Letter from the Editor: Scenes and Operations
Welcome to the 4th edition of The Current Express. As a kind of half-way issue, this might be a good time to look a bit deeper into the project’s core idea of “mirroring” news as a model of contemporary cultural production, and ask more questions of formats, content, representations, media platforms and how our cultural reading skills are challenged in this regard.
Firstly, it is easy to take notice how today’s media world has undoubtedly become globalized. For Iran, this has meant that various satellite TV channels, online news from the Iranian diaspora, as well as blogs, YouTube videos and many forms of social media have emerged, to challenge the official state media outlets. On the other hand, Iran’s portrayal in the global and Western news headlines and video clips is often colored only with crisis and conflicts. What is the relationship of contemporary art practices and culture with these developments? How does the Iranian sphere keep merging and intersecting with the world at large, get consumed by the global, or the other way around?
Secondly, it should also be considered, what it actually means to culturally operate in today’s world, and what parts of the past dichotomy of Western and non-Western media are perhaps turning less relevant? Ultimately, the question often becomes, what are the kind of topics that really break the Internet these days? What are your networks? What are the items and events that become news, and what do not? And furthermore, what defines the content that we like and share? What are we shocked by, if anything? What is inspirational, what makes us want to exhibit, to tell others? But with all the tools available to us, how can we also build criticality and sustainability for the content that gets consumed fast, and becomes so easily outdated?
Much of today’s news headlines, regardless of the prestige of the outlet, utilize the idea of clickbait — the particular way of arousing curiosity over certain topics to make us click further into the depths of Internet. But in becoming the new standard of titling almost anything, clickbaiting has come to also act as a filter, or a kind of curator bot that is imposed on the interaction between content and its consumer. Witty, poignant or touching clickbaits generate more traffic for the websites, more views and more shares.
Funnily, this selection process on platforms that almost daily produce content, produces also knowledge for forecasting what becomes popular. In some ways, this is particularly interesting for topics (and regions) that are often left in the margins. In creating this issue, we spoke with Toronto-based editor Joobin Bekhrad (whose interview on REORIENT magazine you can read further below) and in the exchange he also shared some interesting insights on how certain stories and topics respond particularly well if they meet our expectations:
“Ordinary artists have been turned into exotic phenomenons by outlets… solely by dint of the fact that they’re from countries that are supposed to be hostile, precarious, and averse to the arts. As well, many of our readers and followers on social media tend to appreciate such pieces.”
So there are many sides to the same phenomenon. For Iranian artists or cultural operators, the new condition can present both challenges and tools. The undeniable expansion of the digital platforms in reaching more people globally and operating on the same platforms has become a networked reality. On the other hand, overcoming the notion of marginality, and operating equally in the modern currents, is perhaps the newest skill set required for the contemporary practitioner.
In the process, online platforms are also maturing, we ourselves are becoming more savvy in reading the headlines, becoming vary of the quality of the links provided to us. Thus, there has also emerged a demand for selection of better content. On one hand, the analysis of ‘click behavior’ has become a competitor of the curator, as a kind of automated process of trying to get what people want to view — a strategy even approached by cultural institutions today. On the other hand, the curators and editors have also proved their value in providing deeper questions and slower content — also considering the archive. Ultimately people, not clicks, are the phenomenon.
Who are your followers? Operating culturally, and especially somewhere in the media or online, almost automatically generates an audience. There are fans and likes, but there is also the idea of a posse — the sort of contemporary crew around your practice. A certain entourage for Andy Warhol, for instance, was called the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, consisting of people, events, performances and films, often hosted at Warhol’s studio, the Factory. But even in far corners outside the global pop culture there are other scenes.
While obviously of Western origins breakdancing, or b-boying represents a alternative genre that has a scene, regardless of the geography. In what has become a smallish Internet sensation, a VHS video with a time stamp offers us a glimpse into Tehran breakdancers Shahram Kharchang, Reza Bache, Mehdi Tony, Ahmad Lore performance in 1991. The YouTube video captions them as the most popular and most famous group in town — as if to signal that there were other groups as well. From the video we find that watching a breakdance performance seems like a popular and inclusive gathering, perhaps more domestic than urban in regards to the setting. Nevertheless, we might be surprised by its existence, feel certain joy of its rediscovery.
Ultimately, the breaking video becomes a symbol of the relentless power of cultural scenes and enthusiasms. There are and will be scenes, whether emerging from the archives, or from the contemporary time, regardless of constraints or outside limits. There always is the underground — and the entourage, whether online or in the living room, is also a site.
The Time is Now
What is the ultimate validation of Iranian modernity? A customized gold Apple Watch against the Tehran skyline? There is something extremely contemporary in the photo below, reaching far beyond perhaps its intended purpose. But if not golden gadgets, what are the symbols of now, and how do they appear to us in 5, or 100 years?
While the popularity of breaking content is today often somehow measured by aspirations of coolness or exclusivity, there is also something interesting in how the moment of now is the only possible site of current creation. At the same time, the now consists of things that we both discover and rediscover. In what might seems an unlikely source for quote on this topic, but perhaps a fitting under the theme of this issue, is a meandering column written by pop performer Lady Gaga for the V Magazine’s 10th issue in 2011:
“I have a passionate understanding of the history of many of the references that not only I have reinspired, but have been reinterpreted over centuries of fashion: where they came from, what they meant, and specifically how they became modern again.” (link)
There is something to the statement that is fascinating in describing what an archive can also become. While all things are created in their own time, their rediscovery is equally meaningful. This is also the case with the history modern Iranian art, as so many parts of it are in essence within “a world behind closed doors”. While new archival practices are a welcome addition in this context, as means of uncovering hidden discourses, we should also consider the meaning of now, as we reclaim and learn from the bits of the past.
The Express Interviews
With each issue, The Current Express reaches out to artists, curators, writers, thinkers and other individuals with questions in line of the theme of the issue. From candid questions to reflections, the aims is to discover thoughts and insights beyond the visible archive.
Joobin Bekhrad is an award-winning writer, and the founder and Editor of REORIENT — an online magazine celebrating contemporary Middle Eastern arts and culture, with also a wide presence in the social media. Bekhrad has contributed to such publications as The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, Christie’s, Encyclopaedia Iranica, Harper’s Bazaar Art Arabia, Canvas, and Songlines, and he is the author of a new translation of Omar Khayyam’s poems from Persian into English.
1. How did you come to found REORIENT, and what is its mission or scope?
I started REORIENT on a whim, actually; there wasn’t really any planning involved, and aside from establishing a publication, I didn’t have a particular ‘vision’. At the time, our sister site – artclvb – had a section devoted to press releases for upcoming exhibitions, and sent out weekly newsletters to its followers, both of which became very popular among professionals in the world of contemporary Middle Eastern art. I wanted to take things further; and, being an avid reader and writer, I thought of establishing a separate publication devoted not to press releases, but rather, articles.
Initially, I had in mind a sort of lifestyle publication that would also cover subjects such as cuisine and nightlife, but shortly afterwards, decided to limit the scope to the arts. Our articles were much shorter in the beginning, and were either about upcoming events, or reviews of music albums and exhibitions, for instance. As well, they were, of course, largely written by me, as I had to get the ball rolling. After I published a few longer, conceptual pieces, however, the direction and approach of REORIENT changed drastically, and that’s when things really took off. Shortly afterwards, we received emails from people who wanted to contribute, and it turned into a sort of voluntary community effort, which it still very much is. I never imagined it would one day transform into the publication it is today.
REORIENT’s ‘mission’, to be succinct, is to highlight the amazing work that artists in the Middle East (and in the diaspora) are doing, and in the process, to change misperceptions and false notions of the region, and trash tropes. I think the name says it all, really; we want to reintroduce and reorient people – of all backgrounds, be they non-Middle Easterners or people of Middle Eastern descent – with the region, which is so diverse, and rich in culture and beauty.
2. Publishing online, from Canada, how would you view the the effects of social media, the Internet, considering the younger Iranian (or Middle Eastern) generations? Do you think there is a new kind of cultural portrayal of the region developing in this space?
Oh, definitely. The Internet has allowed us to reach such numbers that print simply wouldn’t have, and also enables us to present stories in entirely different ways. There are things you can do online that you simply can’t replicate with print, such as presenting videos and sound clips, and doing away with word limits because of a lack of space. On the other hand, though, there’s so much that print offers that the Internet doesn’t. They complement one another, really, and it’s ideal to have both an online and an offline component; but for our purposes, the Internet alone has been serving us well.
The lower costs and ease of use of running websites and social media accounts has enabled people all over the world to disseminate information quickly and creatively, and you can witness this in the proliferation of blogs dedicated to the art of the Middle East, and social media accounts revolving primarily around the culture of the region. Our Instagram page is so popular that many have referred to us as the ‘Instagram guys’, without knowing anything about the articles we publish. Through our articles, interactions with our readers, and the material we post on our social media accounts (on Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter, for instance), we’ve come to be known for a sensibility that merges rock and roll and punk attitudes with scholarship and a ‘highbrow’ focus on the arts and culture of the region. Sites like Instagram and Tumblr – along with their growing popularity – especially, have empowered people in the Middle East and the diaspora to showcase their culture in completely different ways that really weren’t possible, say, 10 years ago.
3. One of the central inquiries of The Current Express is that interesting things are probably interesting everywhere (as a kind of postmodern situation) — that is — if we hear about them. What would be your experience?
I agree. At the outset, I thought I was alone in my interest in obscure funk and psych music from Iran and Turkey, for instance, but soon learned that there were thousands of others just like me, who were really turned on by these things. It’s a comforting and reassuring feeling, but at the same time, there’s something romantic about being this idiosyncratic guy who digs things nobody else understands or has a penchant for. I think our Instagram page is the best example of this; I’m often the one posting things, and many times they’re images I think very few might ‘get’, such as a picture of an Iranian guy playing a double-necked tar with a caption referencing Jimmy Page; but I’m often surprised at the responses we get, and how many other people there are out there just like us, who are on the same wavelength. We’re just a bunch of really cool cats, I guess.
Telegraphy is defined as the long-distance transmission of textual or symbolic messages. Each issue of the The Current Express features Instant Telegraphy, a collection of items found in the instantaneous contemporary world, loosely or even randomly related to the theme of the issue.
The trailer of Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, called by Dazed Digital “a skateboarding blood-sucker, a killer romance.” (link)
Iran Graffiti — Iranian Graffiti and Street Art Portal.
The REORIENT tote bag.
Online archive of posters for the Urban Jealousy, the 1st International Roaming Biennial of Tehran held in 2008.
With the title Breaking News, the following selection of works seeks to take a closer look on the ways Iranian contemporaneity as a site of cultural practices is linked to the overall workings of the global cultural currents and media. Today, it is undeniable that contemporary art is as connected to contemporary media platforms, similarly as are we, as individuals, and as groups. The current media space is not purely an informative or recreational space, it is a part of the contemporary experience, or perhaps as such a form of modernism. It is not surprising that artists, too, are discussing the presence and reach of digital culture, by commenting, reading, representing and recycling the aesthetics, dynamics, access, effects and processes of the development. The current is the subject of the contemporary.
In the Iranian context, however, the subject matter related to media comes with specific qualities. It is also about the internal and external view, the private and the public realm, and their differing thematics. The idea of “using the Internet”, may carry more meaning for the Iranian artist than it does to the global public. The images from the news rhetoric, with explosions, nuclear programs and protests may have a different iconography when seen from the inside or the outside of the Iranian sphere. How to escape these presets, work with them, exploit them, or go somewhere wholly beyond the everyday?
The fourth issue of The Current Express will exhibit this condition and conundrum of images with a selection of works by artists in the MOP CAP archive, from Reza Azimian, Amirnasr Kamgooyan, Sanaz Mazinani, Mohammad Hassan Nikbakht, Mamali Shafahi, Mehdi Farhadian, Sona Safaei-Sooreh, Melika Shafahi and Vida Mehri.
Next Issue: Foreign Correspondence – 1 July
The next issue Foreign Correspondence of The Current Express is coming out on 1 July 2015.