Alessandra Cianetti: Duration, seriality, exploration of online and offline archival practices are consistently present in your work. I’m thinking here at Mishandled Archive and 30 Seconds of Today as examples and how they record and reactivate historical, spacial and sensorial memories. Can you tell us more about how in the creation of your works, you negotiate these personal and public spaces within different contexts, and what role playfulness and chance have in your creative process?
Tara Fatehi Irani: I think seriality, duration, playfulness and chance all come together for me under the umbrella of the word ‘resistance’. The idea of micro-activisms that resist an amnesia and bypass socio-political, historical and cultural suppressions to give centre stage, even for a day, to marginalised histories, bodies, moments and sensations. It is only through this repetition, seriality and the accumulation of these micro-activisms that they may find meaning.
One of the main concerns of Mishandled Archive and 30 Seconds of Today is how the boundaries of private and public can be re-negotiated. Mishandled Archive is, surprise surprise, about mishandling what is considered private, delicate and treasured and exposing it to new places, strangers and environments. The private treasured photograph is washed off in the rain or it may catch the eye of a stranger who either puts it in her pocket or bins it (I have seen both). Either way, the mishandling offers a new pathway to the private histories, the meta data, carried within those items. The question of negotiating private and public in relation to online space is very complex. I have defined my own working ethics in collaboration with those who have trusted me with their personal material and 99.9% of the time it has worked well. In my experience of living in Iran, the difference between private and public is immense. What you say, do and wear in private is massively different from those in public and I guess it is partly because of that experience that I’m keen to play with the boundaries of what’s private and public.
The playfulness in my work is especially formed around issues of trust, authenticity, language and documentation. Each of these fields leaves room for play – and cheat – through mistranslations and misunderstandings – especially those rising in the context of transcultural relations. For example, ‘Dear Hypothetical, there is oil all over the place’ is a performance built on questions of fabrication and mediatisation of history. The piece is a documentary performance that follows, through meticulous documentation and evidence, the supposed lives and stories of two communities of political activists who have lived on the Wandering Island in the heart of the desert in Iran, one in the early 80s right after the revolution, the other in 2009 after the pivotal elections. What this performance is mainly trying to do is to make its audience leave with questions and perplexities they may have not had before.
Humour and playfulness are pivotal to my work. My writing, either printed or performed, is often very dark and even gory but at times it can give you a laugh or a little chuckle in the middle of a hardcore reminiscence of a murder, suicide or execution. People have told me things like ‘Your work was so intense but I had a great laugh’. Most of the themes that I work with are very dense and I think playfulness is almost necessary to allow the audience, and myself, to be able to cope with this density.
My process, and especially in regards to my work with archives, is very much like a detective game where I’m digging up thousands of documents and photographs in search of names, faces and places and then I piece the fragments together. Playfulness and chance are part of the process when you juxtapose fragments of material. There are clues to connecting the dots in most of my work but these clues might only emerge after viewing the work several times. My detective game has gone so far that I have recently ‘discovered’ a cousin of mine who was born in Honduras and found links between my family in Iran and Winston Churchill. I am admittedly deep in procrastination when I make these discoveries.
Because my work is very dependent on the everyday and what happens that day, the role of chance is rather inevitable. Both Mishandled Archive and 30 Seconds of Today are based on what happens to happen every day and where I happen to be. I did not plan to go to a special location to record the sounds or do a dance and installation. Both of these projects are alternative chronicles of the year – chronicles that document voices, people and places not often heard or seen while also tracing the day by day choices and chance encounters.
Alessandra Cianetti: Your practice is both individual and collective. I wonder how your personal research overlaps with the site-specific multimedia project Meridian Rhubarb you have been developing in collaboration with Pouya Ehsaei since 2014, and with the experimental approach to documentation in relation to live performance of the collective DARC – Documentation Action Research Collective you are a member of.
Tara Fatehi Irani: All of the work I made in Iran before I decided to move was made in groups and collaborations. My methods in performance making and writing were mainly shaped in the duets and larger collaborations I had with artist Sarah Feli in Tehran. The move to London and to ‘imposed’ solo practice was initially very difficult. It takes a while and a lot of effort and consideration to start new collaborations in an art scene you are new to. Each collaboration raises its own questions around working dynamics, creative responses, teamwork and managing emotions. I’ve had fascinating explorations into these questions in my recent work with Station House Opera (where the team was divided with a 2000-mile distance in between London and Gaza) and the duet I am now working on with Karen Christopher. My relationship to the found material I use in my work is also of a collaborative nature. There is an exchange with the material – a kind of mutual activation of each other.
In Meridian Rhubarb, Pouya and I, aka /gorizazmarkaz/ which I always have to say means centrifugal in Farsi, use the history of each site where we are performing as our starting point. We have conversations with the locals and go through many historical documents, police reports, maps and so on to find themes within each site that resonate to something from our own personal past. We respond to our found material through sound, music (mainly Pouya’s job), text, movement and videos. Because the performance is ongoing and is made in short chapters (i.e. it is getting longer and longer), it is carrying residues of the past places for which it has been made (from London to Tehran, Ipswich and Birmingham). The overlap between this project and my personal research is around the juxtaposition of unfamiliar sites and familiar memories and twisting that juxtaposition to create something which is not autobiographical and nor purely about the site. The potentials of this meeting place of the familiar and unfamiliar in producing alternative ways of expression and impression that were not previously apparent is what I’m exploring in this project.
I joined DARC as a live artist and researcher investigating and experimenting with alternative ways of archiving and documentation both in relation to live art and everyday life. The main focus of DARC is on experimenting with documentation (namely of performances but where do you draw the line between what is and is not performance?). As someone whose relation to performance is that of the maker and the performer rather than the documenter, I’m more inclined to documenting events that do not announce themselves as performances or even art but might well become one through documentation.
Alessandra Cianetti: Precariousness and in-betweenness are words that came up in our conversation when meeting for an Iranian sweets-based chat in Peckham. The words came up in reference to your practice as an artist who works across media, as an academic researcher, and as a female migrant individual in the UK context. What role (if any!) does the notion of border/s play in your artistic and academic research?
Tara Fatehi Irani: I think the level of one’s bodily reaction to the word border has to do with our lived experience of dealing with it. The thought (or for many years the dream) of border-crossing and freedom to travel and the problems of visas, passports, migration and travel bans have been so present in my own and my friends and family’s lives that the geopolitical meaning of the word always jumps to the forefront of my thoughts. To better explain how I relate to border/s through objects, sites and vanishing memories I’ll start with these three things: aeroplanes, suitcases and Shalamche.
Aeroplanes: My sister and I waving at the aeroplanes taking off right by our home in Tehran, daydreaming where they might be off to and if we’ll ever be able to travel that far. We grew up very close to Tehran’s then main international airport. I was too young to have waved at the children on board the passenger flight 655 leaving that airport for Dubai. I was too young to have seen their floating dead bodies on the Persian Gulf after the United States Navy cruiser ‘misidentified’ them and shot them down. Fatalities: 290. Survivors: 0.
Suitcases: I have packed so many suitcases – for my friends and family who were leaving Iran. Some would leave and visit the next summer. Some I haven’t seen since I packed their suitcases. I always offered to do it on their final hours before leaving for the airport, when half of their stuff didn’t fit in the suitcase. I didn’t offer just because I was good at fitting more things in (though I was) but because I closed their case for myself by rolling their clothes, packing their pistachios, wrapping their shoes, layering their books, taping their deodorants and squeezing their socks into their favourite cup.
Shalamche: Towards the border between Iran and Iraq, Shalamche, the site of an eight-year war, the site of many deaths. I’m not crossing the border; I’m visiting it. I was not expecting to be moved by the scene but I got the creeps when several kilometers before the border our car was stopped. I thought it’s because we were seven unrelated friends cramped into one tiny car, but apparently the guards didn’t care. They took our plate number and the names of the people on board. It was a security process to keep track of people entering the danger zone. The road that followed was fenced on both sides with signs everywhere saying ‘MINES – DANGER OF EXPLOSION – DO NOT THROW ANY OBJECTS BEYOND THIS POINT’ and the whole place is filled with objects that people have thrown to see if they explode.
We arrive at the border – the border border – the furthest you can go. The dusk is falling. The call to prayer is playing from several speakers near and far. We climb up a raised ground of rocky sand which goes all along the border and in front of us is this vast deserted desert land. The soil is cracked. The borderscape is indefinite. There is a close clutter of lights far in the distance, in Iraq. The repetition of the out of sync echoes of the always mournful melody of the call mixes with the howling of the wind. A woman curled into her black chador is sitting alone on a rock, looking into the horizon and the sun going down into the vast inhabitable land which is the border, the minefield, sandbags and disused tanks scattered all along. She swings gently from left to right, holding her face with one hand and lightly slapping herself in deep sorrow. It is just us and her. We are all petrified by the atmosphere. Can’t say a word nor do anything but gaze into the other side. I think we’re standing on the border.
Border is a place of surveillance, of watching and being watched. It is charged with history, death, confusion, misidentification and collision. It is a troubled zone, a zone of danger, of conflict, of tension, of mourning. It can be transformed – to this liminal quasi-museum I stepped on: objects sunk into earth, people turned into dust, movements disappeared, tension is very present. Throwing bottles into a minefield.
I relate to this experience of standing or walking on the border in my practice and research. I try to experiment with decentredness and being on the margins, treading along the boundaries of mediums and disciplines and in areas that are uncertain for me. Stories of displacement, misplacement, violence, language and misinterpretation are very present in my work and they are all in some way consequences of enforced borders – national, political, cultural, racial or those between media and disciplines. Mishandled Archive, for example, is a constant displacement and re-placement of bodies and their histories. Similar to my other projects, it deals with everyday stories of ordinary but marginalised people and places seen from elsewhere. Splicing and piecing together fragments of these stories is in itself playing with borders and redefining them.
Tara Fatehi Irani is a multidisciplinary artist, writer and performance maker working with mistranslated memories and unattended archives. Her work is primarily concerned with the ephemeral interactions between memories, words, bodies and sites and their inherent mistranslations. Her practice ranges between yearlong daily projects, site-responsive art, performance, dance, audio-visual, installations and writings. From deserted buildings to well-known art centres, her work has appeared in houses, basements, streets, gyms, theatres, galleries, conferences, journals and publications.
Tara is a doctoral researcher at the University of Roehampton in conjunction with the Live Art Development Agency. Her practice-as-research project investigates the interanimation of performance and family archives and methods of disseminating archives through performative ventures.
Alongside her solo practice, she regularly collaborates with other artists and companies currently including Station House Opera, Karen Christopher, Pouya Ehsaei (as /gorizazmakaz/), 30 Bird and DARC (Documentation Action Research Collective).
Feature image caption: For the Mantlepiece, day 285/365 of Mishandled Archive, Tara Fatehi Irani (2017)