Flight Pattern 4W: Morehshin Allahyari
Morehshin Allahyari arrives at Liat Berdugo’s apartment, finds a chair in the living room, and takes charge of our memories. Morehshin’s two wrists gilded and cuffed, one by beauty and one by time, she gently laughs into all the phones that are doubling as cameras, leaving traces of selfie behind. Liat’s sweater-confetti dances imperceptibly, gentle piñata. The domestic elements don’t quite accumulate into a room tonight. Beige carpet, firm seating, two-tone rug, tropical bird print, succulent-filled sill: they’re all so perceivable, at attention, like in a hotel room or a hip café on the corner. And there sit the familiar bottles: cazadores, milagro, jimador…
TO GLOCALITIES: toast #1, Milagro Blanco
Morehshin Allahyari: In 2008 I first did a series of collaborations and curations called IRUS ART — IR for Iran, and US for USA. Now these kinds of collaborations have become common, but when we started, it was still groundbreaking. The idea was to use exquisite corpse as a method to make art together, as individuals and artists and not nations, and to mail these art projects back and forth. But since the US and Iran don’t have any direct business relationships, we couldn’t mail the artworks directly. It all had to go through someone else — a friend in Istanbul shuttled the artworks back and forth, or my grandmother, travelling between Iran and the U.S, smuggling art works…
Liat Berdugo: Did you find that the Western artists you worked with had a very different understand of what “glocal” meant — that is, how to reflect both local and global considerations at once?
MA: They were different in the way they perceived it, understood it, dealt with it. My intention wasn’t necessary to make artists think about the concept of “glocal” when they were making their pieces for the shows. Take the AP<P>ART project I curated with Myriam Vanneschi: that show is specifically on adoption of apps in different countries. Apps are culturally very interesting — in the case of Iran, apps are something that pass through less censorship, so have the potential to be a more free medium. Also, in the new media art scene, a lot of artists use apps to make work. Aesthetically there was a big difference in how artists made work. There’s this Internet Aesthetic by artists in the US and Europe. In Iran, that aesthetic is not there — or it’s very different; artists use more Eastern or Persian fonts. At the same time, there was a similarity in the way artists thought to get creative with an app. A lot of artists, for example, used just a regular camera app that did weird recordings. Some of them went back and forth between 2-3 apps to make a piece. I didn’t even go to go to the AP<P>ART show because it was in Iran, and I can’t go back.
LB: What’s interesting to me in thinking about place — in thinking about glocalities — is that you’re not curating installation art or ‘sited’ art. You’re curating art that’s digital.
MA: Yeah, it can travel. This goes back to working with artists in a place like Iran, where there’s a lot of limitations. I remember for one Iranian artist who sent us his video, it took him three days to finish uploading it because of the internet speed. There are all these weird limitations that are issues of access to technology. I like to bring that up. Artists in the West always come to it from this position of privilege — and then if you are from a developing country, your relationship to these tools is very different. Internet is not this fast thing for you. it’s something that is limited, that fails constantly, and is inaccessible in a way. That gap is very interesting when curating something so digital. Because for an artists in Iran, that’s something they experience. For an artist in Global North, that has no meaning in 2015.
LB: So you’re drawn to Internet art in part because — if you personally can’t travel to Iran, or the artists in Iran can’t leave — then at least your art can move easily, because it’s digital.
MA: Yes! My art and myself. The weirdest part is that I Skyped in to Iran give talks. It was really strange to know that I’m allowed and safe if I’m there virtually, even while my physical body can’t have access to this space. Every time I Skype in to Iran, I have to wear a headscarf — because I’m considered a muslim woman. If they’re showing my picture in a gallery space, I have to have a scarf on. It’s so surreal.
LB: The flip side of the AP<P>ART show — you can’t travel but your work can because of the Internet — is the opposite side: we think the Internet allows everything to move, but actually they move slowly. Much slower than you think. And there you are, having to be modest, and ascribe to certain local parameters, based on a locality that you don’t currently exist in.
MA: So much of this I also deal with in my own art practice. I go back and forth. My physical and digital presence.
LB: Do you think there’s a sense of locality here in San Francisco? A sense of what it means to be local here?
MA: Not for me. For me it’s going to take a long time to feel that way about any place. I’ve moved so many times. I’m scared of this concept of belonging. That whole concept of locality comes from how much you feel like this can be your home. How we make those choices in language or the way we define ourselves — I think it’s really interesting. It’s so hard for me to feel like I belong. I am also ok with being anonymous, faceless — with no origin in that sense. I think that there is something beautiful about that transparency of moving through the spaces and not feeling you have to belong to one.
LB: Is it important for the art you curate to have a sense of belonging to a specific place?
MA: No. And I’m totally fine with that. So much of my work is related to Iran. I always try to find this relationship between universality and locality. As soon as I figured out how to do that in my practice and my curatorial work, things got so much easier. I think one way to always do it is through playing with the emotional dimension, because people can connect to that, no matter what. Even the concept of locality and home can mean something for an American, even if they don’t experience self-exile or exile in a way that someone from the Middle East would. A lot of my curatorial practice is bringing together people from these two different worlds and letting the artists define their relationship to belonging or not belonging.
LB: Originally when I was thinking about the glocal, I was thinking about the ways you work transnationally. You work between two very different cultures. The more I hear you talk about this, the more I think about what can happen in one specific work, and where “local” is the experience of the artist, and “global” is the experience of the audience. The artist needs to make his or her own local experience accessible to an audience.
MA: It’s both. As an artist I live between these two worlds. I grew up in Iran watching MTV and American shows and I was obsessed with European movies and literature. Everything I am now is so half and half. I am equally comfortable writing and thinking in English. My partner asked me if I dream in Farsi or in English, and I don’t know.
TO CENSORSHIP: toast #2, El Jimador Reposado
LB: I know censorship has been a huge part of your own art practice — I met you though your video tutorials of how to censor yourself properly. But as a curator, showing work in Iran, you have to censor. What’s that like for you?
MA: It sucks. It’s ridiculous. I have to explain to the artists I work with that the gallerists in Iran all think censorship is fucked up too. But, to be able to work in Iran as an artist and gallery owner, you have to self censor to certain point or you can get into trouble. So I’m not going to put someone’s life in Iran in danger because someone who doesn’t live in the similar circumstances wants to make political work. It’s a responsibility that I feel I have to my friends in Iran. Just the fact that I have to explain the censorship — just the fact that I have to reassure the gallerists in Iran that the artists I’m choosing are not political — puts me in this strange role of keeping everyone happy. It’s a difficult and complicated position and I don’t know how I feel about it anymore.
LB: What are those reassurance conversations like with the gallerists in Iran?
MA: For example, with the Bitrates show in Shiraz, the Ministry of Culture wanted the passport numbers of all the artists to look them up and confirm that they can be shown in the space. So I had to send this embarrassing email to all the artists and ask for copies of their passports. I don’t think they even looked people up — because if you look up, say, Angela Washko, some of her work is radically feminist, with nudity. But it’s a process that we had to go through to show in a public art space in Shiraz.
LB: What about when you curate work here — like Chatrooms, which you curated with Willa Koerner — where you do not have that kind of censorship. Do you end up overcompensating?
MA: Probably. Once things are easy, it’s a very different process. I don’t even think about these things. In Iran it’s tiring. I’m at a point where I don’t know if I want to do any more work in Iran, because of all those complexities I just mentioned. From the Iranian artists and curators perspective, I’m just spoiled, living in the United States — because I had the opportunity to get a scholarship and come study here and a lot of people don’t. I’m sure there’s a layer of discomfort about my position. This is the other side — the survivor’s guilt.
LB: I’m thinking about the “Click Click Click” screening you did in San Francisco — with LaTurbo Avedon, with hyper-feminized and sexualized bodies, with pubic hair….
MA: Yeah. That show was originally co-curated by Faith Holland and Nora O’Murchú. Willa and I showed is as part of a bigger program. I could never show that screening in Iran. The only way would be to throw an underground event and show it to a smaller group. That is always possible. For that I don’t need to go through any censorship. But then it’s available to a small group of people who are probably from a very specific class in Iran. It limits the audience, which I don’t like to do. It’s very exclusive. It’s not pushing anything in that sense.
LB: When you talk about censorship, ultimately what you’re talking about is audience. You can choose to censor and reach a wider audience, or not censor and reach a smaller audience.
MA: So far I’ve chosen to go with censoring and reaching a bigger audience. There still will be a lot that people will take away. It’s worth it. I wonder how that feels to a Western audience, to self-censor when they’re making work. They’ve probably never dealt with that. Not a lot of them know where that limit is exactly. When I was co-curating Bitrates, Daniel Rourke curated GIFs for the show. He would send me GIFs and ask, “Is this one OK? How about this one?” I was the main censor. It was ironic because I’ve done all these online censorship performance art videos, where I act as the staff of a Ministry that I created in order to comment on censorship. Then there I was, in real life, actually censoring to avoid risk. It felt uncomfortable.
LB: Do you feel like there is censorship here?
MA: Yeah of course. It’s a different kind of censorship. As soon as expression endangers US policy or economy, it can easily be censored. Political stuff, the firing of pro-palestinian professors at universities, or the 3D printed gun, which they went crazy over – all while we live in a country where people can just own a gun. There is no society that is fully free.
TO WOMEN IN THE ARTS: toast #3, Cazadores Añejo
LB: Since you’ve just come off of this Wikipedia edit-a-thon – a campaign to improve coverage of women and the arts on Wikipedia — let’s toast to women in the arts.
MA: That is sexy. I am very aware of the lack of women in the arts – in exhibitions, events, and talks – especially when it comes to new media art and technology. I’ve done things like email a curator who curated nine guys and one woman into a show. I said, “Hey, I was just wondering about these choices, because I can think about many amazing women who do work on this topic. Do you want a list?”
LB: What kind of responses do you get?
MA: Weird ones. Faith Holland and I saw this show that was all men and one woman. Some of the artists in the show were our friends, so first we emailed them. All of the guys said they hadn’t noticed, but that it wasn’t OK and they were going to email the curator about it. But the woman in the show wrote back being like, “This stuff always happens” and she wouldn’t take a stand, because the curator was her friend and I’ve seen a similar case happening over and over. It’s something I’m very involved with as an art activist. Now, as soon as there’s an exhibition, I count numbers and names. I co-wrote a big article in NMC N-Journal on the lack of female participation in Iran in all new media or technology-driven events. After I published it, I had a very long conversation with a curator in Iran. He was not happy with the article, saying that’s not true, we have women who are video artists. I was trying to get him to understand that video art is no longer really a high-tech thing. In Iran, it’s a big issue. Here, too: it’s crazy that it’s 2015 and we’re still talking about this stuff. We have to have a Wikipedia edit-a-thon to add more women to Wikipedia because there are so many women who deserve to have a page or to be written about in history. As a curator I try to be really aware of this which is something I wasn’t really thinking about five years ago.
LB: What changed?
MA: Starting to see the problem, and trying to understand the reason. If 75% of MFA graduates are women, why do we lack women in in shows and talks? Where is this filter? Where and how and why is this all happening? It’s not that we don’t have enough talented female artists. It’s all shaped by tastes and by the market, which is driven by white men. And it’s not just about gender. It’s also about diversity, nationality, and women of color. There were a couple of exhibitions of all-women artists – but they were all about white women issues, and white body issues. Women of color is the next thing to think about.
LB: What you’re talking about so accurately mirrors the conversations in the tech world: programmers in the Bay Area are mostly white men.
MA: Being a woman that is very involved in art-tech stuff – all this coding, it’s all men! It’s all men and it’s amazing: they don’t even think about this, they don’t see it, or they don’t care. I don’t know which one. I hope it’s the fact that they don’t even notice. Because it would suck even more if they noticed and they didn’t care. It feels really isolating to be a woman in an environment like this. Even when I taught in an art and technology department, and all my colleagues were all men. No one questioned why… There is a long history of the “glass ceiling” issue in working places…or women being interrupted when they talk, women not being taken seriously when they make comments. There is this cultural element to these dynamics between men and women. I experience it constantly as a woman. The Bay Area is a really sad example of this too.
LB: Do you feel like your curatorial practice here — with chatrooms, with the Wikipedia edit-a-thon — that you hope you can make a dent?
MA: I’m going to try. That’s the least I can do. And I’m going to bring it up when I see it, when I can. It’s hard to speak up. Speaking up is not an easy thing, and it’s even worse when you’re a woman because you’re condemned to being hard to work with, or emotional. I’ve always had a big mouth. When I bring it up, I suggest lists, I suggest names. Because if you’re not willing to suggest solutions, it come off as complaining, or solely criticizing.
LB: It’s funny, if I were looking at a show that you were a part of, by western standards and by your name alone, I would not know you were a woman. And same with me. No one know my gender based on my name. If I want them to know, I include my middle name, Rachel.
MA: I don’t have a middle name! Maybe I should just go by Morehshin “she” Allahyari.
Morehshin Allahyari is a new media artist, art activist, educator, and cultural curator. She was born and raised in Iran and moved to the United States in 2007. Her work extensively deals with the political, social, and cultural contradictions we face every day. She thinks about technology as a poetic tool to document the personal and collective lives we live and our struggles as humans in the 21st century. Morehshin has been part of numerous national and international exhibitions, festivals, and workshops around the world, and her work has been featured in Rhizome, Hyperallergic, Animal New York, Art F City, Creators Project, Dazed Digital, Huffington Post, NPR, VICE, Parkett Art Magazine, Art Actuel magazine, Neural Magazine, Global Voices Online, Al Jazeera, and BBC among others. Morehshin is currently a Lecturer at San Jose State University and the Co-Founder and Assistant Curator in Research at Experimental Research Lab at Pier9/Autodesk.
FLIGHT PATTERN is a bimonthly interview series that traces the curiosities and affinities of Liat Berdugo (San Francisco) and Maggie Ginestra (Philadelphia). They invite curators to sit over a flight of tequila, making three toasts. The toasts are three take-offs, and o where will we land?