A TALE OF ART, LIFE AND ACTIVISM
by aria spinelli
“Thirty years ago we supported each other. When police used tear gas, fires would be lit to neutralise its effects. People would set their own cars on fire to save others. Since then, the government has tried to separate people from one other. What we lost was our togetherness, and in the past month we have found that again. All the armed forces in Iran are only enough to repress one city, not the whole country. The people are like drops of water coming together in a sea.”
I took up this opportunity to speak openly about an experience of art, life and activism. Being visible: in search of ways of signification is a group show of eight contemporary Iranian artists I curated in 2010 for independent art space CHANarte at Spazio Dogana. As a contribution to #archiveseries, I wish to critically re-think this show as an example of how art, life and activism intermingle in a certain line of politically engaged curatorial work. There are three parts to this blog entry. The first section is series of edited excerpts of the curatorial essay The artist as an public intellectual, which was written for the Being Visible project. The second section is a critical reflection on the selection of fragments of essay. The final section will discuss certain curatorial understandings of art and activism.
The Artist as an public intellectual – revisited
The intellectual interest of Michel Foucault in Iran began in 1978. As many intellectuals, the French philosopher was struck by the Iranian revolt. He admired Iranian citizens’ ability to turn thought into action and to radically express their refusal “not just of foreigners, but of everything that had been, for years, for centuries, its political destiny.“ In the analysis of the Iranian revolution, Foucault looked at forms of self-determination of what he called ‘collective will’. As he writes: “[.] a ‘collective will’ you have never seen, and I personally think that the collective will should be like God, the soul, something you never encounter. [.] In Tehran and across Iran, we met the collective will of people“. Foucault also saw a distinction between liberation and practice of freedom in the acts of revolt. In his words, “liberation opens a field for new power relations, which evolves through a practice of freedom.“
Freedom is the condition of those who can act without being subject to the authority or the dominion of others. The concept of freedom for Iranian society is in a continuous transformation and takes on complex and destabilizing facets. Exiled or not, Iranian identity is made up of fragmentation, a consequence to the proliferation and globalization of cultural identities. Artistic expression in Iran is commonly accepted as a means of being in direct confrontation with different forms of censorship. It is also seen, as in the case of Iranian artists who live abroad, a way to deal with misinterpretation based on culturally driven cannons of Western thought.
The artworks suggest conceptual and linguistic circumventions around iconic representations of what should or should not be contemporary Iranian art, especially in the eyes of those driven by art market values. As the different narratives unfold, audiences are confronted with ways of tackling these issues: withdrawing from discourses around the ‘other’, refusing to impose typologies of concepts that lean on western interpretation, embracing new ways of understanding cultural fragmentation. In this withdrawal, refusal or embracement of cultural forms, the overall aim of the show is to either discover or demystify differences. These artworks call on audiences to indulge in their own incomprehension of what is visible and unveil Western knowledge and preconceptions.
The artists as a public intellectual – the real story
In 2010, a few months before the opening of Being Visible in Genoa, Meraneh Attashi, an artist involved in the project, was arrested in Tehran alongside her husband. She was in jail for 48 days, accused of acting against National Security. Attashi was one of many protesters who were arrested in Tehran during the presidential elections crackdown in 2009. The arrests continued for least a year after the riots. Many of these protesters were colleagues, friends or family of other artists involved in the Being Visible project. Taking into account what had happened to Attashi, some of the artists and I discussed how my support for the Iranian Green movement should be represented. At the same time, the demand for Iranian art in Italy was booming. Being Visible was one of many shows curated and organised with and around contemporary art from Iran between 2009 and 2010. As the amount of exhibited contemporary Iranian artwork augmented, the information about the arrests slowly lessened.
While speaking of freedom, as I do in the introduction to the catalogue essay, I thought it was necessary to self-censor my ideas around a possible political framework, in order to avoid that the artists could potentially find themselves in harmful situations. I substituted discourses around political resistance with commonly accepted orthodoxies (i.e. cultural globalisation, post-colonialism) the art world often uses as a means to contextualise art projects on and about the Middle East. The outcome of this decision resulted in the fragments of text I re-proposed here. In other words, I found myself torn between conforming and refusing, and I chose to conform. As curator of the Being Visible project, I played the same game I was critiquing in the text.
Moderate reformist, allegedly part of the Iranian Green Movement, Hassan Rouhani was elected as Prime Minister of Iran in 2013. Since then, diplomatic relations with the United States have been restored, nuclear plans have been cut, and some repressive policies on social control have been diminished. Although much has changed since 2010, it is still quite difficult to critically understand how such a violent period of social unrest unfolded and supposedly quieted down. In 2009 Iranian film director Moshen Makhmalbaf reported on the situation in Iran during the post-election crackdown in a comment on the Guardian. In speaking of his support for the Iranian Green Movement, he explain how former moderate reformist Prime Minister and presidential candidate for the 2009 elections, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, as an artist, intellectual and politician never supported the Mullah, the Iranian Clergy. His refusal to favour the Mullah allowed him to gain support from what he calls the ‘world of artists‘.
If the ‘world of artists’ was freely supporting the Iranian Green Movement, as mentioned by Makhmalbaf, in Italy between 2009 and 2010 the institutional apparatus of art and art market imposed themselves on the sub-consciousness of their actors and audiences. The extent of this imposition was visible in my decision to self-censor and to comply. Given this curatorial experience, I still question the site of art as a site of struggle. Interaction with institutions and formats is regulated by invisible social rule that are palpable, as in the case of the Being Visible project. Although the Being Visible project failed in its purpose to contribute to the fight for freedom and democracy in Iran, I believe that it withholds certain value still today as an example of how engaged curatorial work is forced to confront art systems and their willingness, or lack of it, to engage with matters of life, and initiate togetherness and ‘practices of freedom’.
Aria Spinelli is an independent curator and researcher. She holds a BA in Contemporary Art History from the La Sapienza University of Rome and an MA in Visual Arts and Curatorial Studies from the New Academy of Art in Milan (NABA). After graduating from her BA, Aria collaborated with institutions and galleries such as the Museum of Contemporary Art Castello di Rivoli in Turin (2005-2006) and Christian Stein Gallery in Milan (2008-2009). Since 2009 she has also been acting as curator at Isola Art Center. Isola Art Center is an open platform of experimentation for contemporary art that has developed in the Isola neighbourhood in Milan, Italy. Grappling for over one decade with an urban situation crossed by conflicts and widespread transformations, the project remains “no-budget”, precarious and ultralocal. At Isola Art Center, Aria curated shows and workshops such as Horror Vacui – Occupying the present (April – June 2010) and G for Gentrification (May – July 2011). In 2009 she also founded art and curatorial collective Radical Intention. For the past four years Radical Intention has been creating long-term research projects on socio-political issues related to art and its practices. Radical Intention promotes a synergy between subjectivities by creating collaborative working groups and using collective methods of production. Recent projects are: Decompression Gathering Summer Camp with WochenKlausur, Corniolo, Italy (25-31 August 2013); Milano Radicale, Milan/Corniolo, Italy (June 2011 – May 2012). Aria has also been invited to curate and collaborate on community art and socially engaged projects and shows, such as Taking Positions – Identity Questioning (Fare arte, Milan, Italy w/ACSL – Art and Cultural Studies Laboratory, Yerevan, Armenia, Italy), Being Visible – Contemporary ways of signification (CHAN arte, Genoa, Italy).
1 Makhmalbaf, M., I speak for Mousavi. And Iran, Friday 19 June 2009 19.00 BST
2 “The association CHAN is a collaborative platform for national and international young artists and curators. CHAN focuses on the newest trends in art and culture. The association CHAN is a collaborative platform for national and international young artists and curators. CHAN focuses on the newest trends in art and culture. As a non profit collective curatorial space, CHAN represents different forms of expression in its gallery. Parallel to each show, CHAN offers collateral activities such as video reviews and performances.”
3 Spazio Dogana is an exhibition space within the premises of Palazzo Ducale in Genoa
4 Spinelli, A.,The Artist as a public intellectual in Being Visible: in search of ways of signification, Genoa, CHANarte, 2010
5 Foucault, M., in Persia before and after the Iranian Revolution, Report of Andrea Cavazzini in AA.VV Michel Foucault Islam and the Iranian Revolution, Mimesis, Milano 2005, p. 34
6 Foucault, M., in Persia before and after the Iranian Revolution, Report of Andrea Cavazzini in AA.VV Michel Foucault Islam and the Iranian Revolution, Mimesis, Milano 2005, p. 34
7 Foucault, M., in Persia before and after the Iranian Revolution, Report of Andrea Cavazzini in AA.VV Michel Foucault Islam and the Iranian Revolution, Mimesis, Milano 2005, g. 34
8 for more information on presidential elections in Iran in 2013, Profile: Hassan Rouhani, President of Iran, BBC world
service, November 2013
9 The Green Movement was a popular protest in favour of reformist Moshen Moussavi campaign, former candidate to the 2009 presidential elections in Iran. Iranian citizens protested against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election, accusing Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of illegality. Between the months of June and July 2009, most cities in Iran witnessed days of violent rioting. The movement expressed messages of peace and democracy, calling upon the intervention of international forces. For more information on the presidential crack down, see Iran: Halt the Crackdown. End Violent Attacks on Protesters, Arrests of Critics, Human Rights Watch, June 19, 2009 [http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/06/19/iranhaltcrackdown]
10 for more information on her arrest please No information about Jailed artist Meraneh Attashi, February, 2010 [http://www.iranhumanrights.org/2010/02/mehranehatashi]
11 Makhmalbaf, M., I speak for Mousavi. And Iran, Friday 19 June 2009 19.00 BST
12Makhmalbaf, M., I speak for Mousavi. And Iran, Friday 19 June 2009 19.00 BST