by tara kaboli
What are the strategies to captivate an active memory, which has been neglected and excluded due to the asymmetrical exercises of power? How could we return to the unsuspected narration of a suppressed colonial past in the coordinates of a forward-looking present? What are the effective ways to register the memory of absence while preserving the qualities of its presence?
Following Iran’s tenth presidential election, I, along with two other Iranian friends, was invited to take part in a curatorial project titled “The Others” and conduct a one-day seminar/workshop aimed at graduate students of NABA’S photography program. The project was concerned with portraying marginalized groups; and the socially, economically or politically disadvantaged individuals or communities who interminably venture to survive hoping for a change in the status quo towards a brighter future. The project’s intention was to propose a forward-looking narration of such distant shores.
Immensely overwhelmed with the Iranian uprising and distressed with the repressive political atmosphere of the country, we –like many other Iranians around the world- were desperately seeking practical ways to draw the international community’s attention to the Iran’s multifaceted socio-political transformations; and hence, we believed conducting the seminar could be appraised as a good opportunity to provide a non-subjective reading of the socio-political frameworks of Iran and hopefully raise awareness on historical inaccuracies and perpetuation of negative stereotypes depicted by the western media. Yet, we were proven to be ingenuously wrong,: by taking part in the project of “The Others”, we had entrapped ourselves in a state of emotional uplift of a collective euphoria and failed to comprehend the unhealthiness of assuming the position of “otherness” in relation to the “non-other” public and represent unintentionally the voice of the subordinated, unmarked and neglected.
“The Others” as a project intended to encourage a utopian rethinking of the dreary state of present which also recalled Blochian “concrete utopia”, the power of daydreaming the realization of the possibility of what is not yet realized for excluded communities through archiving a series of individual projects. However, the disparity woven into the concept of “otherness” reminded of the colonial heritage of asymmetrical exercise of power where one part is constantly inhabited (Western world) and the other, excluded and unseen, remains continuously a distant destination. Despite the good intentions, “The Others”, as a project, not only could not exceed the conceptual stillness of an entangled bipolar rapport , but also ran heedlessly into the abyss of “archiving the un-archived” by determining the position of the other party as the “known” and “already archived”.
Obviously such a myopic and one-dimensional perception of historical scarcity could not by any means reframe the uneven and discontinuous history of gaps and silences (Cahmbers 2013, 281) of unregistered voices. Instead, it reinforced the asymmetry of the conflict between the two ends reminding us of Frantz Fanon’s lessons on objectification of cultures, histories and bodies in systems of power and knowledge and consequently curbed the possibility of reconfiguring the past to a site of potential re-working. However, despite our endeavors to recover/redeem our present from the chains of a repressed and forgotten past, we could not decrease our distance from the colonial dominant subjectivity intertwined with the word “the others” and thus, our struggle to provide a democratic picture of “us” turned out to be merely in vain.
Departing binary boundaries
The question of the archive is not a question of the past. It is not the question of a concept dealing with the past that might already be at our disposal or not at our disposal, an archivable concept of the archive. It is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise, and of a responsibility for tomorrow. The archive: if we want to know what that will have meant, we will only know in times to come; not tomorrow, but in times to come. Later on, or perhaps never.
(Derrida 1998, 36).
Our participation in the “The Others” project raised the question of whether the historical absence of the “un-archived” could possibly be recovered by seeking new ways of re-interpretation of “archivable” in the coordinates of the present; and if there is any possibility to undo the rigid binary structures -still present in the postcolonial era- through artistic strategies in order to move beyond the conceptual stability of a bipolar world, where one part constantly continue to play “the others”, “the outsider” and the other “the familiar”, “the inhabitants of the world”.
Undoubtedly, both using archival material for the artistic productions and archive as the theme of artistic projects have been and are being practiced by a large variety of artists. Hence, the topic is not unfamiliar to the world of contemporary art. There have been numerous artists who have devoted notable efforts to showcase their artistic idiosyncrasy through various forms of archives. From archiving objects, texts, images and documents to imaginary archives and documentation of the site-specific projects which their ephemeral existence long to be archived. Regardless of the artist’s strategy to deal with the archive as a theme or material for his productions, as Boris Groys states in Art Workers: Between Utopia and the Archive “Archives are often interpreted as a means to conserve the past—to present the past in the present. But at the same time, archives are machines for transporting the present into the future.” These machines can also lead the artist to rethink historical misconceptions of history, identity, memory, race, class, gender, etc. generated by the interpreter of the archive and commit an archival violence (Derrida 1998, 7) and consequently reveal the existing conflicts interlaced to these faulty readings. This process of re-thinking introduces new interpretations of the “archivable” by means of dismantling the previous categorical descriptions and contributes to alteration of the relationship between the visible, the sayable, and the thinkable.(Rancière 2006, 63) By applying such a critical approach, archive becomes a political battlefield for the previously dominated/un-archived to resist the paucity of his historical presence in a manner that renders it incomplete, present and open to interpretations yet to come.
Hidden Flags in landscapes of neutrality
In summer 2013 Matteo Muggianu, conceptual artist and urban designer, and I began to discuss the multifaceted meaning of self and national identity through an extensive study of the intricate connotations associated with the concept of “flag” as the most important symbol of recognition for a national state and a vehicle of non-verbal communication (Hoffman 1997, 30). Primarily, our study aimed at decoding the functions of this sign as a material symbol that identifies a national group, promotes national sentiments and visualizes totemic forms of belonging to a certain territory, and a reference group. As Wuthnow understands it, the flag is an image which the nation-state projects of itself. (Wuthnow 1992, 112). Through the intentional combination of colors, forms and ornaments, they tend to indicate the political nature of the entity it refers to and generate the “metaphorical omnipresence” (Hoffman, 1997: 23) of a nation. Our research question focused on two main themes: what are the strategies to re-interpret the metaphorical omnipresence of flags across heterotopic landscapes? And How could application of these strategies possibly lead to depoliticisation of this concept?
To pursue our research in a non-subjective manner, we decided to narrow down the confines of our artistic practice to photographic documentation and started to archive the coincidental collocations of the three colors of red, white and green within the urban/ non-urban landscapes. The project aspires to draw a critical, poetic and ironic gaze into the question of politics of inclusion/exclusion and strives for undoing the asymmetrical power exercised between them. These three colorful objects, merged into the oblivious landscape, could be read as both Iran’s (horizontal stripes) and Italy’s (vertical stripes) flags since there is no possibility to force a linear reading of a spatial visual occurrence. In the other hand, the signifier or the object representing one of the flag’s stripes may vary remarkably: from worn-out found objects to petals, and natural scenery. This heterogeneity of signifiers’ forms and formats interrupts one-dimensional understanding of the concept and disturbs the homogeneous conception of flag as the totem of belonging to a common territory. These flags have lost their emblematic function of “marking the air above them as their own, as though the wind could be partitioned” (Hoffman 1996, 5). Pinned to their host locus, they inhabit the neutrality of the surrounding landscapes and their existence constantly becomes invisible, ignored and occluded. In this context, there is no “other” put in rapport with “familiar”. They are both condemned to be forgotten within the texture of quotidian life and only be resurrected through the eyes of an archive, which returns to life as a tool for causing semiotic disturbance and tends to apply a new methodology for narrating the present towards future.
Here, flag is not anymore a mere intentional combination of colours and shapes in a fixed and ordered pattern, governed by design rules, based on Heraldic principles (Guerrini 2011, 3) that characterizes a nation and its territory. Rather, It has transformed into a reductive sign, which by undoing its own semiotics tends to neutrify itself. This new archive strives to interrupt the rigidity of discursive frames and permit an untagged, inconclusive and democratic perception of frontier. In other words, it suggests the interrogation of oppositional structures toward a “third place” where despite the prevailing differences; there exists no hegemonic dominances. A world without “the others”.
This is why breaking boundaries doesn’t necessarily mean deleting frontiers. It means cracking and fracturing the boundary as much as possible, the limit that it creates, in order to transform it in an ever-increasing border, where the difference can take place. Inhabiting the threshold could thus mean inhabiting and building this third place, whose center passes inside of it and inside of us, so that we ourselves become borderline men. (Zanini 1997, 14)
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Tara Kaboli (1982, Tehran) is an Iranian artist who lives and works in Milan
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Chambers, Iain. 2013. “Ruins, Archeology and the Postcolonial Archive.” in Re-enacting the past. Museography for Conflict archeology, edited by Michela Bassanelli and Gennaro Postiglione, 276-287. Siracusa: Lettera Ventidue.
Derrida, Jacques. 1998. Archive Fever. A Freudian Impression. Translated by Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Guerrini, Sebastián. 2011. “Designing Nationality.” (PhD Dissertation). Accessed April 21, 2015. http://www.guerriniisland.com/writings/research-on-national-flags-my-phd-chapter-4/
Hoffman, Hilmar. 1997. The Triumph of Propaganda: Film and National Socialism 1933-1945. Translated by John Broadwin and Volker R. Berghahn. Oxford & New York: Berghahn Books.
Rancière, Jacques. 2006. The Politics of Aesthetics. London & New York: Continuoum.
Wuthnow, R.obert 1992. Rediscovering community: The cultural potential of caring behavior and voluntary service. Indianapolis: Indiana University Center on Philanthropy.
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