Spring 2012 | ArteZine

C+: The Iran Issue


The figure of “censorship” conjures up a smoke screen of antagonism that can only be dispelled by looking through it. Cause célèbre of censorship at Sharjah Biennial 2011, among many less publicized instances, gave a strong pretext for a critical investigation; it also called for a consideration in terms other than condemnation of censorship from an elevated perch of “free speech.” Rather than lament censorship as calamity that befalls art from above, why not acknowledge it as common condition in cultural production that comes to the fore in negotiating transnational contexts? In order to do so, and avoid moralization, such an investigation would have to step away from a singular event into a minefield of probabilities. The international market of knowledges is indeed regulated, and “censorship” offers an insight into the dual nature of this economy, defined by ideology on the one hand and the market on the other. The cataclysmic reconfiguration of societies ongoing in the Middle East would make such an investigation imperative today. In view of the economic sanctions on Iran and how they restrict art production and exchange — in addition to the internal censorship apparatus and the stalled reform movement — Iran seems to be the place to look for answers to the persistent questions about the co-dependency between internal and external repression of regulatory mechanisms. Cuts and removals indicate the loci of the emergent new powers, and prompt an investigation into the apparatus of censorship — cut is a symptom, but what exactly does it signify?

Of the many tropes on “censorship,” its potentially positive charge has not been sufficiently explored despite evidence in art and activism of the catalyzing force of the return of the repressed. This potential has been utilized by WikiLeaks, and the statement by Julian Assange in an interview last spring with Hans Ulrich Obrist is on target: “Censorship is not only a helpful economic signal; it is always an opportunity, because it reveals a fear of reform. And if an organization is expressing a fear of reform, it is also expressing the fact that it can be reformed.” The opportunity that censorship affords has long been utilized by artists working in restrictive environments, and this ArteZine is invested in vicissitudes of art practice that, as it blinds censors, also makes censorship apparent.

The paradox of the cut is topical in Babak Afrassiab’s video Conversing the Cut, which chronicles censorship in Egyptian cinema through interviews with censors, filmmakers, and censored film footages. He comments, “Paradoxically, through the cut and its manipulations, absence becomes a marker of presence; we could say that removal becomes a marker of insertion; negation becomes a marker of affirmation; and denial becomes a marker of acknowledgement.” He sees the cut not only as a sign of erasure, but also as subjective transformation into a positive charge of recognition. “It is within this superimposition of cuts and displacements on various social and political levels that censorship becomes an instrument of suppression for some, and of subjectivization and recognition for others. The interesting and positive dimension is that state censorship can take on a mediatory role, facilitating a dialogue between the filmmaker and the public, where the cut becomes, as it were, a device for political negotiation” (Sensor-Census-Censor, Sarai Media Lab, Delhi, 2007).

The Iranian National Guard helped make a beautiful visual silence full of sounds by erasing 27 seconds from Anahita Razmi’s video camera by filming the wall of their headquarters — the resulting video White Wall Tehran asserts that what did make the cut and that what didn’t at once.

Even though video and other current visual art forms are perhaps less regulated, and thus freer from censorship than national film production, they are nevertheless affected by the same conditions. Film scholarship leads the discussion on the codification of the (re)presentable in the essay by Negar Mottahedeh, author of the influential study Displaced Allegories: Post-revolutionary Iranian Cinema, as she elucidates the codes of representation developed by Iranian filmmakers under the watchful gaze of the Islamic Ministry of Guidance. She demonstrates how cinematic production under censorship increased spectatorial awareness — not only spectators’ awareness of what and who is being watched and by whom, but the placement of this watchful eye in the sacred, and thus transportation of the cinematic world into a divine, imaginal realm, via the sanctified technological means of the cinema that re-produce spectatorship in the eyes focused upon screens, in the process of disembodiment and becoming of what she terms the “Islamic Cyborg.”

After all, it is not celluloid, canvas, or text that suffer the cut — artworks only bear witness to its execution — which is ultimately directed at the body, and body politic. Barbad Golshiri’s performance Cura conveys the bodily abjection of a text (via the control chain indicated by the Sarai colloquium — from “sensor” to “censor” via “census”). A text in Braille — a blind script — is cauterized on the artist’s body; spectators are invited to read it by touch, not sight — the fallacy of socialization of a body, or “jouissanse of the signified” evident in the unlikely readability of the text. The next day, the inscribed skin is surgically removed and preserved in the form referencing Black Square by Kasimir Malevitch — the icon of political spirituality, reborn in the act of removal. Self-rupture is curative — a body is not subject to censorship if it cannot be accounted for in a text. Its message to the Oedipal king is blind.

Negotiation between body and text drives Golshiri’s practice; and Ongoing Correspondence included in C+ speaks about the million mundane cuts that rebellious bodies are made to endure — from papercuts of economic sanctions to desecration of Fathers’ graves — in order to conjure up the ephemeral possible worlds by Disturbing the Public Opinion.

Virtual manifestations of such ephemeral possible worlds is the field of action for SuperSohrab, performative alter ego of the Tehran-based artist and curator Sohrab Kashani, as told in the comic strip entitled The Adventures of SuperSohrab: Heroism & Patronage The Summit. After receiving an invitation from the British organizers to appear at the Middle East Art & Patronage Summit that convened this past January at the British Museum in London (see recent Bidoun issue “Soft Power” for another take on it), SuperSohrab finds himself in need of a UK visa despite his transnational persona and counterfeit hero costume. Sohrab’s visa appointment falls on the day that the Embassy in Tehran is attacked, and despite his persistence and a detour via Dubai, he never makes it to London. He is virtually present at numerous events, panel discussions, and exhibitions as he conducts his business by night from Tehran. Eventually, SuperSohrab will have to face MasterFouad and his God-blessed accomplices in the final encounter, first envisaged on the web platform of Sazmanab Project founded and directed by Sohrab — as his identity appears suspect to the UK authorities, his website is attacked by Islamist hackers.

Virtual displacements bestow an almost mythic agency to networks and interactive systems as means of transgression or control, yet this emergent post-humanism always boomerangs back to material risks. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie fearlessly announces this radical shift in the discourse on censorship in her Notes on Risk (Critical Reflections: A Macro Perspective on Cultural Risk-taking, How It Look on the Ground), first presented at the Summit. She focuses on the economy of censorship as an apparatus of property control — including intellectual property assigned via authorship — and indicates possible immunity to censorship that immaterial, disowned, collective work may carry.

Media Farzin and Sohrab Mahdavi in their conversation about an influential online publication TehranAvenue.com, produced in Tehran, further interrogate knowledge production within the class conditioning as they discuss class consciousness among intellectuals based in Iran and those who come from abroad. They reflect on their own positions — Media, a contributor to TehranAvenue in 2003-04, is writer and curator based in New York; Sohrab, the journal’s editor and co-founder, lives in Tehran after fifteen years spent abroad.  The TehranAvenue office was also a social hub that hosted weekly meetings with its writers and served as an entry point for visiting artists, curators, and journalists — spare rooms in Media’s snapshots from 2009 acquire an extended aura as shooting locations for such telltale works as Jinoos Taghizadeh’s Good Night, also from the year 2009, when It Went Green and Then It Went Red.

In the meantime, Slavs and Tatars extend purview on censorship in their readings of the more than 4,000 pages of Molla Nasreddin, a weekly illustrated political satire published from 1906-1930 in Tbilisi, Tabriz and Baku, that was popular in the Muslim world from Morocco to Hindustan. The characters in these pages, although dressed in the last century’s costumes, can be seen also as actors on the current political stage — for instance, Acts 1 and 2 of Sina Majles in Iran point to the growing role of clerics in the newly formed parliaments following the insurrections of the Arab Spring; as “Little Moe” resembles Arab and Iranian dandies cruising the isles of International Art Fairs. Humor is a tightrope that both the original publishers and the current appropriators share, as it delivers their sharp critiques in a familial embrace. Substitutions of the sacred and the profane in the field of politics twinkle in censors’ eyes, but the precision of a well-tempered joke (humor is, above all, a formal device), makes them turn a blind eye on this suspicious intermingling between the Orientalist characters and their critics on the carpeted bed of linguistic complexity.

The artist Katayoun Vaziri engages the economy of spectacle directly, as she turns  tables between artist and spectator by offering her images to be remade by viewers/users — to be returned to her as gifts, after having been stripped of “originality.” Even though the self is produced in self-censorship, i.e., the rejection and suppression of some elements and the highlighting of others, recognition of others is a selfless authorship, and The Vows of Love We Make Will Live Until We Die.

This issue set out to explore the pitfalls of potential gain by way of loss. An editorial goal in the risky public exploration of censorship — positioned both within the self and the state — is to open the gap for a reading in-between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.

Sandra Skurvida is an independent curator and scholar based in New York City. Her curatorial practice has been determined by the specific socio-political conditions: OtherIS (2011-ongoing) is a platform for art production and exchange under the conditions of international embargo; Avant-Guide to NYC (apexart, 2009) addressed historical art referents in the present cityscape; Custom Car Commandos (Art in General, 2009) cross-sectioned the auto industry in crisis with the image industry; Soap Box Event by Pia Lindman (Federal Hall National Memorial, 2008) practiced performance of free speech; and numerous other projects since 1995, when she curated the Third Annual Exhibition of Soros Center for Contemporary Art in Vilnius, Lithuania. Her scholarly work is focused on performance, socially engaged practices, and transmedia art; she is researching, writing, and lecturing on John Cage and his influences on current art practices. Skurvida is currently teaching at FIT-SUNY; she has taught at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College; Parsons The New School University; and MoMA, among other institutions.

Photo Credit: Bahman Ali Irawani, Urban Jealousy, 2008. Courtesy of Parkingallery and Roaming Biennial of Tehran

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