[laughs] How long have you been in the bay area?
Allahyari: I’ve been here for nine years. How long have you been here?
faustini: i’ve been here for twenty-three. I went to college here and graduate school.
Allahyari: Actually, we were working with two Brazilian artists who are — one of the things we’ve done is that there’re two collectives who have sub-curated two things in our cookbook. One is this collective, A Parede. I don’t know if you know them, artists Louisa Prado and Pedro Oliveira. They live in Berlin and are brilliant.
faustini: i don’t know them. actually, this is curious, but I didn’t really keep up with brazilian art. most of my contemporary art education happened here. did you move here with your parents?
Allahyari: No, just myself. Me and my sister.
faustini: same with me!
Allahyari: I moved because I got a full scholarship for my MA, at University of Denver. I did my bachelor in Iran, and then I did an MA at University of Denver, and then I did an MFA at University of North Texas. And then I was teaching there for a year.
faustini: where in texas is that?
Allahyari: It’s in Denton, Texas, which is north of Dallas. They call it Little Austin, because it’s a really cool small college town. It has a very famous music program. It’s the fourth best in the country for experimental music. It’s always full of crazy noise shows and — It was a good time.
faustini: i started writing this series by thinking through homi bhabha’s idea of the third space. are you familiar with it?
faustini: from my understanding, one of the ways his concept functions is by addressing stances where displaced individuals sublimate their physical space to construct a hybrid one that fulfill their needs, which to me, has a lot to do with the experience of immigration. all the artists that i’m interviewing are people that in some way have created a third space. in your case it is between the actual and the virtual.
Allahyari: I like that a lot.
faustini: i was looking at some of your other projects as well. particularly in mere spaces all things are side by side, the one where you animated conversations that you had over the run of a long-distance relationship. that’s such a beautiful project. the idea to give a virtual locality to those disembodied conversations strikes me as extremely romantic. a re-dressing of the doomed romance of gothic novels like the wuthering heights.
Allahyari: Thank you.
faustini: how did you arrive at using virtual architecture as a means of communicating your ideas?
Allahyari: I think with experimental 3-D animation, I was really interested in kind of like creating this other virtual space. Maybe it’s like the other space you were talking about. Six years ago, seven years ago, when I started to learn 3-D animation, the most exciting thing for me was to build this other world, another space that was imaginative and intangible and beautiful. Back then, I was doing a lot of work around ideas of self-exile and home and belonging. I had just moved from Iran, but I also had done enough politically-related projects that I couldn’t go back anymore because it would be risky. So this idea of self-exiling yourself as to not censor yourself. Between self-censorship and self-exile, I’ve chosen self-exile.
If anything, I would get arrested and they would take my passport. That kind of scenario. I thought about this virtual space as this other world, as this other space that I could build and I could experience in a poetic metaphoric way, this is the home, this space, this other place that I could belong to. The process of building this space was really meaningful. Sitting and spending hours and hours building spaces and taking from different memories, different architectural spaces that I had in mind from either Iran or mixed-in dreams I had. I still have a lot of dreams about Iran.
My house, my childhood house that I grew up with. All that became a really important space for me in building that virtual space. To me, that’s an important part of architecture and the relationship between architecture and body. Again, in this case of not being able to go back, but also living in the US, as you’ve probably experienced. The life as an immigrant, and as an immigrant from the Middle East, and dealing with shit amount of visa and paperwork, also now, of course, xenophobia in so many ways. So all that connects to these experiences. It’s about this space of being. It’s about your relationship, your body’s relationship to these spaces that you can’t, doesn’t matter what, they will never fully accept you.
faustini: in a previous interview i did for open space with curtis roads, i prefaced it by saying that, in my experience, there are two things that can attenuate that sense of not belonging. people have a funny way of never letting you quite belong. somehow they make sure you feel like a foreigner. something manifests on the interior as well. there’s this whole other culture that lives inside you. in my opinion, money and being a child were the two ways that could have made the shift easier. neither of those things were the reality for me. but through sound and music, I always found my way in. i’m always comfortable in that realm, around those people and all it entails and permits. what would you say it was, for you, that gave you a sense of belonging?
Allahyari: I had to create that space for myself. This is what I always talk about. I think everyone’s experience of immigration and belonging and what they find and how they find it is completely personal and different. When I lived in Iran, I didn’t feel that I fully belonged to Iran either, because my lifestyle, my family, the way that my parents raised us or whatever, it just didn’t match up to the rest of the culture and religious views really.
faustini: were your parents pretty liberal?
Allahyari: Yeah. I have one of those personalities that is always being a rebel and not listening. I always felt this not belonging thing in a very different way. I wanted to get out. I didn’t want to live there. Of course, for also so many other reasons, because I just didn’t feel I would have the future I wanted in Iran. As a woman, it’s another whole process.
The amount of misogynistic and cultural taboos and shit around you is another thing that won’t make it easy for you to work. There are more Iranian women in universities than men. And women are very educated and they all have jobs. But at the same time, on a daily basis, you just constantly deal with sexism and sexual harassment and street harassment, and the glass ceiling is much more real. You can only move to a certain level of position. So yeah, I wanted to leave because I didn’t feel like I could belong in that society and it was suffering, living there.
The not belonging is a very different thing in the US, because then you end up constantly explaining yourself and explaining your life to people, and your daily life experience. And people don’t do that. People just do this out of public curiosity just on a daily basis, asking about your life and why did you move and how did you move and who are your parents, etc. All of these daily experiences makes this othering more real in your life. I don’t think that’s ever going to change. As long as I really have an accent and people ask where you’re from and I say, “Iran,” that will always be the case, right? You become this other because people are curious. People want to have associations about that.
I also would say that if anything, if I was going to have to go and choose countries to move to, the United States would still be my most preferable place to move to, because I think xenophobia in Europe is much more serious, and immigration…
I know a lot of friends from Iran who’ve moved to Sweden or France or, I don’t know, and you can never become a part of it. Living in the US, 98% of my friends are Americans. They’re my friends and I love them and they love me and we hang out all the time. They never make me feel like you’re just this other: “oh, you can’t be part of our community because you’re not American.”
Being American doesn’t [come with] the same resignation as being French or being Dutch, being British. All these have a really big thing, in terms of nationality, to them. Being American, unless you’re from Texas or whatever, it doesn’t really have that kind of thing, because of the history and background and…
faustini: much more recent history.
faustini: you don’t have the baggage.
Allahyari: One thing that I maybe should tell you about, because it’s not anywhere online, is this next project I’m working on, Material Speculation. Were you at Gray Area when I gave my talk on it?
faustini: no, i wasn’t. i sometimes don’t find out, by my own fault, about things going on there until they have happened. it’s a much needed space that could play a vital role in the cultural landscape of the city, but i’m not very often instigated by the program happening there, especially in relationship to art. so sometimes i end up missing things that could be of interest. i am always befuddled how the important and considered conversations around the cultural landscape of technology are really lacking in this city.
Allahyari: Same with me.
faustini: i think the place has great potential but the programming so far hasn’t had a distinctive voice in terms of the curation. seems they are more focused in education. are you working in any projects in san francisco? are people tapping into your work here at all?
Allahyari: No. It’s really interesting. I just had a show that finished at Southern Exposure.
faustini: but that was a group show, right?
Allahyari: Yes. I have so many shows coming up and none of [them are] here. Getting back to the Material Speculation:ISIS project. This is a project I’ve been working on for a year and a half.
faustini: i’ve read a lot about it, as it is the project of yours that gets talked about the most. i love the project. i was really excited that you were thinking about reza negarestani’s cyclonopedia in relationship to it. i haven’t finished the book, but i’ve read a good half of it and i dug up quite a bit on his xenopoetics. it got me thinking of your 3D-printed statue with the information inside as an example of what he associates with this conceit. he explains it as when you watch a horror movie and then there’s the weird detail that seems out of context and how it hijacks the narrative. for example when they would suddenly in a scene focus on the number on a door or there is a sound that is not connected to what is going on on the screen. to me the flash drives in your statues have this same type of relationship contained in them.
Allahyari: Exactly. After I finished the recreation of these 12 artifacts that were destroyed by ISIS, I released a folder on Rhizome as part of their Download series, which contains all the information that I had gathered during the research process about the artifacts, their history, the process of research, images, and the obj/sti files.
This idea of releasing this information online became really important for me because in the last one year, with all this destruction, as ISIS has been going to Iraq and Syria and destroying these artifacts, there has been a lot of response from a lot of tech companies and Western archaeological institutions, [wanting] to recreate these artifacts. This has become a highly fashionable thing. When I started to work on my Material Speculation project I was interested in using 3-D printing as this poetic, metaphoric tool, but also a practical activism tool to recreate these artifacts. I’ve been approaching it, of course, as an artist, as this conceptual work. My project got a lot of attention and press. I would get all these emails from different — especially based in San Francisco — tech companies and different places, asking, “Do you want to do a life size version of this project? Or do you want to collaborate with us? We have a digital library.”
One thing that I started to think about a lot — and this is me now looking back and rebuilding and interrupting myself — was the fact that — there are two things. One is digital colonialism. Two was the relationship between these tech people, usually white men, this Silicon Valley ideology of recreating these artifacts. So if ISIS claims these objects, these histories, by destroying them, the Silicon Valley ideology is that the Western tech companies reclaim it by recreating it. So they become…
faustini: they become branded.
Allahyari: That’s the digital colonialism part I am interested in. Because some of these tech companies go to the Middle East and they basically 3-D scan these artifacts, and then they bring it back and they won’t release the files online or give public access to these 3D models. So there’s a question of access, ownership, copyright, profit. I know different websites that you have — for example the model is online, but you can’t really download it. If you want to have access to it, you have to pay $2,000 to download it. Basically, with these new tools, we have entered this digital colonialism era, which didn’t exist before in the same way. So these technologies have brought in these whole new possibilities and problems.
I’ve been talking a lot about this digital colonialism, and what does it mean that we are all celebrating this? “Ooh, look, they are reconstructing these things,” but not asking questions about what happens to these files, what happens to data, ignoring the whole history of colonialism. These Western companies and archeologists going there, 3-D scanning these things, bringing them back.
Did you see the new Palmyra thing that was launched in London? Palmyra was this arc that was destroyed by ISIS. They rebuilt it in collaboration with the UK-based Institute for Digital Archeology, UNESCO, and Dubai’s Museum of the Future Foundation. They recreated this in London and launched it a few months ago. People are taking selfies in front of these things, and everyone is so excited. But what does it mean? What does this act mean, for these people doing this project and then putting it out there?
Another thing that happened when my project was getting all this attention, there were a lot of titles like this: “Artist battles ISIS with a 3-D printer.” “This artist fights ISIS in virtual reality.” Obviously, that’s the problem with doing political-related art. My project definitely got hijacked by media. There has been a lot of amazing reviews by the art world about it, in-depth and really beautifully written. But with the press, it was all that. This kind of framing; and then this which is like creating these things and putting it in London or New York, it creates this thing about it’s us and them. It’s about “look at us.” These civilized Western, white people, bringing these things. We’re the heroes. We’re bringing these things and rebuilding them, against these savages and terrorists and Muslims. It had — a lot of these articles and the way they were framing it, definitely had a xenophobic narrative to it.
I have been trying to keep my project away from it and just talk about my relationship to this piece, because it comes from a lot of personal, poetic — a conceptual relationship to the 3-D printer, to printing, to information, to access… the aesthetics of these specific things.
faustini: how would you summarize your personal position in this as different from the ones espoused by these private parties?
Allahyari: Because it’s about context. It’s about why and how and what way we do things, right? What does it mean? Again, ignoring — putting these things in London and then celebrating it is so fucking dark to me, because it becomes about that position. The Western, civilized people saving the cultural heritage, which suddenly also, like the Middle East cultural heritage is the world’s shared cultural heritage, which I can go on and on about, because that’s bullshit.
If you read these articles and why these archaeologists are interested in recreating these things, the expression that they use is the universal shared cultural heritage. They refer to these things as a cultural heritage that is shared between humans and that is universal, and this ownership over it. That’s why they want to save it, because it’s our shared cultural heritage. Which is like, no! Can we talk about why it’s shared? How is it shared cultural heritage, and when did it become the shared cultural heritage? It’s this universality, which to me, is very dangerous, because then it justifies colonialism.
faustini: this could maybe work in a world where you don’t have any borders. then maybe we can have this conversation.
Allahyari: Exactly. The fact that — this also ignores the fact that the United States has played a role in the formation of ISIS in the first place. ISIS would not be here now if it wasn’t for the invasion of Iraq. So it also ignores that whole history.
faustini: people here are largely ignorant about all the ancient cultures this is referencing — syria, mesopotamia… you cannot talk to an average school kid here about these. they don’t know where civilization actually originated from. and that is on of the reasons i’ve been so interested in negarestani’s desertification theory, where he talks about oil as the lubricant, the carrier of an ancient evil that is trying to turn everything back into the desert. that’s terrifying and beautiful at the same time. the aesthetics of perversion.
Allahyari: Yes. Only he says that the extreme Muslims, they want to flatten everything, They want to flatten the earth. So destroying things, bombing things, killing things, so things can be flattened and it can be started from the beginning or zero, where the Islamists, the extreme Islamists, want that history to begin, the history of humanity. So my whole argument is that if that’s how extreme Islamists want to take over our future and have ownership of the future — I mean, to me, the Singularity, the Silicon Valley ideology, is equally fearful, because it is all centered around the needs and views of the white tech men. The future they want is the future that is comfortable for them and for the rest of the privileged people in the world. I don’t want to live and be in the future that either of these ideologies promote. I don’t want to live in the future they predict.
faustini: which only works for very few.
Allahyari: the Western, the rich, white men. The straight white men. That is the future that they want us to live in.
faustini: they both have in common that it’s men trying to do things on their own terms unconcerned with others involved in the equation. it’s the old authoritative, patriarchal stance.
Allahyari: We fail to see that future is as scary. The singularity future is equally scary and uncomfortable, and I don’t want to live in that future, either. We talk about how horrifying ISIS is, always ignoring this other side of it, the future that Silicon Valley ideology wants us to live in, and how also disturbing that is. I think this idea of who wants to take over the future, that is scary, because both are not the future I want to live in. Living in San Francisco and dealing with this, I think has been such an interesting position.
faustini: did any of the people that contacted you through the project, from the tech side, wanted to just sponsor you and let you do your own thing?
Allahyari: Even if they wanted to sponsor me, I didn’t want them to sponsor me.
Then it would become about something else. I just don’t think these things need to exist in a big life-size form. It’s not about that. Even if you would make them in life-size form and put them somewhere in front of a place in San Francisco, so then what, you know? How does that add anything to the conversation? How does that change the conversation? And there’s no way you can replace these artifacts.
People love big things that become public art, just because. I think it’s important to ask why, and how does this add anything? Yes, maybe if we built a life-size thing in San Francisco, and I could sit there every day and talk about digital colonialism and US military’s role in the destruction of artifacts, that we don’t get to talk about at all, in conjunction with ISIS and the problem that ISIS is, then that would be fair. But just leaving that there so some people can come take selfies and feel good about themselves, that is just ridiculous.
faustini: resistance is very much needed. when i was researching about you i made this note about the idea of guilt. i think you mentioned this somewhere. do you remember?
Allahyari: Survival guilt, maybe? In what context?
faustini: something to do with the immigration process again. how you carry this guilt because of leaving your country behind. i detached a lot from brazil so i was wondering how it felt for you.
Allahyari: It’s survival guilt. I think a lot about privilege and things like that, in connection to me living here and how a straight white man has so much more privilege in society than I will ever have, for years to come. A white feminist will have more privilege than I will have, et cetera. So I think a lot about that. But I also am aware of my own privilege in connection to people who are stuck in Iran and who couldn’t leave for different reasons. That’s the survival guilt, I think. It’s about being here and doing these things and feeling amazing about being an artist and having the freedom to make the work I want to make.
faustini: were you in art school in iran?
Allahyari: I was in media theory school, media studies and theory. It was actually such an amazing department. I went to the best university for humanities in Iran. Which is really hard to get into. I studied for a year. An insane amount of studying, Because it’s very competitive to get into those schools. In high school, my major was humanities, so I studied a lot of philosophy and logic and social science, I was really obsessed with this stuff. I was a geek, I spent many hours just digging into things. But that university was amazing. The funniest thing is that it was a media theory, media studies department. But it was obviously behind, digitally. We didn’t really talk about digital culture much. It was all radio and television. But of course, we talked about everything from Heidegger to Marshall McLuhan. I had two cyber studies classes, which were with an ayatollah.
faustini: that sounds surreal.
Allahyari: It was so surreal. But at the same time, he was amazing. He studied in the UK. I really got into this cyber studies stuff. But my entrance to the art world was through writing, through creative writing. That’s what I did, since I was twelve until I was eighteen, nineteen. I published a 400-page novel when I was sixteen, which got a lot of prizes in Iran.
faustini: is it obtainable somewhere?
Allahyari: I have it in my house. It’s in Farsi. I got a lot of awards for it, a lot of attention for it. It was about the life of my grandmother, because my father’s family was from Kurdistan. And it was a lot about my grandmother’s life, who lived with us. She passed away when I was twelve, and I was very close to her. She told me all these stories about her life as a woman. All the sufferings, all the fucked up things she had to deal with traditionally.
faustini: was she educated?
Allahyari: No, she couldn’t actually read or write.
I was so close to her. When she passed away, I wanted to write about her life, because it was so influential for me and my daily life experience of thinking about women around me. I spent from when I was twelve, I started the book through this creative writing class. I was writing a lot of short stories.
I was obsessed with writing. It became this channel in my life for finding a way — a creative way to express myself and thoughts and emotions. Then when she passed away, I decided to write about her life. I did so much research. I went to the town that she was born in and asked around about things. The whole story is about her and the life of women in Kurdistan and their sufferings and inequalities. Now I look back and, fuck, I was a feminist since I was twelve. That is insane to think about. That was my entrance to the art world, really, writing. Writing was like what I found myself just wanting to do, only and all the time. Then I became interested in photography, more documentary photography, journalism photography.
After I finished my university, I wanted to do something that was more visual art focused, but also conceptual. That’s why I chose digital media studies at the University of Denver, which was awesome.
faustini: what are some direct influences and inspiration for your artistic practice? whose work do you look at?
Allahyari: I would say daily life, political, cultural, social issues around me that concern me or make me want to question and challenge things. in terms of artists, it’s a very long list but i do think this is one i constantly refer back to. It is collected by Angela Washko, one of my favorite artists.
faustini: do you ever just come to the studio just to fuck around and see what happens? or is it always a thought-out effort?
Allahyari: No. I wish. That’s not how my brain works. I always talk about this, because I think it is about not having the privilege of being that kind of artist.
I would say 90% of my artist friends who lived in Iran, grew up in Iran with me in the same generation, their art is political. Because we all grew up with war. I was four years old when the war ended. The postwar life was fucking insanely gray and hardcore and we all grew up in a dictatorship country. Politics is just part of your daily life. You wake up, and from what you wear to what you say and how you say it and people you’re contact with — everything is political and there’s no way to escape it. It’s so embedded in your daily life. I think as artists, as activists — even being in the US and looking at the work of so many other artists, how can you live in this world now and not reflect about the shit that is going on around you? I mean, to me, that is just insane.
faustini: but I think some people don’t address it in their work. they have that freedom to do just do whatever in their work. hopefully, as citizens, they function in a concerned and mindful way.
Allahyari: I think for me, that is our role as cultural producers, as thinkers. To me, that is our responsibility, to reflect on these things and ask difficult questions and challenge things. I have work that has a sense of humor, and I love that as a way of talking about serious thing. But art making, the act of art making, is very serious and political, and I’m invested in it as this — it’s research, it’s activism, it’s responding to the shit that we’re living in. So that’s just how I think, and that’s how my brain functions. Again, I think a big portion of it is definitely privilege. As I don’t have the privilege of having my brain make fun, cool things that can live there. Not that that it shouldn’t also exist as an art thing out there. But that’s just not what I want to do with my life.
As part of the additivism thing, Daniel and I have been teaching a lot of workshops. The last two times, we focused it only on art activism. Have you read this Boris Groys text called On Art Activism? We have definitely used this a lot in our workshops and ways of thinking about the rise of art activism and how we justify it and why it’s important. It’s such an amazing article. The workshops have been so productive and important.
faustini: did you grow up religious?
Allahyari: No. My family were like the most non-religious.
faustini: are any of them artists?
Allahyari: No. My mom was a flight attendant for twenty-five years. I got to travel a lot with her, which I always talk about as traveling a lot to different countries in the world definitely had a big influence on my understanding of the world and shaping me. My dad had an insurance company. So no, they were not artists. My mom was really into literature, so we read books back and forth and talked a lot about literature and poetry.
faustini: i had that kind of literary relationship with my mom, too.
Allahyari: She was very into literature. I just grew up in a non-religious family, and pretty open-minded.
faustini: were they comfortable with you leaving the country?
Allahyari: Oh, yeah. My father especially encouraged me. I was doing a lot of writing for magazines and journalists are the most arrested group of people in Iran. The government doesn’t like journalists. There are so many jailed journalists in Iran. It’s actually the second country in the world with that many journalists imprisoned.
My father didn’t like that. He didn’t want me to not do it. He said “you just need to leave. Go and do these things there. Just go and have a life there and don’t worry about coming back.”
faustini: how many of the printed objects have you made?
Allahyari: I have some here in my studio now. Southern Exposure has five of them for an exhibition called Postscripts to Revolution curated by Genevieve Quick. Three of them are at the Venice Biennale now. As part of the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition called The World of Fragile Parts.
faustini: are they for sale?
Allahyari: No. I do not want to sell these ever. The amazing thing that could happen would be that a museum in the Middle East would commission and archive them.
faustini: they’re beautiful. some of the images for these online makes them look very plastic-y, but they have a much more delicate feel to them.
Allahyari: The images I have from them are much better. But there’s not an easy way to really document these. Yeah, they’re my babies. [laughter]
faustini: what is the protocol concerning the information encased in them? would you open them from time to time to replace the storage components?
Allahyari: You could. I think about it as time capsules. So you could — the way I’ve built it is like, say in ten years, I could take this out and replace if I wanted to. Or not. Not that all the information that is there is online, it doesn’t really matter. It’s more just a gesture.
faustini: do you work with galleries?
Allahyari: I now do. Upfor gallery in Portland and Transfer gallery in NYC.
Read more here:: on material entanglements: an interview with morehshin allahyari