GELARE KHOSHGOZARAN | TARGOL MESBAH | HOSSEIN KHOSROWJAH | NASSER RAHMANINEJAD | OTHER
NAFT: AN UNCTUOUS RELATIONSHIP
THE REAL WORLD OF HALLUCINATORY POLITICS
FROM IRAN TO THE U.S. AND BACK: A DIALOGUE WITH SAZMANAB AUDIENCE
TO ERASE THE IMAGE IS TO METABOLIZE IT
THE RETURN OF THE ERASED MASTER
ON TRANSLATING ACORUS CALAMUS
ON THE PART OF MOSSADEGH
Above: IRAN|USA, Sazmanab Center for Contemporary Art [Tehran, Iran, 2015]
Naft: an Unctuous Relationship
[Dialogue from IRAN/USA + other nonorientable surfaces (2017). Introduction and interview by Gelare Ghoshgozaran.]
Before the massive reforms following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, there were at least three streets in Tehran named after U.S. presidents: Eisenhower Blvd, Roosevelt Ave, and Kennedy Square. In the early 1980’s, these street’s names were changed to reflect the heroes and values of the Revolution. Eisenhower became Azadi, Persian for freedom. Roosevelt became Mohammad Mofatteh, the theologist and activist who articulated Khomeini’s authorities within the Islamic regime and was assassinated in 1979. Kennedy became Towheed, the indivisible concept of monotheism in Islam.
While Iran used to be a strong ally of the United States, the two countries have had no diplomatic ties since 1980, after Iranian students occupied the U.S. Embassy inTehran. Today, bordered by Iraq andTurkey from the west, Afghanistan and Pakistan from the east, and the U.S. Gulf allies – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman – from the south, Iran is in effect surrounded by multiple U.S. military bases. Although never officially colonized by theWest, Iran’s government and culture have been under the influence of multiple colonizers, most recently the United States, since long before the coup of 1953. It is no secret that the United States and United Kingdom both played pivotal roles in the coup andThe Revolution. The “informal” nature of the United States’ colonization of Iran further complicates the relations between the two nations.
It is against this historical backdrop that I view Peter Freund’s works in his exhibition, IRAN|USA. Each of the three videos is 10 minutes long with Persian voiceover and English subtitles. The End of an Error (2013) and Erased Mossadegh (2015) refer to specific historical events: the 1953 coup in Iran and the 1954 Army–McCarthy Hearings in the United States, respectively.The third video, Acorus Calamus (2012), uses prose to allude to a series of events that span the United States’ history of colonization, genocide, and conquest.
In contrast to the historical specificity of the first two videos, the course of history is summoned in Acorus Calamus through the generic image of the American flag waving in slow motion, transferring the site
of “the event” to the site of memory. While each weaving of the flag is subtly different from the next–-much as each event in the trajectory of the empire is discrete—it is in the slow, repetitive movement of the flag that Peter Freund depicts the empire “in decline.” What histories do we see contemplating the unharried movement of the American flag in the wind? This question is even more relevant today considering that the United States is facing a new rise of fascism. In this way, The End of an Error and Erased Mossadegh inform the viewership of Acorus Calamus by providing two historic references to the imperialist agenda moving steadily across the globe.
Freund’s use of video and visual language, beyond the literary language of the pieces, makes reference to various works of experimental documentary, film, and video, drawing his influences from Abbas Kiarostami, Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, Straub-Huillet, Yvonne Rainer, Harun Farocki, and TrinhT. Minh-ha. Furthermore, I believe that video has been the medium of contested Iran-U.S. relations over the past de- cade.The digital medium circumvents the restrictions of postal mail during sanctions, customs’ checks, and the (im)mobility of both artists and artworks coming from Iran for exhibition in the United States, and vice versa.To learn more about the pieces in the current exhibition, their engagement with the subject of history, and other intricacies of Freund’s work, I sat down with him to discuss these and other aspects of his work.
Gelare Khoshgozaran: The recurring use of Persian in your videos is inevitably the first thing that piques my interest. I think about the different ways the work is experienced by “Iranians” or Persian speakers versus “Americans” or English speakers. Do you believe in this divide? What is it like to experience your own work in a language that you do not speak or are not fluent in?
Peter Freund: No, I don’t believe in a divide between Persian and English but I’m trying to work with it as a poetic conceit. At this level, I’m interested in a politics of viewing in which alterity is partly navigated through the status of words and their relation to images.The divi- sion of languages in these works of course refers most basically to the geopolitical history that, to use a naive term, “links” Iran and the U.S. But once you begin talking about translation, which is itself already a kind of political metaphor, the otherwise ostensibly even-handed dis- tinction between languages takes on a different character. In the form of the moving image – in contrast to, say, the printed word – translation becomes uniquely interesting and problematic.
The moment any film becomes a foreign film, that is, the moment it circulates outside a specific linguistic community, the film becomes a new film. In all three pieces you’ve seen of mine, it’s of course no accident that I chose to make Persian the primary language and English the secondary. The choice stages the English speaker as the implicit audience and point of address. But I should say this is only the virtual audience staged in the work, which is not the same as the actual audience of the work. The viewing act shouldn’t ultimately identify with the staged audience. Quite on the contrary!
In film, the matter of translation is handled either by overdubbing or subtitling.The latter is given ethnographic privilege because it apparently gives greater respect to the original language. At some point, I be- came interested in a curious paradox in the subtitle form.While the sub- title is meant to respect and gloss the original language – as opposed to an overdub, which negates the original – the subtitle translates at the cost of intruding into the visual purity of the image.This has implications for the utopian thrust of the subtitle. But for me this is not a problem to be solved but an opening to a poetic aspect. I’ve always found something beautiful in subtitles and the way they enter the visual and establish a counterpoint rhythm somewhere between voice and image.
Based on this staging of audience, my work implies three distinct “actual” receptions, each with its own question of alterity. To put them a bit stereotypically: one for the Persian-only audience, in which the subtitle becomes a purely visual element, perhaps an intrusion, indicating the relay to an Other (for example, the international dominance of “Hollywood” aesthetics); a second for the English-only audience, in which the Persian is encountered as a cipher or linguistic “noise” that the English tries to gloss but ultimately keep a bay; and a third for a dual language audience, in which the languages both express content but the discrepancy between the two can stand out and perhaps become poetic. Again, I don’t believe this is how it all necessarily goes but the distinctions for me work at the level of artistic conceit. They’re nothing but jumping- off points for viewing.The implied receptions can operate within each piece, and the ultimate point would be to open a discussion among the three implied audiences. That’s one big reason I am so happy to present the work internationally, including in Iran and the U.S. I conceptualized the basic relations between the languages by working closely with the translator for each piece. But obviously my own ignorance of Persian interestingly implicates me in the problematic posed by the work.
GK: Right, the “foreignness” is more pronounced when the film is circulated in an English speaking community. And I remember in Iran, Indian or Asian movies were not considered “foreign,” but everything in English was.That was the case with music too.
I am drawn to your use of Persian in all three works mostly because they vary so much: In The End of an Error, the Persian sounds like a great dub on a documentary film. In Erased Mossadegh, it feels more “natural” for lack of a better word. But it all gets a bit complicated in Acorus Calamus, where the Persian narration is doing something completely different than what the English text is doing. At the same time, the English text appearing as subtitles looks somewhat “secondary” to the Persian narration. Speaking of the “international dominance of Hollywood aesthetics,” this reminded me of a common theme in my experience of “America” in Iran: watching American movies with Persian dub, and later subtitles. There were always huge discrepancies, especially with cultural references that simply never translated. As a translator, I always wonder about the potentials of those parallel narratives and the space between them–one created by the original language of the movie, and another through the translated text: two streams running in different lengths, at different speeds and flows.
PF: Right, the tone of the voice-over in The End of an Error deliberately echoes the standard documentary narration. I wanted to open up this space of voice over narration in two directions.The first was to inter- twine the question of historical memory (the end of the McCarthy Red Scare period in the U.S.) with a question of pleasure.That is, for whose pleasure such knowledge or memory is advanced? In this direction, I split the space of the narrator into a narrator proper and a second voice that commands the telling of the story, ostensibly a director.The director stands in for an enjoyment that regulates the production of knowledge. The second opening was to cut, in a very indirect montage, the end of the U.S. Red Scare (using the 1954 Army McCarthy Hearings footage) against what the U.S. was doing one year earlier half way around the world in Iran.The latter is hinted, but not asserted, by giving the voice roles to Persian. No historian I’m aware of has argued it, but the coincidence provokes the image of a kind of dissolve between two organizing phantasms for the USA, between the fading out of the internal “Red menace” and the emerging menace of the “Middle Eastern terrorist,” which has played and continues to play such a key role in advancing U.S. oil and broader geopolitical interests in the region.The nationalization of Iranian oil was a “proto-terrorist” act against the imperialist interests of the USA (and UK), which the 1953 coup brought to an end.
Yes, the discrepancy (or divergence) between primary and secondary languages you describe is absolutely interesting to me. The End of an Error and Erased Mossadegh don’t really develop this space of divergence much. But you’re right to relate it to Acorus Calamus; the project is built on it.The piece very directly expands and problematizes the assumed reduction that typically happens in translation.
GK: That’s true. I had to dedicate equal time to both languages in that piece. I wasn’t able to follow with occasional glances at the subtitles, while listening to the voice over. Can you tell us about the text in Acorus Calamus more specifically? Rhyme seems to be very important in the English text.
PF: Acorus presents the visual icon of an empire in decline: the American flag flipped and slowing down.The text narrates events beyond (below) the frame, and the story shifts from picnic to parade to riot to rally to orgy to lynching to victory and remorse. So the story is pretty ambiguous! In fact, the basic connection between image and narrative is ambiguous, or to be a little more precise, it’s deliberately problematic. It’s only in the secondary language, in the English, and not in the primary Persian, that a connection is given. In the narration, the Persian word for flag is never uttered. It’s only visible in covert form within the English subtitles – by homonym, rhyme, rhythmical coincidence – in words like conflagration, flagellation, persiflage and so forth, or gag, wag, nag, bag, brag, stag, sag, dag, and so forth.The common name for the acorus calamus plant is “sweet flag.” What ties the narration to the image of the flag is, in fact, only these contingent overlaps in the (English) translation. In this way, the secondary language becomes primary, but obviously in a very strange and indirect way.
Beyond the coincidences, the whole matter of rhyme also relates to an investigation of metricity that I was exploring in prose prosody.That’s a longer conversation, though.
GK: I can’t help but notice gender in these works: the voices, characters, and narrators are all men.Where are the women looking at these histories in your work, especially, if as in The End of an Error, they are told from an imaginary contemporary Iran? I remember a moment in that piece where one of the narrators coughs in response to the other saying “The men are white...and male.” Is this kind of the joke of the piece, or the three pieces?
PF: Yes, the line in The End of an Error, “The men are white...and male,” along with the laughter that follows it, is meant to point at the absence of women and the question of (white) male redundancy. But I might add that even the split of the voice-over space, the focus on visual details that exceed the narrative exposition, and other structural elements in my work already oppose a kind of patriarchal tendency in film.You’re right that these pieces quite simply don’t include female voices as an alternative. But an important reason is that there are no alternative voices at all presented in the IRAN|USA portion of my video work, at least at the level of content. I’m actually not aiming to create a new narrative or history, or at least not in the sense of establishing a position or point of articulation with which to identify. But my work is not devoid of a woman’s narrative or historical footprint. “The House Is Black” is one of five prints in the show which I developed directly out of Forough Farrokhzad’s 1962 film by the same name. I admire the way she handles word and image in her film.You know, it was in 1954 that she moved away from a satirist in order to write poetry! I don’t know the biographical details but it’s an intriguing idea.
GK: Thanks, Peter! I’m glad you brought up that piece because one of the most outstanding things about The House Is Black is the fact that those exact images and words were put out in the world in 1962 by a woman in Iran. The following year the Shah launched his White Revolution (the irony in the name of this campaign is impossible not to notice today!) as his big step toward “Westernization.” But even in The House Is Black there is a gender divide between the parts of the voice over by Forough and the other parts by the male narrator, her lover, Ebrahim Golestan. While she recites her poetry, it is the male voice that provides the facts and statistics about leprosy.
PF: That division I find potentially a little stereotypical. But what inter- ests me there is that the poetic narration, which genders the space of the standard patriarchal voice-over, enables the factual statements to stand and stage the poetic without dominating. My print, named for Farrokhzad’s film, utilizes the entire translated script of the film’s voice-over.The visual surface of the print is based on hacking a photograph of the Shah’s lavish bedroom by entering Farrokhzad’s script into the underlying code of the original image.This hack resulted in an elaborate set of glitch patterns that I then used as the palette to create the final image.
GK: Lastly, how has your last exhibition of the IRAN|USA project at Tehran’s Sazmanab Center informed its current iteration in the United States?
PF: I presented the work in progress at Stanford’s Iranian Studies Program earlier in 2015, where an audience member objected twice to a cited epithet describing the Shah as a “brutal dictator” in Erased Mossadegh. This man, who was probably old enough to have lived during the Shah’s reign, was objecting to the adjective “brutal” but not the noun “dictator.” Then in August 2015 during myTehran exhibit, I had a Skype dialogue with an audience at Sazmanab. Among the various subjects that came up, we talked at some length about ousted Premier Mossadegh as an historical figure – for Iran, for U.S. geo-political interests, and for the U.S. Left. The subject of the Shah didn’t come up; although his words appear in Erased Mossadegh, his image is entirely absent. These absences stuck with me as I thought about them in relation to the earlier comment at Stanford. It motivated me to produce additional work more directly related to this polarizing figure of the Shah. I began developing the ideas for the five Shah prints in my current show.
My hope for the Tehran show was to open some exchanges based on a pretty strictly Iran-U.S. focus in relation to the themes you and I have been discussing. The 2017 exhibit, in contrast, presents itself in the broader frame of “orientalism,” which stands in for urgent questions as we now enter the Trump era.
Gelare Khoshgozaran is an interdisciplinary artist, writer and transla- tor working across the mediums of video, performance, installation and writing. Born and raised inTehran and living in Los Angeles, she envi- sions the city as an imaginary space between asylum as “the protection granted by a nation to someone who has left their native country as a political refugee” and the more dated meaning of the word, “an institu- tion offering shelter and support to people who are mentally ill.” Gelare is the recipient of the 2015 California Community Foundation Fellowship for Visual Artists, the 2015 Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation ArtsWriters Grant, and the 2016 Rema Hort Mann Foundation Emerging Artist Grant. She is the co-founder of contemptorary.org.
THE REAL WORLD OF HALLUCINATORY POLITICS
[Imaginary dialogue from IRAN/USA + other nonorientable surfaces (2017).]
Donald Wilber: You claim to be interested in “historical memory.” But what do you really mean – what is this “historical memory”? After all, history is the time when your relationship with the political body to which you belong marks you as the loss of memory. Simply put, history begins where memory ends.
Peter Freund: Yes, it’s a contradiction in terms to say “historical memory” and for that reason the phrase has, for me, a two-fold utility.The contradiction points to the belated and retroactive effect of memory. As we remember, we are already historicizing by “writing” the history within which the past event we recall has a function for us in the present. The phrase “historical memory” also points in the opposite direction to the ideological feature of history and historiography by which a narrative becomes a collective reflex. History is virtual memory, and memory becomes virtual history.
Donald Wilber: Another problem I have is with your treatment of the Middle East: The main work in IRAN|USA brings together Farsi and English, linguistically and by extension geographically. But what about these other works, Camp and Is Paris Burning?, which point to the Arab world, China, and Cambodia? I read somewhere that you spent some time as a student living in Cairo and much more recently in Asia. So it is out of either an embarrassing ignorance or flippant poor taste that you confuse these different regions and histories?
Peter Freund: You’re referring to the segment of the show under the subheading, “+other nonorientable surfaces.” The connections are indeed specious.This body of work makes no argument of it but the conflation should be taken as a reference to “orientalism,” with all the problematic implications of this exotic conceit.
Teymur Bakhtiar: Even before one gets to this wider frame of reference, the individual works in your exhibit already present terrible conflations. For example, The End of an Error seems to narrate the end of McCarthyism in the U.S. from an Iranian perspective. Why on earth are these political hearings narrated in Farsi?
Peter Freund: I started with a somewhat simple-minded historical coincidence.The Army-McCarthy hearings publicly tested the legitimacy of Senator McCarthy’s smear tactics during the anticommunist hysteria following the SecondWorldWar.The hearings were the first political event of their kind to be televised in the U.S. and as such presented a landmark use of the media that helped shift the public tide against the Red Scare.That was 1954, one year after the U.S. advanced its first CIA-sponsored coup d’état against a foreign nation: the overthrow of the Mossadegh government of Iran.
In The End of an Error, the unexpected coupling of archival image and Farsi narration points an oblique finger toward a shift in political phantasms. The piece de-centers the expected, self-congratulatory narrative on the end of McCarthyism by reporting the demise of the domestic “communist threat” from the fictionalized vantage point of what has since emerged in the American imagination as the “terrorist state.” Simply put, from what position do we remember a triumph in history?
Teymur Bakhtiar: But again why is the piece narrated in Farsi? I tend to agree with Wilber.You want to be careful not to cross over into the Arab world from Iran.
Peter Freund: If there’s any historical corrective implied in the installation, it’s introduced only by free association. The U.S. imagination may associate terrorism more directly with the Arabic language than Farsi. But wasn’t it the 1953 coup of a non-Arab country – Iran – that gave eventual rise to the specter the U.S. now associates with Middle East terrorism?
Forough Farrokhzad: It is important to see that The End of an Error is not simply “narrated in Farsi.” The narration is driven by two Farsi voices that are apparently at odds with one another. The work doesn’t advance the so-called confusions or conflations about which some people seem worried. The split within the space of narration is important because the monolithic “other” is not usually afforded such a distinction. The monolithic portrait refuses the poetic space opened by these contraries. Can you tell us about this distinction in the piece?
Peter Freund: That’s right, the narration is divided between a narrator proper and another for whom the narration is advanced, ostensibly a director. First of all, the split narration hints at the state-orchestrated forced confessions (not to mention, the genre of parody videos coming out of Iran) that form another overlap between McCarthyism and factors in Iran. But I have a second interest.The split narration dramatizes a triangular relationship, already implicit in documentary, between the subject matter (McCarthyism), the knowledge imparted (the narrator), and the enjoyment of that knowledge (the director). The director character is an absent third party who speaks, not from a neutral position, but from an interested position of enjoyment that regulates the knowledge doled out by the narration.
Sadegh Hedayat: Here we have entered not into the fabricated world of documentary but into the real world of hallucinatory politics. We look up at McCarthy, Cohn, Stevens, even Joseph Welch, and the other minions of that particular moment of U.S. history. The viewer stands there gaping at them in their proper grandeur as shadows flapping on the wall.What will explain all this to the helpless viewer? The bickering of an imagined master and the slave he secretly envies.
Peter Freund: A documentary narration tries to command its footage as evidence or illustration and thereby fix it into a piece of knowledge. But the authority of the image in fact comes from the visual details that are irrelevant to the documentary content, that is, from the wayward minutiae that escape the narrative logic. Details, such as the shifting direction of creases in a photographer’s jacket or the method of adjusting one’s glasses, render the documentary footage “real” precisely because these subtleties can’t be reduced to the handmaid of a film’s ostensible purposes. Such irrelevant nuances serve as a retroactive stamp of authenticity.
In this negative space of a documentary’s argument lies what psychoanalysts call “surplus enjoyment.”The installation aims to bring out this aspect of enjoyment, which typically works in a marginal, domesticated form in the documentary.
Kermit Roosevelt: Enjoyment? Well, you handle documentary footage like a perverse vandal. Didn’t you use death camp footage in your film, Camp, and then juxtapose the image of the victim’s corpses with Carmen Miranda in the tutti frutti hat? Horrifyingly bad taste!
Peter Freund: Camp is a piece that scrupulously juxtaposes the figure of the concentration camp and campy aesthetics. I appropriated a small sampling of footage from Alain Resnais’ film Night and Fog, which else- where presents such images. But look again at my film, look very carefully, the material you may have seen simply isn’t there! Now, my aim in fact is to point at the very workings of fantasy in traumatic memory. You are not the first to hallucinate footage of the victim’s bodies. Ultimately such an accusation is probably directed more to an aesthetic transgression – for example, the way the film departs from standards of narrative about the Holocaust – than the ethical choice of any material in it. The ethical and the aesthetic are linked very precisely here.The problem of form is, as you have just demonstrated, already a problem of content.
Kermit Roosevelt: I know what I saw.
Peter Freund: Camp was included in a museum show in Bonn, Germany. At a dinner, I spoke with a few of the curators who took the piece.They explained there’d been considerable controversy during the jurying. Precisely because of the history, for me it was an honor that a German institution wanted the film. Reflecting on the controversy, one curator remarked that Germans today still don’t want to acknowledge that the people were “turned on by Hitler.” Pasolini’s Salò – one of the films cited in Camp – makes a painfully brilliant connection between fascism (the exercise of fascist power) and the contemporary injunction to enjoy (everyone’s got to have a good time). In effect, Salò asserts that any legitimate question of politics or ethics must be posed within the framework of fantasy and pleasure. I can only hope that Camp contributes something to such questions.
Kermit Roosevelt: Speaking of getting turned on, I’m a little uncomfortable with the obsessive oscillations in The End of an Error. The movement seems to mock the time of historical progress with, dare I say, an autoerotic flair.
Peter Freund: If you like! In a proper documentary, the wayward minutiae register as so many bits of irrelevant nonsense that provide unconscious pleasure.You could say these details constitute “the unconscious of the image.” We enjoy them as the cushiony threshold of our claims to know or understand. As such, they occupy the space of fantasy in the image.We make quiet associations with these details – about the people, the time, the place, and so forth in the film – but need not confront the pleasure we take from them.
Sadegh Hedayat: I think Mr Roosevelt has just enjoyed a little too much confrontation. Have you no sense of decency? (Laughter)
Peter Freund: Exactly, the viewer typically enjoys the irrelevance of these little visual details ... but not too much. So when brought into the foreground, these nuances can become – speaking of Welch’s plea – indecent, even obscene, at least from the perspective of stone-cold rational argument. The retraced movements in the installation’s visual track exaggerate – sometimes with what I hope is a ludicrous elegance – the oscillations of pleasure. A feeling of masturbatory obsession? Maybe!
Kermit Roosevelt: I wasn’t saying I enjoyed it. I was simply observing.
Peter Freund: In The End of an Error, once the director is able to fully indulge his enjoyment of the irrelevant details by completely separating them off from the narrative’s concerns, you’ll notice, he disappears from the scene. The result, which stretches the remainder of the piece, is too much enjoyment. Released from the demands of the director, the narrator proceeds to sprint in vain after the image’s nonsense as if he might gain direct access to the object. It’s a little Quixote tilting at windmills: an empiricist’s farce.
Donald Wilber: Every decent person is concerned with protecting the factual record. Just think about the dangers of today’s “fake news.” Surely you are warning us not to enjoy too much, not to fabricate the truth. History is an important record. Don’t forget that those who fail to remember the past are doomed to repeat it!
Peter Freund: No, you seem to have forgotten what I said earlier. Collective memory doesn’t take place in the simple past. It’s produced in the present, even when it’s merely recited or replayed.The retroactive effect unavoidably imbues the facts with a degree of fabulation. But this fabulation isn’t a question of bias or a distortion of facts in historical memory. Rather, it introduces the inescapable role of fantasy.
Donald Wilber: So there are no facts?
Peter Freund: Yes, we can of course talk about facts and about defending the status of the facts. For example, we can recount what we know about the blow by blow of a coup d’état as the factual record from which we should take a lesson. But an important truth is revealed in the enjoy- ment of knowledge and for whose pleasure a knowledge is constructed and put on display. The documentary image, as congealed memory, holds this truth but not where we expect it. It’s not the knowledge, as the image’s positive content, that we enjoy. We enjoy the excesses of its authority, or more precisely, the excesses within its authority. Concretely we enjoy these wayward minutiae.
Donald Wilber: Your Erased Mossadegh – a most unfortunate title – is built out of fabricated facts and misattributed statements.
Peter Freund: Yes, Erased Mossadegh is built out of false testimony as a metaphor. The character of Mossadegh is made to say only the words of others – mainly his detractors; he says nothing of his own. He is turned into a puppet, something he never was! At a second level, these words move from outright lie to convenient facts to hysterical outrage and back. I used your factual account of the coup, which falls mainly in the second category, as a central building block.
Shaban Jafari: Right, the mass media distract the public from what is really going on out in the streets and in the chambers of power. The same can be said for the documentarians! Now is the time to act, not make movies about it. Isn’t that what you’re saying?
Peter Freund: No, the point is that no matter how honorable its cause, no matter how rigorous or subtle its insights, the historical documentary runs into the question of fantasmatic enjoyment.We are now roughly three years past the sixtieth anniversary of the Army-McCarthy hearings.What do we enjoy about remembering the fall of McCarthy? What is the end (as in the aim) of this remembered error of anticommunism? Is it merely to relish one’s own “liberal decency”? Even Emile de Antonio’s Point of Order, a film I greatly admire, can be mistaken as a liberal applause line.
Shaban Jafari: Right, we make up our own narratives, tell our own story, assert our separate truths. Then death to the liberals!
Sadegh Hedayat: Don’t pay any attention to him; he himself has been dead for over ten years. I see where you’re headed. We’re not simply singing the postmodern jingle: “Fiction is the repressed other of history.” In 1954, the liberal imagination in the USA had already begun to daydream the Islamic terrorist state.
Peter Freund: I made The End of an Error two years before the rise of DonaldTrump. At the time, even some of my closest friends thought the piece was amusingly irrelevant because the country, under Obama, seemed leagues away from the Red Scare.The nightmare has returned, and what will the image of McCarthyism have to offer us in this time? My point is that this nightmare image will have to be reinvented, not by simple analogy but by digging into the very essence of what we enjoy about it.
Shaban Jafari: Reality is a performative gesture that I enjoy. I now pronounce you Shah of Iran. See, that’s how it works!
Peter Freund: No, that’s not what I’m saying. I –
Shaban Jafari : Those running the show inWashington learned it from the postmoderns, who gave them the post-fact alt-fact world.What underlying feature of reality enables this shape-shifting? The good-old boy’s tabula rasa! Long live the post-fact alt-fact world!
Sadegh Hedayat: The Brainless may have a point. The current U.S. regime owes an odd debt to the postmodern absurdity of autonomous performativity. But the so-called “performative” produces a reality not from the efficacy of the gesture but from the failure of the gesture. There’s an unmistakable hint of that distinction in your film Camp? When you put side by side the ideas of the death camp and the campy performance, it projects the somber politico into a flamboyant ethics of the campy.
Peter Freund: As the old story goes, the light, low-culture, passive frivolity of camp actively resists the weight of high culture. But, for me, the key feature of the campy’s ethics is not its opposition to high culture but rather its pretension. The campy resists by imitating, by quoting, and most importantly by failing to achieve sophistication. Therein lies the campy’s excessive enjoyment. The resistance goes beyond simple poor taste or even satire. The flamboyance of the campy is built on an unapologetic (serious) embrace of pretension. Its inherent failure reflects back not just on its own expression but on expressivity as such and reveals the essential pretension – that is, the bullshitting layer – in all expression.
(Fade to Black, Music Up.)
Teymur Bakhtiar was an Iranian general and the founder and head of SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police (1956-1961). Bakhtiar was dismissed by the Shah in 1961 and was assassinated in Iraq in 1970 by SAVAK agents.
Forough Farrokhzad was an Iranian poet and film director. She created the 1962 poetic documentary The House Is Black, an important work in film history that celebrates the residents of the Bababaghi Hospice leper colony in the East Azerbaijan Province of Iran.
Peter Freund was a student of theory and literature who one day mistakenly entered an art studio, where he has ever since been making video installations.
Sadegh Hedayat was an Iranian writer, translator and intellectual, best known for his innovative novel, The Blind Owl (1936).
Shaban Jafari, also known as “Shaban the Brainless,” was an Iranian strongman and infamous street thug who was instrumental in overthrowing Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh’s government in the U.S.-sponsored 1953 Iranian coup d’état.
Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, was a Harvard-educated intelligence officer in the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – the precursor to the CIA – and later an operative who played a key role in the CIA’s 1953 overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh and re-installation of the former Shah of Iran. Roosevelt authored the book Counter-coup, published in the fateful year of 1979, in which he tried to argue that the coup was intended to stave off a communist takeover in Iran and that the restoration of the Shah to power was legitimate and just.
Donald Wilber was a principal architect of the 1953 coup d’état in Iran, “Operation Ajax,” that deposed Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. In 1954, Wilber authored a retrospective account of the coup, Clandestine Service History: Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran (November 1952-August 1953), which is available through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.
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.