Letter from the Editor: The City as Archive
Welcome to the seventh, penultimate issue of the The Current Express. This edition will cast a look at Tehran, utilizing the trope of city guide as its title, but more than that, the issue attempts at thinking of a city as a site and generator of cultures and scenes — as well as archives. Undoubtedly the mechanisms and theories central to modernity, are familiar to us from the Western cultural criticism and various practices, arising from Charles Baudelaire’s words on observing the change of times in the streets of Paris, to Theodor Adorno’s and Walter Benjamin’s views of the new types of — often urban — modernities, to Jürgen Habermas’ conceptions of the bourgeoisie and the public sphere (perhaps including the newspaper). The urban matter within our global culture today appears simultaneously as a dreamy, organic center of activities and life, as well as a cultural subject, object and an agent.
Today as urbanization is truly a global phenomenon, we are living in an era where potential new varieties of world cities are taking shape. While the Parises, Londons and New Yorks of the world will certainly hold their own as cities that never sleep, as places for pursuing aspirations, at the same time the modernism’s core idea of culturally experiencing the changes is increasingly happening elsewhere. With this in mind, the particular City Guide presented by this issue will take a brief look at Tehran as a cultural metropolis — and an urban territory — a site of experiencing modernity, in the past, present and future.
Enter the Metropolis
The metropolis, a city large enough to become anonymous in, with its artistic scenes, subcultures, fashions and celebrities about town. To become part of the city life, we may leave our villages and small towns and pursue our ambitions, possibly getting lost at times while trying. Historian Andreas Huyssen has noted (2007) that what we perceive as modernism, has often been thought of existing in cities of intense cultural production:
Baudelaire’s Paris, Dostoyevsky or Mandelstam’s St. Petersburg, Schönberg, Freud and Wittgenstein’s Vienna, Kafka’s Prague, Joyce’s Dublin, the futurists’ Rome, Woolf’s London, Dada in Zurich, Munich and der blaue Reiter, the Berlin of Brecht, Döblin and the Bauhaus, Tretyakov’s Moscow, the Paris of Cubism and Surrealism, Dos Passo’s Manhattan.
As Huyssen has also remarked, many non-Western cities are absent from such lists. In the Middle-East this particular list might include current capital cities like Istanbul and Cairo. Tehran, too, has a history that is entangled in a multitude of modernisms, ideologies, occasional cosmopolitan influences, plans and architectures. Yet, the modernity of Tehran reads differently that its metropolitan temporaries. Architect Farhad Roozbehi has noted, how in the 18th century Tehran and Paris were both perceived cities stuck in the murky urban desolation of the Middle Ages. Whereas in the 19th century Paris Baron Haussmann’s plans mercilessly cut through the overcrowded city as boulevards and squares in the name of progress and hygiene, Tehran too became a subject of new extensive development plans.
In following Huyssen’s list, technically speaking, the Baudelairian poet or writer might as well have walked the streets of 19th century Tehran in the same way as his contemporaries did in Paris, observing the change of times and new spaces in the city emerging. However, as the Industrial Revolution era Paris celebrated its arts, the reforms of the Qajar-era in the 19th century were in the global sense weakened by continuous conflicts and political instability. Thus, the history of the Tehran flâneur (as later told by Arash Fayez in this issue) is shorter than its Parisian counterpart. But certainly, the idle urban poet and wanderer exists in today’s cities as well, experiencing a new kind of change. Critic Sohrab Mahdavi has written about this new flâneur:
In the mediatic world we live in, the citizen-subject-consumer is more than ever under the sway of powerful images issued and circulated principally by corporate or statist forces, both of which strive to influence him in his isolation. There is teleology to every image that she sees on the streets, from fast-food ads targeting children, to luxury items, titillating the middle class sense of want, to state propaganda, without which it cannot give legitimacy to its burgeoning machinery of power and control.
The Modernity of the Modern
Fast forwarding to the post-WWII 20th century, the modern Western lifestyle has reached Tehran. While economically still poor and developing, Iran portrays also a modern side, and for the outside world, Tehran becomes a destination to newcomers and visitors unlike ever before in modern history. Remnants and snippets of the 1960s and 70s Iranian and Middle-Eastern visual nostalgia still get circulated in the media regularly even today. Convertible cars, construction materials, mini skirts, sunglasses, beaches, night clubs and travel ads seem today almost as distant as the few surviving dusty photos of 1860s Tehran. Yet, we cannot shake off the feeling how global contemporaneity seems to have appeared in so many unexpected places. Browsing through such visuals brings up new architecture, design, quickly catching up with the pulse of the rest of the world – high modernity, high fashion. Suddenly, Vogue was shooting in the ruins of Persepolis, wonderous private villas in Tehran appeared in Italian interior design magazines, The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art was conceptualized and built, along with its extensive collection of the most current contemporary art of the era. The modernities of the past become almost like stories.
But it is perhaps strange to perceive today that such cultural moments, seem to linger almost indefinitely in our collective minds, remaining as beacons of something that is still the object of our desires. Being part of the cutting edge, of the future. But at the same time, the theoretical constructs of modernities have also expanded. We’ve learned to follow also alternative narratives, historiographies and storylines that have not been represented in the canonized history of the modern. So where does the modern exist? Only within the established modernity? Is it found in the practices and adaptations that we create, or the practices that get chosen and are validated? Where is its geography?
Hybridity of Memories
On the other hand, it’s not exactly clear anymore what in our changing cities is ours. Already in 1998, Singaporean architect William S.W. Lim was observing the rapid change of Asian cities in the growing economy and commercial ties to the West:
In Asia, we have incorrectly identified the new contemporary culture as “western culture”, because it is usually associated with Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and blue jeans — those ubiquitous icons of everything “modern” as well as with with new and changing lifestyles. In fact, however, this contemporary culture belongs to all of us. It evolves continuously, with input from everywhere around the globe. Let’s ask ourselves this question: is a pop singer from Japan or Indonesia any less contemporary than one from Europe or the United States?
While Lim’s words may not read today as fresh as they might have in the 1990s, his ultimate diagnosis seems to have gotten only stronger and more global. Despite regulations or limitations, our cultures are networked to a wholly new degree. Our cultures are already partial hybrids of each other. The real difference between what has been modern before, and modern today is the heighted speed and circulation.
How to bring all this back to the Tehran flâneur? I would argue that it boils down to the idea of our position in the moment of now. As the world is also more urban than ever before, the urban poet is also as current as it was ever before. In 2010, I wrote a small article about the T-shirtablility of cities, measuring the ranking of the Internet searches for “I ♥ [name of a city]”. The idea was not so much to rank cities, but to think about what does it mean if your city is much loved by the search engine algorithms? Over the course of the Current Express project I have continued to ask whether interesting things matter, regardless of their location. I would still continue to say so, but only if we are then able to write, talk, perform, and interact with others as to say: this is the experience of the exact modernism that is happening now.
So does ♥ really matter? Is T-shirtability important? It might be. Maybe simply because it’s there anyway. It’s about the ubiquitous framework where we associate ourselves with a city. Our ♥ makes it worthwhile to pursue our dreams in cities (see Madonna, 1978, 37$ in pocket, NYC). It can’t be underestimated. And everybody loves a T-shirt. But what it stems from is very fluid as there’s great variety in the depth and realities of loving a city.
…Then again, do cities and their brands only matter if you can google them, read about them? For so many people living in cities, the luxury items called Internet access, newspapers, magazines — preferably unrestricted and uncensored – are still out of reach. Loving cities, however, goes on everywhere.
The Express Urbanisms
For this “urban” issue, the Express will feature a selection of current descriptions of Tehran, sent by artists in the MOP CAP archive.
Artist and MOP CAP 2015 Finalist Shahrzhad Malekian contributed her thoughts and feelings for Tehran, seeing it both as a personal and a contemporary place, explaining what is happening now and how it is perhaps changing.
The City is a living organism. While its appearance and relations are constantly changing, my feelings towards it change as well. The connection between myself and the city and the sense of belonging are determined by my own observations and distance when I look at it from inside or outside of this organism. Sometimes, the city broadens its horizons, reaching inside into my house, my body, and even into my thoughts. Sometimes I shift its borders. In this way, my relationship with the city consists of the relations I have with my own body, other bodies, the objects, the buildings, the streets and all the conventions. The experience of having this relationship builds my memory of Tehran. This memory itself is an active organism which is constantly being deconstructed and reconstructed. Tehran is as contemporary a city as any place can potentially be. It tries to define its contemporaneity through experiences. In the recent years the city’s public spaces have went through several great historical experiments. Yet, many types of parallel spaces and environments are also potentially emerging in the heart of city. Circles, scenes, artist collectives, social networks, and even parties can be considered as other forms of experiments along with the contemporary public spaces that are leading to the changing and opening of current Tehran.
For the issue artist Arash Fayez shared some of his thoughts, originally written for his MFA thesis on existing in two cities and changing one’s global position, arriving and staying. He shares impressions of balancing between the characters; Arash Faeiz, the Tehranian, and Arash Fayez, the global person.
Tehran — a tourist and flâneur:
Like Baudelaire and Proust, our flâneur takes a walk that has little Romantic sentiment. The landscape forms in his mind in relation to other representations of it. He compares these streets to what he has seen in old photographs of Tehran in the 1950s. The cityscape was then full of painted murals of martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war, politicians who were killed during and after the Islamic evolution, and so on. Our flâneur turns his camera to these cityscapes but also to the new urban environment the government slowly installs. He is armed with a small camera to document what is happening to himself through his city. He observes the city as a space to describe the power of the state through the visions of a stalker.
…This flâneur walks in the streets of his hometown. He becomes a flâneur to capture or, in other words, to preserve himself within his surroundings. The “urban inferno” of Tehran creates a distance between the flâneur and his hometown. He knows all these streets, all these signs, but he needs to wander everyday to describe himself. This flâneur is now not only an observer. His job is wandering in the streets of Tehran, but in more detail, he becomes unconsciously an artist by being a flâneur. He has unconsciously assigned himself a role as a narrator of Tehran through his camera. His new occupation lets him move from a part of the city to another, creative and resistant…
…He needs to photograph his city as an unhappy tourist to have proof, to be able to compare these documents with the past and the future.
San Francisco — new arrival, a stranger
I fill out forms like anyone else. At the very beginning, I was labeled an alien. After a short time, I became an alien who is able to work, and they gave me a social security number. These discriminations convinced me to be a nice guest. This is the point of transition from the tourist, who was formerly the flâneur, to the new character of the stranger. Far from my hometown, I could not pin myself to my new location in this new city, new country, new culture, new continent. It was (and it is) a new world.
…I decided to turn the camera to the stranger, me. In other words, I turn the camera to myself, because he is a stranger at this point in San Francisco. This covers my weakness of having no ideas. I am not living in Tehran anymore, and my projects were all about the sociopolitical situation I was living in.
Passages from Arash Fayez on Arash Faeiz, Arash Faeiz on Arash Fayez (2013).
MOP CAP 2011 winner Shirin Sabahi contributed two photographs for this issue that look at a very specific phenomenon of Tehran. Private water features such as pools and fountains struggle to exists in a city where water is currently scarce commodity.
Water pools remain an ambivalent element in the ever-tightening texture of Tehran. They signal abundance, defiance and at times a stubborn vernacular tradition. They are the place of gathering of screeching children and sunken nose clips. They are hard to maintain and with the recent decade-long draughts even harder to fill up. There is a lot said about how capital is changing the city but other than the fear of earthquake, the ecology of Tehran in relation to urban expansion is greatly undermined.
With each issue The Current Express has featured its selection of items found in the instantaneous, contemporary media. Here for the last time, Instant Telegraphy, offering glimpses into the urbanism(s) of Tehran.
Tehran Projects by architect Hamed Khosravi is a multidisciplinary platform on the city and its architecture as writings, projects, and critiques.
A Postcard from Tehran “The Itinerant: When Exhibiting Turns Its Back Against Itself” in Manifesta Journal by Doreen Mende.
A collection of Tehran street blog glimpses “Haft Seen around the City” in TheTehranTimes.
Tehran Studies – Research and statistics from the official website of the City of Tehran.
Article “Polarised Tehran: Tea House vs. Coffee Shop” by Reza Shaker Ardekani at the Proto City: ” Tehran is leaving its tradition for modernity. Consequently, this transition manifests itself in almost every aspect of urban space; and one of those reflections is the dichotomy of tea houses and coffee shops.”
Tehran City Guide
Modernist writer Elias Canetti (1905–1994) wrote “You can’t keep living in a truly beautiful city: it drives out all your yearning.” (The Human Province, tr. 1978). Tehran as the foremost contemporary city in Iran is rarely (today) described as beautiful. More often it gets defined by chaotic traffic, pollution, random oddities and landmarks. But perhaps this is exactly why its quirks and conflicts seem to become also a site for many of its contemporary inhabitants. Tehran City Guide, is a selection of works that are inspired by the city, either seeking documentary realities, commenting its histories and controversies, or at times, seeking beauty underneath its layers. The Tehran — a city as a metropolis — presented by these glimpses moves fluidly between personal memories, markings and notes, and vast modernities and societal changes.
The edition includes works from the following artists: Arash Fayez, Behnam Sadighi, Mehrdad Naraghi, Mohammad Ghazali, Niyaz Azadikhah, Shirin Sabahi and Bijan Moosavi.