National Identity Meets Digital Nativity: Memes, Counter-Strike, and Black Metal in the Works of Shabahang Tayyari

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.” 

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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. 

References

  • 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).