- One Take: Sahej Rahal’s Bashinda, frieze, issue 216 (January 2021).
- Notes on Class, Labor, and the Moving Image, catalogue essay, Not Working: Artistic Production and Matters of Class, Kunstverein München + Archive Books, Berlin (September 2020).
- Toward a Comparative Futurism – Revised and Extended (December 2019).
- Toward a Comparative Futurism, catalogue essay, Cosmological Arrows, Bonniers Konsthall + Art and Theory Publishing, Stockholm (August 2019).
- National Identity Meets Digital Nativity: On the Works of Shabahang Tayyari, Canvas Magazine, No. 15, vol. 14 (July 2019).
- On the Installation Shots of Contemporary Art Exhibitions, catalogue essay, thing, aura, metadata. A poem on making., The Museum of Contemporary Photography of Ireland, Dublin (July 2019).
- Shilpa Gupta and Zarina at Ishara Art Foundation, review, art–agenda (June 2019).
- On the Works of Morteza Ahmadvand, Ghazaleh Hedayat, and Sahand Hesamiyan, catalogue essays, The Spark Is You, Parasol Unit, London and Venice (May 2019).
- CAD Conspiracy: Pattern Recognition in Contemporary Art (with Bahar Noorizadeh and Chris Tegho), video-essay installation with Generative Adversarial Networks (2019–ongoing).
- Ethics of Time Travel: Toward a Comparative Futurism, talk, The Twilight Symposium: Science Fiction Inside Colonialism, e-flux journal + La Colonie, Paris (February 2019).
- Peer Pressuring the Past, Future-Fictioning the Present: On the Films of Bahar Noorizadeh, brochure text, Governing Machines and the Future of Futures, Mercer Union, Toronto (October 2018).
- “What Was Gulf Futurism” (with Ahamd Makia), in ZIGG: Superficial (October 2018).
- A Butterfly Effect Across the Chronosphere, talk, Armen Avanessian & Enemies #30: Ethnofuturisms, Roter Salon, Volksbühne, Berlin (September 2018).
- Ethnofuturisms (Berlin: Merve Verlag, 2018).
- Notes From the Attic: Displaying the Material History of the CIA, Cabinet, issue 65 (Fall 2017–Winter 2018).
- A Postcard from Tehran, Spike Art Quarterly, No. 57 (September 2018).
- Tehran Behind the Screen, Domus, No. 1027 (September 2018).
- Instrumental Xenotation, blog post (September 2017).
- The Politics of Surplus: An Affirmative Strategy of Resistance, coursework, Goldsmiths, University of London (August 2017).
- Objective Hyperreality vs. Hyperobjective Reality, blog post (July 2017).
- Despotic Ophidiophobia, blog post (July 2017).
- “Post-Capitalist Desire”, in The Fisher-Function (London: EGRESS, 2017).
- This Is the Sea, Isn’t It?, catalogue essay, This Is the Sea, artmonte-carlo, Monaco (April 2017).
- The Contract of Identification with Pain or A Child’s Instantaneous Desire for Aging, blog post (February 2017).
- 🚨💭, blog post (January 2017).
- The Exhibition Whisperer, Spike Art Quarterly, online (January 2017).
- The Aesthetics of Afterlife, blog post (November 2016).
- August 3, 2016: After Pak Sheung-Chuen, blog post (August 2016).
- Trans-Temporal Perspectives, PNYX (an autonomous imprint of Architectural Association, London), issue 24 (June 2016).
- An Alternative Entry in Five Moves, blog post (June 2016).
. . . the rebirth of a non-neologism, a heretical transvaluation . . .
Realized in collaboration with Armen Avanessian and published by Merve Verlag, this volume includes contributions by Fatima Al Qadiri, Monira Al Qadiri, Sophia Al-Maria, Aria Dean, Kodwo Eshun, Steve Goodman, Anna Greenspan, and Karen Orton. It also includes the introductory essay “Ethnofuturisms: Findings in Common and Conflicting Futures.”
This anthology should by no means be considered exhaustive, but only a first step toward a new field of research that might once be called Comparative Futurism.
Bashinda (2020)– commissioned for the now-postponed 13th Gwangju Biennale – is the fourth in a series of virtual biomes, or digital mythomorphic soundscapes, created by Mumbai-based artist Sahej Rahal. Complicating easy designations of a medium or format, Bashinda is a game that will be mainly experienced as a film – less of a recording of a game previously played and more of a game played live by an AI – the automated screening of possible gaming scenarios. Bashinda, the Hindi-Urdu word for inhabitant, is named after its main character: a terrestrial cephalopod with twelve limbs holding up a faceless torso-head that looks like some kind of rock formation or mineral aggregate. All shapes are crudely contoured, almost sans any texture as such, by a crisp yet primal aesthetic that extends to the creature’s surroundings as well.
Like most third-person perspective games, the landscape would not come into view unless trodden by Bashinda, draggin along the virtual camera hovering behind it. However, clearcut figurge-ground relations are technically untenable, although visually maintained, in this simulated environment, which is covered in wavering patches of grass, dotted with ever blossoming trees and ground-grown cubic forms, and also populated by other cephalopodic creatures with confrontational and interactive tendencies. Bashinda’s movement, as a mobile locus of all that moves around it, is a function of an ambient mood, a whirlpool of contingencies that as much draw on so-called user input as are conditioned, contextually, by some sort of common algorithmic denominator between different responses scripted in the program’s behaviour. The layers of reciprocity that are programmed into Bashinda move the notion of programmable automation away from its normative mimicry of life-as-labor-as-capital and situate it as an evolving apparatus among others, whether cultural, biological, or technological. An instrument turns into a collaborator.
Two pieces of technical specification are key in understanding the way in which Bashinda attempts to interface processes of different kind and the beings that evolve, iteratively and not teleologically, from such processes with each other. Firstly, Bashinda’s brain power, so to speak, is diffused among the limbs, which respond to stimuli semi-autonomously, rendering each move a matter of negotiation between several kinetic agencies. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, an audio sensorium lies at the core of how the program, its temperamental kinetics, and its environmental rendering are interfaced with where and when the program is put into play. Within this mechanism, sound functions as the driving force and moving motor of the image, where sound is often noise and image is at once gestural and evolutionary. In fact, the speed by which the program’s behaviour and environmental mood evolve is repeatedly, almost temperamentally, disrupted and changed by changes in the tempo, frequency, volume, and rhythm of actual atmospheric noise, background music, or conversations that might be going on where and when the work is exhibited.
Rahal’s design for such more or less deep mediation of an imaginary elsewhere in fact lays the ground for a commentary on India’s current sociopolitical landscape, where a legislative double-state of exemption and exclusion has been recently grafted onto age-old structures of religious and ethnic discrimination. The word bashinda similarly implies the tension that lies in how residence/inhabitance flickers between citizenship and denizenship. The newly introduced Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens together produce a surplus outcast from within the actually existing population, dispossessing “resident Indian” Muslim communities, among some other minorities, of the right to the future liveability of their historical habitat by displacing their pasts onto an isolated, imaginary elsewhere.
Along with its juridical engineerings, Hindu supremacism functions as a reductive myth monopoly. Much like other atavistic ethnonationalisms of the age of global capital, it banks on the injected liquidity of retrofitted narratives of heritage and belonging, which preserve the metaphysics of caste as the core anatomy of Indian society. In fact, canonical fictions of innate hierarchy have been historically anthropomorphized in the body of Manu (the archetypal saviour and progenitor of earthbound humanity in Hindu mythology), whose head represents the highest classes and whose limbs, given their distance from the assumed seat of intellect and consciousness, represent the lowest.
In this sense, Rahal’s art gestures toward a mythotechnical aesthetic. It employs time-based audiovisual media to render multi-environmental temporalities sensible. Through Bashinda, the anthropic coordinates of concrete experience are abstracted without entirely abandoning its materiality, approximating a posthuman condition. On the other hand, and similar to Rahal’s other virtual biomes, Bashinda exhibits a critical exercise in ethnofuturist worldmaking, insofar as it wonders what environments might emerge, what beings might rise, and what myths could be told if the inherited distances that maintain monopolies of cultural imagination were to collapse.
This essay was published in Not Working: Reader, accompanying the exhibition “Not Working: Artistic Production and Matters of Class” at Kunstverein München (September–November 2020).
“… to draw out some relationships between… the topical decline of class in contemporary art; the increasing rise of the moving image in contemporary art; the digital turn of the experience economy, and how it plays into contemporary impressions of labor by obscuring expressions of class; the historical role of the filmic medium in the management of labor; as well as attempts at toying with how these relationships are upheld in a highly self-centered image of the status quo.”
The Reality, Contrary, and Special Effects of Ethnofuturisms …
This essay has been in the making since October 2017, and different versions of it have been presented in various forms and published in various contexts, including the few mentioned at the bottom of the essay. This is the final version (December 2019) which only demands further work to be done in the field of Comparative Futurism.
Image: Still from Donnie Darko (2001) by Richard Kelly.
This essay was published in the accompanying volume to Cosmological Arrows, a group exhibition at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm (August–November 2019) exploring the works of contemporary artists who engage with science fiction as a medium, a source of inspiration, or a site of critique.
This essay appeared in the accompanying publication of thing, aura, metadata. A poem on making. at The Museum of Contemporary Photography in Dublin (5-28 July 2019). Read more about the exhibition here.
Since 2008, Contemporary Art Daily has been regularly publishing high-quality documentation materials from exhibitions in a range of different venues across the art world. To visit the website, no matter how shortly, has become a habitual task of many artists and art professionals wherever they are based. Although operated by a nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles, the website and its sister online projects are mainly funded by advertising partnerships and annual sponsorships forged with an international (mostly North Western) batch of commercial galleries listed in their directory or featured in the larger banners on their homepage. It cannot be denied that CAD [Contemporary Art Daily] does not exactly represent (as in document) the art world, but in fact projects a particular configuration of what an art world can be. I am not claiming that there is no outside to the contemporary art world as pictured by CAD, but it seems like a curious act to analyze its interiors and study the production and operation of an image that carries a particular promise of an art world.
The CAD universe of projects, initiatives, and nonprofits is involved in a certain degree of worldmaking, which demands a careful look at the particularity of certain visual elements that are at the center stage of how this world is realized in its own image. This most importantly includes the installation shots of contemporary art exhibitions that are produced and consumed in various parts of this world. To better understand and tentatively describe the visual protocols, operational standards, or the metrics and aesthetics of this world, a certain task of pattern recognition needs to be performed on the kind of installation shots that can be found on CAD, among other similar websites. This task is predicated upon the typical and generic features that not only identify installation shots but also potentially manifest the larger set of conditions that underlie their production and circulation. Pattern recognition is therefore intended in the expanded sense of detecting abstract schemes running through various elements and materials of an apparatus that sets certain relations into action and blocks certain others. In this sense, it stands in a historical lineage with other studies that share similar concerns.
In his 1976 essay, the artist and writer Brian O’Doherty draws a parallel between the evolutionary history of the interior content of paintings and the history of their exterior conditioning when hung on the wall, a relationship that tied the picture plane to the white cube. The myth of the picture plane and its systems of illusion were long dominated by the easel picture and its rule of perspective and conventions of framing. “The discovery of perspective coincides with the rise of the easel picture, and the easel picture in turn, confirms the promise of illusionism inherent in painting.”1 By holding a totally insulated space within itself, the easel picture stood as a self-sufficient entity, carrying the interior space across the exteriors. It was a window onto a world that was only there when looked at through the window frame. The frame of the image, the size of which often followed the conditions of portability, acted as a means of setting boundaries in the space, but also facilitated certain vectors of movement through and across layers of spatial configuration. The tendency toward boundaries went on to define a dominant 19th century sentiment, which also left a lasting impact on the design of museums and art spaces as heightened and detached chambers. As O’Doherty writes, “the frame of the easel picture is as much a psychological container for the artist as the room in which the viewer stands is for him or her.”2
In fact, when the surface that was once lent to illusion was distanced from the wall and received a certain delineation, in the move from murals to easel painting, the picture plane got tangled in an inter-dimensional tension. The tendency to extend toward the outside space put pressure on the frame that defined the territory of depth. Illusionism and its dependence on the sense of depth was forced to face the flatness of the picture plane and reconcile with its outward extensions. This tension was brought to surface by the modernist objecthood of the late 19th and early 20th century. But the attention to the opacity of the picture plane did not entirely replace the desire for illusion. Illusionism was in fact “literalized,” writes O’Doherty, narrating the “transformation of literary myths into literal myths.” 3 A “technology of aesthetic flatness” was established. The trajectory of O’Doherty’s narrative follows the history of how this technology, as manifest in many visual experiments conducted by the late 1960s, moves onto a wide-ranging set of dimensions in the space and employs a variety of surfaces.
While illusion, hitherto confined to the extents of the frame, permeates the space, the installation shot, technically a subcategory of documentary photography, appears as the image that conventionally puts a frame around the space for the experience of art, the space that is the experience of art. Installation shot, as an imprint of a space amalgamated with myth and illusion, replaces the easel painting, floating across an unprecedented number of surfaces, layers, dimensions, and interfaces. So the processes of visual and material literalization, ushered in by modernist encounters with the picture plane, advance a visual membrane thin enough to transmit the illusion and thick enough to hold itself together, grounded in the space it would in turn try to dematerialize, to turn into a space of virtual embodiment and mythical figures. “As the vessel of content becomes shallower and shallower [following the techniques of flatness], composition and subject matter and metaphysics all overflow across the edge until, as Gertrude Stein said about Picasso, the emptying out is complete.”4 The space turns into a myth of the matter, in a limbo between raw and processed, natural and manmade, and ultimately human and nonhuman. The installation shot is a metaphorical paradox of modern visual cognition, as O’Doherty writes:
The space offers the thought that while eyes and minds are welcome, space-occupying bodies are not or are tolerated only as kinesthetic mannekins [sic] for further study. This Cartesian paradox is reinforced by one of the icons of our visual culture: the installation shot, sans figures. Here at last the spectator, oneself, is eliminated. You are there without being there –– one of the major services provided for art by its old antagonist, photography, the installation shot is a metaphor for the gallery space. In it an ideal is fulfilled as strongly as in a salon painting of the 1830s.5
In a 2013 essay, the curator Sohrab Mohebbi identifies a similar Cartesian complex, although considering the frequent appearance of figures in installation shots. His focus is on certain patterns that recur in one image after another, postures that take on a role again and again, the role of the contemplative viewer in the detached space of art. “In this way thinking becomes a performative act with identifiable formal properties — similar to Rodin’s man with one hand curled back, resting under his chin. My acquaintances [in installation shots] are transformed into nonhuman, inanimate accessories to the works of art in front or around them. Or perhaps the onlooker’s act of watching is meant to represent looking without seeing, contemplation void of thinking, the performance of theory without discourse, the demise of the Cartesian figure who thinks and therefore is.”6 And while O’Doherty sees the installation shot simultaneously as a “service” provided by photography, a spatial (literalized) metaphor, and the bearer of certain ideal qualities of the easel painting, Mohebbi brings it full circle by suggesting that “one can consider exhibition-as-medium one of the forefathers of photography, and draw an analogy between a photograph’s approach to its subject and a display’s relationship to its content. As such, in an installation shot, the two media come together in an almost tautological manner.”7
However, the politics of temporality as figured in installation shots is as consequential as the ways in which spatial relations are reworked by these images. The structural chronotopes of an installation shot can be traced back to how the myth of the white cube, as O’Doherty shows, served as a chamber where “an illusion of eternal presence was to be protected from the flow of time,”8 an attempt to preserve the status quo of social and aesthetic values in a state of timelessness. Similarly, Mohebbi argues that “there’s a difference between documentation and installation shots, where the former—a byproduct of performance art—represents art as an event, and the latter shows art as eternity… We document happenings, events, and performances to show that something took place somewhere, at some point in time, as art, whereas in the token installation shot of works in a white cube, nothing ever happened, nor is anything ever going to.”9 There are instances, however, where these two types of image blend, one atemporal and the other attached to a particular moment in time.
Shortly after the proposition of bringing the royal collection into public view at the Grande Galerie, Hubert Robert was appointed Garde du Muséum in 1778 while a resident artist at the Louvre. The landscape and architectural painter assumed all the tasks classically associated with a curator’s function: inventory of the collection, acquisitions, supervision of restoration, and participation in the refurbishment of the building — which is reflected in his pictures of the exhibition spaces he lived in and worked on.
His two paintings from 1796, both exhibited at the Salon of the same year, can be seen as early formations of today’s ubiquitous installation shots, and what makes them even more interesting is how they reveal the temporalities that such images engender. Refurbishment Project of the Grande Galerie of the Louvre displays the gallery interiors in a resolutely sharp perspective, paintings hung frame to frame and skied from floor to ceiling, statues on pedestals or in dedicated niches, the public dwarfed by the monumental scale of the space, walking around and pointing at art works, and a handful of copyists in front of masterpieces — among whom is pictured Robert himself, carefully studying Raphael’s Holy Family. This picture, although recalling the legacies of Renaissance illusionism and its representational precision, is not an actual view of what the painter could have really been looking at while making sketches. Carrying an evocative title borrowed from architectural language, the picture is Robert’s proposal for renovating the gallery that was at the time a long hallway with neither divisions nor decor, dimly lit by narrow windows. It was a call for the prospective division of the gallery into several bays by a system of niches surrounded by ionic pilasters, heavy architraves, and a coffered, vaulted skylight. A pendant to this painting was Imaginary View of the Grande Galerie in Ruins, which depicts, from a slightly different point of view, the same hallway with the same propositional details in place but in a state of ruin — the sky and other natural forces having intruded and replaced the artworks. Here, again, Robert has pictured himself, but while making a drawing of the Apollo Belvedere.
Both of these pictures are stylistically similar, and are both (art) historical materials through which one can track the life of an institution along hectic moments of social and political change. Their artist, however, is driven by forces of speculation, positing spaces of experience in relation to near and far futures. His picturesque style, pertaining to pseudo-antique scenes that brought him the nickname Robert of Ruins, simultaneously marks an end to centuries of institutional development and projects another beginning upon the ruins. It is in this nascent moment that Robert makes a typical Renaissance statement on art historical ancestrality and the formation of artist-subjects, by turning away from modern masterpieces toward ancient classics. He imagines himself outlining the future of his practice by resorting to the few remaining originary forms and figures, and not by attending to the reality of the future he has envisioned. The space opened up between these two picture planes addresses the future as if it is given, bound to eternal retrospection. An understanding of history and the conditions of progress are held up by the constant reincarnation of classical ideals.
Fast forward to the contemporary time and the standard computer-generated architectural rendering can function just like a documentary photograph. The super-realism of these post-photographic documents supersedes historical illusionism and reaches a state of flattened temporality. Modeling softwares are also used when planning exhibition spaces, and, in the hands of the curator, they come to serve as more than a tool for trying to figure out where to put what. Even the writer who is commissioned to write the customary exhibition essay deals with certain visual materials that seem to involve a certain degree of “futures trading,” as the critic Jennifer Allen once put it. Speaking of her role as an art writer, she points out how exhibition views and installation shots function as part of a forensic orchestration around documentational images and the words they accompany or are accompanied by, be it a caption, a short description, a review, or a catalogue essay. However, there is a distinction to be made: “Whereas the exhibition review is oriented towards the topical present before becoming an archival document, the catalogue essay is a foray into science fiction –– not only anticipating the future, but also treating what’s to come as if it has already taken place.”10 The writer who is commissioned to write for an exhibition hardly ever gets to see or experience that which others would conventionally read her essay as an immediate companion of. She would nonetheless have to rely on “a wide array of visuals that attempt to prefigure the exhibition,”11 including maquettes, stitched-up JPEGs with no sense of scale, architectural plans, crude SketchUps with silhouette figures, and hasty hand-drawings on a piece of napkin or the back of a matchbox.
While they appear only temporarily, installation shots are the teleological archetype of all visual materials that approach a look at contemporary art. An installation shot, as a particular kind of photographic material, has decisive visual features in common with a phantasmic post-photographic rendering. Not exclusively a matter of documentation but a model based on a set of typical or generic criteria, the average installation shot does not only serve as an imprint of some experiential setting preceding it, namely an instance of contemporary art incarnate. Each installation shot itself can also serve as a blueprint for simulating that which will or could be identified as contemporary art. In this sense, the distinction between reviews that are written in retrospect and essays that are written in anticipation in fact stems from a singular state of trans-temporality that is embodied within the model of installation shots, whether captured or generated, as capable of mediating both past and future experiences.
The spectres of a globalised contemporary art can be identified by a particular temporal tendency for constant transition from being retrospective to being prospective, from documentation to projection, and back again. The contemporary idea of originary forms is caught in the arrival of installation shots from the future and their ensuing perpetuation in the transit lounges of exhibitions: Spaces of experience, exemplifying a contemporary sense of transience, are required merely for ensuring an abundance of installation shots, and for facilitating the automatised reincarnation of what has already been thrown into the future as the projection of an upcoming project. What happens between each departure and every landing is similar to the undergoing of a morphing technique, a recombinant pattern laid across the soupy shades of grey that open up, like decimal gates, deeper and deeper in between every white and every black and only find sharpness and contrast in the temporary teleology of an installation shot. The shape of contemporary art practice, the formation of its syntactic geometry, seems to be best traceable not in the general and wildly omnipresent use of the word “project” but in the exercise of specific variations of prōicere, its Latin root: to stretch out or extend, to throw away or give up, to defer or delay, all ever until further notice.
- Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (San Francisco: Lapis Press, 1986), 14.
- O’Doherty, 18.
- O’Doherty, 23.
- O’Doherty, 22.
- O’Doherty, 15.
- Sohrab Mohebbi, “Caught Watching,” Red Hook Journal (February 2013). [https://ccs.bard.edu/redhook/caught-watching/index.html]
- O’Doherty, 8.
- Jennifer Allen, “Futures Trading,” Frieze 126 (October 2009). [https://frieze.com/article/futures-trading]
A shorter version of this essay was published in Canvas Magazine, no. 15, vol. 4 (Jul/Aug 2019).
Scrolling through over five thousand posts and reposts on Shabahang Tayyari’s Instagram page can take a lot of time. In the course of regular shitposting, some images crop up regularly. There are several posts in which large italicized letters are set against royal blue and chartreuse green backgrounds, filling the frame with phrases like, “Country of Pistachios and Losers,” “Country of Saffron and Sycophants,” and “Country of Rugs and Whores.” Elsewhere, similar compositions are overwritten with different lines: “Country of Allah and Kitties,” “– of Dumb and Dumbers,” and “– of Peppers and Sperms.”
Tayyari is an artist, writer and curator from Karaj, a city in the suburbs of Tehran. His homegrown exercises in meme-making couple a dark sense of humor with a contested sense of belonging. His way of addressing the riddle of identity is to situate it as a riddle that might seem solved once everyone, no matter where from or what their background, posts the same viral image on the same online platform. His Instagram roster of verbal and visual miscellany displays fascination and frustration with certain modes of identification and agendas of representation in contemporary art, vernacular culture, and popular avenues of digital circulation. He approaches these categories and their respective practices with both apathy and drama, which, though perhaps cynical, carries a bold sense of entitlement. This is negativity conceived as a task, post-internet pessimism at full force.
Tayyari’s references include the Bauhaus via Josef Albers, whose color theory has long been a fixture of visual arts studies in Iran. Yet his approach sarcastically takes on notions of digital enchantment — “I’m gonna build a Mosque on Tumblr” — and professional disillusionment: “Let’s be MFA Forever.” In another image, Tayyari shows a detail of a work with the Thatcherite slogan “There Is No Such Thing As Society”; and elsewhere, he features solid colors inscribed with texts like “Art Basel Chechnya” or “Kabul Biennial.” All of this presents an aloof critique (if not outright mockery) of inter-scalar agendas of representation, from a particular location toward a trans-regional or global horizon. Targeted in his work are the social media mandates of efficiency and mobility, which demand an image be recognizable in under two seconds, regardless of context or authorship.
At the same time, Tayyari inspires us to ask: How does provincialism survive the internet? Is it possible that contemporary art is particularly functioning as a conduit for the persistence of provincial standpoints? Maybe the internet and contemporary art can be used interchangeably in these questions. This is about how art professionalism mobilises technological affordances on a planetary scale while cultivating a focus on micro-situations, points of origin, and background stories. This might speak to how one simultaneously inhabits various scales. But it certainly points to how planetary operations can allow for the smooth movement of ideas and currencies without altering the segregated or isolated materiality of certain locations and subjectivities.
In their essay on “the role of provincialism as a major aesthetic and infrastructural component in the history of twentieth-century modernism and its transformation into contemporary art as we know it,” David Hodge and Hamed Yousefi argue that “provincialism has actually been neoliberalized.” To explain this they set up a correlation between abiding disparities in institutional and educational access and an individualized, hyper-competitive mode of sociality. “While twentieth-century modernism was so often characterized in its different national guises by the formation of avant-garde movements, the sociality of contemporary art is that of a dispersed network of competing individuals who never cohere into a historical subject with the capacity for collective resistance.” Tayyari responds to this set of problematics by attempting to gather tokens of belonging and identification within and across different cultures or subcultures — and on different scales and platforms. He then shows how these narratives, once having achieved the status of legible representation, start feeding into orders of dividuation and competition, market-driven interaction, and commercialization.
For the past few years, Tayyari has been exhibiting works and curating shows often at Delgosha Gallery in Tehran. His most recent solo exhibition there, Bored Family 2, was in December 2017 and included a collection of wall pieces in different mediums and materials. As if a blockbuster proudly announcing its comeback, the title of the show references Tayyari’s previous solo exhibition at the gallery in 2016. The main leitmotif of the works was a set of Rorschach-like shapes laser cut on cardboard, a material that invokes packing and moving from one place to another as well as the handmade props often used in street protests. Their graphics derive from the logos of black and death metal bands, like Darkthrone or Defeated Sanity, laid over another to form “something gothic,” as Tayyari puts it. Each might also resemble “an old sign carved on the walls of a cave.” These tentacular and slimy forms are built upon a mix of pseudo-organic imagery, religious iconography, and ornate calligraphy, all held together in a state of semi-symmetry. The oversaturated cluster of marks carved on the surface also suggest something like a mask, concealing what lies beneath — as does a nickname on an online forum.
As is often the case with Tayyari’s work, a curious air of anecdotes surrounds the graphics, adding to the inherent esotericism of metal. From an aesthetic and social viewpoint, being able to decipher a metal band’s logo qualifies a person as being in the know. As a teenager in early 2000s Karaj, Tayyari saw metal aesthetics as a matter of fashion and lifestyle. Despite not having much familiarity with the breadth of the genre, its musical lineages, or even the content of lyrics, he saw it as a way to “make an identity out of something I had no idea about.” And after all, It wasn’t as if he could have gone online — or anywhere in Iran, for that matter — to buy a ticket for a metal gig, since the genre is widely associated with satanism. Tayyari and his friends found that hilarious but also useful as a means to connect with the local underground and even cultivate their own groupies.
Among the venues that Tayyari has been frequenting for years is a “game net” owned by a friend in his neighborhood. LAN computer gaming centers, once booming local businesses, are often left to circles of friends who gather to socialize, smoke, drink, listen to black and death metal, and play Counter-Strike or World of Warcraft. They usually play against each other, as slow internet speeds make it difficult to play online. “They see you, they shoot you, and it’s only then that you get to see them,” Tayyari explained. “That’s how slow it can get.”
Stratification within networks is also reflected in the verbal elements of Tayyari’s work, which include quotations credited to “unknown” sources. Some are in fact crude translations of slogans from TV commercials, like “with Iran Radiator who goes to cave.” Another, which reads “sea of sorrow has no shore,” is taken from a modern Iranian poem by Rahi Mo’ayyeri. In the 1960s, it was adapted by the popular musician Habibollah Badi’e for a song by Banoo Roya. As Tayyari writes in his text for the exhibition, the sentence can often be found in prison tattoos, or as a lyrical phrase commonly cited in Telegram groups. But highlighting translation as a means of alienation rather than communication brings poetics back to the surface.
The contours of the landscape suggested by the “cave” and the “sea” find more definition in another laser-cut caption, “in our colony depression is an option.” It sounds odd enough to be a translation, but isn’t one. It is additionally odd because while Iran or, in fact, ancient Persia is remembered in history as a once colonizing force, it has never been an actual colony. But perhaps there is another geographical imagination at work, as cities such as Karachi, Qandahar, and Bangkok are summoned in other works of the series, suggesting a trans-regional horizon that radiates from within cloistered localities. In the background of musical subgenres that emerged in the late 1970s, the provincialism problem is nominally addressed via an evocation of non-Western trajectories that branch off historical postmodernism. In this, Tayyari looks for peculiar instantiations of the cultural ur-logic of today’s communicative consumerism, as figured on a regional register, as an intermediate between local and global scales. It is not a matter of whether depression was opted in for by locals or exerted upon by a global force. The point seems to be that a community can be depressed and yet cultivate a sense of agency, perhaps the agency to conceive of an option. Instead of a direct nod to postcolonial histories of exploitation and alienation, the sentence makes a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that even the worst of all shared feelings, figuratively speaking, can function as a basis for upscaling one’s sense of belonging and cohabitation, particularly in a way that might obliterate the material basis for undesired feelings.
Somewhat similarly, some theoretical takes on black metal situate it as a “negative form of environmental writing bearing on a world that has become blackened.” The works in Bored Family 2 reflect an approach that is both sarcastic and post-apocalyptic. Their poetics gesture toward some ruinous compositions that seem to have outlived the delicate and complex structures of inherited modes of networked communication, of collective identification and representation. This amounts to a form of the gothic within information architectures and the cultures they uphold. By tracing the aesthetics of “info-goth” in existing local, regional, and global networks, Tayyari showcases the disparities within them, and punctures his own coming-of-age narrative.
Furthermore, neon tubes and throwing arrows dot the white walls; dull lines of light are undermined in the overlit white cube and a primitive technology takes aim at haphazard targets. These elements seem to extend the chain of aphorisms that address the absurdities of internet trajectories. Other works in the series include small prints overlaid with gouache paint, gesturing toward the aesthetics of advertisement. Facial mask meets corpse paint, replicating the story of fringe identities assimilated into mainstream consumer culture. A line on the tubes of facial mask reads, “microwave was a psycho mom.” This phrase reflects unreasonable entanglements between the histories of domestic violence and modern household appliances, evoking the tragedies that pop up on millions of news feeds more often than one would or should expect.
Tayyari also makes zines, mostly color laser printed on regular A4 paper and folded in half. Some pages from these publications look like sketches, similar to those on his Instagram, for larger works. They are easy jokes that have that memetic charm to pass from hand to hand, whether on social media, as a modest, small-circulation collectible, or later from one curator or dealer to another. The venues and means of online communication are not simply carriers of what is already created offline. They are the sources, if not resources too, of Tayyari’s activity, and their aesthetics continue if there would be enough reasons, or resources, to materialize them IRL. Such extents of liquidity both point to a generational ability of adaptation as well as a survivalist approach necessitated by precarious conditions of living –– Delgosha, after all, specializes in painting, which is still a relatively much easier medium to sell. As Anselm Franke and Anna Teixeira Pinto have pointed out, survivalism might in fact naturalize the conditions of precarity in the digital age, rendering them inevitable. In this sense, they speak of the “digital native,” a post-internet poster child that inhabits the aforementioned double bind of liquidity, as a figure that “masks a sociopolitical loss (the decline in living standards) as an evolutionary gain (millenials have an adaptive advantage).” They continue, “these figures reconcile the imperatives of self-reliance and individualism with the current social immobility and cultural atavism via a universalization of survivalism and the weaponized psychology from which it springs.”
However, what sets Tayyari’s practice apart is exactly a cynical approach toward universalist agendas, found not least in the professional protocols of global contemporary art, including the fair and biennial formats. His focus is more on the maneuvers that are and can be shaped across an ongoing shift from national identity to digital nativity, to cross Hodge and Yousefi’s analysis with Franke and Pinto’s observation. There is a key parallel between Tayyari’s treatment of metal and how Chechnyan art moguls, for instance, might treat contemporary art via Art Basel. The parallel between the persistence of provincialism and the formation of “the ‘tribal’ martialized imaginary of the self-fashioned digital natives in the urban jungle” is accounted for from a non-universalist and particularly regional viewpoint. He demands us to not see his work in a post-internet lineage that flows from New York to Berlin to Athens and then to Tehran. Neither is his reference to a regional viewpoint limited to a given image of the Middle East. Instead, Tayyari propels us to use the tools at hand to conceive of other geographical imaginations and think of unheard-of trans-regional junctions that can account for other links between global registers and lived localities.
- David Hodge and Hamed Yousefi, “Provincialism Perfected: Global Contemporary Art and Uneven Development,” e-flux journal #65: Supercommunity (May-August 2015).
- Scott Wilson, “Introduction to Melancology,” in Melancology: Black Metal Theory and Ecology (London: Zero Books, 2014).
- Anselm Franke and Ana Teixeira Pinto, “Post-Political, Post-Critical, Post-Internet: Why Can’t Leftists Be More Like Fascists?,” Open! (September 2016).
This lecture was delivered at “The Twilight Symposium: Science Fiction Inside Colonialism” organized by e-flux journal and
La Colonie, Paris, February 2019.
Published on the occasion of Bahar Noorizadeh’s solo exhibition Governance Machines and the Future of Futures at Mercer Union, Toronto (Nov 2019).