Active Sorrow: Interview with Morehshin Allahyari
Keeley Haftner: You’re still okay with me recording you for the Bad at Sports blog, right?
Morehshin Allahyari: Yes, I will tell you all my secrets!
KH: Okay, you are on record now. I have to admit to you that I’ve never done this before – you’re like, my test subject.
KH: So let’s start way back. You came to be known in Iran for a book that you wrote when you were twelve, translated in English as “My Ancestor’s Barefootness.”
MA: Yes, I was thinking about ‘barefootness’ not in reference to poverty, but in regard to struggles and taboos and things that my family had to deal with. It is a three hundred and eight page book. It’s about my grandmother, and her life in Kurdistan.
KH: What was the transition like to move to the United States in 2007 after being known in Iran from such a young age – to then be here where no one knew you in the same way?
MA: No one has ever asked me that! It was weird. In a way it felt like starting from zero. Not only do you move to a place where no one knows you or your work, but also, even if they did, they can’t read your book because it’s in Farsi. So not only was I immigrating independently to a foreign country, but it was also a personal identity crisis. It took me a long time to build something completely new from scratch afterward. I was not in a writing program. I was in a visual arts program and my bachelor was in theory and social science. The way I entered the creative world was through creative writing, so in my Master of Arts I was seeing the world as something very new, which was uncomfortable and weird. But perhaps it was a good moment. An opportunity to change things.
KH: Recently, there has been a surge to get deserving and underrepresented women on Wikipedia, which is so necessary. I noted that you have your own Wikipedia page! Thoughts?
MA: It just happened last year. An event to get women on Wikipedia was happening, so I thought to look myself up and there it was! It was pretty amazing. And it’s crazy because there are certain things that are not easy to find out about me that they were able to find and write about. I was like, ‘that is amazing, how did this happen?’
KH: Let’s start by speaking about your practice more broadly. Over the years your work has dealt with the intersection of Iran, America, censorship and capitalism, and the muddy places these complex subjects intersect. What might you say have been the most enduring questions of your overall practice?
MA: The core of my practice has always been related to political issues in the bigger picture, but also my own personal identity more specifically. For me, living in Iran was about censorship, and about learning how to use self-censorship as a survival tactic. Then, three years after having moved to the US, I decided not to go back to Iran. At that point I began making work that was political, and started putting it out in the world through interviews and exhibitions. So one thing I talk about often as my practice has developed is that there is a relationship between self-censorship and self-exile. Meaning, the less I censored myself the more I exiled myself. So a lot of my early work was about that. Later, I wanted to make work that wasn’t solely about my experiences with Iran, so I began to make work about the coming together of the two cultures. As with any immigrant, I am split between these two experiences and cultures constantly. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of our experience. So even though this intersection became more of my work in some ways, I’ve always been really interested in technologies, and how they can be used to make critical, political, and social work. Perhaps the real subject of all of my work has been archive and documentation, and how we negotiate the different platforms we use doing so. I am interested in how technological tools – a web or net art piece, experimental animation, 3D printing – can be used as a way to archive or document a certain kind of life. I’ve always tried to maintain this as a constant I can refer back to.
KH: When did your relationship to the digital begin?
MA: My Master of Fine Arts at the University of Denver and then M.F.A. in New Media Art at University of North Texas was where I learned about experimental animation, and 3D modelling and animating in Maya, which I fell in love with because I felt that suddenly there was this virtual, imaginative space that I could build from scratch.
Morehshin Allahyari and Andrew Blanton, Remembrance of time; Origin of forgetting (2013)
KH: Speaking to worldbuilding, I’m interested in how that gets done for you IRL. We met through your collaborative project with Daniel Rourke, beginning with the on the 3D Additivist Cookbook and progressing toward our exhibition at Schering Stiftung for Transmediale, On the Far Side of the Marchlands. Could you talk more about your relationship to collaboration, both as an artist and curator?
MA: I have always done collaborative work. I believe it’s the very first step toward community building. Working together organically with people from different backgrounds and experiences produces a sort of magic that won’t happen when you’re working individually in your studio. Back in 2010 I curated and organized a collaboration between myself and other artists in Iran and the US called ‘IRUS’, for example, where for a year we collaborated back and forth. So I’ve always been interested in collaboration as a sharing space that evolves through time and trust. With Daniel it was the same. He did an interview with me three years ago for Rhizome where we discussed my use of 3D printing and art practice, and afterward in Chicago we talked briefly about how we should make a cookbook. We decided before doing the cookbook we should do a manifesto to position ourselves, and so it has all come together very organically without forcing it. And it’s been wonderful – a really amazing collaboration. We both have had so much influence on each other’s practices as we’ve grown as artists and writers.
Allahyari, Moreshin & Rourke, Daniel (ed.), The 3D Additivist Cookbook, Amsterdam, NL: The Institute of Network Cultures, 2016
KH: You have a lot of work up right now: Solid State Mythologies at the University Gallery at UMASS Lowell, and Material Girls at the College Galleries in SK, Canada, and which funny enough I chanced upon when I was back home. I thought it was interesting that both exhibitions had your older work, ‘Like Pearls’, from 2014 in them. How does that particular work relate to the ‘She Who Sees The Unknown’ work you are continuing to develop at Eyebeam’s Research Residency in New York?
MA: Both are about feminism, female powers and female bodies, but ‘Like Pearls’ specifically is about censorship and the female body, as well as the global web aesthetic that has been localized in a culture like Iran’s. The material was gathered from spam that I would get in my Yahoo email account about online lingerie underwear stores that were mostly marketing toward men. They advertised in a way that was supposed to be about romance or love – “buy this for your wife” or “the one that is yours forever” – because they’re not supposed to say ‘lover’ or ‘this person you want to sleep with’. The love being marketed in these ads was also an aggressive love, in some ways. Like, “tell her to wear the underwear that you find the most sexy,” which is why I’m using Backstreet Boys audio (They were really popular in Iran when I was a teenager), and when you actually listen to their lyrics they also have this very aggressive love thing going on.
You are, my fire
The one, desire
Believe, when I say
I want it that way
So I was really interested in bringing all of these elements together, but specifically I was amazed by this surreal aesthetic. You see these women and they are wearing this sexy lingerie, being advertised and objectified, but all their bodies are censored. It’s such a weird concept. When you think about sexual censorship, you usually think about a black bar, but it was not like that. There were colours and patterns, some white and some erased so you could only see uncontroversial body parts, like an arm. All of these small very detailed choices in advertising became really fascinating to me. So I made web-based work with the material, heart GIFs, and translated the aggressive love quotations and made them pop up if you clicked on them. So that was that – it was about this relationship with the female body: censorship, ownership, and web culture. How the aesthetic of the web changes in different cultures or remains the same.
Morehshin Allahyari, Like Pearls (2014)
But in my new body of work ‘She Who Sees The Unknown’, it’s actually about female figures taking over some kind of power. During my residency at Eyebeam, I’m talking about how tools like 3D scanners and 3D printers have become tools of digital colonialism for a lot of Western archaeologists and companies based in Silicon Valley. People will go to the Middle East and scan a cultural site or artefact, and then claim ownership of the data. A lot of them make money off the files, and then only give access to specific institutions they can profit from. That’s digital colonialism – a way to take over our ‘shared’ universal heritage, whatever that is. So I’m re-appropriating them. I use the same technologies these companies use to work against this trend, by 3D printing dark female goddesses, these monstrous figures and genies. A lot of them are genies (Jinns). Each of them will take over some sort of power, based on what they did in their different myths, histories, and narratives. Each power will be related to something contemporary. First there’s the research, then I am writing a text to accompany each figure, which will be a mix between fact and fiction – like a narrative. Right now there is one: ‘HUMA’, who is known for bringing fever and heat. But soon there will be an army of them.
Morehshin Allahyari, She Who Sees the Unknown (2017)
One thing I’ve been really interested in is this idea of re-figuring – how re-figuring and re-imagining the future can become an activist-feminist practice. I think it’s such an important time to talk about alteration, given everything that’s happening. I was just having breakfast with an Iranian friend of mine who has a work visa, not a green card, and he can’t leave the country. He just can’t risk it. So now he’s basically in jail. In March, he was going to go to Iran – he just cancelled that. We had such an intense conversation about our bodies being attacked and pushed out, being rejected. We talked a lot about rejection. For me this all relates to a need to re-figure and re-imagine – a need to bring these female powers and bodies back into existence, and then doing something else with them. But also with all of the recent events that have happened, I think it’s definitely going to influence where this research is going.
KH: It seems important and timely that the archive you’re working on and building is not only in part a retelling of unspoken histories outside of the mainstream of Western culture, but also a reformulation of them for a contemporary context, in ways that tell new stories about women.
MA: Yes, it’s that, but we could also talk about the Western imperialistic and colonial side of it. ‘She Who Sees The Unknown’ is about a kind of feminist practice that exists for women of colour. For example, feeling the problematic urge in the Women’s March for universal feminism. There’s no such a thing as universal feminism. And there should never be, because we need to talk about worlds, about singularities, and about different concerns I might have that a white feminist wouldn’t. I am bringing dark goddesses and djinn figures based in the Middle East to the US at the same time Middle Eastern brown bodies are being pushed out. We don’t talk specifically enough about brown bodies in mainstream media. So for me it’s about that, but it’s also about doing a kind of witchcraft: doing magical performances with the 3D scanner in a world of talismans and spells and magic, which is also super white feminist right now. It’s very trendy, and I want to interrupt that.
KH: What are the differences between showing your work in Middle Eastern and Western contexts? I think about the white gaze consuming these works, but also what it’s like to produce work for an exhibition in the United States verses Iran and how your language might change or stay the same.
MA: That’s a really good question. I’ve never made site-specific work, except for writing I suppose, because I have to write in certain languages which presupposes certain knowledge. If an Iranian or Middle Eastern person walks through a lot of my work, they can understand so many layers without having to read a statement. A non-Middle Eastern person wouldn’t be able to do that. So this is something that I think about a lot. Like what does it mean to produce certain things that people from this culture or other countries might not understand, or that they have to do research to understand? They have to read about things. And especially this new body of work that I’m doing – it’s very research based. I’m gathering tons and tons of material, a lot of which is in Farsi and in Arabic. These are very old materials that are not translated. In my current exhibition at TRANSFER Gallery in New York where I showed the first figure from this new body of work, I had these three spells on the wall that I scanned from this book and it was in both Farsi and Arabic and I didn’t translate them. So if someone who knew Arabic walked in they would be able to read it, and it would change part of their experience. But as a Westerner you had to actually read all the material that was in this archive to be able to understand, so you had to work harder – much harder – to get to the same knowledge. And part of me is really okay with that. Like making my Western audience have to try to get knowledge that usually they don’t try understand or get. I was just bitching about this yesterday on Twitter…
…about how tired I am of constantly having to adjust myself to Western cultural knowledge, political knowledge, geographical knowledge. These days I only want to hang out with people who actually want to learn about mine and other cultures. Western knowledge is so dominant. In order to get access to things you have to know all this stuff about American history, or about the West. Americans don’t feel the same responsibility toward other countries. This is such an important time to reverse this. People should feel responsible to reverse this, in a way. So that’s what I want of a Western audience. I want them to do their research, to work hard, and to learn things on their own – without going around and asking an Iranian things like, “so does it snow in Iran?” you know? It goes both ways. I might show a work of mine in Iran and people don’t understand nuances about it that someone in the West would understand very well. So it’s kind of split. The same as my life is, the same as everything is, existing between these two worlds.
KH: It strikes me that your earlier mention of “universal culture” might have fruitful complexity: the idea that one must fight against the assumption that there should be a universal culture, while at the same time work hard to understand one another, which perhaps could inadvertently promote a universalizing in some way. It makes me think your piece, ‘Dark Matter (Second Series)’, being commissioned by Forever Now to be gifted to NASA to be taken to the International Space Station. There you are taking things are that are culturally unwelcome in certain countries and literally putting them making them universal – as in, out in the universe.
MA: The Second Series includes objects and materials that are taboos in Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, and North Korea. I like the idea that once these things leave our planet, this world where a minority has made certain things taboo and forbidden for a majority, then they are no longer taboos. They no longer need to be censored. You just put these things in outer space where they’re away from all human bullshit and they’ll be fine there. I think it also relates to the way we speak about the web and digital archives as spaces beyond these more guarded or even ignorant forms of preserving and sharing knowledge. They become a universal space, or at least they operate that way in a utopic sense.
Dark Matter (Second Series 2014-2015)
KH: But of course with the Manifesto that you and Daniel created I think there’s also an edge of dystopia, which I think maybe relates to the way the complexity of optimism and activism.
MA: I’m interested in both utopia and dystopia. A lot of my work has this very dark black and white aesthetic, and the text from manifesto is more dystopian than utopian. The dark goddesses and female monster figures are both cruel and ugly. But I think that there is a way dystopia can be optimistic; you know what I mean? It’s about embracing the darkness. You embrace dystopia so that you can turn it against itself. You still take action. I also very much believe in micro-actions. Without changing the world or solving immediate problems, small actions and influences can make bigger changes. Something I’ve been thinking about the last two or three years is how to make a work that is about sorrow. Sorrow is very much embraced in Persian culture, poetry, literature, and all of our songs. And I think people there in a way are happier and healthier mentally. Here in the West, happiness is the goal. Americans always say “if it makes you happy”, which is rarely said in Iran. It’s so weird to think about language and how we interact with each other. I’m interested in sorrow as a transitional state. And the same thing goes for dystopia – if you embrace dystopia and you can talk about these dark figures and this monstrous other female forms, the result will be a better, more positive, and critical space. I’m not interested in the techno utopian technologies that many activists are – it’s all very general. Peace and love as an activist strategy are played out. I’m interested in activism that comes from a different place. It’s not a violent or harmful activism. It’s dark and dystopian, inclusive and generous. You can be a nihilist and be hopeful. They’re not oppositional. So perhaps that’s what one of these female goddess figures could do: be sorrowful and embrace the sorrow.
KH: Anything we didn’t cover?
MA: Thank you – this was such a nice conversation. I am so tired of the same questions over and over and this was very refreshing. Maybe the last thing I’d like to mention is around privilege and responsibility. Myself and so many of my Iranian friends – we’re all in a privileged position obviously because we’re the educated ones, we’re the ones who got to leave Iran and come and get scholarships and study here. Not rich kids, but privileged. So we try to understand our position, but especially in the last two or three weeks and since Trump and Brexit, I’ve been finding it really hard to sit on panels that are about machines, Artificial Intelligence, and the Western prediction of the future, where we’re being asked to try and understand what this future means and how it relates to technology, how it’s going to change, etc. So much of the world is on conflict and in such a weird place, so it’s very hard for me to sit through these kinds of privileged, Western discussions. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that something has changed dramatically, in a strange way in so many of our lives, and the lives of specifically Middle Easterners, and I’m still trying to understand how to deal with that. Obviously, I still want to be sympathetic to other people, both their problems and their concerns, but at the same time I sit through these things and I feel so alienated by them in a way that I haven’t before. Yesterday I was in a panel and told people that I wish we could re-imagine this future in a way that we’re really uncomfortable with it, maybe? Because I don’t also want to live in the future of Elon Musk, the one white men have predicted for us. But then the conversation just went immediately back to all these mostly white mostly American people talking about their security and privacy with Facebook. And I was like, I can’t do this. I cannot sit through this. It felt like the whole world being hungry and people sitting around talking about organic food. So I just wanted to say that there is a need to re-imagine and alter things, as well as a need for people who are not from these countries to take responsibility without asking us how to do it. I think that’s a very important moment for that, and for the very first time I actually feel okay to lean that way. So don’t put the burden of the conversation on us. Anyway, I hope we can do that. I hope people can start to think of all these relationships more, and that things change for the better, if that’s still possible.
Morehshin Allahyari is an artist, activist, educator, and occasional curator. You can find her complete bio here.