Naft: an Unctuous Relationship
THE REAL WORLD OF HALLUCINATORY POLITICS
To Erase the Image Is to Metabolize It
The Return of the Erased Master
On Translating Acorus Calamus
On the Part of Mossadegh
THE REAL WORLD OF HALLUCINATORY POLITICS
[Dialogue from IRAN/USA and other nonorientable surfaces (2017).]
To Erase the Image Is to Metabolize It
[Dialogue from IRAN/USA and other nonorientable surfaces (2017). Interview by Targol Mesbah.]
Targol Mesbah: You have described Erased Mossadegh as a “subtractive commemoration.” How does this notion describe your piece?
Peter Freund: Right, the first level of subtraction simply refers to the historical record.The second points to its imaginary stake. But there’s a third. I’m interested in a triangulation that implicates the “Iranian cultural imaginary” not as a focus in itself (although the piece doesn’t exclude that perspective) but as a fantasmatic reference point for the U.S. Left. We often indirectly valorize U.S. imperialist power when stressing the fact that its most brilliant and dedicated opponents (Mossadegh among them) were ultimately crushed under its apparatus.
As you know, my script is sewn together out of fragments from three inconsistent accounts of the 1953 coup – from the Shah’s memoirs, the retroactively-constructed CIA planning documents (DonaldWilber), and an anti-imperialist harangue (Noam Chomsky).The script is then “falsely” planted in the mouth of an actor, Nasser Rahmaninejad, play- ing the part of Premier Mossadegh. Erased Mossadegh is meant to present a particular kind of false testimony that “erases” in the spirit of the artwork to which its title obliquely refers: Robert Rauschenberg’s 1953 Erased de Kooning. I don’t mean to vandalize the figure of Mohammed Mossadegh but to trace a specific (empty) space underlying his image. The first question is: Whose image of Mossadegh?
TM: Right, your piece is in no way disparaging towards Mossadegh. There is rather a certain whimsical approach and the various texts I think are one aspect of this playfulness.Visually, the piece has a comic book aesthetic. There is a spirited tension between the historical weight of this figure, the various desires for the image of Mossadegh and the impossibility of recuperating him as an object of desire. I think this is a productive impossibility for the way it opens up all kinds of questions about “whose image of Mossadegh.”The temporal coincidence of the coup and Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning also plays with historical facticity (1953) and a more contingent sense of history.Would you say it might also signal a relation between historical memory and histories of the image?
PF: You’re very much catching my intended drift. Contingency, as the rule of the present moment, dictates that what-is depends less on what you did than on what you do next.The present therefore comes before the past.The present faces the past as its precedent but it also has to reconstruct the past in its own image.When you remember something, and you think it’s important, what’s at stake in remembering, in “going back”? What is at stake in remembering Mohammed Mossadegh, a brilliant and passionate leader, in our present context?
Now, the Erased de Kooning, as you know, was a project in which the artist Robert Rauschenberg got ahold of a canvas of Willem de Kooning, the reigning master of the New York art scene at the time, and then took a month painstakingly erasing the pencil, oil paint, and crayon until the white surface underneath emerged. Much can be said about this poetic gesture, but the piece is based on a particular reversion to the past. Beyond the ridiculous amount of labor it took, and the scandalous joke against capital within the art market, the basic point of the gesture is that you can’t just go back. Something else emerges when you go back. When you go all the way back to the very beginning, to a zero degree, an image of emptiness emerges that is full of associations. The image of the past must be taken as a hole in the present.To arrive at the beginning, at the present moment, you have to risk removing the image in front of you. Such is the task of art. True memory, or the memory of truth, depends less on recall and finding the right narrative to explain it than on ingesting, metabolizing, and ultimately eliminating the image of the past by a creative process. What remains of the image is what lives within you in the present.
TM: A nuanced occupation with historical memory comes through strongly across your various pieces. Moving from this sense of temporality to its spatial expression in Erased Mossadegh, can you situate your use of color in this piece?
PF: The space of Erased Mossadegh initially appears subdivided horizontally from left to right. At the end of the piece, one discovers that the linearity of the space is curved and that the overarching space is ultimately a loop. Each space is identified with a cited text (following discursive rules) and a color.The left space is green, in which Mossadegh excerpts from the Shah’s memoirs. The middle space is yellow, in which Mossadegh excerpts from the CIA documents. And the right space is red, in which Mossadegh excerpts from a Noam Chomsky anti-imperialist diatribe.The order of spaces is deliberately flipped based on the standard political left/right orientation.
I lifted the color palette partly from the color symbology of Bahram Beyzaie’s Four Boxes (the “Danger!” that punctuates the piece is also Beyzaie), for loose associations with the military, religious, and political (Tudeh) interests. However, the black from Four Boxes, which in Beyzaie signals “the people” is in Erased Mossadegh converted to white, the abstracted background of the scene.The second color reference is to the Iranian flag, which you see in the ice cream at the end of Erased Mossadegh. This vertical stacking of flavors approximates a 90-degree turn of the horizontal configuration of colors in the three spaces.
TM: One of the things that strikes me is the semiotic precision with which you approach the crafting of your images (and texts) and yet the piece seems to transform that very precision into a space of undecidability. Can you speak to your process in working with such specific aesthetic and historical references?
PF: “Semiotic precision,” that’s a daunting phrase, especially when paired with undecidability! [Laughter] But that really is the entry point for some humor in my art. I’m interested in how to specify an idea to the precise extent that it is incomprehensible, that is, how to register the blindspot of a specific imaginary. One must try to be precise and specify its gaps and elisions. But how can I give a lucid explanation that doesn’t merely require the servitude of the image? What you’re calling semiotic precision refers to a decisively impotent gesture in my work. Not as you might find in satire, but I’m trying to turn the semiotic or interpretive armature on the background, where something marginal and unstable is functioning.You probably find this gesture more emphatic in The End of an Error and Acorus Calamus. But this is not the semiotics of metalanguage.
The materialist impulse in experimental film history shares with semiotics this utopian vision of stepping outside the hegemonic system, not perhaps through a directly analytic gesture but through self-referentiality. It’s as if Galileo were to show the instruments to the Inquisitors. It doesn’t work like that.This is the problem of the university discourse: enlightenment through explanations. But you can’t step outside.You can only trip and fall and then try to stand from that exact outside position! The misstep, or faux pas, I believe, where something is risked, is the only hope of glimpsing alterity. There’s a moment of explanation, for ex- ample, the moment of theory or criticism that endeavors to mobilize art to change the coordinates of the symbolic order, yes, but the prevailing academic notion that we need to explain and become clear about how we are all mediated by images and words – by “discourse” or “media” – hits a dead end, and not a very productive dead end at that.
The historical references to the 1953 U.S.-sponsored coup in Iran and 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings strike me as key turning points that resonate with the time in which we live today. Even before the election of U.S. PresidentTrump, the coinciding events of the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran and the ostensible end of the domestic Red Scare in the U.S. have deserved reimagining, separately and together.
TM: I’m interested in how you might see such re-imaginings as collective endeavors. The recent “Open Letter by Iranian Dissidents to President-Elect DonaldTrump,” to me a deeply troubling text, performs its own manufactured consent as the voice of dissent against the Islamic Republic of Iran in appealing toTrump to support democracy by breaking from the nuclear deal and by increasing sanctions. Given that the political in your work doesn’t turn on an instrumental notion of politics, it seems to me that dissent might be figured differently. Is that something you’d like to speak to?
PF: That’s a great question. You know as well as I that every statement claiming to represent denies the multiplicity that underlies it. Such a letter is disturbing and seems to foreshadow the emerging policy. Yet that letter points up the basic problem of language and, if you will, its essentially symptomatic character. The question of the collective act should give attention to its unifying gesture and the fantasy that mediates it. Obviously it’s not a simple thing. Typically, the simpler thing for the collective is to articulate a unified stance, and that’s important. But that shouldn’t be the end of it.
In the cultural sphere, the idea of a book or an exhibition has the virtue – or should I say the potential – of assemblage. It means a basic position can be asserted, even elaborated, while an underlying difference or dissent can express, embody, inflect that unity.We create something together but ultimately don’t agree about what it is. We even make the same statement but it means something totally different. How can difference be an expression of alliance? This is the very opposite of “debate,” which domesticates difference, reducing it to a competition.
What also follows from this perspective is a proposed strategy to overtake the enemy’s positions precisely as one’s own and to articulate them and advocate for them as fully as possible through the multiplicity they ostensibly negate.The public discourse today is so thoroughly polarized and the liberal response so ineffectual that this strategy of turning the language against itself may be the only real leverage for radical change.
TM: Yes, difference as an expression of alliance remains a crucial question. And going back to Erased Mossadegh, we can see multiplicity operating at various registers in relation to historical memory, which is doing something more than presenting a play of differences. I’m interested in how your work offers an opening at the limits of representation, or the point of incomprehensibility as you suggest. Yet the limits of representation also involve historical processes, of what at a particular moment in history is not only acceptable, but sayable, visible, intelligible.
PF: Exactly, there’s the structural aspect of the limit and then the historical inflection of the limit – what can be expressed and known, when, how, where, to what ends, and so forth.You can’t have one without the other.The structural aspect comes with the territory of representation. The historical aspect has to do with institutions, including their internal contradictions, their ideological registers, and the resistances from within and without that risk revealing those contradictions. And so of course even incomprehensibility has its own historical limits – for example, within contemporary art practices. But you’re right, what I’m after is not just “a play of differences” as if it’s a question of relative perspective. It’s not a matter of “choosing your own (political) adventure,” or “Let’s all come up with our own (more radical) interpretations.” An old Berkeley (California) friend of mine used to joke that if the Berkeley High School students have learned anything at all at the point of graduation it’s that Columbus did not discover America.
It’s crucial to me to keep in mind that art is not an escape from the symbolic, semiotic, or representation. Art doesn’t bypass representation but passes through it. Art isn’t essentially about creating images at all but about intervening in or – to use the well-worn and somewhat misleading vocabulary – recontextualizing the image. But this “image” isn’t necessarily the material image, that is, the one I can find on my computer or on a billboard or in a publication.The “image” is the floating daydream or fantasy that makes possible the quotidian fact.
TM: This brings me to a related point about how you approach the work of translation in Erased Mossadegh. Do you think about the process of “metabolizing” you mention earlier as a practice of translation?
PF: In terms of an artistic process, the “metabolizing the image” typi- cally entails researching, sampling, and studying concrete images; it’s always at the level of the concrete that something unexpected emerges. The aim again is to pass through the representation to something else, some missed potential within the image’s own internal incoherence. The points I am looking for are the points where I can begin to take hold of the daydream or fantasy (in the psychoanalytic sense) that informs and inserts me at the limit of the picture, the text, the sound, and so on. The creative process then aims to construct the context in which the fragility of the fantasy not only begins to show itself within the image but can, more importantly, express something unexpected and, who knows, maybe even inspiring. This production is less a matter of understanding or awareness than realization. Maybe we need here to inject a little nuance from the French réalization, which has the implication of making.
If I’m following your thread, the process isn’t exactly the reduced sense of translation, of finding direct, point-to-point equivalents between a foreign and a mother tongue. But it is a translation in the sense that one finds a lack of correspondence and begins to create an analogy out of that failure to correspond. The act of translation means constructing within one’s own language an analogous function rather than an equivalent content. In relation to historical memory, this means approaching the alterity of the past at the level of a failure to correspond, not only be- tween the past and the present but also, and perhaps more importantly, within the image of each.When people on the Left talk about President Trump as a fascist or even proto-fascist, that is, from an image of the past, we should probably be a bit careful, as the philosopher Slavoj Zizek warns, not to give permission to our own intellectual laziness.