On Friday night, in collaboration with the Free Form Film Festival, ATA hosted The Invisible Present, a showcase of contemporary Iranian video art, coupled with a performance by SF based art-rock band, Cookie Tongue. The work presented was strong and fascinating, but the evening had a decidedly random flavor. Questions about curatorial intent dominated the Q&A session, and I left the show wondering, what does it mean to create a national art?
Amirali Ghasemi, who curated the collection from the archives of the Iranian experimental media hub, Parking Gallery, explained his process. He’s traveling around the world right now, getting exposure for his emerging artists, and looking for new work from the Iranian diaspora. He came to San Francisco from Brazil, via LA. The video art world in Tehran– which began a boom in 2001 and hasn’t stopped– is fragmented, genre by genre, so Ghasemi’s project is an effort to mix the mediums, to show animation next to found footage, next to a music video. The goal is to introduce new audiences to Iranian artists, and to show the diversity of emerging art in Tehran. The show is meant to be a “teaser” or an introduction to the archive at Parking Gallery (actually, it’s all one word parkingallery). The work contained there is rich, varied, and worthy of showcasing.
I found the nationalist context distracting however, especially given the lack of an explicit message. As I watched each piece, I couldn’t help trying to decode it– what about this work is Iranian?
In the case of My Calm Town, by Amirali Mohebninejab, I guessed that it was shot in an Iranian suburb– a comment on underlying tensions amid superficial stability. But the piece was shot in Venezuela, and I was just reading something else into it.
Geography Test for People in PIctures, by Shirin Sabahi, a multiple choice picture slideshow where the audience guesses whether the picture is taken in Tehran or ____[Paris, Moscow, Cairo], addressed my ignorance. I don’t have a good idea of what contemporary Tehran looks like, and I have a voyeur’s curiosity. I have an American’s curiosity, shaped by the connotation that Iran holds in my cultural consciousness. I know that the Iranian government exercises strict social control, that there was a contested election several years ago, and that there is tension between the regime and the educated youth. I couldn’t help looking for these themes in the artwork. And I know I wasn’t alone: when a piece with a burka appeared onscreen, the woman next to me drew in her breath.
I think that nationalizing artwork inherently politicizes it and not all work is meant to be viewed in a political context. It worked well for Measuring the Level of Resistance, by Tara Najdahmadi: a doll is subjected to various culinary tortures, and we laugh while she melts and dies (no, really– it’s funny). In pieces like Private Desires, Tehran Zoo, and Even Gray Feels Blue, I wasn’t sure if I was reading the politics into it, or if these were actually statements about living with repression.
These were beautiful pieces and I am eager to learn more about the rich world of Iranian video art, so in that sense the program hit its mark. But, I wish that we were given more context than simply the fact that these artists were Iranian. I cringe to think of how a foreigner would read my work if all they knew was that it was American.
I’m not sure what to say about the pairing of Cookie Tongue with this program other than that Cookie Tongue is a good band, and worth hearing. They experiment with interesting rhythms and harmonies, they sing in multiple languages, and they make hilarious use of the randomer effects on an electric keyboard (I’m not sure if they still make keyboards that play “wah-wah” voices, or if these guys bought the one from my neighbor’s house in 1992). They also feature, alternately, a bullhorn and a plugged in violin.