Morehshin Allahyari: ‘Suddenly, I had the opportunity of making art without having to censor myself’
The Iranian-born artist, who moved to the US in 2007, talks about important concepts in her work, including exile, censorship, virtual and digital media and the adoption of technology in developing countries
by A WILL BROWN
A Will Brown: What new projects are you working on?
Morehshin Allahyari: I am currently finishing a 3D animation video for a manifesto that I’ve been working on for the past 11 months with artist and writer Daniel Rourke. It’s called the 3D Additivist Manifesto, and it blurs the boundaries between art, engineering, science fiction and (digital) media aesthetics. We will be inviting artists, activists and critical engineers to push the 3D printer to its absolute limits and beyond, in to the realm of the speculative, the provocative and the weird. We are both super-psyched for the text and video to be done. But it’s also the start of a much larger project for us.
I’m also working on a new series of 3D printed sculptures and videos as part of my art residency at Autodesk’s Pier 9 programme [in San Francisco], printing some more, new forbidden sculptures and objects as the continuum of my Dark Matter series, and I am also going to focus more on pushing the possibilities of material used in additivist manufacturing.
AWB: What are a few key concepts for you, ideas that you are always working with, circling, investigating and perhaps cannot get away from?
MA: Well, for better or worse, I always go back to issues about the Middle East and Iran. I would say physical v digital/virtual, exile, political and cultural censorship, and the adoption of technology in developing countries are some of the most important concepts in my work. I also often use narrative and writing in my 3D animation work. I love the combination of text and digital/visual elements because I believe it creates potentials and opportunities that allow for pushing both mediums.
AWB: Could you walk me through your video In Mere Spaces All Things Are Side By Side I (2014), which is part of an ongoing series of videos that explore the accessibility of the internet in developing countries?
MA: It’s a video inspired by my adolescent Yahoo! Chat histories, which I found recently in a CD that my mom brought from Iran. The chat conversations specifically are from a four-year online relationship with a guy [in the US] when I lived in Iran. But in each video, the narrative will go beyond the relationship itself to highlight my relationship with technology and the internet [while] growing up in Iran. In the first video, In Mere Spaces All Things Are Side By Side I, the focus is on the failure, slowness and frustration of using censored and dial-up internet in a developing country. So rather than coming from a position of privilege, it comes from the position of inaccessibility and limitation.
AWB: What, if anything, changed about your work when you moved to the US in 2007 after growing up in Iran?
MA: A lot changed. So much of my work became about my identity in a place I felt I didn’t belong to [the United States] versus a place [where] I felt I didn’t fit in [Iran]. Plus, I wanted to be aware of the distance that would grow from not living in Iran and experiencing daily life there. So much of my art projects became about my physical versus my virtual relationship with Iran, but, also, I suddenly had the opportunity of making art without having to censor myself, or being scared of the consequences of what I do. That also came with the decision never to go back to Iran due to the risks that making political or radical work could cause (to censor myself less and exile myself more). All of this changed both the process of art creation and the final products of my work. Not to mention that I was introduced to a lot of new digital tools and software that I knew nothing about prior to moving to the US.
AWB: You often operate outside the traditional realm of the artist – creating platforms for conversation, curating exhibitions, speaking at conferences, creating instructional videos. What is at the heart of your various roles? How do you differentiate between them, and do you feel you need to?
MA: I think being an occasional curator has become a very common part of artists’ practice. I want to help create a more diverse, critical and equal art world, which is what I see missing all the time in a lot of exhibitions and events – for example, the lack of female artists in shows, or the lack of Middle Eastern artists in the art and technology field. So, instead of only being critical of it, I find it important to participate in creating the world I like to live in, or helping to shape a more equal and less fucked up future.
AWB: I’m interested in your installation The Romantic Self-Exiles II (2012). Please walk me through the piece, and its various components. Where has it been shown, and how does it change for you over various exhibitions, and over time?
MA: It was a piece that I created as part of a body of work called The Romantic Self-Exiles. In a way, it was the physical/sculptural extension of my 3D animation The Romantic Self-Exile I. The installation itself was made of a series of Plexiglas cubes hung from the ceiling with a projector shining through the edges of the cubes, creating very beautiful blurry shadows and images on four walls of the gallery. The video that was being projected is the last cellphone video I took from Tehran [as I was] driving through the streets, and also a video I screen-recorded from my sister’s laptop when she was showing me Tehran at night from her balcony. To me, this piece represented the experience of self-exile and also how my memory had defined and redefined these spaces by remembering and forgetting details over and over. It was about the misplaced and replaced bodies, both physical and virtual.
AWB: Much of your work takes a serial format. What is it about the serial approach that is important for you?
MA: I really love the idea of looking at a concept/topic from various angles, using different mediums while expanding it to other cultures and social and political contexts. For me, as an artist, there is something very important about digging in depth into a concept and doing a lot of research about it and spending time with it. I keep a notebook, a sketchbook and a list of readings with me and continue to brainstorm about that specific topic. When I’m done with that body of work or series of works, it makes me feel like I have developed a complex and meaningful relationship with the work. I find that crucial for the time we live in as artists, where there is always a pressure for fast-made pieces of work. All my work is a collaboration between a human (myself) and a machine (technology) … and I think forcing the process to slow down a bit is the least human thing I can do to create a balance.
AWB: What was it like to give a Ted talk? Were you engaging in that as a pseudo-performance lecture?
MA: I think TED used to be so much cooler back in 2011. I was 25 when I gave that talk … and, although I had given a lot of lectures and talks, a TED talk with so many people in the audience was a huge push. I never thought about it as a pseudo-performance, but rather an activist/artist performance. I remember thinking that I can’t fuck this up, because it’s one of those digital footprints that will be very hard to erase afterwards. But I was equally very excited to share my projects with the audience, the world. It was a project I had dedicated a lot of time to and was hoping would, or could, become a model for others seeking to do collaborative projects between cultures of conflict … and our IRUS Art project [an intercultural collaborative art project between the artists in Iran and the US] did become a kind of a model, or groundbreaker, for many other collaborative and intercultural projects. I have received so many emails from people wanting to do similar projects and asking how we did it and what our experience was, and whether I would be interested in collaborating with them. Sad news is that I no longer truly believe in these kinds of “peace” and “conflict resolution” practices.
AWB: What is your 2014 collaborative Chatroomsproject with Willa Köerner? What do you hope to achieve with this format?
MA: It was a project we started at our residency as Cultural Incubators at Gray Area Art and Technology Theatre in San Francisco. The idea was to bring together an experimental and critical community of artists in San Francisco by curating new or pre-existing events from all over the world. We felt that in San Francisco a critical voice and engagement with technology was something that was missing in a lot of events. Also, as you would expect, the presence of women in these tech + art events was lacking. So we co-curated three major events that we felt could play an important role in bridging these gaps. Our first event (Chatrooms I) was the screening of episodes 1 and 2 of Ways of Something, curated by Lorna Mills. Our second event (Chatrooms II) was the exhibition of GIFbites curated by Rourke and also artist talks by LaTurbo Avedon, Laura Hyunjhee Kim, Tim Roseborough and Angela Washko. Our last event (Chatrooms III) was the screening of Click Click Click curated by Faith Holland and Nora O Murchú, with works by an amazing group of female new media artists. In addition to that, we moderated a series of online discussions and chats that would happen live during these events. More on all of our Chatrooms’ activities here: joinchatrooms.tumblr.com.
AWB: Have you been to any exhibitions recently that you felt were particularly well done or important you?
MA: I would say the Alien She exhibition at YBCA [Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, 24 October 2014 to 25 January 2015], curated by Astria Suparak and Ceci Moss, was a show that stuck with me for a while. It was probably one of the most well-curated and radical shows that I’ve seen in a while.
AWB: How do you see internet-based art evolving over the next few years?
MA: That’s a hard one to tell. I guess rather than anticipating what will happen, I want to say that I hope there will be more women and also women of colour involved. Even a lot of feminist net art projects are only about white female body issues and I want to see that change over the coming years. Also, let’s hope there will be more projects about the limited and slow internet + digital gap.
AWB: What artists, writers, poets, entrepreneurs, or important figures do you find have an impact on your life and work?
MA: It’s a long, long list. But among poets and writers, I have been very influenced by Forough Farrokhzad, Mahmoud Darwish, Edward Said and Sadegh Hedayat. As far as visual artists, I think I’ve always looked up to the works of Chris Marker, Jenny Vogel, Claudia Hart, David OReilly and Guerrilla Girls. This list is super long for artist and writer friends and colleagues whom I’ve been inspired by in my practice in recent years … and since I’m sick of all these “best net artists” lists, I would say that mine is endless.
AWB: As an artist with a committed interest in technology and digital culture, have you felt welcomed, influenced by, or engaged in the Bay Area’s Silicon Valley, arguably the most technologically progressive and innovative place in the world?
MA: I only have lived in the Bay Area for five months … so it might be too early to judge. But it’s amazing to live so close to Silicon Valley or just walk down the street in San Francisco and pass through Twitter, Square, Uber, etc … or to be doing an artist residency at Autodesk! In the street, on the train, coffeehouses, and so on, you constantly and casually hear all these conversations about different software, digital tools and start-up companies (this one, I’m already over with): it’s a crazy experience. But also, so far, I’ve received an amazing amount of support from artist friends and also bigger institutions in the Bay Area. I do wish that there was more funding available for artists and art projects, and also more platforms for critical, challenging, and contemporary practices and conversations about technology + art.