—that I was “just” being “exposed to new things.” I had to leave critiques as I got text messages, emails and Facebook alerts carrying the news of more friends back in Iran getting arrested on the streets. I spent days in the studio pretending to make work when the only thought on my mind was my best friend’s disappearance a few months after I had left Iran. I celebrated her first skype call from a small town in Turkey by bringing my wine glass in the studio as closely to the computer screen as possible…
The country western duo that we sang that night at Roski had me reminiscing on all these experiences and emotions. You and I will never understand each other because of the different pasts that we have lived and continue to embody. But we can find a mode of commonality, like singing a country western song together and mediate our unbearable pasts through feeling and thinking together as artists, queers, thinkers, and political beings with bodies and narratives. A few days after the karaoke event Jimena sent me the official invite to present at analog dissident: a non-hierarchical discussion group featuring two guest artists:
This informal, open studio visit is aimed at queer/radical/feminist/politically inclined artists to engage critically outside of traditional art institutions, gallery openings, and most importantly, outside of social media. Let’s discuss our work through our personal and collective experiences and our relationship to institutions, as well as issues of inclusion and exclusion, consensus, capitalism, security culture, immigration, citizenship, the environment, the art world.
I see intersectionality as a context and a point of departure for the different journeys that we consciously decide to take in our practices and lives as artists. At MFA programs, studio visits, traditional artist talks and other common formats of art presentation, we are taught how to talk about our work, but not our narratives. On the opposite, we are reminded of the stigma of getting “too personal” and learn how to refrain from it. But as we graduate, continue to make and show our work, as we live and grow, all the frustrations of having to exist in the heterosexist, white, classist, male-dominant and apolitical art world fall on our shoulders individually, to the point that being becomes an exhausting friction. We learn to practice an oblivion that ensures an erasure of all narratives, to fulfill the assumption that we are all facing the same challenges, it is hard for everyone, and to believe that all that really matters is for each of us to “make it” as individuals.
Under today’s circumstances, with the ever more abstracting force of the drone age terror, nothing sounds more urgent than bringing the critical discussion about our compliances, oblivions and complacencies as thinkers and laborers of the aesthetic realm to our immediate production space of the studio. We are all the more in need of non-toxic environments outside of the established art spaces and educational programs, with an emphasis on the voices of the ones that are not the dominant demographic in most conversations. We need to create the context, the meaning, and the platform for ourselves to resist the way that we are often tokenized as “diversity currency” for grant writing purposes, as underappreciated contributors to the cultural capital of the various institutions run by the gatekeepers of the field we operate in.
We need real spaces where we can discuss our successes and failures alike, our fears and frustrations along with feelings of appreciation and accomplishment, where we can be present with our bodies, narratives, and pasts to think together about the future that we imagine for ourselves. As marginalized groups and individuals we need to actively resists the retroactive art historical/market “discovery” of dissidence, posthumous fame, and the necrophilia of art history; instead make art practice a lively, current dialogue participating in today’s political and cultural milieu determining the various aspects of our lives as artists.
There is only one position that is exempt from—because it can afford to—a subjective political engagement with the state of affairs in the world and the arts alike: the position of privilege.
So beautiful Gelare! Thank you for writing this.