Remediation of the News Feed

6.4 / Free Speech in the Art World

Remediation of the News Feed

By Sandra Skurvida May 27, 2015

Representations of Contemporary Art of Iran from The Guardian to Facebook
 

For a decade or so, the image of a veiled lady—with calligraphy-clad face, hands, and feet—has been a familiar presence in art galleries and museums from New York City to Doha. But this kind of woman is not someone to see on the streets of either city. Recently, a shift in symbolic representations of Iran has taken place—if not yet in art institutions, then certainly within the millennial consciousness, which, rather than projecting its images on gallery walls, reflects itself in the media.

Sohrab Kashani. SuperSohrab, 2012–present

In a Guardian story about restrictions by the United States government on art exchanges with Iran, SuperSohrab, the alter ego conceived by the Tehran-based artist and curator Sohrab Kashani, was deemed “a symbol of the contemporary Iranian art world.”1 An awkward denizen of Tehran, wearing thick glasses and brightly colored long underwear, SuperSohrab is ready to flee into the relative safety of the Web, where he will continue shifting the performative toward the informative, clicking the time away. Kashani is of the generation that came of age in this century, absorbed unfiltered information on the Web, learned to code before learning to write, and created art in rooms with windows tightly shut against the outside world yet open to it via hidden satellite dishes on roofs. This generation does not identify itself via symbols but rather via shifting, often borrowed, signifiers, like a DIY superhero costume replacing a chador (most artists do not wear either of these garments in their everyday lives). The personal stories of this generation do not adhere to or even engage with the news, but a news item requires a story. Even the greatest leak in recent history concerning panoptic preoccupations of the state (the Edward Snowden story), was conveyed by The Guardian as a tale of a whistleblower, a filmmaker, and a journalist, their adventures unfolding in near-real time in hotel rooms and transit zones.

A character fit for a news story must represent a universal social type and possess a personal feature contradicting the stereotype, such as in the video series by Thomas Erdbrink for The the New York Times, entitled “Meet Our Man in Tehran” (published March 24–May 5, 2015). The first article of this series introduces the foreign correspondent, his wife (the artist Newsha Tavakolian), and vignettes of their life in Tehran. This is followed by profiles of the daughter of a martyr of the 1979 Iranian revolution, who opposes the ban on women attending volleyball games; a divorced young woman from a conservative small town, who chose to live independently in the capital; a woman who survived an acid attack and turned the Islamic decree of “an eye for an eye” against her attacker, via the legal system that treats a woman as worth “half a man,” only to pardon him in front of media cameras; and other two- and three-dimensional figures selected to represent the Iranian society for Western audiences. Mimicking a social-media feed, each profile is followed by comments, in which the featured individuals respond to the readers’ comments and questions. In this way, each profiled character effectively proves her or his existence outside the story. A newsworthy character cannot do itself—it cannot exist in representation only. This has been and remains the domain of art in its continuing quest to be and not to be.  

This phenomenological deregulation of a language registers an ongoing de-symbolization in contemporary art.

In the language of art, the significations of appropriated imagery are redefined. Sequences, scenes, and characters from film, TV, music videos, home videos, pornography, closed-circuit video surveillance, advertisements and infomercials, as well as various traditions of visual art are reconfigured into another, often personal language with its own system of signification—a patois of sorts—that is fully functional only in the art discourse. Its decoding requires experiential rather than iconological analysis, and anyone from anywhere possessing this particular experience can experientially identify it and thus understand this personally encoded language of art, within or outside its context. This phenomenological deregulation of a language registers an ongoing de-symbolization in contemporary art. On one hand, passing through the institutional bottleneck of art discourse narrows the reach of art language; on the other hand, its significations are distilled from those of the everyday. Established by art institutions, the new meaning is distributed in the social sphere and feeds back into broader usage via exhibitions, news stories, social media, and other commercial and independent channels. Such feedback ensures art’s circulation beyond the art-institutional circuits and guarantees its entry into the public sphere. 

Ideological regimes especially make an effort to control information in the public sphere, including the Internet. Despite their intolerance of ideational competition, few regimes adopt the extreme strategy of curbing all access to the World Wide Web within their borders.2 Most nondemocratic regimes pursue strategies that combine site bans and web filtering (state-sanctioned surfing) with limited public access to cyberspace (limited connectivity); variances in Internet policies depend on whether the leadership perceives its legitimacy to be grounded in economic or ideological factors. State-sanctioned surfing has been Iran’s policy, even though the specter of the Iranian Intranet (also known as the Halal Internet, a national network that is not connected to the World Wide Web) has loomed since the early 2000s.4 Censorship policies are far from clear, and their enforcement changes arbitrarily, in response to the slightest shifts in the complex political climate. Officially, censorship is justified as the protection of the public from the content considered immoral under the Islamic law, but this application has been unofficially extended to cover political discourse and limit public expression, including art. This official policy has severely limited the public space for art presentation within Iran, effectively pushing it out of the public sphere. The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and exhibitions of the official artist societies are tightly controlled by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which does not tolerate subversive representations. The press and private art institutions, even though they cannot be fully state-supervised, must surmise what is permissible and gauge the changing margins of acceptance. This leaves contemporary artists dependent on private art galleries, as the only institutions supporting contemporary art within the country, and the Web as an alternative, virtual space that transcends state borders. The necessity of limiting access to trusted target audiences at home, and global outreach via market channels and social media, has resulted in the trans-contextualization of the contemporary art discourse. The trans-contextuality of art—a body of knowledge without a specific object—can provide an escape from a fixed identity. In this way, SuperSohrab can become a temporary signifier of the contemporary Iranian art world for the readers of The Guardian, a signification that may be contested in Iran.

The potential of personal freedom in cyberspace, facilitated by advancing technology, has catalyzed a torrent of Internet activity in Iran since 2003.

The contextual fluidity of the Internet—where, as the media theorist Christiane Paul has put it, “the spatial distance that would divide the centre from the margin or text from context in the physical world is subordinated to the temporality of the link”—has enabled contemporary art producers in Iran to utilize the liminal space of the Web as an unpredictable space with unregulated, fungible agency.5 The potential of personal freedom in cyberspace, facilitated by advancing technology, has catalyzed a torrent of Internet activity in Iran since 2003. This mass participation in cyberspace has led to what Masserat Amir-Ebrahimi described as the “indigenization of cyberspace”; too vast to be fully under state surveillance, the Web offered users “social environments where the presence of different thoughts and mentalities form a space similar to their real living spaces”—a surrogate public space behind closed doors, where, according to Amir-Ebrahimi, self-deception and isolation are imminent.6 The monitor is the mirror in which one can tweak the reflection of reality at will. The paradox of freedom of expression in cyberspace is that it does not always lead one past personal and into social freedom. The solipsism of Web environments has further fragmented the already dispersed art community in Iran, even as the Web did provide a channel of communication with potential audiences and collaborators at home and abroad. Even though state authority is not eliminated in the networked environments—it constantly inserts itself in new places—technological mediation allows one to claim agency in an environment of multiple, conflicting authorities.7 Individual freedoms in cyberspace do not always traverse the virtual divide, and Web activity in Iran may be of increased intensity to compensate for the lack of public attention and recognition.

In such a transient space, peer networks and collaborations pop up as ephemeral zones of knowledge production, but this process flows and ebbs along with the circumstances of the participants who, without a sustaining, institutional framework, may disperse or disappear from the discourse. Self-organized models are vital spaces of resistance in a totalitarian state. As such, they resist systematic documentation—various Web archives do not comprise a history—and the recent histories of contemporary Iranian art do not reach into the social-media currents, websites, and networks where a new type of creativity emerges, free from dictates of the Western art market and its proverbial orientalist gaze. Yet information that does flow freely is diverted into the rabbit holes of social media. In the semi-private space copyrighted by Facebook, such run-offs reveal the vicissitudes of knowledge production in which art constitutes a specific form of information.

Notes

  1. Saeed Kamali Dehghan, “Iran’s artists warn US and European sanctions are affecting their work,” The Guardian, October 31, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/31/iran-artists-sanctions-affecting-work.
  2. [3] “Afghanistan’s Taliban Bans Internet,” Reuters, July 14, 2001, http://www.rawa.org/internet.htm. The group Reporters Without Borders issues an annual report, Enemies of the Internet (http://12mars.rsf.org/2014-en/); the 2014 report describes policies on Internet use in Bahrain, Belarus, China, Cuba, Ethiopia, Iran, India, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Vietnam, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, and Uzbekistan.
  3. Geoffry L. Taubman, “State-sanctioned Surfing, Limited Connectivity, and Varied Access to Cyberspace in Nondemocracies,” Asian Perspective 27, no. 2 (2003), 105–40. Case studies exemplify China’s state-sanctioned surfing as guided by economic policies whereas limited connectivity in Cuba is an ideology-driven policy that also stunts economic development.
  4. The reformist president Hassan Rohani, elected in June 2013, did not immediately reverse this course, stating that a national news and information broadband network was on the agenda for 2015, its implementation aided by Chinese business expertise. Reporters Without Borders, “Iran: Cyberspace Ayatollahs,” Enemies of the Internet, http://12mars.rsf.org/2014-en/2014/03/11/iran-the-revolutionary-guards-the-supreme-council-for-cyberspace-and-the-working-group-for-identifying-criminal-content/.
  5. Christiane Paul, “Flexible Contexts, Democratic Filtering and Computer-aided Curating: Models for Online Curatorial Practice,” in Curating Immateriality: The Work of the Curator in the Age of Network Systems, ed. Joasia Krysa (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2006), 87.
  6. Masserat Amir-Ebrahimi, “Emergence of the Iranian Cyberspace and the Production of the Self in Weblogestan,” Pages, no. 4 (July 2005), 119–26.
  7. Charles Bernstein, “Electronic Pies in the Poetry Skies,” in The Politics of Information: The Electronic Mediation of Social Change, ed. Marc Bousquet and Katherine Wills (Alt-X, 2002), http://www.altx.com/ebooks/infopol.html.

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