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Interview with Taraneh Hemami

[Source: Bulletin, a Theory of Survival Publication, by Taraneh Hemami, 2015.] [Source: Bulletin, a Theory of Survival Publication, by Taraneh Hemami, 2015.]

Taraneh Hemami is a San Francisco-based artist and arts educator whose work is known internationally. Born in Tehran, Hemami emigrated to the the United States to attend college in 1978. Roula Seikaly spoke with the artist about the publication entitled Bulletin, its relationship to Hemami’s ongoing collaborative project Theory of Survival, and the potential for archives to influence past, present, and future narratives.

Roula Seikaly (RS): Let's talk about Bulletin. It’s form is fascinating. The two essays, the body of the publication itself, is a beautifully visualized timeline of Iranian history set within a larger context of world history, particularly twentieth century political upheaval. Instead of focusing on the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the publication places in context what was happening worldwide and how Iran was likewise shaped by external events. It's an exhaustive account. My question is, who is this for? In the aftermath of the exhibitions, is this offered to people who've seen the exhibitions, or those who haven't seen them and may not have a reference point? Does the publication stand by itself, or is it a stand alone experience? 

Taraneh Hemami (TH): I see the publication Bulletin as well as the Fabrications pop up bazaar at Southern Exposure Gallery, as stand alone projects that are also part of a larger project, Theory of Survival (ToS), that I've been involved with for over ten years. It's always changing, and I have learned to embrace its evolutions as an inherent strength of the project.

Bulletin began as a residency project in 2013-2015 at CIIS (California Institute for Integral Studies). We worked on building out the timeline of dissent centered on Iran, while following parallel histories across nations, as a way of engaging the viewer/reader in histories that they have little access to, while inviting and collecting reflections and personal narratives. Initially, we focused on a 1953-1984 time frame, in direct relationship to Theory of Survival's source materials that inspired the project, the archives of Iranian Student Associations (ISA). Eventually the research expanded to other revolutions and revolutionaries that lay the ground for and pepper the framework imposed. Bulletin now begins in 1846, with the first newspaper printed to disseminate and distribute information to a wide public. "Bulletin" directly references this first reporting effort, these first public attempts at sharing data and information, as well as the influential role this marker of time has had on the political struggles of the country. It is also quickly followed by the public execution of Báb in July 1850, by the order of Prime Minister Amir Kabir; thus begins the story of over a century of dissent in Iran.

RS: How did you start this work? 

TH: In a way, the project began in 2005 as part of a collaborative residency project Cross Connections, at Center for Art and Public Life at California College of the Arts (CCA) with Dr. Persis Karim (San Jose State University). We invited an intergenerational group of Iranian-American artists and writers in the Bay Area to engage with the histories that connect us. Collectively we created a timeline around the galleries at Intersection for the Arts followed by an exhibition at Oliver Arts Center at CCA, that marked the walls with newspaper headlines, intercepted by responses by the artists to years of their choosing, with poetry, prose, visual and performance art. During the residency conversations sparked, performances and public dialogues were organized, and collaborations developed that have continued to this day and have manifested in several exhibitions, and further research and collaborations. Most recently, I've been organizing conversations in smaller gatherings, collecting narratives using Bulletin as the primary source, to engage with people of different generations and cultural heritage. I have become most interested in these intimate dialogues that infuse larger historical flashpoints with direct personal experiences.

RS: Work on the archive began in earnest in 2005. Did someone draw your attention to it at CCA?

TH: I had collected personal photographs and narratives for the project Hall of Reflections since 2001, and felt the need to give these personal stories historical context. In 2006, as part of the Cross Connections project at CCA, we invited the Iranian communities to share their archives of the past fifty years, ever since the first immigrants from Iran arrived in the Bay Area. Among the many community archives that the project received and documented, we located a basement of books and publications that belonged to a community library operated for a few years in Berkeley, California, following the revolution, which included large portions of archives that belonged to the library of Iranian Students Association of Northern California. After arranging to bring a number of the many boxes filled with books and publications into the galleries, we began organizing and digitizing the materials during the residency at Oliver Arts Center in 2006. The process itself became a performance. The importance of the archives, and the need for placing it in a public institution became evident in the process. The organizing efforts had to wait till 2008 when I was able to arrange another collective one-month residency at The Lab dedicated to organizing the archives, and inviting the community of artists and activists for engagement with the materials in stories or art projects. We brought in the many hundreds of boxes filled with books, newspapers and publications for sorting and organized the materials into a detailed and orderly list towards an eventual acquirement by the Library of Congress (LoC) in 2009, and later Stanford's Hoover Institution.

RS: It sounds like the institutional framework, the LoC and the Hoover Institution, was important to you particularly as they agreed to care for the materials.

TH: That was critically important to me, yes. The public collection allows accessibility of the materials to any and all who are curious to know more. Several theses and a doctoral dissertation have used the material for research so far and hopefully there will be many more.

RS: Bulletin was released amidst an historic nuclear arms containment deal that may enable warmer political and economic relations between Iran and the west. What are your thoughts on that? 

TH: When I started the research, it was about offering an alternative narrative of a nation that has been represented negatively in the media for nearly four decades. The need for better understanding between the two nations has never been more important than now as we redefine our relationship, and normalizing how Iranians are perceived--something other than radicalized zealots--is important. 

RS: I was thinking about the word "bulletin" and how it can be interpreted. It's a fascinating choice on your part to use it, because it suggests bulleted points of information, which is certainly evident in the publication. Also, "bulletin" can be an official report, an internal institutional product against which people fight. Does that factor into your thinking and production of this publication, perhaps resisting official explanations of these historical moments? It's a radical approach, because you're coopting the institutional format and subverting it in a most creative way.

TH: Exactly. The title has many layers of meaning, and everything you mentioned has come into its form and the formation of its presentation. The bullet marks are both the data points and a visualization of the physical traces of an entire traumatic chapter. Bulletin is also directly lifting  the title of one of the many publications by ISA, Bulletin, sometimes Defense Bulletin, or News Bulletin. In fact the Persian logo used in the new publication belongs to one of the ISA's publications in the archives.

One of the most unexpected challenges was attempting to use an unbiased and unified language for relaying the data collected, void of the leanings that virtually all publications in our research reinforced. Intriguing also were the shifts in the official accounts of each event depending on which organization, news agency, or country was doing the reporting, and how those were further undercut or contradicted by personal accounts of the same historic events. It was also quite a challenge to utilize a descriptive yet economic language, to fit within the bullet format, specially in reference to significant parallel historic events; condensing world-altering events such as the Holocaust, or the Chinese Cultural Revolution, into single sentences. I did not intend to be reductive of these monumental moments, of course, but rather to highlight them as signposts or historical mile markers indicating resistance. 

RS: Let's talk about the aesthetic choices you made in preparing the publication. Font styles vary, as do the size and emphasis of certain words in the text. What motivated your choices?

TH: We had to set certain ground rules for placing the collected data in a hierarchy. There are over twelve different bullet colors that begin each line of information. All the nouns are bolded, as are proper names. Fonts and bullet sizes vary depending on the perceived importance of the data. I struggled over each decision, from choosing the right shade of red for the different socialist groups, to variation of green for an Islamic organization. Ultimately these decisions unavoidably became based on my own biases.

RS: It's a very satisfying reading experience; to catch onto an event and then flip to the back page to reference the legend so as to understand why a person or an event was highlighted with certain colors or bolded text. 

TH: I am glad to hear that. These were extremely time-consuming details pertaining to data, but I loved the opportunity to think about how these people and events would be visualized in a text format. 

RS: The publication is replete with images. Could you talk about how the images or image spreads work within the text? Are the images meant to illustrate specific data points, or are they independent of the text?

TH: I have used the most iconic images in reference to the main narratives unfolding in each page. Most of the images were drawn from the ToS archives, as well as other public archives, especially beyond mid-1980s. I was drawn to using images that were repeated by various organizations across ideologies, as well as materials unique to the archives, such as images of demonstrations against the shah in various countries around the world. In one page one of the only images of an execution is published followed by an image that captures a dramatic performance by ISA members reenacting the photograph as part of a public anti-Shah rally in Washington, DC.

RS: Moving into the publication, we see so much twentieth-century world history is condensed into short, powerful descriptive sentences that make up the timeline and, as you said, images that visualize select data points. Is there an organizational scheme that it follows?

TH: The first thing that you notice is that although time moves in a progression, it is represented in relevance to its importance to the movements of dissent at the core of the publication. Over four hundred year Qajar dynasty quickly ends in the first two pages. The publication begins with two images on the first page both in reference to the 1891-92 Tobacco Revolt, a Shi'a cleric-led protest against the Tobacco Concessions of 1890 in which Nasir-al Din Shah granted Great Britain full monopoly over the production, sale, and export of tobacco for fifty years. The women in the Qajar court joined the revolt, following the fatwa of a leading cleric against the use of tobacco, thus pressuring the Shah to eventually cancel the contract.

It follows with an image from Constitutional Revolution (1905-22), leading to British-backed Reza Pahlavi's taking of the throne in 1925 and his forced dethroning by the Allies in 1944 on the bottom of the third page. On page four, Mohammad Mosaddegh is Time Magazine’s 1952 Man of the Year, while page five becomes the battleground for pro and anti-Shah groups, some of which were paid by the CIA. Mosaddegh is deposed for his role in nationalizing Iranian oil, and Mohammad Reza Shah becomes the U.S. backed ruler of Iran. Many are killed during students demonstrating Nixon's first visit to Iran in December 1953, which leads to the formation of several student organizations in and outside of Iran, very much influenced by other freedom movements of their era across the globe. Iranian Student Confederation begins its formal anti-Shah activities in Europe in 1960, and the U.S. chapter follows it in 1962.

The next few pages represent the photo campaign for the White Revolution, but also images of revolt against his exiling Khomeini (Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Mūsavi Khomeini), reflecting how people on the political left and right were responding to the events as they unfolded. Pages eight through eighteen are focused on the buildup of revolt against the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah, leading to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Within these pages, you also witness wars and revolutions, assassinations and espionage, and a continuous rise of the people against injustice. The publication ends with most detail of recent events, revolutions, uprisings and conflicts, devoting the last page to 2015 and ending with the 20 July UN approval of lifting Iranian sanctions. It is my intention to continue to update the timeline in future publications.

RS: How does living with subject matter that is so traumatic affect you personally and professionally? Is it cathartic? Has that come up in conversation with younger artists?

TH: Definitely. The relationship of each artist varies depending on their different entry points into these common histories. I think that's one of the reasons it's taken me this long to complete the project. I have to, need to take breaks away from this particular focus on the darker side of history. I do other work and return to it as the project demands. The research always evolves as does what we know as history and fact. This recent release of secret documents by the CIA changes the history of the revolution completely, and alters it to reflect a more direct US role in the negotiation and the ultimate overthrow of the Shah's regime.

RS: What do you see as the potential of an archive?

TH: Well, it's important for me to consider the relationship between history and archive. As Boris Groys notes, "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" as well. I see the potential of an archive as an endless source of knowledge, a keeper of time, and depository of ideas and reflections. My hope for this particular project is that some of the archives will find their way to an interactive database that can hold and reflect the ongoing and changing historical data and personal reflections, a constantly changing narrative that continuously redefines the past, present, and future.

Taraneh Hemami’s writing may be accessed in San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s online magazine Open Space. Her project, Hall of Reflections, was recently on view at Tehran’s Ag Galerie. Bulletin will be on view at San Francisco State University as part of the exhibition Mashrabiya in February 2017.


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