Artist Morehshin Allahyari on the power of materiality
The artistic and theoretical practice of Morehshin Allahyari calls for the reinvention of narratives, materiality, and temporality. She is seizing the digital and technological means of production in order to write different histories and empower different dreams. Morehshin Allahyari told EastEast’s senior editor Lesia Prokopenko about the evolution of her work and ideas.
As an introduction to its Dream issue, EastEast presented a one-week screening of Morehshin Allahyari's piece She Who Sees The Unknown: Kabous, The Right Witness, and The Left Witness (2020), a 2D-documentation of the original VR work.
LESIA PROKOPENKO: I would like to begin with the conversation on your earlier work and to get a better understanding of how you became an artist: what you started with and what was fueling your work. In one of the interviews you said that you come from a creative writing background—what does it mean to you in the context of what you're doing today?
MOREHSHIN ALLAHYARI: Yes, that's correct. I would say that was my entrance to the art world. I was interested in ways I could express myself—in that case, through storytelling, words, and writing. And I continued going to workshops and classes for creative writing until I was about eighteen. Later I got into independent photography and journalism, eventually becoming interested in Media Studies—that's what I studied as an undergrad in Iran. One of the classes we had was in Cyber Studies—which I loved a lot. But there was no major in Iran for digital media or new media specifically, so I got a scholarship to go to the US for grad school. And that’s when I started to bring in more of a technological influence and using technological tools in my work. So I would say that, as my practice has grown and developed, I have actually found a balance—that I guess I'm very happy with—in terms of bringing together writing, visual technology, and activism. In my work I use narrative and storytelling a lot. It has 3D animation, 3D visual elements, but at the same time, I use storytelling and writing as a way to connect different elements to each other—it’s embedded in my practice.
LP:And as for the ways you narrate: I've been wondering about something you mentioned in one of your earlier works, Over There Is Over Here (2011), where you describe the narrator as someone who is “tangential to the scene,” someone who is “staying between real and unreal.” I think it's a really powerful description. Does it represent your position in general? Or is it just related to that particular work? How has your position as a storyteller been evolving?
MA:At the time when I wrote Over There Is Over Here, I was going back to Iran—I was still very much in between two spaces. That summer, I traveled to Iran, and it was when the protests began. These were the first protests in the region, which then started the whole Arab spring, and it was the biggest protest movement we’d had since the 1979 revolution. So I was in Iran, and then I came back to the US again. Just to give you a timeline: I moved to the US in 2007, I studied there for two years, and in 2009, when I went back to visit, the movement started. When I returned to the US again, it felt really strange, because everything was so intense in Iran, people were protesting, people were dying in the streets. There was a glimpse of hope for a second that was really exciting, because when I was growing up in Iran, there was never a chance to see any possibility of change. And it was really strange to watch the movement from the US, realizing that I had the privilege to come and stay here, while people in Iran were getting arrested and tortured in prison. And that kind of survivor’s guilt stayed with me at the time. Over There Is Over Here is really about being in that space, as someone who had immigrated: my body was here, but mentally I was there all the time.
Between self-exile and self-censorship, I chose self-exile
That obviously started to change, as I didn’t go back to Iran after 2010 because, you know, my work has always been political, and I had to be really cautious in terms of how I was presenting it. I was very careful about what I was saying in interviews, for example, because I wanted to go back to Iran and I had to make sure that I’d be safe and nothing would happen to me, with the government obviously being super sensitive about this stuff. But then—the way I talk about it usually, between self-exile and self-censorship, I chose self-exile. I’m stuck here in the US, but I can really talk about anything I want to talk about. Of course, I want to have the opportunity of going to Iran and coming back whenever I want. But at some point, I gave that up. Because I felt that it was important for me to be here and to make the work I wanted to make, to use this “freedom of expression” to a degree, to talk about the issues that I wanted to talk about. But still, I always feel somehow in-between. And I think that’s the experience a lot of people who grow up in one place and then move somewhere else have, you are never going to be fully embedded. And, you know, when I was in Iran, I didn’t feel like I completely belonged either. So this feeling of alienation has always been present.
LP:Since you started talking about your homeland: in both The Recitation of a Soliloquy (2012) and in one of your latest works, Kabous, the Right Witness, and the Left Witness (2019), you use a text from your mother's diary entry, in which she describes the moment when she heard your heart beating for the first time. Her dream and her plan is to make a good life for you. And you somehow let it travel through time in your work, conveying more and more meanings. How did some of them change with the ways you’ve been presenting this note? How did you start using it?
MA:Her diary was something that I brought with me to the US. Not when I just moved, I think, maybe the second time, when I went back to Iran in 2009 for some months. My mother showed me her diary when I was a teenager, but I didn’t read all of it. And when I brought it from Iran, I finally set to reading the whole thing. There were a couple of paragraphs and sections that really stayed with me—and this was one of them, which is when she’s pregnant, and she’s talking about the feel of confusion or guilt, as it’s taking place during the war between Iran and Iraq. That was something I would always think about when I was growing up in Iran—the fact that during the Iraq–Iran war, which lasted for eight years, we had the largest number of births. The population was on the rise like crazy. And I always had a hard time understanding why one would keep giving birth to children, not knowing what the future was going to be and how long the war was going to last. In Kabous I talk about me bringing that up to my mom and her saying that that was the only vote we had.
There’s nearly ten years of gap between The Recitation of a Soliloquy and Kabous. I’ve been growing older as a woman and, you know, so many of my friends have kids, but it has been really clear to me that I don’t want to give birth to a child of my own. When I made The Recitation of a Soliloquy, it was more about just me and my mom, but Kabous is about the four generations of women, which includes an imaginary daughter—that is not necessarily human. I’m imagining a daughter that is another species and with whom I form a kind of a voluntary kinship. Also, the first piece was more about the medium: I was writing down every word 20–25 times on the 16-millimetre film, repeating it to build the piece that way I built it. The analogue aspect of the video, the materiality of the medium, became really important for me: the act of writing and rewriting the words, the repetition. But Kabous is a VR piece, it is a completely different medium, it's much more complex and it has so many other components to it. This also probably shows my growth as an artist—although at the same time, I definitely have kept a range of topics that I’m interested in and that, in this case, I have gone back to.
LP:The theme of motherhood is also closely related to the questions of materialitymaterialitySee: Irina Aristarkhova, “Hospitality of the Matrix. Philosophy, Biomedicine and Culture.” (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012). And the way you approach materiality is something that has been talked about a lot: your work with 3D printing, The 3D Additivist Manifesto and The 3D Additivist Cookbook that you've produced. How did you start using 3D-printing and how did you eventually arrive at The Manifesto as a form for talking about it? One of its statements I find particularly powerful is: “Condensing imagination within material reality as a radical, political tool for reshaping matter and its digital destiny.” Could you speak more about this general emancipatory materialism of The Manifesto?
MA:Yes, I think of materiality in that sense, definitely. Well, if I were to put it simply, my interest in this materiality is deeply rooted in the process of going back and forth between digital and physical. The 3D-printer is a technology that allows for that in a way that has not been possible before—it's easily accessible, inexpensive, and so on. This materiality is something that actually ignited my interest in 3D-printing itself as a medium. For me, as an artist who at that point mainly worked on the screen-based and web-based projects, to see the possibility of being able to actually model something in 3D-software and then turn it into a physical object— that was just crazy. I remember watching videos of something getting 3D-printed for the first time and thinking, “This looks so sci-fi, this just looks unreal.” And that was the beginning of my interest in 3D-printing. I would say, from then on, I really started to think about the 3D-printer as a machine that could have political potential: it could give a possibility to rethink materiality, rethink production, rethink object-making, in a sense that object making itself could become a process for resistance or disobedience or, you know, again, like reimagining the possibilities of object-building in the future.
The first project I did with 3D-printing was Dark Matter. And then, after that, I collaborated with Daniel Rourke to write The Manifesto. Daniel did an interview with me for Rhizome. From there, we started having conversations around the possibilities of these tools and realized that there were quite a lot of people using them. Much of 3D-printing is unimportant, just waste production for the most part. But we felt like there was so much room and potential to work on something beyond that. And that’s what The Manifesto does, it suggests other ways of engaging with this medium, reveals other possibilities of this medium. But both The Manifesto and The Cookbook—besides exploring ideas around materiality, resistance politics, science fiction, activism—are also an important place for us to build a community. So I would say, that’s something that really shaped the project in the three years that we worked on it. “Additivism” is a term that we coined with the project. It became a movement and also the way of educating, the way of building spaces. We did a great number of workshops, we travelled all over teaching, and The Cookbook itself brought together designers, writers, artists, activists—all that community made The Cookbook really exciting. In a way, it is relevant even up to now, as there’s no other text on digital fabrication that really engages with imagination, practicality, and criticality at the same time.
LP:Is this community still alive? Are you still engaged with it?
MA:Yes, on social media mostly. We have active accounts on Twitter and Facebook and things like that. But we haven’t really done any workshops for a couple of years now, because we both got busy with other projects, but we still get a lot of requests to present The Cookbook and The Manifesto in different places. Actually, we have an exhibition coming up in Austria soon!
LP:There is a particular part of your contribution to The Cookbook—that is, Material Speculation, which came about at the same time as The Manifesto and The Cookbook were produced. Do you think it could be seen as a situated embodiment of your programme?
MA:I like to think that, hopefully, the project acts as an example of ways we can think about technology. You’re right, at the same time that we were working on a text of The Manifesto and the video, I was working at a residency in San Francisco—and I was working on Material Speculation. After that, we worked on The Cookbook, and Material Speculation got included in it.
This work can definitely be traced back to some of my other practices, it goes back to my interest in archives, in building archives and documenting. With Dark Matter, which was, as I have already said, my first 3D-printed piece, I was really interested in the ways we can think about 3D-printing as the materiality that we talked about and also as a way of building physical archives or documenting physical situations. This idea was brought back in Material Speculation. When the video of ISIS members destroying the artifacts at Mosul Museum came out and went viral—I remember watching it and thinking, what if I could reconstruct these as 3D-printed objects? Obviously, there’s no way to replace those things, but my goal was to document something that had been lost. And this became a whole one-year project, which was very intense because of the lack of research, lack of available material. And, you know, I learned so much from that project. I think it was a good point in my career as an artist, which I really have to reflect back on.
LP:You’ve spoken a lot on how certain encounters and discoveries made in the process of presenting Material Speculation have led you to coin the term “digital colonialism”: it became obvious that the access to data and digital objects is the question of power, just as the ownership of material objects has always been. Are you going to continue your research in this direction?
MA:Yes, absolutely. As you mentioned, I started exploring the notion of colonialism in a way that was not just about the economy, which so far has been discussed a lot, but also the physicality and materiality of it. One particular thing that I started to notice during my work on Material Speculation was the ownership of digital. And at the time, as you might remember, there was a hype over digital fabrication, with 3D-scanning and 3D-printing, because these technologies suddenly became, again, more available and accessible. The technological tools themselves had developed too, and now institutions could buy and use them in a much easier way. And then I started getting invited to numerous conferences around archaeology or tech conferences, where people engaged with 3D-printing and reconstruction of lost artifacts would come and present their work. The more I was studying them and thinking about what they were saying and doing, the more I started to notice how unethical and problematic many of their practices were. And so, I started doing my own research. I interviewed a bunch of people, asking “Okay, so what happens to these things? I make a 3D-scan, where does it go? Who has the right to own it?” And I realized that a lot of these practices meant that big tech companies—most of them based in the Western world, in particular, in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, etc.—just go and scan various historical sites and artifacts, bring back this material, and have a copyright ownership of those scans.
“It matters which stories tell stories, which systems systemize systems, which figures figure figures”
When you go to a museum, let's say, the Met or the British Museum, you walk through it and see a huge gate taken from somewhere, or any other artifact—and if you want to think about it critically, you ask questions about how this ended up here, whether there was permission to do that. A lot of time there wasn’t any: it was most probably looted and then ended up in some private collectors’ home who later gave it to the Metropolitan Museum or whatever. And so, we easily understand colonialism in relation to physical objects in that sense, but when it comes to digital colonialism, it turns out to be much more complex because it’s much newer. Many of us don’t even know what has been happening to the material that is being gathered and digitized. It’s been really important for me to highlight that.
I've given a lot of talks about digital colonialism. And I love that a lot of times I see a bulb turning on in people’s heads and something starting to make sense—something that might have been invisible for them. And I’m making these issues visible through writing and lecturing. All the conversations around Material Speculation are precisely what caused my growth. I feel like I need to go back to my work and find a way to—I don’t want to use the word “protect”—but rather, to figure out what it was that I was doing. There’s a quote by Donna Haraway, which I used in some of my earlier lectures: “It matters which stories tell stories, which systems systemize systems, which figures figure figures.” Colonial power, white, Western, usually male-dominated, going to another place, gathering information, stealing it, bringing it, owning it—that is happening now with the use of the digital tools. It was important for me to keep writing and doing projects about it.
Right now I'm actually working on an archive that has nothing to do with Material Speculation at all, but is more related to She Who Sees the Unknown series, which is a project I worked on for about three and a half years. The last component of this new project would be releasing an archive of PDF’s, documents, images—the material I’ve gathered with a focus on female, queer, and genderless figures, monstrous figures from ancient manuscripts in the Islamic era. And this is really the first time that some of this material is being digitized or brought online in a way that, again, will hopefully start a conversation around these forgotten, misrepresented imageries and figures. I’m using digital colonialism as my lens, as my way of building an archive—that will be open source.
I’m thinking about open source in relation to digital colonialism: a lot of people believe that just because something is open source, it’s inherently good, or that sharing information is inherently good. But whenever we talk about open source, public sharing of and giving access to information, it’s very important to ask, who are we giving this access to? What is this material for? Who is this material for? What platforms are we using to release it? So I’m using what I call cultural codes and language strategies as a way to build more protection around this knowledge: for example, on the website where the archive will be released, there’s a section in English, which you can have access to, but in order to access other parts of the archive, you will need to type in Arabic and Farsi words to unlock these sections and so to access more of this material. I’m really excited about it, because it's been in my head for a while: how do you share knowledge and protect it at the same time? Who do you share knowledge for?
LP:I guess this also has to do with the much discussed idea of care. And I remember, in fact—wasn’t it in the Physical Tactics for Digital Colonialism lecture—that you said you talked about care as a possibly dangerous tool or a dangerous idea as such. It’s about being careful with care as well...
MA:Yes, I like the way you put it.
LP:I’m curious about the way you’ve been collecting this new archive. Have you been in touch with the institutions and museums in the countries where these images come from? How has this process been taking place?
MA:It’s been a mix really. A lot of these materials come from libraries and sources that are not located in the countries that they actually originate from. Sometimes it’s been really hard to get access to them—because, you know, some of these institutions don’t want to make access to this stuff easy. But I have also been working with an archaeologist and historian in Iran (Jaleh Kamali), who has been helping me a lot with gathering material and listing the archives from libraries and other institutions in Iran.
One thing that I have been thinking about for a while is, do I want to release this archive with an institution? Is that something that can be on an institution’s website? And that’s been really challenging, because I feel like institutions are always about taking control over things and putting some kind of a logo or tag on things. And that’s something that I wouldn’t want to happen to this archive, I want it to be as free and open in that sense as possible, without belonging to a specific place or institution. And so I talked to different people and decided that I should just build a website for it and put it up. So I guess I’m taking the authorship for it. But at the same time, my experience working with institutions, especially in Western countries, shows that they’re always willing to take control over material.
LP:And you’re looking for tactics to surpass that control or to find a different way to balance the power, right?
LP:I’ve been very much impressed with what you said in an interview for the Liverpool Biennial, “For me, re-figuring is going back and re-imaging the past so that we can create and re-imagine alternative futures and worlds; so that we can collapse the political notion of linear space and time as an act of resistance.” What are these multiple futures you are addressing and constructing with your work? And how do the objects or images of the past become a source for the emergence of these futures?
MA:This probably mostly refers to She Who Sees the Unknown. And I originally started this project because I was very interested in the lack of female figures or genderless figures in the superhero narratives that come from the West Asia region. Growing up in Iran, in a culture of poetry and literature, I was realizing how, at school, for example, we would study so many mythical stories—and all of the main figures in them were male figures, you know. How could it be that such a rich tradition of literature and poetry was always just focused on men? Is this something that wasn’t brought to surface or put a spotlight on because of years and years of patriarchy, obviously? It was a challenge for me first: I was interested in seeing what I could find by searching through these stories with a focus on female figures, be it monstrous or imaginary ones. Once I started doing research, I noticed that there are a lot of mythical heroines that I didn’t know about: their stories are not common, their names aren’t common, they are just forgotten.
When I talk about reimagining the past, it has to do with reshuffling of it, trying to interrupt the past—the way it was introduced to us. Because the past—the way that was introduced to us—is full of biases. Finding these materials, bringing them out of the dust that has been covering them for years, and then using the stories of powerful figures, is a way to imagine the possibilities of the present or the future. So, obviously, since working on The Manifesto and The Cookbook, I have also become really interested in science fiction and thinking about futurity and future telling. But again, with something like science fiction, we run into the same problem: it is often proposing some kind of possibility or imagination of the future which has been historically male and Western. It’s like being stuck in the past that in some way was controlled by men and, similarly, being stuck in the future that has been controlled by men. Through the rediscovered female figures, I’m trying to find narratives, stories, ways of empowerment which can corrupt that space.
When I talk about reimagining the past, it has to do with reshuffling of it, trying to interrupt the past—the way it was introduced to us
I’m also trying to challenge the linearity of time—which is a very Western idea of time, where we have a past, a present, and a future. In a series of performances called Breaching Towards Other Futures that I did with a friend of mine, an amazing artist Shirin Fahimi, we use a method called Ilm al-raml or “the science of sand,” which was used in the Arab world by people who had a power of telling the future. It was based on the science of stars and numbers, and the relationship between these patterns they would create on sand according to the position of stars. It’s very complex, it has a lot of mathematical calculations to it. With Ilm al-raml as a method for fortune-telling, we don't have a past, a present, and a future—we have a present and a future, a past and a present, and then these shift through what is called “opening house doors.” There are sixteen doors that you open, which then will reveal different information. And time changes: time becomes cyclical, sometimes it goes backwards.
This shows that the linear time is based on the Western idea of rationality—and the project that I’m trying to carry out is, in a way, working against the rationality that was given to us by a very specific set of figures who denied centuries of practices for making sense of the world by indigenouos people and, in particular, women. Divination and witchcraft, spiritual practices that were used to build knowledge—modern rationality deemed all of that inferior and unimportant, something that can’t be used by us, humans, for world-building. My project is looking for ways to question what has been taken for granted as “real” or the “reality.”
LP:Could you talk more specifically about these tactics of myth-making and myth-remaking you’ve been employing in your most recent works?
MA:Apart from the archive that will feature information on a whole variety of figures, I’m working on She Who Sees the Unknown that features five main characters—they are mostly jinns, creatures spoken about in the Quran. Just as humans, they possess the will to be good or bad, to obey or disobey. Jinns are very important in Islamic culture, they are even present in bedtime storytelling. The stories that I’ve chosen are the ones that spoke to me the most or where I could see the potential of connecting something about them to something out there that we are experiencing. For example, the first one, called Huma, which means “fever” in Arabic: it’s a jinn that brings fever to the body. When I came across this story, as well as the older illustrations I found of her, I connected the idea of heat brought to the human body with the idea of the heating Earth. But Huma becomes a figure that brings justice. Also, the climate crisis is experienced differently depending on where you are from and what kind of access you have to resources, whether you are rich or poor, what race you are—in fact, these are factors in our experience of any kind of crisis and future crises that will come toward us.
Take New York right now: the crisis happens and the city empties out because all those who have the money leave for their vacation homes upstate. Those who have stayed are essential workers, undocumented immigrants who have to continue working and can’t apply for unemployment, and other people who don’t have an option to leave the city. It feels crazy to me that when I wrote about Huma—fever, disease, crisis—in the end of 2016, my idea was that if there’s an end, if there’s dystopia, Huma comes to bring equality, and we will all experience it at the same time, we will all be in it together. But now it’s happening—and we are not all in this together. Here we are in 2020, and we have a crisis—that is related to the climate crisis—we are in it actually because of all those things, and we see that in practice, we see that whenever a crisis comes, we are never going to be even and equal.
With this story, I’m using Huma to imagine another possibility of a solution to a crisis. Which is not, as I often say, Elon Musk’s solution of leaving for Mars: for the rich, basically—but rather the idea of bringing justice to our experiences of crisis.
LP:In your commentary to The Laughing Snake, one of the figures of this series, you say that you want to reconsider the snake’s laughter as a position of power. In an entry from your mother’s diary, she also mentions how in response to her question about the noise she hears, the doctor, before explaining that these are sounds of the beating heart, says that it’s the baby laughing. For you, what is it that makes laughter so empowering and liberating? What particular kind of laughter does it have to be?
MA:That’s a great question and thank you for finding that connection. When I came across the Laughing Snake, I just loved the illustrations of her, which you’ve probably seen up on my website: she’s there, and there are three or four men in the corner. I thought that image was really beautiful and powerful, but I didn’t like how the story was presented and interpreted, because it was trying to weaken her, to show her losing her powers. That’s the whole thing: this man comes to destroy her by holding a mirror in front of her. The plot has a long history, with Medusa, for instance—Medusa turns into stone, but the Laughing Snake laughs… And this laughter is still something that comes from her own self. Laughter can be seen as a position of power: someone offends you and you laugh at them. But I was also trying to connect it to the themes of harassment and the female body—and I started thinking a lot about hysterical laughter. There’s a long patriarchal history of hysteria, rendering women crazy—it’s a disease that women get, right? Over the time there have been different proposals of how to fix this issue: how to “cure” women who are being mad, hysteric, or moody, which is definitely connected to female desire and sexuality. And I used that—the hysterical laughter in the story of the Laughing Snake—multiple times, because I felt that hysteria, madness could mark the end of something. That’s the kind of laughing I’m interested in: the hysterical laughter that is actually powerful. It’s the act of self-love and self-respect. It’s about embracing hysteria and madness, embracing the hysterical laughter as a position of power. I hope my “laughter” as a baby in my mother’s womb was that position.
Iranian-Kurdish media artist, activist, and writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work questions current political, socio-cultural, and gender norms, with a particular emphasis on exploring the relationship between technology and art activism.