From Iran to the U.S. and Back 

A Dialogue with Sazmanab Audience

On August 28, 2015, Sohrab Kashani, director of the Sazmanab Center for Contemporary Art (Tehran, Iran), organized a Skype dialogue between an Iranian audience and Peter Freund coinciding with the solo exhibition of Freund’s work, IRAN|USA. What follows is an excerpt of that conversation.

Speaker 1: Given your subject matter, I really appreciate the artistic humor in your work. Can you talk about the humor?

Peter Freund: The humor ultimately folds into a question of pleasure. Whether it likes it or not, the serious side of documentary always meets the politics of enjoyment. For example, my piece on the end of McCarthyism, The End of an Error, reworks archival footage of these sinister historical figures so that they move and wiggle like puppets, when they were actually the puppeteers holding the political strings and making others do much more than wiggle. For many, myself included, the bizarre appearance and reversal of logic offer some humor.

Speaker 1: Right, but I think there’s something more going on there.

PF: Yes, at another level, I’m trying to point to a layer of unconscious pleasure in historical memory. How do we – and it’s a big question who the “we” is – but how do we enjoy remembering the end of a dark period in U.S. history? The enjoyment implies a specific orientation toward the present and the future.The end of anticommunism was obviously not a change in essential political orientation but a reorganization of that orientation. One enjoys remembering because it at some level reassures.

Speaker 2: Yes, you have the pleasure that the past is past and the enjoyment that you don’t have to worry about those things now.Who is being reassured and how does this reassuring pleasure work?

PF: Right, the general Iranian public wasn’t particularly reassured. (Group laughter.) The pleasure applies to a particular sensibility in the U.S. that enjoys remembering the victory over McCarthyism as a triumph of liberal values. This liberal sensibility enjoys the sufficiency of the victory while taking for granted the premises from which a new future was already proceeding.The slow demise of the internal Red Menace in the U.S., which culminated in these 1954 televised hearings, dovetailed with the U.S. claim that Mossadegh was a communist (or at least under the sway of the Tudeh Party) and therefore needed to be removed from power in 1953. To cut it short, this liberal agenda in the U.S. was deeply invested in the imperialist project.

Speaker 3: I am wondering why you chose Mossadegh? I mean, Iran’s history has so many critical characters, both positive and negative, but of course Mossadegh has a really important role in Iran’s history. So why was he so interesting for you?

PF: Mossadegh, as you may know, is also an important figure for the political Left in the United States, to the extent that there is a political Left left in the U.S. (Group laughter.) Mossadegh is admired because he had the intelligence, stature, perseverance and guts to stand up to the imperialist powers (the U.S. and the U.K.) by nationalizing Iranian oil, which was of course a bedrock resource for the post-war development of U.S. power. Mossadegh is admired as an anti-imperialist who successfully (at least for a time) countered the hegemony of the U.S. My interest partly comes from my own admiration, which only increased when I read his memoirs in preparation for the project, and my interest comes partly from questions I have about how his image functions for the U.S. Left.

Mossadegh was not fulfilling some campaign promises he concocted in the hopes of getting elected. His story is radically different. It spans many years of working tirelessly and ingeniously on the oil question. But Mossadegh is remembered by too many Leftists (or Leftist sympathiz- ers) in the U.S. as a valiant victim of imperialism. The memory of the 1953 coup is not trivial by any means. Obviously if you want to under- stand anything about recent history in Iran, the Middle East, or the U.S. for that matter, you need to make reference to the coup. But the danger is to emphasize the coup at the expense of this lost cause – with all its instructive, puzzling, and inspiring machinations – in which Mossadegh was the key figure.

Speaker 4: Aside from his important role in politics, he was also so in- teresting dramatically. I mean, the choices he made in life, the passion- ate way he used to express himself publicly, not to mention the fact that he was always in his bed – it felt so dramatic.

PF: I absolutely agree. From what I’ve seen and read, he was an utterly singular person, in the way he thought, wrote, spoke, and dared to act. Right, he strikes me as an artist in a certain way. His ongoing physical collapse combined with his daring, the fact that he worked from bed, I think it’s all just extremely compelling and inspiring.

Speaker 4: Yes!

Sohrab Kashani (Sazmanab Director): I’m curious to know how you collaborated with Nasser Rahmaninejad, given his portrayal of Mossadegh in the past and his extensive work in theatre and politics.

PF: First of all, I’m really sorry it didn’t work out for Nasser to be here to speak with us.Yes, as others may or may not know, in the last several years, there was a theatrical production of an historical play, called Mossadegh, by Reza Allamehzadeh, which toured the U.S. and Europe. Nasser Rahmaninejad performed the lead role of Mohammad Mossadegh. The play presented a dramatic tribute to the ousted Prime Minister and to his contributions to history, focusing on Mossadegh’s prime ministry, his brilliant testimony before the International Court at the Hague, and the coup. I attended the play and couldn’t grasp it, except for the rousing reception, until the subtitled video documentation later came out. Nasser’s experience with the role partly led me to the project of Erased Mossadegh. But of course my approach was going to be very different.

In Iran, Rahmaninejad was a theatre director for many years and was arrested by the SAVAK under the Shah for his work in the theatre and imprisoned until the revolution at which point he managed to get out of the country, ended up in Paris and eventually landed in the U.S. where he now resides. Nasser continues to be very active in theatre and politics, as a writer, actor, and activist.

I met Rahmaninejad about ten years ago in Berkeley – a mutual friend introduced us initially – and almost immediately I wanted to do projects with him. He’s a very humble, kind, generous person with a solid ethi- cal backbone drawn from a life committed to art and politics. As an actor, he has a fabulous vaudevillian physical sense and a voice that combines strength and tenderness. When I met him, he reminded me of a Iranian Charlie Chaplin! He’s very serious about politics but also somebody who is very much up for an adventure. I’m really very lucky that Nasser has agreed to work with me as an actor and translator on several projects now, including the three video pieces presented here at Sazmanab.

Speaker 3: I want to ask about the making of Erased Mossadegh. Do you believe you can make video art about something so political without taking sides in a political issue?

Speaker 1: Are you saying like the way documentaries should be?

Speaker 4: I think he’s doing exactly the same thing as a documentarian.

Speaker 1: Yeah, but even in a documentary it’s impossible to be apolitical. It’s impossible in every form of creation because from the be- ginning you’re taking sides in the way you pick a subject or some phrase.

Speaker 3: In the selection?

Speaker 1: Yeah, you are obligated to take sides.

Speaker 3: But are you ever successful?

Speaker 1: Peter, he’s wondering if you are successfully able to take no sides in your work. It seems you are trying to be neutral about political issues, so he wants to know if you are taking sides or if you are trying to avoid that.

PF: I’m not trying to be neutral at all. I think any sort of artwork presents a position but it’s not a position wedged within the public’s existing framework. The whole point of doing an art piece is to try to open up something a little bit different that reshapes the framework itself. So, yes, I’m trying to do something political, of course, because it’s political subject matter. But my artistic aim is not necessarily to take a side within the established bounds of public debate. I’m doing something political by trying to open up the gaps, cracks and other perspectives within the subject and the framework that gives it its political charge. This is hard to accomplish. I’ve found that in presenting work that draws on archival materials and has such charged political content, it can be difficult for an audience not to simply reduce the work to documentary. But if you look at what I’m doing, it’s clearly not documentary; rather it’s something peculiar, and if it is art, it’s these peculiarities that are the focal point.

Speaker 5: By showing your work to such diverse audiences in different cultures and venues, the reactions you get, how does that make you – I can’t say feel – but what does that do to you? Your subjects are very unusual. They are not that popular. I know you stretch things and you present things to people who really have to pay attention and think and re-think. So, what reactions do you get to your work and how do they impact you as an artist?

PF: It’s hard to answer that in a very general way, but presenting the work is always kind of terrifying because I don’t know what people are going to do with the pieces. And some of the subjects, obviously, are pretty politically electric. But the unpredictability of the experience is partly what really interests and inspires me. The very fact that the work is unsettling, I think, opens up an opportunity for the audience to interpret, to intervene. So for me it’s inspiring to present work and hear what people have to say about it – even if they disagree with my methods.


The return of the erased master




[Dialogue from IRAN/USA + other nonorientable surfaces (2017).]

Hossein Khosrowjah: One may say that in Erased Mossadegh erasure is not a simple act of removal but an obsessive repetition of ritualistic acts of purging. Wouldn’t erasure, as presented in your film, point to some sort of unresolved internal conflict?

Peter Freund: Right.The piece opens with Mohammed Mossadegh, played by Nasser Rahmaninejad, urgently cleaning the white floor.The Ajax cleanser and TP he uses make an admittedly off-color reference to the CIA coup1 but also a friendly wink to Sazmanab, the Tehran art space where the piece premiered. After scrubbing, Mossadegh lifts and sets up the camera from the floor, then walks over to sit down at his writing desk. But before he can get settled in his seat, he gets up for more cleaning. The idea of purging, in both its psychological and political associations, nicely captures what I was after.

In making Erased Mossadegh, I was thinking about erasure as a necessarily failed act that has to be repeated. The purger never gets it right. Anorexia, censorship, scapegoating, and mass incarcerations all show the purge as an intrinsically impossible task.The zero point is never reached only because the purging must always traverse that point.The attempt to remove an offending element ends up producing something else that instigates more purging. Structurally, there’s something at stake in purging that is unaccounted for. Sure, the repetition springs from an “internal conflict” but one that refers to an external authority. In a sense, the conflict belongs to this external agency.

HK: The thing that is produced, that excess, may be exactly what is intended to be purged. In trying to purge erotic scenes from Hays-Era Hollywood cinema or post-revolutionary Iranian cinema, ambiguities and absences are eroticized. There is a willingness and a desire on the part of the spectators to see or to substitute in the places where the purge is supposed to have taken place exactly what is purged. But I have always thought that this will eventually develop a codification system between the producer and the reader. In a way, the reader will become a producer of meaning if he or she compensates for the narrative and psychological gaps. At the same time, this is a totally unpredictable process.This is a well-known cultural dynamism in Iran. Almost every piece of classic poetry, every film or novel is read in this light. Even when the work is not produced under restrictive conditions, the specter of allegory casts a long shadow over everything. How familiar are/were you with the history of censorship or religious/cultural proscriptions in Iran?

PF: Not very. I had only my own encounter with a proscription against “works of a poetical nature.” An early version of Acorus Calamus was awarded this dubious distinction under a government edict, which resulted in the cancellation of a plannedTehran screening in 2009. I know a few things about censorship in Iran from talking to Nasser Rahmaninejad about his arrests and also from a few comments Abbas Kiarostami (director) once made in an interview. But of a more general history of proscriptions in Iran, I know next to nothing.

But I can relate to the dynamic you’re describing. The unwritten rules created to bypass and ultimately exploit the censor (however that’s conceived) can produce terrific subcultural moments. The situation of course goes beyond simply creating a legibility of the invisible.The sub- cultural gesture is more than imagining, decoding, or “sub-coding” what was censored. How the negation functions is quite unpredictable, as you note, precisely because the reversal is contingent. A returned wink from the audience definitely asserts something, it can create an anti- language and a détournement that can subvert the power of the censor by building an exquisite conspiracy between audience and filmmaker. The invisibility can itself become a preferred mode of expression. I think that’s partly what you’re talking about with the Hays Era code.The thing works in the same way that indirection is more seductive than straight, flat-footed proposition.

But these reversals can be quite unstable, as you know. The “sub-coded” gesture can end up affirming the censor’s power by granting to the spectator a space for sanctioned transgression.4 We see this in the universities now with the struggle for “safe spaces.” People may get to say the unsafe thing, which is not trivial, but how does this transgression ultimately function? At the official level, permissiveness as the lib- eral alternative to censorship can produce what my parents’ generation used to call “repressive tolerance.” One could well say, from the stand- point of power, the triumph of the free speech movement in the U.S. was to grant the right to be eloquently ignored: “Please say whatever the hell you want because you can rest assured that nobody’s listening.” It is no wonder that the free speech movement launched a counter-culture of the hysteric. But the point is that you can’t fully settle the function of censorship in the abstract. Every erasure produces something else, a surplus, as you put it.

HK: How does the erasure figure into the aims of your work?

PF: In Erased Mossadegh, Mossadegh the character utters not a single word of his namesake. Instead, he delivers a kind of false testimony.The double absurdity of the piece is that Mossadegh says nothing except what others have said, enemies and allies alike. From start to finish he is censored by the voices of his enemies (the Shah and the CIA) and then the voice of his allies (the U.S. Left), whose exact words are put in the ousted premier’s mouth.The question my piece asks revolves around the void produced by this erasure.

The erasure works at two levels. First, it is meant to point a skeptical fin- ger at the revisionist accounts that have silenced Mossadegh and to the tradition of false and forced confessions. In researching for the project, I read the memoirs of the Shah and Mossadegh and the relevant CIA documents on the coup. Mossadegh’s text is written largely as an ex- tended legal and ethical argument.The accounts advanced by the Shah and the CIA are quite different in that they are written as if free from the burden of defense; they claim to clarify, record, and inform. But in the claims of neutral recollection one is struck by the degree of superfluous self-justification.The official historical record would have it that the Shah and the CIA prevailed over Mossadegh. Why did the Shah feel so compelled in his memoir to massage the little details about who in the end suggested that he leave the country during the upheavals (whether it was he himself or Mossadegh), under what circumstances (openly or incognito), by what means of transportation (by air or ground) and for what purposes (to let Mossadegh try out his failed policies, to get relief from Mossadegh’s “intrigues,” or to lull the Prime Minister into a delusion of success) and so forth.Why did the Shah, who had by all accounts prevailed over Mossadegh, need to describe the ousted prime minister’s forced exile as a happy retirement to his country estate? Out of what internal conflict, as you say, but also in reference to what ex- ternal authority did he write that he had forgiven Mossadegh for all the wrongs he’d to done the Shah?The Shah massages the account in his memoir with a very fine tipped eraser that cannot hide the precarious self-serving gesture of the master.

HK: Evasions? Could this in fact be a displacement for the subjects that he needed to address? In fact, the evasions seem to make the account a much more fun account than a straightforward rationalization. Maybe a zero point is never achieved, or as you put it, something else is produced because the obsessive act of cleaning/purging is in fact a displacement of something else, a displaced impulse? Maybe that is the origin of the internal conflict. It seems to me that Erased Mossadegh very subtly portrays this displacement or substitution on the audio track when the contrapuntal narration of the Shah’s memoirs is juxtaposed with Mossadegh’s visual presence.

PF: It’s hard to tell (at least for me) if the fun was shared by the Shah! Yet you’re right, the account feels like an Abbott and Costello routine, except maybe slowed down.The Shah may have been appealing to specific subjects he had in mind. But I would contend that in the end these subjects occupy an abstract empty position to which the Shah had no direct access. The dynamic at play is what psychoanalysis calls transfer- ence. This is essentially what I meant by the reference to an external authority. Agency figures as a central problem in memory itself. For whose pleasure is something remembered? The account of the Shah as master reveals that the master is always castrated.

HK: So how does the voice of authority in a piece like Erased Mossadegh lose its agency? Does it leave any residual if it is erased?

PF: I’m not saying that the agency is lost. It’s displaced, as you say. A structural void – the empty position of a transference – presents a residual that compels the master (here, the Shah) to repeat his statements.The accounts don’t simply resolve. I tried to hint at this problem in Erased Mossadegh. At least when the Shah is cited, each statement is accompanied by an echo of itself. But the echo is actually a repetition, different renditions by the actor of the same statements. Instead of plotting them out serially, I layered them, as if to indicate a multiplicity or non-identity underlying each assertion. After all, in his memoir, everything the Shah had to say was already repeatedly erasing something it didn’t say.

HK: What about the other sources, the CIA and the U.S. Left? Do they smooth out the narrative and fill the gaps or fracture it even more?

PF: The three sources are put into a continuous narrative stream that elides the gaps.The incompatibility between (and even within) each fractures the whole.

The second source in the piece is the ex post facto account written in 1954 by DonaldWilber, the CIA lead organizer of the coup on the ground, who was subsequently hailed by CIA Director Allen Dulles as a hero.The document reads as a blow-by-blow factual report written in a rational, informative tone. It calmly attributes irrational affect to Mossadegh’s motives but claims for itself the simple aim of informing for purposes of memory and instructiveness. As a mask, the neutral gesture is especially curious because the text was written as an internal CIA document. It thus gives the lie to the notion of “intelligence” as a kind of University discourse, to use the Lacanese jargon. (Generally, we used Lacan’s four discourses as a short-hand organizing principle for the project.)

The third source for Erased Mossadegh, which forms a non sequitur with the first two, is not a description of the 1953 coup per se but of the Iranian situation more generally vis à vis U.S. imperialism.The rationalization achieved is that of the hysteric, which remains loyal to 

The points of contact between image and word are in fact the least compelling aspect.The power of the image lies in those very features that exceed the argument.These irrelevant minutiae in the image, as Barthes might have said, “naturalize” the word, but these excessive details also, for me more importantly, open the space for a rhetorically indispensable enjoyment. Fantasy operates precisely in this (unconscious) locale of authority in the image and, if I can risk an outrageous proposition, makes possible the production of the factual. A pleasure principle here regulates the imparted knowledge and thereby keeps these elements within the homeostasis of the image’s economy. My interest was to push these indispensably irrelevant elements to the point of an unmistakably excessive enjoyment.

HK: The fluttering flag in Acorus Calamus raises the question of irony. How do you think irony translates cross-culturally? What was your experience? Were there any mis-readings, if we may use the term?

PF: The only “mis-readings” I’m aware of have been from U.S. natives. Some see the fluttering flag and very simply see Old Glory, for better or worse. Clearly they see the mere symbol without its inflection, not noticing that Acorus presents the other side of the flag. One might think of it as visually flipped but I prefer to see it, and in fact shot it, from the verso side of the standard recto. It’s in the same sense that a mirror image gives the other side. Everything contains an image of itself taken from the other side.

Curiously, flag etiquette prescribes that the U.S. flag be displayed with the star field on the left and the stripes on the right. By design or not, this orientation overlaps with the left-to-right reading direction
in English (in contrast to Farsi or Arabic, for example). On screen, the reading direction of the English subtitles in Acorus runs counter to the direction of the fluttering flag.

Apparently there’s an Army regulation that specifies a condition under which the flag can be reversed.The aim is to ensure that the flag always reinforces the appearance of forward movement. Embroidered on a uniform’s right shoulder, the flag is officially reversed in order to give the appearance that as the soldier moves forward, the stripes follow the movement. The soldier moves with the flow, with the wind behind, never in retreat.The same goes for a flag decal on the right side of a military vehicle.

It may be a commonplace to say that irony is untranslatable. But irony is probably one of the few cross-culturally translatable realities. Not in terms of the cultural references per se (of course those can be opaque) but in terms of the break in an identity principle between act and system, between one’s gesture and one’s culture. One can glimpse the alterity of the other only through such a schism. From the flag to the hors champ narration to its literary translation, Acorus Calamus endeavors to open such a schismatic meeting ground.

HK: The triptych that these works form spans intersecting periods and shared themes, but also leaves many gaps/lacunae in the historical narrative. How intentional or unintentional are inclusions and exclusions?

PF: As you might expect, I make no effort to create a comprehensive context. In fact, “context” for me is the image of a gap in any historical narrative. We need a narrative to give context precisely because every event in it is inherently lacking something at the level of its ontological status.The point is not that the event lacks meaning until a proper historical narrative can give it context. Rather, it’s that the event lacks being until the historical narrative can fail to give it context. It is this lapse – which historiography typically aims to occlude – that interests me. Although history is my theme, I’m not writing or even rewriting history. One rightly feels the overwhelming dearth of historical perspective in what I make. I suppose I’m working more like a hacker trying to get access, even if just for fleeting instants, to a layer of being within the image, the word, and the coupling of the two.


Hossein Khosrowjah is a Senior Adjunct Professor of Visual Studies teaching art history, film studies and critical studies courses at the California College of the Arts. His essays and reviews on a broad range of topics from film to exilic autobiography to the history of American higher education have been published in film, cultural, and area studies journals. His book, The Singular Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, is forthcoming through I.B.Tuaris Press.



To Erase the Image Is to Metabolize It


[Dialogue from IRAN/USA + 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 (Donald Wilber), 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 drawing 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. President Trump, 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.


Targol Mesbah is Assistant Professor in Anthropology & Social Change at the California Institute of Integral Studies where she teaches critical theory and media studies. Her research connects media technologies with technologies of warfare in historical, theoretical and political work that is invested in making visible subjugated experiences and knowledges. She also engages in curatorial work.


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