Spring 2012 | ArteZine

Ongoing-Time We Stopped

By and

February 7, 2012 10:18:38 AM EST

SANDRA SKURVIDA: I propose a conversational shift from a stereotypical/allegorical/exilical romanticism to a political domesticism — I have in mind the younger generation of artists in Iran who exhibit in their works and their life choices an unconditional will to remain in their country, as you have declared in 2009, “we have chosen to breathe hatred, tear and pepper gas, instead of hanging onto nostalgia and the myths of exile and of  “the innocent artist.” There is little “innocence” to be found in the situation where resistance is neither a romantic dream nor an academic discourse but rather everyday negotiation. This determinate domesticism calls for artworks that are socially engaged and specific to their site of emergence(y), that care for their audiences, and don’t give a damn what Europe or the US have to say about them. In 2009, you have spoken resolutely about self-definition and self-determination of an artist in Iran; how would you address this position today, two years later, in a context as saturated with intensifying political catalysis as it was then? If you were to write an amendment to the e-flux essay today, what would it be?

February 8, 2012 5:09:10 AM EST
BARBAD GOLSHIRI: My intention was rather to topple the self that is always symbolic and is indeed determined in ideological fields. I tired to pierce holes in this “we,” an encapsulated and caricaturized symbolic mass that is usually addressed as “Arab” and/or “Middle Eastern” by both sides of exoticism. Regarding Iran, when I was writing that essay I saw a light at the end of the tunnel, but I did not see the train coming. People are again leaving the country in masses. Precious people are in prison and they are more active than us. Cities are wastelands where prisons are prospering. Yet, what the so-called Iranian contemporary art has achieved in these two years and a half is independence from the government. The only relationship between many of my colleagues and the government is censorship. And for many countries that were the case in my essay, that cluster of quasi-descriptive features is disturbed, thanks to recent uprisings in them (though it is too soon to judge the results, one can see that what they called “Arab Spring” has turned to an autumn). And the pressures in our status quo: both the Iranian government’s irrational policies and international sanctions are ruining the country. In this situation one cannot care much about our difficulties (for instance, you cannot purchase a paper bigger than one meter in length or height for drawing; and publishing houses are sinking, both because of paper crisis and by the grace of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, an institution that bans books because of their content though they cannot understand the content). Here intellectuals are “mildews of the mind” and they will grow back anyhow. Our job is to corrupt this purity.

February 8, 2012 11:04:58 AM EST
SS: I love “mildews of the mind” – how language resists efforts to subject it – mold can only grow on that what is already rotten; another primary meaning of “mold” is “matrix,” or “guiding principle.”

Since you state that the only relationship that you have with your government is that of censorship, could you please further define and specify this relationship? From where you are, is it possible to see “censorship as signal of change,” as the founder of WikiLeaks Julian Assange did when he stated that ”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“?

Could you please expand on the effect of sanctions on the art production?

February 10, 2012 4:26:41 AM EST
BG: Sandra, I cannot go to Gmail. The situation is turbulent. I hope we can Google again! Will write you more when I can check my emails. I hope this will go through.

February 10, 2012 9:41:47 AM EST
We cannot access our mailing accounts anymore. I can only send messages via Outlook but cannot receive any. VPNs and psiphon are now useless. Oovoo and Skype are down too.

I hope this will come to an end soon, if it did not, it means that Intranet has replaced Internet in Iran. I hope this will go through.

I’m writing this to report the serious troubles we have regarding accessing Internet in Iran at the moment. Since Thursday Iranian government has shut down the https protocol which has caused almost all Google services (gmail, and google.com itself) to become inaccessible. Almost all websites that reply on Google APIs (like wolfram alpha) won’t work. Accessing to any website that replies on https (just imaging how many websites use this protocol, from Arch Wiki to bank websites). Also accessing many proxies is also impossible.

Gmail, Google (all the associated services) and Yahoo are affected by this limitation. Also BMI.ir, BPI.ir and Parsian-Bank.com serving online banking services cannot be used in this situation. Online gateways are affected too. People estimate this condition will be continuing until Esfand (next month in Persian calendar), after the 33rd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.

February 13, 2012 4:32:05 AM EST
BG: I hope this would go through.
When it comes to art, yes, that is my own relationship; the Ministry shuts exhibitions down, demonizes films, and censors works from exhibitions, catalogues, books. They recently ordered to close the House of Cinema. It is even worse when it comes to literature; to issue a permission they used to read the text, but now they search for sexual, political, subversive keywords. Alcohol is prohibited even in foreign literature. We are not only dealing with absolute restriction, but absolute folly. Our beloved Assange also says, “censorship expresses weakness, not strength.” So does killing. Why is Assad killing this much? And the case is the same for the Islamic Regime of Iran, why did they kill those precious intellectuals, those that could not publish their books in more than 2000 copies? And why are they arresting everyday? They know that “mildews of the mind,” as Costa-Gavras put it in his film Z, and to borrow your words, grow on what is already rotten. And of course the reform is possible; it actually was, both during Khatami’s presidency (needless to say that it was never sufficient) and the Green Movement. In our demonstrations there was no organized assault or rape whatsoever. This country has witnessed two revolutions in one century and many social and political movements, and democratic discourses are not alien to freedom fighters. If Lara Logan were there in our peaceful demonstrations — just imagine three to four million people marching in silence — she wouldn’t feel the same. Thugs were on the other side. The reform is still there. I hope tomorrow we will show a sign of encouragement. We’re having another rally tomorrow.

Paper was just a puny example. People who used to work with many Iranians residing here now fear that we being Iranian may jeopardize their career and assets! I hope this would spread from artist to artist like leprosy, so those who saw nothing in the so-called Iranian art would give mediocrity a break. If this would be the case, unfortunately auction houses will concentrate on another region. Publishing houses are now releasing books without having prices indicated. Now that paper price is increasing everyday and foreign currencies are turbulent and the true value of inflation is not given, they cannot decide what price to put on their newly released books. Besides, all serious publishers have dozens of books waiting for permission from the Ministry of Guidance (here no one refers to it as the Ministry of Culture). Just imagine how would a translator feel who has worked on a book about Joyce’s Ulysses for three years when he sees he will not receive permission from a petty clerk.

As for our economic situation, 120 black & white negative, large format negatives and slide films, Ilford HP5, Kodak photographic chemicals, some photographic papers [are scarce]. And fuel crisis of course has affected metal casting and all related works. Thus artisans do not know what price to put on their works. With the recent sanctions one can hardly receive money from abroad. For the first time prices are not printed on books’ back covers. Let me stop enumerating all this, for as recent sanctions together with the government’s economic policies, and, above all, as the economy is monopolized by the Revolutionary Guard, one cannot be selfish enough to focus on the arts. The country is ruined dear Sandra, and now I don’t know how to send these lines to you. Should I read it on the phone? Of course not. There’s always a third person present.

February 13, 2012 11:28:42 AM EST
SS: Beloved Barbad, this did go through, but can it be published? I asked you to define your relationship, as artist and writer living In Tehran, to censorship, and you did — thank you — but you describe the situation and act as if it was not the case. What I mean is the potential of artistic gesture — be it an artwork or a text — to render the state apparatus “unreal” (Kafka’s Castle would be a ready example), in a way to disarm it and render it powerless to affect practice — your writing makes censorship appear “unreal.” Of course, when one asks, can this or that be done in certain circumstances, the question is not if it can be done, but if one would do it considering (im)possible consequences. There seems to be a shift in this relationship to censorship from a cause-and-effect rationality that governs, or is supposed to govern, one’s relationship to a state apparatus, towards certain abandon?

February 13, 2012 2:23:40 PM EST
BG: To disarm it and make it less powerful, yes, but to render it totally unreal, no. It is true to say that one has to draw near to the castle, get close to the system, to see its malfunctions for instance. That is what I tried to do in Distribution of the Sacred System  and Narcissus Echoes. One has to endure the routine tortures and interrogations to grasp the truth about the system, a cluster of truths that are transpired in isolation, in a solitary confinement where no alien thoughts can penetrate. Of course I know how writing this could jeopardize me and how irrational all this might sound, but to be frank, when I’m going to another demonstration tomorrow, what could be in danger now?

February 13, 2012 11:28:42 AM EST
SS: Okwui Enwezor suggests that “It is not that artistic projects or activism is set up in opposition to the state, because it is very easy to suffocate. But it can be subversive inside the body of the state […] enabling a subjectivization that cannot be repressed, and this is what I am interested in.” I see this intense subjectivization in your work, even internalization within, and excision out of, the body, as in Cura. Do you consider subjectivization as resistance?

February 13, 2012 12:22:11 PM EST
BG: Ironically, the regime calls this form of subversion “soft subversion.” It is indeed a delicate strategy that many are following. I personally prefer such legislated subversions when they have a carnivalesque character, for the activist/artist functions as legislator, and enacted legislations give birth to ephemeral possible worlds. But here one cannot draw a rigid line between the body of the state and the opposition. Of course people like me would not participate in any governmental exhibition, but I cannot be too puritan to say that I will not ask for permission for my book on Beckett (needless to say that I will not accept any censorship). As an ex-reformist, I had experienced this form of subjectivization and believed in it as a form of resistance…

February 13, 2012 1:46:53 PM EST
SS: About Cura and (Enwezor’s) subjectivization — I don’t know if it’s Enwezor’s, but that’s how I think of it: first, I see “subject” and subjectivization as embodied selfhood, as embodiment of self. In Cura, it is self-reflective byway of internalization — ingestion, incision, touch, smell — all bodily processes — in comparison to internalization via cognition, and re-cognition — in Cura, recognition is situated in the discourse of Malevich’s imaginal space. Yet in terms of cognition, the text cauterized in the flesh is not readable, but perceptible via the senses — touch, in the dark… It is interesting how Enwezor uses bodily terms, such as “suffocate,” to define the state as the body (“the body of the state”). I think repressive state apparatus, or the state itself, cannot be identified with “the body” in a discourse on resistance, since these terms internalize the state, and thus subjectivize it. It is a very interesting aberration in language, is it state-sanctioned? Is language subject to the state? It is clear how the state claims possession of language via censorship, and of bodies of its subjects in many ways…

February 13, 2012 2:38:27 PM EST
Now do give me a day or two. I have to erase my emails before joining the demonstration. Please resend this if I sent you an email tomorrow night. And please do not respond to this email. Will continue this fabulous conversation tomorrow night, my time.

February 15, 2012 1:45:43 PM EST
BG: Vive la resistence!
I believe a jouissanse of the signified is in your reading of Enwezor. And your interpretation of Cura fortunately goes beyond my intention. As for selfhood; Xeeshtan is a Persian word for “self” that translates literally as “self’s body.” That is the only self I recognize. Identity (as for being identical, being selfsame) always nourishes ideological apparatuses. I leave mine to morgues and replace the constructed subjectivity with an i, an absurd and elusive subject. There little remains of the subject if understood as “that which is thrown under,” an equivalent to subjectum, substratum and hypokeimenon, “that which lies under.” In Cura I’m wearing the costume I usually wear for performing. It is the i costume, a costume that turns one into a silhouette, an impersonal character that shows nothing but a mouth. i has nothing, not even eyes, only words, only language. Language is impersonal and indeed the toughest obstruction to internalisation and subjevtivization. Nothing can define it better than Beckett’s The Unnameable: “I, say I, unbelieving.” But in Cura he doesn’t speak, and the cauterised wound to the left of his abdomen is bared, showing a Brailled sentence understood only by the sightless or those who are able to read it. Perhaps you know that is Haram (forbidden) to harm one’s self, one’s flesh for the body is impersonal, it is only a gift given to you. But I had never thought of Cura this way, I even didn’t take it as body art or anything alike, to me it is an aplastic, as I call it.

February 15, 2012 2:14:21 PM EST
SS: First, I’d like to know what happened in the past few days, since we last spoke and since e-mails got erased? That also brings me back to your definition just before the erasure of “the activist/artist function as legislator,” and “enactment of legislation” in art practice. Could you please expand on such enactment in operative and/or speculative terms?

Another question is regarding translation of terms, as well as re-presentations — this question is addressed to your practice as translator, as well as artist, as well as activist. I would like to inquire if translation connects all these practices? Is there performativity in translation? Does it (performativity or translation, or both) affect activity/activism? What happens when Beckett is translated into Persian? (I presume there is more to it than overcoming a language barrier.) In terms of translation of your art practice — is there a difference in presenting Cura, for example, in Moscow and Tehran?

February 16, 2012 2:26:14 AM EST
BB: The Coordination Council of the Green Path of Hope had called for a peaceful demonstration on February 14 to mark the one year anniversary of demonstrations called by opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife, and Mehdi Karroubi, in support of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Last year’s demonstration was brutally cracked down and at least two demonstrators were killed. Since then, Karroubi, Mousavi and his wife have been held under an unofficial house arrest without any legal process and have been denied any contact with their relatives and supporters. Many activists, writers, bloggers, freedom fighters and political prisoners supported the 14 February 2012 silent demonstration. We marched in absolute silence to mark that day and to spread the word that there are dozens of political prisoners and that the upcoming parliamentary elections would be fraudulent and so would all other show elections under military oligarchy. All HTTPS ports are still blocked. I can only access my Gmail account in simplified HTML version and only through a VPN connection.

What a legislative artist/activist/curator does is both speculative and operative, especially when those legislations are given through and within installations and performances. Let me define it a bit further — public space is legislated. The space of a work of art, if it went beyond the ideological, the doxical or the status quo, could propose alternative possible worlds. The possible world of text (in its broadest meaning) is semi-autonomous, finite and ephemeral. The space of a work of art is both private and public. Private legislation could confront public space. Adapting ephemeral legislations to the status quo, current legislations, factual context, public knowledge, is obedience. Disturbing the public opinion is disobedience. Ephemeral legislations exile the public temporarily. These were some of my criteria in curating Disturbing Public Opinion.

Doing it in depoliticized Moscow (I was there before the recent demonstrations, alas!) was profoundly different from showing it in Tehran. In a nutshell, Cura in Moscow was perceived as a performance about my practice, what I call “aplasticism,” and was read through Malevich, as I selfishly willed. But in Tehran, to say it in a very concise way, many took my body as their “collective body.” The play’s second day was what they were talking about.

February 16, 2012 12:14:47 PM EST
SS: Curiously, there was no mention that I could find of February 14th demonstration in the mainstream press or Facebook for that matter… Only reports on bombings, which serve war interests better…

February 20, 2012 1:09:13 PM EST
BG: Gmail is still down. I’m using mail.com. I was terribly ill. I’m feeling a bit better now. Yes, they didn’t mention anything about the silent demonstration. No one could film anything, because they had put thousands of antiriot police and militia forces all across the road. Hundreds were arrested. I can’t focus on this now. I’m too weak to focus on this right now.

February 20, 2012 1:26:50 PM EST
SS: You sounded quite upbeat after the demonstration?…

February 20, 2012 2:26:27 PM EST
BG: The demonstration went well, better than what we expected. I will write you in length. I’m making gravestones for more than a year now.

February 20, 2012 2:34:22 PM EST
SS: Milestones, steppingstones, and cornerstones, not gravestones, Barbad!

February 20, 2012 3:26:04 PM EST
SS: Barbad, what is the title of Ali Shariati’s lecture “What Is to Be Done?” in Persian?

February 20, 2012 3:38:25 PM EST
BG: It’s
Ché Bâyad Kard

February 20, 2012 9:26:58 PM EST
SS: The sense of gloom, not only in the news, but increasingly personal, and the talk of “constructing gravestones” lately, troubles me. I know that there are no equivalents, and everything is different from everything else, experiences in particular, but I just wanted to share with you a remembrance of a sense of total doom that I had felt distinctly when I was about 18 and living under a totalitarian regime, I knew then that nothing will change until the end of my life, and there are only two possibilities, compliance or self-destruction, most likely both. As an artist, you are certainly free of compliance. The rest will change for sure, societal change is much faster now than it was in the 20th century, because communications are faster. I am a believer in change, because it’s inevitable (so perhaps this doesn’t qualify as “belief” exactly).

February 21, 2012 10:48:05 AM EST
BG: I do believe in change, why shouldn’t I, when we changed many things during the last three years? But about the gravestones. It all started when we started to bury our friends during the serial killings of Iranian intellectuals – also known as “Chain murders in Iran.” Then my father (a survivor) died and we buried him next to those beautiful friends. Then Ahmad Shamlou died and we buried him next to him. Then Kaveh Golestan died on a land mine in Iraq (he was supposed to take me to Afghanistan with him). And then they broke Shamlou’s tomb and my father’s too. Then I kept visiting Beckett’s tomb for 8 years. That’s the first thing I visit in Paris. Then I started to engrave my beloved Claudia Gian Ferrari’s last moments on a wax when she was fighting her pancreas cancer. She was supposed to live amongst her art collection and friends in her gallery and leave traces on a gigantic wax, but she didn’t survive. There is more than death in the death of Vanitas collector. Then her assistant, Ignazio Maria Colonna, now a great mate, invited me to do a project in a hotel in Sant’Agnello. For three years we’ve been working on a grave there inspired by Giuseppe Sanmartino’s The Veiled Christ. Now I see that I’ve been photographing hundreds of cemeteries and crematoriums all around the world. They just give me peace, perpetual peace. When it comes to visual arts, graves are works of art that you look at with bowed head. You feel humbled by them.

And Beckett, translating Beckett and writing on him is a Beckettian endeavor, namely, practicing failure. For instance, “Nothing is left to tell” or “Nothing to be done,” both in English and French are syntactically positive. We cannot say that in Persian, we’d say “Nothing is not left to tell.”
Writing on Beckett is itself a Beckettian failure, that’s one of the reasons that I called my book Unwriting.

February 22, 2012 1:47:59 PM EST
SS: I remain under the weight of your last letter, and yes, humbled. Silence is the only possible response, as Adorno put it, to textuality after such events — silence of gravestones, it should not be broken, as graves should not. But it is constantly disturbed by drums of war getting louder and louder; I repeatedly resolve to not follow this noise, but then I do again, because voices and silences of my friends are drowned and intensified by these news. Just today in the news analysis in The New York Times, it is called a “slow-motion Cuban missile crisis,” and “slowly, but almost inexorably, moving to a collision.” Just to think about it… in view of Iraq, when I absolutely refused to believe that such a folly is possible, now I know that it is (im)possible. They write…

So allow me to pick up, in writing, from Beckett, who interjects via my “quick question” about the title of Ali Shariati’s lecture “What Is to Be Done?” in Persian. Beckettian answer (in English) is “Nothing to be done,” “Nothing left to tell,” but Persian disagrees as in “Nothing is not left to tell”! I would like to de-tour Beckettian “nothing” via Cagean “silence”:

(from Lecture on Nothing by John Cage, 1959):

Beckett’s Unwriting requires writing
we must keep writing to unwrite what’s being written in the news

February 25, 2012 6:45:36 AM EST
BG: My dear Sandra,
What if I told you that I had quoted Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing” in my “Unwriting”? I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it.

Now I have to work on two projects that I’ve been writing on for four years. We may be able to eventually realize them in Bruges in 2013. I hope there will be no war and I hope that those Iranians who wore green garments to walk on red carpets in foreign festivals would take to the streets to protest against any invasion. They would risk nothing you know. Let us stop.

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