Artist Profile: Morehshin Allahyari

The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have developed a significant body of work engaged (in its process, or in the issues it raises) with technology. See the full list of Artist Profiles here.

Morehshin Allahyari, #dog #dildo #satellite-dish from the series "Dark Matter." Work in progress.

Daniel Rourke: Your ongoing project, Dark Matter, was something of a revelation for me: a collection of objects forbidden or "unwelcome" in Iran, brought together through digital modelling, meshing, and 3D printing. The results are playful and surrealistic, with the same capacity to waken the subconscious as any Dali Lobster-Telephone or Hair-Lamp. For me Dark Matter resonates as subversive not just because the dog-dildo is an affront to conservative sexual values, or because the Barbie-VHS blurs cultural boundaries (a feature of a lot of your work). Rather I was taken by how the objects spoke to the here and now; that perhaps there is something about the collapse of all commodities, forms, and ideas into the digital that promotes blurred perspectives and subversive practices. I wondered whether you saw your work as particular to the digital tools and materials you choose, or are you "just" making use of things that happen to be available to you?

Morehshin Allahyari: I was particularly interested in choosing the most relevant tools and materials for creating a new body of work about forbidden/unwelcome objects. I found the idea of "3D printing/re-creating the forbidden" a very compelling prospect, which raised paradoxical issues of limitations and boundaries—social, cultural, and political. I was also very interested in the technology of 3D printing as this "poetic technology" for resistance, for reclaiming all the things that were taken from me during my life in Iran or are currently being taken away from my sister, and mother, and my friends. There is something very special about things that you can't have access to when they are forced by law out of your life. When there are many of those objects/things, and they are the most ordinary things (dog, sex toys, neck-tie, Barbie, satellite-dish, Bart Simpson, ham/pig, alcohol, etc.), then there is something meaningful and symbolic about using a technology like 3D printing to re-create them. The combination of the objects, I think, adds a sense of humor to the work that is very similar to the ridiculousness of having these objects banned when you look at the whole picture.

While developing the project, I really fell in love with thinking about 3D printing as a "documentation tool"... you know, like when you go to historical museums, and they have this whole collection of objects or things that used to be this and that, or had whatever functionality 500 years ago. I thought, what if this could be the archive, the documentation of the life after the 1979 revolution in Iran, the life I lived, and how will it feel to look back at this collection in 20 or 30 years? Also, through combining and re-creating these objects and putting them inside a virtual word, I can re-contextualize and invite the audience to enter the historical dimension of the work... So yeah... I am directly addressing the medium of 3D printing here. Plus, there is a broad conversation of censorship built into the technology of 3D printing as a whole, which actually expands the project to other countries including the United States (I am thinking about the 3D printed, potentially functional gun as one of the first examples).

Morehshin Allahyari, virtual landscape for #dog #dildo #satellite-dish from the series "Dark Matter." Work in progress.

DR: You have just collaborated on a text that shifts between registers, performing the splits, breaks and tears it indicates in the life and work of "self-exiled" people. I was struck by an image you use of "Time, memory, space, and bodies collapsing, losing composition." [1] These ideas feature heavily in your work, where one's heritage or identity can coalesce and mutate as readily as a 3D print.

MA: I am struck by the idea of representation in digital art. I think about the reconstruction of memory in virtual worlds, the rebuilding of non-existent objects from the virtual world into real life… how we understand our world through representation, the dystopian, the utopian, and everything in-between. Since I have moved to the U.S. (2007), I have become more and more fascinated by the in-depth thoughts on exile and diaspora within Edward Said's text "Reflections on Exile," Mahmoud Darwish's poems, and Lorna Dee Cervantes' Palastine poem, among others. But in my own work, I wanted to simultaneously be aware of the dangers of the romanticization of exile and self-exile - as well as the whole nostalgic remembrance of the "homeland" that is inaccessible; I wanted to look for different ways that I can use digital technology to talk about my own understanding of self-exile. So I worked on a 3D animation video, a plexiglas installation, a 16mm film, a series of Facebook post-cards installation, and a creative research/writing project in the course of one year. It's interesting to step-back and think about each of these works now (after two years); to think about geographical determinism and the collective history of the young self-exiled Iranians; but also to realize that, through time, my relationship has changed with "home" and that it will continue to change. Doing this interview and thinking about my body of work "The Romantic Self-Exiles", I remembered that I haven't thought about my house in Tehran, Yousefabad and Valiasr streets, and other common places that I used to go, for a very long time. I used to do this thing almost every night, that I would close my eyes and try to imagine and remember every details of my room in Tehran… or the exact directions/streets that I would have to take to get to whatever place. I couldn't help but think that's the only way to survive the diasporic life… could this be one dimension of the mutation of identity? Is this where I forever will feel distanced, unrelated, and disconnected from home? Or have I just entered a new stage of life in diaspora? Gray areas might be the only places worth existing...delving into identity as a transparent rather than defined; homeland as belonging to nowhere and everywhere; virtual space as both real and imagined; aesthetics as perfection vs imperfection.

Morehshin Allahyari. Excerpt from The Romantic Self-Exiles I (2012).

DR: The mutations you speak of also come through in the way you approached the writing of that text, stretching the critical territory you cover by fusing the essay with a voice more readily associated with fiction. I also note elements of fabulation in your gallery and video works. Both The Romantic Self-Exiles-I and Over There Is Over Here toy with reality and imagination in a broken essayistic language. Do you understand your practice as writerly?

MA: My discovery of the art world has been through creative writing (since the age of 12 when I started to take part in a private creative writing class in Iran that would meet weekly, which continued until I was 18)... so writing is very dear to my heart and it's a very important part of my work.

I'm interested in bridging digital technology, writing, and visual arts in an essayistic and poetic language. I think about Milan Kundera and Chris Marker as the best examples of this style of writing.

As I have worked more and more with a software like Maya, I have learned that there is something very beautiful about building and creating landscapes and environments. Especially in the Romantic Self Exiles animation, it felt like creating an imagined home… a space and environment where I could perhaps belong… but another aspect of it was talking about this experience and process of modeling, animating, texturing, etc through a self-reflexive narration. In Over There Is Over Here, there is also a landscape, but the narration is more complex with ambiguity… going back and forth between a third-person narrator and myself as the narrator and an outsider… In both of these works, though, my writing process was connected to the process of designing these virtual landscapes.

DR: In another text produced with collaborator Jennifer Way you discuss the representation of female identity in Iran. Could you tell us some more about how this relates to art and romanticization in particular?

MA: I was really interested in doing research on women, technology, and art in Iran, because there is almost no academic research and discourse about this topic (although the art and technology scene is growing very rapidly in Iran). So I have kept an eye on the art and technology festivals, exhibitions, workshops, and lectures that have been happening in Iran in the last 4-5 years and been amazed by the lack of women and the dominance of the hyper-masculine culture. In collaboration with Jennifer Way, we interviewed Iranian artists (mostly women) who in one way or another are and have been involved in the new media art scene in Iran and asked for their comments, observations, and concerns regarding new media art or art and technology considering the recent rise of such art practices in Iran. This is especially and personally very important to me because Iranian women have been the dominant university demographic in Iran for the last decade or so.

On the other hand, in my own work, I have constantly thought about and re-defined both my Middle-Eastern female identity, as well as my identity as a woman in the field of art and technology. On the one hand, I have gradually become aware of and resisted the female identity defined by—for instance—the work of artists like Shirin Neshat. This is something that comes up in my daily discussions with other female colleagues from the Middle-East: how we feel distanced from the presentation and re-presentation of women in the work of older generation artists (in this case from Iran)... That in fact, we are eager to re-define these clichés and—in most cases—one-dimensional interpretations and exoticized or stereotypical images of women of the Middle-East; thinking about ourselves more as "Glocal."

Morehshin Allahyari,#barbie #vhs from the series "Dark Matter." Work in progress.

The other side of this is my relationship with technology and the fact that I am interested in a poetic and feminine voice in technological aesthetics and in ways to challenge and push whatever medium that I'm using. In the last couple of years, I have been inspired by the works of other female artists and activists such as Claudia Hart, Brenna Murphy, Jenny Vogel, Tania Bruguera, and Guerrilla Girls. I feel like I have the amazing opportunity of combining and experimenting with all these ideas… to bring together new media, politics, art, social science, and creative writing… and examine a multi-layered understanding of female identity while dealing with the complexity of being in between.

DR: To bring it back to my first question then, do you think that there is something specific in the ways and means of digital technology that enables the representation of interstitial spaces, politics and identities?

MA: In both the writing/narrative and the aesthetics of my work, I am interested in the idea of imperfection and the allowance of error… which makes me think about the fact that bleeding/leading edge technology has built-in flaws and imperfections in them… which also works perfectly with the broader discourse of corruption of politics, collapse of identities, the loss of space through time, etc.

In the case of 3D printing technology, I like to think there is something very special about it that doesn't exist in other software/tools/material. Maybe this is a very "Eastern/Dervish" kind of way of thinking about digital technology: to think about means and ways and reasons and effects as points of departure and entrance. You know, like trying to stay away from the fetishism and consumerism that falls into the use of digital technology… so, yes!

DR: Finally, what are you working on at the moment?

MA: Well, as of right now, I am creating a series of virtual spaces for my 3D printed objects, and also combining more unwelcome/forbidden objects to print in the next coming months. After this, I want to broaden the conversation to other countries in an upcoming project, creating a 3D forbidden orgy (lol) installation, looking for new ways to blur these cultural boundaries and relationships. In general, in these new series of work I am taking a break from heavy, serious work which is mostly what I've been working on and creating for the last 6 years. I feel like I am exhausted from that, and I want to actually take a step back and be able to make fun of all these very serious topics. If you think about Dark Matter and these forbidden objects that we grew up with in Iran, they are actually simultaneously fucked up and ridiculous. I think as I'm growing as an artist, I am getting more and more interested about exploring humor in serious circumstances. I don't want to feel bad for myself and the life I lived in Iran. I don't want other people's sympathy. That's why I want to be able to sometimes make fun of it more than anything else.

Age: 28

Location: Dallas, TX.

How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?

Since the very first months that I moved from Iran to Denver to study for my MA in Digital Media Studies. I remember I only knew a little bit of photoshop, and one of the first classes that I had to take was coding and CSS. It was a big jump. But after two years, I started to work constantly with different software and digital tools… At the same time, my partner (andrew blanton) has played an important role in my approach to technology, both conceptually and how I can teach myself new software and skill-sets as an artist.

Where did you go to school? What did you study?

During my undergrad I was in Iran and I studied Social Science and Media Studies at Tehran University. I studied Digital Media Studies for my MA at the University of Denver, where I was invited by Lynn Schofield Clark to do research with her at the Estlow Center on projects that concerned art, culture, and media (this was my initial reason to move from Iran to the United States). Then I was invited by David Stout of Noisefold to go to University of North Texas and work with him in Developing the Initiative for Advanced Research in Technology and the Arts (iARTA) research cluster while studying in New Media Art for my M.F.A.

What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?

Currently I am a visiting assistant professor at University of Texas in Dallas at the Art and Technology department. Before this I worked mostly doing adjunct positions. I lived in Chicago before Texas, and Denver before moving from Iran in 2007. When I lived in Tehran, I taught English and freelanced for different art and culture magazines and newspapers.

What does your desktop or workspace look like?

I don't have a studio space outside of our house right now. But I do have a room as my studio to work at, which I kind of like better than studios that I've had in the last 4 years. I mostly work on my Hackintosh for my animation projects. I make a lot of notes, both in Farsi and English depending on my headspace when I'm writing and thinking… I'm obsessed with lighting of the space that I work at. Some days both my workspace and desktop look more organized than the others, which might be a good measurement of how productive I'm being. : )



[1] Allahyari, Morehshin, and Jennifer Way. "Romantic Self-Exiles." Anglistica no. Issue 17 1 (2013).